Sunday 31 July 2022

Book Review: Everest 1922 by Mick Conefrey

A hundred years ago the members of the British 1922 Everest Expedition were slowly making their way back to Britain, the first ever attempt to climb the mountain having ended in an avalanche in which seven porters died. But before that tragedy the expedition had been remarkably successful, achieving the highest point ever reached and the highest camp ever established, all with equipment and in conditions that seem astonishingly primitive today.

Everest 1922 is a detailed account of the expedition and brings to life a very different time, far removed from the ease of access and the crowds on the mountain today. Just reaching Everest was difficult as the whole area was poorly mapped, and no westerner had been near the mountain. Nepal was a closed country too, so the only access was through Tibet, which was reached via a long march from Darjeeling in India.

The book initially covers the 1921 Reconnaissance Expedition which found the way to Everest and reconnoitred various possible routes to the summit. For the western mountaineers this was real exploration. The Tibetans in the villages closest to Everest didn’t have any useful information on how to reach the mountain itself, let alone set foot on it. Once at the mountain the expedition members probed the valleys and glaciers on its flanks for an ascent route, eventually reaching the North Col, the key to climbing Everest from Tibet. The next year they returned with the aim of climbing the mountain.

The story of the 1922 Expedition is fascinating and gripping and Conefrey tells it well. The cast of extraordinary larger-than-life characters and their motivations, conflicts and relationships are brought to life. The descriptions of the difficulties in organising and financing such a massive venture along with the machinations and politics involved set the scene in the world of public school and military men back in London.

Mallory is of course the name associated with the first Everest expeditions and his obsession with Everest, which would end with his disappearance high on the mountain two years later, comes across strongly. He’s uninterested in the land they pass through, its natural history and the culture of the inhabitants, unlike some of the others. He just wants to climb the mountain.

Everest 1922 very well-researched and very-well written. I found it compelling reading, an entry into a long-gone world. Recommended for anyone interested in Everest and the story of mountaineering.

Everest 1922 is published by Allen & Unwin and costs £20.

Camping in the NW Highlands. Book research!

Whilst my latest book is a guide to day walks in the Torridon region I actually did much of the research on backpacking trips, mostly in the last two years, and I have included some suggestions for such walks. There is one camping picture in the book. Here are a dozen more.   

The book can be ordered direct from the publishers -

Friday 29 July 2022

A Walk Round The Back Of Cairn Gorm On A Quiet July Day

Derry Cairngorm, Loch Etchachan, & Ben Macdui

From 45 years ago (see last two posts) to my most recent walk in the Cairngorms late this July.

Summer is well-established now and the weather has recovered from the heatwave and heavy rain of a few weeks ago and settled into more typical July and August conditions. Warm but not hot, cloudy, occasional sunshine, occasional showers, occasional breezes. Unexciting. Some might say uninspiring, but nature is never that. The slopes have a dark green wash. There is little snow left. The air is soft, the colours subtle, the feeling peaceful.

Cairn Lochan

The day was calm, the clouds thick but high above the summits. Rain seemed likely but none fell. The air was dry.

I wandered over to the back of Cairn Gorm, the unspoilt side, the dramatic side, the side that ends with crags and steep slopes rushing down to the dark waters of Loch Avon. This is quiet country, a world away from the tourist resort on the other side of the hill with its fairground attractions and, at present, the building site that is the reconstruction of the funicular railway. But here there is no sight or sound of this desolation.

Ciste Mhearad

In Ciste Mhearad the last snow hangs on. Streams gush out of dark channels in the now dirty scalloped whiteness. The snow patch is almost visibly shrinking. I doubt it will last long unless the weather turns much colder. Across the hidden deep gash of Strath Nethy I had a glimpse of the twisting River Avon with the long line of Ben Avon and Beinn a’ Bhuird on the skyline, the distant cone of Mount Keen on their edge.

View across the River Avon to Ben Avon & Beinn a' Bhuird

From Ciste Mhearad I contoured round the slopes of Cairn Gorm, crossing a shallow corrie where a stream runs across soft meadows before crashing down steep slopes to Loch Avon. This is the Feith Buidhe (yellow bog-stream) and hardly known, unlike its namesake on the Cairngorm Plateau not far away. 

Across the deep rift filled with Loch Avon Derry Cairngorm and Ben Macdui looked sombre and subdued, little snow remaining. Summer hills. Carn Etchachan and the Shelter Stone Crag dark and forbidding. I wondered if there were any climbers on those towering rock walls.

Carn Etchachan, Shelter Stone Crag, & Ben Macdui

Coire Raibert was a mass of water, streams and springs lacing the slopes. From the Fiacaill a’ Choire Chais mountains ran away to the west, the Highlands stretching across the land. 

View west from the Fiacaill a' Choire Chais

The day was uneventful, gentle, placid. I relished it. The Cairngorms are beautiful and rewarding in so many ways. After all these years they still lift me up.

Tuesday 26 July 2022

My First Backpacking Trip In The Cairngorms - 45 Years Ago

In the Lairig Ghru, 14th July 1977

“This country impressive and v. wild. I am overawed”

Journal entry, 13th July 1977.

Two months after my first walk in the Cairngorms I was back for my first backpacking trip, five days during which I climbed Ben Macdui (twice!), Cairn Gorm, Braeriach, Sgor an Lochain Uaine, and Cairn Toul, walked through the Lairig Ghru, and stayed at my first Cairngorm bothies. I also had my first taste of Cairngorm storms.  

I had little money and no car back then, so I hitch-hiked from Manchester, where I was living, to Aviemore. It took me a day and a half, and I arrived with a damp sleeping bag after spending a wet misty night in a plastic bivi bag somewhere outside Perth. I was not impressed with Aviemore. My journal just says “a dump”. I did note that Nevisport was a good shop.

From Aviemore I walked with two friends through Rothiemurchus Forest, which I described as beautiful, to the Lairig Ghru, which impressed me greatly. “Wild, desolate, impressive & big – a scale I kept misjudging” I wrote that evening in Corrour Bothy, which I described as “quite good”. Outside the wind howled.

Corrour Bothy, 14 July 1977

From Corrour we walked round to Glen Derry – “a herd of red deer stags at Derry Lodge & enormous blue, green and brown dragonflies” – and up to the Hutchinson Memorial Hut – “smaller but cleaner than Corrour”.  As with Corrour no-one else was there.

In the evening I went alone up Ben Macdui via Loch Etchachan – “magnificent!”. It was exactly two months since my first ascent. Seeing the trig point atop its huge cairn I realised the snow had been very deep back in May when only the very top had been visible. Again I was impressed – “view of range after range of mountains enthralling”. On the way back down I encountered a white reindeer, its antlers in velvet. 

Loch Etchachan, 15th July 1977

A host of sensations – overwhelming at times”. The intensity was to grow. From the Hutchinson Hut we went to Loch Etchachan and then Loch Avon where we camped by the stream feeding the loch. “This place incredible”.  There was one person in the Shelter Stone and a few other tents not far away, the first other people we’d seen. From camp we went up Cairn Gorm “by a gully along the loch shore” – Coire Raibert I guess – and back via The Saddle. 

Camp below the Shelter Stone, July 15, 1977

The hitherto dry though cold and windy weather ended that evening, and the night was very wet and stormy. “Torrential waterfalls pouring down mountain sides & torrential rain pouring out of the sky!”  With full waterproofs on we had a wet scramble beside the Garbh Uisge Mor – “had to remove packs and pass them up to negotiate one tricky bit.”  By the time we reached Ben Macdui the rain had stopped, and the cloud had lifted though the NW wind was bitter.

We descended to the Lairig Ghru then up An Garbh Coire to the tiny refuge where we stayed as it was shelter from the wind. Battered by the weather my companions decided to walk back to Aviemore via the Lairig Ghru. I wanted more hills! I got them but didn’t see much.

“Went up Braeriach, wandered about in the storm getting slightly lost but eventually finding Cairn Toul from where I took a compass bearing on the Loch Einich path and walked directly at it - & came out only 100 yards away.” Descending the steep path to the loch involved sliding down a snow slope at one point then it was the long walk out to Aviemore.  My first backpacking trip in the Cairngorms was over. I was hooked. There would be many, many more.