The Old Dutchman of Lochnagar – And Other Stories

The east face of Lochnagar

GOD it’s cold. This is bloody history repeating itself. Last time I camped at Braemar the temperature dropped below zero quite unexpectedly. It’s not below zero tonight – or 5am to be precise – but by God it’s cold.

Breakfast is a one-handed affair – one arm inside the sleeping bag keeping warm with the rest of the body, the other outside doing the business. Cold muesli made with cold water and cold dried milk powder. That’s the easy bit. Lighting the petrol stove one-handed for a pan of tea is the tricky – and arguably dangerous – part of the operation. What the hell – be a shooting star, be a supernova. If you’ve got to go you might as well depart in a ball of flames rather than with an unheard croak in a nursing home that smells of milky coffee and rice pudding. Mind you, the Invercauld Caravan Club campsite probably wouldn’t thank you for the adverse publicity.

Loch Callater at the head of Glen Callater

I have my boots on for 8.26am. All set for a brisk walk up the track to Glen Callater. I reach the flat, sub-Arctic summit of Carn an t-Sagairt Mor for 11.05am. The day is cold but clear, with some threatening clouds jostling over the high Cairngorms away to the north. On the Stuic, a pointed crag hanging over Loch nan Eun, I gaze out across a snowy corrie to the western slopes of Lochnagar a mile or so to the east.

Lochnagar is an interesting mountain, with featureless slopes to the west contrasting with horrendously spectacular crags to the east. While ascending the final few feet of rocky summit I am confronted by a Dutchman with a droopy moustache and wild grey hair. The Dutchman is extremely friendly and invites me to take his picture with his digital camera – which I do. And he takes mine.

View from the Stuic

Dutchmen. How come they’re all such good hillwalkers? Where do they practise? Why is it you never see a Dutch walker flagging at the side of a mountain path? Do they live in tall, narrow houses with lots of stairs? And another thing – why do they laugh at bad jokes?

“You’re from Holland are you? Must be like home from home up here in Scotland with all these mountains. Ha, ha, ha.” And their faces crack and their eyes twinkle. “Dat ess good joke. Ha, ha, ha. Because Nederland is very flat and you know this, yes? Ha, ha, ha.”

Then like ships in the night, I go my way and he goes his. Him with a digital image taken by the cold fingers of a strange Englishman, me with a digital image taken by the cold fingers of a strange Dutchman. It’s a funny old world. Paths cross briefly then diverge, never to cross again.

I stand in thought above the east face of Lochnagar, which is unexpectedly impressive. Sheer crags descend vertically into God knows where. Deep and narrow gullies, their mouths choked with snow cornices, plunge from the summit plateau, slicing the crags into tremendous buttresses of broken stone. This is an awe-inspiring place. I understand now why that chap was moved to write his book: The Old Man of Lochnagar. Can’t remember his name.

Head of a gully on Lochnagar

The summit of Carn an t-Sagairt Mor

By contrast, the next and final Munro, Carn á Choire Bhoidheach, is a flat hill with a few slabs of weathered rock on the summit. Unimpressed though not deflated, I make my descent along a path that skirts around the southern and western slopes of Carn an t-Sagairt Mor, then drop down to the lodge and homely bothy at Loch Callater (right).

And the rain sweeps in – that heavy, steady rain that rattles waterproof clothing like constant and determined machine-gun fire. Like the Old Man of Lochnagar I dream of a hot bath. But the best I can expect is a warm shower on the campsite. And another cold night and another one-handed breakfast.

NOTE. Must remember to look up the author who wrote that Lochnagar book. Have a feeling it was someone descended from European migrants. They’re always good at climbing mountains. It’s the stairs, you know.

An Englishman – taken by a Dutchman.

About McFadzean

Alen McFadzean, journalist, formerly of the Northern Echo, in Darlington, and the North-West Evening Mail, Barrow. Former shipyard electrician. Former quarryman and tunneller. Climbs mountains and runs long distances to make life harder. Gravitates to the left in politics just to make life harder still. Now lives in Orgiva, Spain.
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