Essays on lone trips, mountain-craft and other hill topics

Adam Watson

The book contains a somewhat eclectic selection of essays, which are briefly reviewed in turn.

1. Dangerous thoughts on the mountain organisation-man
The word "dangerous" in the title gives a clue that much of this essay is written "tongue-in-cheek". It was originally written in 1975 and it is interesting to see what has changed over the last 40 years. We are still troubled by developers, although instead of roads and ski areas, they are promoting wind farms. Access legislation has tamed many of those lairds who will use any excuse to exclude walkers, although we still have a few rogues. The rise of bureaucracy continues, generating ever more requirements both for those in outdoor education to prove their "competency" and for children to take part in organised outdoor activities rather than learning for themselves. His "general desire to fight against the rules " will resonate with many of us. The essay finishes on an optimistic note that dangerous thoughts might soon become commonplace. Actually, things have probably got worse. As I said above, this is an interesting view of how things have changed (and not changed!) over the last 40 years.
2. Seton Gordon compared with some recent writers on the Cairngorms
In this essay, Adam compares Seton Gordon's books, including the classic "The Cairngorm Hills of Scotland" (1925) with four recent (recent being defined as before 1990 to avoid giving offence to living authors!) books on Cairngorms wildlife. It is, of course, a hard yardstick and, not surprisingly, the recent books all fail the test! Interestingly, one of the recent books that he chose was Nan Shepherd's "The Living Mountain" (1977). As he acknowledges, this book is well known and "revered by some". He provides a list of detailed criticism on the theme "Her book is firmly rooted in her personal experience of the area and a very few of its local indigenous folk." I'm not sure how valid this is, as most people read her book for the very personal description. I leave it to you to make up your own mind.
As in all of Adam's writing, the essay is peppered with sound advice and true wisdom. Here, as he comments about so-called "fanciful" writing, he rightly warns against the dangers of looking for "salvation" in the hills. He is absolutely right.
3. Deerstalking, deer fences and walkers
Despite the title, this is really the story of an argument between Adam and two prominent landowners, Lord Dulverton of Glen Feshie and John Grant of Rothiemurchus. It shows the lengths that such people will go to in order to protect their "sporting" interests. In my experience, this is a tale of the past, as today many landowners allow reasonable access even during the stalking season.
4. Professor Vero Copner Wynne-Edwards, 1906-97, a personal sketch
This portrait of Wynne-Edwards brings to life an important local figure in ornithological and ecological research. He was a professor at Aberdeen University, with considerable influence on moorland research and Adam's early direction. The sketch contains numerous insights into his character, showing him to have been a complex individual who helped many people achieve important work.
5. An unofficial history of the formation of ITE Brathens
This essay outlines the history of moorland research in this part of Scotland, which leads to the formation of a branch of the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology (ITE) at Brathens, near Banchory. It is an interesting story, complete with vignettes of a time now long gone, charting the early days when funding was less of an issue, and ending as Adam retired. The ITE at Brathens is no more but this history provides useful background information for those interested in the key figures in local moorland research and how it has developed over the years.
6. Lone ski-tours and climbs
This is the largest and most important essay. It outlines how Adam came to value lone trips in climbing and ski-mountaineering. His love for and confidence in being in the mountains comes shining through the descriptions of some of his more memorable outings. The essay contains a lot of useful advice. His lessons on paying attention to the weather developing and detailed attention to the terrain are important for us all. However, some of his advice is probably less generally applicable. He advocates not going on courses and instead learning slowly and relying on your own abilities. Certainly, attending courses can give false confidence, but the answer can't be to not go on courses; just be more realistic about your capabilities at the end of them. He can be safe without a map and compass but, I suggest, that most of us would be foolish to venture out without them.
One thing is for sure. Going into the hills by yourself, heightens your senses, improves your observation and can lead to a better experience. This last essay is a call for more such trips.

Chasing the Ephemeral:
50 Routes for a Successful Scottish Winter

Simon Richardson

How often does the winter climber arrive below his/her longed-for route only to find that the turf is unfrozen/there's a waterfall under the ice/the rock is bare (delete as appropriate)? Frustration increases further the next day when he/she searches the internet only to find that routes were being climbed in a coire a few miles away; perhaps those climbers were just lucky or perhaps they had read Simon's book!

Distilling decades of experience, Simon explores the elements which increase the likelihood of choosing the right route on the right day. Firstly, Simon analyses the factors which make up a 'strategic approach' (temperature; wind direction; height etc); then, under the umbrella of 'tactics', he considers such aspects as fitness, equipment, protection, partners and psychology. The bulk of the book puts this all together by describing fifty routes across the grades, and the 'stages' of the winter ('Early Bird'; 'Cold Snaps'; 'Lean times'; 'Top Nick'; 'Late Season') when these can come into condition, as examples of how to apply logic to a fickle activity.

Chasing the Ephemeral is a unique contribution to the literature on the Scottish winter game. Even the most experienced practitioner will learn something new from Simon's analytical approach, while the average climber is guaranteed to increase their 'hit rate'. The book is beautifully produced and liberally sprinkled with superb action shots of the chosen routes.

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