Monday, 17 August 2020

Evening Climbing, Midgie's & Beer

Evening Fun

I surfed through the UKC crag data base. Its pretty extensive and includes most of the crags around Glencoe, many which are overlooked by their grander big brothers up the hills. I was quite surprised some were listed, but also a bit disappointed on re visits that most had seen little traffic over the years and were now getting overgrown and neglected. For an area full of climbers the local ones seem reluctant to  climb or maintain these crags. I guess there is just too much choice now, or folk maybe just don't climb as much as we did. I don't think there was a weekend or evening if it was dry that we were not out or away somewhere climbing. Until kids came along and it was reduced but never stopped and then they climbed as well.

Some crags like "Banana Buttress" has first ascents listed on UKC. The folk doing this wouldn't have been aware that there isn't a square foot of that crag that hadn't been climbed many times over by Clachaig bar staff going back to the 1960's some of whom became well known mountaineers. The crag above this had an aid route on it and the Quarry was full of boulder problems (and often poo from campers). One challenge was the complete traverse without stepping onto the boulder (V3).

At the end of the road where it joins the A82 a stream gully come off the Aonach Eagach. A ten minute walk up and there is a crag with a crack line full of pegs and an overhang which was used for aid practise by Glencoe Climbing school in the 60's/70's. I free climbed it at about E2/5c and there is a stiff pull over the overhang. It's a bit of fun although short. I wouldn't trust the pegs.!

Going up the Glen, at the Gorge/meeting of three waters the obvious crack up the crag just across the river is a really good fun at HVS and has very good gear. It had wooden wedges in it at one time which have rotted out. Next to it on the left is an E2 taking a thin crack which is nippy with a move across requiring a bold move right and some heather pulling to join the same route. The HVS is good and a lot better than it looks so well worth it when dry. Behind there is a dry river gorge running all the way down to the stream from the Lost Valley. Out across from this is a band of promising looking crags which are actually not that good but there is a severe on the left "Alans Arete" which is a bit of fun on clean rock in a couple of pitches and has a nice outlook.

The Drey Crag

The Drey Crag above the road with the hut set into it was the Edinburgh "Squirrels" hut now I think used by "the Jacobite MC". The Squirrels are no longer, but luminaries included Dougal Haston. Bugs Mackeith and Jimmy Marshall. There used to be guide to the crag on the inside of the hut door. It's a bit scrappy but there are a few routes, and the best is the obvious rock dyke with a small bulge to get around, no gear and its about severe. There is a harder crack and smooth bulge to the right of this (bold at the top) and to the left of the dyke there was a VS, and on the extreme left a short V Diff chimney.

Above the Drey and to the West there are the red "Sunset Walls" and slabs, with boulder problems that catch the evening sun and are a lot of fun. You can make it easy or hard as the rock is excellent and the landings are ok

Mike Hall and I playing on "The Red Walls" above the Drey sometime early 1980's. Some good easy bouldering up there

Back to the dry gorge. Halfway down on the north side there is a clean crag with a crack exiting from a small overhang with a peg which is a good HVS. Used to be called "The Squirrels Crack" I think as it was Kenny Spence who did it but it may now have another name. Further down still is a short "Leaning Wall" which gets the evening sun and has about six routes by me from E15b to an E2 5c/6a (Crimp) on the right that had very small wires as pro. Also a small crag further up on the South with a crack was about HVS 5b.

Up the gorge leading to Allt na Ruigh cottage coming down from the A82 is "The Bendy" with routes from the E1 5b Jim l' Fix It by me on the lower left, to E4's by Murray Hamilton and Gary Latter. I did "Simmering Psycho" which had a peg runner at the top as the cracks were blind and micro wires wouldn't fit. E3/5c and good natural pro to that point, then finishing up a groove rather more natural than the blanker walls of the harder routes and their exploding crimpy holds and RP pro. These crags were cleaner and well climbed at one time, so its shame folk don't re-clean and climb them now.  I often wondered if this would be a safer and better sport venue. I doubt the FA would mind. I wouldn't.

Some advice on when to climb these routes, if you want to try them. The Bendy is a morning crag as it gets the sun early. The leaning wall at the bottom of the dry gorge is a spring crag or early evening summer as it catches the late afternoon sun and as its got a really nice outlook and grassy bottom so its a lovely spot with a cracking pool for a swim on the way back.

It would be nice to see folk enjoying these routes and although the main loose rock work was done years ago, they will require a brush up to clean them.

The "Bendy" just above the meeting of three waters, named after the now burnt out doss hut above it

The Leaning Wall. Below the Bendy in the dry gorge with several well protected short routes to 5b FA by DG 1998

Slate Esoteric

Like everything slate in this slate quarry, the rock is questionable and not without some risk. However, there are some slabs of firm hard rock with nice quartzy pockets. Its all now mossed up as no one uses it anymore but at one time a few folk played in here on occasion, or when desperate

There are quite a few other routes, even a severe by Mike Hall up a slab on the big back wall 2nd terrace. It's esoteric and some areas high risk of rockfall on approach. Plenty of scope if someone wanted to make sport routes on some big slabs of harder rock that is pocketed. 

Carnoch Slab:

Just inside the quarry. Stakes at the top and a large block.  Was popular with an outdoor centre and some military groups.

A The left Rib. Climbed by many over the years at least since the 1970’s Hard Severe’ ish

B The wrinkled quartz slab with pockets. DG 1978 5a/b

C The wrinkled quartz slab further right. DG 1978 5a/b

D The polished central line. A top rope favorite used by local outdoor centers from 1976. Severe’ ish

E Further right still the slightly harder polished line used by outdoor centers Severe’ ish

F A boulder heave on questionable rock. DG 1978 5a/b

Carnoch Slab

Orange Wall:

Above here hidden now behind some trees is the orange wall.  This has two routes. One on the left side (5) by Paul Farrel and one up the middle (6) by DG. Both about 5b. Bear in mind these were done 35+ years ago so the grades a bit out but this was from memory quite a good bit of rock.

Orange Wall

The Boozers Bay:

Further into the quarry is a bay now overgrown and fenced off, although still possible to easily squeeze past into it.

The lower of the prominent crack lines (1) is about 5a/b and the one above (2) harder and a bit sketchy and was done on a top rope. The two lines straight up (3) crossing these are good fun on small quartz holds and good footwork helps, both soloed at about 5a/b. (4) is the best and was good fun. A route was done in the corner of the slab by a visiting Welsh climber and had a peg in place and was about E3 6a. It has never been repeated as far as I know. Can't think why!

Boozers Bay

"Stac an Eich" or Alan Breck as we know it from the hotel that used to be below, is a granite crag reached via the road to the memorial cairn a mile or so past the golf course. It had a few easier routes on its west end facing the evening sun. Slabs such as Appin groove, or the rib to its left were soloed by me (not Ed as in the guide) and are good fun at about VS. Right of Appin groove there were a couple of stiff boulder problem slab routes soloed by Ed, and to the right of what we used as a descent gully a steep well protected wall route of HVS with lower from a tree. Kevin Woods did a great job of cleaning up this area a couple of years ago.

The main crag routes are all in the outcrops guide and a bit like grit routes being quite pumpy. Shuttlecock is a great route worth *** on the east (far left). Up the obvious corner is a cracker with good pro, and the original finish (pitch 2) went up a leaning block and had a step across and then up. Great situation and views from that first belay above the trees. The top block of pitch 2 was pretty hollow but if its still there since 1983 could be ok but the top out needs a clean. Shuttlecock would get 3 or 4 ascents a week for years until this crag fell out of favor. Probably because the Ferry bar wasn't as good a pub anymore! An alternative is to belay at the top of the corner and then move right and up to where the central corner exits where there was some fixed gear now rotten that I left 35 years ago. There is also a direct start to Shuttlecock by me leading into the lower corner from the left which is about 5b/c. We tended to ab off the top which was a free abseil and part of the fun. Have an auto block as back up!

George Reid gets off the ground on Shuttlecock 1982

Left of Shuttlecock there were another two routes including "Autan" which took the big area of granite above. All re-covered in veg now. A team with bow saws could really open up what was a great evening crag that often had a sea breeze in the evening sun, and was a popular often noisy venue as folk cursed up the routes which although a bit fierce are well protected if you can hang on. A pint in the Ferry bar often followed!

Davy Gunn finishing Shuttlecock 2nd ascent about to step left from the block pitch 2 original finish. pic Fiona Gunn
 
Across the the Loch at Onich the obvious white wall above the A82 to Fort William has three routes. The faint crack on the left side by Kenny Spence/Fyffe is about E1/5b and I put a direct 5b finish on if you continue straight up and over the top bulge. The three star route is the obvious crack system on the right which is as good a crag route as anything in Lochaber. Well protected by nuts and cams it's a steady E2/5b worthy of more ascents. With the hardest bit just as you get established and get some gear in, and then just before the top as it gets thuggy. This start is where most folk back off as it can seem damp but as this bit of crag overhangs the drips are in space and the damp bit only short. It's pumpy but on good holds to the top of what feels like a long pitch. I think this was also Spence/Fyffe route and had an aid peg originally (although we never found one) and we free climbed it many times over the years before a beer. There is an eliminate 6a between the two crack lines but its a bit contrived and would be a better sport route. The "Right Hand" route as mentioned is three star and don't be put off by the start up through the trees and bushes and stepping off the ledge. The gear comes and the climbing is good. Deserves more ascents as its good. The top might have grown back but the top had plenty of trees to abseil off.

Further down towards Oban and above Kentallen bay is a Limestone crag. Best reached from an easy walk across the hill from Duror hall or a straight bushwhack up the sheep tracks from the parking at the old pier or cycle track. All the routes have steep boulder starts and then nice slabs and grooves with gear to finish. Belays were a bit scarce at the top but maybe the birch trees have grown and will be stronger. "Prawn" and its neighbours was a nice VS all cleaned and led by me. Ed Grindly did "up periscope" 6a. I think Gary Latter did a route and rumor had it Dave MacLeod did a route here. On the left edge there is a rock recess and there were was good route by Bob Hamilton up the corner at HVS and I did two HVS's on the right of this and an E4/6a on the left which was never topped out due to water but had a lower off peg. The evening views from this crag are stunning and due to sea breeze its usually midge free. The West (right) edge also had some boulder problems.

Kentallen Bay Crag

Lettershuna Sport. Four really nice routes put up by Steve Kennedy and good tea and scones along the road

Charnuis Boulders N. Ballachulish. A new boulder venue offering some fun in the sun

Wednesday, 22 July 2020

Bouldering


Charnuis Boulders North Ballachulish



Park at the forest road entrance at the top of Mausoleum Hill NN 07235 59884. Follow the forest road up to a junction then go left (west) until another forwarder track goes up. Go up this then bear left up to the bouldering keeping a whaleback boulder on your right, to the obvious blocks at NN 07029 60123. You can take another track if you go too far down the other side crossing a big fallen oak. The first block is “Two Stump Block”

These rocks are a bit unique being a pumice like Leven Schist with similarities to Limestone having pockets. Good rough rock and excellent friction, the area faces South and is a sun trap so all year round is good and many routes stay dry even when raining. Also catches a breeze which makes it relatively midge free which in summer Lochaber is a bonus.  Plenty scope above the boulders for the adventurous as the crags up above are a good bit bigger than they look. Duncan, Fiona and Davy Gunn 2020

Whaleback Boulder. Climb the front face up to a big jug 5 (V0+) A bit of approach fun if climbed direct.
 
The crucial letter box hold visible next to Duncans' backside on "Two Stump Wall" and you also get an idea of the pocketed nature of the Leven Schist and that the boulder is quite big. Bouldering mats recommended.
Two Stump Slab. Above the two obvious standing stumps

Two Stump Wall. Take the steep wall nearer its left side moving up and out to the left edge and an obvious slot. Continue more easily up the edge 6a+ (V3) ***

Stumped. From the wall center go up to a good edge, move up and back left to join the above route 6a (V3) ***

Pocket Rocket. Step off the pointed rock left of the undercut crack onto the steep slab and move directly up 6a+ (V3) **

Right edge crack. Use the obvious under cling and careful feet to the obvious niche avoiding the temptation to cheat SS 6a (V2)
 
Two Stump Block

The Block. Above and Right

Short Haul. On the right facing East is an obvious big ledge. A stiff pull up and rock over to top 5 (V1)
Short Haul

Pocket Wall.
Just above the Block is an obvious and attractive pocketed slab
Take the center of the steep wall on good crimpy holds up the steep slab above 6a+ (V3) the best route here ***

SS variation. Start low on the left moving across to a down facing nose then up and onto the slab above 6b (V4) **
 
Pocket Wall
The Bow. Just across and up is an obvious prow with a distinctive profile

Keelhaul. The obvious edge of the Bow with a bad landing, even with a mat. 6C (V5)

Thursday, 18 June 2020

The Strath of Glencoe

It's been quite some time since my last blog post.  It's been reasonably busy with bike hire and repairs despite the awful weather and late spring.  We have also had family commitments not least of which was attending my sons graduation from Aberdeen University.

I am having a year off the bike racing as I need to re balance my time and health.  I am however re kindling my lifelong affair with fishing.  I have fished since I was maybe about six years old and remember my mother having to put a worm on a hook for me as I didn't like them, and epic frustrations from my dad with tangled line at the tidal pool. Those who knew his patience level can imagine the expletives!
Blackbirds nest next to a place I fish.  We meet every day. She flew back in and was obviously not bothered
Pink Hawthorn or "Mayflower" which is where the saying "nere cast a cloot till may is oot" comes from.  Only this year your cloot shouldnt have been cast even in June!
Early trips up to Loch Ba with Jock MacDonald and his boat, and many future boys own expeditions wandering over Rannoch moor, losing wellies in bottomless bogs and using the sound of the train at Rannoch so we knew we had walked 180deg in the wrong direction and would miss Andrew the local bus driver waiting for us on the A82 if we didnt run were all character forming, especially when still only 10 years old. My mother was worried sick. 

Later trips to Bealach and even out to exotic locations like over the hill to Lundavra and a shot of the good boat if it wasn't out.  My early rod was a split cane 9ft with a level taper line and small flies bought from rare trips on the bus over the ferry to the excellent Rod and Gun shop next to the bus station in Fort William.  There was always good advice and help form the two older gents who ran the shop, and later when I had a few quid saved from working the "Grotto" petrol pumps they set me up with a nice hollow glass 9'6 fly rod and reel which I still have.  It was a very soft action rod and later nearly broke at the lower brass ferrule with a small grilse from the "Doctors Pool" on the Duror. There wasn't a puddle with fish in it that I didn't explore, and some rock climbing was required on occasion to reach hidden pools  I revisited one last year and the pool which would have given me a half dozen big sea trout  up to 3lbs and maybe a grilse, was absent of fish including the many small brownies that would come to the fly.  Banks of Sitka spruce have probably made the water too acidic.
Lower Coe falls and its water worn rocks.  There are intials from the ealy 19th century chipped into the rock from when Strathcona removed the arch that spanned the river to improve Salmon access.  You need to know where to look .....

It's fair to say in some ways that these explorations were among and a part of the mountains. As a teen when introduced to the heady mix of mountaineering, climbing, alcohol, women, and exotic places (but not many exotic women sadly) to pursue the mountain addiction. I suppose I became quite good at climbing, and climbed many of the classic hard routes and test pieces.  I was also lucky to be a very young member of the local rescue team at only 16, having already been going on rescues with a neighbour since I was younger.  These were the days of shepherds, stalkers and forestry workers with only a few climbers.  Money was scarce, politics of rescue non existent, and only the needs of the victims was at the forefront.  The reward was good craic, a plate of soup and a few free drams and maybe a "lock in" at Clachaig or Kingshouse.  A once a year issue of socks and thermal underwear was a bonus, but no one was without a good "Cag" and boots, the essentials.  There was no parading about like a shops dummy with overpriced Arcterxc.

Lucky for me I met Fiona who was to be my wife and climbing partner and who kicked me from manual labour as a wood cutter (my excuse - it kept me strong for climbing) to using a brain neglected from being kicked out of school.  She liked the bad boy rebel bit in me which was really nothing more than being pissed at a crap secondary school with dysfunctional teachers.Without her I would never have achieved professional level medical and mountain qualifications.
The Hump Bridge and still waters below
The thread throughout all my life in one way or another has been fishing and in particular the River Coe, who's flow has served as a metaphor for much of my life. Steady, placid, reflective, angry, raging, unclear.  I always liked Neil Gunn's book "Highland River" but only in later life when reading it again did I truly understand it as a "Quest" and how much it resembled my own life.  
Looking up "The Strath"
I had a truly lovely walk up the river today following a salmon which has a very distinguishing mark on it's nebb (nose).  Having watched it from the sea pool weeks ago, it was good to see it again having moved upriver again to another pool.  It was sitting quietly in a spot where an old local poacher "Willie the Bridge" would show me fish.  Willie is gone and so is his Rabbit snare and the need to take a fish, so it was safe lying there just waiting.  It will wait until the next fish comes to that spot then will move upriver again to another lay up. Up river there are places where a fish might lay for two months conserving its precious fat and red carotenoid energy supply until the next and final urge to reach home kicks in.  Marvellous resilient creatures that we should respect and take from only with care.
The Celtic symbol of knowledge and inheritor of Solomons wisdom lays waiting
If I might borrow again from Neil Gunn, who by the way is no relation, just imagine a nice day ambling up the river with a camera thinking of "The Atom of Delight".
House Martins? or Swifts?  have made burrows for nesting in the fallen river bank

The ever changing river course
Click the images for a larger size

Wednesday, 17 June 2020

Canada - The Glencoe Connection

I found this in my old google docs from when I was doing a UHI course on cultural History when researching for a dissertation 2003. It certainly gives an insight into this remarkable man. More recent research suggests that his wife hated the Glencoe rain. The legacy he has left us with is an estate to walk and enjoy, resembling more British Columbia than Scotland and another piece of the incredible layering of history ancient and modern that we have in the Highlands. Sadly the £20 a year to the poor of Glencoe has stopped some time ago! A more complete history can be found in the excellent biography of him.

Lord Strathcona 
In the old days of warring clans in the Highlands of Scotland, the Grants of Strathspey were summoned to battle by alarm fires kindled on the mountain tops of Craigellachie, and when the clansmen faced the foe their battle-cry was "Stand fast, Craigellachie." It was at another Craigellachie, in the heart of the Rocky Mountains of Canada, that a distinguished descendant of the Grants, in 1885, drove the last spike which completed the construction of the first transcontinental railway in Canada. The event was one of the most important in the history of the great Dominion, for it welded indissolubly into one mighty nation a number of provinces and districts stretching for 3,700 miles across a vast continent. The man was Donald Alexander Smith, the grandson of one of the Scottish Grants. Better known as Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal, this great Empire-builder of the Victorian era, and one of the founders of the Dominion of Canada, most worthily adhered throughout his life to his ancestral motto, "Stand fast."

On many occasions apparently overwhelming difficulties and discouragements had shattered themselves against his invincible patience and courage. And from none of his herculean enterprises did he emerge so triumphantly as from the stupendous task of building and financing the Canadian Pacific Railway, whose completion was signalized by the ringing blows on that spike in the rocky gorge of the Canadian Craigellachie. Such was the crowning triumph in the life of one who, forty-seven years previously, had arrived in Canada a poor but well-educated Scots lad, and who started his career in that country as a clerk-apprentice to the Hudson’s Bay Company at a salary of £20 a year and his food. When he died, his estate was valued at over £4,500,000.

The romance of Lord Strathcona’s life lies in the fact that it covers the whole period of the romantic and extraordinary development of Canada from an almost trackless wilderness to a mighty and prosperous Dominion within the British Commonwealth of nations. When Donald Smith went to Canada in 1838 in a small sailing ship, the voyage occupied forty-four days. Before the end of his life he frequently made the same journey in a week in a liner owned by the company of which he was a director.

In the fourth decade of the nineteenth century more than half of Canada was a game sanctuary of the Hudson’s Bay Company, owned and ruled by that ancient corporation of Gentlemen Adventurers solely in the interests of the fur trade. Even when Donald Smith had been over thirty years in the service of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and while on the site of Winnipeg, in what is now Manitoba, he refers in his correspondence to a projected visit to Ottawa as "leaving here for Canada."

Infancy of the Dominion
The Dominion of Canada was created as an idea in 1867, twenty-nine years after Donald Smith had arrived in that country, but in reality its western boundary ended at Ontario. All beyond, namely Rupert’s Land and the North-West Territory, was the ancestral estate of the Hudson’s Bay Company. So well established was the proprietorship that the Government of Canada, in 1868, sent a deputation to England to treat for the purchase of one-third of the area of Canada from the Governors of the Company.

The transfer was completed, through the good offices of the British Government, on terms which ended the monopoly of the Company while still permitting it to retain considerable land from which, as the country was opened up to settlement, it stood to gain its principal revenues, rather than from the age-long trade in furs. Much could be written to show how primitive was Canadian life, and how un-peopled that vast and rich territory when Donald Smith first set foot there. The contrasts furnished by the changes in his own long life must suffice for the purpose.

A Tradition of the Family
He went to Canada well-equipped. He had education and character. There was a tradition in his mother’s family that one of his hardy Scottish ancestors had learnt to write by tracing his letters with a stick in the ashes that fell from the peat fire in his father’s cottage on the hillside. But in Donald Smith’s boyhood there was a good school in Forres, where he was born in 1820, and he left it well grounded in Latin and mathematics to enter at once a lawyer’s office in the same town. In after life, Lord Strathcona often said that the reason why poor Scots boys so frequently rise to distinction in all parts of the world is the native love for learning in even the humblest, and the excellence of the old-time Scottish schoolmasters.
Donald Smith’s first job in Canada was counting rat skins. The Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company at that time was an autocrat who studiously kept his subordinates in their place. On one occasion Donald Smith, after getting no reply to his letters asking for permission to see a doctor, as he feared he was threatened with blindness, left his post for this purpose without permission. As a punishment he was banished to Labrador and ordered to make the journey thither in the dead of winter, and to start within thirty minutes. For an instant the young man hesitated, bitter words came to his tongue, and the temptation to throw up his job suggested itself. Then came to mind the old battle-cry of the clan, "Stand fast!" and Donald Smith controlled himself, and within the allotted half-hour had started on the terrible journey, which took months to complete on snowshoes.

Reduced to Eating Moss
One of his Indian companions died on the road from hardship, and Donald and the other Indian were reduced to eating moss. The Scotsman won through and lived to be the successor of the autocratic governor who had so sorely tried his patience and endurance. No one could possibly have imagined that this young Scotsman, who was
destined to remain for twenty years in the desolate isolation of Labrador, had any chance, under such conditions, of ever rising to the eminence he afterwards attained. There was a postal service only twice a year. Such a position as that of factor in the Hudson’s Bay service in Labrador was considered even by the officers of the company as little better than banishment for life. But Donald Smith possessed qualities which enabled him to rise superior to any circumstances, and in course of time he became chief trader. Then he married, and before long had established a home the like of which for comfort and even luxury had never been seen in the whole of Labrador. He was the first man to establish a farm, a vegetable garden, and a flower garden in that country; the first man to construct a proper road; and he introduced the first wheeled cart ever seen there.

The Wonder Farm of Labrador
He imported from the north of Scotland cows, sheep, horses, poultry, and garden and farm seeds, fertilized his land with fish, and, short as the summer was, grew crops and flowers which filled the Indians, fishermen, and his own colleagues and visitors with astonishment. Plants which would not mature in the open air he grew under glass. Labrador had an area nearly five times that of Great Britain, and not in all that vast country could there be found a farm like that of Donald Smith’s. Long afterwards Lord Strathcona used to say that he had never felt lonely during the whole of his long service in Labrador. Even the wildflowers of the country provided him with an interesting study. But naturally his chief interest was his work in the fur trade, and he made his post profitable beyond all precedent, owing to his good management and his extraordinary enterprise in developing new sources of revenue.

When Donald Smith started work in Canada at £20 a year, be adhered strictly to a standard he had set himself, namely, to save at least half his income. As he rose in the service, he continued to practise thrift on a larger scale. Factors in the Hudson’s Bay Company then received a definite share of the profits, and even before he had begun to figure in public affairs Donald Smith had saved several thousands of pounds. He invested the money in some of the prominent commercial enterprises which began to be formed as Canada started to rise to a position of importance in the world.

As the Americans say, the thrifty factor got into these profitable enterprises "on the ground floor." Such was the reputation which even at that time he had gained for commercial shrewdness, that other factors entrusted him with their savings for investment according to his own judgment. Thus, his influence in financial circles soon grew to importance. The turning-point in Donald Smith’s life occurred when his services were transferred from Labrador to Montreal. From comparative isolation he now found himself in the centre of all the commercial activities of Canada, just at the moment when the country was entering upon a new era of expansion. Here he had already become associated in financial matters with his cousin, George Stephen (afterwards Lord Mount Stephen), at that time a successful businessman in Montreal.

A delightful story is told about the first meeting of these two men. Fresh from Labrador, and carrying a new carpet bag of a pattern and colouring like a futurist painting, Donald Smith entered his cousin’s office, while his wife and child, their arms full of brown paper
parcels stood outside in the road. The successful city man was none too pleased to be so unexpectedly confronted by his relation in such an unorthodox manner, especially in his place of business. Smith, himself, could not understand why his cousin seemed so uneasy about his presence in the office.

However, the acquaintance thus formed was soon improved upon, and these two cousins afterwards found fame and fortune together, as associates and co-partners in some of the most daring and successful enterprises ever conceived in Canada, particularly in the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway and the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba Railway. When Donald Smith took charge of the Montreal office of the Hudson’s Bay Company, it was at a time of crisis in the history of the venerable institution, and also of Canada itself. Following the purchase of the territory of the Company by the Dominion, difficulties arose when the Government sought to extend their jurisdiction westward into the prairies. There occurred in Manitoba the revolt of the French and half-breed inhabitants, known in Canadian history as the Riel Rebellion. The seriousness of such a situation may be realized when it is said that the means of transportation were then so primitive that an armed force could not be transported to the scene of the rebellion within a shorter period than ten months. Donald Smith was now recognized as the most able and influential man in the Hudson’s Bay service, and the Government of Canada sent him to the West as a commissioner to try and pacify the rebellious colonists.

End of the Rebellion
Largely owing to his efforts in shrewdly dividing these lawless elements, even when he was a prisoner in the rebel fortress, and by restraining the extremists, what was practically a bloodless revolution fizzled out. Manitoba was made a province of Canada, and Donald Smith was elected a member of its first Legislative Assembly. Then followed his great adventures as a railway builder. When he arrived in Canada there was not a single mile of iron railway in all that vast country. It was not until 1847 that the first consignment of iron rails was imported from England, for use on a few miles of tram-roads running over wooden tracks, upon which were nailed a flat surface of iron plates. The first of these Canadian tram roads, over which the carriages were pulled by horses, was opened for traffic in 1836. Donald Smith and his associates had to overcome stupendous difficulties and discouragement in building, and especially in financing, the pioneer railway across Canada. The first train to undertake the through journey of more than 2,900 miles from Montreal to the Pacific coast left Montreal on the 28th June, 1886.

First Ocean to Ocean Railway
The completion of the first transcontinental railway across Canada was, however, not only a triumph over physical difficulties of an almost insuperable character. It was much more. It represented a piece of empire building of the utmost importance, not from a geographical point of view alone, but also in a political sense. The building of the Canadian Pacific Railway saved Canada for the Empire. No estimate of the character of Donald Smith and his associates in that daring and gigantic enterprise, that regards them only as great men of business and overlooks the political importance of their life- work, can be either complete or just. Their names are worthy of being included among the greatest empire builders of the past. It may come as a surprise to many readers to be told that there was at the period referred to a very real danger that the United States would annex not only the western prairie country and British Columbia, but even the whole of what is now the Dominion of Canada.

In the first place, there was not that fullness of sympathy and understanding of Canada on the part of the Motherland which the man who afterwards became Lord Strathcona did so much to promote during the later years of his life. Then there was a strong feeling of enmity in the United States against England arising out of the Alabama episode and other incidents of the American Civil War. Even after British Columbia joined the Canadian Confederation, there was a very strong separatist movement in that province, owing to the fact that the promised railway to link them with the Atlantic had not materialized.

American Eyes on Canada
The American Press in the eighteen-sixties contained many articles in which the annexation of Canada was openly advocated. Britishers to-day refer often to our great ideal: One Flag and One Empire. So did the Americans of that period. It was said by them that the time had come for the consolidation of all the peoples on the American continent, from the Polar Seas to the Gulf of Mexico, under one Flag and Government—that of the United States. Sir John Macdonald, the great Prime Minister of Canada, once wrote that he was convinced beyond any doubt that the United States Government was at that time resolved to do all it could, short of going to war, to obtain possession of Western Canada. It was quite natural that envious eyes should be cast on that great and fertile territory by those in the victorious Union who considered that in the war between the North and the South England had sided in certain ways that were provocative of very great bitterness with their enemies.

Canada’s Inhospitable Seaboard
The isolation and uninhabited condition of the Canadian West at that time is almost unrealizable by us to-day. Apart from Indians, there were only a few thousand inhabitants in the Canadian North-West. Neither Canada nor England could then have defended that country by force of arms. It was practically impossible for troops to reach the Western plains in the wintertime from the Atlantic, except through the United States. The only methods of transportation were sleighs in the winter and canoes in the summer.

During the Riel Rebellion, the probability of the rebel half-breeds receiving military support from the Fenians in the United States was a very real danger for a while, and even in 1869 a Committee of the United States Senate left it on record that the annexation of Western Canada was "but a question of time." Now that the friendship between the great American nation and the British Empire is so firmly established, cemented as it has been by the blood of both peoples in the World War, these references to a period long past can be made dispassionately, and, indeed, the events in question are now regarded only with curiosity. 

"An Unbroken Series of Colonies"
They are mentioned here merely to throw into bolder relief the great services to the British Empire of Lord Strathcona and his friends, whose indomitable pluck and perseverance in building the first transcontinental railway realized the vision of the Scottish pioneers of the Red River and of some of the greatest English and Canadian, statesmen—namely "an unbroken series of colonies, a grand confederation of loyal and flourishing provinces" stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. Curiously enough, when Donald Smith and George Stephen bought the half-built derelict and red-with-rust St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, and completed it, about 1878, there followed a veritable "invasion" of Canada from the United States, but it was a peaceful invasion of farmers, hungry to take up cheap land in the fertile prairies of Manitoba. That movement northwards has continued to this day, and the hundreds of thousands of American farmers who have entered Western Canada have always been prominently associated with its development, and by their enterprise have helped very materially to make the prairies one of the largest and most productive granaries of the British Isles.

Completion of the "All Red Route"
In still more recent times Lord Strathcona and the great railway company which he, more than any man, helped to build, figured in the realization of another of the grandest dreams of empire. In 1891, the famous "Empress" line of steamships, comprising the finest liners on the Pacific, was inaugurated in connexion with the transcontinental railway route. When, in 1903, the same company acquired a fleet of steamships on the Atlantic service, the "All Red Route" westward between the Motherland and the Orient became a splendid and successful reality. When he was eighty-six the "Grand Old Man" of Canada, as Lord Strathcona was called, speaking of his connexion with Canadian railways and steamships, said that in looking back it seemed to him only a few years since he had heard on every hand the gloomiest prophesies of disaster when he was engaged in building the first railway across Canada.

He could afford to smile at the recollection of such prophets of woe, whose very names are already forgotten. He, too, would prophesy, in his turn. But how different was the vision of this Great heart from that of the prophets of the ‘seventies! A few years more, said Lord Strathcona, and he hoped to see steamers crossing from Great Britain to Canada in three and a half or four days, and travellers from England transported to the Pacific in eight days altogether. Lord Strathcona did not live to see this dream of his old age realized, but there is little doubt that it will be realized, and, perhaps, before long.

The crowning romance of Lord Strathcona’s life was undoubtedly his wonderful career as High Commissioner for Canada in London. He was seventy-six years of age when he entered upon the duties of that exalted position, and yet he continued in office for another eighteen years, winning for himself and Canada such renown as would have assured his place in history even had these eighteen years covered the whole of his public career. His venerable figure, his strong personality, and the amazing vigour of his speeches in public impressed to an astonishing degree all who saw and heard him. He was regarded as the very incarnation of the spirit of Canada. At a bound he became one of the best-known and most popular figures in the public life of London. He did everything on a grand scale.

Strathcona’s Regiment of Horse
When the South African War broke out in 1899 he raised the famous mounted regiment, afterwards known as Strathcona’s Horse, and asked the Commander-in-Chief of the Army in Canada to draw on his account to the extent of £150,000 for the purpose of equipping this unique contribution to the Imperial Forces. He was greatly embarrassed when his name appeared as the donor, as he had wished his connection with the matter kept secret, and the mounted regiment to go forward as a gift from Canada and not from himself.

This was no affectation; whatever cynics might think. As a matter of fact, Lord Strathcona was always a most secretive man. He was known to remark to his closest associates, "Nothing is secret when more than one knows it." He was a man of boundless generosity, and many of his benefactions were never made public. He had a great sympathy for human suffering, as was shown by his many princely gifts to hospitals, and he regarded the medical profession as the most blessed of all. The Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal, which he and Lord Mount Stephen built and endowed at a cost of nearly £400,000 is only one of the many institutions of the kind which he enriched. Although Lord Strathcona spent so many years in the wilds of Labrador, there was nothing of the rough backwoodsman about his personality or manners. He was a courtly, polished man. Even in Labrador his courtesy to everyone with whom he came in contact was as pronounced as his thrift.

Ability as a Letter Writer
No one could write a better letter of business, congratulation, or condolence. He was a master in the art of composition. Punctilious in official and social life, Lord Strathcona delighted in hospitality. No host ever succeeded better in giving his numerous guests the impression that he was mainly concerned about their personal comfort, and his thoughtfulness and activity in promoting the happiness of every visitor who came under his roof was extraordinary. During his long term of office as High Commissioner, the community of interest between the Motherland and Canada increased enormously under his guidance.
One of the remarkable traits of his character was that he appeared unconscious of the customary limitations of old age. He purchased a great sporting estate at Glencoe when he was eighty-five and lived to see many of the trees he planted there grow to a considerable size. When he was over ninety the light in his office in Victoria Street, London, was often burning at 10 o’clock at night, and he was still at his desk. Sometimes, when he was about eighty-five, Lady Strathcona would call at the office late in the evening, because her husband had evidently forgotten all about his dinner!

Man of Abstemious Habits
He was a most abstemious man. Not only was he a non-smoker, but he was also a moderate eater, and in his old age his custom was to eat a light breakfast, and then work all day without anything to eat until dinner at seven, or eight, or even ten o’clock. One peculiarity of his habit of remaining late at the office should be mentioned.

If Lady Strathcona was out of town the High Commissioner would invariably write to her late every night, and he would never allow anyone else to post that letter, always going out to do so himself. He had extraordinarily good health, and even when nearly ninety went out in all kinds of weather. Once, on a bitterly cold day, he stood for an hour and a half on Victoria Station, on the occasion of a royal departure, wearing only his uniform. His friends felt concerned, as many a younger man had contracted pneumonia through far less exposure, yet Lord Strathcona turned up at the office next morning as well and as energetic as ever.

In his old age, Lord Strathcona suffered somewhat from deafness, due to having stood too near a small cannon when it was fired from his yacht off Oban. But he said himself that he had noticed no appreciable weakening of his physical powers until he met with a carriage accident in British Columbia when he was eighty-eight years of age. To the very last month of his life he remained in harness. Lord Strathcona could not bear to waste any of his time. In the early autumn of 1913, he had paid what proved to be his last visit to his Glencoe seat, returning to London accompanied by Lady Strathcona. At that time there was no indication that before long he was to suffer the greatest bereavement of his life in the death of his most devoted wife.

Severance of a Loving Union
Early in November Lady Strathcona contracted what at first seemed a common cold which, however, developed into influenza and pneumonia, and after an illness lasting only five days she died, thus ending a marital partnership that had been entered into more than sixty years before. Lord Strathcona died on the 21st January 1914, and was buried beside his wife in Highgate Cemetery, London.

Friday, 12 June 2020

Top to Bottom on Central Grooves

Mid 1980’s in Glencoe Scotland. As a young rescuer under the wing of “the old fox” mountain and rescue legend Hamish MacInnes, sometime all we learned as his apprentices were put to good use. This is just such as tale.

Fiona my wife and I had recently moved back into Glencoe village from Duror, a small village 7 miles down the road. A summer day and Fiona is away and most of the climbing stars of Glencoe Mountain Rescue are away in the Swiss alps with the local rescue team leader and legend “The Fox” Hamish MacInnes, working safety cover on a big film project called “5 Days One Summer” starring Sean Connery.  Many of the same folk from the Glen who worked with him on “The Eiger Sanction”. Ian Nicholson and Dave Bathgate two Scottish climbing legends had recently bought the Kingshouse Hotel a famous mountaineering base. Lochaber Mountain Rescue stalwart Willie Anderson is painting walls for beer at the hotel. The hotel is old and needs a bit of work.

The house phone rings at about 2pm on a nice sunny August day.  "Its Doris here Davy, there is a rescue call out on Stob Coire nan Lochan for a fallen climber". I can’t get many folk as a lot are away”. I ask her to keep trying to get together enough for a rescue party while I get some technical and medical gear together.  A Police 4x4 pulls up outside my house and toots its siren and Stewart Obree one of the local constables is there to offer me a lift to the pipers lay bye a place where helicopters can land and a guy with bagpipes busks for cash. Stewart has already asked for a helicopter and Search and Rescue 134 - a Wessex from RAF Leuchars is on its way.

We arrive at the pipers lay bye and I get information from a witness that someone is hanging free, half way up the cliff and a woman holding the rope is screaming.  I get news that the main rescue vehicle has been picked up and Richard Greive and Hughie MacNicoll who owned Mountain Technology are on the way. Ian Nicholson isn’t at the Kingshouse as he’s away with Hamish, but Willie Anderson is coming down to help. So, we have enough to do the job, but only just.  150 metre rope’s and technical kit is sorted out and a recently landed helicopter crew agree to take 3 of us up the mountain to fly over the scene.

We lift off, and slowly gaining height over Aonach Dubh, circle and see the climber is hanging via a single rope from a running belay 20 metres above him two pitches up in “Central Grooves” (very severe 4c or 5.9). He is hanging upside down just below his belayer and about 2 metres out, free hanging in space. So its at least a 40-metre lead fall and judging by the roll of the harness down off his pelvis and that he’s upside down and not moving it doesn’t look good for him, or easy for us. A fall factor of about 0.75 and hitting the cliff with no helmet the consequences are pretty devastating. The woman belaying appears to be held by a single nut anchor behind a very big single block of rock which looks loose and precarious, even from the air.

The aircrew and I talk over the radio and we hatch a plan. Drop Richard, Willie and I on the top of the buttress and I will get lowered down the route, make the belayer safe and get her out of the rope system for the SAR crew to winch up. We will get the climber lowered to the bottom. While we are doing rope tricks they will pick up any extra rescuers and bring them up so they can hike to the foot of the climb with a stretcher and take the fallen climber down to a good helicopter landing pick up point.

Good belays are sorted and with the difficult task of managing the unwieldy static rope Willie and Richard lower me down the shitty loose broken ground to the top of the corner and then lower me down the 60 or so meters to the incident. Loose rock, pinnacles of blocks stacked like dinner plates and lots of debris fly past me.  A few climbs up and down to get the rope directional and stop pulling rocks onto me are needed, so it’s not a quick job or safe. Some of the rocks are paving slab sized. On the way down the route I see a watch caught by its strap in a small bucket hold in the vertical corner which the climbers hand must have slid from. I see that the single running belay is an old rock peg and pretty rotten, but it held. The climbers rope is a single 9mm stretched so tight it looks like boot cord. I arrive at the belay and a very upset woman with a belay rope at its end in a Stich plate. She’s held by a single large wire nut which she is holding in place by pushing the block back as its loose. I have to spend a lot of time searching out and clearing cracks for rock pegs to both hold her at a single releasable point to cut loose to  get her into the helicopter winch strop safely. Separately I have to isolate the active rope going to the fallen climber and anchor it.
Top to Bottom Lower

As it turns out I know the fallen climber who runs a climbing instruction and guiding business. She’s a client on a rock climbing course it seems. He’s dead, its messy but that can be revisited later. I get her safe and rigged for easy release. I have his rope isolated and anchored so move down to him and make another belay for me to clip into with an adjustable sling. I come off the lowering rope, lean out and hook his rope with my hammer spike and pull him in, put a sling on him at the chest and to the harness to level him out and attach the long static lowering rope I was lowered down on, onto him. Then holding his rope against the rock face I bash it with my peg hammer. One hard blow is all it takes. He gets lowered about 60 metres to the foot of the corner where rescuers and a couple of co-opted climbers have come to help. They get him off the rope and the body bagged, and I get the rope pulled back up to me and I get lowered down to the bottom and clear of the corner. Sounds easy. None of it was. Rockfall, an upset belayer who is at risk, the victims trauma and the hard physical work takes its toll.

The helicopter comes in at a hover and ever so slowly gets closer to the corner dropping the winch-man slowly down and inching into the cliff. They get to her, put her in the winch strop, knife cut my big sling that's anchored to some pegs and take her up. Very impressive close mountain flying and crag rescue by the winch-man. She gets flown down to the base and they come back up and take us all down to our base at the Pipers Lay bye in a couple of lifts. Its surreal as there are cars and tourists blocking the valley road and hundreds of folks, some with binoculars have been watching the whole rescue. Meanwhile the piper skirls away his plaintive notes and takes his coin.

Police statements are taken later. He’s being paid so an accident inquiry (FAI) is likely. Chats and a brew then down to Hamish’s barn to sort out kit and then home for the usual ponder at another person you know killed in the mountains, thinking over many “what the fuck moments” of the rescue and what you might do different another time. And many others were to come for me in the years that followed.  It takes days to come down and get rescues like that out of your head. Often the best thing is to go climbing next day. So that’s what I did. With a hangover though.


As post script. Dennis Barclay the Glencoe rescue team’s treasurer gave me a roasting for buying seven new rock pegs and half a dozen slings from the recently opened “Glencoe Guides and Gear” shop run by Paul and Ros Moore’s and charging it to the mountain rescue account. This was to replace what I had used on the rescue. As the team didn’t have much cash he wasn’t sure if there was enough money to cover it. How things have changed in Scottish mountain rescue. I often ponder that rescue was about climbers helping climbers and even had these items not been replaced (and sometimes they couldn’t be) the job would get done regardless. There was an inquiry, and someone put me up for a bravery award which I respectfully declined. The local constable being quick off the mark, good rope handling from the team above and the skill level of the aircrew (never bettered IMHO) and also climbers abandoning their days climbing to lend assistance made it all work. Climbing is about the community of the mountains and mountain rescue is just another part of looking after your own. Even with Covid 19 that shouldn't change. Am I my brothers keeper? as a human and mountaineer the answer is always yes.


Dennis the treasurer on right. Hughie kneeling by the woman. The pair either side of Hamish were lost skiers on Sron a Creise and Wull (arms akimbo) and I saw them get Avalanched into Cam Glen. Picture circa 1980