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.
(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