Back in the ‘Gorms

Fri, Jul 6, 2018

Bynack Mor across the plateau

There’s nothing simpler in life than leaving behind the mad world and walking through a forest of native pines, the glint of a green lochan glimpsed through the trees and striding out towards a horizon of hills.

Thus it was on Tuesday morning as I parked at Glenmore Lodge after a surprisingly quiet drive from Skye for a couple of days walking in the mountains. The heatwave was in full swing with about a week’s rain in the last six and the burns were subdued and smoothly caressing the bare rocks. Out of the trees and up the track towards where Bynack stable used to be I was being boiled like an egg, sweat pouring out of every orifice with not a breath of wind to cool me down. Flies flicked round my ears as usually happens at this time of year and the Abernethy skyline shimmered in broiling heat.

Looking up Strath Nethy from near Bynack Stable

There was a group sprawled at the bridge over the Nethy and I remembered back to days of sheltering from storms in the old stable. The last time I’d seen it, it was almost collapsing and a storm did finally blow it down before they could dismantle it. The river Nethy was flowing well though and I made a mental note to fill up on the way back. As it was, I had a full complement of water, about 3 litres of the stuff, half of which would see me to the top of Bynack Mòr. On the way up the path I passed a wee man photographing the heather and wondered if he’d come up in the car with the RSPB sign inside. The encounter seemed to set the tone for the trip though. No conversation, not even a nod. Most people I encountered over the two days were the same, unlike days of yore when you’d stop and blether for a bit. Changing times I suppose.

Looking to Meall a'Bhuachaille from Bynack Mor

I was making slow but steady progress in the heat, clicking up with the poles, taking care of the old knee. I’d bashed it on Blaven a month ago, ending up in a drainage ditch on the other side of deep heather while I was circumnavigating a tourist jam on the path. Middle age, pshaw! The ascent had been “interesting” and the next two weeks were pretty sore but it had sorted itself as it usually does (it sports an old Alps injury from 20 odd years ago) and I thought nothing more of it until some yoga set it off and made it even worse. Velcro splint, tut tuts from the doc and instructions to take it easy made for another couple of weeks off the hill and the bike and the yoga. But it was slowly sorting itself out again.

Once on the plateau it was much happier, as was I when I met the slight breeze coming in over the high tops to the west. I stood in the shimmering heat and listened to the great silence. Not a sound from horizon to horizon. This is why I love the Cairngorms. Their vast open skies and spaces. Their wildlife, plants and flowers that live up here and see some of the most elemental weather a walker can ever hope to experience. Near the summit a ptarmigan kept a few paces ahead of me, “sneachdaire” as it’s called in Gaelic. It’s an interesting name, one that has hidden depths that aren’t readily translatable. But I’ll try. “Sneachd” is of course snow, as in Coire an t-Sneachda, below Cairngorm. Coire of the snow, simple enough. However, the ending “aire” denotes a more intimate relationship. “Innleadair” comes from “Inneal” (engine) + “aire” (that intimate something) to give engineer. One who knows the engine. One who is intimately associated with the engine, one who is of the engine. “Streapadaire” is one who is of the climb. So “sneachdaire” means one who is of the snow, who knows the snow intimately, who is the snow. I didn’t see snow buntings this time but they have an equally beautiful name in Gaelic, “Gealag an t-sneachda”, little white one of the snow, little snowflake.

Today the snowy one was in summer plumage and it made me so happy to be up at over a thousand metres and meeting life that lived up here, all year round. This little bird was happy to weather storms that kill humans. When the winds reach a hundred miles and hour plus it’s happy to hunker down and ride it out. Surely this is what real life is? This is living in its purest form. Living on land that sustains you without destroying it. Being one with your environment, your life shaped totally by that environment and being free to travel in all weathers. To watch the moon rise over a vast, silent sub arctic plateau or see the glint of starlight on slanting snowfields. Does the ptarmigan know how priviledged it is? I like to think it does and I like to think it nods now and then to a kindred spirit who passes by, in search of solitude.

As I metaphorically doffed my cap to her on the way to the top, the random rocks dotted around made me think of a poem by Elizabeth Bishop:

How happy is the little stone
that rambles in the road alone,
And doesn’t care about careers
And exigencies never fears –
Whose coat of elemental brown
A passing universe put on,
And independent as the Sun
Associates or glows alone,
Fulfilling absolute decree
In casual simplicity

They were stones, being stones and I loved them all for it.

The northern Cairngorms from Bynack Mor

I’ve climbed most of my hills alone over the last 35 years but I’ve never felt “alone”, especially when everyone else has left and I’m wandering around the summit with a mug of coffee, waiting for the sun to go down. When the air cools and the sky sinks to dark red, I get the feeling the congregation of rocks are sitting watching too. The last breeze of evening rushing through the grasses and sedges, the alpine lady’s mantle sighing and settling down for another night on the mountain, far from any cares. I read a wonderful book by Philip Koch, years ago, that introduced me to the concept of “contained solitude” and how we deal with being alone in remote places without being lonely. It’s well worth a read. This amazon link to the book will bring in a few pennies to help the eBothy upkeep should you fancy buying it.

Looking to Cairngorm from Bynack Mor

By now the sun had gone in but it was still humid and sweaty as I lay and munched and wrote and read and photographed and did all the things one should do when on a mountain top. I was down to half a litre of water which had to last as far as the Nethy river on the way back which would be a bit of plod away, as I had to be kind to my old knee on the descent. Far off on the northern horizon there were scars of a different kind everywhere I looked. Bulldozed roads, a wide sandy coloured scar of a path up Meall a’ Bhuachaille and a forest of turbines rendered useless by the lack of wind. These awful monstrosities always make me think of the final scenes of Monty Python’s Life of Brian with a cacophany of “I’m Brian!” resounding over the miles of access roads and concrete. It’s difficult to understand how the word “green” has been twisted so far from its original meaning by politicians and turned into new form of tarmac, turbines and concrete. How can anyone be called “green” if all they aspire to is a hillside bristling with bird shredding blades? They never mention the hidden destruction they also require, the miles of roads, tunnels and dams that are needed to store the electricity generated by wind farms in hydro schemes. There really does need to be a new way of thinking. We really must stop listening to politicians, especially the “Turbine Tams” of our esteemed parliament and think in new ways. Why should places like this be enslaved to the power needs of the urban belts? Why do we need so much power? Just turn it off and live sustainably. One day the people of this country will run out of wild places and then what?

I turned my back on the eastern destruction and pulled my battered copy of In The Cairngorms out of my rucksack and read some of Nan Shepherd’s poems, occasionally glancing up to look over the landscape and savour her words, her take on life up here. I wished I’d brought my book of Chinese mountain poems as I always find something in them for the day, something that sums up how I’m feeling when I’m up here, like Han Shan’s observation:

who can break from the snares of the world and sit with me among the white clouds?

I’m glad to see such spirit is indeed still alive in the outdoors fraternity as I came across The Storyteller in my room at Glenmore Lodge that night and Lizzy Hawker’s poem The Run which includes the lines:

take some time
take some time just to “be”
“be” with yourself in the mountains,
the wilderness, in
draw on the strength you find

I’ll drink to that!

On the western horizon I could see tomorrow’s hills. The high escarpment beyond Cairngorm. The hidden trench of Loch Avon where I spent days on climbing trips with friends and the snaking route of my ML assessment towards the giant towers of Stacan Dubha. Coming out of the mists of a Cairngorm autumn they looked for all the world like a tryptich of gigantic spaceship docking stations with wild cats’ claws raking a black Loch Avon towards the elemental water world of the Feithe Buidhe above the Shelter Stone crag.

Ah I do love the Cairngorms.