“Dark at tea-time, sleeping indoors, nothing ever happens in the winter holidays”
To book a winter holiday in Scotland is to take a chance. Sometimes, like last year in Glen Clova, the snow is high and scanty, good for walking but frustrating for skiers. Sometimes the snow is rock hard, great for climbers, but scary for anyone skiing on light nordic touring gear. More often, what snow there is, blows horizontally and wetly producing conditions suitable for only the hardiest mountain bikers, runners and valley walkers. This year, however, was a year for skiers, or at least for skiers prepared to work hard for their pleasures, as the snow, sometimes as sticky as porridge lay thickly but not evenly, from valley floor to mountain top.
Ten Buxton MC members made their way to Muir Cottage, a cosy hut belonging to Cairngorm Mountaineering Club, and lying between Braemar and the Linn of Dee. For reasons I won’t go into, four more members opted for a luxurious apartment in the nearby Mar Lodge (think Scottish Baronial: wood paneled corridors adorned with the heads of dead animals) while yet another member was further down the glen, with another team, in equally opulent surroundings. I mention this only to point out that, if for whatever reason, you don’t like sleeping in huts, you can still go on hut meets. I’m sure it was entirely coincidental that, although no epics were experienced by those of us based at Muir Cottage, the same cannot be said of those who stayed elsewhere.
Anyway, Monday and Tuesday provided valley level snow, intermittent sun and clouds that slid above everything except the Munros. Most of us set off, on foot, or on ski, up from the Linn of Dee (a linn is a watery ravine) through the pine forests of Glen Lui. Those who started earliest and walked fastest, i.e. Robert and Ros, climbed the only mountain of the day, Beinn Bhrac (931m). Others, explored Glen Derry or made Derry Lodge, http://theuplandofmar.squarespace.com/derry-lodge/ windows, their objective.
My team decided to lunch beneath the red-granite walls of the lodge, which looked forbidding with its boarded windows . Shortly after, we were forced to take stock as we had run out of snow. Up to then the ascent had been pleasant enough for those of us on nordic touring skis, Adrian’s were brand new, picked up from the shop that morning. Walking along the track did not seem an attractive option for Declan, on his alpine touring set up including some ancient and not very comfortable looking red plastic ski-boots. In a fit of common sense we abandoned our plans of attempting Carn a Mhaim, opting instead to cross the ridge east of Sgor Mor http://www.hill-bagging.co.uk/mountaindetails.php?qu=S&rf=600 . We were rewarded by excellent snow on the ascent, tolerable snow on the further side of the ridge, and a testing descent, perhaps not best suited for new skis, back to the forest above the River Dee. Like so many things, our route might have been better if we had attempted it in the reverse direction, but still, the sun’s light as it was reflected from the red bark of the pines was glorious, even if our skiing was rather less so.
For me, Tuesday was the day I passed the Walsh Test, or at least the La Sportiva Boot Test. (other brands available). Perhaps, I’d better explain. Enthusiastic converts to cross-country skiing may tell you how much faster it is than walking and in Norway, this is often true. In Britain, however, inadequate snow-cover means that is usually quicker, if less fun, to walk. On this occasion, despite snow from the pay and display car park at Invercauld, Robert and Ros, walking along the cleared road, while I faffed putting on and taking off skis, were soon far ahead of me, so I was pleasantly surprised to catch up with them in the forest. Apparently the foot or so of snow on the tracks was hard work, and indeed it was, even on skis, especially later on the soft snow leading to our objective, the demoted Corbett of Carn Liath http://www.hill-bagging.co.uk/mountaindetails.php?rf=595. Nevertheless, it was sweet to wait for, what is usually, the ‘A -Team’ on the summit and even sweeter to wait for them at the bridge below the hill.
We saw no-one else on our wanderings, which included a detour in search of the promoted (by one metre) Corbett, Creag an Dail Bheag, unless you count the white hares and ptarmigan, and I certainly don’t count the black grouse, or was it a capercaillie? The walkers claimed to have encountered in the forest.
While I was busy earning my turns, on the other side of the glen, Adrian and Declan had driven to the snow. Apparently they found it to be in good nick above 800m which, coincidentally, was the cloud-line. They seemed pleased with their haul of Munros and, despite a good try, managed to avoid skiing off the abyss. Meanwhile, the rest of the team had also been busy. Tandem riding (Alex and Mark) and valley skiing (Del, Les and Moya) were attempted, while Derek and Wendy climbed the Battery above Glen Ey.
By Wednesday, my boots had made serious inroads into my feet, and I think Declan’s were suffering too. Despite the sunshine, an easy day was called for. Several parties attempted a hill (Carn Mor? ) on the other side of Glen Ey, and one team, Les and Del, even reached the top. Moya, Wendy and I demonstrated that even an easy valley walk can end in a bushwhacking session. Derek went mountain biking and came back, rather damp, as mountain-bikers often do.
Elsewhere, some impressive epics were being enacted. Susan, climbed the Cairnwell and came to realise that just because a Munro is described as ‘easy’ doesn’t make it so in zero visibility and strong winds. She may have also wondered if an axe might be more effective than walking poles for arresting a slide on hard packed snow. Further east, Adrian, in quest of yet another Munro, demonstrated to himself that, “two skis are good, one ski not so good”, and returned from Mount Keen by a longer route than he had planned.
Thursday morning was dreich: grey wet and windy. Despite this, we contrived to have a right royal time. Some walked from Glen Quoich over to Glen Lui, on a route allegedly favoured by Queen Victoria. Declan spent so long choosing boots in Braemar Mountain Sports that even I got bored looking at ski gear. Then, of course, we had to try out his new toys, so we set off to the Ballochbuie Forest, part of the Balmoral Estate. Apparently, this has some of the largest Caledonian pines in the country and is the haunt of capercaillie and crossbills. Needless to say, we didn’t see any exotic birds but did notice a few large trees. Otherwise, this made a good introductory nordic tour as it was reasonably sheltered and had just about enough snow. We lunched in the Queen’s luncheon shelter , watched the rain and were glad to return to the hut for a mass dining event (see pictures).
So that was it, five nights, four days, quite a lot of snow, a few hills, a bit of skiing, some bike riding and quite a lot of pottering, eating and drinking. Oh, and an interesting drive following the snow plough on Friday morning.