Cat and I took the chance for a weekend off in Aviemore. We booked ourselves some accommodation, and the plan was to take some books, red wine and chocolate and generally slob out for a couple of days. Needless to say, ‘slobbing out’ ended up including a wee walk with the dogs, which gradually morphed into a walk on the Cairngorm plateau and, once up there, it would have been rude not to take advantage of the location to do a bit of micro-nav practice. In fairness, the primary motivation for heading onto the plateau was that I’d been reading Cairngorm John the previous evening and got into a conversation with Cat about the 1971 Cairngorm disaster which led onto the fate of the high level huts. Cat had never seen the last remaining hut; El Alamein, so we decided to wander up and have a look. It was quite chilly up on the plateau, but there’s not a lot of snow up there, certainly not in comparison to the same weekend last year, when I skinned up the zigzags with one of my mates for a coffee at the Ptarmigan (or whatever it’s called now).
El Alamein itself is a fairly uninspiring pile of stones; the last time I was visited it during my Winter ML training, we had to dig the snow out of it before we could get in, and it gives only minimal cover from the elements. The other two shelters; St Valery and Curran, were gone by the time I became a regular visitor to the plateau, but I remember one of my teachers pointing out the site of the Curran hut, which sat at the tope of the Feithe Buidhe burn between Cairngorm and Ben Macdui. The debate about their existence was done and dusted before my winter visits to the Scottish hills began, but the events that triggered that debate still have a power that resonates to this day; as someone who regularly takes young people out onto the hills, the lessons that were learned back then about group management and leader competence still need to be applied every time I plan and deliver these trips for the young people I work with. As you traverse the plateau nowadays, there’s no visual reminder for the passer-by of the tragedy that claimed the lives of five teenagers and one adult, but it’s perhaps more appropriate that a lasting memorial exists in the way that training, and accepted good practice, for Mountain Leaders has been shaped by the lessons that were learned as a result of their untimely death.
Returning back over Cairngorm, we exchanged the solitude of the plateau for a flurry of activity around the Funicular top station as a train arrived, spilling tourists onto the observation platform where they could grab some photos and a coffee before the return journey. For us, all that remained was the long plod back to the car through the detritus of the ski centre with the promise of a log fire, Cat’s bolognese and a bottle of red wine for motivation.