The High Tops by Stan Long

Sandy wakened in the hayloft at the Luibeg Bothy to the softly echoing call of a cuckoo in Glen Derry. The steady sound of a horse champing on its oats came from the stable below and improbable as it seemed, after the wet and gloom of the night before, shafts of sunlight pierced every crack and knothole of the old barn. When he stepped outside, it was into a day steeped in sunshine, the sky clear blue with a heat haze already shimmering on the bogs.

The previous evening, taking the last bus to Braemar, he had left Aberdeen in a state of siege with gales howling in its chimneys and rain squalls battering at its slate roofs and granite walls. The weather, typical of the Buchan coast, had him doubting the wisdom of his trip and wondering if he should have heeded the advice of friends. They had argued his weekend would be better spent at the cinema, the Prince of Wales, or the Saturday night dance at the Beach Ballroom, than traipsing off to the hills.

But it was April and he knew that winter still held court on the high tops of the Caimgorm massif. They beckoned and there was no resisting the call, their high lonesome places promising a great sense of well-being, that serenity of spirit, so sorely missed by the man in the street. These mountains might test his skill, the weather up there notorious for shifting from fair to foul in minutes but he was young, experienced, and fit for the challenge. April was a great time to be paying a visit, so that morning, with great satisfaction, he gathered himself for the day ahead.

After breakfast, he took the stony path west. It led through stands of hoary pines, outriders of the forest that clothed Sgurr Dubh's flank to his left. In the frost-bitten world of its summit, blue mountain hares were phasing from their winter white into the brown of their summer coats, while in the warmth of the glen green beetles, bright as scarabs, flew from under his feet. The fulsome rush of the Lui bum was background to the inconstant tinkling of a high allt, the scrape of his boots, a rough intrusion. But he was at peace, his pact with the great solitude renewed again.

Out of the trees and across the swift-flowing Lui, the path rose steeply onto soft moorland surrounding the flank of Cam a Mhaim. This part of the journey he loved, for as the inner scenery of Glen Dee revealed itself, it never failed to thrill him with a sense that the ordinary world was being left behind. Southward the Dee ran silver through miles of moorland where bare, steep-to mountains hedged it in. To the west, grey- slabbed Devil's Point slowly came into view while Glen Geusachan showed its gloomy interior.
These glimpses were but prelude, for as the path turned north, the great, bare, glaciated gouge of Glen Dee opened before him. Here man, on such a clear day, was subsumed by distance, the Golden eagle soaring over the Lairig Ghru reduced to a mere dot. It was hard to imagine that this moorland, its prospect bleak and reflecting nothing of the sunlight, was once covered in the rich dark green of a pine forest, the only proof of it, the red, resinous roots preserved in its bogs. Down the other side and to the river he went, crossing it by way of a balancing act on two cables, then on through the bogs to Corrour Bothy, the hut reminding him of a line from Maurice Walsh: "a small safe ark under the devastating emptiness of the sky."

Looking at the path he had to take, he saw Devil?s Point was bare but from its saddle a long white curve of untrammelled snow led to the top of Cairn Toul. From thereon, snow held the high ground of the central plateau where the Wells of Dee rose at over 4000 feet. Braeriach's Coire Brochain was over-hung with cornices, whose symmetry at that distance made the eye think they were of an ordinary size, except they were forty to fifty feet thick, incipient avalanches waiting a thaw. The pass of the Lairig Ghru was clear but across the Pools of Dee, and further up, the snow line continued along the flanks of Ben MacDhui, the mountain itself hidden under blizzard conditions. Cairn Toul was shrouded in blowing snow when he arrived at its summit. There, with his back to the wind, his presence all but obliterated by the storm, he sat and enjoyed a mid-day snack, his sense of isolation leading him to wonder if somewhere else in the British Isles, some other person was as far removed from human contact as he was.

With skies clearing and trudging steadily upwards, he came on Lochan Uaine, windswept and lonely beneath his bootnails. Iced over like some long-deserted ballroom floor, snow devils twirled and spun about its surface. Leaving it behind, he carefully skirted the immense cornices of An Garbh Choire; then, after two miles or so, he stood atop Braeriach. A plaque on its summit cairn gave directions to the great hump of Ben Nevis and also to the Coullin of Skye, their jagged peaks easily discerned far to the West. On his way again and giving the cornices of Coire Brochain a wide berth, he entered on the long descent to the pass of the Lairig Ghru.

Somewhere among the boulders, he ran out of snow and the going got easier. About then, a Peregrine falcon went barrelling by, the only creature seen in hours of traversing the high ground. The wider scene was enveloped in a blue haze of ultraviolet light common to the mountains at that time of year where prolonged exposure to it would probably cause a severe sunburn. And so it happened, that later his face swelled, almost closing his eyes, the skin becoming pitted like orange peel.

Choosing to ascend Ben Macdhui by following the Allt Clach Nan Taillear, a bum that would lead partway to the top, he left the frozen Pools of Dee behind to look for the Tailor Stones, large granite blocks that marked its course and gave it its name. Finding them some way along the path into Glen Dee, he moved upwards and soon found hard snow covering the boulder fields, which made the ascent easier, though no less tedious. After an hour he made it to the observatory ruins at over 4000 feet in a blizzard where he rested a while in the lee of a tumbled wall before continuing on to the summit cairn. He had to smile at the stone compass-rose on the cairn's top, which gave bearings for the North Sea on a clear day - Lochnagar - Ben Nevis - the Coullins - even the Cheviots away to southward. He could scarcely discern his hand in front of his face.

Later and in sunshine again, heading down Sron Riach, the southern shoulder of Ben Macdhui, he decided to try a glissade on the last snowfield at its tail. This was a bit reckless for he was without an ice axe to control his descent and had to trust his contour map, as there was no clear view of what lay below.

However, self-confidence swayed judgement and he took off, boot edges cutting into the snow as he picked up speed. With many a jink and tum he made it down, a fine sense of exhilaration rising in him until there was a sudden drop, the snow becoming a hard neve resulting from shade on the east side of the slope. It allowed no purchase and he fell. There was a long stretch of hard snow before him that petered out in scree, its surface hatched with boulders.

Fearful of hitting any one of them, he dove and tumbled in desperate attempts to avoid collisions while trying to slow down and stop or at least regain his feet. Fortunately he dodged them all.

Still travelling at speed, he jerked himself into a facedown position. Making a bridge of his body, with each limb spread wide to support its arch, he continued headlong. This manoeuvre proved successful as he was in a position of some control. Toes scraping the surface, he sacrificed his hands, thrusting the palms into the snow which, fortunately, became at last granular, then soft. He slowed to a stop just short of the boulders at the edge of the scree slope. He had survived without a scratch but with some lessons learned, the main one being not to venture out on snow at that time of the year without an ice axe.

The next evening, about twenty miles west of Aberdeen, his bus ran into foul weather. Looking into the rain-filled dark, he thought of the following morning and what he had to face. His work-mates, no matter what he had to tell and despite the evidence of his severely sunburned face, would be unable to believe he had enjoyed two days of blue skies and some lovely weather, their minds so accustomed to dourness that the breathtaking freedom and grandeur of the high, snowbound tops, were beyond imagining.

2008 - Long

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