Exposed and exhilarated!

Carn an Tuirc from Sron na Goaithe
Carn an Tuirc from Sron na Goaithe

The forecast was for gale force winds, sunshine and showers; perfect! And do you know, for once they got it right…almost. The drive through Glen Shee, was epic; windscreen lashing squalls reducing visibility to an inch or so beyond the bonnet almost had us turning around for home. We persevered.

A few miles south of Braemar, on the A93, (west side), stands a little wood; on the map you’ll see the word: ‘Weir’. Here, below a black threatening sky, we parked the car and took to the glen that headed hill-ward, across the road.

This deep little glen, with its rain swollen and frothy burn, arrows eastwards below Creag nan Gabhar, to provide a rough through route to Glen Callater Lodge; it’s a nice ramble, we should perhaps have contented ourselves with it today. After a mile or so the glen widened out and shallowed, our cue to leave the path and head southeast across the peaty moor.

The glen had given us reasonable shelter against the wind but now it was a case of coats on and batten down the hatches. It also started raining heavily. It is often the case that, as the rain washes the air clear of dust and pollutants, visibility remains good; this was the case today. Our chief landmark, which we needed to keep to our right, was 822 metre Carn Dubh, to our south. Although as black and grim as its name, its top, sporting but the thinnest wreath of cloud, was always visible.

With no paths to guide us we laboured over peaty bogs until we arrived by the waters of Allt a’ Bhealaich Bhuide. The burn cut a grassy swathe through the wastelands, grassland which at last gave us more pleasant, easier walking with everywhere yellow tormentils and buttercups, purple milk and butterworts, to add colour to an otherwise gloomy scene.

Our ultimate aim was the track, at last visible, that snakes up from Loch Callater, along the broad northeast ridge of Carn an Tuirc (Cairn of the boar). The ground began to steepen. We gained the track and let it lift us onto the ridge’s crest.

‘Bang’! I looked around at my two companions. As I was, so they too were finding it difficult to remain upright, so violent and sudden had been the blast of the gale on the exposed ridge!

With gritted teeth we began to climb. It was akin to walking into a brick wall! To our left the ridge fell sharply into Coire Loch Kander. Although we were not yet hungry enough for lunch, the corrie walls below us would probably offer one of the few opportunities to get out of the wind for refreshments, so down we dived and rested.

This corrie is one of great beauty. Though wonderfully crag girt and complete with a waterfall (today white and steamy), it’s the little circle of lochan at the bottom draws the eye. It was itself today an ogre’s eye and as we stared into its evil depths we were amazed by the violent swirling of its waters, sheets of which were being lifted in spumes of spray from the surface and driven like billowing curtains. So disturbed by the wind was its surface we thought that the resident ogre himself was about to emerge, like an escaping prisoner from a dungeon.

The definition of the word ‘hurricane’: a wind in a hurry that gives you a good caning! And that’s exactly what we got the moment we popped our heads above the corrie lip again. The final mile to the summit, broad and almost level, was unhealthily exposed. Heads down we battled on over grass and moss painted stone, enlivened everywhere by lovely mats of tiny pink azaleas. Soon we were in amongst the shattered quartz that guards the summit cairn where we found, at last, some meagre shelter.

Photography was impossible! Presently, two women appeared followed, a couple of minutes later, by two bedraggled looking husbands. Having ascended via the steeper western boulder fields, they must have been literally blown up the mountain!

Although it was early summer, to linger meant to freeze so we headed quickly for the shallow col below the long grassy slopes of 1069 metre Cairn of Claise, alias Cairn of the hollow. With the wind now mercifully abreast of us and the rain playing on someone else’s mountain, we plodded up the long gentle slope. As we went so the cloud, (perversely, since the rain had stopped), dropped to envelope us in an eerie world of swirling smoke.

There’s a lot of old walling about the big summit cairn and we hunkered down in its lee for lunch. Now and again one or the other of us would bravely pop a head above the old and rotting coping stones to witness the wonderful play of light being enacted around the corries by the splintering clouds and fleeting sunshine. It was magical and gave reason to the insanity of our wild adventure.

This summit is another huge mound of shattered quartz, not steep, but today very slippery; there was treachery afoot! With the wind still attempting to knock us down with every step, we found it difficult to keep our footing on the rocks. We were glad to reach the comforting path below, the ‘bagger’s trade route.

Our next summit was that of 1068 metre Glas Maol (Greenish grey hill). I knew from long acquaintance with this hill how difficult it can be to find the cairn in conditions like these. (Yes, the cloud was down again). One of my proudest hill moments was finding the cairn, from the west, during a prolonged and scary whiteout; three attempts it took me!

Today we were grateful for a sketchy path which led us over gentle enough slopes to within sight of the big summit pile of stones. We each touched it then turned about to begin running with the wind.

Retreat was via the ridge that ends on steep sided Sron na Gaoithe, appropriately enough today: The nose of the wind. And blow its nose it did! Cross winds over such a slender ridge are often the cruellest. Even though the driving rain and hail showers had finally given up on us, we were glad to drop down the steep and greasy northwest end, ‘the nose’, in fact, to the relative calm of Glen Clunie.

As always seems to happen at the ending of a mountain day in iffy weather, the sun had at last won the battle and the hills of our walk and the others of Glens Shee and Clunie, glistened in the rain washed air. Farther north, mostly still in cloud, The Cairngorms could be clearly seen- so clear in fact that the great granite tors of whale backed Ben Avon seemed almost touchable.

That day we suffered howling winds and had been lashed frequently by face stinging rain, sometimes even hail; for much of the time it had been quite uncomfortable. And yet it had been exhilarating. To see the sun do its work of landscape resurrection, even if sometimes only fleeting, reminds us of the reason that we come here in the first place.