A New Year Crossing, Adam Dawson (1987)

Originally published in the Rough Stuff Journal March-April 1987 and May-June 1987

After reading accounts of mountain crossings in the R.S.J., and on hearing delightful stories about New Years in Scottish bothies from my brother, Ben, we planned an adventure, in his case re-visiting the mountains he loves so well, the southern Cairngorms.

After an arduous twenty-four-hour rail journey from Bradford (only 12 hours late!), we arrived at Blair Atholl. On the platform after the gloomy train journey the cold air and the bright sunshine revived us. We soon found the village shop where we bought fresh food for the journey ahead, stuffing more and more into our full panniers.

We cycled across the main road towards Old Blair, now climbing we felt the weight of our load. In the village we asked a Scot the way, chatting about the track ahead, the bothy, and the fine weather.

Cycling down towards the village we crossed the Old Bridge of Tilt, and turned up an icy road, taking a sharp right-hand turn, now we were on the Glen Tilt track. As we climbed there were fine views through lightly wooded glens on either side leading to the snow-capped mountains. The dry cold air and the cloudless sky made it seem like a spring day.

Adam, on the journey described. © Ben Dawson

Leaving the woods behind, we crossed two bridges over the river and a tributary. From there I saw the bothy Balaneasie for the first time, on the other bank. It stood completely alone, set slightly away from the water. Over the burn there was a rope bridge. When we came nearer, Ben discovered that it had sagged into the freezing water. A large boulder of ice had formed around the rope making it useless. After much effort we abandoned the bridge, deciding that one person should see if the bothy was open. I left Ben and the panniers by the rope bridge, cycling back one and a half miles across the two bridges. After a very steep climb off the track and up a bank, I found a well used track. Avoiding the steep drops into the burn, I walked, pushing my cycle.

Reaching the bothy, I found that across the door there was a large bar, held in place by two enormous padlocks. Finding no other way in, I shouted over to my brother “It’s locked”. Again I walked round looking for a way in. Reaching the door, I gave it a hearty thump in utter dismay.

To my amazement the door swung open, leaving the bar and padlocks still in place. Inside there was a small room with two doors and, having crawled under the bar, I opened the left door into a large gloomy room. Entering the second room, dark objects slowly appeared out of the gloom, as light filtered through the dirty window. First pots hanging on the wall, shelves full of tins, bottles, and paper. The fire place was neatly laid with dry wood, in the corner there was a low bed with a chair.

Going outside I shouted the happier news to Ben. He then started to cycle back to the track by the bridge. His cycle was more difficult to haul onto the track than mine due to the extra weight.

Once at the bothy we set to work finding some wood. That night we made a large meal. Leaving our Primus on to heat the room, we quickly drifted off to sleep to its roar.

In the morning I slowly woke up, grasping for bedding that was not there, feeling the cold frost of the morning. Ben, still asleep, still warm, in his sleeping bag. Pulling on extra clothes, I went outside, a shroud of snow had fallen overnight. We ate a hearty breakfast, tidied the bothy and packed our cycles.
As we clambered over the snowy track back to the bridge by Marble lodge, a group of walkers passed on the far side of the burn. After negotiating the steep slippery slopes we reached the track. As we cycled past the bothy surrounded by snow, I slowed to admire its ideal setting.

We overtook the walkers before Forest lodge. They could hardly believe that we were cycling over this track. After Forest lodge it deteriorated. Taking a right fork we met the first ice. Walking over patches of ice, we found difficulty staying upright. The walkers soon passed us, now that they had the advantage. Catching them up at the Falls of Tarf, we joined them for a drum-up. After the lengthy tea stop we crossed the bridge. On the bridge there is a small plaque, which explained that the bridge commemorated a walker who came to grief crossing the falls before it was built.

The track finished here, the path started. With the path the pushing started also. Slowing down, we struggled as the path wound up by the Allt Garbh Buidhe. Our panniers now caught on the sides of the path. Down the steep slope cascading streams formed pillars of ice in front of us. On reaching a pillar we had to unload our cycles, and haul our luggage several yards above the track, beside the ice. Then I jumped over it, catching hold of the vegetation as I fell. Finding a suitable standing place, Ben skidded the panniers across one by one, as I caught and stacked them. When all the luggage was transferred, Ben then swung the cycles across. Holding one wheel, he would swing the unladen cycle towards me. As I caught it he would let go of his wheel, swinging it over to my side. After the cycles, Ben skidded across letting me grab him. We both re-assembled the cycles and continued to the next obstacle.

We only once came to grief. Ben, whilst walking over a wide stretch of ice, lost his balance and slithered down the steep side. He came to rest only within inches from an icy bath. He had to haul his cycle back to the track and retrieve his panniers. Thankfully, nothing bent or broken (except his pride).

A mountain-rescue helicopter thundered down the glen. We could see inside as it passed close over head. We wondered if it was on a training exercise or if there had been an accident?

As we came to the top of the glen the track petered out as it entered a large bog. Heading straight across towards Bynack Lodge, we cycled on the frozen ground. We were glad to be riding but the peat made rough going.

Ben soon found the track, noticing that it was longer than last year. We were both glad to be on a flat track as dusk was setting in.

We approached the Allt an t’seilich where it crosses the track. The ford is quite narrow, and the waters fast flowing. On each side of the ford a ledge of ice had formed. We stepped from one ledge to the other, over boiling waters.

Unfortunately, due to bad navigation, we had to cross the burn again. This time the ledges were further apart. We crossed this by pushing our cycles over first, the front wheel resting on the far side, the back on our side. Pushing on the cycles we jumped across pulling them across behind us.

It was dark, and still the largest river to cross. At this place the Geldie Burn was frozen over, only isolated patches of water remained. Ben went first pushing his cycle round the bubbling patches of water, he was about two-thirds across when the ice gave way. He slid with his cycle until he was waist deep, standing in water. He lifted his cycle out onto the ice then pulling on the cycle he levered himself our, slithering to the other bank.

We stood on the far bank, pulling ice off our clothes. Our trousers were solid, but for creases at our knees. Now we felt the cold. Setting off, we found that our wheels wouldn’t turn. Pushing the cycles, we continued towards the ruin by the Geldie Burn, our shelter for the night. Ben unloaded our cycles as I climbed up onto rafters looking for a clean sleeping place. Only the far end of the building still has floor boards, so I climbed over to the remaining floor, Ben passed up the panniers as I stacked them. He joined me as I attempted to unpack. The zips were frozen, as were the cords. Using matches we opened one pocket with candles in and using the candles to thaw the zips out, we unpacked, and soon had a meal cooked.

Climbing into our sleeping-bags, Ben soon drifted off to sleep. The cold became unbearable, my feet became unbearable. I put on my spare socks. They gave no relief. I drifted in and out of sleep in hope of warmth.

With dawn I gave up the effort of keeping warm. After the long, cold, sleepless night, I was stiff and tired. The air was frosty, still, and dry. Large plumes of steam rose as I breathed. After waiting an eternity, I woke Ben at seven. He was rested after his night’s sleep. He made a large breakfast, whilst I made a fire downstairs. There was a large amount of rubble from a fire place which had collapsed. In this there were small sticks and under the snow there were planks of wood. I placed all our spare clothing with the frozen panniers around the fire.

The clothes steamed as they dried. The smoke from the fire attracted a solitary walker who joined up. We swapped peanuts and raisins whilst chatting. He had stayed in Corrour bothy, where he said it was 25 degrees below! He left us heading toward Braemar. I now packed our dry clothes and fitted the panniers back onto the cycles. When we set off we found that our free-wheels were running in both directions! After trying matches then candles, we used our primus stove to un-freeze them. We repacked the stove and set off.

Cycling, slipping, bumping and walking our way, we reached the Linn of Dee, then on to Braemar. The speed of this road was great, compared with the track.

We feasted ourselves at the Royal Hotel in Braemar, as the waitresses looked on uncomfortably. Once satisfied, we made our way to the Youth Hostel. We needed to wash our clothes! I needed sleep. In the morning we set off back to Linn of Dee, following the road right where we had joined it the previous day.

Heading up to the glen, we turned left off the tarmac onto a track. Mostly walking, we made our way up the track, over the bridge and towards Derry Lodge. The ground was now several inches deeper in snow. This caused slow progress. Just before Derry Lodge we turned left, over a bridge and up the other side. On top of the rise I saw Luibeg bothy for the first time, standing by the Glen Lui mountaineering club-house.

Once inside the bothy, the cosiness was more than welcome. The hut had two rooms. In the larger there were two wooden bunks built into the side of the bothy. A large fire-place filled a third of the hut, with cooking shelves at the side of the fire-place, and a stack of dry wood underneath.

Once unloaded we set off to find fire-wood. The bothy is near several woods and just outside the door there were trees, but we found no wood suitable for the fire. The woods just over the bridge by Derry Lodge were the best with plenty on the ground, although this was slightly wet. Dead branches were the best source here.

Once several loads had been collected, we cooked our meal. Half-way through the meal two walkers came in. We gave them tea as they took sleeping places on the floor. Sitting round the fire we swapped stories as the flames roared up the chimney and the sky got dark outside.

Ben became restless as the evening progressed. Hearing heavy footsteps coming nearer round the hut, we listened carefully. Suddenly the bothy door swung open, a small man walked in and swung a massive rucksack onto the floor. My brother’s face was transformed. They stood face to face, staring at each other. Ben asked “How are you John?”, they fell into conversation. For the last four years Ben has met his friend, John, in this bothy, for their New Year celebration. This is the only communication they have each year. John’s meal was soon cooked, as we swapped news around the fire. We all fell asleep as we were warmed by the dying embers.

One by one we all woke up as deer drifted up the glen. Breakfast was soon made, and eaten. The two walkers left us, heading for the Fords of Arn. We tidied up the bothy, leaving our possessions on the bunks. In the distance we could hear the mountain rescue group waking up noisily. The three of us visited them on our way to Braemar. They were still getting up as we arrived.

We chatted about the snow conditions, and drank their tea. Leaving them we went on the track out of the glen, cycling as far as the Linn of Dee, then taking John’s van to Braemar.

After a brief look around we returned to Glen Lui. We borrowed an axe from the mountain-rescue post, to chop a dead tree which was still standing. Soon there were enough logs for a week! Many journeys had to be made before all the wood was stored. That night another pair of walkers came early in the evening. As the roar of paraffin stoves took over, the walker we had chatted to two days earlier by the Geldie Burn came in. Now there were six celebrating together. We settled down in front of the fire. Putting wet boots at our feet and clothes hanging overhead to dry.

Our stories soon came as the fire licked up the chimney. We used our ample provisions celebrating Hogmanay in the usual fashion.

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