Tony Marr recalls a terrifying encounter with a mysterious presence at the Shelter Stone in 1977...
We have all heard of strange events that defy rational explanation. Well, one such event actually happened to me and two close friends during a bivouac in the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland in August 1977. Despite this mysterious incident occurring more than four decades ago, the story, until now, has only been shared with family and close friends. However, over the last few years I have been encouraged to record and share my story with a larger audience, some of whom may hopefully find it as mystifying and intriguing as I still do.
Our team that weekend comprised John Chadwick, Alan Taylor and me. We had first met and became close friends a few years earlier through our common passion, rock climbing. Climbing is a uniquely rewarding pastime in which you develop a special relationship and trust in your friends, and they in you, for that friend holding your rope has, quite literally, your life in their hands. Few pastimes can claim to require that level of trust; the subsequent friendships are very special and last a lifetime in my experience.
As keen climbers we were well aware of the best and hardest rock climbs in Britain through climbing guide books, magazine articles, and word of mouth. During our weekly climbing sessions, we often made plans for weekend trips to other climbing areas in the country. On one such weekend we planned to test our skills on a climb called The Steeple, a top class route on one of Scotland's finest rock faces, the huge Shelter Stone Crag in the Cairngorm Mountains. The climb had a fearsome reputation for sustained and difficult climbing, 840ft [280m] in length and graded Extremely Severe, [E2 5c in today's climbing terms].
We were already experienced climbers with a long list of similar difficult climbs behind us. John and I were both in our late twenties, but between us had already amassed more than 30 years of climbing experience, both in the UK and the Alps. Alan was our youngest team member at just 17, yet despite his tender age he was already a very talented and skilful climber with an impressive list of hard climbs to his credit. We were under no illusion just how difficult this climb would be, but felt that given favourable weather, we would manage the climb without major problems. Unfortunately, the weather across Scotland that summer was very unsettled. The months slipped by. Then, as the August Bank holiday weekend approached, the weather forecasters predicted a settled spell after a cold front had passed through. The climb was on.
Leaving our homes in Middlesbrough after work on the Friday evening, we embarked on the long drive north. Sometime in the early hours of Saturday morning John, our driver, declared he needed some rest and promptly pulled into a quiet layby just outside Aviemore where we managed to snatch a few hours' sleep. After enjoying a hearty breakfast in the town, we drove the remaining few miles to the Cairngorm chairlift car park. Stepping from the car into chilly moist air was an unpleasant shock. Dark clouds sped overhead propelled by a strengthening wind. The weather men had forecast that the cold front would have passed through by now, but this was now beginning to look in doubt! The car park was virtually deserted apart from two small groups of walkers, yet it was mid- morning! Why was it so quiet, did people know something we didn't?
We sorted and packed our rucksacks with equipment for the weekend; food, stoves and fuel for three days, cooking gear, ropes, climbing gear, sleeping bags, spare clothing…our rucksacks were heavy! The three mile walk to the crag began with the mandatory slog up Fiacaill a' Choire Chais. Despite the chilly temperature, perspiration trickled down our faces…this was damn hard work! Even though our weighty rucksacks were slowing our normal pace, we still managed to overtake a group of walkers that had set off before us carrying their small day packs. We felt a little better and were perhaps not quite as unfit as we had first thought.
Eventually, with sighs of relief, we emerged from the coire onto the Cairngorm Plateau. Usually, at this point the tired legs begin to recover and you start to get your breath back. However, the plateau is a bleak place and we were now fully exposed to a very cold and strong wind, forcing us to stop and don wind proofs and hats. The normally pleasant downhill walk to Loch Avon and the Shelter Stone was a real physical battle, the wind blowing with such force that we had to lean against it and drive ourselves forward. Again, we cursed the weather forecasters. It was not until we began the final descent to the loch, did the terrain offer some shelter from the icy blast, allowing us to unzip our jackets and wipe watering eyes.
"There it is", shouted John, pointing beyond the loch. Our eyes were drawn to the enormous table-topped cliff at the head of the glen. Shelter Stone Crag lay before us. John and I had both been to the crag before, but that view still never fails to impress. The path led into the boulder field beneath the crag where we soon located our refuge for the next few days, the famous Shelter Stone. We were relieved to find the bivouac unoccupied; in fact, it suddenly dawned upon us that apart from the walkers we had left in Choire Chais, we had not seen another human being all day. John unearthed a torch from his rucksack and disappeared into the bivouac, emerging a short time later declaring it, "clean and dry." We began unpacking our rucksacks and making ourselves comfortable.
Our intended climb looked very impressive, with hundreds of feet of steep cracks and smooth corners. Unfortunately, the sight of wet streaks on one of the crux sections was, to say the least, disconcerting. Tomorrow's climbing was going to be extra challenging! Conscious that we had not climbed on Cairngorm granite for some time, we decided that a little refresher training might prove useful. The area around the Shelter Stone is littered with hundreds of large boulders…a rock climber's playground. After a few enjoyable hours of bouldering, feeling suitably tired and hungry, we made our way back to our base.
The day was nearly over with darkness fast approaching. A late supper was consumed before retiring to the bivouac. Inside it was quiet and peaceful, totally insulated from the outside world. We settled ourselves on the flattest ground we could find with our feet pointing towards the entrance. As soon as our torches were extinguished it was absolutely pitch black, the open entrance just perceptible amongst the blackness. I think we all fell asleep quickly; the lack of sleep the previous night and the days strenuous activities had tired us all.
Sometime later, I was woken by sounds coming from our cooking pots, scratching, rattling noises…the culprits, the resident mice, searching for scraps of food. I drifted back to sleep. Later still…I was again roused from my slumbers, this time by another, more unexpected sound…the distant rattle of sliding stones! I really didn't want to be disturbed again…semi asleep, my eyes closed, I listened, wishing that whatever was making the noise would GO AWAY and let me sleep. The sounds were coming from the scree slope above the shelter and becoming louder. Given the time of night I thought it unlikely to be deer, but could possibly be benighted climbers or walkers looking for this shelter. I lay quietly, eyes shut, but fully awake, listening, expecting to hear voices, but there were none. I rolled over in my sleeping bag so I could look toward the approaching sounds, trying to see a glimpse of torch light through gaps in the shelter's drystone walls, but there wasn't any!
The sound of sliding scree faded, only to be replaced by the distinctive "clonking" sound made when granite boulders knock together. Someone was picking their way through the boulder field toward us. I could make out the sound of a single set of slow, heavy footsteps getting ever closer, no other sounds or voices. Once again I turned my head towards the approaching sounds, trying to catch sight of torch light or movement, but again there was nothing!
I began wondering how anybody could negotiate that boulder field on a pitch black night without some form of light. The previous day, we had crossed the same rocky terrain, in daylight, and found it required great care not to slip or fall. The footsteps were approaching the rear of the Shelter Stone with a slow, regular, and very heavy, thrump….thrump…..thrump then they suddenly stopped...total silence.
Whatever was making the sounds was now within ten feet of where I lay. I was beginning to feel tense and uneasy, the hairs on the back of my neck bristled. The footstep sounds I was hearing were unlike anything I had ever heard before. My brain raced through its memory bank, trying to match these sounds with others I had experienced over the years; those of humans, and all manner of animals, but there was no match!
I was confused. This was my twentieth year as a rock climber / mountaineer. In that time I had spent hundreds of nights in the mountains, either under canvas or in some natural shelter. Never once in all those years had I ever felt frightened or threatened, until now. This was very different!
After what seemed like minutes but was probably only seconds, the footsteps started again with the same slow, heavy rhythm; thrump…thrump…causing some of the boulders to "clonk" together. I could feel the vibrations from each footstep through the rock slab I was laid on. My nervousness was gaining momentum, fear churned in my stomach. I was outside my comfort zone, what the hell was happening to me?
The footsteps were moving around the outside of the shelter towards the entrance. Although I could not see any movement, each footstep was so distinct that I was able to track progress as they neared the entrance. I raised my head and peered past my feet. The entrance was barely discernible, a grey shadow amongst jet blackness. The eerie footsteps stopped at the entrance…still no torch light, no sound. I was breaking out in a cold sweat. Never had I experienced anything so frightening. My eyes strained to penetrate the darkness, trying to identify whatever was making my pulse race…but still nothing was visible. After what seemed like an eternity, the footsteps began again, slow and heavy, but this time they were heading away toward the loch, I listened intently, the sounds eventually faded. I breathed again. I lay for several minutes; my mind was in turmoil, what on earth had I just experienced!
Thoughts turned to my two companions. Alan lay a short distance to my left, and John a similar distance to my right. I listened for any movement or indication that they were awake, but both appeared sound asleep. I began to wonder if I had just experienced a really bad dream? Restless, but utterly exhausted, I finally fell asleep.
John was first awake and crawled outside to check the weather. Seconds later he shouted back through the entrance, "You are not going to believe this…we have a covering of snow". Alan and I looked at each other in disbelief then scrambled outside to look for ourselves. Sure enough, only a few feet higher, the rocks were covered in a thin layer of wet snow and mist cloaked the crags. Our plans for the weekend had just been cancelled. We were all clearly disappointed, none of us spoke. The weekend we had all looked forward to for so long was now in tatters. John broke the silence: "Breakfast anyone?" Friendly banter returned.
My two companions appeared to be their normal lively selves, yet my own thoughts kept returning to the previous night: had it been just a bad dream, was it just me? I was not sure, I needed to find out. John was stood next to me…I enquired if he had slept OK. "Great night, slept like a log," was his reply. I was shocked by his response and wondered how he could have slept through the mice clattering around, the sliding scree and "those footsteps"? Maybe I had been dreaming?
I turned to Alan who was busy with a bacon sandwich. "How about you Alan, how was your night?" Alan paused as though he was considering his answer. "Not a good one", was his initial reply, he then turned the question back to John and I. "Did anything disturb either of you two last night?" John answered quickly with a resounding "No, nothing." Attention turned to me. "I had a dreadful night", I replied. My response seemed to stir Alan's attention and another question, "Why, what was the problem?" My reply was brief and guarded. "Mice in the cooking pots." Alan nodded in agreement, and enquired "Anything else?" "Noise from the scree…and footsteps," I replied. Alan looked relieved and responded excitedly. "Yes, yes, I heard that as well, what the hell was it?" I shrugged my shoulders and said: "No idea; I have never experienced anything like it". Clearly, Alan and I had experienced the same bizarre incident. For the next few moments we just stood looking at each other, both relieved that we hadn't imagined it.
John begged our attention. "Are you two taking the piss?" he asked. I could tell by the expression on his face that he was clearly confused by what he was hearing, and obviously thought we were trying to wind him up. Alan and I reassured him that we were deadly serious and spent the next twenty minutes or so recalling the night's frightening experience.
I was keen to hear more of Alan's thoughts and asked him to recall what he felt when the footsteps moved around the shelter and stopped at the entrance. "Absolutely terrified", was his instant reply. "Could you see anything?" I added. "No, nothing…to be honest as soon as I heard those scary footsteps, I reached out of my sleeping bag and picked up a rock…I was ready to throw it at anything that came through that entrance, I was petrified, what the hell was it?" he replied.
All three of us were confused by what had occurred and decided to retrace the route taken by the "footsteps" to see if we could establish what had walked by in the night. Negotiating the wet and slippery boulders around the Shelter Stone made us aware that whatever had crossed that same rocky terrain the previous night, without a torch and at a steady pace, had been either very surefooted or possessed incredible nocturnal abilities. We searched around the boulders looking for footprints or any signs of passage, human or otherwise, but found nothing…
As we stood at the rear of the shelter, it became disturbingly clear that the "footsteps" had come within six feet of where we had been lying. In an attempt to recreate the "heavy footstep sound" I moved about on the boulders while Alan listened. But, to our surprise, we found that my ten and a half stone weight was not sufficient to produce the sound! We turned our attention to creating the sound of "clonking boulders." Again, we quickly discovered that to create a similar sound, required the combined weight of two of us to knock the boulders together…We were all confused. What on earth had passed by during the night? A sudden gust of icy wind caught me by surprise, making me shiver and focusing my mind. The weather was deteriorating rapidly. Snow began to carpet the ground, preventing any further investigations.
With no prospect of climbing, we packed our equipment and set off back to our car. The trek over Cairngorm was uneventful, just hard physical effort in the fresh snow. The strong wind we had struggled against on the walk in was now on our backs, this time assisting us, like a giant hand pushing us uphill…bloody marvellous! As we walked, Alan and I continued to swap thoughts about the previous night. Poor John, still bewildered by what he was hearing, could only keep asking questions to try to understand what he had slept through. The ski lift car park eventually appeared through the mist, deserted apart from one vehicle…ours! Not really surprising considering the weather we were experiencing was more typical of a bad day in January, not August! Sadly, our weekend in Scotland was over, but the mystery at the Shelter Stone remained!
Some days later, I was recalling the events of that terrifying night to some climbing friends when one spoke out. "That sounds like the story about the Big Grey Man of Ben Macdui." I had never heard this story before and asked my friend to tell me more. He remembered reading the story in a book about early Scottish Mountaineering. Apparently, the "Big Grey Man" is a legend about a giant hairy figure that haunts Ben Macdui, the highest mountain in the Cairngorms.
The story goes that in November 1925, the highly respected climber and mountaineer, Professor Norman Collie, was invited to speak at the Cairngorm Club annual dinner. During his speech, the professor made public for the very first time an account of a terrifying experience he had 35 years earlier. The professor was apparently walking alone in thick mist, near the summit of Ben Macdui when he heard something other than his own footsteps, the crunch of heavier footsteps on the path behind him. Something was keeping pace with him, but whatever it was only took one stride to every three or four of his. Collie kept looking back, trying to glimpse what was making the sound, but could see only mist. He admitted that he felt a "presence" and became gripped by fear; "taking to his heels", he fled the mountain without looking back. When closing his speech to the bewildered audience, the professor added: "I will never again venture back to that place alone." The story from this otherwise sensible man of standing encouraged others with similar tales to emerge from the shadows and share their own experiences…
"The Big Grey Man of Ben Macdui" story is now well established in popular folklore. A quick web search reveals many interesting tales and more recent encounters. These stories range from sightings of a huge, hairy ape-like creature, whereas others only report hearing heavy scary footsteps and become overwhelmed and fearful, just as Alan and I had. Unfortunately, despite the increasing number of so-called Big Grey Man encounters, no one as yet has been able to provide any physical evidence to prove or disprove the Big Grey Man legend.
Although I have finally written this story more than four decades years after it occurred, my memories of that night are still as vivid as if it were yesterday. I have climbed in the Cairngorms many times since that night, but I have never felt any desire to return to The Shelter Stone area! Alan and I are still active and climb on a regular basis. Over the years we have often recalled and deliberated our Shelter Stone incident, ever hopeful for a satisfactory explanation for what we experienced. When telling the story to friends or interested parties, I am often asked if I think we really had encountered the Big Grey Man. My reply: "Possibly, but I can't be certain as I didn't see anything and have no hard evidence." What I am very certain about is that whatever I experienced that night in August 1977 was very real and extremely frightening, and to this day remains a mystery.