A day on the Great Glen Way

Urquhart Castle across Loch Ness

Here’s my latest trip along the Great Glen Way from Drumnadrochit to Inverness beside Loch Ness.  I jumped on the bus and waved my bus pass. Nothing makes me feel like an old codger more than using my pensioner’s pass. I called the driver ‘sonny’ and offered him a toffee before taking my seat and scowling at the young people waiting to get on the bus.

Here’s Urquhart castle once an old fortress it now serves to trap tourists but it’s cafe is in one of the most spectacular spots of any cake and coffee venue I’ve ever seen.

You never know who you’ll meet

This unfortunate young lady met a grumpy old man coming up the track who secretly photographed her.  She told me she was walking from John O’Groats to Gretna Green so when I met her she’d done the hardest bit. She was linking up with the West Highland Way at Fort William.

A zig, or is it a zag?

The route zig zags up the side of the glen through some cool pine forests. Quite a climb though, over 1,000 ft from the loch side up to the top of the ridge.

Stunning views across Loch Ness

On the open moor

Now the path breaks out of the forest on to the open moorland, still over 10 miles to Inverness.

Not too sure what this stone says, it doesn’t seem to be a milestone, anyone know what it is?

fantastic woodland near Inverness

Not far from Inverness we return to the forest and get some shelter from sun and wind in this beautiful woodland.


Home at Last!  Inverness below me a welcome sight.

Have a listen to my journey along this stage of the Great Glen Way.

Have you walked the Great Glen way? How was it for you?

Coming soon!

Coming soon but you can’t buy it yet. 

My lovely book, available to pre-order end of April, watch this site.


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Faindouran Bothy or Bust

Join me on this audio blog as I walk into the heart of the Cairngorms and spend the night in Faindouran Bothy.

Faindouran, one of Scotland’s remotest bothies.



By the bothy fire at last.

If you liked this audio blog please share it and leave us a comment.  Tell us about your bothy visits.  What’s the most remote place you have slept in?  Also we’d like to hear what you would like from future blogs. Tell us what you want to hear about.  Get in touch!


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How to light a both fire

After six miles slogging up a mountain track, heading for a bothy, I start to hate my pack.  It’s heavy, cumbersome, and expects me to carry it.  Why can’t they invent a pack that can walk?  The Internet’s all very well but it won’t get your dinner into Sheneval Bothy will it?

A great bothy fire

The item in my pack I resent carrying the most the coal.  It’s heavy and dirty but, I must confess, I wouldn’t be without it.  I often read accounts in bothy log books of walkers who have failed to light their fire.  This blog will tell you how to get a nice roaring fire so you can warm your toes and spend an evening watching the dancing flames.

Most people live in centrally heated houses and never have to light a fire so it’s understandable that they struggle.  Here’s how to light a coal fire.  Wood fires are a bit different, and I’ll deal with them in another blog.  Most bothies don’t have a plentiful supply of wood so it’s best to take your own coal.  I take about 6-8 kilogrammes.  I know it’s heavy but you only have to carry it one way and, on a cold night, you’ll be glad of it.

Always get the best coal you can.  Get house coal, not smokeless fuel. I find it best to go to a coal merchants, the stuff you can buy from petrol stations is often expensive and poor quality. You should be able to get a 25kg bag for about £10.  You also need firelighters and kindling, which is little sticks, to start the fire.  Firelighters come in small cubes, the best ones a light in weight and individually wrapped in film.  Avoid kindling that has been left outside the store in the rain as it’ll be damp and useless.

Ash left by the previous occupants

Step one

Preparation is everything.  Clean any old ash and cinders out of the fire grate. The fire will need to get oxygen to burn coal and it won’t get that if it’s choked with ash.  Sometimes the previous occupants will have left the fire full of ash.  That’s not always their fault as the fire may have retained heat overnight and, in the early morning, it may have been too hot to clear, the other explanation is the people here before you were just bone idle.  When you leave next morning, try and clean the fire out for the next visitor, it’s good manners.

Cleaned grate

Step Two

A coal fire needs to draw in air up from underneath to burn properly.  Try and ensure that there is space underneath the grate to allow air in.  Bothy fireplaces take a fair amount of stick and it’s not unusual to find the grate broken.  I’ve had improvise many times, with everything from a rusty horseshoe to a bit of old bed spring, just to try and get an air space beneath the fire.

Good air gap

Step Three

Once the fire is clean lay a bed of coal across the grate. This only needs to be on lump of coal deep.

Base layer of coal

Step Four

Now place your firelighters on the coal close together.  It takes intense heat to get coal to burn so what you are trying to achieve is a small area that’s very hot.  You are trying to produce a ‘heart’ for your fire that will be hot enough to get the coal burning.

Keep the firelighters close together

Step Five

Place your kindling on top of the firelighters.  You don’t need a great deal of kindling, half a dozen sticks should be enough, and they weigh very little. Many brands of firelighters claim that they can light your fire with them alone. I’ve found that a small amount of kindling makes a big difference and always carry it.

Layer of kindling

Step Six

Put another layer of coal over the top of your kindling so you have a sort of coal sandwich with firelighters and kindling in the middle.  A good tip is to try and use small lumps of coal to start your fire, say about the size of an egg.  Large lumps of coal can be difficult to light as it takes a lot of heat to get them to the right temperature to burn.  If I only have large lumps I smash it up with something heavy.

Last coal layer,

Step Seven

Now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for you get to light the fire!  You’ll see Bear Grylls rubbing sticks together to get a fire.  Has he never heard of matches?  You can get matches in most shops and avoid all that stick rubbing.  Poor old Bear, he had to be a tough outdoorsman with a name like that, it’s a good job he didn’t fancy being a hairdresser.

Always carry one box of matches and a back-up in case your box gets damp.  There are often matches in bothies but they are usually soaked and useless. I always buy extra-long matches to avoid burning my fingers. If you are running low on matches light a candle and use that to light everything else. Apply the lighted match to the fire lighter.


Once your fire starts to burn the best thing to do is leave it alone. I think of the fire as ‘cooking’ the coal at this stage, getting it up to ignition temperature. A lot of smoke is good news right now as the fire gets going and heats the coal. You might see quite a bit of bright yellow flame which is spectacular but it’s the firelighters and kindling burning and not the coal yet.

First burn, don’t play with it.

Don’t play with the fire at this stage.  Remember you are trying to create a ‘heart’ in the centre of the fire hot enough to ignite the coal.  Give it a bout 15 minutes then, if you can see a red glow in the centre of the fire you can add more coal in get it really burning.

Sit back and enjoy a great bothy fire

Once it’s lit, sit back and enjoy. Sitting in front of a roaring fire is one of the great joys of bothying.  I’ve had many great nights and I’ve included some of these in my book, The Last Hillwalker .  My book will be out at the end of May.

In the mean-time light your fire and enjoy.  When you leave the bothy in the morning make sure the fire is out and don’t leave hot embers in the ash bucket.  Bothies burn well, make sure you don’t reduce the place to charred ash, that will make you very unpopular indeed!

John D Burns Walks About

Looking towards Lochness

Here’s the first of my new series of audio blogs.  It’s about 7 mins, give it a listen.   In this episode I talk about forest walks at Abriachan, near Inverness, and my plans to walk the Pennine Way.

Visit the Abiachan website here http://www.abriachan.org.uk/

10 Tips for your first bothy trip


Want to spend a night in your first bothy but not sure how?  Here are my top tips for your first bothy.  A night in a bothy is a unique experience and one you’ll remember for the rest of your life

I am a veteran bothy traveller with many visits under my belt. Here are some of my dos and a few don’ts, that’ll help you plan your trip and ensure you have fun.

Remember a bothy is a remote mountain shelter. It is open to all and unstaffed, so you will need to be self-reliant.

Ben Alder bothy -a long trip, perhaps not a good first choice


  1. Choose your bothy carefully. Visit the Mountain Bothies Association (MBA) website and check out their location map. http://www.mountainbothies.org.uk/locationmap.asp   This will give you grid references for all their bothies.  Choose a bothy that is easy to get to for your first trip.  Many bothies are only an hour’s walk from the road and situated on good tracks.  Choose one of these.  Don’t head for some of the remoter bothies which can be a minor expedition to get to and might not even be on a track. Remember you’ll be in remote terrain, so basic navigation skills are essential.


  1. Don’t go alone. It’ll be more fun with friends and you’ll have back up if there are problems like someone feels ill or you get lost.  Three is probably the ideal number.  Larger parties are more difficult to keep track of as there’s always someone goofing off and food is more difficult to plan as there’s bound to be someone who is allergic to pretty well everything.


  1. What to expect. Bothies are basic shelters.  Let’s start by saying what isn’t there.  In general bothies don’t have electricity, running water, plumbing of any kind or soft beds.  Many are outside mobile phone networks and it’s unlikely you’ll get a data connection on your phone.  You may get a connection in some bothies but don’t rely on it.  You are on your own out there folks!


  1. What to take. If you are going to your first bothy it’s best to imagine that you are going camping in a bothy so the only thing you don’t need to take is a tent.


As well as my usual gear for a day’s walking I take the following.


  • Camping stove and gas.
  • Sleeping bag.
  • Sleeping mat.
  • Pots and pans
  • Knife and fork
  • Tin opener
  • Matches and cigarette lighter. (Never rely on just one box if matches.  If they get wet, you’ll be in for a cold night.)
  • Map and compass
  • Food! Very important.
  • Drink. Drinking alcohol in a bothy is one of life’s great pleasures but be sensible.
  • Fuel for the fire. (See below.)
  • Toilet paper, hand sanitizer etc.
  • First Aid kit. Very much down to personal choice what you put in this.
  • Sunscreen and insect repellent. Depending on the time of year.
  • Spare clothes in case you get soaked on the way in.
  • A plastic bag to take your rubbish out.
  • Candles.
  • Torch.
  • A sense of humour, you’ll need it.

Bothy interior

  1. Something to burn. Sitting round the bothy fire is one of the greatest joys.  I’ll do another blog on how to light a bothy fire as it’s an art in itself.  If you are confident about lighting a coal fire take around 6-8 Kgs of coal (Not smokeless) split between the three of you.  Remember to take kindling and Fire Lighters.  If you are not used to lighting coal fires, then you could take a Fire Log each. These are wrapped in paper and about the size of a big brick. They are easy to light and give you heat for about 1-2 hours.  Never cut live wood or take down fence posts and other things that are there to do a job, to burn

Handy fire log burns around 2 hours

  1. Follow the Bothy Code. (Or, don’t be an arsehole) The MBA has a code which is a guide to behaviour and how to treat the bothy and other folk. You can read it here http://www.mountainbothies.org.uk/bothy-code.asp

An undesirable

  1. Who you’ll meet.  Many people worry about meeting ‘undesirables’ in bothies.  I never worry about this as I can’t think of anyone more undesirable than me.  In all the bothies I have visited I have never had any problems, the worst I’ve had to endure is people droning on about the mountains they’ve climbed or snoring like a Hippo all night.  Most people who use bothies are outdoor folk of one kind or another and are pretty reasonable.  My best advice, if this worries you, is; go in a group of three for security and trust your instincts. If someone makes you feel uncomfortable, leave.  With any luck, you won’t find me there.


  1. Check the weather. It’s a good idea to look at a weather forecast before you set off. This is good advice for any hillwalker. If you are about to be hit by the worst deluge since Noah’s flood, be prepared to change your plans.  Getting to many bothies involves river crossings.  In the hills rivers can rise and fall incredibly quickly and, after heavy rain, river crossings can become dangerous or even impossible.


  1. Get advice. If you are unsure about a bothy trip, ask advice.  There are groups on Facebook that will be more than willing to help you although not everyone knows what they are talking about (including me) and you should always rely on your own judgement.

Old man burning his trousers (Me) 10 points for the bothy

  1. Say thanks. If you have had a good trip to a bothy why not say thanks to the MBA. Bothies are maintained by volunteers who give their own time to replace roofs and fix doors and keep the places water tight.  Why not make a donation?

http://www.mountainbothies.org.uk/make_a_donation.asp or you could even join or go on a work party to help with bothy maintenance.   Look in the bothy book to see who was last there and sign it yourself it’s always good to let folk know you were there and you might come back and see your names in years to come.


Bothies are fantastic places to visit.  I forgot the only really import tip!! Enjoy yourself






12 Types of People You’ll Meet in Bothies

This post first appeared in UkHillwalking.com

Bothies would be great if not for the other people you have to share them with. The allure of whisky, mouse droppings and the chance to torch stuff seems to be irresistible to all sorts of oddballs, misanthropes and German students. At the risk of insulting practically everyone, John Burns identifies the main types of bothy goer. The trick is not working out who they are, but knowing which one you are…

There is much more to a bothy than simply a place to rest your head. It would not be a proper bothy night without some random strangers, a shared nip of gutrot and a few jokes. God forbid, there might even be singing. I once asked a friend, a committed hill walker and wild camper, why he never spent a night in a bothy. He turned to me and said, his voice trembling a little, ‘Oh, you never know who you’ll meet.’

Dawn at Shenavall Bothy with Beinn Dearg Mor above the mist, 207 kbDawn at Shenavall Bothy with Beinn Dearg Mor above the mist
© Jermy B, Apr 2015

There he is right. In these lawless places, there is no way you can govern who your fellow bothy dwellers will be. In this over-civilised and regulated world, the bothy, with its dark, smoke-filled rooms, remains closer to a mediaeval inn than the cloned, corporate hotels of today.

So here are some of the bothy folk I have met in my travels – the good, the bad and the frequently ugly. Long may they all live.

The HGVs

They carry kilos of coal and crates of beer... , 218 kbThey carry kilos of coal and crates of beer…
© Dan Bailey

They come from somewhere in Scotland, no one really knows where, their language is incomprehensible to anyone who lives more than five miles from their place of birth. These are the Heavy Goods Vehicles of the bothy world. They carry huge rucksacks crammed with kilos of coal and crates of beer, vast quantities sausages, bacon and pork pies. They are Scottish, vegetables are an irrelevance, apart from chips, which are thought to be some kind of meat. Their aim is to raise the temperature in the bothy to the same level as the surface of the sun, only then can beer and whisky be consumed in sufficient quantities to liberate ‘The Craic.’ The Craic, (pronounced ‘crack’)  is a form of alcohol induced ritual where the winner is the person who produces the most creative insults for the assembled company. Despite their ferocious appearance, and the aggressive sounding grunts with which they communicate with each other, they are quite friendly. The only exception to their good nature is if you were to deliberately damage one of their beloved bothies, in which case you better be able to run because they will hunt you down with a terrible vengeance in their hearts.

The Disappointed

Back in the 1970s a group of European hikers strolled into the Cairngorms and headed for the Fords of Avon Refuge which they could clearly see on the map. They carried with them nothing but waterproofs and cash, planning to pay for an evening meal and a bed for the night. No doubt they hoped for a cordial welcome from the resident warden and his team of cooks and housemaids, expecting a continental style alpine hut. What greeted them was a small, coffin-like, wooden box in which four people could spend the night, provided they knew each other very well and didn’t mind spending eight sleepless hours with their knees folded under their chins. A long and very uncomfortable night followed.

Typical bothy scene - it's not The Ritz, 191 kbTypical bothy scene – it’s not The Ritz
© John Burns

Such folk still visit bothies, expecting hotel style accommodation and filled with horror when they ask where the bathroom is and are handed a spade. You will find them searching the walls for the electric plug sockets and they always leave, at first light, heading for the nearest place where their credit cards can be used.

The Bothy Ticker


read more here https://www.ukhillwalking.com/articles/page.php?id=8991

An Actor’s life

img_0036I don’t do it for the glamour, really I don’t. I get no thrill from signing autographs and I’m not the sort of actor who demands that theatre venues treat him like some kind of god; but I do have some standards.  I’m changing out of my costume in a little venue on the east coast of Scotland.  I just had a great gig and I’m looking forward to driving home when the wall of the dressing room creaks.


I’m standing there, one leg in my Mallory trousers one leg out, when the wall opposite me swings open and I realise they are demolishing the dressing room around me. The audience, who just applauded me as Mallory, walk silently past as I fight to get my trousers on and try to preserve the few tattered shreds of dignity I have left.  Most of them try not to look but others stare at me with the open curiosity that is normally reserved for chimps in a zoo.

Oblivious to my scantily clad figure men and women start stacking chairs in what’s left of what I thought, until now, was a dressing room. Obviously it isn’t that anymore, perhaps it never was, now it’s the chair store with a half-naked old man standing in the corner.  I’m at an age where people should be helping me.  As I stagger into the hall laden with props and costume, eager young people should rush forward crying, ‘Let me help you with that sir?’  They shouldn’t be taking down my dressing room while I am still in it.

Strathpeffer Pavilion a little gem of a venue

Strathpeffer Pavilion a little gem of a venue

I am touring around the remotest corners of the Scottish Highlands with my two one man plays.  Mallory: Beyond Everest, then story of George Mallory and his three attempts on the mountain and Aleister Crowley: A Passion for Evil, the tale of the legendary Victorian occultist.

My one man play about life of George Mallory, follows his early exploits as a boy, climbing his local church spire, through the trauma of his time in the trenches of WW1 and on through his three attempts on Everest.  The play generally goes down well and without incident.

Smoo cave , Durness. I may perform there next year.

Smoo cave , Durness. I may perform there next year.

Things are very different with Crowley. The Beast, as he was once known, has the kind of reputation only Rasputin could boast.  In some circles, the occultist, is as popular as a rattle snake in a lucky dip.  When I visited the west coast village of Ullapool there was a concerted effort by some people to have me run out of town.  Fortunately there was an equally strong reaction arguing that I should be able to perform.

Me as George Mallory

Me as George Mallory

My next appearance as Mallory is at Kendal Mountain Festival 18th November http://www.mountainfest.co.uk/speaker/detail/john-burns

In the end the forces of reason prevailed and I performed, despite both my technician and the dancer who takes part in the show going sick.  Perhaps the complainers had greater influence than I suspected.

Letter of protest about me in the Ullapool News

Letter of protest about me in the Ullapool News

Crowley was born in 1875, the son of a Plymouth brethren minister.  After his father died when Crowley was eleven, he turned his back on religion and launched into a hedonistic life style, immersing himself in the occult and studying eastern philosophies.  A man of great talent he was a prolific writer, a chess expert and one of the leading mountaineers of his day.  He undoubtedly had many flaws, he was arrogant, self-opinionated and given to distorting the truth for his own aims.

Durness village

Durness village

Despite his flaws those who dismiss the man as a lunatic are underestimating him. I think Crowley was also courageous, sincere in his quest for the truth, and sometimes showed a caring and generous nature.  He was not a Satanist, although he did practice his own brand of Magick, which many would consider black magic but was, I think, perhaps closer to the what we would consider Paganism today.

Me as Crowley

Me as Crowley

Over the last few months I have traveled hundreds of miles, through the beautiful countryside of the Scottish Highlands, to perform my plays in remote communities clinging to the rugged shores of this northern landscape.  Every performance is a challenge.  I walk in and the carpet bowls team is just rolling out its mat.  No one mentioned a play to them.  Stage lighting can be temperamental at the best of times but most of the kit we work with hasn’t been maintained since it was installed twenty years ago.

Corran Ferry heading for Strontian

Corran Ferry heading for Strontian

In these small places hall committees struggle valiantly with jumble sales, jam making, fashion shows and anything else that can raise them funds.  Mrs MacLeod turns up every year with her nice gooseberry jam and a Victoria sponge just so that some actor can drive all the way from Inverness and perform a play about a very bad man.



The only reason I can take my plays to such places is that I am a one-man band, well not quite, there’s me and the technician.   Often I just take what we can raise on the door.  I haven’t applied for Creative Scotland funding because if I wanted to jump through hoops, I’d join the circus.  Me and Ali, my technician, can throw a few props into the back of my car and set off on theatrical adventures in wildest parts of Scotland.  We plan to go to the Scottish islands next, somehow the west coast isn’t far enough.

Sunart Centre Strontian

Sunart Centre Strontian

I think I’m turning into one of the two reprobate actors in Disney’s Pinocchio as they try to lure the puppet come boy into a life on the stage.  Their song often drifts though my mind as I am driving across the empty vastness of the Highlands.

‘Aye tiddly aye, an actor’s life for me.’


The night the Bothy burned

As soon as I said it, I felt the atmosphere change. It had been warm and cosy in the little Bothy, and the mood convivial but when I spoke those words it was as if a mysterious stranger had kicked open the wooden door and let in the freezing night.

‘I hear this place burnt down a few years ago. How could some fool burn down a Bothy?’ It was a simple question, asked more to pass the time than from any real curiosity. The woman opposite me was feathering wood for the fire, the blade of her knife glinted in the candle light. She froze when I asked the question. She was tall and dark, her features even an sharp. I remember thinking she had the dark haired beauty Irish women sometimes had. Her companion was older than her thirty years or so, thin with a grizzled beard.

He caught my eye and shook his head. ‘I don’t think there’s any need to ask about things like that.’ For a few moments we all sat in silence staring into the flames of the fire. Then the woman began carving again and we all watched how the steel blade cut deep into the wood.

‘It’s a fair question,’ she murmured, more to herself than to us two men. Then she looked me in the eye and I felt my blood run cold, ‘How does some fool burn down a Bothy?’


The bearded man put up his hand to silence her but she pushed him away. ‘That’s a good question, maybe it deserves an answer.’ She paused and we waited as she struggled to find the words. ‘It might have been a candle left unguarded, or perhaps a log from the fire or a gas stove knocked over, it could have been any of those things.’ She tossed the stick she had been working on into the fire, the bright flames devoured it greedily bringing a burst of light to the Bothy. ‘But it wasn’t any of those things.’

I could see now how she struggled to contain her emotions, how something deep and dark within her tortured her mind. There were tears in her eyes and I wanted to return the demon I had released to the cage she held it in. ‘Please,. I don’t need to know.’

She looked down at the knife in her hand and then quickly back at me and the anger in her eyes startled me. ‘Have you ever been in love?’ She demanded, ‘I mean really in love, consumed by it. So you can’t eat, you can’t sleep, so all you think about, day and night is them.’ She fell silent again and I could see that she travelled to some distant place in her mind.

‘We were in love, Davy and me, and happy together. One day he told me he was coming to this Bothy for a night of peace and quiet. It was a dark November night, the wind rising and hurling the fallen leaves up into the dark night sky as I walked up the glen. I wanted to surprise him you see. I had a bottle of wine, some bread, a bit of cheese. You know.’

I did know. Simple pleasures in a simple place, good company, peace in a place with the one you loved. The picture was already in my mind.

‘I could see the candle light in the window ,’ she said, her voice quivering. ‘And I pressed my face against the window. I remember the glass, cold.’ She fell silent again, we waited silently, knowing that the tale she was telling could not be stopped. ‘They were in here together, Mary, worked in the post office. Nice girl. They were cuddling together in front of the fire, laughing. They stopped laughing when I walked in.’ She turned, picked up her cup and gulped down her whisky. Then she looked around the room as though she was trying to re live what happened. ‘I can’t remember what happened then. I shouted, I know that, and I remember him touching me and me pushing him away.’ Her companion refilled her cup in silence and she drank again.

‘Then I was alone. They ran. I don’t blame them,’ she laughed and for a moment seemed younger than her years. ‘All that happened here. Fire cleanses. I thought that it might stop it hurting and I was angry. A few matches, a little paraffin. You could see the flames from the road they said.’ That fact seemed to make her proud.

‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ I said, regretting now I’d made her relive that dark night.

‘Don’t be,’ she grinned, her eyes shinning in the candle light. ‘He pissed off with with a hiker from Glasgow, left Mary with a baby, the wee shite. I was better off without him. Besides we rebuilt the place. Not bad for is it.’ She cast her eyes around the Bothy, admiring the neatly jointed wood work.


‘I came back a few months later to see the scene of the crime. The place was all charred wood. Black and heartless, like me, so I thought I’d rebuild it. Took time and a lot of help but we got the roof on, then the windows in and slowly it came back, became whole again. And as I pit it back to how it had been it put me back together as well.’


She sat back in her chair and relaxed, perhaps telling the tale had exercised a ghost for her. She smiled, ‘So now you know…I’m the woman who burned down Gleann Dubh-Lighe Bothy.

All images in this post were taken from the internet, mostly Mountain Bothy Association sources.


Gleann Dubh-Lighe bothy rises from the ashes

See me at KENDAL Mountain Festival 18th November in my one man play George Mallory: Beyond Everest

A Ridge Too Far

It went dark a long, long time ago and we are still walking. My boots are full of water, the result of sinking into a bog, weighed down by my rucksack full of climbing gear. Looking back I can see John’s head torch bobbing along behind me. He is heading for the same bog I just fell into. Part of me wants to call out and warning but the majority of me is just too tired. I pod on, lost in my world are aching legs and exhaustion, wondering idly if John will find a bog.

Then there is a cry, ‘Oh, for f**k sake!’ He found the bog.

Near the hut

We are two old men, retreating from a failed winter climb on Anoch Beag, a mountain near Ben Nevis in the Scottish Highlands. We should have known better. It’s December and the Highland days are fleeting, desperately short. It had seemed such a good idea. Early snow brought the mountains alive and, as we walked into the climb, morning sun had touch the summits and turned them crimson. The North East Ridge of Anoch Beag is a hidden gem of a route, tucked away in a distant Corrie. Our plan was to catch the cable car to the ski runs on the Mountain and that way save us a very long walk in.

‘Closed for maintenance, John reads the sign on the ticket office door twice, just so I am sure the first time hasn’t been a mistake. We look up at longingly at the gondolas, swaying silently in the early morning breeze. Their inaccessibility means only one thing, a long walk.

As we head up Glen Nevis in the morning starts well, the sun catches the summits of the hills in their new coats of winter white and leaves them gleaming. Walking up the long valley I feel sorry for the poor souls still laying in bed and missing this natural glory.

After a few hours our goal comes into sight, an elegant ridge sweeping up from the valley floor to the summit of the hill far above us. We head off up the climb, weaving our way between short cliffs, until the ridge steepens and narrows to a crest. John leads up a steep icy corner and I follow.


Now we encounter the snow. From the valley floor it had looked crisp, white and enticing, the kind of snow winter climbers dream of. This, however, is not that kind of snow. This snow is fresh, soft, and worst of all sticky. The Eskimos have forty words for different kinds of snow and I have one for this type, crap.

As I led the next pitch the spikes of my crampons became entombed in football sized snowballs and the whole slope threatens to part company from the mountain and drag me down with it into the jaws of the valley waiting, open mouthed, below.

By now the shadows are becoming ominously long and our progress worryingly slow. It’s crunch time, do we carry on and risk being caught on the climb in darkness or do we retreat now and face the long walk back. If we can get to the summit the way home will be a lot quicker.

‘John,’ I call. ‘We better go down if we carry on we’ll end up on here in the dark.’ I am, of course, wrong, it’s already too late. The darkness overtakes us on the descent and a nightmare ensues as we weave between cliffs whose hight we cannot judge in the dark.
Eventually we are confronted by a cliff we cannot circumvent. John prepares to abseil into the unknown. ‘What if I can’t reach the bottom?’

‘Well I’ll know the rope’s not long enough won’t I,’ I grin at John. He shakes his head and slides out of site. Eventually, much to my relief, the rope goes slack. Either he’s made to the ground or slid off the end. Fortunately it turns out to be the latter, I join him a few minutes later. Then, surrounded by the immense darkness, we begin our walk back to the road. Eventually, our legs rubbery with exhaustion from descending through the endless bog, we hit the path through Glen Nevis.

John collapses. ‘Leave me here to die.’ Wordlessly, I hurl a chocolate biscuit at him, in the hope the sugar will revive him. We both roll cigarettes and spend a few minutes sucking in the delicious, acrid smoke. ‘This will pass into legend. It’ll become a myth,’ we both chuckle.  We head off down the Glen, despairing of our failure, like two one time badass gunfighters who have just been run out of town by the Milky Bar Kid.

These are the days before the internet when friends were people you had actually met. If you wanted to know about climbs and climbers you had to meet members of the outdoors brotherhood in the corners of drinking dens. At first they’d tell you very little until, by some mysterious process, you had displayed sufficient courage to be accepted into the fraternity. Then they would whisper tales of the great feats of other climbers, heroes who had faced the monsters of the mountains head on. Sometimes these tails would be of conquests but more often of heroic failure, for disaster makes a better story.

Over the telling the tales would grow, falls would become longer, climbs more desperate and their combatants bolder and more foolish in equal measure. So too would the tale of our long walk, through the deep blackness of this mountain night, be told. We would tell it, over beers in the pub in some distant future place, we would laugh at our ineptitude, relive our terror until the story had become absorbed into the folklore of our brotherhood.

The storytelling would have to wait, however, we were still in the middle of the adventure. The next few miles passed in a fog of exhaustion, I found the river and followed the path as it turned right. John, a few hundred yards behind me was less fortunate. I heard a cry of despair and, when I met him staggering forlornly up the trail, he told me he too had found the rivet but only by walking into it. Around midnight two leg weary climbers plodded into the car park and, at last, climbed into their waiting car, seventeen hours after leaving it.

Two weeks later I phone John and asked him how he was. He laughed, ‘I slept for three days man. I’m too old for that caper.’ We talked about it in the pub later, the legend had begun.


I will be at KENDAL Mountain Festival this year with my one man play about George Mallory.  Come and see the show if you are at the Fest.