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Coire Cas

The In Pinn – in the news <em>Picture: Perkin Warbeck</em>

The In Pinn – in the news Picture: Perkin Warbeck

Turning away – for a moment at least – from the politics and palaver of the Fisherfield hill-survey saga, a few other recent outdoors stories merit mention.

First up has to be the heartwarming tale of the charity donation box accidentally left on Ben Lomond by a team of path-repairers. This, rather than being snaffled or emptied as tends to be assumed to be the modern way, turned up not just intact but containing more money than when it was lost.

The incident was reported in the aftermath of the English riots, and formed a nice contrast to those, a kind of anti-looting story. Rather than taking stuff, people made donations (admittedly of cash, rather than of plasma TVs, iPhones and horrible designer sportswear) without any prompting.

It would be wrong to overanalyse this, however, and to portray it as Scottish generosity versus English graspingness – plenty of non-Scots climb Ben Lomond, after all, and there’s a fair chance that a charity box left inadvertently on, say, Skiddaw in England or Tryfan in Wales would likewise receive a top-up.

Neither is it metropolitan materialism versus gentler rural ways, given that the majority of people who climb Ben Lomond surely come from urban areas. It is, though, a nice story, from which everyone emerges in a good light.

Talking of boxes containing money, the latest pay-to-park story is being subjected to scrutiny and discussion. The latter part of this month sees the start of a two-year trial period in which visitors will be asked to make a voluntary £2 donation when parking at the humongous Coire Cas car park – alongside the funicular railway base station and at the branching-off point for a variety of hill paths, eg across towards the Northern Corries.

Whether the charge would then, come 2013, be made compulsory remains to be seen – but that has been the pattern elsewhere following voluntary trial periods. The donation scheme is being introduced by CairnGorm Mountain Ltd (CML), having been approved on 22 July by the Cairngorms National Park Authority.

It wouldn’t, strictly speaking, be something entirely new at Coire Cas. As Colin Kirkwood, chief executive of CML, has pointed out, until the early 1980s there was “a manned booth which charged on exit”. Kirkwood argues for the new charges on the basis of “looking to ask visitors to put something towards a reinvestment in footpaths, environmental projects, car parks and facilities”.

Certainly the path network hereabouts has been upgraded massively, to a high standard, and such things do not come cheap. On the other hand, there are those who see the whole going-like-a-fair aspect of Coire Cas as already being an unwelcome and very visible commercial intrusion into the hills.

Add to that the old tensions between skiers (who pay for all sorts of stuff – day passes etc) and walkers and climbers (easy to portray as freeloaders given that they simply park the car and march off self-reliantly on foot). Add also the old argument that £2 is next to nothing on top of fuel costs – which tends to assume everyone is a holidaymaker coming from miles away, rather than a Strathspey local who might like to go to Coire Cas every few days and for whom a regular £2 hit would feature much higher in the mix.

And add, too, the curious lopsidedness whereby pay-to-park for hill activities has become established in certain places on the east side of the Highlands – Glen Muick, Linn of Dee, etc – but not so much in the west (Loch Long excepted). What, if anything, does that say about different-area mentalities?

For now, the Mountaineering Council of Scotland – a key voice in the Coire Cas debate as it has an interest in walking, climbing and skiing – seems happy enough about the voluntary charge but cautious about what might happen thereafter.

See also the discussion at Winterhighland. One to watch.

Turning briefly to less serious matters, readers of the Sun and the Daily Mail last week were treated to – and perhaps puzzled by – a photo-story in which Graeme Ettle climbed the Inaccessible Pinnacle, photographed by Dave Cuthbertson.

“He’s a Pinn-up”, was Wapping’s take on it, while Paul Dacre’s staff opted for the more formal “Conquering the In Pin: Intrepid free climber reaches the summit of Britain’s most Inaccessible Pinnacle without a rope”.

Nice pictures, for sure, and “daredevil” Ettle does appear to have made a free ascent of the steep end of the second-highest lump of rock in the Hebrides (although the Mail mentions “a flimsy rope”). But is not “Climber climbs In Pinn” roughly along the same lines, in newsworthiness terms, as “Walker completes West Highland Way”, or “Motorist drives along M25”?

Quiet news day, perhaps.

Finally, mention should be made of two recent deaths. Alan Blackshaw was one of the great and the good of the mountaineering world, heavily involved in matters domestic and Alpine, both in terms of actual on-hill activity and in the committee rooms. He was, for instance, president of the British Mountaineering Council 1973–76, of the Ski Club of Great Britain 1997–2003, and of the Alpine Club 2001–04. He undertook numerous other roles over the years, including being heavily involved in the International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation (UIAA), again with a spell (2004–05) in the presidency.

He was the author of Mountaineering: From Hillwalking to Alpine Climbing, published in 1966 and often referred to simply as “Blackshaw” in the same way that Eric Langmuir’s Mountaincraft and Leadership is just “Langmuir”.

Blackshaw’s death on 4 August, aged 78, prompted numerous obituaries and tributes: see the Daily Telegraph, the Herald, the Scotsman, the UIAA, the Alpine Club, the BMC and the MCofS. Also by Dave Morris at the Ramblers, fellow Newtonmore hill man Cameron McNeish, and Chris Townsend.

Also widely reported has been the death of Ian Redmond, aged 30, who was attacked by a shark on 16 August while snorkelling off the Seychelles. He and his wife Gemma were on their honeymoon.

Amid all the sadness and horror of the incident, and the discussion about the dangers of sharks, there has been little mention of Redmond – from Lancashire – having been a climber. Condolences and tributes can be found in a thread on UKBouldering.com, including this, from a friend named Adam Jeewooth: “To me Ian is a bouldering, sport climbing and a genuine friend. We both have shared many experiences in the time I knew him from meeting at BoulderUK, getting snowed off in Northumberland, drinking wine in Ceuse in a shit rental car and bouldering in font [Fontainebleau]. He was totally in love with Gemma (his wife) and was a family man.”

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Helen Rennie in Coire Cas

There was a brief dusting of fresh snow on various of the higher Highland peaks last week. Nothing unusual for late September, and it gave no real clue as to how severe or how mild the coming winter might prove to be. It was, however, enough to set the hearts of Scottish skiers beating just that little bit faster with anticipatory excitement.

Not that every skier had a complete break over the summer months. Helen Rennie, a secondary school teacher from Inverness, filmed herself skiing the snow patch at the head of Coire Cas – the main commercial-skiing corrie on Cairn Gorm – on five days in August and early September.

Rennie got the idea for the video on 29 July, at the end of a session skiing with friends on the remaining snow in Ciste Mhearad, high on the east side of Cairn Gorm. Later, heading down in the funicular, one of the friends suggested that the Coire Cas headwall might also be skiable.

“It hadn’t figured in my mind,” says Rennie, “as I’ve always headed to the snow patches in Ciste Mhearad or beneath the tor near the summit of Cairn Gorm once the lifts have closed. However this year, because there had been so much snow on the headwall, there was still cover and it seemed like something worth trying at the start of August.”

Her friends couldn’t come, so Rennie headed uphill alone on Monday 2 August, “intending to give it a go if it was safe”. A video camera was wedged between rocks at the top of the slope, and the patch proved big enough to allow 11 turns.

“The headwall was really good fun to ski,” says Rennie, “much better than Ciste Mhearad, so I enjoyed the day. I hadn’t been very impressed with the dreich summer, so when the last day of the school holidays [15 August] turned out to be a beautiful day I headed back up and took another video.” The patch had shrunk during the intervening fortnight, and only allowed nine turns this time.

Rennie decided to keep this going, and to film it each time, for as long as the patch lasted. “It struck me that there are probably not many people who have skied the headwall in August, and even fewer who have recorded it. On Winterhighland there is a very keen group who monitor the remaining snow patches, so I thought it would be of interest to them. I was really hoping it would last into September and it did – just!”

Rennie works part-time, so was able to take her skis back to the patch on three successive Thursdays: 19 August (when she managed seven turns), 26 August (five turns) and finally 2 September (just the three turns – but hey, it was skiing all the same).

“I went back up on 9 September,” she says, “but all the snow had melted on the headwall by then. I skied on Ciste Mhearad, but by then it had shrunk considerably.” That was her 99th day of Scottish skiing in the 2009/10 season, the first having been 28 November. “I was temped to try for the 100, but with the Ciste Mhearad patch being so small I didn’t want to jeopardise it lasting all year by scuffing it up.” (Rennie reports the Ciste Mhearad patch as still being there as of the last day in September, albeit only about one metre by five metres in size.)

The Coire Cas patch – which, as snow expert Adam Watson has pointed out, has a name, Cuithe Chrom, meaning “crooked wreath” – proved to be the longest-lasting piece of skiable snow Rennie has seen on Cairn Gorm. “The latest I’d skied on a snow patch up until this year was 17 August on Ciste Mhearad in 2007,” she says. “I was hoping to manage to ski the 12 continuous months that year, but lack of snow in October prevented that.”

“Oh yes,” she says when asked if there were any funny looks from walkers who saw her carrying skis uphill in high-summer weather. “Quite a few people took photos and video. One French couple wanted to know if it was a small glacier. I ended up on our ITV local news on 2 September as they happened to be in the car park as I headed up.”

Rennie learned to ski in February 1977. “Inverness was snowed in and I was in my second year of teaching. Four of us borrowed school skis and tried in a field at Daviot only to be thrown off by an angry farmer. Undeterred, when the A9 opened we went to Cairngorm and I became hooked.”

These days, she mixes ski mountaineering/touring with downhill. “I always have my skins in my rucksack, so will quite often wander off from the pistes for a couple of hours during a day. This year I skied some local hills around Inverness as the cover was so good. I don’t ski abroad, as my husband’s hobby is salmon fishing on the River Nairn.

“I usually have a few trips to Nevis Range and maybe one or two to the Lecht most seasons. I’ve never skied Glenshee or Glencoe simply because of their distance from Inverness. I was introduced to ski touring in 2001 and converted to Fritschi bindings in 2002, so from then on I would walk up and mess about on the remaining snow patches after the lifts had ceased to operate.”

Since 2000, Rennie has also been one of the voluntary ski ambassadors at CairnGorm Mountain (CML).  “You commit to being there on at least one regular day – mine is Saturdays – every week throughout the season, starting around 8am. In reality, I’m there much more frequently. You help customers in the car park until it has cleared of people, then you are on the slopes. We offer a tour, help organise lift queues and generally ski about looking out for anyone who might need help.”

It might not be a paid job, but there are perks: “You get a free season pass and a free bowl of soup and a roll for lunch, plus staff prices on other food. For me, the main advantage is being involved in something I’m passionate about and getting to know so many people with a like interest.”

As for last week’s taster of the coming winter, was she out on the slopes? “I didn’t go up – hedge-cutting took priority! However I will be hoping to ski on fresh snow in October, because that would make it the first time I’d have skied for 12 continuous months.”

Lady Alva’s Web/Veil/Necklace/Coronet on 29 April, 2010

Lady Alva’s Web/Veil/Necklace/Coronet on 29 April, 2010

It might seem odd to talk of snow at this time of year, especially after a decidedly warm few days. But one after-effect of the long, hard winter is that a number of snow patches are lingering in unusual places, not just on the highest slopes but also in enclosed, sheltered corners.

The very highest hills – in Lochaber and the high Cairngorms – still have a considerable amount. Nothing unusual about that. It’s the small isolated patches that really stand out, and provide a visual reminder of one of the more sustained winters in recent times.

Cross Fell, at 893 metres the highest hill in the Pennines, has a horizontal strip of snow high on its west side, along with three patches much lower down. All are visible from the A66 well to the west of Penrith – and, from the chatter on Radio Cumbria over the weekend, the feeling locally is that at least some of this snow will survive into June.

The Lake District, being much further west than the Pennines, has very little snow remaining. Your correspondent wandered over Blencathra, High Street and the Coniston fells at the weekend and encountered none at all, but a patch could be seen in a west-facing gully high on Helvellyn.

Do any of these old patches have names? The Cross Fell cornice-remnant, perhaps, it being a regular feature, but snow patches are generally too transient to acquire names, at least on maps.

There are exceptions, however. In March and April, I swapped a few emails with Dr Adam Watson, a retired ecologist with a lifelong interest in snow. Watson points out that named patches “are really quite rare”, the most common form being Cuidhe Crom, “crooked wreath”, of which he knows of three. One is on Lochnagar and has acquired wider usage as the name of a Munro Top. The other two are “at the top of Coire Cas on Cairn Gorm, and on Ben More near Crianlarich, facing north-east near the top”.

There is also Broon Coo’s White Calf, “on the south side of the Brown Cow Hill in Glen Gairn. Locally the Brown Cow Hill is just the Broon Coo, no Hill which is an Ordnance Survey invention. The Gaelic was A’ Bho Dhonn, meaning the brown cow.”

Watson got in touch wondering as to the whereabouts and nomenclature of “Lady Alva’s Web”, or “Lady Alva’s Veil”, a spring snow patch on the Ochils. He also contacted noted Scottish historian (and Ochils local) Rennie McOwan, who found a reference to a patch with “the appearance of a fine linen web or lace veil” in a 1917 book, Between the Ochils and the Forth, by David Beveridge. Similarly, the Old Statistical Account of Alva, 1790–95, records that “Snow frequently remains here far on into the summer and assumes the appearance of a fine linen web or lace work.”

The patch itself is odd on at least three counts. It is surprisingly far south in Scotland – the Ochils might form part of the northern barrier of the Central Belt, but they stand south of the Highland Boundary Fault. The patch is relatively low, lying 30 or so metres below the summit of Ben Cleuch, itself only 721 metres high. And it faces south-west, into the prevailing weather, rather than tucked away round the north or east side. But as the west-facing Cross Fell patches show, the really harsh winters bring winds out of the north and east for weeks on end, shifting snow on to western slopes, where it accumulates and solidifies.

The Ben Cleuch patch (pictured here on 29 April, just before it degenerated to dregs) appears to have at least four names. Each includes a “Lady Alva” part, derived from the Johnstone family who lived in Alva House, on the southern slopes of the Ochils, before it fell into disrepair and was used by the military for target practice during the second world war.

Along with the Web and Veil versions, there is “Lady Alva’s Necklace” – although I haven’t found a written reference to this, and McOwan regards it as “a modern invention”.

Gordon Downs was asked for his thoughts. He is a knowledgeable hill man, Ochils regular and resident of Falkirk – from where the whole southern face can be seen – and he added another name. “An old friend of mine,” he writes, “now sadly dead, used to call it Lady Alva’s Coronet.”

The patch itself is a fragmented, almost ragged, strip stretching across a kilometre of slope, just below the summit flattening. That section of slope is steeper by a degree or two than the ground below, and this slight increase in angle could well contribute to the phenomenon in some way.

Downs offers an assessment of the four versions of the name: “It seems to me that ‘veil’ or ‘coronet’ are reasonable for its position on the hill and ‘web’ reasonable for the way it usually breaks up; in my view, ‘necklace’ would really have to be lower on the hill.”

Ironically, for all that Lady Alva’s Web/Veil/Necklace/Coronet lasted well into the spring this time round, it never quite adopted its classic fragmented form. The huge snowfalls during the first three months or the year meant that it eventually split into long chunks rather than small close-together patches.

There is always next winter, however.

cairngormA report by the Public Audit Committee at Holyrood, published today, has severely criticised the operation of the Cairngorm funicular railway.

The funicular was opened under private management in 2001, but has had a complex and chequered history in terms of spiralling costs, underwhelming passenger numbers, quirky operating procedures and environmental concerns. The spring of 2009 saw it taken into public ownership, courtesy of Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), the Scottish government’s development agency for the area. HIE had, until that point, been landlords for the railway’s operating company CairnGorm Mountain Ltd (CML).

The change of ownership appears not to have signalled an upturn in the railway’s fortunes, however. HIE stands accused by the Holyrood committee of “failing to scrutinise the financial health of CML, not taking into account the potential effects of climate change or the risks associated with construction of the project, and failing to re-examine assumptions made in the original business case about visitor numbers”.

The committee states that more than £26 million has been spent on construction and providing support to CML, an overspend of £11.2 million on original estimates. It describes CML as having been in a “weak financial position”, such that “the company’s losses have created a call on public resources which was not foreseen”.

In straitened economic times, with public purse-strings being tightened across all areas, this does not make for happy reading for those involved in one of the biggest and most high-profile Highland projects of recent times.

“We find it unacceptable,” said committee convener Hugh Henry MSP, “that HIE did not review its business case before construction began to ensure that the project was proceeding on a realistic basis and the risks to public funds were minimised.”

The need for a major rethink of how the funicular is marketed and run is clear from the report, which urges HIE “to ensure that its future business plan for the facility is founded on accurate performance information and that rigorous financial-control measures are adopted”.

The funicular arose out of concerns in the early 1990s that the existing chair-lift infrastructure at the Cairngorm ski centre was in need of major modernisation. By 1997, well into the planning stage, construction costs were estimated at £14.8 million. Between them, HIE and Moray, Badenoch and Strathspey Enterprise contributed £9.4 million (63% of the total cost). The shortfall was covered by the European Union, to the tune of £2.9 million, and by CML, which took out a £2.5 million bank loan. CML was also required to pay land rent to HIE.

Construction began in 1999 and the funicular opened for business on Christmas Eve, 2001. After a promising start, passenger numbers dwindled, as highlighted by today’s report: “HIE used visitor number estimates in its business case for the project and took advice from independent consultants. However, these figures were not revisited in the light of new evidence which suggested that numbers were in further decline. In the funicular’s early years, the numbers were broadly achieved but have declined in more recent years.”

CML suffered massive financial problems in the early part of the decade, with losses peaking at £1.8 million in 2002 and £1.2 million in 2003. Since then, however, the situation appears to have stabilised, with profits recorded in three of the past five years (£28,000 in 2005, £32,000 the following year, and £174,000 in 2008). The report picks up on this, asking “why HIE had taken the decision to take the company over at a time when its financial performance had seen some recent improvement.”

Exactly how HIE responds to the criticism, and how the funicular develops over the coming years, remains to be seen. The report insists that “the new business model for the funicular must be founded on a realistic assessment the future viability of the facility”, and that “HIE is absolutely clear about the extent of its financial support for the facility and that this support is not open-ended.”

Despite the current excellent skiing season – albeit with snow levels so deep that access roads have been blocked and the funicular closed for some of the time – many of the issues for the years ahead relate to summer-season use. As noted by Douglas Yule, operations director at HIE, “The challenge for the future is how to increase the numbers of non-skiing visitors throughout the year, given the uncertainty of snow and skiing conditions.”

For some, the funicular remains the great white hope of Scottish trade and tourism in Strathspey. For others, it has always been an expensive white elephant. Some in this latter camp will surely have noted this week’s other Cairngorm-related news story – the ski centre having, for the first time, pre-emptively triggered avalanches on the Coire Cas slopes – and mused that the explosives could have been moved a few hundred metres to the north and put to better use.