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Returning to Gelder Shiel Bothy

Balmoral Gate House

Ah! there my young footsteps in infancy, wander’d:
My cap was the bonnet, my cloak was the plaid;
On chieftains, long perish’d, my memory ponder’d,

Thirty years have passed since I walked up past the entrance to Balmoral Castle and into the forest beyond. As I head up the forestry track I pass the neat, well maintained cottages that are home to the estate workers. I half expect to be confronted by guardsmen and I wonder if, somewhere in the castle, a security guard is watching an old man, weighed down by a rucksack, plodding slowly by the the ornate wrought iron gates.  The forested section is steeper than I remember it and I’m breathing heavily under my load of coal, sleeping bag, food and whisky, but the time I emerge from the forest and out on to the open hillside.

The glen is broad and open, the outlines of the snow-covered hills are etched, white against the darkening skies.  The silhouette of the mountain, Lochnagar, looms above the glen as a herd of deer trickle over the shoulder of the mountain.  Out of the shelter of the forest the wind cold against my check and, as the light begins to fade and the evening turns to night I am suddenly conscious of how empty this place is. The wide valley is treeless apart from one small cluster of trees a couple of miles away.  It is to that stand of trees I am heading for there, hidden amongst the trees, is Gelder Shiel bothy, my home for the night.

Wind Blasted Trees Sheltering the bothy

Charlie and I headed for that same group of trees one winter’s night thirty years ago.  I had been dark then and a pale moon had picked out the trees, black against a sea of thigh deep snow. That night we had lingered in the pub and thought the walk in to the remote bothy would be little more than a stroll but we had not realised that a blizzard, a few days earlier had carpeted the landscape above the tree line with deep snow.  Charlie swayed across the hill, in the deep snow neither of us had any idea if we were on the path or not.  I had watched Charlie, with his wild hair and rolling gait, track backwards and forwards across the snow before finally having to admit that the path was lost.


Road to Nowhere

Back then our rucksacks were crammed with rope, crampons and ice axes as we planned to do battle with ice clad cliffs of Lochnagar.  Back then the mountain had an air of foreboding, it seemed wild and remote it’s winter climbs legendary for their ferocity. It was after midnight before the pair of us staggered through the bothy door. Thirty years ago Gelder Shiel was a grim place on a bitterly cold winter’s night.  There was no fire place and the bare whitewashed walls gave little protection from the icy night air.  Exhausted we climbed into our sleeping bags and had slept fitfully on the hard wood of the bunk beds, shivering now and again as the cold gripped the place.

Today, as I push open the door of the bothy, knowing that the Mountain Bothie’s Association have done a great deal of work here, I am hoping for a more comfortable night.  I look around in amazement, gone are the bleak frozen walls I remember, no longer do the stones drip with condensation.  Now the little one room bothy is insulated and lined with wood and, joy of joys, in the corner stands a wood burning stove, a serious fire capable of warming the bones of any old man foolish enough to wander this way. There is even a small supply of wood, provided by the Queen’s estate, and since I have carried in coal, a warm night is guaranteed.

Gelder Shiel Bothy

Thirty years ago, Charlie and I awoke to an arctic landscape. During the night another snow storm had swept in contributing a few more inches to the already deep snow.  High on Lochnagar itself the storm still raged and we climbed up into the corrie almost blinded by the snow, feeling our way to the base of the cliffs. It had been the lure of winter climbing that had led me to head north and make my home in the highlands.  This was my first season and the prospect of meeting the great beast of Lochnagar head on filed me with a heady mixture of dread and excitement.  Soon, through the swirling snow, a vague outline of the great cliff loomed above us still largely shrouded in the white clouds of falling flakes.  We headed upwards and found ourselves in a broad gully that, though choked with snow, offered us little resistance   Charlie and I climbed upwards through the soft snow with great towers of rock emerging on either side of us as we approached the summit of the mountain.  Emboldened by our success we followed the guidebook and found a harder route to follow.  I had a brand-new piece of kit I was desperate to try out, a snow anchor known as a ‘Dead Man.’  This was a thin metal plate, about the size of a large book, that, placed at the correct angle would slice into the snow and hold any fall. I placed the Dead man in the snow and pulled on it.  To my amazement it dutifully vanished into the soft snow and I was convinced that it would hold us if we fell. Soon we were on alarmingly steep ice and my fledgling skills as an ice climber were being severely tested.  I drove my ice axes into the ice and stepped up into the front spikes of my crampons.  This technique, known as front pointing, was what I had been seeking to employ since I began winter climbing.  Now I was doing it for real it felt precarious in the extreme and I wasn’t too sure I wanted to do it again.  John and I had climbed higher, up soft unstable snow and out on to the face where the ice steepened.  Here we were exposed to the full ferocity of the wind and batterd by blown snow. Following Charlie, up and over the final few feet of the cliff my hands became frozen, immobile with the cold.  I held my ice axes in two frozen claws as I at last pull over on to the ice blasted summit of the mountain.

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Those moments of thirty years ago came back to me in vivid technicolour as I sat in the newly refurbished bothy and watched the cherry red flames take hold of the coal in the stove.  I remembered how elated we had been as we walked back to the bothy.  We had completed our first real winter climb, a rite of passage.  We had fought the demon and won.  That climb was to begin an obsession with me that was to rule my life for the next ten years. Sitting with my whisky before the glowing fire I realise now that we had been unknowingly dicing with death that winter’s day long ago.  After the recent snowfall, the face was dangerously avalanche prone but we, full of the bravado and ignorance of youth, had climbed on.  Only luck saved us from catastrophe, enthusiasm and inexperience are a dangerous mix in this game of ice and iron.  The greatest numbers of accidents do not happen to those climbing the hardest climbs they happen to novices, straying for the first time onto easy gullies, trying to develop their winter skills.

Looking towards Lochnagar

Thirty years on I hurl another log onto the fire and remember the cold of thirty years ago.  Charlie and I had been lucky, we had tempted the mountain gods but they had chosen to treat us kindly and hold back the avalanches hanging above our heads.  I no longer feel the need to test myself in the arena of winter climbing but I am glad that I can still come to these wild places and sit with contentment before the open fire.  Pushing open the door of the bothy the frosty air hits me and reminds me of the cold.  A few yards from the bothy is a small cottage reputedly used for afternoon tea by the Queen’s shooting parties. I’ve no doubt Queen Victoria, accompanied by Mr Brown, her favourite ghillie (highland game keeper) used to pause here on their rides through the royal estate.   High in the heavens the stars twinkle in the clear night sky and I watch as two young men, the ghosts of my youth, head towards the mountain, ice axes jingling, sharing a joke in the early morning.    


Lachin y Gair

Away, ye gay landscapes, ye gardens of roses!
In you let the minions of luxury rove;
Restore me the rocks, where the snow-flake reposes,
Though still they are sacred to freedom and love:
Yet, Caledonia, belov’d are thy mountains,
Round their white summits though elements war;
Though cataracts foam ‘stead of smooth-flowing fountains,
I sigh for the valley of dark Loch na Garr

Ah! there my young footsteps in infancy, wander’d:
My cap was the bonnet, my cloak was the plaid;
On chieftains, long perish’d, my memory ponder’d,
As daily I strode through the pine-cover’d glade;
I sought not my home, till the day’s dying glory
Gave place to the rays of the bright polar star;
For fancy was cheer’d, by traditional story,
Disclos’d by the natives of dark Loch na Garr.

“Shades of the dead! have I not heard your voices
Rise on the night-rolling breath of the gale?”
Surely, the soul of the hero rejoices,
And rides on the wind, o’er his own Highland vale!
Round Loch na Garr, while the stormy mist gathers,
Winter presides in his cold icy car:
Clouds, there, encircle the forms of my Fathers;
They dwell in the tempests of dark Loch na Garr.

“Ill starr’d, though brave, did no visions foreboding
Tell you that fate had forsaken your cause?”
Ah! were you destined to die at Culloden,
Victory crown’d not your fall with applause:
Still were you happy, in death’s earthy slumber,
You rest with your clan, in the caves of Braemar;
The Pibroch[6] resounds, to the piper’s loud number,
Your deeds, on the echoes of dark Loch na Garr.

Years have roll’d on, Loch na Garr, since I left you,
Years must elapse, ere I tread you again:
Nature of verdure and flowers has bereft you,
Yet still are you dearer than Albion’s plain:
England! thy beauties are tame and domestic,
To one who has rov’d on the mountains afar:
Oh! for the crags that are wild and majestic,
The steep, frowning glories of dark Loch na Garr

—George Gordon Byron 


Gasherbrum, Masherbrum, Distighil Sar,
they’re jolly good training for dark Lochnagar.


Day 4 Pennine Way Cowling to Malham

I don’t normally write about my feet.  I’m quite fond of them but I don’t expect my readers to share my interest in them. This blog is different.  My feet get a major role.   

Enter the feet:

After 3 days walking my feet didn’t feel so good.

I never expected blisters on this walk. I knew my legs would ache and my back would be sore and even my hands, tired from holding walking poles, would suffer, but I never thought I’d get blisters.  I walk regularly and haven’t had even the sign of a blister for over twenty years. I don’t even carry plasters, the staple blister treatment for all walkers, because I never have problems.

But my feet are a sorry sight this morning. The heals are red and bleeding, a testimony to the miles Martin and I have covered over the last three days.  I have the worst blisters I’ve ever had in my life on each heel and look at them with a mixture of puzzlement and pride.  I can’t understand why I am in this condition, given how much walking I do.

My boots are two years old and well broken in, they have remained dry over the three days, so there has been no explanation of why my feet are disintegrating.  So, what’s the difference?   Why are my feet in such trouble?  Perhaps it’s the tendency for so much of the Pennine Way to be either tarmac or paving slabs which lies at the root of the problem.  When I walk in the Highlands of Scotland I am mainly walking on grass, peaty moorlands or rocky outcrops.  Perhaps this kind of walking causes a different sort of impact than I have experienced over the last three days.  Maybe the even, hard terrain of the Pennine Way, which is frequently an artificial surface, aimed at stopping walkers from sinking knee deep into the black peat bog below, had caused my heels to strike harder than normal and perhaps in a more even way which had caused damage to the skin of my heels.

We took a day off, in the tiny village of Cowling, to allow my feet twenty-four hours to heal.  My legs were tired too, after the three long days of walking and the days respite was a welcome break. I spent it reading, eating and dozing in the warm sun.

My mate Joe, who is acting as our driver is an expert on treating blisters.  He spent several years sending young people out on Duke of Edinburgh Award walks.  Being unused to boots, these young folk suffered the tortures of the damned and Joe became skilled at patching them up.

‘I’ve seen worse,’ he said, on being presented with my ripped ankles.  ‘Although, not much worse to be honest.’  Then he sucked air through his teeth, like a car mechanics do as they peer under the steaming bonnet of your car and are about to explain that you will be paying for him and the Mrs next two weeks in Marbella.

With Melolin applied to the bleeding skin and held in place with sticky elasticated tape I am able to put on a pair of trainers and walk. It’s uncomfortable but I am not in agony and Marin and I set off once more on our trek to Kirk Yetholm.    Now the way weaves through a patchwork of green fields and we are sheltered in the farmland from the incessant east wind. At times it’s almost pleasant.


After a few miles we pass through the little village of Lothersdale marooned amongst the rolling sea of hills with the single chimney of its old mill standing like a beacon.  None of the houses in Lothersdale  have a mains water supply and have to rely on ancient springs for their water.   A fact that often leads to long standing wrangles in the area as to who owns what trickle of water.  Apparently the mill boasts one of the largest indoor waterwheels in the world, at 45 feet.

Sadly, we have to pass the pub, still closed in the early morning.  It looks idyllic and I make a mental note to return one day and spend an hour or two in its snug sipping Old Peculiar and writing fantastic tales.

Goblin Gate

As the path leaves the village we encounter the smallest gate on the Pennine way.  It’s like something out of the Hobbit and I imagine goblins passing through the gate late at night when all the villagers are in the pub and only the cows see them.  Grumpy little men, muttering to themselves as they hurry up the path.

Lothersdale pub

The village of Gargrave brings a welcome respite.  Martin, who has an intimate knowledge of every pub, restaurant, tea shop and café the length and breadth of Britain, guides me to a delightful little tea shop brimming with delightful cakes, sweets and fancies.  We sit down and the waitress brings us a steaming pot of tea which tastes like liquid nectar. I think I must have glanced out of the window while enjoying my first cup of tea because when I turned to pour a second cup the pot was empty.

‘Oh, did you not have a second cup?’ Martin asks innocently as he sips what looks suspiciously like his third mug of brew.  I make a mental note, hill walking doesn’t always bring the best out in people, and scowl out of the window.   Outside the café there is sign post pointing back the way we have come.  We are both pleased to read ‘EDALE 70 MILES.’  We have come a long way but have much further to go.   

I remember walking this route forty years ago.  When I passed this way all those years ago, Martin had taken the day off, exhausted by his encounters with the peat bogs over the last three days.  The route to Malham has no huge hills and so I had expected an easy day’s solo walk.  This was not to be. The days of rain in 1974 had turned the path to liquid mud and each step was hard won as I had to drag my feet through the sticky mud.  With the previous three days walking having taken their toll Malham seemed a long way distant as I fought through each mile. I vividly remember sitting on a bridge, some three miles from the village of Malham, my legs trembling uncontrollably, wondering if I could make it.

I had plodded on and staggered exhausted, meeting Martin waiting for me where the path enters the village.  On the verge of collapse we had eaten a meal in the YHA kitchen before I finally slumped into bed and slept like the dead until roused for the next day’s ordeal.

Martin at the crossroads.

Forty years on I am only in a slightly better state as Martin and I walk the last few miles into the village.  Here we make a fatal error and call in to the village pub on the way to the campsite. The warmth and a couple of pints send me into a state of euphoric sleepiness.  After I have sat in the little pub for an hour I decide that I never want to move again and will remain here forever, dozing beside the fire.


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