Google
 
Outdoors

Climbing
Walking

Cookbook
Home
Services
Link To Us


You are here: Outdoors | Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
The Munros
284 peaks,
e-cards,
timelines and compleaters. Start Walking!
Walkabout
Get your boots on and join Ken Crocket for Walkabout in Scotland
Virtual Climb
Climb the awesome January Jigsaw in Glen Coe -

Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
CAIRN TAGGART

There was a salutary tale about the dangers of the Cairngorms in the news last week and Dave Hewitt says it is a cautionary reminder about seeking shelter on high.


The hill properly called Carn an t-Sagairt Mor, just across the plateau from Lochnagar, tends to be known by the anglicised version of its name - Cairn Taggart. It's a fine hill, nothing startling but with a sense of space and home to sizeable chunks of a 1950s plane wreck. There's now a rival Cairn Taggart to the north however, its summit also strewn with metal, following an incident involving access (or, rather, non-access) to the Cairn Gorm funicular.

Last Thursday the BBC website (read story here) reported that Graeme Gordon, the 37-year-old producer of "the hit television detective series Taggart" had encountered "bureaucracy gone mental" on the north side of Cairn Gorm. Gordon's story echoed those of various other aggrieved walkers in recent times, in that it concerned the agreement whereby the funicular is, during the period 1 May - 30 November, a closed system with railway users not being allowed out and ordinary walkers and climbers not being allowed in.

On Sunday 28 July, Gordon had travelled from his home in Kilmarnock along with his two young sons (Mark, eight and Rian, four) with the intention of riding on the railway and then walking up the last section of the hill from the Ptarmigan building to the summit. This kind of thing was perfectly possible in the old days of the chairlift but it's outwith the current agreement between CairnGorm Mountain (operators of the funicular) and the various planning authorities.

One of the rangers on duty at the foot of the railway duly informed Gordon that his plan wouldn't be possible. He and the boys would only be able to ride the train uphill, eat and shop and look at the view from the top station, then ride the train back down again. Alternatively, they could of course walk up the hill in the old-fashioned way. This is what Gordon decided to do - but, according to the BBC site, "the weather worsened as they went up. When they reached the Ptarmigan one-and-a-half hours later, he and the children were cold and wet."

Of course the Ptarmigan was, as agreed, locked and unenterable, a state of affairs which evidently surprised the TV producer. "I couldn't get in and wondered why it was locked," he said. "I could see people inside eating and drinking." He was spotted by the staff and an exchange ensued once the door was finally opened. "You need a ticket to come in here," the CairnGorm Mountain operative said. "Stupid rule," replied Gordon. "I don't have a ticket but I'm willing to pay at the bottom." This offer was declined, and the "very rude" staffer closed the door. Gordon and his sons then headed back down on foot, taking an hour to reach the car park "via the steep top part of the White Lady ski run".



Now versions of this scenario will have happened to other walkers from time to time over the course of the summer, and this site has already discussed the rights and wrongs (and, ultimately, the confusions) of the "closed system" situation. What makes this recent incident more interesting than most is (a) the response of the funicular operator, and (b) what Graeme Gordon's attitude and decisions tell us about the risks and problems inherent in the whole funicular project, not just in the closed system.

Tania Adams, marketing and sales director for CairnGorm Mountain, commented that the funicular operated under an agreement involving Scottish Natural Heritage, Highland Council, CairnGorm Mountain ("and its bankers" - a curious add-on) and Highlands and Islands Enterprise. She also noted that the "closed system rule" had been written into the planning permission to allay concerns about the number of funicular users visiting the plateau and the consequent impact on the "Alpine-Arctic environment".

She went on to add that "an application had been made to alter the terms and allow people who walk on to the mountain to use the facilities", adding that "climbers seem to be very aware of [the restrictions] because they are the main ones that are disadvantaged by not being able to use the funicular as a quick means of access."

This is all very much by the book but what is noticeable is how the company chose not to directly respond to Graeme Gordon's criticisms of the "stupidity" of the operation - a comment presumably aimed at them and their "cheap and nasty service". It seems we are in the world of canny PR manoeuvrings here, with CairnGorm Mountain content to take this kind of flak in the hope that the greater the groundswell of discontent, the more chance that it will, one day, force the removal of closed-system agreement (which would surely be good for CairnGorm Mountain's trade).

More pertinent and more instructive, however, is the decision of Gordon to continue uphill with his children after the weather started to turn. Asked why he had not turned back, he is reported to have said, "I believe it would have been foolhardy. The sensible thing was to get to the restaurant building. When we began, it was a lovely clear day."

As various correspondents have commented, this carries with it an unhappy reminder of the 1971 Cairngorms disaster in which five children from Ainslie Park school in Edinburgh and an 18-year-old trainee instructor all died while trying to reach the Curran refuge high on the plateau between Cairn Gorm and Ben Macdui.

That tragedy had massive repercussions in respect of safety policy and procedures in outdoor education and also led to considerable debate over the merits or otherwise of high ground shelters. At the time the Cairngorms had three basic refuges: El Alamein - high above upper Strath Nethy on the north-eastern spur of Cairn Gorm at 975m, St Valery on the upper Coire Raibeirt slopes at 1060m, and Curran itself, 1125m up on the main plateau just to the south of Lochan Buidhe. All three were rudimentary low-to-the-ground huts, often buried beneath the drifts and it was this that led to the Curran being worse than useless that night in November 1971.

It took some years and much debate before the huts were finally removed - I'd forgotten how long this had dragged on until reminded of it by Neil Cuthbert, who pointed out that the removal didn't happen until 1975. (Hamish Brown mentioned visiting the Curran in May 1974 in chapter six of his Mountain Walk.)

Down they did eventually come, though, and that was surely the right decision. Indeed the mood was such that two altogether more substantial and less exposed huts were also removed in due course - Jean's Hut, formerly in Coire an Lochain, and the Sinclair Hut (from where I once happily wandered round the four main Munro tops) at the northern end of the Lairig Ghru.

Since the Sinclair went in the early 1990s, there have been very few bothies, shelters or buildings in the Cairngorms at all, and the onus - I would say rightly - has been on carrying your own survival equipment if you intend overnighting in this potentially ferocious range of hills. Sure, a shelter can save a life if found in a storm. But that benefit is outweighed by the risk that lives can be lost in a misguided attempt to reach that same shelter.

It would be wrong to draw too close an analogy between the Curran tragedy and the current situation on the north side of Cairn Gorm - but at the same time it needs to be remembered that what happened in November 1971 was one of the most cautionary incidents ever known in the Scottish hills, and there is a danger that one of the most basic of lessons learnt at that time is now being quietly forgotten or, at least, blurred at the edges.

Of course the warm and well-equipped Ptarmigan is a very different structure from the snow-filled Curran refuge. And of course in severe weather any struggling party arriving at the Ptarmigan would (presumably) be allowed in on basic humanitarian grounds. But, but...what if the building was closed and unstaffed for some reason, or - much more likely - what if a party failed to find it in a whiteout? This is where the idea of pressing on uphill to safety is seen to be severely flawed and it's where the Ptarmigan/funicular situation has the capacity to revisit major problems seemingly dealt with, after much trauma and heartsearching, 30 years ago.

There are exceptional situations where the idea of continuing uphill in search of safety has its merits - most notably when a howling gale is in the walkers' backs and where a road or low-lying building is known to be on the other side of the ridge. This isn't the situation in the northern Cairngorms, however, the north wind is often ferocious, for sure, but there is no safety to be found for a very long way (and then not without pinpoint navigation) once the dubious shelter of the northern corries themselves has been left behind.

It's because of this that the presence of a high ground building in these hills, regardless of its accessibility or otherwise to walkers and climbers, is a bad thing on safety grounds. Flawed though his logic might have been, it's understandable that Graeme Gordon believed the best plan for him and his two wee boys was to head uphill once the weather deteriorated. For all that he was unhappy about the reception offered by the restaurant staff, he really should be thankful that he found the building OK and didn't stray beyond into the perilous-for-tourists terrain of the high plateau.

The choice he made wasn't really his fault. Ultimately, he shouldn't have had the chance to make that mistake; there shouldn't have been a building there to tempt him upwards. This was the basic lesson learned in the aftermath of the 1971 tragedy, as the six people who died then would be alive today had they not had the option of heading for the mirage of "safety" provided by the Curran refuge.

For all that the Ptarmigan is no Curran, and for all that it could be argued that the old Ptarmigan igloo stood for many years without prompting any mislocations and benightments, we're now for the first time in a situation where a high ground building is being aggressively, enticingly marketed. This will, inevitably lure people uphill, that's what it's meant to do, that's what it's there for.

And while the vast majority of those who visit will do so by way of the funicular itself, an occasional, curious (or, as in this case, aggrieved) minority will make their own way up the north side of Cairn Gorm. Not all of these people will be competent in terms of navigation and hill sense, and not all of them will be lucky with the weather, the storms will continue to sweep in suddenly, just as they always have done.

So for as long as the Ptarmigan stands, we just have to hope that no one overshoots and ends up lost on the plateau in the drifts and the darkness. It's happened before, however, and there has to be a considerable worry that it will happen again.

Dave Hewitt
8/8/2002


(Thanks to Colin Cadden, Neil Cuthbert, Val Hamilton, Andy Mayhew, Richard Webb and Craig Weldon, all of whom sent the BBC link along with their observations.)

Dave can be contacted on Dave.Hewitt@dial.pipex.com
 
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
An off the track wander from one of Scotland's wittiest outdoor writers - Dave Hewitt - join him on the hill
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Dr Kathleen Watson is perhaps not a widely known name yet this noted Munroist should be remembered.
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Dave Hewitt agrees that the Land Reform (Scotland) Bill paves the way for the future but also has a warning
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Scotland is enjoying some of the best snow conditions of recent years so Dave Hewitt makes the most of the hills
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Welly boots and trainers don't mix well with ice and snow so Dave Hewitt urges all of us to think about sensible shoes
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Mix 'n' match is all the rage this season as Dave Hewitt reveals his hillgoing habits
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Dave Hewitt questions the decision to cull thousands of hedgehogs on the islands
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Dave Hewitt looks at the hill climbing feats of one of his favourite characters - John Rooke Corbett
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
There has been a long standing contradiction over the number of Corbetts - Dave looks at the evidence.
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Do you keep good hill notes? Dave Hewitt looks at whether proof is needed to claim a completion
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
The weather has been behaving badly in recent weeks - Dave Hewitt reflects on the wild winds and snow
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
As Scotland gets its first National Parks, Ronald Turnbull looks at how they do it in Eastern Europe
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Scot Jim Chalmers has finished his traverse of Norway so Dave Hewitt updates us on the final leg
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Dave Hewitt returns to his theme of multiple ascents with some number crunching
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Dave Hewitt continues his theme of multiple hill ascents with a look at his regular beat
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Do you keep coming back for more? Dave Hewitt looks at multiple summiteers
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Dave Hewitt reveals the history of the Furths which have produced plenty of interest and compleaters
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
A cross border drive, multiple compleater celebrations and a new ticket to ride on Cairn Gorm with Dave Hewitt
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
It is the shooting season again so Dave Hewitt looks at relations between stalking parties and hillgoers.
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Scot Jim Chalmers updates Dave Hewitt on the latest leg of his Norwegian journey
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
David McVey suggests his own nominations for the Seven Wonders of Scotland
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Dave Hewitt brings us the second instalment of his recent Lake District holiday
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
The downfall of Nicholas van Hoogstraten after years of obstructing walkers and the law of the land
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Dave Hewitt hits out at the litter bugs who are making Scotland's summits unsightly and dangerous
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Another bulldozed track has appeared in the Highlands - Dave says it is time to speak up against them
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Dave Hewitt takes another trip to the Lake District in search of summer
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
The foot and mouth crisis is long past but Dave Hewitt says it is time to reflect
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Ronald Turnbull gets all canal-obsessive over Scotland's new "way"
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Flat and boring Caithness and Sutherland? Dave Hewitt explores the north east
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Copenhagen based Scot Jim Chalmers continues his epic Norwegian traverse - Dave Hewitt updates his progress
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Dave Hewitt looks at the continuing problems of visitor management at the funicular
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Hillwalkers best friend or foe? Dave Hewitt's recent column on dogs prompted a flurry of responses from both sides
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
The days are fair stretching so Dave Hewitt says it's time to stretch your legs with an evening hill or two
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
This week Dave Hewitt turns his attention to the thorny issues of mountain bikers and dogs
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Dave Hewitt dedicates this week's Summit Talks to the creator of Scottish Outdoors
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
David McVey says increasing age should be no barrier to enjoying the hills
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Dave Hewitt puts the case for the prosecution against the most walker unfriendly resident in Scotland
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Dave Hewitt speaks to half of the first father and son pair to complete the Munros
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Dave Hewitt finds that the Cairngorm funicular railway is now adding injury to insult
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Dave Hewitt looks at some of the characters and stories of the first 100 Munroists
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Dave Hewitt has some more musings on bothies, trains and a marathon challenge
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Dave Hewitt reports on an exiled Scot who is doing things the Scandinavian way
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Dave Hewitt looks at the danger of nodding off on high from curious ramblers to hungry birds of prey!
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Dave Hewitt has a lot on his mind this week including the media getting in a muddle
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
The Cairn Gorm funicular is still a thorny issue - Dave Hewitt speaks to the man in charge Bob Kinnaird
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Ronald Turnbull takes a long walk to Edinburgh in the company of a Victorian explorer
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Dave Hewitt launches Quote of the Month, wonders about the success of the funicular and resolves the bothy bout
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Rain, snow, even blazing sunshine can add to a day on the hills but for Dave Hewitt wind is a definite no-go
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Dave Hewitt has discovered a fascinating internet photo archive that proves even great minds are "normal"
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Members of the Mountain Bothies Association are at loggerheads over plans for a new bothy in the Cairngorms
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Dave Hewitt thinks ahead and sets his stall for the coming year - crises excepted of course!
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
The outdoors community did not enjoy a good 2001 so Dave Hewitt asks what they can look forward to this year
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Dave Hewitt climbs off the sofa, declines another mince pie, snubs the Queen and heads for the hills
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Dave Hewitt ponders the future conservation of Scotland's mountain wilderness
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Hillgoing is not an exclusive pastime according to Dave Hewitt who packs a lot into one weekend
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
The access bill may be much improved but there are still areas of concern according to Dave Hewitt
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Dave Hewitt thinks he welcomes the changes to the Land Reform Bill
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Great mountain literature, a not so great hydro electric scheme and the Land Reform Bill are tackled this week
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Dave Hewitt brings his outdoors wit and wisdom to us on a weekly basis
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Dave Hewitt maps the ever increasing price of getting into the great outdoors
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Dave Hewitt on the quest to find the dullest spot in the land - maps at the ready everyone!
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Dave Hewitt talks to respected land reform writer Andy Wightman about current access issues
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Dave Hewitt goes south to find foot and mouth alive and the landscape unwell
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Another estate is making up its own rules on access and using dubious methods to convey them, says Dave.
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Dave Hewitt wonders if the abscence of walkers during foot and mouth has been good or bad for the country
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Dave Hewitt reveals the Ardverikie Estate's policy of asking for donations from hillgoers for visits
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Dave Hewitt says the lack of spirit in fighting recent access problems could change the face of hillgoing forever
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Dave Hewitt holidays on the Uists to indulge in his unusual passion for trig bagging!
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
The Auch Gleann hills have been reclaimed but not without all the old threats
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Dave Hewitt says contact with his local council reveals the "official mindset" on foot and mouth closures and access
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Ben Lawers and Ben Lomond are re-opened but Dave Hewitt remains cautious.
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
The National Trust for Scotland is dragging it heels so Dave Hewitt says its time to reclaim the hills.
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Dave Hewitt is surprised to find himself praising private landowners who have been forward thinking on access.
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Dave Hewitt says we should all be allowed to enjoy the island life - not just the lairds who are laying down the law.
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
The authorities are urged not to risk the goodwill of walkers with differing responses to the Comeback Code.
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
As access restrictions are finally lifted Dave Hewitt finds out how hillgoers have been coping or not.
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
In a week of indecision Dave Hewitt sees access support come from an unlikely source
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
As the foot and mouth crisis rages on Dave Hewitt asks where we go from here?
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Dave Hewitt takes a controversial line on the land closures caused by the foot and mouth outbreak
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Dave Hewitt discovers the delights of the changeable Scottish weather on a hilltop in the Ochils
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Columnist Dave Hewitt finds the pace of Highland life gives him a severe case of queue rage
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Columnist Dave Hewitt ponders a touch of star spotting from the hills as celebrity mania sweeps the Highlands
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Our columnist Dave Hewitt pays tribute to a great man and outdoor writer A Harry Griffin who's just turned 90
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Columnist Dave Hewitt diverts his attention to some less popular targets during the short but mild winter days
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
Dave Hewitt speaks to Boardman Tasker Prize short listed author Mike Cawthorne about his amazing journey over 135 Munros in winter and the book of his travels Hell of a Journey
Summit Talks with Dave Hewitt
In a Scottish village a small computer company is using the latest technology to bring alive Scotland's dramatic landscape without ever setting foot outside
Terms & Conditions | Privacy Statement | Services | |
A Scotland On Line Production