TGO magazine

Stories from the Rounds, 2: Path to the Past

Over the next few weeks I’m sharing 3 stories, from the 3 Rounds covered in my Big Rounds book.

The second is a story I wrote for TGO magazine in 2017, called Path to the Past. It focuses on the remarkable Dinorwig Quarry, above Llanberis.


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Path to the Past

''I've been coming here for 10 years, and I still haven't got to the bottom of it. What I'm getting into now is the age of different parts of the quarry, working out which of the old spoils were disturbed by new digs. There's a transgender guy in the village who goes caving up here - brave stuff. I wouldn't climb in here myself - I've seen things move about on their own.''

These were the words of Daffyd, my accidental guide to the remarkable Dinorwig Quarry, as we stood high above the main workings in bright sunshine. This vast scar that stands above Llanberis on the flanks of Elidir Fach, was once the 2nd largest open cast slate mine in the world. At its busiest it employed over 3,000 men, but the nearby Penrhyn was even larger. The scale here is hard to fathom, like something from a Sebastian Selgado photograph… almost as monochrome but minus the fragile flesh.

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I’d noticed my namesake as I wandered through the lower sections of the ruins, watching as he and his dog climbed a ragged staircase hanging off the right hand edge of a giant hole in the mountain. That must be the way, I thought; it’s got to be the Foxes’ Path. So I followed him up.

This route won’t be familiar to many hill walkers, but to be fair this is not our usual territory. Paddy Buckley writes of it in the notes for his famous fell running round, but strictly speaking… well, we’re out of bounds here. When I caught up with Daffyd higher up, he explained to me that First Hydro Company, who now manage the land, had once tried to stop visitors exploring, but the local climbing community just laughed it off. Now, as back in the early days of it’s existence, the quarry is one of the chief reasons why Llanberis is such a busy little town. The main amphitheatre is now a world famous climbing venue. To reach the staircase to the lost world, you must first jump a gate, but the warning sign at the fence is more disclaimer than outright prohibition: Enter at your own risk… and don’t try to sue us if you do!

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The risk is ours to own and in that sense, it’s no different here to any hill, but in every other sense, Dinorwig is unusual. Our uplands are far from free of the hand of man of course, but up on the summits far above the treeline, they often feel so. They are where we head, when we want to escape. No such illusions are afforded here. Ruin is all around. This is a vainglorious landscape, a silent and shattered testament to the complete exploitation of place and people at the height of industrial capitalism. It’s a fractured, dissonant place being sucked back into nature; somewhere held together by memory, but only rarely witnessed. Here, we are both wholly present and completely absent. It might make you wonder at our guile, and wonder even more at our gullibility.  

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From the foot of the road, I took ‘the zigzags’ up to the tram winching shed, a narrow slate path flanked by high walls and surrounded by a vast field of slate spoil on either side. Those who did not stay at the quarry barracks would walk this way to and from work every day from the village. Rusty iron cabling thick as two fingers snaked flaccidly around the giant wooden drum that ferried trams full of finished slates from above to below. I followed the tramlines around and climbed the first smooth incline of many, past the barracks and then up to Matilda level, to be met by an enormous courtyard with the multi-storey shells of the storerooms still just about upright.

There, I left the camera groups and day-trippers behind and headed off the designated path to where the old coffin road intersects with the slag heaps and iron flotsam. At this point, more tramlines stretch up to the gods, but I was after the quarrymen’s footsteps. So following one man and his dog, I trod a long, crumbling flight of steps flanked by broken iron railings and a rusty pipe.

The path tops out to another set of buildings. There’s the remains of a huge cable crane or ‘Blondin’, and a few huts, the largest of which contains a quarryman’s coat, shoes and a teapot, carefully laid out on a bench at one end of the room in memoriam, a stove and much graffiti. This was the Caban, where the workers ate lunch and sat out the worst of the weather. It’s still used by climbers as an unofficial bothy, the rotting brickwork stuffed with bits of old tarpaulin for additional weather protection.

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I ambled up another incline to Australia level, and caught up with Daffyd again. He directed me out from the path, along to the sawmills, where the raw slate was cut and then dressed, ready for transport down the inclines I had been following. As the quarry became less profitable, moving the heavy metal proved too expensive and so the steam compressor, saws and trucks lie abandoned, oxidizing by degrees in the fresh air. Birdsong, blazing sun and quietened ‘industrial heritage’. It was hard to reconcile these three with somewhere purpose built for screaming destruction.

Dinorwig opened in 1797, and drew workers from all over Wales and Cumbria. It was apparently poorly organised, and its spoils progressively littered the site and slid into newer pits and galleries. You can see these everywhere as you move through, even today; not much has changed on the ground since about 1920. Production declined at the end of the 19th century, and the quarry eventually ground to a halt in 1969.

Conditions were harsh and dangerous, the quarrymen working high up in the open rather than underground, on wet and icy galleries exposed to the elements and to rockfall loosened by blasting. A crew was made of 2 rockmen, plus a splitter and a dresser, with the former freeing the rock from the hillside, for the splitter to break it into more manageable sections with hammer and chisel, and the dresser to cut into slates. The crew was paid monthly by the ‘bargain’, measured out in 6-metre blocks of rock - wages were decided by how many slates they could work from each of these bargains. However, they had to be careful; over production meant less money, not more. Crews would often reorganise distribution between them, to try and maintain wage rates and bonuses. Cunning meets cunning: In this chaos of exploitation, we see the beginnings of worker solidarity and the birth of the unions.

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I went higher still, passing more giant winches and a water tank for the compressor on Abyssinia level - so high that Abyssinia could allegedly be seen from it - to teeter on a steep, slate ramp. I turned slowly and carefully to look back down the valley, resisting a strong urge to drop to my hands and knees for security. It was an odd kind of vertigo here, perched halfway between the world of wild places, and another kind of wildness; a world ripped apart by money and machinery.

Having revealed all, the Foxes’ path ends here. I climbed up past the service road onto rock and grass, and the more familiar mountain territory of Elidir Fawr and Elidir Fach. I literally came up for air, something of a respite after all that fascinating intensity. The second hill felt almost Scottish with its crest of blocky talus pointing my way to Pen y Ole Wen across the Ogwen valley. All being well, I should be across there by the same time tomorrow.

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Thin Ice

I count myself lucky to tell stories as part of how I earn a crust. I love stories, I think they are as important as food and shelter, but then I would say that wouldn’t I.

I have a new story about a very special place in the April ‘19 TGO magazine - a hill called Streap. I get to quote Captain Beefheart and not have it cut in the edit - how cool is that?! However, there are always more photos than can be shown due to simple pagination limits, and so here’s a few that didn’t make it, including two of my personal favourites from 2018.

“My wintery perch overlooked Loch Beoraid, its blank headwall lost in matt shadows. Above that inky blackness, an orange fire reigned over Eigg and the Skye Cuillin.”

“My wintery perch overlooked Loch Beoraid, its blank headwall lost in matt shadows. Above that inky blackness, an orange fire reigned over Eigg and the Skye Cuillin.”

“Broader slopes for a while, light and dark as the skies above danced to their own tune…”

“Broader slopes for a while, light and dark as the skies above danced to their own tune…”

“The mountain drew me on, and I felt that curious sense of inevitability that high places can engender; a simple wellbeing, a rightness in being there, some kind of mountain blessing.”

“The mountain drew me on, and I felt that curious sense of inevitability that high places can engender; a simple wellbeing, a rightness in being there, some kind of mountain blessing.”

It's become quite trendy to talk about ‘thin places’ - places where earth and heaven meet. I like the idea, but it’s something I'd avoid in a magazine like the plague because it smacks of nature-writing-bandwagon- jumping. Who wants to go to a mountain party with a self important student rapping on palimpest or some such?

But that is what these places are: thin. We get to be gods for the day, we get to be protagonists in our own story. Yay, us.

The other thing about thin places is that they are delicate. Finely balanced. Our interaction with them is fragile, and they are acutely vulnerable to our follies. They exist without us, but we threaten them.

Thin places must be protected from the bulldozers and their greedy, cretinous drivers. We must descend from the land of gods, go down from the mountain and defend them.

“The middle ground bowed before rising to the final summit and the bottom corner of that big, beautiful Z. In here I was protected from the gusts, and that feeling of openness and gratitude returned.”

“The middle ground bowed before rising to the final summit and the bottom corner of that big, beautiful Z. In here I was protected from the gusts, and that feeling of openness and gratitude returned.”

“Streap is old school, its name expressive of more innocent times; before hilltracks and footpath erosion, before mapping apps and Goretex and Vlogging it all to death. It is pure mountain romance, a lifeboat of modernity in our otherwise complicated adult world.”

“Streap is old school, its name expressive of more innocent times; before hilltracks and footpath erosion, before mapping apps and Goretex and Vlogging it all to death. It is pure mountain romance, a lifeboat of modernity in our otherwise complicated adult world.”

Achadh nan Seileach

In February 2018, Stef and I spent 3 days in Achnashellach. Stef’s piece on the trip has just appeared in the March 19 issue of The Great Outdoors, alongside some of my photos. I’ve included some more below. Stef is a good writer, I’m a fan, an advocate and I hope a friend.

Everything coincided for us - timing, weather, conditions - to make this an unrepeatable trip in a remarkable place. I’d not long buried my stepdad, so it was good to be reminded of who I am when I’m myself. It felt as though I’d come up for air after 6 weeks of holding my breath.

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Within 24 hours of us getting home, news spread of a man that had gone missing in the same area. His name was Stephen Mitchell. I’ve told some of this story in another article (BMC Summit, winter 18). For all my ambivalence, even antipathy towards social media, in this case it was a boon. While it didn’t save Stephen’s life, it did allow myself and one or two others who’d been walking in the area to connect with each other, Stephen’s family and the police.

We shared information via a Facebook group and then privately. For a week or so, I became very caught up in the information exchange. We had walked very literally in Stephen’s footprints for much of the weekend. We had been so close. I felt personally responsible when the search came to nought. After the BMC piece was published, a reader emailed to tell me he was the one who had eventually found Stephen, in the spring.

These connections matter. I know Stephen will have been full of love for life, pinching himself at the beauty of it all, just as we were and just a few hours ahead of us. I know because his daughter told me he took great comfort in the mountains, that he’d be called there all his life. And I know his family took some comfort in knowing that although we were strangers, a wider family of stravaigers got involved and gave support where we could.

My friend Stef doesn’t do social media any more. He became disillusioned with it - the straw men, the backbiting, the jealously, the endless distraction. Certainly a wiser man than I. Then again, it’s not really us, it’s the machinery talking. At it’s best, the medium isn’t the message and it’s a means, not the end. It allows us to share the stories we forge out of ourselves and these breathtaking places. New alloys and allies are made from these raw elements, even the sadness, that sustain us when we return home. If we don’t look after each other and these places, then who else will?

For Stephen Mitchell, 1961-2018

Feature - The Angel's Share

This story was originally published in the March 2017 issue of The Great Outdoors Magazine. I was pleased they kept the whisky reference intact and retained the title!

At the end, there’s a link which takes you to the John Muir Trust’s web page about the hydro developments planned in Glen Etive, around which the story is set. Many people had originally made objections to some or all of the schemes on the basis of significant landscape and recreational impact with little or no carbon or energy saving benefit, but two of the schemes with the most objections were recently resubmitted with small changes… meaning of course that the public’s concerns were lost, and now need to be made again if the area is to be protected.

To my mind, the area is really significant - the site of a drove road, dozens of ruined shielings, songlines like Duncan Ban MacIntyre’s ‘The Song of the Ewe’ and the much older Deirdre of the Sorrows… and ‘the Robber’s Waterfall’, a place from where bandits would ambush drovers… now one of the very places development is planned. All this indigenous cultural heritage should surely be treasured, but in Scotland we sometimes seem to cringe at our historic riches.

It’s still a relevant place. Close to the urban centre of Scotland, accessible and yet with a feeling of remoteness, and valued by everyone from day-trippers wanting a James Bond selfie, to first time family campers, photography tour operators, climbers and kayakers… not just solitude seeking winter mountaineers or the other usual outdoor suspects, but also people who can’t access the high mountains but can and do value the experience of being surrounded by them; a casual stroll, a ‘wild’ swim, an open car door, fresh air and calm.

Please make your voice heard before the 6th January, 2019 - the deadline for comments. If you feel strongly about it, I’d appreciate your shares too - either of this article or of your own objections and the deadline, or both. I’ll be submitting my own objections, again, over the Christmas period.

Thanks for reading and a have a great break when it comes.

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Drinking my fill on the Glen Etive Five.

I wasn’t expecting to be here, but here I was. Walking up the north ridge of Ben Starav at 8.30 in the morning, fresh snow underfoot on the 5th day of spring. My other plans hadn’t worked out: The weather window was wrong, I was full of a cold (I have a 2 year old – I’m always full of the cold) and it looked as if winter was over. But as the saying doesn’t go - if life gives u lemons, make gin and tonic. A few day’s before, Storm Katie swept in bringing fresh snow and now, with a brief lull in her wake, I spied an opportunity.

Over the past year I’ve been focussed on exploring the mountains closer to home in Glasgow, and Glen Etive is somewhere I keep returning to. The glen itself could use a good deal less plantation forestry in my view, but it’s still an almost shockingly beautiful place that feels really remote given how close it is to the central belt, and is surrounded by the most incredible mountains. Corbett’s, Munros and a host of unnamed tops… broad ridges, narrow arêtes and deep chasms, wild waterfalls and craggy bealachs, easy walking through to mountaineering and complex climbing routes – there’s something for everyone here, even those who don’t stray from the road at all, and come just for a car camp or a ‘Skyfall’ selfie. We came for the first time with my daughter on her second wild camp in the Autumn, and got to within 100m or so of the top of Ben Starav. The final section of boulders were just too slippery with frost for us to continue safely, and we turned around, still having had a fantastic day on the hill in glorious weather.

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Ever since then, that hill had been a stone in my pocket. I wanted to come back, and in winter if possible. There’s a group of 5 Munros that adjoin those on the Loch Rannoch side – the Black Mount – but are much easier to access from the head of the Loch Etive. I kept on studying the maps, kept making plans for Nigel, but was convinced I’d missed the season. If that sounds as familiar to you as it is to me, then let me assure you (and myself!) there’s a logic to all our frustrated weekends and missed chances, when the rest of life makes other plans for our time and attention. I guess if there’s a moral to this story it’s that if we keep watching the skies, keep keeping the faith, our number will come up on those outstanding projects in the end. As I climbed on, I became aware that this was one of those times. I’d been granted special dispensation, and the mountain was welcoming me back.

There was barely a breath of wind, but still the clouds swelled silently behind me, rising on the thermals down in the glen. All was quiet and still, my only company the sound of laboured breathing and snow giving away gently underfoot. I’d arrived late and plodded up to about 600ms before camping just above the snowline, trusting to the weather forecast and was proven right – there’d been no rustling of tent fabric on the ‘hill of rustling’. I had, however, forgotten how long it took to melt snow for food and water, and was glad I’d brought extra fuel.

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My half way camp wasn’t the most comfortable – I hadn’t made it to where the ridge flattens out a little - but it did mean a good early start for the hill the following morning, which was valuable. The north ridge of Ben Starav is long - really long. Rising from sea level to nearly 1100 metres, and all in one direction, it seems to go on forever, at least until at least the top is in sight. Shrouded in cloud, veiled then revealed, suddenly the sun alit on bouldered shoulders and I was back in the magic of the present moment, back in the white room with a full heart, my weekly worries dropping irrelevant like a stone into the Loch to my right. I don’t need that weight now, as I plunge the axe into the convex slope a few metres from the summit cairn. As I gently tap the cairn with my axe, I’ve turned a key in a lock.

The route takes me in a sweeping south-easterly arc to the sharp ridge leading to Stob Coire Dheirg. On the map this is a minor top en route to my next Munro, but in the flesh there’s an exposed decent to an airy, snaggle toothed spine of rock that joins the two. It’s not technical scrambling, but I’m glad there’s no wind. I stop to stow my other pole and some of my clumsiness along with it, and engage with the rock – axe, crampons, hands, the occasional a`cheval and alpine knee. The weather opens up as I make my way along. I stop for first lunch under the summit and ditch the crampons as a snowshower comes and goes, then slip and slide east, past impressive crags and gullies, down to the bealach under blue skies and a warming sun.

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Beinn nan Aighenan is more off route than on, but the bealach that joins the ‘hill of the hinds' to the round is, for me, the treat of the trip. A sandy single track cuts through Cairngorm-like pink granite, shot through with ruler straight lines of quartzite, which also lies in seemingly random piles inbetween glacier smoothed bowling balls. The hills grow dark with more snow, but this undulating plain is illuminated with a fiery winter light that gives a lie to the recent equinox. I leave my bag at a prominent rock and set out with axe, camera, sweets and map for the top.

It’s another long ascent on slippery fresh snow, with superb views east towards Loch Dochard and the wall of Rannoch, and once on top, the wind bites venomously hard and cold from the Cruachan range to the south. Back at camp on the bealach, I find a burn, and watch the snow showers come and go on the ridges around me. It’s a joy to stop early in this magnificent place, although I am a little concerned for tomorrow. I wake at 2am to stars and again at 7am with a fresh dusting of snow on my pillow.

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Dawn is of gold and rainbow trout hues, but evaporates as quickly as it arrived to leave cold, clag and a thankless trudge to Munro 3 - Glas Bheinn Mhor, which is exactly as it’s name suggests - 'big greenish-grey hill’, with an emphasis on the grey. A freezing wind blew hard but not hard enough to blow the cloud away. With a compass bearing and careful footsteps I found my exit in the whiteout, convinced that I would bail out at the col below. There seemed little point in the remaining 2, when the weather wasn’t co-operating – surely it was better to come back and do them justice another time?

I sat and ate lunch, waiting to see if the weather would improve. I’m a little too good at prevaricating at moments like this. Then, with cloud and hail still billowing over the crest of the ridge, I took one last look at the map, and to my own surprise started up a vague zig zag footpath. I’m not sure what motivated the change of heart, but 15 minutes later I was so glad of it. As I reached the plateau which forms of the bulk of Stob Coir' an Albannaich, the cloud blew through and mountains, boulders and snowfields alike were set alight. Cloud scudded fast across the tops, casting great shadows on the plateau as I slowly postholed my way to the cairn, perched high on a dramatic coire ledge which must be the source of this hill’s name - the 'peak of the coire of the Scotsman'. I leant into the howling wind as I stood on top the shelter stones, resisting the vertigo to soak up the panorama. Our world: So majestic, so surreal and dreamlike. So easy to become inured by everyday life, wonder blunted and run dry, spirit taxed and evaporated by the daily grind… but solo mountain travel is rehydration for the soul.

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Back in the here and now, getting down looked tricky. I hide behind a boulder and donned crampons, stow my poles and take a few, ginger steps on thin, sketchy ice to the reach the relative safety of deeper snow. Down via the easterly ridge - doing its very best impression of a highland sand dune, sharp light casting deep shadows in it’s lee and snow crystals rattling in flurries along a scissor sharp crest. Then down again, deeply into that Scotman’s coire, another silent, watchful, majestic corner of these Etive hills, to walk between massive Henry Moore erratics perched on ungainly plinths, and static pools of grey water ice, monuments to solitude and the elements.

Second lunch and another snow shower, which clears as I begin the steady incline for the final hill - Meall nan Eun – and then descend again for the summit. It’s as if the best of the day’s weather has gone, and the ‘hill of the birds' is cold, undistinguished and barely a top at all, with neither views nor wildlife. I venture to it’s north-westerly end to try and find a way off, but feel sick just looking at the corniced crags to the north, and head back to the gully leading to Coirean Riabhach, with hope of an escape there. Another, longer burst of gloopy, soaking snowflakes, but there… a few lopsided, collapsed footprints mark the way down to the head of a waterlogged coire.

For the next hour, I handrailed the burn cutting an ever deepening line into the rock. It sometimes found fault lines and then bands of strength, sometimes spilled over broad terraces and frothed over precipices. Lower down, a deep gorge with silver birch clung to its chiselled sides. Low sunlight spilled in through the gullies from the west, vast javelins of psychedelic orange cast on saturated deergrass – diagonals that grew, changed angle and aspect, traversed slopes before pulling away and evaporating into the fizz of dark grey snow and cloud that now hugged the tops.

The glen kept watching me. My pointless internal circles I thought, the glen’s pointed cycles. My noise, its silence; my anxiety, its patience. I walked on - a little further than I wanted - to rest near a ruined shieling, my last night before returning to the city. I’d emerged, recharged by this embarrassment of riches and giddy with the experience of wildness.

Drunk on the Angel’s share. It felt like a secret.


Thanks for reading. Please help protect Glen Etive: www.johnmuirtrust.org/about/resources/1498-glen-etive-hydro-schemes