The humble mountain doss

I've just had a tiny piece in TGO mag around bothies (to support Ed Byrne's Corrour feature), and bothies in general are getting a fair bit of air time at the moment on the back of a new book by MO Geoff Allan. It's reminded me of this short piece I wrote for the same magazine to accompany a photo feature in 2015, to mark the MBA's 50th anniversary.

Shenavall in the Fisherfields

The Mountain Bothy Association celebrate their 50th birthday this year. They have been duly honoured with the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service, a tribute to the graft, craft and ingenuity that’s required to keep around 100 buildings afloat, tiny ships adrift in lonely seas of bog and heather, places that exist against the odds. For me, the real reason to celebrate bothies is not a birthday, or a merit badge from Her Maj’, but for a love of stories and preservation of ethics.

The bothy code is a code for life. Turn no-one away, leave no trace, respect each other and the place you stay. Not ‘rules’, but an appeal to that rarest of elements in the modern periodic table - empathy. A wistful reminder of mountain ethics in an age of dumbing down and go pro drones, but the romantic in us kens it: These ideas are fit to guide our wider life, not just for taking shelter in the wilds.

A bothy stay will warm hands, but can also warm hearts and even save lives. Thankfully I’ve never arrived at death’s door, but I have fallen through the door at Corrour drenched and dehydrated, to find a fire already burning and a chair already waiting. Camban bothy is a favourite, purely because it saved a friend new to Scottish hillwalking from what might have become hypothermia. Fortunes change under a roof and four walls - even if the only running water is running down the walls, and the roof is shared with mice. These buildings are also places to share with new friends and old, and a gentler introduction for those new to big, wide-open spaces.

I used to vaguely disapprove of bothies, their nod to creature comforts where I thought there should be no concessions. But as my understanding of our backcountry has deepened, I’ve grown to love them, not as intrusions, but part of the landscape story. Bothies offer a link to our natural and cultural history, fragments of past lives lived.

By visiting, writing in the bothy book and meeting likeminded souls, we make the story new. A bothy book is my favourite kind of reading – episodic, as much about what’s absent as what’s present, accents unique, each voice given equal measure. Funny, stupid, poignant, pointless and poetic – all of life is here, the pages of an enormous novel thrown to the wind, each character given license to run riot in the hills outside.

fragments of past lives lived - found pinned up in Staoineag bothy

More information about the MBA:

Ben Lui under a snow moon

My window was a little marginal, but I couldn't pass up a camp under a clear sky and the snow moon. The East ridge of Ben Lui under winter conditions has been on the wish list for at least the last 3 seasons, and it didn't disappoint. Getting up it with a full pack in soft snow took all morning and also felt pretty marginal in a couple of places, that pack tipping me backwards on exposed boulders near the top. Next time, a bike and a day sack. Extremely high winds (too fierce to stand up, let alone mess around with the Windoo toy... but from experience I'm saying gusts of 50+mph on the top of Beinn a' Chleib) meant I bailed on a try for the four Munro group. There was simply no place sheltered enough to camp, and I wasn't convinced the snow was deep enough under Ben Oss to dig a snowhole. The walk out involved way too much tarmac, but gave me time to make my peace with the change of fortune.

I'll save the commercial shots for elsewhere, but here's a few I like for now.

Mountain Pro magazine - final issue

As you may have already seen, it's the last hurrah for our climbing and mountaineering quarterly. If you've ever tried to give a dirtbag climber a deadline, you'll understand me when I say it sometimes felt like herding cats, but they were passionate, bristling-with-ideas-and-energy cats and I'm genuinely sad to see the title go.

Due to the vagaries of timetabling, I didn't get the chance to say goodbye and thankyou on the 'welcome' page, so I want to thank everyone who wrote, photographed, reviewed and was interviewed for their input to the magazine, here and now. Thank you.

Of course I'm biased, but it felt to me as if the title found its voice over the last couple of years. I consciously moved it away from a previous competitor, to give both them and us some room. I can only hope this was appreciated - it certainly didn't affect the bottom line either way. We didn't do listicles, and partners like JMT, MHT and Vertebrate lent further gravitas to proceedings. We even paid (never a lot, but better than some) for articles. We ran pieces by name climbers, rank outsiders, and those inbetween... and our magazine and I hope the wider culture was better for it. I'm originally from an independent music background, and the ethos is not so different - know your niche, play straight, pay it forward. A friend and colleague described it as a 'thin Alpinist' - I think she was being a touch generous... but I know we were doing something right, because I started to see some of our ideas mirrored in neighbouring titles. They wanted some of what we had. And I know because of stories and emails sent from readers on every continent. I really liked that about a digital mag; that it could, and did, end up anywhere and everywhere.

However, these are tough times for magazines that rely on advertising... even those with healthy 5 figure readerships. There were other factors that I'll save for another time, but the publisher did right by the title and gave it an extra six month's grace.

Click on the image below for the last ever edition of Mountain Pro magazine. There's also a good back catalogue - just scroll down a bit. Everything is free to read.

Dark Days

This was written a few weeks ago, and the pictures taken in early January over a 24hour period between Glen Coe and the Port of Appin. Given events of the last few days, it seems a pretty naive experiment now, but whatever, I'm throwing it to the wind.

To my own mind at least, we've crossed some lines... so be as kind as you can to each other out there. Don't drunk tweet, bite your tongue before trolling. There's only us left, and language matters. And if you want to even begin to understand what's happening, follow the one true god. Follow the money.

Shortly after Christmas we walked above Balquhidder on a fine cool winter’s day with deep light, shadow play on the hills, glowing green and red and a hint of snow white above us. I breathed in the life of trees deeply, cradled their presence in my neural network like the roots held the soil, fed back to each other and maybe even to me? Permission for a few hours to bend, not forced to break. A reminder of rest, safety, home. We’ve been trying to get somewhere else, buy a house. Turns out that wasn't sustainable.

The next day we went into the city. The streets slowly filled with the bored, the drunk, the rich and the poor, all buggered and beggered by it all. I watched the eyes of those who walked past the homeless, embarrassed to blankness, voided credit card hearts. My daughter moaned to see mickey fucking mouse one more time, and instead I gave her a pound to give to the old man slumped outside Schuh with a dog. Rats on a concrete ship.

I take my daughter to a ‘fun day’ held between a scrap yard full of twisted metal and a motorway. It’s run by Good People who Mean Well in a church car park. There’s not a blade of grass in sight. This is normal. But we are the lucky ones - the wrong class maybe but the right colour at least, enough money to eat well. Our homes have yet to be bombed, our friends have yet to be taken to the gulag, our bodies have not been ransacked for organs.

We try to teach our girl about about Usnea, old man’s beard - tinder, antibiotic, a lichen cure for ills from athlete’s foot to strep throat and flu. We may yet achieve escape velocity, but there’s no place deep enough in the woods that we can hide from this octopus, no place that can resist.

But in my cornered mind on the darker days, we have to prepare. She must learn to cut wood, navigate, self rescue and self defend, grow, kill, gut and cook food, write code and speak Mandarin. She may have to do more. It’s a big ask, to make plans for war. The terror of parenthood, and the burden of children. The war we waged on the world came home, didn't it.

There’s an idea that if you ignore our certain bitter end in a fart of crocodile tears, famine, dis-ease, anomie, digital atomisation and chemical rot, then you are running away, turning a blind eye, avoiding the painful and inevitable; that you are, sin of all sins, a coward. But what if all that was a distraction, fake news, a temporary aberration from another normal. What if the weather was all you needed to know? Then only a tree bending in the wind with it’s roots in the ground would be real, and all the concrete and glass in the world would be a mirage.

Rest with me a while. I need to catch my breath here, lean on this branch, before we try again.