Detailed accounts of the search make for harrowing reading...

Hillwalking with Frank: Head of Glen Doll

Hillwalking with Frank: Head of Glen Doll

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Jock’s Road, least-ways the plateau section of the route from Cairn Lunkard to Tolmounth, can be a killer, literally! Famously, on New Year’s Day of 1959, five walkers lost their lives up there in horrendous blizzard conditions. Detailed accounts of the protracted search for their bodies make for harrowing reading.

Tragedy struck again in 1976, when three students from Dundee University set off from Braedownie, for the long walk to Braemar; only one survived the blizzard that caught them out. Others have tales of close shaves up on the notorious Mounth.

In 30 years or so of hill walking I have been, shall we say, ‘confused’ in the hills on three occasions. Ironically two of those occasions were in the vicinity of Jock’s Road. The first time, way back at the beginning of my hill going career, green and without a compass, I scraped home much more by luck than by any better judgement. Some years later, familiarity having bred an unhealthy contempt, foul weather and lackadaisical compass work had me foundering around the Knaps of Fafernie. Much patience and prior knowledge helped me out that time.

Recently we approached the plateau from Backnagairn and Loch Esk. With our intended path hiding beneath deep snow and swirling mist making a mockery of this morning’s ‘good’ weather forecast, accurate compass work had been paramount. But familiarity doesn’t always breed ‘content’. True, our navigation had been spot on. Not only were we standing on the grassy plateau as expected (here swept clean of snow by constant winds), but we stood also on the feint scratch of path that is Jock’s Road. It was the scene around us that looked so wrong, entirely alien!

The surrounding hills, Tom Buidhe, Crow Craigies and Tolmount, even the glen of the white water below us, carpeted with snow and drifting in and out of cloud, looked so much different to the friendlier hills of summer. We knew exactly where we were, to the inch, yet could scarcely believe it. We’d been here countless times before yet had never really LOOKED PROPERLY at the terrain. That day we looked, carefully, hopefully committing to memory the nuances of the hills hitherto unnoticed. We were chastened!

More recently we went back, this time from an alpine looking Braedownie. Again the forecast had been good; again they had got it wrong. There was a great deal more snow lying (horrendous rainfall over Angus had been translated into snow on the heights). Today the sky was full of yet more to come. As we toiled through the forestry of Lower Glen Doll, we had to wade off path to bypass trees that had been wind felled by recent storms (Frank!) to lie as un-passable fences across the track.

The styled gate at the edge of the plantation opened up the cliché of another world, a winter wonderland. Seldom have I seen Glen Doll, with the enclosing walls of Creag Damff, Craig Maud and The Dounalt, so thickly plastered with snow. We’d come to walk in Jock’s footsteps, but his path lay hidden beneath a yard of freshly fallen snow the consistency of a baker’s sifted flour.

The going was hard; we took our time. Much of that time we floundered, but there was no need to hurry; in a masochistic way we actually found ourselves enjoying it.

A good few years ago the ancient path was repaired, making it a little friendlier to less ardent summer visitors whilst mending the wear and tear of more than 150 years of use. At regular intervals drainage channels cut the path; easily seen and avoided in summer, they become potentially dangerous traps when masked by a foot or so of soft snow. Gingerly we used our trekking poles to probe the way ahead; even so, every once in a while one or the other of us would suddenly loose a leg in one of these crafty trenches. Both of us went home that night with bruised shins!

West of Cairn Damff’s slopes a burn normally waterfalls itself across Jock’s Road to add to the white water down in the glen. Often a stopping point for a refreshing gulp or two of water, today it was a frozen ribbon of blue ice.

Waist deep snow slowed us down yet more. Rising wind lifted huge columns of spindrift from the slopes across the glen; ever more frequent flurries in the air warned us of worsening weather up ahead.

At a prominent crag which seems to bar the way forward, the path goes right, up and over a small col, to pass by Davie’s Bourrach. Davie Glen was a well known hillsman in these parts and had been much involved in the search operation on that fateful New year’s Day of 1959. Ironically the first victim recovered died only a few hundred yards from the wooden hut that pre-dated Davie’s structure. For us Davie’s little heather-roofed howff would be a welcome sight.

But first we had to get there. It lay no more than five minutes away (in normal conditions) above the little col. Yet today’s conditions stretched those five minutes and made for possibly the most difficult section of the entire day. So deep was the snow and so soft, we had almost to swim up. We couldn’t see the col in front of us, whiteout conditions had set in to meld the sky and the ground as one.

And then at last, there it was. Almost entirely buried, all we could see of the hovel was a fraction of its red metal door, a peeping eye made bloodshot by the stinging wind-whipped snow.

We cleared away the drift and forced open the door; we were greeted by yet more snow. Like sand on a beach, sand can find its way in anywhere. Blown under the significant gap beneath the door, days of accumulation had built a drift ‘indoors’!

We sat outside and had a warming drink. It certainly was cold. Sitting there our hands numbed quickly, the icy wind bit our ears and noses.

Our original intention had been to climb Tolmount; probably the winds would have swept the eastern slopes clean of deep snow, making for an easier traverse. It was the getting there that posed the more serious problem. The forecasters had been wrong again. Instead of well broken cloud and good visibility, the notorious plateau up ahead promised whiteout conditions.

With such conditions comes the need for painstaking navigation. In places the snow would be deep and possibly treacherous; Cairn Lunkard could well be prone to avalanche. The going would be laboriously slow. We decided to go back down.

Even the going back would take us time. If the weather really did deteriorate we could at least follow our own upward footsteps down. Or so we imagined. In fact we weren’t really surprised to discover that during the fifteen minutes or so we had spent at Davie’s Bourrach, wind-blown snow had virtually filled and obliterated our tracks; and those in places had been up to two feet deep or more!

With snow gently falling on and off and the smoky grey trees of Glen Doll Forest way below, we enjoyed the renewed battle. Up the path towards us came two other walkers. “Nice day for it... No?” quipped one of them optimistically.

“It’s absolutely foul up there”, I warned. I didn’t mean to wipe the smile from off his face, but I did hope he would take the warning seriously. Hopefully, like us, they would call it a day at Davie’s Bourrach.