The Long Read #3 ‘Meggie ‘Hall of Fame’. Finale.

9th April 2018

Rounding off our retrospective of the early days at SAIS Creag Meagaidh is a contribution from Ian Dillon. But first some background on Kathy Tighe (nee Harding), also a member of the early cadre of people who first trod the Coire Ardair railway sleepers for the SAIS back in 1996.

(Above) Kathy Tighe (Harding) was the subject in a Herald magazine piece back in March 1998.

 

(Above) The Herald article also profiled the SAIS, its move into operations at Creag Meagaidh and covered the wrangle over funding the service in those days.

 

(Above) Kathy Tighe (nee Harding) was a member of the first group who worked for the SAIS at Creag Meagaidh. She was the first woman to work as an avalanche forecaster in Scotland and was celebrated as such in this ‘Herald’ magazine piece. In the article she’s quoted as saying, “If it gives other women the thought ‘oh, I could go out and do that’ then great, because they can.” She paved the way for two other women forecasters who are now some of the most experienced members of the SAIS team. Six of the original 14 applicants for the ongoing SAIS Avalanche Forecaster Training programme are women, of which five were accepted for assessment.

 

(Above) Kathy on something steep back in the day. She now has a serious job with the NHS based in Fort William. I bumped into her on the Coire Ardair path some weeks ago after she skied down off the plateau in worsening weather after attempting ‘the round’. She was in good form and spoke wistfully of her time working for the SAIS.

 

(Above) Kathy was occasionally accompanied on the hill by her partner Mick Tighe, and here she’s seconding him on a small steep ice problem in Coire Choile Rais. The above photos and original copy of the magazine were kindly provided by Mick. He sent them to me with a small hand-written compliments slips that read: “Can we have this (the magazine) back, please. It’s our only copy. Kathy was Harding before we married.  PS. I don’t know why she married me either!”

A year or two ago we were banging on about full depth avalanches here on the blog (Edit: we’ll be doing that again sometime soon..) and posted a couple of suitably atmospheric photos. Seemingly from nowhere, Ian Dillon made a response in the ‘Comments’ about it and mentioned his connection to the SAIS. This young lad (as was!) is well-remembered here at Creag Meagaidh and he’s been kind enough to pen a few words about his time trying to tame the avalanche dragon for the benefit of the mountaineering public. In Ian’s own words:

I started climbing in Ireland in the early 1980’s and didn’t really know much about Creag Meagaidh until I moved to Scotland in 1988 to begin a degree at the University of Strathclyde. That Christmas I was given a copy of the iconic ‘Cold Climbs’ and that was really the first time I’m heard of Meggie. The images of the Post Face, Pumpkin, The Wand, Smith’s Gully etc really captivated me. The daydreams started but I never expected to see those routes virtually every day for 2 winters. 

(Above) Ian Dillon, a fresh-faced lad in those days. Somewhere near the Shelterstone crag in the N. Cairngorms we think.

Pretty early on in my degree course I realised electrical engineering wasn’t for me and made the decision to attempt to become an alpine mountain guide (something else I ultimately failed at too) and that really set the ball rolling for how I ended up working for SAIS in 1996/97 and 1997/98. However, it was way back in February 1991, in a gap between leaving Strathclyde and starting as ‘Nightwatch’ at Glenmore Lodge, that I first actually set foot on Meggie. My memory has dulled over time but I recall deciding to go there with my old friends Nick Wright and Abbie Lowther. Abbie decided to go walking, with Nick and I was keen on climbing.

There was ice everywhere and despite being low grade climbers at the time we opted to try 1959 Face Route. We had a fantastic time and I can distinctly remember the feeling of euphoria when we overcame the last of the difficulties and realised that at last we had succeeded on a big mountain route. The walk out in the dark was quite pleasant down Easy Gully, long before I knew that area to be a known avalanche hot spot.

Once I moved to Aviemore I climbed at Meggie quite a lot, gradually ticking off the classics. It was during that time that I had two of my more memorable moments on Meggie, both involving Raeburn’s Gully. Both incidents also involved Shaun Roberts who worked with us during the winter of 1996/97 and is now, of course, Principal of Glenmore Lodge.

We were heading for routes on the Pinnacle Buttress again but conditions on the buttress were pretty lean low down, as they often are, and ended up bailing on both occasions. On the first outing I abseiled into the bottom of Raeburn’s and was standing waiting for Shaun when I head an ominous ‘whoomph’. I looked up the gully to see a huge cloud of powder heading my way at which point I started running down hill fast. Shaun abseiled second, with no sign of me at the end of the rope. He eventually spotted me way down the slope near the loch. Chastened, though we had a great laugh about it afterwards. The second incident was remarkably similar, but even before I had come off the rope during a retreat I heard that tell tale noise and climbed the rope hand over hand whilst a fairly substantial avalanche brushed past my feet.

(Above) Ian in full winter climbing mode in the late 1990s and definitely ‘feeding the rat’, as Mo Anthoine would say.

So, it was with a high sense of self preservation, a need for continuous employment and a strong wish to keep others safe, that I knocked on Blyth Wright’s door in 1997 after I heard that SAIS was expanding into two new areas – Creag Meagaidh and Southern Cairngorms. Thankfully, Blyth took me on and in December, Ewen, Tom, Shaun, Kathy and I started work. To be honest most of my memories of that first winter weren’t on the hill, they were in the office trying to battle with the very poor communications and learning how to use a computer! I honestly think I was still typing up invoices on an old-school typewriter in those days.

My abiding memory of being on the hill in those two winters has to be the long gone board walk. For those who weren’t around then, there used to be old railway sleepers running from close to the Aberarder Farmhouse all the way to the loch. They could be quite slippery, especially in icy conditions, but they made access into the Inner Coire easy and rapid. Despite the accumulating wear and tear on our bodies, and working so regularly on the hill during winter, our journey time up the board walk got shorter and shorter. I think we ended up achieving ridiculous times, but again my memory fails me just how quick.

By the next year the team had reduced to Ewen, Kathy and I. The winter turned out to be one of enormous fluctuations with huge thaws and full-on winter conditions. I recall one particular day when we assessed the avalanche hazard to be High only to receive a weather forecast (by fax) for the following 24hrs promising more very heavy snowfall followed by a thaw. Instantly we decided the hazard for the next day should be Very High (Category 5 in old money) and sent our report out. The phone went soon after and a discussion ensued with Blyth over whether Very High ever occurred in Scotland. The next day Kathy and I observed naturally triggered avalanches numbering well into double figures without even getting into the Inner Coire.

Up until the inception of the Creag Meagaidh SAIS team, there had been an average of one fatality a year due to avalanches. During the two years I worked on the hill there were none, which I think was down to people becoming aware of avalanche conditions from our forecasts and avoiding the worst days and most dangerous areas. Prior to SAIS reports there were no blogs or social media to keep people up-to-date, it was mainly word of mouth and personal experience. So the last section in the daily report notifying climbers and walkers of ‘climbing conditions’ was a real novelty.

During one of those wipe-out thaws of 1997/98, Ewen and I walked into the Inner Coire looking for a snow patch to dig our formal snow profile. There was virtually no snow around and no ice on any routes at all…until we turned the corner and saw The Wand. It was complete and thick. Like really thick. So that night I put a comment at the end of our report ‘Is The Wand the only ice route still in condition in Scotland?’ The next day there was a rather long queue at the bottom and I got an ear bashing from Blyth for making it so public!

(Above) Contemporary photo of Ian. Man wearing a tie, ergo now in possession of a ‘proper’ job!

Sadly, I only did two winters. The rather hand-to-mouth existence of a prospective wannabe Guide became too much and I changed direction into bird conservation. I hung up my axes, put my snow shovel in the loft and dusted off my binoculars. Twenty years later I’m climbing again and have even ventured out in winter in Scotland on a few occasions, but my only return trip to Meggie was some years ago when surveying golden eagles for my current employer, the RSPB. I remain very proud that I did in those two winters, and some winter soon I will return to my old haunts and get up those routes I never did get to do: North Post and Smith’s Gully. (Editor:  Oh, no! That means Raeburn’s again…….)

 

Today at Creag Meagaidh:-

Bit of a wildlife theme to my perambulation into Coire Dubh.

(Above) A Golden Eagle soaring above the Coire Dubh this afternoon, with Meall na Brachdlach forming the backdrop.

 

(Above) Came across this pair who’d somehow managed to isolate themselves on a very large expanse of snow at 700m.

 

(Above) Love in a cold climate.

 

(Above) Coire Dubh. Large cornices continue to threaten slopes below with collapse in the milder weather we’re experiencing during daylight hours. Most very steep NE to SE aspects have cornices hanging over them at the moment.

 

(Above) Looking SW out of Coire Dubh across Loch Laggan to the Ben Alder hills.

 

(Above) Ardverikie House, by the side of Loch Laggan, viewed from afar.

 

(Above) A peek at part of Sron a Ghoire and the Post Face of Coire Ardair this morning before the cloud totally filled the sky.

 

 

 

Comments on this post

  • roger
    9th April 2018 9:38 pm

    Another very interesting account of the early days of SAIS. Makes me appreciate – even more – getting instant and informative reports and forecasts these days!

    Many thanks

    Roger clare

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