Winter 2019

Ghosts or Three insignificant lumps of great significance

The freshly frozen snow crunched, creaked and groaned under my boots, the way up Jocks Road towards Loch Callater lit by a crescent moon, Orion’s belt and a small circle of dim light cast in front of me from the rather spent batteries of my head torch.

I could imagine the countless souls that had walked this ancient route through the hills present in the darkness around me. the lows of the black cattle being driven south for profit by the hardy drovers, the chatter of groups making their way from one glen to another, journeys that generally ended in the warmth of a friendly fire lit bothy amongst comely souls, gathered together for the craik, others which famously ended in tragedy, the unfortunate individuals succumbing to the harsh high altitude weather of the wintery Cairngorms.

The history of the glen felt as if it was trapped in the folds and creases of the land, the depth of the loch and the high open land of the tops, it spoke of aeons, geological timeframes and the brief incursion on its curves by humanity.

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Looking down Glen Callater towards Bynack More

It was well over ten years since I had been to the eastern Scottish hills, this had once been my day tripping destination, a short drive from Fife where I had then lived, these hills had been easy to tick off on a day by day basis, a great way to learn the trade, difficult navigation in low visibility, changeable weather, the hardest of winter conditions on the high plateaus.

Its no great secret that I now find the Cairngorms just a tad uninspiring, generally gently rounded heathery slopes rising only slightly from an already high plateau. There are no Aonach Eagach’s to be found in these parts, no precipitous ridge walks, no stand alone lonely mountains rising from the sea, their peaks ringed by black choires of plunging sheer rocks. I had, in my own mind, long since graduated to the grandeur goings on of the north west highlands.

Of course the avid Cairngorm wanderer will speak of the empty vastness of the area, the northern choires, one of the winter climbers first choice of destination, the sheer granite slopes of the shelterstone crag etc etc and they are not wrong, it just does not have the grandeur of the North West. The area is of course also ideally suited to grouse moors and as such bears the brunt of being a bit overmanaged for the pleasure of a few.

Callater Lodge

Callater Lodge

The sky started to grey and the edges of the clouds took on a fiery glow as dawn decided to grace me with its presence, a covey of Red Grouse whirred into the sky from the snow covered heather at the side of the track, they looked like so many small black bumblebees lost against the vastness of the wide open strath around me. The soft light lit Callater Lodge and the MBA bothy on the shore of the ice locked loch. I am not sure of the history of this place but I could imagine that this would have once been an ideal spot where families lived, eking a living from the land before the shift from tribalism to capitalism in the highlands had given sheep preference over human space by profit driven landlords no longer in need of a standing army.

I could imagine the peat smoke rising from the small shieling, my imagination running riot, perhaps I was being sentimental, I cast this thought aside and started looking for the stalkers path that I knew ran upwards towards Carn an t-Sagairt Mor from the lodge. The snow was deep enough to obscure any sign of a passage, it smoothed out the features into rounded humps and indentations, fortunately for me the mountain hares knew where it was, they were so used to following it they did so unthinkingly leaving a trail of their two one one prints for me to follow, were that they were bigger and had actually broken path for me as well however I thanked the magic bunnies and walked in their guiding pawprints, perhaps they were the spirits of the long dead mountain men reincarnated to guide the lonely winter walker to safety and success, again perhaps I was losing the plot.

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Dawn breaks over the southern Cairngorms

The path wound upwards, the snow lessened having been swept into the lower gullies and choires by the wind, the path rocks started to show, they were covered in water ice and a serious hazard in the boulder strewn areas. I decided to contour on the hard snow towards Carn a Coire Boidheach, my target for the day, its summit having been missed when I was here previously due to hard icy slopes and one of our party forgetting to pack their crampons.

The sun was now up and lighting the peaks around me, an eagle flapped languidly overhead its pinions lit golden by the rising sun, ptarmigans appeared magically from the snow, their wintery feathers the perfect camouflage, they generally scared the bejeezus out of me as they took to the sky.

I made the summit all too quickly, it was only 1030, I wanted more, more of the crisp clear air, the stinging sub sub zero wind that blew the tinkling ice crystals that were dislodged by my passage across the hard neve, more of the harsh wintry sunlight and the blue blue sky that is only experienced by walkers on the snow covered tops. I looked towards Lochnagar but sense turned my feet and pushed them back in the direction of Loch Callater, I dropped straight off the hill, a poor choice of route putting me in a soft snow filled choire, I labored and cursed my way through the uneven ground to the track on the south side of the loch and from there ambled back to the van.

Down onto Loch Callater

Looking down onto Loch Callater

Refreshed and fed I drove over to the Linn of Dee, it took me three attempts to drive the access road, twice I turned around due to the ice on the road, twice I went back to Braemar only to tell myself I was being too cautious, third time lucky, I made it into the car park as the sun set.

I awoke next morning into a world of ice, I had been unable to open a window in the van as they were all frozen shut, my breath had created a sheen of frost over all the exposed glass and metal, the burners on my stove were frozen and would not light, all the water left out was now solid, even the banana I had left out for my breakfast was frozen, in glorious irony the only things not now ice locked had been stored overnight in the fridge.

I got a small camping stove going and gradually the van thawed out, breakfasted and ready for the day ahead I ventured out into the dark and the face numbing temperatures.

I had agonized long and hard over my intended route for the day, there were only two Munros left for me to do in the Cairngorms but they were two of the more remote hills in Scotland, a long way away from where I was parked. I had worked out that under normal conditions it was at least a twelve hour day on foot to cover the 40K round trip. The conditions were not however normal, there was at least 6 inches of snow on the ground and there were three rivers to cross into the bargain. I decided to head out towards White Bridge and see what the ground was like and how I felt.

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Ice crystals covered everything 

My headtorch made the ice crystals that covered everything sparkle in the darkness, my breath turned from a cloud of gas into ice crystals in front of my eyes, within 20 mins of walking the inside of my nose was frozen and my eyelashes were covered in ice, it was brutally cold. Fortunately someone had broken the trail as far as Whitebridge and by the time I arrived I felt that to give up there would be weakness indeed, I pushed on through the now virgin snow towards Geldie Lodge. I knew there was a fairly big river to cross at that point and decided that if I could get across the river then I would see how I felt, I was not committing to anything, I wanted to leave my options open.

Nothing moved around me except the frost covered grass in the slight but brutally cold headwind, no ravens, no grouse, no deer, I moved through a white wilderness, I felt like the revenant, everything that was not covered in snow was covered in thick hoar frost, the silence was as thick as the snow, even the river on my left flowed silently, it never chucked or laughed as it would have in summer, it too was muted in awe of the temperatures.

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My frozen face

At Geldie the river was partially frozen but the ice was firm enough to bear my weight and allow me to jump, rather tentatively, over the open channels of moving water.

The ghosts hung around the ruined Geldie Lodge, a sign advised me of a dangerous building, thank you the National Trust for Scotland, really ? only the gable ends stood, there was no shelter worth seeking. Perhaps in the more golden years of its splendidly isolated past it gave succor and was home to others, not today. Again I can find no historical information on the ruin other than it was raised in the nineteenth century but for what purpose I am unsure, maybe as a shelter over the miles between Feshie and Braemar.

However I was here and feeling OK, I could see a track ahead of me heading towards Carn an Fihdleir, the snow was deep but there was a route.

The two hills here had little to recommend them, they were uninspiring lumps, no cliffs, no ridges just two isolated lumps,, perhaps once splendid high mountains but now worn down by the ravages of time and the elements, I pressed on, they had to be done sometime.

After a very difficult and extremely tiring snow wade during which I cursed my stupidity for ever getting into this predicament I made it up to the ridge and made good progress on the hard neve, I was on the summit by 1330. I looked over towards An Socach and said well, its either that or back the way I came so set off towards the second of the two hills.

Summit of An Socach

The frozen summit of An Socach

My legs really felt the second ascent, again in deep soft snow, by the time I made the summit, 1530, I had already covered approximately 23K. I had an hour of sun left, 16K to cover, three rivers to cross and a Munro to get off. I could see the ruins of Geldie lodge below me, I took a fix on the compass and headed off in its direction, there was no point in looking for a path, the upper parts of the north side of the hill were frozen solid and the lower reaches were covered in deep snow wherever I went.

I made Geldie lodge by 1700, I had crossed the Geldie burn on my hands and knees the ice being too thin to bear my weight on two points. I crossed the main river at the same point I had done so some five hours earlier but the sunlight had taken its toll and weakened the ice, I went through it and got wet feet and legs, bugger bugger bugger, my trousers froze solid within ten mins.

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The frozen river at Geldie Lodge, just after I had fallen in.

The journey out was one of utter perseverance; the only consolation was that the wind was behind me so my face and eyes did not ice up.

Never was the van such a welcome refuge, the temperature gauge was showing -16, everything was frozen solid, I got some water from the river and it was covered in ice by the time I had changed into dry and warm clothes. I knew from bitter experience not to overdo the food and drink, I was gentle on my stomach with a bit of filled pasta and some biscuits but at the same time I felt really pleased with myself, easy hills under summer conditions, hills of no distinct character turned into a little bit of an epic by my rather ambitious approach and the conditions.

That was it, the end of my Cairgorm Munros, my memories stretched out behind me, my early days in these mountains with many a friend or family member. Whiteouts, getting lost, getting beaten off summits by the elements, routes ascended on the shelter stone, nights spent in the Loch Avon basin, the ghosts of a mountain career in the map drawn contour lines of success and despair.

Now I only had one Munro left to do, but not tomorrow, I needed a rest.