Cairngorms Women Contributions
I come as a visitor
I come at all times of the year, but love coming in the summer most
I’m from Perth, so not too far away.
Walking – at all times of year
I’m qualified as a mountain leader, and work outdoors with groups. I did most of my mountain leader training and assessment in the Cairngorms.
I got the bus from Perth with my mum. I must have been about 16 years old as I remember I was doing about glaciation in geography at school. I remember pointing out glaciated landforms on the way up on the bus – U shaped valleys, aretes, pyramidal peaks. I think we got a cable car up to the restaurant. It was the first time I had been on the top of a mountain and it felt like another world and exhilarating.
Start at the ski centre car park, walk up Fiacaill a Choire Chais, over to Coire Raibiert. Camp overnight near Shelterstone on the shore of Loch A’an. Next morning, climb up to Loch Etchachan and on to Ben Macdui. Take the gentle path back between March Burn and Lochan Buidhe down to the ski centre car park.
All the love and support of friends I have walked that route with. It feels indistinguishable from the landscape itself.
I was camping with my friend V at Shelterstone. We made a fire on the beach. It felt ancient and magical. I fell asleep watching the ancient fire of the stars. During the night V woke to hear the music of bagpipes in the sound of the waterfall.
On my mountain leader assessment, just before the last night, when we had to demonstrate our abilities in night navigation, I started to feel sick. I had been taking Ibuprofen over the previous week because I was just recovering from the flu. We were camped next to Feith Buidhe. Three of my friends were also doing the assessment. I started to throw up blood when we went out to do the night navigation. I managed to get through the test in between vomits. By the time we had finished it was near midnight. I felt relieved it was over and quite weak. My friends helped me keep going for the last 3 kilometres back to the minibus with their kindness and physical help. On the walk back we saw our first ever moon bow. We felt a mixture of elated and exhausted when we found out we had all passed!
My friend P and I went to explore the sites of all the destroyed mountain huts on the plateau. We found out their rough locations from the book ‘Secret histories of the Cairngorms’ and then tracked them down. Some were marked with a plaque and some had disappeared completely. The only one left standing was the El Alamein hut. They had left it intact because it was in a fairly obscure place and they reckoned nobody would be tempted to use it. Inside, the hut felt very still – like a mountain chapel. We sat and ate our lunch next to a fragment of what looked like aeroplane fuselage. The brush-strokes were still visible on the metal. Somehow we were connected to that instant when the brushstrokes were made, and the man or woman who made them. P talked about the Highland regiments who built the hut. About their bravery and their exploitation by the generals. He told me that one general is reported to have said: ‘They are hardy, intrepid, accustomed to a rough country, and no great mischief if they fall.’
Here is an experience I had on Braeriach with my husband Joe a few years ago. It is included in a book chapter (The Ecology of the Unconscious) I co-authored in Vital Signs (eds Totton and Rust)
‘Over 20 years ago, when I was at medical school, I spent some time working in a Burns Unit. For about six months after working there, I suffered flashbacks, and feelings of isolation, guilt, fear, helplessness and sadness. Last Tuesday evening, I watched a TV programme about surgery for people who had suffered severe facial burns. Watching the programme, those old feelings came back, but I was able to talk them through over the rest of the evening. I felt more peaceful for this – a deeper understanding and some resolution.
Two days later we set off to climb Braeriach in the Cairngorms… we scramble through the Chalamain gap, over all the giant boulders. It feels like a good day. There’s a bit of a slog up to the Sron na Lairig Ridge, but we reach the top of the ridge quite easily. And suddenly, I’m back in all that fear and sorrow and loneliness. I can’t stop thinking about the horror, the trauma of severe burns. And I keep thinking ‘why again now?’. My chest is tight. There’s a lump in my throat. I feel overwhelmed with pain and darkness and grief. And finally, as we climb the last few metres of Sron na Lairig, I start sobbing. J holds me. I can’t stop.The plateau is absolutely desolate, like I feel inside. It is so painful. The sky is stormy, and filled with wind and rain. Gradually the sobbing subsides and I’m left feeling empty.
We press on to the top against a strong wind. Stop for about 30 seconds on the summit cairn and turn back down again. Below us in the corrie, Lochan Uaine is dark and contained. On the way down the ridge, we pass a heap of metal poles…wonder what they are. Back along the ridge, my thoughts are still pulled to the trauma. The strange thing is, I realise – it feels like I’m inseparable from all people who suffer this trauma, and at the same time, it’s not mine. I go back in my mind on the way down, layers of free-association. Pushing through the thick heather. My father’s war experiences, both grandfathers witnessing deaths from burns. The darkening sky. A story about me almost pulling a pan of boiling milk over myself when I was two. A wee boy I met when I was 12 – his face scarred with burns. We jump over streams – in Scotland, they’re called ‘burns’….Burning witches…I’m starting to think, what happened in this area? We wade through some more thick heather and bog. Exhausted. Something’s gradually clearing. Moving off… opening out.
A couple of days later, feeling rested, and no longer possessed by all of this, I think of the pile of metal on top of the mountain, and google ‘Braeriach Crash’. And there it is. During the Second World War, two bombers crashed into the Sron na Lairig ridge. The wreckage was spread over to dark little Locahn Uaine. So… that was the crack that opened up in time! It was like somehow I connected with the spirits of the men who probably burned to death on that mountain with their friends…
Since this experience, I feel that I have laid something to rest. Some parts of my experience after working in the Burns Unit were appropriate resonances with what I had witnessed. However, some parts were of my own unconscious making – the fear and guilt that came from making ‘people with burns’ into something alien; the isolation that came from being ashamed to speak of the trauma; the helplessness that came from my disconnection. Now, when I think of this trauma, and that part of myself, it is inextricably woven into the landscape of Braeriach. I feel connected to the suffering, but not overwhelmed by it. I no longer feel alone with it, and the guilt and shame are gone. I’m left hoping that I was able to give something in return to the ghosts of that place’
I know about Nan Shepherd’s experience from The Living Mountain. I’ve also been to some talks Heather Morning gave about her climbing and a winter ski mountaineering trip through the Lairig Ghru. http://www.mcofs.org.uk/instructors-mcofs.asp I also saw her interviewed as part of a documentary on the Cairngorm mountain rescue team http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02gcysk I don’t know if Heather has been in touch, but it might be worth looking her up.
I come with friends, on courses at Glenmore Lodge and with my husband Joe.
Sitting by the stream in Coire Raibiert with a friend, doing mindfulness practice.
On the boulders at the top of Beinn Mheadhoin, again doing mindfulness practice.
Vision – especially movement, colour, texture, line, light and shade
Touch – when I stop for a pee, the feel of the grass or heather under my hands.
Hearing – the wind, always the wind. Sometimes bird song
It’s helped my fitness and balance. It hasn’t improved my sense of direction, and I don’t think anything could, but it’s given me skills to find my way about with map and compass. Mentally, it has opened up a whole world of interconnectedness – physically, emotionally, spiritually, ecologically – with the mountain and with people animals and plants I share it with.
Vision is probably most important to me, and the sound of the wind is most evocative.
On my Mountain Leader training, we camped at the four zeros. I found a nice sheltered rock and got into my bivvy bag. There was snow on the ground. I lay down curled up beneath the rock and saw a beautiful serene face in another rock looking back at me. I remember feeling very cosy and warm in my belly and I fell asleep peacefully – until we were rudely awakened to do some night navigation!
I love to camp and sleep out under the stars in my bivvy bag. I love to sit and practice mindfulness and walk slowly. I would really like to swim in Lochan A’an
It’s a real mixture of both. It’s getting harder and harder to separate them.
I love night navigation as you have to really feel the contours with your body. Also I love navigating in a whiteout sometimes because of that.
Here’s something I wrote about that
White. Only white. No shapes. No colours. Points of light dance all around me. My feet and lungs tell me I am going uphill. There is no other evidence.
I can see my feet and legs through the baseplate of my compass. There is nothing else to see.
I walk on a bearing of 320 degrees. I count my paces. My breathing eases where the contours should widen.
Everything is white.
My feet are level and my breathing is steady. This must be the top. The ground starts to take me downhill. I adjust the bearing. Turn right. North along the gentle ridge. I know there will be steep slopes loaded with snow on the left and cliffs on the right but my compass shows me the way I can trust.
Slowly, the glen starts to emerge. Brown and speckled with snow. A y-shaped track full of snow leading home. Mountain hares with grey-white coats are bounding around in the snow.
I realise how peaceful I feel. It is like all my grasping has gone. I think about the necklace like a harp that women wear in the white of the north lands – the necklace tinkles and helps you remember the sound of your self.
In the whiteness I needed the magnetic pull of the earth to show me which way to go. But I found out that I didn’t need any other object to help me know that I existed. In the whiteness I felt my existence as part of everything.
I think in the snow I close down a lot of my senses unless I need them to find my way or give me information that helps me keep safe.
A wide open feeling of freedom and spaciousness. A deep feeling of peace inside me.
I learn that I can survive. I learn how deeply I can love. I learn how those things are connected.