Hillwalking - On foot beneath blue skies

Hillwalking - Carn a'Chlamain
Hillwalking - Carn a'Chlamain

When we saw not one, two but three squirrels in quick succession, and all within 10 minutes of starting off, we knew it was going to be a good day.

We’d left Montrose beneath a star studded sky and with the TV’s promise of blue skies and the fluffy clouds photographers dream of. Yesterday we’d seen the last of the past fortnight’s snow disappearing from the nearby Angus hills; when passing below Ben Vrackie we’d been shocked to see her clothed from head to foot with a garment of new snow. When we arrived at Blair Atholl it was snowing!

Famed for its gorge cutting river, fringed by drooping birch and old imported firs, Glen Tilt, with its fresh gossamer of snow, looked like a Christmas card. What were we in for on the hills above? Certainly not blue skies sand fluffy clouds.

Our original plan had been to leave the glen at the Gilbert Bridge and to climb Carn a’ Chlamain by an unfamiliar and seldom used ridge. The Allt Mhairc runs down from the hills to empty its modest volume into the River Tilt, below the foothills of Beinn a’ Ghlo’s Carn Liath; before it does so it writhes itself into a thunderous waterfall and squeezes through a rocky little gorge. Here we crossed the old stone bridge.

The snow fell steadily and the ridge ahead disappeared into low grey cloud; time for a change of plan. We chose the well trodden path that snakes along the western bank of the river Tilt as far as the bridge beyond Marble Lodge. If the weather improved we could climb Chlamain via its ugly bulldozed track, a travesty in more favourable conditions but straightforward and safe today. If not, a walk to Bedford Bridge might be worthwhile.

The cronking of a pair of frolicking ravens reached us from across the slopes of Carn Liath. High in the corries, stark against the white slopes, big herds of deer milled in search of snow buried herbage. Above Braigh Corrie Chruinn-bhalgain the clouds were pierced by a transient shaft of sunlight, lighting one small patch of mountainside golden.

By the time we’d reached the Sapper’s Bridge the snow had stopped and the way ahead at least looked feasible. With the chatter of the Allt Chraoinidh’s nearby waterfall in our ears we sat in the snow for a rest and a bite to eat.

Mercifully the snow had partially masked the track that has been shovelled along the narrow ridge of Faire Chlach-ghlais. Except for the initial pull up the nose, the going is almost entirely gentle, an easy plod along the heather rich ridge. We followed the numerous footprints of mountain hares; we actually spotted one loping across the track ahead, quickly he merged with the snow and fog around him, so effective was his camouflage.

On and up we went, ever deeper into the clag above. I know this area well yet soon everything seemed strange, ever the case when snow and cloud conspire to throw the senses. I normally climb the stony final cone from the east, today we didn’t even see the land begin its rise towards the little summit. Instead we continued along the obvious trail until we were obliged to pass through an almost quarry like alley of shattered rock, probably Chlamain’s only rocky feature this side of the mountain.

Through the gloom a little cairn appeared, probably marking the best spot to leave the path for the last few hundred yards to Chlamain’s summit cairn. On this side of the hill there’s barely any climb at all; almost before we knew it we were standing by the pile of snow cemented stones with the summit’s frosted quartz debris lying around us.

It was difficult to accept that this was in fact the summit, so unfamiliar did all about us feel. I dropped down a few dozen metres in the opposite direction in search of more familiar ground. That way the ground fell away more steeply, as expected, and I could make out another ascending path, etched white in the greyer quartz. This undoubtedly was the summit yet how strong can be the doubt induced sometimes by the disorienting nature of the weather.

At the edge of visibility we could see the terrain rising, just a little but enough to fuel the doubts. We plodded across those few dozen yards, just in case: more quartz rubble lay scattered around the diminutive mound, (for that was all it proved to be), and we were convinced; kinda!

Carn a’ Chlamain is ‘the hill of the kite or buzzard’, take your pick. Another raven prukked; a trespasser! We’d heard and seen a number of these friendly birds throughout the morning; in fact I’ve often seen them over Carn a’ Chlamain yet never more so than when snow lies heavy on the hills. Jet Black with gleaming eyes, you’ll never see them better than when contrasted against the snow. Yet in this almost whiteout we only heard him as he flew around above us.

Following our own footprints we made our way back down. Still everything looked strange and different. The stark wilderness to the north, the vast empty lands of Tarf, rolling away to the feet of An Sgarsoch, could only be imagined today. Even the farther walls of Glen Tilt, when they finally appeared, looked out of place; only the sounds of the glen’s unseen river floating up on the scant breeze, convinced us that the glen was real.

We were glad to finally drop beneath the shredding clouds. The sun was at last beginning to win back the blue skies and pristine snowscapes. Especially grand was the spectacle of Carn Liath and its neighbouring hills, their snow covered flanks so white as to be almost blue. Big herds of deer still darkened those flanks, and yet again the course but friendly chatter of ravens wafted across the glen towards us. In its high little hollow the tree fringed ruins of Creag Choinnich Lodge, looked like a little black oasis in an arctic tundra.

Down at the Sapper’s Bridge a flock of long tailed tits flew into the naked birches by the waterside. Another raven cronked.

It’s said that a hunter can fire a shot in any one of Beinn a’ Ghlo’s many corries and not be heard in any of the others. We hadn’t heard a shot all day, yet we’d seen the stalkers on the flanks above Glen Tilt. As we wended our way back down the glen we were passed by vehicles full of green clad shooters.

In the back of one Land Rver lay the carcass of a neatly gralloched hind; at least the weather hadn’t hindered the estate in its grim though necessary business.

And true to form, the closer we drew to journey’s end, the clearer grew the skies and the keener edged the rapidly approaching evening frost. Though the weather had kept us from our original goal we felt in no way cheated or deprived of a good day on the hills. The opposite in fact, was true; we’d tailored our needs to suit the conditions and been profited with a memorable outing.