Friends, collies and Pekingese dogs,
I don’t think the large glass of malt whisky that B poured, when she got back from the pub last night, was a particularly good idea. Drowning your sorrows after failing to bag a Munro is one thing but – when you have to get up at 5.30am to do another couple the next day- a fuzzy head isn’t a great start. I could sense that there wasn’t going to be much in the way of stimulating conversation during the drive, so I kept my head down and caught up on a bit of lost sleep. Then, before my watch chimed 8.00, B was looking for a lay by just south of Crianlarich to begin our walk. Unfortunately, we had gone too far so had to do a big wheelie, drive a bit further back the way we had come and then park up. I showed off my stile crossing technique, in a perfectly synchronised: hop, hop, up and over; hop, hop, down, as if I had a black belt in this art form. We spent quite a long time rummaging about to find a railway underpass, one of the more obvious navigational features you might think. Well perhaps ordinarily so but not, it seems, when you have parked in the wrong lay by and gone over the wrong stile. So, it was back to the car and back to Crianlarich to try again. This time, B cottoned on to the facility of using the route she had planned on her GPS to make sure we started out at the right place! We had only lost an hour in the process but still, it’s all learning I suppose.
The weather controller hadn’t decided what way to cast the day yet and so the cloud played a game of hide and seek with the sun.
Assiduously following the route from the wonderful, A rated, Walk Highlands website, we knew we needed to pass through two gates and then turn right onto a faint footpath up the hill. Before passing the first gate a nice farmer passed us in his Land Rover. I knew he was a nice farmer because, although he waved at B, it was me he was looking at with that big broad smile on his face. We went through the first gate and then on and on waiting to come upon the second. I guessed something was up when we started going downhill. Even I knew we couldn’t have done a Munro already. B checked the GPS and the little pointer was bang on the route so we carried on but… it definitely didn’t feel right, especially when the track petered out. It didn’t look right on the map either, surely we shouldn’t have gone such a long way beyond the tress on the other side of the river. We got the GPS out again and oh dearie me, we were still on the route… except, B realised, it was the route back! We were doing a circular trip and re-joining the route out at the second gate – where ever that was. Just now we were exactly where we should be in approximately five hours time.
It was black hat time again as we retraced our steps to see if there was a path by the gate we had passed through (regardless of where that elusive second gate was). The mist had stubbornly seen off any lingering shades of blue and the wet, wet, wet above was a forgone conclusion. Additionally, we were much later than planned and we had no idea of our route to the top. We also had the long journey home to consider; despondency gate-crashed our hearts. The thought of ascending into bad weather yet again – with the not unlikely possibility of withdrawal for safety reasons on the cards – was soul destroying. However, to give up at this stage was also unthinkable. One uncompleted route from the weekend wasn’t great but two was totally unpalatable. Is it really better to try and fail, we wondered.
Back at the gate, some thirty minutes later, there was indeed a faint path and so what could we do but follow it and, as B said, “play it by ear”. Sometimes I just haven’t got a clue what she is going on about. We started off plodding uphill through boggy terrain and it wasn’t long before B’s rucksack was much lighter because half the contents were protecting her against the wind and rain. It was a long hard trudge up and, signs that the spherical sun was indeed fighting a loosing battle behind the density of grey cloud, could have transmuted heartsickness to homesickness and a throwing in of towels. However, in spite of it all, there was a certain magic in these atmospheric conditions. If yesterday’s walk, on Ben Vorlich, had been conducted to the accompaniment of a persistent chorus of raucous walkers then today’s was a totally silent symphony that wrapped itself around the hills and hugged us in an invigorating embrace of splendid isolation. Once on the ridge we joined the joyfully meandering path across the flanks of the aptly named TwistinHill.
Up here the going became easier for a while and the contingent of woolly things, strung out all along the path, heralded a fast and furious supply of my favourite mature cheddar. The flock never diminished so that – by the time we reached the next point of steep ascent – my commodious tummy was something of a burden. This was a little inconvenient, particularly when the stonier, wet path required a nimbleness of foot work that would have been more easier accomplished by a slimmer version of Ben! As we climbed the ambiance became bleaker, even more mysterious, while visibility shrank to a few metres ahead. We were right in there with Kuo Hsi, painter and essayist who pre-empted us nearly 1000 years ago, during the Sung dynasty, when he said, “…haze, mist and the haunting spirits of the mountains are what human nature seeks.” I didn’t rate him that highly though, because he omitted to say woolly things are what canine nature seeks. Sadly, haze, mist and haunting spirits did little to give my portrait, at the top of An Caisteal, the definition it deserves.
If nimble toes were needed for the way up then firm and secure paws were the order of the day on the way down. A sharp descent on unforgivably saturated rock needed v. v. v close attention. Trying to watch my step while, at the same time, not pulling too hard on the lead required a degree of concentration that made my brain hurt. Despite the conditions we made it safely down to the col where the cloud had thinned a little. From here it was a very clever path that found its way through the rocky escarpment on the south west face of Beinn a Chroin. Eventually though, it needed to take a near vertical ascent, as we turned north east. Normally, scrambling is when I need to do very big jumps up and B is left behind looking for hand and footholds to haul herself up behind me. However today, because of the slippery rock, I got up OK but kept sliding back. The butterflies – that had lying dormant since our journey north – had more room to dance about my expanded paunch as I did lots of desperate doggy paddle movements to try and secure a purchase, but to no avail. Luckily B had her hand on my bottom and just kept pushing and pushing. While we worked our way up in this manner I was a little concerned because there was no one behind to push B’s bottom up if her boots lost their grip.
Thank goodness we averted disaster and so, before long, B was doing a bit of a dance around the summit of Munro number forty. Meantime, I was squirming in embarrassment and so, so pleased that we were on our own. If you have ever seen B dancing you will know exactly what I mean.
Next, we had to start making our way downhill and – having just had the experience of sliding down wet rock – I was beginning to worry about what the big descent from over 3,000 feet up, to the River Falloch, would involve: how steep, how slippery, how often would we fall over, could B carry me if I broke my femur; could I be the best buddy in the world if B had a nasty fall; doing the Munros is not a restful experience.
As it happens, almost miraculously, the path wove it’s way down several thousand feet in a graceful serpentine that put even my butterflies back to sleep. Down near the river-bed we assumed we had done the worst. Never, ever, let a small thing – like being on the flat – lull you into a false sense of security. For the next half hour or so, we ploughed our way across a bog like none we had ever come across before. Submerging our feet in soggy acres of moorland, our procession went – foot-in-foot – with squelching, slipping and sliding, while making surprisingly slow progress. Having survived the mud bath (just), I was weighing up the damage from today’s acquaintance with the hills: legs OK – though aching; furry coat saturated; tummy matted with horrible peat; head space a mess. I needed the sanctuary of home and to be reacquainted with the civilising influence of the soft furnishings. Eventually we found a nice big, solid track and – guess what – this is where we were over five hours ago, when we had gone the wrong way.
Suddenly, back on Terra-ferma, a mood of jubilation took hold. With the two Munros – we were so uncertain of completing – safely in the bag, I got to wondering again about the missing gate from this morning and the nice farmer. With the confluence of those two thoughts I had one of those things they call a light bulb moment. Could it be that the farmer, knowing he was shortly returning, had left a gate open and me & B had gone through without noticing it. Right enough, close to the start of our walk there it was, a huge gap in the fence, big gates pinned back against masterly fence posts, which B hadn’t noticed. For all the 40 Munros, she’s not getting much better in the navigation department, is she?
Back at my van, we were very wet, very hungry and very euphoric. Despite yesterdays blip we had still conquered 11 Munros this weekend. B hugged me in celebration which made me, and the butterflies in my tummy, go all warm. Then: we got an hours shut eye in the back of my van; B made use of the h & c facilities in the loos at Crianlarich and we set off for home. I caught up on some more much needed shut eye.
Exhausted as I was, I still learnt something else new that night – which Millie hadn’t told me about. Humans do that leaning thing too. As soon as we got into our living room – the one with the nice soft furnishings – B did the leaning thing on David, which got her a v. v. v big glass of wine, as a treat.
You just wouldn’t believe the number of zzzzzzzs I have done since then.