Magical Land of Hills

Contribution from Donald B. McIntyre as Honorary President

for the Millennium Journal of the Perth Mountaineering Club, March 2000

My first hill was Beinn a'Ghlo, which I climbed about 1935 while staying with my family at Kincraigie in Glen Tilt. The Scots Greys, mounted and splendid in full uniform, passed our door on their famous recruiting march from the Tay to the Dee. Though eager, I was too young to enlist, and exactly sixty years later I was too old when the Greys' successors marched through Perth to repeat their recruiting march through Tayside.

In 1939 we were on holiday at Tullochgrue in Rothiemurchus. I already knew the glens, all the paths through the forest, the lower hills, and had climbed Braeriach on my own. At the outbreak of war my brother and I were sent to school in Grantown, travelling on the old Speyside railway line and returning via Dulnain Bridge. Many weekends were spent in the Cairngorms – I then knew every nook and cranny. We slept both under and on top of the Shelter Stone, in secret caves in the upper part of the Nethy, or even in the luxury of a bothy in Glen Einich. We used Whymper's version of a "sleeping bag" by sewing up a blanket, and a friend in the rubber business made us impermeable sacks so that we slept out in any weather. In those days the hills were deserted; only once or twice did we meet soldiers practising mountain warfare, their mules transporting the field artillery. Once we found a dead golden eagle. We took his pinion feather and had it cut to match Winston Churchill's favourite nib. The great man said he would use it to sign the Peace Treaty!

The SMC guide to the Cairngorms reported that the six highest Cairngorms had twice been climbed in a day. We knew that this was wrong – Beinn Mheadhoin, which is higher then Ben Avon had been omitted. Taking up the challenge, my friend Ian Baikie and I climbed the seven highest on 5 September 1941 (35 miles and 10,300ft of ascent in 20 hours – some of it in the dark and in the mist). The SMCJ (vol.22, 1941, p.388-9) duly recorded the expedition: "Our young friends have most justifiably added to the six the 'separate mountain Munro' Beinn Mheadhoin, clearly higher than Ben Avon. ... We heartily congratulate the party on their enterprise and achievement." Curiously, that notice has been ignored by later climbers and editors; for subsequent volumes of the SMCJ and the SMC Guide to the Cairngorms have continued to climb and name the wrong six mountains.

For the SMC account click on Seven Cairngorms.

In Edinburgh I joined the JMCS, and was introduced to the joys of rock-climbing on the Salisbury Crags and the great cliffs of Ben Nevis under the tutelage of Freddie O'Riordan, Archie Hendry, and others. In the course of time I succeeded O'Riordan as Secretary.

The JMCS had its first postwar meet over Christmas 1945,. Twelve members stayed at Kingshouse. Gordon Parish (who succeeded me as President of the re-created Edinburgh University MC), E.E. Gardiner, and I represented the Edinburgh Section. The SMCJ (April 1946) records that we took 10 hours to climb the Crowberry Ridge by Macgregor's ledge – "Much snow and the Slabs icy". On our way back to the Inn we met a search party coming out to look for us! Kenneth Dunn was JMCS chairman (later I climbed with him in Glencoe and in Skye); the nine SMC members attending the meet included Bill Murray, Bill Mackenzie, Tom MacKinnon, and Douglas Scott; three of them later became SMC President, one Hon. President, and one Hon. Vice-President.

Bill Murray was recovering from three years in a central European prison camp. While a prisoner Bill wrote his classic Mountaineering in Scotland on scraps of paper. After the Gestapo confiscated his work, he began writing all over again. One chapter describes A December Night on the Crowberry Ridge with Mackenzie and Dunn. It tells of their abortive attempt, in 1936, to make the first winter ascent of Crowberry Ridge by Garrick's shelf. Because Mountaineering in Scotland was not published until 1947, we did not fully appreciate that at Kingshouse in 1945 we were in the company of such illustrious pioneers! Bill had been released in April, and as his last climb had been on Buachaille so in June 1945 his first climb was The First Day on Buachaille – with Bill Mackenzie. Read the fine account in Undiscovered Scotland.

Attendance at that meet in 1945 changed my life. Before joining the Army, Bill had been a banker, but on his release he made a characteristically bold decision; he would make his living by writing about mountains. Moreover he had agreed that his first book would be one that would provide no income: he would write the SMC'S first guide-book to rock-climbing in Glencoe. But by then Bill's pre-war companions were mostly married and re-building their careers to make up for years in the Army. I was a student, and eagerly accepted Bill's invitation to be his assistant. Based with easy access to the SMC Library in Edinburgh, I dug out descriptions of climbs from the journals, but of course we spent as much time as possible in Glencoe. I regularly took the train to Queen Street, where Bill would meet me with his pre-war Morris eight. Sometimes I stayed overnight at his mother's house, but mostly we set off for the hills – usually to Lagangarbh, the SMC's hut in Glencoe. Sadly the hut-book for that period is missing.

Although our efforts were mainly devoted to checking descriptions of known routes, we occasionally made new routes. Some of these experiences are recorded in Undiscovered Scotland; for example, a week in Glen Affric before the dam was built. His Winter Days in Coire nan Lochan quotes from my own Winter Days on Bidean nam Bian, (SMCJ 1948), including our winter camp on the summit of Bidean, and the winter ascent of SC Gully with H.W. Tilman, the leader of the last pre-war attempt on Everest.

Bill was ten years older than me and vastly more experienced. Our relationship of master to novice comes through in The Forgotten Cliff of Aonach Dubh: "I looked up and confess to a twinge of conscience at encouraging McIntyre to face as leader the dire troubles in front. But I need not have worried. He is a geologist – the Ideal Geologist made flesh. Rock in any shape or form, at whatever angle, is the delight of his heart. He loves rock, in all circumstances. If he were ever about to fall off an overhang he would, just before parting company with the rock, draw his tongue over the surface to bring out the colour. I have observed him do this at other times and feel quite confident he would do it then. 'Your lead, Donald,' I commiserated. 'Bad luck.' Looking all the while keenly up the cliff, he swung his waist-knot to the rear and his mouth tightened. He was in good training, I reflected, watching the spare face and clear eye. That would help him much when his situation became hopeless, and he had to come down; for such seemed the likely end to his efforts. ... My heart bled for him."

In Night and Morning on the Mountains, Bill described our double traverse of the Aonach Eagach by moonlight in February 1947 under perfect winter conditions. I concluded my tribute to Bill at his funeral on 26 March 1996 with his description of the sunrise (SMCJ 1996).

For my tribute to Bill Murray at his funeral in 1926 click on Tribute.

Bill quoted Geoffrey Winthrop Young's Knight Errantry on the title-page of Mountaineering in Scotland, 1947. That was my introduction to GWY's writings. His poems influenced me greatly; indeed my tribute to Bill began by quoting from the same poem:

“Ice-crowned castles and halls to test steel with the ashen shaft”

Although GWY's Collected Poems was published in 1936 and long out-of-print, I wrote to the publisher and was lucky enough to get two copies. I copied out For Any Boy for our son, Ewen, the day he was born. I was also much influenced by GWY's Mountain Craft, which I studied closely. GWY, a prominent member of the Alpine Club, lost a leg in the first World War (See SMCJ 1950, p.177-179 and GWY's The Grace of Forgetting). The Collected Poems ends with a moving poem beginning:

I have not lost the magic of long days:
I live them, dream them still.
Still am I master of the starry ways,
and freeman of the hill.
Shattered my glass, ere half the sands had run, –
I hold the heights, I keep the dreams I won.

GWY entered Cambridge University in 1894 and for many years he inspired and guided all Cambridge mountaineers. Just as Bill Murray was ten years older than me, so GWY was ten years older than George Leigh Mallory. In both cases an older man introduced a younger friend to mountaineering. Sandy Irvine, 16 years younger than Mallory, was selected for the Everest expedition of 1924 on the recommendation of the geologist and mountaineer Noel E. Odell. Why Irvine, rather than Odell (a far more experienced mountaineer) was chosen to attempt the summit is debated. Mallory admitted to GWY that Irvine's lack of experience was against him. Perhaps it was Irvine's skill with the finicky oxygen apparatus that won him the chance, but Mallory clearly regarded Irvine as a "splendid companion" and probably chose Irvine simply because he liked him (despite GWY's warning against inspiring "weaker brethren" to take risks beyond their experience. Mallory certainly knew the danger – he had failed on two previous Everest expeditions. At any rate it was on June 8, 1924 – when I was 10 months old – that Odell saw Mallory and Irvine "going strong" near the summit of Everest. It was Odell's opinion that "there is a strong probability that Mallory and Irvine succeeded" (The Fight for Everest, 1924). The recent discovery of Mallory's body encourages us to hope that the truth will finally be discovered.

I had the privilege of meeting Geoffrey Winthrop Young when he spoke to the SMC in Edinburgh. Indeed it was on GWY's personal recommendation that I wrote to his publisher asking for his Collected Poems. I met Odell, first in the Cairngorms, then in Switzerland, and finally when he visited me in California. He wrote to me just before he died. Whenever I reflect on the many remarkable people that I have known through a shared love of mountains, I am reminded deeply how privileged I have been!

Through the initiative of its commandant, Group-Captain Lord Malcolm Douglas-Hamilton, the Air Training Corps converted Glenmore Lodge into a training centre for mountaineering. As President of EUMC and Secretary of the Edinburgh JMCS, I offered to recruit young mountaineers as instructors: I particularly remember Gordon Parish, Malcolm Slesser (SMC President, 1982-84), and H.Y. Ma, my fellow post-graduate geology student, who, as President of the Geological Society of China, invited me to Beijing in 1983. It was at Glenmore that I first met Odell. In the photograph of our group (now in SMC Archives) Odell and I are the only ones not draped in climbing ropes; we were about to leave for the Geological Society of London where I was giving a paper.

For a 1946 photograph of Odell click on Glenmore 1946.

On one occasion Lord Malcolm and I were each leading cadets climbing in Coire Lochain, when Lord Malcolm fell, landing on the ledge where I was standing. I partly broke his fall. We had difficulty getting him off the hill – no mountain rescue then – and he ended up in Raigmore Hospital.

Later I sailed round Skye with Lord Malcolm, landing at Dunvegan where we were entertained by Dame Flora. We beat our way up to Talisker before sailing to Rum where Lady Bullough received us at Kinloch Castle. I often stayed at Allt Dearg, Lord Malcolm's cottage at Sligachan, and on one occasion we traversed the Cuillin Ridge, in sections, under fine winter conditions.

Lord Malcolm was a member of a remarkable family. His eldest brother was the first to fly over Everest. Malcolm himself led the raid on the V-2 plant at Peenemünde, flying low across Germany in full moon-light. Tragically Lord Malcolm and his eldest son were lost in 1964 while crossing Africa in a small plane; he was only 54. The remains were found two years later.

Other memorable days on the hills in the 1940s included the winter ascent of Crowberry Gully with Bill Murray and Malcolm Slesser (then a fellow member of EUMC and JMCS), and, again with Slesser, climbing the Torridon hills, which were far more remote then than they are now – when I first visited Assynt I arrived on a bicycle!

I remember, too, a particularly fine EUMC meet at Steall. 1947 was a vintage year; I spent Easter at the CIC hut on Nevis with Bill Murray and others. After Bill and John Barford (Secretary of the BMC) left, Michael Ward and I had the hut to ourselves. (Michael was the doctor on Hunt's successful Everest expedition in 1953). We climbed Comb Gully in its heavy winter condition. (Michael's account is in SMCJ 1950). A few months later Murray, Barford, and Ward were hit by falling rocks on the Ailefroid. I flew to Basle and made my tortuous way to Gap, where I found Bill and Michael still in blood-soaked clothes. Bill and Michael had fractured skulls. Michael had no idea who I was, and John Barford was dead.

From an early age I had found delight in my father's copies of Whymper's Scrambles amongst the Alps, Smyth's Spirit of the Hills and An Alpine Journey, a delightfully illustrated edition of Leslie Stephen's The Playground of Europe, and in de Beer's Escape to Switzerland (1945). I envisioned the Alps as a fascinating paradise – "land of the silvery glacier fire, magical land of hills". My dreams were realised when in the summer of 1947, Arthur Holmes, the distinguished Professor of Geology in Edinburgh, dispatched me to Neuchâtel to spend a year studying the structure of the Alps. For the first few weeks I was joined by H.Y. Ma. Taking money out of Britain was strictly limited, and I couldn't afford a guide; besides I wasn't on holiday! Although I covered much of Switzerland and spent a lot of time in the mountains, my serious climbing was very limited.

I was fortunate to climb the Zinal Rothorn with a casual acquaintance who could afford a guide. When Malcolm Slesser visited, we climbed the Doldenhorn, but in appalling conditions – a thunderstorm knocked Malcolm's ice-axe from his grasp and heavy rain made snow bridges suspect. Bill Murray joined me briefly in the summer of 1948; we attempted the Matterhorn, but were turned back before reaching the summit by a storm.

I did, however, learn to ski in the Jura, at Grindelwald, and at Davos, enjoying the famous runs under perfect conditions. I was particularly fortunate in being able to represent the Neuchâtel section of the Swiss Alpine Club in a course promoting ski-mountaineering. It was held in the Bernina Group, above Pontresina. We skied on glaciers, and were always roped; we carried ice-axes, crampons, and full rucsacs. We learned how to rescue a companion from a crevasse, and how to bring back an injured skier by making a sledge from his skis. We made ascents, of course, going as high as possible on ski, changing to crampons (which were new to me), and completing the climb in boots. It was a challenge because my companions were all members of the Swiss mountain troops. I was never fitter and I had fantastic pleasure on the last day when we crossed the long but easy ridge and swooped down to Silvaplana and St Moritz.

Returning to Edinburgh as a young lecturer, I was elected a member of the SMC Committee (1948-51), but my opportunity to climb became more and more limited. I skied with Arthur Cromar from Glenshee to Fealar Lodge in Glen Tilt, and with Malcolm Slesser in the Cairngorms and in the Jotunheim, Norway.

Malcolm and I read with care Bill Mackenzie's: The Snow and Ice Climbs of Glencoe (SMCJ 1947), noting that "It is not suggested here that the use of crampons is necessary for Scottish winter climbs, nor yet that their habitual use is at all desirable here". Bill's opinion that "To rely on crampons before one has mastered the technique of using the ice-axe on steep snow-ice or ice is a great mistake" shows how much climbing has changed in fifty years. We were particularly fascinated with Mackenzie's article on Bad Weather and Bivouacs (SMCJ 1946). Its subtitle, with notes on frostbite, chills, exhaustion etc made the subject irresistible. Mackenzie always knows what he is talking about, and, after several years with the Army School of Mountain Warfare, on this subject he is an authority. He assured us: "It cannot be too strongly emphasised that a snow hole is a very warm place to sleep in. ... A maximum of one and a half hours should give ample time to construct a snow cave." The diagrams are clear: we noted the sleeping bench and learned that the roof should be "high enough to almost stand up straight"; there should be a ventilator pipe and a chimney, and that "the door should be big enough to crawl through."

With these precise instructions in mind, we left my parents' home in Nethy Bridge on ski and chose a suitable site near the summit of Cairngorm. Being Hogmanay it was dark early, and we didn't use a light for fear of attracting a search party from Glenmore. Inspired by one of Mackenzie's diagrams, we used our skis to support a roof of large slabs of compacted snow. As a geologist I should have known better. "Nature abhors a vacuum" and when nature has fashioned a landscape, it will resist your efforts to change it. Dig a hole and nature will use its resources in attempting to fill it up. Drifting snow, like sand blown in the wind, will fill your hollow until equilibrium is restored. Snow trickled into our snow hole relentlessly through every crack and tiny hole. In those days we used newspaper for insulation, and we survived the night without undue discomfort. The snow hole wasn't quite as warm, however, as we had been led to believe. In the morning we skied from the summit of Cairngorm to Nethy Bridge and across the Spey, taking our skis off at the railway station at Dulnain.

Love for mountains led me into geology, but as the years passed my work left little time for climbing. In 1952 I was invited to spend the summer at the University of California, Berkeley, and two years later I accepted an invitation to head the Geology Department of Pomona College in southern California. My climbing came to an end when our son, Ewen, was born with cerebral palsy.

As protection against rattlesnakes, the boots I used in the Mojave Desert covered my calf. When I returned to Scotland in 1989 I told Alec Runciman I needed to replace them by boots suitable for Scottish hills. Alec asked what, from his large selection, I had in mind. When I responded "Nothing special, just a stout pair of boots with tricounis and hob nails", Alec exclaimed with an astonished expression: "You must be Rip Van Winkle!" True indeed, and I knew then how out-of-date I had become. Shortly after its centennial, the SMC made me its first Honorary Archivist. Looking back over more than sixty years, I appreciate how very fortunate I have been. I owe unbounded gratitude to my many comrades of the hills.

In this short span
Between my finger-tips on the smooth edge
And these tense feet cramped to the crystal ledge
I hold the life of man.
For what is there in all the world for me
But what I know and see?
And what remains of all I see and know
If I let go?

I hold the heights, I keep the dreams I won. (Geoffrey Winthrop Young)

[Title is from Knight Errantry by GWY]