Heading towards Glen Clova, I passed through Kirriemuir and my mind drifted back to the days when PC meant “Police Constable” and there was thus no such concept as “un-pc”. Some of you may know the rugby song from back then: “The Ball of Kirriemuir” which includes the unforgettable couplet:
Four and twenty virgins came down from Inverness
In the morning there were four and twenty less
My objection to this is not sexism or anything trivial like that, but the fact it should be “fewer”: I therefore propose that the afore-mentioned young ladies should be shipped in from Rannoch Moor. I don’t think filling the bus with suitably qualified candidates would be any more difficult than it would be in Inverness.
My mind was thus occupied as I drove up the Glen to my eventual stopping place. It was getting dark and all the Sunday walkers were driving out, so there was a constant stream of cars to squeeze past on the road which describes itself at the start as having no passing places and which was further narrowed by banks of snow on either side. I eventually reached the Glendoll Visitor Centre Car Park as the last few cars started to roll out. I was rather concerned about the “No Overnight Stays” signs, but cheered up by the fact both pay points for the parking were out of action and a notice said it was thus free to park. I was also pleased to see that the disabled toilet was marked as being open all night.
I was travelling in our wee camper van, so was able to tuck into home-made mince etc. before settling down for an early night, there being little in the way of nightlife. For some unaccountable reason I slept the sleep of the just, waking only to hear the odd car arrive in the car park and deciding not to investigate. I don’t imagine there’s a lot of dogging in Glen Clova, but you can’t be too careful.
I woke to a cracking day: a few more camper vans and the odd early starter in a car had arrived. The sky was cloudless, the air cold and all looked set for a good day’s walking. I fell into conversation with a chap from Orkney – Leslie – who was planning much the same route as me and we agreed it would make sense to go together. En route we discovered that we had various unexpected connections, including a long-time friend of mine. It was pleasant to have company: we both generally walk alone, but agreed these chance meetings can be very agreeable.
Our plan was to climb Driesh and Mayar, a couple of Munros on the Southern boundary of the Cairngorm National Park. The route would be to go up the Kilbo path, then the Shank of Drumfollo, veer East to Driesh, return to the bealach, continue West to Mayar, before heading North to the head of Glen Fee and then down, eventually reaching the starting point. This all went very well, except we spent considerably more time hacking our way through Glendoll Forest than was strictly necessary as there was a path we failed to spot. This helped to confirm my long-held view that the most difficult part of navigation on hill-walks is in the first half-hour: Leslie concurred with this opinion.
One of the things that added to my difficulty in the woods – other than having shorter legs than Leslie – was that my snowshoes were attached to my rucksack and caught on every branch, twig and bough they could find. Those of you who started reading in order to get the low-down on my MSR 25” Revo Explore Snowshoes will be glad that I seem to be getting to the point. The soft snow in the woods where we sank up to our calves would have been ideal for my snowshoes, but all the undergrowth, fallen branches and general arboreal debris made that an impossibility.
Eventually, feeling slightly sheepish, we got out of the woods and started the ascent to the bealach. At long last, I got my snowshoes on. I could have used my crampons instead as out in the open the snow was frozen: however, the snowshoes have good crampon-like teeth and I had no problem. Leslie put on his crampons and we marched up the Shank feeling rock solid. When we reached the bealach, we quickly found that all the snow had gone: presumably blown into the corrie by the strong winds we’ve been having. Snowshoes, crampons and rucksacks were abandoned and we made the short ascent to the summit of Driesh.
On the return leg to the bags, we met a guy – another sexagenarian – on his way up. He reckoned that this must be about his thirtieth ascent of Driesh. Leslie tentatively suggested he could try another hill, but it turned out he’d done them all. Looking across to Mayar, we could see there was plenty of snow cover so Leslie put on his crampons and after a brief internal debate I did the same, strapping the snowshoes back onto my rucksack.
Snowshoes have a large surface area to help reduce sinking up to your manly (or womanly) parts in soft snow. Despite this, they are relatively easy to walk in: rarely have I caught one shoe on the other. The foot is free to pivot forward and back at the ball of the foot, so the snowshoes don’t need to be lifted right off the ground with each step. The Revos could be described as fairly “aggressive” snowshoes: they have a fixed row of teeth below the ball of the foot and two larger fangs, similar to front points on crampons, that dig into the snow as you pivot your foot when walking. Added to these is a jagged frame that goes round the sides of the shoe and gives a good grip, particularly when traversing.
Notice that I said the large surface area helps to reduce sinking: I have not found that it stops it. You choose the size of snowshoe that suits your weight and most manufacturers provide two or three sizes, as well as wifie-specific models. My snowshoes are 25” long and advertised as suitable for a person of my weight, allowing for rucksack etc.
A week or so back, I tried them out for the first time on the soft snow of Meall Fuarvonie. I did sink in, but only by two or three inches, and found they did make life easier. I think I discovered in these conditions that approaching the ground with the heel of the shoe first seemed to reduce sinking, but that was just my impression. The hole made by the snowshoe is sufficiently large that I had no problem with snow getting into my boots or inside my trouser legs, thus removing the need for gaiters. I should also mention that MSR sell clip on extensions for their snowshoes – an extra five inches can make all the difference, I’m told – but I reckoned I’d do without spending even more than I was already. On Meall Fuarvonie, I also tried out another aspect of the shoes, which worked much better than I expected: a metal “bridge” that can snap into place and hold the heel up. This is intended for ascending steep slopes and makes it feel more like walking up stairs. I was quite impressed with this feature: the blurb says the “bridge” can be adjusted easily with a walking pole. This may take some practice, as I couldn’t do it, but a gloved hand worked perfectly well.
Nevertheless, in conditions of hard-crust snow, there’s nothing to beat crampons. So – getting back to Mayar – I opted for crampons as we crunched our way to the second top of the day. The sky was blue, there was a strong wind, visibility was superb, the snow was great. Leslie came up with a maxim I’d not heard before: “Be bold, start cold”. I tried it on the walk between the tops, but had to give in and pull on a Paramo top before my arms became so brittle they snapped.
On the top of Mayar, we met a young woman who was basically doing the same walk as us, but in reverse. She had just come up Corrie Fee – the part of the walk we suspected might be most “technical” – and without being alarmist she was hesitant to say it was fine and easy. We approached the top of the corrie prepared to retrace our steps if need be, but there was really very little problem. The snow started off hard and crisp, but soon turned soft and bit hard-going. I did wonder about swapping back to snowshoes, but the descent was steep and I’m not experienced enough to know how they’d cope with the conditions. It wasn’t the place for a failed experiment.
We got down quite safely without any mishaps other than occasionally sinking into the snow: at one point I had to dig my own foot out as it was firmly held in place by snow that had backfilled the hole round my leg. How we laughed!
Eventually we got down far enough to escape the snow and were able to remove our crampons until we entered the woods where the path was treacherously icy. A pleasant walk back to the car park finished a first rate day on the hills.
Just to summarise the snowshoe aspect: I paid about £150 for the Revos. You can buy snowshoes for half, or twice, that. They seem to be divided into three general categories: a) what I sneeringly call “Shopping snowshoes” which would be quite inadequate for the hills, b) racer’s snowshoes for cross-country snowshoe racing (I’m not going to say anything rude about people who like to run up hills, as Leslie’s son is an aficionado of this travesty) and c) the sort of thing I got. The Revos seem well-made and ought to last, though I see quite a lot of scratching and scuffing on the plastic bodies already.
I haven’t mentioned the ease of putting on and taking off the Revos: the first time you fit on your boots, you have to adjust both the heel and front fixings. Thereafter, you can leave the heel adjustment well alone. The front strap passes over the boot and is easily adjusted with a ratchet mechanism. A handy loop makes removal of the strap very easy.
I look forward to further outings with the snowshoes etc. in the weeks to come.