Bad Day on Beinn Eighe

By Glasgow John, a very active and enthusiastic member of the club in the 80’s and 90’s. The classic picture above was taken in more benign conditions than John describes!

February 1981 found Jack Macdougall and I at the Ling Hut, on an IMC meet. The conditions that week were good underfoot; on Saturday morning at about 5am we were ready for the off. At the door stood Peter Moffatt; he enquired about our intentions for the day, to which I mumbled something about going up Beinn Eighe. Peter asked me about crampons, to which I replied that we had none. I thought I saw a dark look cross his face, but anyway it didn’t matter to me, because I knew best, despite being a mere novice to the game!

Away we went to the slopes of the hill, and started plodding upwards. All was well for a couple of hours; we stopped for a break, and Jack asked me about some nagging doubts he had concerning crampons, maps, compasses and torches, etc! I replied “We don’t need all that stuff; don’t worry about it, enjoy yourself!”

It should be said that Jack, like me, had very little knowledge of winter mountaineering, but he had some faith in me, which was not a good thing! As we gained height the snow hardened and became icy in places, and the angle of the slope steepened up. We had both borrowed ice axes from the club; pity we didn’t know how to use them. About this time Jack started talking about retreat as he felt unsafe. “Come on, Jack,” I said, “Don’t give up; let me go ahead and start cutting steps.”

Which I did, and these snow steps saw us right up to the ridge, where there was a strong wind and a lot of mist. I was tired because of the step cutting, and it was by now late in the afternoon, so we did not linger as we started to descend. I could not find the steps in the mist, and by now Jack was looking very worried. Inside my own stupid head I could feel the onset of panic which I tried to hide saying “Don’t worry, we’ll get down OK.”

Walking a little way along the ridge, I searched for soft snow or more easily angled ground; in vain, for these were hard conditions, with long icy slopes of snow and boulders below us. I started hacking away at the ice, but to my despair it was like rubber. We made slow progress by criss-crossing the slopes; eventually I spied a large flat boulder some distance below, and made for that. My legs were shaking with tiredness and fear; Jack followed, not speaking by now.

I pulled onto the boulder; how good it was to get off the ice slope! Both of us sat there in a sea of ice and I peeled a hard-boiled egg, thinking how easily it breaks. I asked Jack how he was, and he replied, almost in tears, “We‘re in big trouble, aren’t we?” I had to admit that we were, as it was getting dark to boot! I got a lot of Jack’s anger as he nearly fell getting away from the boulder. I could not help a bit of laughter, at which he exploded with many swear words. I was definitely a c**t for bringing him up here! At this my temper snapped, and I said “Keep your ice pick stuck in, for f***s sake.”

That cleared the air, and on we went. My toes were very sore with kicking down the icy terrain, and by the time we got to the road I was crippled with pain, at which we both rocked with laughter. Back at the Ling, to add insult to injury, Jim Teesdale was singing “John and Jack won’t come back no more!” I remember being embarrassed; Peter and Nick had been thinking about a search party, as it was 10pm. We were very lucky chappies indeed to come out of it alive!

French Leave

This article, by Ken McKinlay, was originally published in the IMC’s 50th Anniversary Journal in 2000, and has been revisited and revised by Ken. The top and bottom photos are from the Belvedere de la Carelle.

Then, 1992, we were innocents abroad – me, Colin, and Robert and Lynn – tripping out on ‘Sun Rock’ seduced by dreams of guaranteed sunshine and the massive climbing opportunities in the south of France. It had to be Verdon, the biggest gorge in Europe with walls hundreds of metres high. The A-team picked out La Demande, one of the classic routes and hard enough, but do-able rather than a modern desperate. Me? Oh, I thought the scenery would be nice.

For a prelude we had planned a gentle warm up in the Ardeche. This is another limestone region, and the rivers flow in large sweeping curves, having carved out amphitheatres of tall cliffs on the outside of all the bends, and one of these cirques of cliffs was our number one target. The first routes we came to were supposedly the easiest, maybe suitable for the B-team of Lynn and me. Inevitably, accessible low-grade single-pitch limestone routes quickly get polished through use, and become not quite so easy. But they were still low-grade climbs, so after fighting off the kids and the mums and dads jostling for routes I reached the top of one. Bolted climbing was substantially new to me, and I passed the belay chain and faffed about at the top of the cliff to set up some anchors that I could abseil off! Of course nowadays everyone has been on a climbing wall and would expect to be lowered off. And eventually even I picked up the technique, almost, except that…

I date from ‘the leader must not fall‘ era of climbing, and this is one of the first rules that must be broken in sport climbing. Ages ago I’d heard someone on the Slabs say that ‘if you’re not flying, you’re not trying‘ but I’ve been unable to embrace this ethos wholeheartedly. There are bold climbers, and there are old climbers, and I know which one I am. For the first week I felt more at home on the occasional unequipped route that we came across, and I’ve found them to be more memorable. My slow progress and statue impersonations are well known to anyone who has climbed with me, and I can make seconds think twice, so perhaps it’s not surprising that on one occasion Lynn declined to follow. Limestone gives you great situations, but the routes I’ve climbed, and the way I’ve climbed them, have a sameness about them: stretch to clip the gear, stretch to reach the next pocket or hold, move up, repeat, and so long as your forearms don’t give up you’ll get up.

The Pont d’Arc, in the Ardèche

 After a week it was time to move on and we were off on our way again, off to Provence and the Verdon. There’s a small outcrop (in relative terms) the other side of the village from the gorge, and we went there to see what the rock was like. Oh Joy! Oh Bliss! it was rough, it had friction as well as holds. I remember top-roping from the belvedere when one of the occasional tour buses arrived. I couldn’t see them, but I knew when the tourists reached the guardrail and looked over. “Ooo, Ahhhh” and it sounded as if a thousand camera shutters were going off, capturing the daring climber, me. I thought, “This must be what it’s like being Ron Fawcett.” I could have died then and gone to heaven, enraptured.

Anyway, the A-team were there for a purpose, La Demande. Despite disagreements, they’d reached a consensus of approaching from the base rather than abbing down the line of the climb. Early in the morning we drove them to the base of the gorge, dropped them off, wished them well, and promised to see them at the top belvedere later in the day. The B-team had a day off, doing touristy things and then domestic chores to relieve the inevitable squalor of prolonged camping. Come the appointed hour we drove up to meet them: no Robert or Colin. We drove back to the base just in case they’d had a problem: no Robert or Colin. We drove back to the campsite, and a bit later we repeated the whole process: no Robert or Colin. When the dark-skinned Italians returned we asked them whether they’d seen our party.

– “What were they climbing?”
“La Demande.”
– “It’s a long climb.”

Yeah, we know, Luigi, but have you seen them? No they hadn’t. We’d been there long enough to know that late afternoon thunderstorms were common. It would be absolutely horrendous to be caught on the climb in those conditions. We were worried, not panicking, but worried. We almost set up a shuttle service between the top and bottom extremities of the gorge until we picked them up as they tramped back from the base of the gorge.

Colin, from the Belvedere de la Carelle

The approach along the base of the cliff involved going through some tunnels, and the guidebook misled them into going far too far, through a semi-flooded tunnel, and coming out at totally the wrong place. After spending a lot more time retracing steps and casting around for something that might match the guidebook description, and taking a ground fall from 20 foot or so on something that initially seemed to fit, they finally arrived at the base of the route. So, it was later than they wanted, they’d had a mini-disaster already – and then they found that on this climb ‘partially equipped‘ and ‘popular‘ meant ‘scant protection’ and ‘polished and slippery.’ They backed off just as the thunder and lightning started. I’ve seen a photograph of one of them performing what looks like circus acrobat tricks on a rope miles out from the rock while abseiling. I read that the route’s name relates to a proposal of marriage (‘la demande de mariage‘) made by one of the first ascensionists. If that’s the case, I suspect it was because he was looking for an excuse to avoid such excursions in the future.

Could this holiday get any better? Possibly not, but we tried, oh how we tried. On the way back across France we stopped off at Fontainebleau for the bouldering. It was a complete contrast to the limestone in scale and technique and the landings were sandy, but you needed a combination of strength and delicacy of movement to cover the range of problems.

What a great holiday. Anyone got a spare seat going to France next summer?

The Grammarian’s Progress, by John Burns

Another story by former IMC President John Burns. He’s now a published author as well as playwright, and his outdoor blog is at https://www.johndburns.com/blog/. The pictures are of Wharncliffe crags; the Dragon’s Den at the foot.

Let me tell you a tale about climbing, about man against rock, as strange as I have heard in this game that is stranger than most. It is set on a crag north of Sheffield, Wharncliffe by name, a half forgotten wall, known for its greasy vegetation and rocky bone breaking landings. We were new to the game and sought to explore the crag, working our way through the V. diffs and Severes as many a climber has done. All fell before us and, unusually, the gritstone was kind to us that day. Then we came to a climb that defeated us. A tooth stood proud from the crag, at its base a small cave and above that a sheer wall. This was Grammarian’s Progress. All day we struggled, determined not to give in. First me then Dave, my mate, would try but all our efforts were in vain. We got into the cave but could not get out. As you clung to the lip of the cave, a big jug on the face was always just too far to reach. Eventually the light began to fail and our thoughts turned to Tetley and the little pub at the foot of the crag.

Once we settled into the nicotine heaven of the Wharncliffe Arms and the pints began to revive us we told the Landlord of our struggles. As he listened a knowing smile came over his face and he laughed as he pulled us more nectar. “There’s only one can climb that.” he said. “Who’s he?” we asked curious as to the identity of this master. “How did he do it?” we eagerly questioned the publican. “He’ll be in later.” we were told, “Buy him a drink and he’ll show you”.

Well, we waited and drank more of that brew and after a while the door opened and the landlord nodded at us to look at our better. Then, my brothers, we gazed on a sight that raised the hair on our necks. There in the doorway stood the bold Grammarian, a man whom nature had slighted. His left arm was wizened away and was barely half of the length it should have been. Nature, as though conscious of the slight, had lengthened his right so it swung near to the ground. He staggered in and slumped at the bar. The landlord spoke to him and motioned to us. The Grammarian threw back his head and laughed. But when we made for the door he pointed to the bar indicating that the drink was to be first. “By God” he said “ I couldn’t do it sober! ” the only words I heard him utter. I’ll tell you that man could drink. His short arm held a rum in the bar while his right had a pint in the snug. All night he downed oceans of booze until our money was nearly spent. At last orders he rose unsteadily to his feet only to crash to the floor. We felt we had been cheated! Surely he couldn’t do the climb now? But no, the whole pub left for the crag. The Grammarian, unable to walk, was in a wheelbarrow. The landlord was leading the way with a lantern in one hand and a ferret in a cage in the other. I was puzzled as to why he brought this evil little beast but I could never have imagined the truth.

We arrived at the crag and the Grammarian, barely conscious, was propped up at the foot of the climb. Suddenly the grotesque figure found new energy and leapt to the rock. In all my days I have never seen a man move on rock as he did. It was like watching a lizard move effortlessly up a pane of glass, he fairly flew up the rock and into the cave. But then, strange to relate, he too got stuck in the cave. His short arm gripped the lip and his prodigious limb snaked out towards the jug above. Even he, a man who seemed designed for the climb couldn’t reach the jug. It is now that my tale takes a twist and crosses from the unusual into the bizarre. For it was then I saw the landlord release that vicious ferret. He whispered something to it and then tossed it into the cave. There was silence for a moment and then I saw a sleek brown shape flash up the Grammarian’s trouser leg as he strained to reach the jug. In one great leap he made the jug and was up the route in a flash. For a second he stood silhouetted in the moonlight, holding the ferret aloft and I swear to you, I heard that furry beast laugh. Then he fell backwards into the arms of the on-looking crowd and lapsed back into stupor. Perhaps one day I will climb that route but I’ll tell you this. By God I couldn’t do it sober!

Moonlight

This poem by Ken Anderson was first published in the IMC magazine in 1968.

There’s a moon tonight,
Clear, silver bright.
And memories return,
Of walks by a burn,
Of icicles that gleam,
By the frost-bitten stream,
In the moonlight.

Memories come back,
Of walks with a pack,
In the hills.
Of crisp, clean snow,
Crunching as you go,
In the moonlight.

Stop, there’s silence,
Ears strain to listen,
And icy rocks glisten,
In the moonlight.

And hill upon hill,
Going out of sight,
And peaks, snowy heights,
Making memories-
In moonlight.

Experience, by Peter Reynolds

At one time the club used to have regular meets to the CIC hut on Ben Nevis; this is a cautionary tale of what can happen. The Mayflower is the pub in Celt Street where we used to meet on a Thursday night.

‘There is no substitute for experience’ we all mutter over our beer in the warmth of the Mayflower, but, as someone once said, experience is merely the sum of our near misses. Let me tell you a story…

It was a grey September day on the Ben, and a small party was gathered at the first platform on North-East Buttress. There was Archie Hannah, me, Mark Gear, and Mark’s dog Misty. The level of expertise can be gathered from the fact that we had taken over an hour to climb Raebum‘s 18 minute Route (mod). Nevertheless we set off up the Buttress and found that we could scramble most of the way – the dog often leading. All went well until the rain came on and we arrived at The Mantrap. For those unfamiliar with this bit of Scotland, the Mantrap is a 10ft wall with only a few polished and rounded holds; in the rain it was desperate! We roped up, Archie first, me in the middle, and Mark (and Misty) at the back. We each tried to climb the wall, and each of us failed.

Eventually Archie, our Senior Citizen, dredged his memory and came up with a solution – Combined Tactics. He climbed onto Mark’s back, then onto my shoulder, wriggled a bit, and then he was up. In turn I got a leg up from Mark and with a sharp tug of the rope I too surmounted the obstacle.

On arrival I noticed a curious point. Archie (who must have been well into his sixties at the time) was a climber of the old school. He had not belayed himself, just taken a waist belay and pulled me up. He now proceeded to do the same thing for Mark. Mark however had several problems – he had no one to give him a leg up, and the holds were now truly wet and muddy. He also had the minor handicap of a medium sized dog in his rucksack. The result was inevitable – a cry of ‘I’m off!’ and he was dangling from Archie’s waist. Archie was not a particularly big chap, and the combined weight of man and dog was inexorably pulling him towards the edge. With some alarm I realised that I too was tied between Mark and Archie and would inevitably follow them over.

I did the only thing I could think of – I unclipped from the rope. I then hastily grabbed Archie and the rope and together we got Mark back into contact with the rock, Misty seemed somewhat less concerned than Mark about the whole episode.

Alter that the rest of the route passed with no difficulty at all and we squelched wetly to the summit. All part of life’s rich tapestry, but how true is it? Well, my logbook records that the date was 8th September 1984, and that we met Mary MacKenzie and Marion on the top, after which we all descended to the CIC hut via the tourist track. The rest is as true as memory and numerous retellings can make it.

Experience? It’s just the sum of our near misses after all!

Social Functions in the Fifties, by John Aird

John Aird was a very active member of the club, being President for three years in the late Fifties and early Sixties. In recognition of his contribution to the IMC he was made an honorary member at the club’s 50th Anniversary. The photo is from a later era; a pub meal at the Ballater meet in November 2017.

The Club used to hold “Indoor Meets” in members’ houses, apartments or digs, and these would take place every two months or so.  We would chat about past and prospective Club expeditions and about club matters generally.  The host or hostess, or in my case my landlady, would provide a light supper on these occasions.  We also met each Thursday night in the former Ness Cafe in Ardross Terrace to discuss plans for the following weekend.

There would normally be two Club dances each year – one held about Halloween and the other just before Christmas.  These took place in the long-since-demolished Highland Ski Club hut off Haugh Road by courtesy of that Club.  The arrangement was that the lady members would provide the food in exchange for free admission!  We would engage a local band and there would be a licensed bar provided by Mr Ron Annand of the “Crit” bar in Church Street (whose site is now occupied by Lauders). These functions were always very enjoyable and consisted largely of the more vigorous Scottish dances. The only snag was the floor which was not entirely suitable being of uneven dusty concrete – it was a former Army hut!

I should mention one amusing incident which happened on what was, probably, the last time we used the Ski Club Hut for a dance.  The usual application to the Licensing Court for a Special Certificate was made by Ron Annand, but this time it was refused on the grounds that the Police found that the place was too difficult to supervise – in other words it was too far for them to walk!

Well, we were not going to be put off. We were going to have the dance, come what may! Individual members would bring drinks appropriate to the occasion.  This would have been in order if no payment was being made for the drinks.  In my capacity as honorary legal adviser to the Club, I had to draw the committee’s attention to the provisions of the Licensing (Scotland) Act 1865 (applicable at that time) which made provision for heavy penalties for running an unlicensed bar (known as a “shebeen” in Scots Law!).  The dance went ahead; the bar was duly set up.  We took turns to run it and “You name it, we love it!” was the situation.  Well, the Police did turn up (very sneaky) late in the evening and do you know, when they appeared everybody was on the floor dancing and there was not a glass to be seen!

After that the Club moved to more sophisticated (and expensive!) accommodation in a function suite of one of the town’s hotels.

Assynt Address to the Haggis

More McGonagall than Burns; by Robin Forrest, pictured above in full flow.

Now Rabbie Burns, he got his thrills
Lying by babbling shady rills,
Drinking whisky by the glass
While spouting poetry at some lass;
But we are rough-tough mountaineers
Who’ve wandered o’er the hills for years,
Come sunshine, drizzle, ice or snow,
To peak and crag we boldly go.
And when the climbing day is done
And we’ve ticked off another one,
We brew some tea (it does us good),
And then we’re ready for some food.
What kind of victuals suit us best?
Not quiche lorraine and all the rest,
We don’t care for caviar, or dainty wee French fancies;
Such fare is only fit for Englishmen and pansies.
But pluck o’honest Scottish sheep,
Served up wi’ tatties and wi’ neeps;
That’s the dish for the IMC,
Prepared by the hand o’ the fair Rosemary.
So let us dine now with good cheer,
And wash it down with wine and beer,
The Highland climbers’ battle cry is;
“It’s dinner time- gie us a haggis!

Jan 1997 (revised Jan 1998)

Memoirs of a Climbing Cad, by John Burns

Another instalment from John Burns, former President of the IMC and writer. The picture is of a monstrous cornice on Braeriach in 1956.

First let me say that in no way am I writing this as some form of confession or apology. Far from it, I take quite a pride in my achievements, even if they are somewhat different from the rosy-cheeked innocence of the traditional climbing fraternity. It began when I first saw all that pretty climbing gear in the window of Messrs Roland and Pratt. Festooned with that I imagined what a dashing figure I would be, striding across the Highland glens, here it struck me was a first class way to impress the ladies whilst at the same time distancing myself as far as possible from any useful employment. I strode into the local climbing club and professed to all the assembled worthies and wasters that they were in the company of a new and rising star. To my surprise they were unimpressed and it dawned on me that one actually had to do something noteworthy before assuming the mantle of demi-God for which I had clearly been chosen. Still, this could hardly be difficult I decided, and set off to my dewy eyed aunts with tales of my ambitions and outstretched grubby paw. This, and my sister’s piggy bank, together with other examples of quick-footed shenanigans produced the necessary capital for all those shiny things and a pair of lurex tights.

Now I was off and ready to walk into legend. It was here that I encountered my first snag. When I first grappled with the unfortunate rock face I discovered that not only was this climbing business difficult, it seemed bloody dangerous. Being fairly attached to the old earthly vessel, the prospect of hurtling downwards to a fate worse than death did not appeal. Still I was able to come up with a few rather amateurish ruses. Such as “I prefer to solo, really” and vanishing into the mists to sit behind a boulder with a Woodbine for a couple of hours only to return with the names of a couple of hard routes dangling from my lips. This was not really successful and did not bring me the kudos I deserved, only knowing looks from the hairy cliff dwellers who inhabited the club from time to time.

I began to despair, but then I was saved. Winter came. Here I discovered was a different theatre in which my true talents could be revealed. I saw photographs of even more shiny and impressive gear and bold looking chaps securely nailed to the ice with impressive spikes which could surely prevent any possible mishap from taking place. So I announced that I was done with that awful rock climbing and had become a winter climber where true adventure lay. So it was off to the dear old aunt’s to persuade her to invest even more of her hard earned cash in my adventures and round to Roland and Pratts to acquire the necessary paraphernalia. It was here that my career really took off and I found in winter climbing the opportunity to build an awesome reputation, whilst at the same time departing from the horizontal as little as possible.

Firstly, I discovered opportunities for winter climbing are limited, due to the excellent climate of this precious Isle. One can spend weeks staring misty eyed from the window of the lounge bar, cursing the weather and building a reputation without the danger of spilling a drop. Unfortunately, there do come times when the crags are festooned with the white stuff and it is necessary to exert oneself in order to keep up appearances. Here is where I excel, and this missive has been written as a lesson to young aspiring climbers, whose aim should be to appear to climb without actually risking anything. This I have done and some of the ploys I have developed into an art form will serve you well.

I was greatly aided in my exploits by meeting the perfect climbing partner, Dudsworth. He is a stout chap whose courage is only matched by his gullibility and who has aided me through many an epic with no idea of his own prowess and an over-inflated idea of mine. I well remember one of our first serious routes where, by dint of mathematics I had conspired to give him all the hard pitches. He was out of sight up some of the tricky white stuff when cries of “watch the rope, I think I’m coming off!” began to drift down. Well you didn’t have to tell me twice and in a moment I did watch the rope although it was only with academic interest since I had long since untied and attached myself to a spike some feet from the route. This had of course reduced the possible casualty rate by 50%, me being the important 50%. Dudsworth did not depart peremptorily for the glen and so I simply retied on to the rope and followed him up. This is a tactic I often employ together with carrying a small very sharp knife secreted in my sleeve ready to sever the rope should any unfortunate accident threaten to dislodge yours truly.

Modern climbing gear is also excellent for avoidance ploys and I’ve had my ice axe modified so that with a surreptitious turn of the screw the pick will swivel limply from the head and I can announce it unreliable and reluctantly relinquish the lead to Dudsworth who sympathises over my awful luck. Similar health problems have often come to my aid and an old back injury is prone to flare up at any time and prevent me from being at the sharp end of the rope. Far from diminishing my efforts in the eyes of Dudsworth this has elevated them, and he recently professed himself amazed at my ability to second a route whilst in agony from my back injury and totally blind in one eye.

There was one incident that occurred when I was unfortunately at the sharp end, but as fate would have it, further enhanced my reputation. On this occasion I had to lead the final pitch over a very dodgy cornice. Just as I put my foot on it and swung onto some God-forsaken plateau it dislodged and began to plunge down the mountain. Dudsworth was ensconced below secured to a snowman and the vision of him being swept away alarmed me somewhat. But not half as much as the prospect of following him down the route to certain annihilation. Luckily I had emerged only a couple of feet from where some stout-hearted chap was belaying his second up the last few feet of the crag. With an athletic ability I had hitherto only dreamt about, or seen on video, I leapt across and clipped in to his harness. Fortunately he was tied on to something that could have held a falling cathedral, and the day, and most importantly I, was saved. The only black spot was that this leader seemed somewhat put out by my use of him as an anchor and went on and on about it at great length. I did point out that he had only been dragged a few yards across the plateau but this did nothing to assuage his anger. His gibbering was only terminated by a sharp rap on the back of his helmet with the business end of my ice hammer. Following this I brought both the extremely appreciative, if slightly squashed Dudsworth, to the top followed by the mystified second of the other party. I then went down to alert the rescue that something had befallen the leader of the other party and thereby became something of a hero. Fortunately the chap whom I had been forced to silence had suffered amnesia, and it was decided by the rescue team that he had unaccountably been struck by a falling rock whilst on the summit of the mountain. That night, complete with casualty turban, he forced large quantities of beer on me although I’m sure his was the greater hangover. Well, now that Winter is nearly over, I shall be forced into several months of idleness to await its return which, if the last few years are anything to go by, probably won’t happen. With luck, I will be able to sit in the bar pouring scorn and whisky over rock climbing and yearning for the return of Winter. If it does come I’m sure Dudsworth can be jostled into taking the brunt of it and I and my reputation will remain secure for many Thursday nights to come.

Shenavall – A Brief History

For many years the IMC was responsible for maintaining Shenavall bothy, south of Dundonnel. This article was written by Alex Sutherland, a founder member of the IMC, who was in charge of maintenance for sixteen years. Sadly Alex died in 2014 at the age of 91. This article and poem were first published in the MBA Journal, Dec 1990. Duncan Macniven has written an article based on census data from Shenavall; https://invernessmountaineering.club/shenavall-in-the-census/. The photo above is Shenavall in 1959.

Shenavall was first occupied by one Colin MacDonald and his family on a cold, dreich morning in November 1891. With swirling mist obscuring the surrounding peaks of An Teallach and Beinn Dearg Mor and many mountain burns in full spate, their arrival by boat at the head of Loch na Sealga was not an encouraging start to an occupancy which was to last all of ten years. The family’s miserable possessions consisted of no more than a few trunks, some bedding and a wheelbarrow.

The stonemasons who had built their home had left only the previous day; the walls remained unlined, and the bare earth floor was strewn with rubble. Within days, however, father and son had plastered the walls with some blue clay taken from a nearby mound of glacial debris. Major improvements were started in the Spring with the construction of upstairs bedrooms and the insertion of wooden wall linings and floorboards. The family’s arrival was due to Colin’s father having been appointed stalker on the Dundonnell estate. Mr MacDonald was also a skilful crofter, fisher, shepherd and stonemason. Evidence of this latter skill can be seen in the well-constructed dry-stone barn which abuts the house to this day.

Colin was born in the now-ruined house which still stands on the left side of ‘Destitution Road’ before the descent to Little Loch Broom. Mrs MacDonald must have been very busy looking after four children – three born during the family’s sojourn at Shenavall. In addition, there were four cows requiring daily attention, the milk having to be made into butter, cheese and crowdie. Wool was clipped from the sheep and spun on her spinning wheel, later to be knitted into socks and pullovers. The walled garden ensured an ample supply of fresh vegetables, while the surrounding estate furnished plentiful stock of venison and trout.

Shenavall with Beinn Dearg Mor and Bheag in the snow

Not that the MacDonalds were entirely self-sufficient. Twice a year supplies of meal – at twopence a bag – paraffin, sugar and tea were conveyed by pony from Dundonnell. A roll of tweed was brought from Ullapool every year from the then busy mill. Soaked in the burn for a few days, it was then stretched out on the roof to dry in readiness for the itinerant tailor who would make suits, trousers, skirts and jackets for the whole family.

Life was not lonely at the turn of the century, as there were then four other inhabited households in the area: Auchnegie, Larach an Tigh Mhor (‘Foundation of the Big House’) situated just across the river, the Watcher’s house at Loch an Nid, and Colin’s birthplace at Loch an Voir. Each homestead had four cows, each of which produced a calf annually. When weaned, the beasts were driven overland to market in Inverness. The problem of educating the children of this isolated community was solved by the School Board appointing a pupil-teacher from Dundonnell School – a young lady named Miss MacDonald. She stayed with each family for a month; board and keep in fair exchange for her instruction.

All told, however, life was very harsh for the inhabitants of the area. The winter of 1895-1896 was most severe. A few days after Christmas, so much snow fell that no-one could leave the glen until late March. More than five hundred sheep were starving at Loch an Voir when three men and numerous dogs set out on a rescue bid. In single file and alternately taking the lead the three men broke trail, with sheep following in tow, until they reached Loch na Sealga, where the snow was less deep, and grazing was possible.

The weather improved in April 1896. It became quite warm, though much snow still covered the land. One morning, as Colin and his family were working outside, a tremendous bang rent the air. No noise they ever heard before or after that morning surpassed the loudness of that sound – eardrums were almost burst. Later, when they had recovered from the shock, the family looked towards the Loch from whence the noise had arisen. A huge fissure had rent the entire six mile length of ice. As the meltwater had drained away down the Gruinard River, the iced surface of the loch had been left suspended. No longer able to withstand, it had split in one terrific explosive moment.

The isolation of Shenavall might have presented serious medical problems to the inhabitants, but this was not so. During the twelve years that Colin lived there, the services of a doctor were necessary only on one occasion, when his brother developed an abscess on his gum. The three children born to the MacDonalds at Shenavall were all safely delivered by the midwife, a Mrs MacKenzie from Dundonnell. The mode of transport for this important visitor consisted of a deer saddle fixed to a sturdy pony. In rather undignified fashion, the midwife was securely fastened into the saddle like a garrotted hind!

Shenavall in post bike shed days

My own first visit to Shenavall was by rather more conventional means. Inspired by a photograph of An Teallach in the Scottish Mountaineering Club Handbook of 1946, myself and two former Presidents of the IMC – Rod MacLennan and Don Cattanach – took the bus to Braemore Junction and proceeded on foot to Dundonnell. With tent, food and climbing gear, we traversed the An Teallach ridge and sighted the house thousands of feet below. Little did I realise how important this idyllic place was to become for me.

A winter traverse of An Teallach is one of the most challenging of all Scottish climbs. Get started on the path near the telephone box by the main road at Dundonnell. Then proceed up on to Glas Mheall Mor, thence to Bidein a’Ghlas Thuill and Sgurr Fiona, then down the Sail Liath ridge to the path which leads on to Shenavall.

A diversion to visit Corrie a’ Ghlas Thuill in winter would be most rewarding. It is possible to view the magnificent Hayfork Gully where three ribbon-like ice falls hang from a 1500′ buttress on the north-east side of Bidein a’Ghlas Thuill. The inhospitability of these apparently vertical gullies is justly intimidating. Walled as they are by hundreds of feet of Torridonian sandstone, up is the only way out. A few years ago, while surveying this awesome majesty at first hand, Jim Teesdale of the IMC – a Geordie exile and excellent alpinist – handed me a ‘deadman’ ice-climbing aid, and bade me follow. Four hours later, with twenty rope-length pitches, we emerged fifteen feet from the sunlit summit.

Many famous – and, no doubt, infamous – souls have sought shelter under the hallowed roof of Shenavall. HRH Prince Charles, for one, appreciated the austere comforts while he was still a pupil at Gordonstoun, near Elgin, he being one of many visitors to have recorded their thoughts in the Shenavall log-book. It was from that same book – through an entry by Colin MacDonald’s daughter- that I was to meet the man himself. He spent his twilight years in Dollar, Clackmannanshire where, at the age of 94, he accompanied me on an afternoon’s hillwalk. As we walked, this fit and articulate Highland gentleman related the incredible story of Shenavall. To Colin MacDonald I dedicate the following poem which was composed by Jim Baillie, my constant companion and helper at Shenavall.

Poem to Colin MacDonald

In Winter here, no heart could mourn for summer nor spring,
No blemish or deformity could be seen
In anything that grew upon the earth.
On all the land there was no stain.

Though hiking days are gone
And dull and grey the sky,
In memory still lives on
Days on mountain high.

Of valleys stilled in twilight calm
And fires that flicker in the evening breeze,
The mountain river sang an evening psalm.
Someday, perchance, we will return to these.

Honorary Membership and Club Traditions

This is the final extract from Peter Biggar’s tales of the early years of the IMC. We start with Honorary Membership; neither of the two mentioned below is still with us, understandably given the lapse of time. There are now five honorary members, the most recently created being former President Michael Garrett for services to the club over the last forty-plus years. The picture is of the Ben Nevis observatory in the late 19th Century.

From 1950-’64 the Club created only two honorary members.  Indeed these may be the only such members it has ever created. In 1952 a Mr. C.G. Crawford became the first hon. member, but almost nothing seems to be known about him.  However, post Everest, in 1954 the committee invited the expedition member Tom Longstaff to become an Hon. Member.  However as is wont to happen, the committee had exceeded its powers under the then prevailing constitution.  Only an A.G.M. had the power to confer this honour and Mr. Longstaff had to  wait until April of ’55 to be “homologated”.

Plainly, in the early days, honorary membership was thought of as an honour conferred on outstanding mountaineers who happened, perhaps, to live in this area (Longstaff apparently lived in Achiltibuie for a while).  Nowadays it is more likely that honorary membership would be bestowed on someone as a mark of gratitude and affection for long years of service to, and interest in the Club.

Club Traditions from the Early Years

There seem to be three chief traditions which date from the fifties and early sixties: the meets, the weekly meetings and the annual dinner. (One can hardly count A.G.M.’s and committee meetings: these phenomena being pre-conditions of any enduring organised society).

In this period the meets gradually evolved from day meets to weekend ones.  Details of what was done are scarce: precious logbooks have been lost.  The Club went out in all weathers and at all times of year.  We know that the Club from its earliest days contained both walkers and climbers.  The balance between these two facets of mountaineering has seldom been even.  Gil Ward has said that when he joined the Club (Dec.’56) it was dominated by walkers and that climbers were slightly looked down upon.  By ’58 Ward was actively working to change this trend.  He wrote to the committee in the Spring of that year suggesting that the Club did not have enough meets to climbing areas.  This letter provoked a lively discussion at the A.G.M. and the committee took note of Ward’s request arranging meets to Kishorn, B.Nevis, Glen Finnan, Stac Pollaidh and Torridon; from at least three of these venues climbing would have been possible.  Gil Ward’s influence on the early club is very interesting. In the Summer of ’58 when John Aird was president (another very influential figure) Ward suggested that the committee should meet more often in order that “the running of the club might be better shared amongst committee members”, and this suggestion was unanimously adopted.( There is a delightful irony, and one I am sure Gil would find amusing: in the second year of his own distinguished presidency the committee, if records are complete, met only twice.)

While early “indoor meets” took place in hotel rooms, members’ homes and, later on in the Ness Cafe, it is also to Gil Ward that the Club owes its long running tradition of meeting each Thursday evening in a local bar-room for he suggested this at the A.G.M. of 1961. Plainly the membership liked the idea because they made him President on the spot.  By September of that year pub meetings were held each Thursday in the Carleton Cocktail Bar, and these for a while continued in tandem with monthly meetings in members’ houses.  It is  a less than sobering thought that almost every Thursday from that year to the present, members of I.M.C. have gathered in some hostelry or other in Inverness.

 Paradoxically, the annual dinner did not necessarily occur on an annual basis in the first few years of the Club’s existence.  There was none in the first year, and it seems probable that the first was held in May of ’51 after J. Frew had succeeded Cattanach as President.