In this extract from mountain author Alex Roddie's new novel The Atholl Expedition (Alpine Dawn Book I) we join the doughty real-life Victorian glaciologist Professor James Forbes in a stirring fictional quest for Scotland's last glacier.
The wilderness of the Cairngorms is trodden by legendary stags, demons of local folklore, and a few brave souls all seeking very different things from the wild. This is a tale of life in the Scottish mountains before mountaineering began. It's also got bloodthirsty gamekeepers and a certain monarch who is not amused. What's not to like?
August 1847, The Cairngorms
Professor Forbes took another step and leaned against his staff, taking deep, ragged breaths. From a mild twinge yesterday afternoon the pain in his head had steadily worsened, and now it hammered away on the inside of his skull like a sledgehammer against marble. He was barely able to concentrate on the task of placing glacier markers. The symptoms had not been this bad for over a year, and he knew if his wife were here she would insist upon an immediate return to Edinburgh and a consultation with his physician.
Slowly, he opened his eyes and lifted his head to look into the whirlpool of snow and storm that surrounded him.
He had succeeded in climbing to the highest point on the “glacier”: the gaping crevasse which divided the bulk of the ice from the mountain itself. Above his head, icicles clung to an undercut shelf of rock, and beyond that, near-vertical slabs reached up into the heavens. A continuous stream of fine snow poured down this slab and over his body, somehow finding the back of his neck despite his wide-brimmed hat (which he was constantly in fear of losing to the wind) and neckcloth.
"What would happen if he fell, eight fathoms down to a slow grave sandwiched between the rock of the mountain and the layers of ice"
He probed the lip of the crevasse with his staff. A chunk of snow broke away and burst into mush on the far wall, which was bare rock, slick with water. With numb fingers he retrieved the plumbline from his pocket and lowered it into the depths.
One fathom. Two fathoms. Three fathoms .... five … eight fathoms and solid ground.
He had expected the crevasse to be deeper. It certainly looked wide enough; he was unable to reach the far wall with an outstretched arm, although he did not dare step too close to the crumbling edge. For a moment he entertained the awful thought of what would happen to him if he fell down there, eight fathoms down to a slow grave sandwiched between the rock of the mountain and the layers of ice he had devoted his life to studying. His knees felt weak and he took a step back from the chasm.
Focus! Be the master of your body, not its slave.
He coiled his plumbline and began a careful descent of the snowslope. The angle was dangerous here—his clinometer put it at 43 degrees, although it felt steeper—and he took care to kick steps with the heel of his boot, and not move down until he was certain the platform would bear his weight without collapsing. Sometimes he had to bring the point of his staff into action and chip away at the solid ice just beneath the surface. It was hard work, but he had done it many times before in the old days.
Nevertheless, the effort was a strain, and he wished he had a Swiss guide armed with hatchet and rope.
He had descended no more than ten yards before a peculiar sensation came over him. His heart palpitated, pins and needles rushed to the palms of his hands and the pit of his stomach, and the roar of the storm faded in his ears. He could see the pulse of his own heartbeat. His body began to shake, and he felt a terrible fear that he was about to suffer some apoplexy and die where he stood. Strangely, the headache had disappeared.
He gulped in breath after breath. I am the master of my body. He tried to fight the panic with the force of his will.
The corrie howled around him, an uncaring cauldron of cold and pain, suffused with an eerie glow that shone down from above. As his vision began to fade he saw a spectre approaching through the mist: a fearful shadow, black against blinding white, surrounded by a halo that—to his terrified mind—signified the end of his time on this Earth.
His vision dissolved to black, and he felt nothing more.
The Atholl Expedition
Convalescence doesn't suit Professor Forbes. When one of his former students appears exhausted at his door, telling stories of bloodthirsty gamekeepers and a mythical glacier in the heart of the Cairngorms, he can't resist the chance for another adventure. However, his journey coincides with a visit from Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and the Royal Consort has an ambition to shoot the oldest and most cunning hart of the Atholl estate. Forbes is soon involved in the chase of his life - with perhaps one last chance to make his name before it is too late.
About the author
UKH/UKC regular Alex Roddie writes historical fiction set in the 19th Century. He is fascinated by the early days of mountaineering in Britain and the Alps, and his fiction reflects that atmosphere, featuring well known figures from the period. His previous books are The Only Genuine Jones and Crowley's Rival.
The Atholl Expedition is available to download for Amazon Kindle. See Amazon.co.uk
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