Ups and Downs

Sunday 4th

Last night’s meal was a bit of an improvement: not unalloyed gourmeting but a move in the right direction. There was only one choice throughout: take it or leave it. Starter was an astringent mixed salad with a dressing a bit heavy on the vinegar. I’ve referred before to not being a great soup fan: I got through a bowl of something like minestrone with little enthusiasm and was then served trout – head to tail, one trout – along with the usual rather half-hearted attempt at vegetables. Sarky comments aside, it was OK. Next came natillas again, exactly the same as last night. Perhaps it’s Natillas Alpujarrañeas.

I think it was South Korea I read about recently where people do not want to eat alone publicly as they feel it may suggest they have no friends. I don’t know what they’re worried about: Guillo Sin-Amigos has whole restaurants to himself. When I arrived at the Mesón soon after eight, various young waiters attempted to lure me with olives to a table. As soon as it became clear I was there for dinner (I brandished my voucher), I was packed upstairs. Throughout my lonesome meal, I could hear the area downstairs steadily fill up with happy cafe users and their carefree chatter. I was delighted to get a few of today’s crossword clues from from Sonia and worked over them with my meal.

Sunday

When I woke at 8:30, it was misty with steady rain, but my weather app implied an improvement late morning, so I pottered around killing time until about 11am when I donned my bad weather gear and went out. After a brief wander through the village, I strode out along the Medium route I had identified earlier. The rain continued to fall and I turned round when the path deteriorated into a quagmire. Back at the hotel, a hot shower and dry clothes brought raised spirits.

The roofed balcony casts quite a shade, both in the room and outside, so it was a while before I noticed the mist had gone, the rain had virtually fizzled out and the sun was making an effort at last. Not wanting to get my clean dry clothes filthy, I limited myself to exploring the village. The hillside is very steep and going from Barrio Alto to Barrio Bajo is much easier than the return. By the time I’d made the ascent without stopping, my legs were shouting for a break. I wouldn’t fancy doing it carrying the weekly shopping.

The lack of water rushing down the central runnels of the lanes, the feeling of the re-nascent sun on the skin and the occasional vista combined to make for a pleasant experience, but it’s still pretty chilly. Not as cold as back home, but only 5 degrees or so.

I had planned on leaving this entry just there, but I’m just back from dinner…

In Trevelez my evening meals are booked at the Mesón, so I was back again tonight. Another reasonable meal, though with no choice: salad – lighter on the vinegar & oil tonight – a very filling soup (I had to look ‘filling’ up for the waitress) which was heavily influenced by beans and stuff, possibly even anchovies, followed by a main course of chicken thigh. The latter was apparently fried / grilled but had a tendency to turn to blotting paper in the mouth. I don’t know the name of the pudding: I wasn’t told and there was no menu – but it was fine and not natillas.

As I write this just before bed, I hope to do at least some of the ‘Seven Lakes’ walk tomorrow. The forecast on my phone for tonight and the next couple of days is for snow. I’m not completely convinced, but who knows…

I have a few more photos, but the connection is poor, so you may have too wait.

From my balcony…

 

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Whither the weather?

Due to connection problems, this entry covers Friday and Saturday until dinner.

Friday

I woke to the sound of rain, determined despite the mist to get walking. Last night’s stormy winds seem to have died down, so that’s an improvement.

The route started the same way as my walk yesterday, hugging the line of the road, though some 100 metres away and a bit lower as it contoured round the steep hillside. My first serious obstacle was a landslip that had covered some distance of the track in deep mud and rubble. I backtracked a bit and made my up to the road, soon discovering that the road was also affected by the mud and rubble. A couple of miserable Guardia Civil were holding stop/go boards and a JCB was scraping the tarmac clean. As fast as the JCB worked, more muddy water poured onto the road. I was made to stand, along with a couple of cars, for about 10 minutes in the pouring rain until the Guardia took pity on me and waved me alone through, round the digger.

Yesterday when out I failed to spot the turn-off I was about to take today, so I kept both eyes peeled and focused one of them on the gps, the other on my immediate surroundings. The track now headed out of the small village of Bubion, no longer following a road, but striking across country. By now I was wondering what the Spanish for Trades Description Act is as the water trickled down my legs and into my socks.

The gps has been a real boon today. The route notes are fine but in the pouring rain, even with them in a plastic pouch, they can be hard to follow and it’s easy to lose your place. Turning the page is a pain as well, so I’ve been going digital today. The rain confuses the touchscreen and at times it reacts irritatingly to being hit by a raindrop by closing down or opening up some random app. That aside, it performs well and gives a good sense of security.

The path gained height and the weather worsened correspondingly, mostly in the form of a cold wind. I had left my gloves in my case and rather regretted this oversight. After a brief buffetting on a ridge, I began to drop down to more sheltered terrain and finally arrived in the hamlet of Capilerilla, which may have lots to commend it on a nice day. Today the lanes were rivers and small lakes appeared at each junction. Water poured with force out of every crevice.

By now I had more or less decided to cut my losses at Pitres, a few minutes beyond Capilerilla. It has the advantage of being on a road and a taxi was sounding appealing. I went into a small bar in Pitres, where I warmed up with a coffee and asked about a taxi. The barmaid said there was a bus stop not far away and a bus was due in half an hour. A guy in the corner of the bar offered to run me to Portugos, my destination, but quoted E20 when I asked the fare: I told him the bus sounded better value, and it was, at only E1.50: though it did entail standing in the rain, getting chilled and wetter, for a long 20 minutes.

The bus journey was short – shorter than either the walking route or the wait – but it stopped right outside my hotel. First impressions aren’t great. I had considerable difficulty getting anyone to attend to me: I wandered back and forth between the empty bar and the unmanned reception desk until eventually a guy behind the bar sauntered in, seemed to berate me for something and make jocular remarks no doubt at my expense. A woman finally appeared at reception and conducted a phone conversation whilst she handed me a set of room keys: she stopped her conversation long enough to point me to the lift and tell me dinner is at 7:30, unusually prompt for Spain.

It was great to remove all the wet clothes, have a surprisingly good shower and put on a set of dry stuff. The room has an old fashioned radiator in it, currently draped in a full range of wet gear. The tiled floor seems at higher than ambient temperature, so there may be underfloor heating as well: the room is certainly pleasantly warm. I have yet to find out if there’s wi-fi but I suspect not.

I may change my mind – it’s only early afternoon – but my current thought is luggage taxi tomorrow. If it’s anything like today, walking the sixteen or so kilometres to Trevelez would be less than enjoyable and simply get me soaked again. However, I have four nights in Trevelez, giving time to dry out clothes after walks so I hope to brave the weather there. Naturally, not having weather that requires being braved would be even better, but it doesn’t look like that’s on the cards, unfortunately.

Currently the wind has got up a bit and the rain is diagonal outside my balcony, which is at least a two-cat size structure, though I won’t be sitting out on it. Even in good weather, I don’t think overlooking the main road and those derelict buildings would be the best of views. The power flickered for about half an hour, then went off entirely for another thirty minutes, but seems to be stable now: probably weather-related.

Post-prandial post
I went down to the front reception at 7:30 and ventured through various doors to no avail. I looked again in the tv-entertained, though empty, bar and eventually came back to my room, deciding I’d go down to the bar at eight and either be fashionably early or fashionably late.

At ten to eight my room phone rang and a voice said ‘deeener’ and hung up whilst I was asking questions like ‘where?’. Down at reception again and I was waved imperiously through the bar, under a curtain, past the hungry leopard and through the dragon’s lair (all right, there’s some exaggeration for humorous effect there) into the dining room.

I have been washing, honest, but once again I was the only diner.

The waitress, who brushed aside my apologetic explanations for being late, is no doubt destined for better things as she’s the first pleasant – at least in a professional way – staff member I’ve met in this place. She confirmed that though there is supposedly wi-fi, there are problems and it’s not working. We also discussed transport for tomorrow and – if I’ve not misunderstood – it’s the hotel which moves my bag, so I can more or less choose my time.

Garlic soup as a starter was take it or leave it. I did the former and the rather greasy pool of soggy ‘croutons’ hid in its depths a poached egg and lumps of bacon. All in all, it was quite good.

Garlic soup

I had a choice of main course: ‘carne’ in some form, or ‘merluza’ (hake) and chips. This time I chose the second option. I don’t think Ive had hake before and it took me most of the first fried / grilled slice to suss out the anatomy vis-à-vis the cut, so I had quite a lot of bones to deal with. Nevertheless, pleasant enough, with some acceptable chips.

Pudding again afforded a choice: an orange, ‘natillas’, or something I didn’t understand. I chose the middle option. Now ‘natillas’ can range from almost-creme-brulee to custard and mine was definitely nearer the bottom end of the scale, despite a sprinkling of cocoa on the top. Still, I like custard – cold as well as hot.

I’ve done a few of these trips over recent years and so far, this year, the food is – whilst acceptable – poorer than usual. Maybe the weather is colouring my judgement.

Not long after I finished my ‘postre’, Señora came through and treated me as if we’d never met and she was glad we hadn’t. I agreed to a coffee, saying to myself at her ‘de nada’, ‘we’ll see’.

Saturday

When I went to bed with the rain lashing outside I had fully decided on accompanying my luggage to Trevelez, so I was in a quandry this morning when it was dry and clear with occasional hints of blue in the sky. The friendly waitress, with whom I’d discussed options last night was of the opinion that the weather could go either way and that it would be safer to stick to the car; which, after some dithering, I did.

It was the hotel’s car and the driver was the boss – the guy I’d met previously. He had a very thick accent and talked to me all the way in the car: it was a real effort to try get the gist of what he was saying. At one point he said his son is an ‘a-oh-a-oh’ and I thought I did well to work out ‘abogado’ (lawyer). I also later confirmed another story I deciphered: that about seven years ago a group of Dutch walkers ignored the advice of a local guide and set off in bad weather. Conditions developed into a white-out of mist and snow; they wandered round in circles no distance from a refuge but didn’t see it. This led to fatalities.

There were plenty of signs of landslips as we drove: in several places there was rubble and soil on the road and maintenance crews were active.

Trevelez looks attractive in the not-quite sun: it’s a medium size village built on a steep hillside, riddled with tiny lanes where I was sure the car would get stuck. Pedestrians would step into peoples’ doorways to let us past and I felt the need to hunch up. The roads are dry, though everywhere is the sound of rushing water, occasionally visible through rain grilles. Several street-signs point out the start of quite a number of walks around here.

The hotel is good. The owner – or at least one half of the owners – is a woman called Emma from Derbyshire so I got all the important information in English. My room is large, equipped with good comfy chairs and two almost double beds with truly vast downies. I have a balcony big enough for the Cat-Swinging World Championships, where my boots are currently attempting to dry from yesterday, padded with a few bits of completed crossword newspaper. Surprisingly for Spain, but much to my delight, are the teabags, coffee and kettle etc.: due, no doubt, to the British influence of Emma.

Evening meals are served a short distance down the road, in the Mesón La Fragua: I’m staying in Hotel La Fragua II and spotted La Fragua I on the way in, so business must be OK in Trevelez, the highest village in the Alpujarras I believe. Emma says I’m the only guest as a party of four who should have been staying cancelled due to the weather.

The village comprises three ‘barrios’ or districts and these seem to maintain at least some separate identity: the official name ‘Tres Barrios’ village tour hints at this. I’m wondering if the name Trevelez originally signified ‘three villages’.

During a stroll through the narrow whitewashed alleys I even regretted to not having put my sunglasses on and was mildly annoyed with myself for taking the easy option and not striding out manfully this morning.

However, the wisdom of my decision was obvious by two o’clock when the cloud re-descended and everything was soaked in permeating drizzle. I retreated from my balcony and read Graham Green in my room instead, glad to be out of the weather.

I have data on three recognised walks from Trevelez. The Siete Lagunas is the hardest, with about 1400m of ascent over 9km, then returning by the same route. I’d like to do that, but it’s not advised in poor visibility as the higher parts are not waymarked. Of the other two, one is of medium effort and the other more of a riverside stroll, apparently. My current plan is to try the medium tomorrow, with a view to visiting the Seven Lakes on Monday, weather permitting. I can keep the easy stroll as back up.

The weather is looking better…

… for a while

La Fragua bedroom

 

…on my head

being the second chapter dedicated to Capileira

It’s almost bed time on 1st March, so here’s an update on what I did since my earlier post.

I eventually ‘Adopted a Pioneering Spirit’ – another extract from ‘Morrison Family Book of Clichés’ – and walked to Bubion, about 25 minutes and then came back. The waterproof trousers seem fine though the pockets leak. It rained steadily there and back and wasn’t great fun, though it was beneficial to get out.

The restaurant is pretty poor, to tell the truth: I had a plate of cold meats and cheese followed by some unspecified ‘carne’ with chips in an almond sauce (oh, yeah?) and then I finished off with an orange as the only option for postre.

The tv was on, though I had my back to it and almost missed a few shots of Scotland in the snow. More of concern to me was the reference to storms in this neck of the woods. The wind has certainly got up to quite a force here and cars have been blown off the road on the south coast. I located a ‘severe weather for Spain’ website and there’s quite a bit of red where I am.

Raindrops keep falling…

Capileira, the morning of Thursday 1st March

Today I was planning a circular trip to a nearby village, but the rain seems to have been steady all night, the fog has returned and there is absolutely no point in going anywhere. Marika – see below – has already returned after starting a walk to her next hotel, saying it’s vile and she’s going to wait for the luggage taxi and get a lift. That’s the walk I’m due tomorrow. I might venture out later to see if there’s a waterproof trouser shop, but I don’t hold out much hope in this wee village: perhaps its popularity as a base for walking will work in my favour.

The family who run the hotel seem to run a lot more: there’s also the ‘hostal’, the ‘Mesón’ and the restaurant, where I fell in with a Scottish couple from Bridge of Weir and an American lass (Marika) who works for the USAid NGO. She’s currently posted to Kabul where she’s not allowed out of the compound and spends her days vetting contracts or something. It struck me she could do that remotely from the States.

In a recent posting from New Zealand, Laurie Chancellor commented on the ‘small world’ cliché before mentioning bumping into a couple from the Western Isles. I can better that: in the course of the meal we discovered – or rather I did – that the Scottish lady is the sister of Rhoda Adam, an erstwhile colleague from Inverness Royal Academy. The physical and vocal similarities immediately became striking, so it was almost like chatting to Rhoda, rather than her sister. I’m useless at remembering names, but can recall their initials, so I’ll refer to them as Joan and William.

William – a mostly-retired lawyer – had already had been trying out the local beer and was – like me – keen to try out the wine so it was a jolly evening with lots of laughter. William kept up endless flattery with Gloria the elderly waitress: ‘Gloria Swanson’, ‘Glorisssiiimmmaaaa’. Given the fact his wife was watching, the tolerant solidity of the object of his apparent affections and his complete lack of any Spanish apart from a few French loan-words and some scattered Italian phrases, it was just as well it was all in fun!

Rhoda, a lady I liked a lot and felt I got on well with, always gave me the impression of coming from a vaguely aristocratic background. I sort of imagined distant cousins of Lord Emsworth or something like that. Not so far from the mark as it happens because in conversation it turned out there was quite a lot of Diplomatic Corps in the family and at least one ancestor had been governor of Afghanistan or something along those lines – I got a little lost on the detail.

As for the meal itself, it was good though perhaps uninspired. We nearly all chose the same: ‘Supa Alpujarreña’ and something else ‘Alpujarreña’ consisting of a mound of sliced tatties, bacon, black pudding, sausage and a fried egg. I’m not a great soup aficionado, but was intrigued by it apparently being an almond soup: you could have fooled me (maybe they did!) as I could detect no almond – garlic, olive oil, croutons etc. and tasty enough, but no almonds. The black pudding in particular was excellent and both William and I thought of Stornoway. Joan’s ‘albóndigas’ were apparently fine, in case you’re interested or bump into Rhoda.

When we left to walk back to the hotel the rain seemed to have lessened a bit, but it may just be we were jolly enough not to notice it so much.

Back to this morning and I keep looking out the window to spot an improvement, but the rain seems to have only two settings – heavy and torrential – which it alternates between. My window doesn’t have much of a view, but it doesn’t seem like the mist has lifted. Thank heavens for electronic devices to pass the time!

As I mentioned, Marika ‘wimped out’ – her words, not mine – of walking: I didn’t see William and Joan at breakfast. They managed to squeeze a short walk in yesterday as they arrived earlier than me – probably the 10am bus. I spotted them when they got back and they were drenched, even in waterproof gear. Later William told me their small spiral-bound notebook, which we are given with all the route notes, was now almost reduced to pulp and they were carefully drying it out with all the pages separated in the hope it would remain useble.

It’s now the back of eleven and I’ve just had a change of clothes after my brief sortie outside. The rain now has new parameters – horrendous and horrific – and my bottom half was soaked within a few minutes, but I persevered and wandered around the village. It’s quite possibly delightful in the sunshine, but the rivers running down the steep cobbled roads, forming lagoons in the dips, the constant cascades from unguttered roofs and the swirling mist do rather detract from the idealised image. However, effort – if not virtue – was rewarded and I tracked down a bottom-of-the-range ‘pantalone impermeable’. It says ‘XL’ on the label but the shop lady held them up against me and they seem as though they’re OK: certainly better than nothing.

The downside of this purchase is that I’ve now less excuse for not going out in the rain…

It’s 1 o’clock now. I did get kitted up in my new, rather stylishly narrow legged waterproof trousers, cinching the waist drawcord tight. I did put my waterproof jacket on and I did wrap the routes notes booklet in a plastic pouch. I did grab a walking pole, I did pull up my hood and I did stride manfully to the front door.

What I didn’t do was go any farther: the rain was seriously torrential, coming down in 45degree stair rods and there was absolutely no point in venturing a step more. The sound of the rain is unnecessarily augmented by an artificial water feature that gushes away in the front doorway. Coals to Newcastle comes to mind.

Outside the front door

From my bedroom window

 

Heading for the Hills

Let’s start with unfinished business. Last night’s meal was fine, though hardly lively: I was the only diner in the hotel’s Rincón de Lorca restaurant. The Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca stayed in this very place – then a private house – when hiding from the Nationalists, until he was eventually arrested and executed.

In my splendid isolation, I consumed an eighth of an octopus, rubbery suckers and all. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when ordering my Pulpo gratinado but I did enjoy it and its sauce, despite some bits tending to the chewy. I also managed a tiramisu which – though clearly manufactured – was very good.

I didn’t finally surface this morning until 8:45, so that indicated the 12:00 bus to Capiliera. After a rather uninspiring breakfast washed down with excellent coffee, I left my case at the hotel and wandered to the cathedral.

Granada Cathedral is apparently famous around the world as an example of early Spanish Renaissance Architecture, but still with Gothic aspects. It has been the inspiration for many other cathedrals in Spain and South America.

It is indeed a beautiful building on a large scale, ornate and symbolic. Some of the altars and side-chapels take the form of large silver (I think) statues and reliefs. A bit over the top for my taste, but very much worth a visit: I was particularly struck by the two vast organs on either side of a central aisle. Get them both going and you could blow your socks off.

One of a matching pair

My experience of wandering round cathedrals led me to expect the usual tray of candles with a nearby cashbox, but this example was rather more hitech. The ‘candles’ were little electric simulacra and they lit when coins were put in the slot of the cashbox. I assume that the more you paid, the more candles you lit: a bit like a one-armed bandit. That’s possibly not the only similarity.

I collected my case and the hotel called me a taxi to the bus station where I arrived in good time, negotiated buying a ticket to Capiliera and located the platform. As the journey was a bit over two hours, a visit to the loo was called for and I tracked down the public toilets which were not significantly worse than I expected.

I’ll try to be delicate from here on, gentle reader.

I had just stood up at a urinal and was ‘adjusting my clothing’ prior to micturation when a local guy, rather down at heel and quite possibly drunk, stood in the next door section and started to watch me, closely, as I undid my zip. I tried a sort of ‘What’s the matter with you, Jimmy pal?’ in Spanish to no avail but lost interest in performing and headed off. Five minutes later I returned in trepidation but my secret admirer had gone: for this relief much thanks.

The bus ran through the outskirts of Granada, then its commercial satellites and eventually headed into the hills on twisty hairpin bend roads. The skies were grey with occasional drizzle, which got steadily heavier as we climbed into the cloud blanketting the countryside. By the time I got off in Capiliera, the rain was steady, the visibility poor, the wind gusting and the temperature about 5 degrees. The forecast on my phone is for rain and or sleet with occasional thunder for the foreseeable future.

I located the hotel and am happy with my room for the next two nights. It is the usual rectangle with a corner taken out of it for the shower and toilet. The balcony is sub-kitten size, but the whole thing is comfortable and adequately spacious. Unfortunately the restaurant is a couple of hundred yards down the road, so I’ll be out again later.

I already regret not having brought waterproof trousers: I swithered long and hard over the decision too.

Snow, Snow, Quick, Quick, Snow…

Whilst it would be an exaggeration to say I leapt out of bed like a gazelle, my rude 4am awakening was made somewhat more bearable by the total lack of snow. Normally I love the stuff and had it not been for my jaunt to the Alpujarras, I’d have been excited by the thought of all the wintry conditions the Met Office have been warning us about for the last few days: but on this occasion the unlimited scope for disruption was possibly going to impinge on me, so I was less enthusiastic.

Now, Sonia, she did leap out of bed like the gazelle from ‘The Morrison Family Book of Cliches’ having offered to drive me to the airport, the thought of a taxi fare being enough to justify a temporary early start, before returning to her pit (I don’t know what a gazelle’s bed is called) for a bit more shut-eye.

A snow-free journey, brief fond farewells and some formalities later, I was in the windowless departure lounge: the large windowed room seemed to be out of use. As I sat, I heard a couple of guys who had driven through from the east, comment on how the road became clear at Nairn: luck’s on my side I thought, as our plane was called.

Imagine my disappointment when, once more in contact with the outside world, I discovered a thin coating of snow over everything, with more falling as I watched.

The pilot said we’d need to wait for the runway to be cleared.

Then he said we’d need to be de-iced and somebody would come soon. He added there’d be another delay after de-icing as the de-icers would need to hurry back, get into their fireman’s gear and climb aboard their fire truck.

We waited some more.

Then he said we’d missed our slot and would have to wait for another one.

Some people said something like ‘Duck this’ – I couldn’t hear clearly – and decided to give it up as a bad job: presumably they’d missed their meeting already. Anyway, anyone who wanted disembarked and their luggage was returned to them from the hold.

Finally no longer ice-bound, an empty runway ahead of us and a ‘slot’ at Gatwick having been allocated, our 6:40 flight left about 9:15. Despite some concern on my part whilst sitting on Inverness’ tarmac, I was in good time for my connection to Granada. I knew there were about four hours between arriving and departing LGW, so where I waited didn’t make an awful lot of difference.

I was in good time, but the plane wasn’t and we once again had to be de-iced before leaving about an hour late. I’m in danger of becoming an expert on runway tarmacs and de-icing technology. Might be useful if I ever go on Mastermind.

We arrived in Granada about 4:30, a shuttle bus went to the bus station and I then got a taxi to Hotel Reina Cristina. It’s a nice enough place: the location, despite one or two orange-tree-filled wee plazas, is pretty down at heel, my room is fine – double bed, shower and toilet etc. There’s the regulation tiny balcony with insufficient room to swing a cat – that’s simply an estimate based on mere observation, I did not enroll a feline co-experimenter. The girl at the desk seemed slightly surprised when I said I would eat in this evening – I’ll do some exploring when I return here for two nights at the end of this trip – so I’m not sure what the food will be like. Given I’m writing soon after seven and this is Spain, it’ll probably be hours till I find out.

In true tourist fashion, I should mention the weather: grey, cloudy, low mist on the hills, recent rain… This room could do with central heating.

Tomorrow I leave Granada and take the bus to Capileira which will be my gateway to the Alpujarras. Currently I can’t decide between the 10:05 and the 12:00 bus: I must stop now and research what the village’s attractions are.

Three Young’uns and an Oldster

So – don’t you just hate that? It’s actually literally more than I can bear, honestly – Joanna and Ben were up in Inverness at the weekend and suggested I might like to accompany them for a walk up a hill. On a previous visit I had failed to join them in their ascent of Sgor Gaoith on the western edge of the Cairngorms so I suggested that we tackle Mullach Clach a Bhlair, the other Munro readily accessible from Glen Feshie.

In an atypical spirit of tact, I forbore mentioning to the rest of the group that less than a week previously there had been a major Mountain Rescue on Carn Ban Mor, a lump of a hill lying between Sgor Gaoith and our current target. It seemed the rescued party had become disoriented, worried about his feet freezing – so cut his laces – and required a nine-hour sortie by a team of four as the helicopter couldn’t fly in such appalling conditions. To avoid temptation, I decided to leave my Swiss Army Knife at home.

Our party consisted of first-born Joanna, her hubby Ben and their friend Tuesday. An early start was called for and we left home, and Sonia still tucked up in bed, just before 7:30am. The journey down the A9 was fine, though we missed a turning on the Glen Feshie road and had to double back a little bit. It was at this point we noticed Ben had not got round to filling the car up with diesel and we only had thirty miles’ worth left. I added to the feeling of alarm by mentioning that any time I’d been up and down the A9 recently there had been signs saying “No fuel at Aviemore” as the service station had closed. I also helpfully pointed out that the distance from Aviemore to Inverness is 30.5 miles, never mind the extra section up the glen.

By the time we reached the car park to the North of Achlean it was clear there was no benefit in going to look for fuel now so we set off walking down the road.

More by accident than conscious decision we started off doing the route anti-clockwise. It transpired that though Tuesday is fit – both she and Joanna are keen runners – she wasn’t a greatly experienced hillwalker and it hadn’t occurred to her that we’d be walking in snow. And not long after leaving the road we were definitely in it, frequently up to our knees and well beyond, which made it hard going.

One advantage of being in a group is that we could take it in turns to lead, by far the hardest part of walking in the snow and adding a whole layer of meaning to the “Good King Wenceslas” carol.

Sire, the night is darker now
And the wind blows stronger
Fails my heart, I know not how,
I can go no longer.”
“Mark my footsteps, my good page
Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.”

In his master’s steps he trod
Where the snow lay dinted
Heat was in the very sod
Which the Saint had printed

Though I think there was a shortage of heated sod where we were and the ascent of the outlying and relatively diminutive Meall nan Sleac was a sair fecht at times: never knowing whether the slight crust would hold your weight (it generally didn’t), having to extricate a leg invisible from the thigh down without sinking the other leg in instead and puffing all the while.

If I make it sound unpleasant, it wasn’t really, just damned hard work. I did find myself regretting not having brought my snowshoes, which I had deliberately left at home as no-one else had any. Ditto my crampons. I was, however, grateful for my walking poles.

Cameron McNeish says “Despite its 1019m elevation, Mullach Clach a Bhlair is a mere swell in the rolling terrain” and that’s a fair description. I had been up there some years ago in more summery conditions, but I must admit that I easily confuse the various hills I’ve “done” and this one didn’t stand out in any particular way. A few winters ago, Dave Smith and I made an attempt on the “mere swell”, but conditions closed in to such an extent we could hardly see ourselves, let alone each other, and we beat a well-advised retreat, promising to have a go some other time.

Mere swell or not, access from Meall nan Sleac involves the loss of a hard-won 50 metres’ altitude before the further ascent of 269 metres – I counted them! – to our goal. This section would be easy in summer: there is a clearly visible Land Rover track for much of the way. In winter, though easily seen as a smooth white motorway over the land, every step was a bit of an effort. And the section after the false summit seemed even less welcome.

We were rewarded with some excellent views from the top of the hill. The sky was blue, the sun shone a bit and gliders from the Glen Feshie Gliding Strip sailed past us almost within touching distance, it seemed. It was bitterly cold on the top but we were warm – at least to start with – after our exertions: what the temperature must have been like for the glider pilots cooped up and unable to move in their draughty cockpits, heaven only knows but it was a magnificent show which the one shot can’t do justice to.

Spot the glider.

Minutes after we left the top the weather closed in considerably, the sun disappeared, the sky disappeared, terrestrial distinguishing features disappeared and all we could see was the start of the line of footprints we had made on our way up. Given the effort we’d expended so far and the deteriorated conditions, we quickly decided to retrace our steps, rather than head North towards Carn Ban Mor.

Going back down the “motorway” was much faster than the ascent and we soon stopped for lunch in a burst of sunshine before the short, but rather unwelcome re-ascent of Meall an Sleac.

Having reached its rounded summit, the “young folk” had fun glissading (sliding on one’s bum) down the other side: I restricted myself to envying a guy who shot past us at speed on his snowshoes whilst I tried to avoid sinking too deep into the snow.

The return to the car was uneventful, but I suspect we all had the fuel shortage at the back of our minds. However, a phone call to the Aviemore tourist information centre was immediately reassuring: there is now a Marks & Spencer food store with service station, so all was well. We celebrated with wine gums.

Ben

Jo

Tuesday

Jo says I look like something from the front of a National Geographic magazine. When questioned, she clarified that she meant “someone”

I did feel a bit stiff the next day, but a visit to the gym helped to loosen me up. All in all,  I was quite pleased with my progress, which is just as well as a week today – Tuesday 27th – I’m off on a walking trip to the Alpujarras, near Granada. No doubt I’ll be waffling on about that.