Skip to Content
Published: 26 Apr 2022

Wild Moment: Jack McNeill

A 90-year-old mountaineer recounts a memorable winter hill walking adventure that led to a life long friendship. 

Close encounter on high plateau

The plan that spring morning was to give my young companion, initial experience in winter hillwalking on the high Cairngorms. Perhaps taking in Ben Macdui and Derry Cairngorm.

Leaving Linn o’ Dee, the peaks glistened white in the far distance, we passed Derry lodge - the domain of the late Bob Scott o’ the Derry, a gamekeeper both feared and respected by generations of hill walkers.

During the war, this area was taken over by the military and on my first visit 1946, I had to climb over piles of rusty bully beef tins! However, there was no such obstacle this bright morning and we proceeded up to Glen Luibeg Bridge. Those wishing to cross would end up in Aviemore via the Lairig Ghru.

Continuing up the Luibeg Burn we soon encountered our first challenge – the Sron Riach. To our left the bulk of Càrn a' Mhàim and right Carn Crom. Leaving the corrie floor, the start of the 3, 534ft ascent up the narrow Sron Riach looked not too promising. By this time the wind was picking up and the snow underfoot very soft.

Undeterred, we made considerable progress reaching the 3,000 ft contour with views over snow-capped 4,241 ft Cairn Toul. Time for a wee break. We ensconced ourselves by digging a seat in the considerable snow drift for 30 minutes. It was during this time we became aware of three ptarmigan in the snow barely three feet away. Apart from their red eyes, it was almost impossible to know of their presence. Having partaken in a lengthy break, it was time to continue our upward plod.

At this point we happened to turn our attention to Lochnagar in the east where an ominous black cloud obscured its bulk. We didn't give it much thought until at 1,000 ft later the wind greatly increased and the first snow began to fall. Hunkering down behind the rocks all hell broke loose. Wind was roaring up the crescent shape of the vertical Coire Sputan Dearg cliffs and we were in absolute white-out conditions.

As we were within 500ft of the Stob Coire Sputan Dearg 4,095 ft rocks and the top of the Sron Riach, at least we knew where we were. Had we not stopped for our 30-minute break earlier, we would have passed the Stob Coire Sputan Dearg rocks and on to the featureless plateau with dire consequences. On Sunday 21 November 1971, five school children and one instructor died under similar white-out conditions on that same plateau.

Not to alarm my young companion, I explained if we kept close to the cornices and heard the wind howling up Coire Sputan Dearg, we would be all right (fingers crossed!)

The map was useless. We had to resort to throwing snowballs every six feet and taking a bearing on that. Too far to the left and an uncertain outcome on that plateau. Too far to the right and we would fall through a cornice and down to the corrie floor 1,000 ft below. This was not the experience I would have wished for my young companion, but winter mountains can be very unforgiving.

By this juncture, it was impossible to stand upright, and slow progress was made, staggering and sometimes on our hands and knees, following our snowball route. It was another half hour before we stumbled to the end of the Coire Sputan Dearg cliffs. To our great relief the compass bearing was correct and the cairn at Creagan a' Choire Etchachan appeared out of the gloom. Another bearing was taken which brought us to the frozen shore of Loch Echachan then down to the Hutchison Memorial Hut and safety.

As we’re both suffering from mild hypothermia at this point, we had to have a change of clothes. Entering the dark confines of the hut, we saw in a corner a figure in a sleeping bag. It transpired it was a Dutchman who had tried to get to Loch Avon and the Shelter Stone. He had to retreat at the ford at Little Loch Etchachan as he encountered white-out conditions at the bealach. He had run out of provisions and was glad of the two biscuits and the banana we offered. 

Now, having changed into dry clothes, we said ‘goodbye’ to our Dutch friend. What we were faced with now was the long, long walk down Glen Derry to Bob Scott’s bothy. To make matters worse, the snow had turned to sleet and soaked our freshly changed clothes. At last we reached the sanctuary of the Derry woods with only another three miles along a Land Rover track to our final destination at Linn o’ Dee and our car (a great day!)

Undeterred by the severity of his introduction to winter hill walking in the Cairngorms, my ‘youthful’ friend David has been my faithful friend and companion during 400+ outings over the last 25 years in the mountains.

  • Ninety-year old Jack McNeill, has been mountaineering since his teens. He introduced David Foster to mountaineering in the early 1970s and they climbed the Cairngorms together for over 30 years. Jack had to stop climbing in his 70s; however he and David remain close friends and see or speak to each other weekly. Jack has a profound love of the Scottish mountains to this day.
  • Read Jack's poem Schiehallion (The Final Chapter).
  • This story was first published as part of the Autumn Voices Third Age Pioneers Project, which involved writer Jane Archer gathering the stories of people over 90 years of age in her local community in Perthshire.
  • Inspired to submit your own Wild Moment? Find out how here.