(Three) Seasons’ Greetings

About ten days ago the normally reliable Highlands and Islands Weather forecast on Facebook gave me to believe the weather this week would be really good: and it was, further south. Given my expectations, I inveigled Dave Smith into a day on the hills.

I had earmarked some hills in Glenshee: Glas Maol, Cairn of Clais and Tolmount, with the options of adding either or both of Tom Buidhe and Carn Bannoch.

Core route in red, options in blue. Flags mark Munros I’d already “done”.

Tuesday morning I loaded up the Bongo, checked the tyres, water etc. and in the afternoon met Dave off the bus from Tain. After a brief stop in Morrison’s we drove down to Glenshee. The Bongo performed faultlessly and after over two hours’ journey we set up camp – van and tent – in the car park south of the Devil’s Elbow. Within minutes a second van arrived, temporary home to two German tourists. After a few minutes parked a decent distance away, they moved right next to us and spent some time toing and froing until the driver was happy with his exact location. I made some polite comment about his finding it difficult to get the right spot and he commented “I am trying to get even”. I hadn’t even mentioned the war.

With some difficulty, we got our barbecue lit and I burned chicken and sausages whilst Dave fried onions. It was quite chilly with a snell breeze whilst we sank a beer, ate our meal, consulted the map and shared sips from Dave’s hip flask.

The ground under my tent seemed to have developed bumps and hollows between my putting it up and going to sleep, but I had not too bad a night: I think Dave did about as well inside the Bongo.

We wanted an early start, so I was up the back of six. Life was made a bit more difficult than was strictly necessary by the overnight dropping of the wind and the consequent arrival of the midges. I don’t know how many times I tried to eat a spoonful of breakfast cereal through the mesh of my head net.

I don’t imagine the Germans got a long lie as Dave and I loaded the van, generated lots of electronic beeping as we lowered the roof and warmed the engine. Talk about getting even!

The short distance from there to the car park where we started our walk involved a large difference in weather: what had been inert muggy air, heavily populated with midges had started moving about in a disagreeably active manner, but at least we’d seen the last of the bugaran beagan.

It’s less than 400m ascent from the ski station to the top of Glas Maol, but it starts off pretty steep and seems particularly so at 7:30am. I had in fact “done” Glas Maol before, but it was on our way to the other targets and was a new summit for Dave. By the time we reached Meall Odhar, we were in occasional cloud. From time to time a watery sun showed itself coyly through seven veils of cumulus. Despite a good dyke shelter, we didn’t hang around long at the top of Glas Maol, but headed for Cairn of Clais.

Our route now followed the old county boundary line, marked with occasional rusting iron fence posts or sections of drystane dyke. The combination of lots of unmapped paths, the relative featurelessness of the landscape, the paucity of boundary posts and the increasingly poor visibility made navigation difficult at times, even with the GPS. It was round about now that we realised we had left the map in the van after the previous evening’s consultation: the GPS is great for knowing exactly where you are and following a route, but the small screen means it’s almost impossible to get an overview of the area. This wasn’t reassuring, but we knew that GPS and compass would have to suffice.

At Cairn of Clais we made the decision to forget about Cairn Bannoch but head for Tom Buidhe, which we did without any great problem. As with the previous hills, there was no view of any distance or interest and by now the drizzle that had been threatening for much of the day had turned up the dial and developed into rain. From now on it was waterproof trousers as well as the  Goretex top.

After Tom Buidhe we tried to skirt the top of Cairn of Clais, to save some more rather unwarranted ascent. However we ended up back more or less at the top anyway as the lie of the land made it difficult to contour round lower down. From here there should have been no problem as we were effectively following our footsteps back to the road. But that’s not the way life is and we wasted quite a lot of time in low visibility, gusty wind and increasing rain whilst we went round in circles on the northern slopes of Glas Maol and I swore a lot.

There was considerable disagreement amongst Dave’s real compass, his virtual one and my GPS – or, I suspect, my reading of it. We eventually did the sensible thing, trusted the real compass and determined that a north-westerly direction would see us right and it did when we again met some of the unsightly ski infrastructure. Once we were again making reasonable progress, we were subjected to a violent hail shower followed up by thunder.

The Bongo is a sort of silvery-grey colour and, though by now we knew exactly where we and it were, it only loomed out of the mist at 5:30pm, when we were about 10 metres away and 10 hours from when we left it. In summary (note spelling), we reckoned that we had had three of the four seasons in one day: I will leave it to you to decide which was missing.

The journey back to Inverness was uneventful: the weather – particularly the visibility – improved as we distanced ourselves from Glenshee and by the time we were back in the Highland Capital the sun was out and I was being told it had been a nice day. I dropped Dave off at the bus station and I assume he got back to Tain without incident.

Despite the poorer than expected weather, I think we both enjoyed the day. Dave and I go a long way back and we have very much the same sense of humour, based heavily on word-play. The only real difference is that Dave’s wit is both quicker and more honed than mine, so I’m left to do most of the laughing. No great hardship.

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