“Are you up for a wee walk?” So asked my mate Jim, who had decided to come over to the dark side, and invest in crampons, ice-axe and winter boots. These days you won’t get much change from £400 for that little lot, and having splashed out, he was eager to enjoy the white stuff while it lasted. I’d nowhere in particular in mind, and Jim suggested a couple of Munros up near Glenshee, Glas Tulaichean and Carn an Righ. A quick squint at the map showed it to be a feasible winter day out, a bit of a long walk in, but straightforward.
Heading off up the A9 we spent much of our time taking in the amount of bird activity on the approach to Perth. The sky was dotted with flocks of geese, moving to new winter grounds. Were they aware of the approaching Siberian weather? Minus thirty three degrees in Europe, and heading our way, we were aware that we may have one or two good days of high pressure before conditions were due to turn, and for today at least, things were looking settled, a clear blue sky and little wind. Ideal winter walking conditions.
For many years I had not been near Glenshee, not since I was at school, however I’ve had a few visits there in recent years and the journey has begun to become familiar. Not familiar enough to stop us taking the wrong exit at Perth though. I’ve travelled all over the country, but I can think of nowhere where I have taken more wrong turns, slip roads and exits than here. Practice makes perfect, and at the second attempt we managed to take the right road. Gerry Rafferty sang “If you get it wrong you’ll get it right next time.” I imagine he also tried driving around Perth.
We turned off the A93 at the Spittal of Glenshee Hotel, once home to Scotlands hardest scones, and parked up at the Dalmunzie Hotel in the shadow of Ben Gulabin, resplendent in white, its crags decorated with icicles like enormous white fangs. I’d been here once before walking from Glenshee Ski Centre with Glasgow HF Outdoor Club, and on that occasion the bar had ran out of draught beer. Hopefully their cellar was replenished as I was planning on working up a thirst, a cold beer and a roaring fire the expected rewards for a day in the hills. For a couple of pounds you can park here, saving you the walk in from Spittal of Glenshee. The receptionist took our details and a contact telephone number and asked if we were just up for the day and where we planned on walking. Little did I know how this quick chat would effect us later…
We set off, taking the track up towards Glenlochsie Farm, to be met with a sign diverting us into a field. Jim was fairly certain that this was new and I hadn’t read of any diversions, but we complied anyway, and the track led around the houses and rejoined the track on the other side of the buildings. The sky was uniformly intensely blue, contrasting vividly with the white of the snow. Within a few minutes I had worked off the cold in my limbs and had to take off my jacket and I put on sunglasses to counter the effects of the sun reflecting on the snow. The track soon met up with the Lochsie Burn, where it can be forded in good conditions, however the water was fairly deep.
In the last 12 months I’ve took a slip on just about every river crossing I’ve attempted, in most cases resulting in at least one wet boot. and I was loathe to get damp feet, so we followed the bank of the burn looking for a likely crossing point. Most of the rocks had a coating of thin ice meaning hopping across from one to another was a no-no, and spying the old railway bridge above us we decided to head for that and follow the bed of the old railway instead. The railway was built around 1920 to carry stone and to ferry clients to and from the shooting lodge and closed in 1978 when new railway safety regulations were imposed. At the time it would have cost over £50,000 to bring it up to standard, and it was decided to close the line. Apparently the rolling stock still exists, stored in an outbuilding at the hotel.
We soon sighted the old Glen Lochsie Lodge, and headed to it, watched as we did so by a lone buzzard perched on a rock on Creag Bhreac. The lodge has certainly seen better days, and Jim had his concerns that what remained of the roof would soon make its way to the floor, burying me with it as I looked around. The roof did look to be ready to give up the ghost, and I’m sure that the horrendous winds which scour these hills every winter will no doubt bring the roof down within the next few years. Should you be looking for an overnight bothy, give this place a miss…
The track from the lodge climbs steeply up to the cairn marking Breac-reidh, possibly the ‘speckled plain’, before swinging northwards, almost to the summit itself. Navigationally there is nothing difficult here, even in the snow the track is well defined. Not having to look at the map gave us the opportunity to take in the surroundings, in the distance the Beinn a’ Ghlo massif dominated the western skyline, while close up we were amazed at the sastrugi, intricately carved by the action of the wind into the snow.
Off to the north west our second target hill of the day, Carn an Righ, revealed itself. It appeared from this angle to be a fairly rolling descent and reascent, in fact hardly worth Munro status, although Jim recalled a steep drop. We would find out in good time.
West of the summit the track reaches it’s highest point before starting to drop again, and at this point we headed upwards, parallel with a line of fence posts to the summit, marked by a cairn and a trig point. The trig point is set back from the rim of a massive corrie, Glas Choire Mhor. There was enough of a cornice to ensure we didn’t go all the way to the rim to look down, but what I could see was impressive enough.
A quick look at the watch revealed that time was slipping away, although the days were getting longer we could see that if we carried on we would have to walk back in the dark. The sky was clear, the weather settled, the moon was already in the afternoon sky, and we had head torches. A short walk in the dark on the way back shouldn’t pose too many difficulties…
We dropped down into Gleann Mor, settling down for lunch propped against a peat hag. Free from the cutting wind and in direct sun, we lay and toasted, the heat creeping back into my feet again. Had it not been for the necessity of going on we could have stayed there all day. Down below grouse cried out, creeping closer to see what we were up to, perhaps coaxed into activity after realising the fox which had been stalking them had ran off up the glen as we approached. Jims face was turning an interesting shade of red, and we slapped on the sun cream, hopefully before too much damage was done.
Lunch and admin complete, we crossed the Allt a Ghlinne Mor and climbed to the path which leads to Fealar Lodge. This was to be a quick ascent, so we left our rucksacks, took our ice axes and headed up. Within a few hundred yards we were struggling to get purchase on the solid snow and thought that perhaps crampons would be necessary. Luckily it was only a short patch and we were soon climbing up, crossing a rubble strewn slope, before the final pull to the summit cairn.
The sun was heading for the horizon and daylight was disappearing. We spent a few minutes there, taking in the big sky and the 360 degree panorama, including the Lairig Ghru, flanked by Devils Point and Ben Macdui.
Before leaving home I had read reports of a walker missing for some time in the area. In such a wilderness in winter it would be unlikely that there would be a happy ending. We sped down the slope to return to our bags and begin the return journey before darkness enveloped us. I saw what looked like a group of people near where our bags were cached, and thought perhaps one of the search parties for the missing walker had come across our bags. We hurried down, then, becoming suspicious, noted the lack of movement from the group. I dug out my binoculars and scanned the area, discovering that the ‘search party’ were in fact peat hags!
We recovered our bags and set off for Loch nan Eun, where the path back awaited us. The going was hard, slipping and losing our footing as we contoured the slope above the burn. More than once Jim fell, cursing his boots and their inability to grip. As we neared the bealach my foot slipped through a snow bridge over a burn, the water below defeated my gaiters and once more I was in possession of one wet boot and one dry. No matter how good the gaiters or how much waterproofing goes on the boots, if you dip your feet in below the water, you will get wet feet. I swore out loud, a wet boot in these conditions can be disastrous. We plodded on, crossing more peat hags until we began to drop down towards the loch. By now the light had gone and the stars were beginning to appear. I’d have loved to have seen the loch, but all we could see was the outline and the dark shadow of the hills. Looking at the map I could see that we had a way to go, a quick eyeball estimate was around six kilometres, although a more detailed examination revealed later that it was closer to eight.
We descended into Gleann Taitneach, (pleasant glen) and picked our way down a steep slope towards the floor of the glen. The map on my GPS shows a track, but I could see no sign of one, and we picked our way along on a path parallel with the Allt Ghlinn Thaitneich. Apparently there is a track on the other side of the burn, but again I couldn’t see any sign of it, and it crossed back farther down in any case, so we carried on without crossing. The moon was almost full, its brightness played on the snow, and we were able to see without the aid of our headtorches. We had hoped to perhaps see some of the northern lights, being so far north and lacking urban light pollution, but the moonlight effectively killed that idea, with only the brightest stars being visible. At one point we were thrown, as the moon seemed to switch from one side of the glen to the other, until we realised that the bright halo peering over Creag Bhreac was Venus, the evening star, magnified through a halo of low cloud. We carried on, our progress slowed by the combination of darkness, snow, uneven terrain, and the need to continually cross the burn as it wound it’s way back and forth over the path.
At the top of Carn an Righ at 4pm I had called my wife on the phone, taking advantage of the chance to get a signal. “The car is at the hotel and they have your number” I said. “It will take us a few hours to get back, if they call don’t worry, we should be there about seven-ish.” It was now getting near 7pm. I was concerned that if we weren’t back that the alarm would be raised. There was no phone signal. I’d heard that sometimes a text message can get through and attempted to send one, with no luck. I’d also heard that dialing 999 will latch on to any network, but I felt that dialing 999 to let someone know that there wasn’t an emergency might be a touch inappropriate. There was nothing for it but to keep going and hope that one of the texts would get through.
As we passed the bottom of Coire Shith, the Corrie of the Fairies, I recalled my previous visit and that we had descended the corrie and crossed a bridge nearby. Jim had been here too but hadn’t seen any bridge and stated that we had to ford the river near the hotel. I had soon spotted it I waited until Jim had gone on about 100m before calling “Jim! Are ye no using the bridge?” I had a wee chuckle and began to cross before noticing it was partly rotten. It was enough to get us over however, and we made our way up to the track, opposite the gate we had entered that morning to take us round Glenlochsie Farm. By now I’d got a signal and called home. The hotel hadn’t called, which was a relief. I said that we’d be back there in about 15 minutes, if anyone called. I’d barely put the phone away when my wife called back. “Tayside Police have been on the phone looking for you…”
We arrived back at the hotel to find the last of the staff waiting on our arrival. I was good to know that they had been watching out for us, and I thanked them for doing so. With us safely back they locked up the hotel and departed. Thoughts of a roaring fire and cold beer evaporated like my breath in the freezing night air. Another time, perhaps. This walk had sparked my interest in the area, a wild camp at Loch nan Eun looked a good start. Those thoughts were for another time though. Into the car, heating set to toasty, we headed south, our thoughts concentrated on one thing. Not getting lost at Perth…