Diary of a wild walk West to East Of Scotland 1977
November and December are a hard time for Mountaineers, there is restricted daylight and our gear was basic. In 1977 the A9 was closed during our walk a few days previously the hills were full of unconsolidated snow. It was very hard going when we hit the bad weather in the Cairngorms “we were running on empty”
The idea of a walk across Scotland from West to East in October/ November in 1977 with hindsight was crazy, with no support pretty serious. Jim Morning and me we had just completed a huge North to South Of Scotland Walk in 1976 and pushed the boat out in the way of hills done. We thought we were ready for a winter traverse and after speaking to a few people most said go in April in long daylight and reasonable conditions. I never for a moment thought we would plan it for November. This is usually a wild month with various problems. The daylight is very short and the weather can be very unsettled and on this trip it was wild nearly every day. This is the story of “A walk nearly a walk to die for.”
I was a member of the RAF Kinloss Mountain Rescue Team a young party leader who had just completed his Munros in 1976. The Team was myself Heavy Whalley, Jim Morning (JM) and Terry Moore (TM) this was the first expedition in to attempt a Traverse of Scotland mountains West to East in November. Jim and Terry were just posted in from Stafford and Valley in North Wales, both were incredibly fit and extremely strong mountaineers . This walk was the based on an idea by the late John Hinde, one of the founder fathers of the Big Walks. At the time we were cocky young lads invincible or so we thought and I think John had the last laugh. He said do you think you are that good try a walk in early winter that will test you, how right he was so right.
Some quotes “Few civilians had the time or the organisational support to try it [a long walk]”… Hamish Brown.
“… It is not a competitive game, any cutting corners leads to lack of safety…” John Hinde.
Past Walks up to our attempt in November 1977
1977 Day 20 November 16 – Ruigh Aiteahain bothy Carn An – Fhidhleir and An Sgarsoch – Linn Of Dee
These two rounded, featureless hills are given distinction by their remoteness. In the heart of the wild country between the main Cairngorms and the Atholl ranges, few Munros can match these peaks for the feeling of solitude or open space. The day could be shortened by the use of a mountain bike on the approach. In winter a wild featureless mountains.
We left Ruigh Aiteahain bothy Or Feshie Bothy in Glen Feshie into the wilds of Carn An – Fhidhleir and An Sgarsoch two lonely Munros land then hopefully Braemar. What a day when we woke up it was still snowing. I was sure we would just pack up and head to Breamar along the heavily drifted path it was still a long way away but the decision was made. We had not done any Munros yesterday and just made the bothy in deep snow from Gaick and the boys were after Carn An – Fhidhleir and An Sgarsoch. These are very remote hills and as one of the guidebooks of the day stated this is one of the wildest and most inaccessible parts of the Highlands. From the bothy it was a sheltered walk past the great Scots pines and raging river, the trees were heavy with snow and as it got lighter they started shedding the snow. We were out the wind and on a great path but the wee rivers were fun to cross and we soon had wet feet again. It was very hard to leave the safety of the path and head out into the wilds I would gladly of headed home down the Glen, 3 hours would see us in Braemar but this was not to be. It was the two big Munros and they are situated in the headwaters of three great rivers, The Feshie, the Tarf and the Geldie. The clue is the headwaters and much of the ground away from the path is brutal walking especially in a winter storm and that is what we were in now. We headed off the path and into the wilds navigation was critical as this is not an easy place. I had a hard day a few years before in the winter when we hit bad weather here before and it took all my effort to get off the hill safely. The ground was hard going deep snow and wind and constant changes in breaking the snow, even Jim and Terry were tired as we hit the ridge at last away from the deep peat hags. We took it in turns in front not lasting long and following a bearing, The summit was eventually gained and the map a basic inch to the mile meant we had a big drop to An Sgarsoch we nearly walked over a cornice that was interesting but we made the summit eventually.
There was no way we would make Braemar that night but we had to get off the hill out the wind and into the Glen it was dark as we stumbled down to the Geldie burn. We had never done so many river crossings many covered in ice .My body was in bits but at last we reached the path. Jim fell in the river which was iced up and was frozen he was every worried about frostbite and he set a fast pace to Linn of Dee. The wind dropped and the stars came out it was bitterly cold and our wet clothes froze on us. Even the track was covered in drifted snow but we were down the last river was ahead with a bridge but where would we stay the night? Would it be in the forest in -10 we were too exhausted to make Braemar! It was now very dark and the snow had restarted.
We had already walked 35 k and 1323 metres in heavy snow and wild weather. We had to get Jim into dry clothes and we had enough. I was sent to the Keepers House, the first house we hit at Linn Of Dee and asked if there was a barn or bothy we could spend the night in. His wife answered the door whilst the other two waited and I must have looked terrible state. It is sad that I have lost names of the Keeper and his wife for this I apologise (can anyone help? (as my Diary got soaked after this day and I cannot read it.) We were taken in by his lovely wife and given egg and chips lots of tea and a huge dram, what a life saviour. The keeper said there was a bothy a few miles down the road that a young keeper was in and we were welcome to use it. He was amazed when we refused a lift and struggled into the night. He went ahead and by now it was late, what incredible kindness to us that I never forgot. He left us a small bottle of whisky and we arrived and got sorted out. The young lad was good company and stayed up and spoke to him, he was amazed at our tales and I promised to meet him in the summer and go on the hill with him. I had a great sleep but we were away at 0700 it was still dark we had another big day ahead and the weather was not going to change. The help we had been given at Linn of Dee was exceptional and I can never repay them.
I did go back a few months later after the walk and took some presents as thanks to the Keeper and his family for all their kindness, what a lifesaver. The young keeper and I never got our day on the hill. A few weeks later he was found near Landseer Falls near Feshie bothy dead of exposure after getting caught out in a big storm heading from Linn of Dee to Glen Feshie Lodge on Jan 11th 1978. I could not believe this when told that the hills could kill such a powerful young man.
Next day was to be another hard day only 3 more days to go thank God we were struggling! The constant terrible weather, early starts, wet clothes and big bags were taking their toll on us. We were learning about the winter every day even though I had done my Munros the year before I was in awe of these mountains.