#231 – A day on ‘The other Buachaille’

The north side of Buachaille Etive Beag, Glencoe

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Mention ‘The Buachaille’ to mountain people, and they will nod wisely and assume that you mean Buachaille Etive Mor which translates as the ‘Big Herdsman of Etive’.  There is another ‘Buachaille’ however and that’s Buachaille Etive Beag, the ‘Small Herdsman of Etive’.  It’s the big version that attracts most attention, and I must confess that I had never bothered with the lesser brother in nearly fifty years of driving past – it was time to put that right.

The Curved Ridge route on Buachaille Etive Mor (red), the ‘Two Lairigs’ route round Buachaille Etive Beag (green) and the route taken by Chris and I (plus Collie ‘Mist’) up Buachaille Etive Beag (blue)

The mountains of Glencoe and Fort William

On previous occasions I’ve gone straight for what is one of the best, short mountain days in the UK – Buachaille Etive Mor via Curved Ridge (shown in red on the map).  The last time I was there was in 2010 (see post #36) and it’s a great day out.  Three years earlier than that, before Border Collie ‘Mist’ became part of the household, Chris and I had walked the ‘Two Lairigs’ route around Buachaille Etive Beag (shown in green) but hadn’t gone for the mountain itself.  This time we intended to put that right (route shown in blue).

Buachaille Etive Mor seen from Rannoch Moor

The start of the scramble route on Curved Ridge (MB)

The author on a short rock pitch – June 2010 (MB)

Above the descant into Coire na Tulaich

I’ve been on the Curved Ridge route about half a dozen times, and never had a bad day there, though on my first trip I managed to start on the wrong route and my partner and I ended up doing quite a bit of ‘D Gully Buttress’ instead.  On the 2010 trip, I went back to write up the route for the Walking World website (Route ID 5714) and it still gets a few ‘hits’ every year.

Looking southwest along Lairig Eilde (June 2007)

Glen Etive seen from the turning point of the route

The start of the short ascent into the Lairig Gartain

The cairn at the bealach (pass) on the Lairig Gartain

The peak of Stob na Caber on Buachaille Etive Beag

Coming around the northeast shoulder of Stob na Caber on Buachaille Etive Beag

The route that Chris and I walked in 2007 was also done as a Walking World route (Route ID 4360) and manages to walk all the way round Buachaille Etive Beag without actually going to the summit.  I titled the route ‘The Two Lairigs’ for the simple reason that you walk one lairig (valley) going out (Lairig Eilde) and walk another one coming back (Lairig Gartain).

Setting out up Buachaille Etive Beag – May 2017

The start of the Lairig Eilde path, looking back to the road

The route out, following the Lairig Eilde path

Start of the ascent up to the col on Buachaille Etive Beag

We had intended to do the ‘Little Herdsman’ route at the beginning of our Scottish trip in May this year, but it was ‘blowing a hoolie’ and the summits were going to be unpleasant – instead we had carried on north and had a great time on Skye and beyond.  Heading south now, the winds had dropped though there was still a cheeky, cool breeze

Quite a bit of height gained ….

…. but even more ahead. (Border Collie ‘Mist’ out in front as usual!)

More of the same ….

…. but looking back gives a chance of a breather

Buachaille Etive Beag can hardly be regarded as a challenging summit, but there’s a good bit of ‘uphill’ at the start.  A party of young blokes went striding past us before running out of steam half an hour later – we passed them as they were heading down in retreat.  The usual ‘steady away’ approach worked its usual magic, and we arrived in good order on the col between the two summits of Stob Dubh to the southwest and Stob Coire Raineach to the northeast.

On the col at last, looking up towards the northeast summit, Stob Coire Raineach

Looking across to Buachaille Etive Mor

Just above the col, looking towards the southwest summit, Stob Dubh

The last bit of uphill, heading up to Stob Coire Raineach

It was cold enough for Chris to get another layer of clothing on, and we came to the decision to go for Stob Coire Raineach and to give Stob Dubh a miss – Chris isn’t a ‘peak-bagger’ as such, and I wasn’t too bothered about reaching every bit of the mountain.  We grabbed the northeast summit before heading down, just a little bit smug (well, in my case anyway) that the youngsters had given up before the pensioners!

On the way down, heading for home

Text and images © Paul Shorrock – Images tagged (MB) © Mark Bradley

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#230 – The Beinn Eighe Ridge, Torridon

On Beinn Eighe, looking east towards Spidean Coire nan Clach

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We were slowly making our way back home on our May trip to Scotland.   Ten days earlier, Chris and I (plus Border Collie ‘Mist’ of course!) had a great walk out to Coire Mhic Fhearchair near Torridon – the corrie is one of the most impressive in the Scotland, and the background story of the Beinn Eighe aircrash brought extra interest.   I still fancied a day out on the Beinn Eighe Ridge, so a return visit as we headed south seemed a good idea.

The route – clockwise from the car park

The Mountains of Torridon in Wester Ross

When we visit a new area I usually do some internet research to get the bigger picture, but a second trip out to Beinn Eighe was a last minute, ‘off the cuff’ outing.   So, it was back to the old traditional method of using the map to plan the day.   I had already walked the path out to Coire Mhic Fhearchair and there was an obvious descent path from Spidean Coire nan Clach in the centre of the Beinn Eighe mass – all I had to do was to find a breach in the defences of Beinn Eighe.

Setting out in gloomy weather

Border Collie ‘Mist’ just below Coire Mhic Fhearchair

The Triple Buttress of Beinn Eighe above Loch Coire Mhic Fhearchair

A closer view of Triple Buttress

Coire Mhic Fhearchair ten days earlier – the scree chute exit is obvious, just left of centre

I set off with the dog in gloomy weather conditions, though the forecast promised an improvement, and ‘Mist’ and I made good time round to Coire Mhic Fhearchair.   Sure enough, the cloud started to lift but a sharp breeze in the corrie suggested that it might be a good move to grab a bite to eat before heading on to high ground.   The dog agreed – when it comes to food, ‘Mist’ is more Labrador than Collie!  The next move was to head for a scree chute at the southeast end of the corrie – on the previous visit it looked as though it would give access to the Beinn Eighe Ridge above.

The path threading its way towards the scree chute ….

…. passing by small crags and waterfalls (spot the Collie if you can!)

Above the crags – finding a way through the boulders

Looking back to the loch

‘Mist’ near the top of the scree chute

Looking back down the scree chute

First view of Spidean Coire nan Clach

A narrow path skirted the east side of the loch before rising towards the scree chute through a series of small crags and waterfalls.   I noticed a figure much higher than me, heading towards the same gap – he didn’t go straight up the scree chute, but instead headed up through boulders to enter the chute high up on the left.   His progress was good, so I headed the same way – the left edge of the chute followed a better line than the loose scree, and the dog and I were soon on the col between Coinneach Mhor and Ruadh Stac Mor.

Looking towards Coinneach Mhor from the col at the top of the scree chute

On the East Top of Coinneach Mhor looking towards Spidean Coire nan Clach

Looking towards the Western Top of Coinneach Mhor with Sail Mhor just beyond and right

A bit further on – looking back towards Coinneach Mhor with Ruadh Stac Mor on the right

Cairn on the Beinn Eighe Ridge

My original plan had been to include Ruadh Stac Mor (1010 metres/3314 ft), the highest summit on the Beinn Eighe mass, before heading back to Coinneach Mhor and the Beinn Eighe Ridge.   As I reached the col, the plan remained intact for about five seconds – I emerged into a wind that would strip paint off a fence!   It wasn’t particularly strong, but felt as though it had come straight out of Murmansk.   I made a quick decision to head straight up to Coinneach Mhor, then on to Spidean Coire nan Clach.

The descent to the col on the Beinn Eighe Ridge ….

…. then the start of the final ascent up to Spidean Coire nan Clach

Still heading up, chasing my ‘shadow’

One last look back to Coinneach Mhor (left) and Ruadh Stac Mor (right) ….

…. then the very last bit of uphill, still chasing that ‘shadow’!

Heading towards Spidean from Coinneach Mhor, I looked back to check progress and saw a figure steadily gaining on me.   My ‘shadow’ was the person who had ‘showed me’ the easy way to take the scree chute, and he had obviously included the outlying Ruadh Stac Mor into his day.   He caught up with me on the col on the lowest point of the ridge – he was about half my age and obviously very fit.   The cold wind meant that we didn’t linger over a conversation, so after a few words he was off, with me trailing behind.

Looking back (northwest) along the Beinn Eighe Ridge

‘Mist’ at the Trig Point on Spidean ….

…. before the start of a lot of descent, first south down the ridge from the Trig Point ….

…. turn left at the cairn ….

…. then dropping down into Coire an Laoigh

I wasn’t as fast as my ‘shadow’, but the cold wind ensured that I wasn’t hanging around, and I was soon at the Trig Point on Spidean.   The true summit was only just over 100 metres away, so after a brief visit to the top it was time to head down.   A well-defined ridge heading south pointed out the way down, and even better it acted as a wind break.  The rest of the outing was pleasantly warm.   After a long descent down Coire an Laoigh, the dog and I reached the road for a steady walk back to the van – dinner for the ever-hungry Collie and a cold cider from the fridge for me.

Looking back to the initial steep descent

With the road still way down below, it’s time to head for home

*     *     *

Those who don’t go up mountains for fun may well wonder what enjoyment there is in making a hasty crossing of a ridge, chased by a wind that would turn your eyeballs inside out.   In truth, it was probably one of the best mountain days I’ve had this year, and going through the photos for this post brought back the memories.    I’ll go back there, and I’ll collect the bits I missed out, including the ‘Bad Step’ that I didn’t know about, and which I read up afterwards in a post by fellow blogger, ‘Mountain Coward‘.

If I’m honest, I wish I was up there right now.

Sunset over Beinn Eighe

Text and images © Paul Shorrock

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#229 – A walk up (or around!) Stac Pollaidh

Stac Pollaidh (right of centre) above Loch Lurgainn, viewed from the southeast

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Travelling north up the A835 beyond Ullapool you enter Assynt, a land of wide open spaces and weird looking mountains.   In May 2016 we had come this way and I had a great day out on Quinag, with Border Collie ‘Mist’ for company (see post #201) but lack of time meant we ignored some cracking looking mountains.   One year later (May 2017) we were back for Stac Pollaidh.

The route, anti-clockwise from the car park

The mountains of Assynt, showing Stac Pollaidh and others

Closer view of Stac Pollaidh, with the lower ‘East Summit’ on the right

Stac Pollaidh stands out alone above Loch Lurgainn, with a sharp rocky crest often likened to a porcupine.   There are two summits, one to the East and easily accessible to walkers, with the true summit to the West and accessible only by a precarious scramble – in fact, some would have it that the Western Top (612 metres/2008 ft) is the most inaccessible summit on the British mainland.   Chris ‘doesn’t do’ inaccessible summits, so we decided to settle for the lower Eastern Top (551 metres/1808 ft).

The start of the path through the wood

Heading up through the trees

Above the wood, with Stac Pollaidh hiding in the mist

Looking back towards the start, with mist on the top of Sgorr Tuath beyond

Border Collie ‘Mist’, with mist also down on the West Summit of Stac Pollaidh

The route starts by heading up steeply through a small wood – the only reason the wood exists is due to the high fence surrounding it keeping the deer out, and the hillside above the fence was bare of trees.   Nowadays there is a well-constructed path heading up the hillside, but previously the ground had become very eroded due to human traffic.   The modern path blends in well and makes for rapid progress, but mist was closing in on the top – however, Border Collie ‘Mist didn’t seem too bothered.

Looking southeast along Loch Lurgainn ….

…. and southwest to the other end of the loch

Getting closer to the eastern end of Stac Pollaidh

Still heading up ….

…. before rounding the corner

The path goes around the far side of Stac Pollaidh, where the easiest approach to the summit starts.   The summit route goes up to a col between the two tops, with the Eastern Top rising just above the col – the Western Top is about 300 metres in the opposite direction, following the ‘porcupine’ ridge.   Unfortunately, this useful information was not gained by personal observation – the mist, which drifted in and out, restricted visibility to less than 50 metres at times.

Changing visibility – clear one minute ….

…. then clouded in again

If Chris ‘doesn’t do’ inaccessible summits, it’s also fair to say that she isn’t overly keen on bad visibility!   I’ll slog up most things with little more than a possibility of seeing where you are going or, indeed, where you have been – Chris, on the other hand, likes a view from the top, and to be fair she has a point.   She generously suggested that she would wait on the path while I made a summit dash, but the weather was dank and breezy and it would have been an unpleasant wait.

Round the back of Stac Pollaidh ….

…. with a brief look up to the East Summit

I suggested instead that we just continue with a walk around the mountain – this had one immediate benefit that a return trip (in better weather) was completely justified.   The decision having been made we continued our circumnavigation of Stac Pollaidh, with the mist occasionally mocking us by giving a tantalising view of the East Summit.

Continuing on the descent path ….

…. and rounding the western side of the hill

Heading down ….

…. with the Western Summit looming above

A bit of gentle uphill walking soon brought us to the start of the descent round the western side of Stac Pollaidh.   The mist was still in evidence, but it was patchier now with a hint of better things to come.   Which is exactly what happened – the lower we got, the less mist was on the summit ridge.

Loch Bad a’ Ghail in the distance ….

…. while above the weather is still playing tricks – The West Summit now clear!

Personally, I don’t mind missing a summit – after a lifetime of bobbing up and down mountains, I know now that there will always be another day, another summit.   Our May trip to Scotland seems to be becoming a regular feature, and Stac Pollaidh and the rest of Assynt will be waiting for us – hopefully the only ‘Mist’ we see will be a certain black and white Collie!

Time to head for home

A couple of hours later – all clear over Stac Pollaidh!

Text and images © Paul Shorrock

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#228 – The Fairy Lochs, Shieldaig near Gairloch

The Fairy Lochs

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After our outing to Corrie Mhic Fhearchair (see post #227) I was itching to get in a longer day on a crossing of Beinn Eighe, but we had planned to head further north, so that would have to wait for now.   Our Scottish trip in May had been based round a few locations that we might (or might not) visit, but we also had plans to meet up with friends John and Miv along the way.   Slightly nearer at Gairloch were our other mates, Richie and Babs, so north it was.

The route, taken clockwise (The flag indicates the memorial described in the text)

Part of Wester Ross, including the Fairy Lochs walk, Slioch and the mountains of Torridon

Having a Border Collie is one way of guaranteeing a decent length walk every day, but in Scotland our daily dog-walk had the bonus of fantastic mountain scenery.   If we have fun walking ‘Mist’ then Richie and Babs must have three times the fun with their three Collies, ‘Caizer’, ‘A.J.’ and ‘Maisie’.   So, with four dogs and four humans ready to go, we were heading for the Fairy Lochs near Gairloch.

Setting out from Shieldaig ….

…. the route crosses moorland ….

…. before gaining height ….

….to arrive at the Fairy Lochs

The Fairy Lochs are said to take their name from the small hill of Sìthean Mòr which translates as ‘Big Fairy Hill’.   Small in this case is a mere 225 metres above sea level, so the climb wasn’t going to set pulses racing.   We set out from Shieldaig, just a few kms south of Gairloch, and headed across moorland by muddy tracks before we started to gain height and found ourselves at the Fairy Lochs.

The rocky plateau of the Fairy Lochs ….

…. a peaceful and tranquil place

The small summit of Sìthean Mòr is the highest ground for miles around, and marks the northern point of a low plateau of hollows and small lochs.   It’s a peaceful and tranquil place but one that has at least one sad story to tell – on 13 June 1945 a B-24 Liberator aircraft of the USAAF crashed here with the loss of fifteen lives.

*   *   *   *   *

Consolidated B-24H Liberator

The B-24 Liberator was a highly successful heavy bomber used by the United States in WW2, and although the B-17 Flying Fortresses was better known, the Liberator was produced in greater numbers than any other aircraft before or since, with over 18,000 being built.   The aircraft involved in the accident was returning to the USA via Prestwick in Scotland, followed by a staging post in Iceland, and was routed over Stornoway in the Hebrides, but for reasons not established, the B-24 took a course over Wester Ross on the mainland.

The first impact was on Slioch before crashing 20 kms west at the Fairy Lochs

The full story is not known, but it has been speculated that an engine fire occurred during the flight.   What is known though, is that the aircraft struck the summit of Slioch, losing part of the bomb-bay doors in the impact.   However, the B-24 was still airworthy and continued flying west for another 20 kms (12½ miles) until it reached the Fairy Lochs.

The crash site and memorial plaque

Closer view of the crash site ….

….and a view of the detail on the memorial plaque

It appears that the pilot, First Lieutenant Jack Ketchum, was trying to crash land the damaged aircraft on what probably appears from the air to be fairly flat ground – it was certainly a better bet than the nearby mountainous peaks of Wester Ross.   In reality though, it’s a confusion of small lakes, grassy hummocks and rock walls.   The B-24 must have slid along the plateau before impacting with a small cliff – the crew of nine and six passengers were all killed in the crash.

Aircraft debris in one of the small lochs

Luck can sometimes be fickle.   There was no need for the aircraft to have been there – WW2 had finished a little over a month earlier, and aircrews were being repatriated to the USA by sea.   However, Ketchum and his crew were given the chance to return sooner by ferrying a B-24 back to the US, so they must have jumped at the chance to be home early.  Another six airmen took the opportunity to hitch a ride back.

More aircraft debris – the dogs give an idea of scale

Luck can be useful, but being good at what you do is sometimes more important.  Although only 22, Ketchum had 33 combat missions behind him and on two occasions had been declared as “missing in action” after crash landing, once in Belgium and another time in Russia, but Ketchum and his crew always managed to get back to base.   He was an experienced and skilful pilot and he and his crew were considered to be veterans.   This time, being good wasn’t quite enough, and their luck ran out at the Fairy Lochs.

Looking back to the crash site, and the small cliff above

The crash site has been treated with respect over the years, with much of the aircraft left in place and not looted by souvenir hunters as in more popular areas.   This respect is partly due to the location being relatively off the beaten track, but the site is also unusual in that it has been declared a war grave, and so deserving of extra respect.   The names of those who died are included on a memorial plaque mounted on the rock wall where their journey ended.

*   *   *   *   *

One of several small lochs that make up the Fairy Lochs ….

…. collectively named ‘Lochan Sgeireach’ (The Rocky Lakes)

One of the small outcrops surrounding the lakes

Border Collie ‘Mist’ by one of the cairns on the return route

Starting to descend ….

…. heading towards Loch Braigh Horrisdale

Rather than heading back the way we had walked out, we made a small circular route by continuing southwest towards Loch Braigh Horrisdale, where we picked up a good track heading back to the vehicles at Shieldaig.   Richie and Babs were heading on to John O’ Groats (we did try to talk them out of it!) but we were only going just past Ullapool to the hills of Assynt – we had an appointment there with Stac Pollaidh.

Time to head for home

Text and images © Paul Shorrock

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#227 – Coire Mhic Fhearchair and the Beinn Eighe air-crash, 1951

Coire Mhic Fhearchair with Triple Buttress on the right

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Our Scottish trip had got off to a great start with bright sun and settled conditions most of the time, especially on Skye (see posts #223, #224, #225 and #226), but it was time to move on while the weather was still holding.    Chris and I have used Torridon as a stopover in the past, and it’s a short, convenient drive from Skye, so Torridon it was!

Our route into Coire Mhic Fhearchair – left click to zoom in

Torridon, showing Beinn Eighe and Liathach

Setting out ….

…. with Border Collie ‘Mist’ in the lead as usual

Border Collie ‘Mist’ has a very good internal clock, and she soon works out when it’s time for a walk (the same clock seems to work quite well for dinner time as well), and on the morning after we arrived at Torridon she was raring to go.    I had planned a walk out to Coire Mhic Fhearchair, one of the most dramatic corries in Scotland – there were no mountain summits on the trip, which didn’t bother Chris in the slightest, but a there was a promise of outstanding mountain scenery.

Coire Dubh Mor between the masses of Liathach and Beinn Eighe

Still with a fair way to go

The view over to Liathach

The turn off on the path, heading us round Sail Mhor ….

…. with Liathach now in the background

The route was on a good track running between the two mountain masses of Beinn Eighe and Liathach.    The plan was to walk the track to the corrie and to return the same way, a total of almost 14 kms (about 8¾) miles with a height gain of 575 metres (almost 1900 feet).    The northeast side of Liathach was a constant companion for much of the way, but eventually we parted company to head round the shoulder of Sail Mhor.

Heading round the west side of Sail Mhor ….

…. before turning east and heading up into Coire Mhic Fhearchair

Waterfalls in the outflow stream of Loch Coire Mhic Fhearchair

The route so far had been a gently rising path, but we had to gain altitude eventually – when the time came it was pretty short lived, with a height gain of 100 metres over 500 metres of horizontal travel.    The reward for this fairly minimal effort was one of the best spots for a picnic that you could wish for.

Loch Coire Mhic Fhearchair and ‘Triple Buttress’

The corrie is a big amphitheatre surrounded on three sides by the mountains of Sail Mhor, Coinneach Mhor and Ruadh stac Mhor.    In the centre of the corrie lies the peaceful lake of Loch Coire Mhic Fhearchair, but the most striking feature is the huge mass of ‘Triple Buttress’ with its three rock walls rising about 300 metres in height and it’s hard to imagine a more impressive setting.    It hasn’t always been as peaceful though – in March 1951, Triple Buttress was the setting for a tragic air-crash which, it would turn out, was to have far-reaching consequences.

*    *    *    *    *

Avro Lancaster (Photo unknown)

Northern Scotland

On the evening of 13 March 1951, an Avro Lancaster aircraft took off from RAF Kinloss on the Moray Firth for a navigation exercise in the Rockall and Faroes area.    The weather was atrocious with strong winds from the northeast.    The last radio message from the aircraft had given their position as 60 miles north of Cape Wrath – from there they should have headed southeast towards Kinloss, but the strong side-wind was pushing them towards the mountains of Torridon.    The aircraft did not return to base, and was listed as missing.

Triple Buttress, Beinn Eighe, in late spring conditions (May 2017)

Triple Buttress in March 1951 (Joss Gosling collection)

For two days, other aircraft from RAF Kinloss flew search missions, but without more accurate information it was a hopeless task.    The first clue came two days later from a twelve-year-old boy living at Torridon who remembered seeing a red glow in the sky near to Beinn Eighe – another search mission was flown, this time to the Torridon area, and the missing Lancaster was located just below the summit of Coinneach Mhor, directly above Triple Buttress.    Another 5 metres (16 feet) of altitude and the Lancaster might have cleared the summit.

Flight Lieutenant George Graham MBE, Medical Officer at RAF Llandwrog in 1943 (Photo unknown)

Prior to WW2 there were no mountain rescue teams in the UK – in the case of a mountain accident a rescue party would be formed from climbers and mountaineers in the local area, sometimes assisted by local police officers, shepherds, quarrymen or gamekeepers.  During the war, there was a substantial rise in the number of flying accidents due to the increased training activity, which led to the Royal Air Force forming unofficial Search And Rescue teams in North Wales, the Lake District and Scotland.

RAF Llandwrog MRT ‘scrambling’ to a call in WW2 (Photo unknown)

It soon became apparent that this ad hoc arrangement was not satisfactory, and in 1943 the first dedicated RAF MRT (Mountain Rescue Team) came into being at RAF Llandwrog near Caernarfon under Flt/Lt George Graham.    By the end of WW2 there were nine official RAF MRT’s, but a lower incidence of flying accidents resulted in a reduction in the number of teams.    At the time of the Beinn Eighe accident, the nearest RAF MRT was based at RAF Kinloss, the home base of the crashed Lancaster.

Kinloss team members at the time of the Beinn Eighe accident (Joss Gosling collection)

On 11 March, two days before the Lancaster was declared missing, the RAF Kinloss team had been asked to assist in the recovery of the body of a climber killed in a climbing accident in the Cairngorms (by this time, the RAF was being called to assist with civilian incidents on a regular basis).    The operation had been a drawn out, arduous task and almost as soon the Team returned to RAF Kinloss they were put on standby to search for the missing aircraft.    On 17 March, following the discovery of the crash site by the search aircraft, the Kinloss team made the first attempt to reach the Lancaster.

The initial route taken (in red) by the RAF Kinloss Mountain Rescue Team

The early approach route taken by the Kinloss team, looking back towards Bridge of Grudie

Kinloss team member in Far West gully, now known as Fuselage Gully (Joss Gosling collection)

Over the next three days, the RAF Kinloss team made several attempts to reach the crash site.    One early attempt was made even more difficult when a local police officer advised that the best approach was from the north from Bridge of Grudie.    The Team then changed tactics, following the same route that Chris and I took on our walk.    Although this gave an easier approach, the airmen were hampered by appalling weather and difficult mountain conditions.

The RAF Kinloss MRT with wreckage, below Triple Buttress (Joss Gosling collection)

They were also hampered by lack of suitable equipment and training.    In his book ‘Whensoever’, an excellent history of the RAF Mountain Rescue Service, ex RAF Edzell MRT member Frank Card describes the situation –  “Only the enthusiastic mountaineers … had good gear, and that was because they bought it.   Ice-axes were unheard of at Edzell.  Kinloss had six or so but a report after this incident said that nobody knew how to use them”.

Near the top of Beinn Eighe (Joss Gosling collection)

After several unsuccessful attempts to reach the main wreck above Triple Buttress, the Team was withdrawn on 20 March.    The Moray Mountaineering Club offered assistance, but this was turned down by the RAF.    The first successful attempt to reach the site at the top of the buttress was by Royal Marine Commando, Captain Mike Banks and his Royal Navy climbing partner, Angus Erskine.   Banks and Erskine were experienced and accomplished mountaineers, but they found conditions on the mountain to be near their own personal limits.

The memorial (At Kinloss in the photo, now relocated to RAF Lossiemouth) (Photo unknown)

It was 30 March before the first body was recovered.    This must have been a harrowing operation for the MRT members – the aircraft was from the same base, and some team members would have known the crew, either socially or on the flight line at Kinloss.   The recovery operation continued over the following weeks, but the task continued to be hampered by deep snow and appalling weather – the last body of the crew of eight was finally recovered on 27 August.

The memorial to the crew of eight who died in the Beinn Eighe crash (Photo unknown)

Another view of the memorial plaque (Photo unknown)

I mentioned above that there were far reaching consequences as a result of the Beinn Eighe crash.    The RAF MRT’s had been under-resourced since WW2, and an enquiry after the crash voiced criticism, but a further problem was conscription – a man would join the RAF and become a rescue volunteer, but by the time he was trained and experienced, it was time to return to civilian life.     After Beinn Eighe the Air Ministry might have abandoned mountain rescue altogether, but instead went in the opposite direction.

Post-war RAF MRT operation (Photo unknown)

Bedford 3 Tonner on RAF MR duty in the 1960’s (Photo unknown)

The following year saw the first organised summer and winter climbing training in RAF MR under Sergeant (later Flight Sergeant) Johnnie Lees.    Lees was an RAF Physical Training Instructor, but more importantly he was already an experienced and skilful climber and mountaineer, both in the UK and the Alps.    Over the next decade, Lees and others brought the RAF teams to the high standard that they still hold today, and the RAF Mountain Rescue Service remains one of the finest Search And Rescue organisations in the world.

The current RAF mountain rescue vehicle – the Toyota Hilux (Photo unknown)

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NEWSAR Landrover and crew training with the HM Coastguard helicopter (Photo Babs Boardwell)

The majority of civilian mountain rescue teams in the UK were formed in the 1950’s through to the 1970’s, and the RAF teams provided much of the inspiration and experience in the early days.    Civilian teams still use military radio voice procedure, and in North Wales some of the teams have even adopted the RAF Valley term ‘troops’ for their members.   Flt/Lt George Graham provided the original inspiration at RAF Llandwrog, but the enquiry after the Beinn Eighe crash pointed the RAF teams towards greater excellence, and this ultimately had a knock-on effect on civilian mountain rescue in the UK.

NEWSAR team, training in crag rescue at night near Llangollen

Halfway down

When I was in my teens I came across the book  ‘Two Star Red’ by Gwen Moffat, which was the story of the early days of RAF MR.    I was in the Air Cadets at the time and had also just started walking the local hills back home.    The book was inspiring and it started me on a life of adventure in climbing and mountaineering – I’ve still got my copy, though sadly it’s now out of print.  Eventually it led me to mountain rescue as a team member – in the 1980’s and 90’s I was a member of Penrith MRT and I’m now a member of NEWSAR (North East Wales Search And Rescue).

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The author in Coire Mhic Fhearchair, May 2017

When Chris and I took our walk up to Coire Mhic Fhearchair, I already had a real sense of the history of the place.  I knew the story from ‘Two Star Red’ and in a way it was a pilgrimage to the memory of those who died in the crash and to the fortitude and endurance of the men who brought them down from the mountain.

For a hungry Border Collie it was time for dinner, but on the way back down I was thinking of ways to fit in an extra day to go up to Beinn Eighe summit – a week later I was back.

Time to head for home

Text and images © Paul Shorrock except where stated otherwise.

p.s.  I’ve had to edit the story of the Beinn Eighe operation because of the length of the tale.  ‘Two Star Red’ is a good start (but you will be lucky to find a copy for less than £60, usually more!) as is Frank Card’s ‘Whensoever’ mentioned above.  Perhaps the best account, though, is by ex RAF team member Dave ‘Heavy’ Whalley – in his excellent blog he tells the story in three parts starting with the early part of the operation, the recovery of the first bodies and the final phase of the recovery.  Go make a coffee then read on.

p.p.s.  Like all civilian MR teams, NEWSAR members are volunteers, and we have to raise funds to keep the Team running – DONATIONS, however large or small, are always welcome.

It’s also worth pointing out that 95% of the members of RAF MR Teams are also volunteers, with day jobs in the RAF such as technician, fitter, etc – RAF team members give up their free time, including weekends, to train together, and our local team at RAF Valley frequently supports the six North Wales civilian teams.  Long may it continue!

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#226 – Coire na Creiche and the Fairy Pools

The Fairy Pools of Coire na Creiche (John Allan)

(Some images will zoom – Left click to zoom in, use browser return arrow to go back)

So far, our May trip to Scotland hadn’t got any further than Glencoe (see post #222) and Skye (posts #223, #224 and #225) which was fine by me as the settled weather and lack of midges meant that time could be spent visiting new places as well as old favourites.    The Fairy Pools of Allt Coir’ a’ Mhadaidh were certainly a new one on me, but every reference to Skye on the Internet gave the area a mention, so it looked like a plan.

The route by the Fairy pools at the Allt Coir’ a’ Mhadaidh river

The constructed path at the start of the route (Nigel Corby)

I’ve camped at Glen Brittle on Skye many times over many years, and one of the iconic sights of the Cuillin Ridge coming over the narrow road from Carbost is the peak of Sgurr an Fheadain with the striking cleft of ‘Waterpipe Gully’, so obvious that you can’t miss seeing it.    This time there was something new – a constructed path where previously there had only been moorland.    It looked like we had found the Fairy Pools.

The early part of the walk – light conditions not optimum!

Chris and I had managed a couple of decent walks out from Glen Brittle (see post #225) and were now heading for Torridon, but Border Collie ‘Mist’ was ready for her daily walk and the Fairy Pools ticked a few boxes.    Unfortunately, light conditions for photography were not the best – it was sunny enough, in fact it was too sunny, with the light shining right in the camera lens for most of the way up the path.

The famous pool with the underwater arch – © isleofskye.com

My current weapon of choice for mountain photography is the Olympus ‘Tough’ TG-850 camera – it’s reasonably priced, but is also able to take a 2.1 metre (7 ft) fall and is waterproof to a depth of 10 metres (33ft).    That means it will survive anything that I’m likely to do to it!   It also has a very wide-angle lens (21 mm) which is great for landscapes.  However, I’ve never really mastered how to get the best out of it in ‘less than perfect’ light conditions – perhaps the answer is to carry a bottle of blue dye when photographing the famous pool with an underwater arch!

Further upstream with the Cuillin Ridge beyond (Rob Farrow)

Meanwhile, the views are just as good (even if the light conditions could be better)

A busy day – almost certain to be more packed in summer

I didn’t have the ‘blue dye’ with me on this occasion, so some of the images lack the ‘buzz’ that the professionals achieve – perhaps I need to learn how to use Photoshop!    Whether or not photography is the aim, the walk up by the river (Allt Coir’ a’ Mhadaidh) has become very popular over recent years, and you will rarely find solitude there unless it’s pouring down, or the midges are biting as they do over the summer months.

Great image of one of the falls (John Allan)

Further up the Allt Coir’ a’ Mhadaidh river ….

…. and nearing the head of Coire na Creiche

Lovely shot, demonstrating why this walk has become so popular © VisitScotland.com

It’s said that most tourists don’t walk much further than 100 metres from their cars, but the pools and waterfalls had enticed quite a few visitors to follow the path just that bit further – the sunny day also contributed and it was a pleasant change to take just a light pack instead of a hill rucksack.    What’s more, Chris carried it which was even better!

Looking up to the Cuillin Ridge – ‘Waterpipe Gully’ on Sgurr an Fheadain very obvious (John Allan)

The shoulder of Bruach na Frithe on the skyline

Coire a Mhadaidh on the right and the smaller Coir’ a’ Tairneilear on the left

It the falls and pools were impressive, I found the feature dominating the scene was the Cuillin Ridge, which was getting closer with each step.    As we reached the turning point away from the river we came right up to the lower slopes of Sgurr an Fheadain, and soon had a good view into the twin corries of Coire a Mhadaidh and the smaller Coir’ a’ Tairneilear, and I remembered that I had been here once before, in 1976.

Route taken in 1976 (red) round the coast, up Coir Uisg and over the Ridge

The Cuillin Hills, showing both routes

I wrote about mountain training in the Royal Marines Commandos in an earlier blog (#224) and the reader might have imagined it to be one big ‘jolly’!    We did, in fact, have to do a bit of work on the trip to pay back ‘the Pusser’ (Royal Navy slang for anything to do with, or owned by, the Navy) and one day’s training was a tactical patrol (with weapons, etc) round the coast from Glen Brittle to Coir Uisg (Coruisk).

Coir Uisg (Coruisk) seen from Sgurr na Stri (John Allan)

Coir Uisg is one of the most beautiful parts of Skye, if not the planet (well, in my humble opinion anyway).    What’s more, it was good enough to fight for, which is exactly what we did.   Our enemy were ML’s (Mountain Leaders) of the Royal Marines ‘Mountain and Arctic Cadre’, who were our instructors during Skye training – as well as being skilled mountaineers and skiers, they are also one tough and fit bunch of soldiers!

Route taken by Z Company RM in 1976, crossing the Ridge at Bealach na Glaic Moire (Gareth Foster)

Our task was an ‘Advance to Contact’ heading up alongside Loch Coruisk, with the ‘enemy’ firing the occasional shot at us (blanks thankfully!).    Our task was to continue to advance up the corrie, clearing ‘enemy’ positions along the way – visualise Afghanistan in more recent times, but a bit cooler, and that’s the kind of thing we were doing.    Eventually the mission was complete and all we had to do was get back to our camp at Glen Brittle – the solution was a crossing of the Cuillin Ridge at Bealach na Glaic Moire.

Coire na Creiche with Coire a Mhadaidh on the left

Having crossed the ridge, we descended by Coire a Mhadaidh into Coire na Creiche, and walked down the Fairy Pools path without really noticing the water, though to be fair it had been a long trip covering 24 kms with 1400 metres of height gain.     It had been a long, strenuous day, but the mountain scenery made up for it!

View from the Glen Brittle – Sligachan path into Coire na Creiche

The long Northwest Ridge of Bruach na Frithe, seen from the Glen Brittle- Sligachan path

We weren’t the first to come down Coire na Creiche bearing arms – in 1601 the corrie was the scene of the last Clan battle on Skye.    The MacDonalds and the MacLeods had been feuding for over a year, with several bloody skirmishes having taken place, but things came to a head and the MacDonalds won the day, defeating the MacLeods and capturing the Clan Chief.

One final look ….

The only battle fought nowadays is the battle to find car parking space for the walk – the Fairy Pools trip is well worth the journey, but you need to arrive early on a fine day to beat the traffic problems.    As an alternative, I can recommend a stroll round the coast from Glen Brittle to Loch Coruisk followed by a crossing of the Cuillin Ridge at Bealach na Glaic Moire – carrying a rifle is optional!

…. then it’s time to head for home

Text and images © Paul Shorrock except where indicated otherwise.

Images tagged John Allan, Nigel Corby, Rob Farrow and Gareth Foster are taken from the Geograph Project and are reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence


p.s.   For more information about this area and the rest of Skye visit  isleofskye.com  There is also useful information on Skye and the whole of Scotland at VisitScotland.com

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#225 – Coire Lagan and the Cuillins

Coire Lagan

(Left click images to zoom in, use browser return arrow to go back)

The Cuillin Hills of Skye are a mountaineer’s paradise – there’s an alpine feel about the place and the area remains popular with hikers, climbers and mountaineers from home and abroad.    There is one fly in the ointment though – in fact, on a summer day there are tens of thousands of them!    I’m talking about the humble Scottish midge.    Add the unpredictable weather (it isn’t called the ‘Misty Isle’ for nothing!) and you might question why Skye remains so popular.   The answer to the question is the quality of the climbing.

The route – there and back!

The Cuillins

Getting up onto the Main Ridge of the Cuillins generally involves some fairly hard-core rock climbing or mountaineering, and my missus would be the first to say that she doesn’t ‘do’ hard-core!    However, there’s lots to go at that doesn’t include the risk of sudden death, but still gives the buzz of being somewhere special.    One such place is Coire Lagan above Glen Brittle.

Glen Brittle campsite and beach

Chris and I were at the campsite at Glen Brittle.    In my youth, this was a fairly primitive campsite, but things are catching up now – they even have hot showers, for heaven’s sake!  The trick with the old cold-water showers was to wait until the heat of the sun had got through to the collecting tank above the toilets, then to make a move before everyone else on the campsite did the same – it was still bloody cold though!

Setting out – Corie Lagan just right of centre

Passing Loch an Fhir Bhallaich (Lake of the speckled trout)

The lower part of the path, between the campsite and the small lake of Loch an Fhir Bhallaich, used to be one big bog in anything but a drought, with the path becoming about 20 metres wide with people trying to avoid getting filthy in the black peat.    Some impressive work with drainage and path improvement has changed all that, though the good weather we were enjoying certainly helped.

Gaining height ….

…. but not too steep yet (Loch Brittle behind)

The crags of Sron na Ciche come into view

Beyond the small loch, the path heads up to the impressive Coire Lagan – the mountain scenery becomes more and more impressive, though the views behind looking out to sea tick a few boxes as well.    In the corrie, one feature dominates above the rest – this is the impressive set of cliffs that make up the crags of Sron na Ciche.    It’s hard to appreciate the size of the place at first – suffice it to say, there are a couple of 1300 ft (400 metre) rock climbs with several more approaching that length.    It’s an impressive place to climb.

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Our 1972 rock climbs on Cioch Buttress (The small circle is the Cioch – see photo below)

One of my earliest climbs here in 1972 was a combination of three linked routes.    We started on Cioch Direct (500 ft/150 metres) followed by Arrow route (200 ft/60 metres) – Cioch Direct has re-assuring chimneys and cracks which give an illusion of security, whereas Arrow route, although a grade easier, takes off up an almost bare slab.    On arrival, the top of Arrow Route gives access to an amazing rock feature, The Cioch (see photos below).

1972 – The author climbing on Cioch Buttress

Rock climb ‘Cioch Direct’ (rope just visible left of centre, climber Andy Berrill just above centre)

Second climb – Arrow Route, leading to the Cioch

The Cioch is a rock pinnacle that seems to defy gravity, hanging on to the side of Cioch Buttress.    It’s almost unthinkable to climb up there without going out onto the almost flat top, and although it looks small there’s enough room for a picnic – just make sure you don’t invite too many friends!     After finishing your picnic, the best end to a climbing day is to continue up a third climb, Integrity (250 ft/75 metres) which takes you to the ridge of Sron na Ciche.

The Cioch – © John Wray

The Cioch as seen in the film ‘Highlander’

The Cioch is also famous for being a location in the 1986 cult movie ‘Highlander’, though rumour has it that Sean Connery was helicoptered in – if he was, he missed some ace rock climbing!

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Getting a bit steeper now!

Short rock wall leading to Upper Coire Lagan

Getting closer to the rock wall

Over the obstacle – looking back down the track we had followed

Chris and I hadn’t come for the rock climbing on this trip, though Chris must have thought I had lost the plot when the path we were on led us up to a short rock wall.    Now, for some, the short rock wall is an easy scramble to add a bit of interest to a walk – for others, including Chris it must be said, a short rock wall was not on the agenda.    However, we found an easy enough way of working through the obstacle, though predictively, Border Collie ‘Mist’ was already up and waiting for us.

A bit more height gain ….

…. before the corrie opens out – Sgurr Mhic Choinnich above in the centre

(l to r) Sgurr Mhic Choinnich, Sgurr Thearlaich, Sgurr Alasdair and Sgurr Sgumain

The author and ‘Mist’ by the tiny loch in Upper Corie Lagan

Upper Coire Lagan gets right in amongst the action!    The rock architecture is almost alpine in scale and appearance, and it’s a lovely quiet spot to have the picnic you might have had on the Cioch.    The climber and mountaineer will probably be busy identifying the different peaks and routes, but on a pleasant warm day it’s a great place to idle away a few minutes in the sun.

‘Mist’ chilling out, with our return route in the background

Setting off back down ….

…. with a last look back into Coire Lagan

What’s more, if you go in May as we did, there’s a good chance that you will have settled weather and no midges.    However, sooner or later the time comes to move, either up on to the ridge above for a bit more sport, or back down for a cold cider, as was our plan.  Whatever you go for, it’s a great day out.

Time to head for home

Text and images © Paul Shorrock except image tagged John Wray, which is taken from the Geograph Project and reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence


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