Hillwalking - Crystal blue skies

By Frank Brooks

By Frank Brooks

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Sitting in my cosy living room as I write this, listening to the wind howling in the streets, it’s easy for my mind to be drawn back to the hills of last week’s walk; on that day the wind was certainly the dominant feature.

A few miles south of Braemar, on the A93, stands a little wood, marked by a ‘weir’, on the map. Beside said wood, below a crystal blue sky we parked the car and took to the little glen that opened on the opposite side of the road.

But crystal blue skies don’t always make for the calmest days; from the word go we wore our overcoats and bonnets, so bitingly cold was the stiff breeze that greeted us.

The little glen, with is frothy burn and bank-side icicles, arrows eastwards in the direction of Creag nan Gabhar; it provides a pleasant through route to Glen Callater Lodge. Although there was plenty of patchy snow above us, the floor of the glen was free and easy. Even so, after just a mile and a half we left the path and headed south across the pathless peaty moor.

The glen had given us a little shelter from the wind but now it was batten down the hatches and time to grit our teeth! Although much snow has fallen here in recent weeks, none was left down at feet level; only the soft, almost soggy conditions underfoot, reminded us that deep snow, as it thaws, has to go somewhere! Much of last year’s grass, dead now and yellow, lay flattened by the weight of those previous snows. We soldiered on.

Our chief landmark for now was the dull, snow smeared, 822 metre Carn Dubh, to our south. I’ve used this hill as a landmark in rainy weather too; believe me, in such conditions this hill lives up to its name: ‘Black Cairn.’

We’d come this way for a change of scenery; the standard ascent is from the roadside in Glen Cluny. Indeed I’ve approached the hill from that side on many previous occasions. The very first time, as a much younger man, I was blessed with my first golden eagle sighting. We hadn’t walked far from the road in fact, when the great bird appeared from nowhere, it seemed. She lingered on an updraft directly above us and at not much height, looked us over with a plainly visible beady eye, then lazily flapped its huge wings to disappear around the shoulder of the mountain.

But no eagles today! We were heading for the bulldozed track that leaves Glen Callater to snake its way up Carn an Tuirc’s broad north east ridge; it wasn’t long before we saw it. The ground began to steepen. We gained the track and let it lead us onto the ridge’s crest. Bang! I looked over to my companions. Just like me they were finding it difficult to remain upright, so sudden and so strong had been the greeting blast of the gale on this exposed ridge.

With gritted teeth we began to climb. It was much like walking into a brick wall!

To our left the ridge fell away sharply into Coire Loch Kander. Although we were not hungry, the corrie walls just below would probably offer one of the few opportunities to get out of the wind for refreshments; we dropped down and ate.

This corrie is one of great beauty, one of the hidden gems of the area. Though wonderfully crag girt and complete with a waterfall, (today white and steamy), it’s the little circle of a lochan at the bottom that steals the show. As we stared into the depths of that ogre’s eye, we were amazed by the violent swirling of its waters. Columns of spray rose many feet into the air. So disturbed by the wind was the surface we thought that at any moment the resident ogre himself might emerge, like some prisoner from his 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 when we popped our heads above the corrie lip again. The final mile to the summit, snow covered now and slippery, was almost level; this ridge is broad and exposed.

Heads down we battled over the frozen quartz pocked plateau. In summer months this is an area to linger. Soft mosses punctuated with beautiful pink mats of azaleas abound; there’s thrift, moss campion and wild thyme too. Today we certainly didn’t linger!

Quartz boulders guard the 1019 metre ‘cairn of the boar’; here was very scant shelter. Photography was all but impossible. Presently two women appeared followed by two bedraggled husbands. Having ascended via the steeper western boulder fields, they must have been blown up the hill!

To linger meant to freeze so we headed for the shallow col and the long white slopes of 1069 metre Cairn of Claise (hill of the hollow). With the wind now mercifully abreast of us, we plodded up the long, gentle slope. As we went so clouds began to bubble up above us.

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

This summit is a huge mound of shattered quartz, not steep, but today extremely slippery. With the wind trying to knock us over at every step, even with boots encased in crampons we found it difficult to keep our footing on the rocks.

Although we’d been there but a couple of weeks ago, we decided to make a detour onto Glas Maol; I never tire of that hill. It was a struggle against the wind; coming back we flew!

Retreat was via the ridge that terminates on steep Sron a’ Gaoithe, or ‘nose of the wind’. And blow its nose it did! Cross winds over a slender ridge are often the worst; today was no exception. It’s a lovely ridge, one of the highlights, for me, of any trip in these airts. But today we were glad to drop down carefully on its steep and greasy northwest end, (its nose), for the relative comfort of Glen Cluny.

The sun, now low, was still strong and lit up every hill around us. Farther north, gathering an evening blanket of cloud around its shoulders as we watched, the Cairngorm range was crystal clear. Again we saw Ben Avon’s black tors, as if almost touchable. We’d suffered howling winds and our fingers had often been numb, let alone our ears and noses; it had been uncomfortable yet exhilarating. Above all else it had been a day that wouldn’t be forgotten.