A Lesson from the Wee Hills

Days like these don’t come around that often. After a couple of brief snow flurries the sun banished the cloud, and now the early morning light glitters on the pristine slopes of Beinn Challuim. It is nearly exactly twenty years since I’ve been up here last, in very different conditions; a memorable day, though not for the best of reasons.

When I first arrived in Scotland I was by no means new to the outdoors or the hills. I am fortunate enough to have spent much of my free time in the open since early childhood, exploring the woods, hiking, wild camping, ski touring. From my mid teens treks in the Tatras, and farther afield, became a regular feature of the summer holidays — half a dozen friends of similar age, minimal equipment, high level camps mostly just under the stars.

Over those years there had been a few #microepics, including a couple of close shaves, and by the time I landed in Scotland as a postgraduate student in the mid ‘90s I had gained a healthy respect for the mountains, summer and winter alike. But compared to even the smaller continental ranges Scotland’s ‘wee hills’ — their summits barely reaching the altitudes of Alpine valleys — seemed innocuous and benign.

It didn’t take long to get disabused of that idea. Looking back, some of the incidents we now laugh at. Like when, having ignored Heather the Weather’s warning of 70mph winds, I left Linda a few hundred yards of the summit of Meall Ghaordaidh, weighed down by a large stone, while I crawled on all four to touch the summit cairn (all I can say is, we were young and weekends were precious). But even after all that time, the Beinn Challum day is still not that funny.

As a research student I discovered that clearing my head with a midweek day in the hills much improved my overall productivity, and so Wednesday outings became a regular part of my studies. Even nowadays the hills tend to be fairly quiet midweek, but back then I never ever met anyone. Indeed, tales were circulating of injured midweek hill walkers surviving a couple of days on biscuits until someone turned up at the weekend.

This might seem far fetched, but in those days mobile phones were almost a novelty, cellular signal virtually nonexistent outside of the Central Belt, and consumer GPS units still a few years away — those who got lost in the hills were on their own until someone reported them missing; self reliance was, necessarily, a part of essential hillcraft.

As I expect you have guessed, this particular Wednesday in late February I was heading up Beinn Challuim. I have never been much of a fan of there-and-back outings, and so decided to leave the car at the Auchtertyre farm, and do a horseshoe starting with Beinn Chaorach.

It was not a very nice day, with an unpleasant westerly, sleeting heavily. Having experienced similar conditions a few weeks earlier in the Drummochter hills, I invested into a pair of goggles (not a negligible expense), which on this day didn’t come off my face (sadly, the sleet was so saturated that the glue between the double lens failed in the course of the day).

Visibility gradually deteriorated and by the time I reached Beinn Challuim, I was in a complete whiteout. I wasn’t put out by any of it. I had an excellent Berghaus GoreTex jacket that kept me dry (which I was just about able to afford thanks to James Leckie of Falkirk) and carried two big flasks of hot drink and plenty of food —really, I was in my element, relishing the adversity. But by this point I was also beginning to feel quite tired, it was turning out to be a longer day than I planned.

Fortunately all that was left was the descent back to the car. This should have been quite straight forward, and such was my confidence in my ability to navigate that I didn’t feel the need to get the compass out. I was sure map alone was going to be enough to follow the ‘obvious’ broad ridge. And indeed, the ridge was easy to follow, but somehow progress was slow.

Too slow. I emerged from the cloud eventually but alas, things were not as they should have been. I should have been near the Auchtertyre farm, or at worst near Kirkton, and certainly near a railway track, but I saw no houses and no track. I ended up somewhere in the Lochan a’Craoi area above Inverhaggernie — to this day I am unsure of the exact location — and I was in for a long walk back, with not much of the day left.

I was spared some it by a couple of ghillies on a quad bike, two hinds on a small trailer behind it. They offered me a lift to Inverhaggernie, ‘if you don’t mind sitting on the deer’. I didn’t mind in the slightest.

That day was the end of the ‘wee hills’ mentality, for I knew I got lucky. The careless navigation mistake per se was not super serious, at least I ended up on the right side of the hill, but I understood that I could have easily made a similar one earlier in the day and ended up further north in the Forest of Mamlorn — that would have been a whole different proposition. I started taking the weather lot more seriously from there on, and I also updated my personal Freeserve page about the Scottish hills with a dire warning to the foreign visitor about the deceptiveness of their size, and the nastiness of their inclement climate.

Today Beinn Challuim summit offers views for miles in any direction, and there is no wind, not even a breeze. There are three of us lingering up here, none feeling like leaving. Eventually I descend the W-NW spur toward Bealach Ghlas-Leathaid — that wasn’t my original plan, but twenty years on I still don’t like there-and-back days. It proves to be a good choice. The lower part of Gleann a’Chlachain is a kaleidoscope of colours, their tones striking in the low afternoon light. I stroll leisurely back to Kirkton basking in the sun. There is no hurry, and like I said, days like these don’t come around that often.