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Last updated: 15/10/10


'Despite all odds'
3 December 2006

As per usual, the MWIS forecast for the Cairngorms was dire (“Southerly gales, any mobility could be very difficult later in south, severe wind chill, precipitation at times – whiteout”, etc. etc.), and during the day or so prior to the Sunday the Meet Organiser did nothing to raise the morale of the President’s Party Leader by pointing out all this out by e-mail and phone, and stressing the need for a timely and safe return to the bus. The PPL tackled the problem by drawing up Plans A, B and C, the last being essentially a capitulation to the MO’s stated intention of a low-level walk ending up sooner rather than later at the Braemar coffee-shops. For himself, he secretly hoped for the best ....

MO drums up support for plan C

Chance to cool off in Ballater

Saturday night in Aberdeen was indeed dire, with the slates rattling in the wind, and life at 7 a.m. not a bundle of fun. Later reports of overnight conditions in the environs of Braemar were even worse. Still, better at 7 a.m. for the once-a-year luxury of a 8 a.m. start, than the usual one hour earlier. Showers rattled through as we waited at Cults for the bus, which however turned up on time, and comfortable and warmer than the mobile ice-boxes of yesteryear. Indeed, it turned out to be far too warm, and as faces got redder - or greener - requests were made for the heating to be turned down, and the Ballater break was a welcome stop.

Soon thereafter, shelled bodies de-bussed, the largest group at the Baddoch burn, which the MO clearly considered the furthest safe distance from civilisation. Her party disappeared into the eastern murk, intent (so they said) on Glen Callater, overflowing burns permitting, while the nine hardy souls still in the President’s Party stayed the course (and in the bus) up the Clunie, past the wind- and rain-swept wastes of the ski centre, and down to the Spital, where at least the rain was off, the wind seemed bearable, and the hills to the south were still visible.

The bus departs

Deer appear

We - the Leader, the Newcomers, the Smoker(s) and the Rest - found ourselves starting up from Glenshee on the Cateran Trail, tastefully waymarked with heart-shaped signs which did nothing to explain the term [“cateran: a Highland robber or cattle-rustler”; later research reveals the symbol to signify Perthshire as “the ♥ of Scotland”]. Still, the signs got us up onto the hill without problems, eventually following a rather ugly landrover track until that petered out in the bogs. Deer appeared on sheltered skylines, and the odd hare and grouse amongst the grass and heather.

After a short break for sustenance and fags, it was a short haul up sodden grass onto the ridge and into the mist, with the wind more or less behind us, and not too gusty or strong. From here, the map showed a straightforward if bumpy ascent to the north; unfortunately, it was not entirely clear exactly where we had hit the ridge, and one grassy bump looks very much like another. At one point, a timely compass check prevented the entire party descending from an unmarked(?) bulge into Glen Isla. It was therefore with a sense of relief that we suddenly came across a wall running along the crest of the ridge, and promising an unerring guide to the target, the 1068m summit of Glas Maol. The occasional glimpse of hare or ptarmigan enlivened the scene (the deer had more sense than to be up here).

Bumps, bumps and more bumps

Into the mist

However, bump succeeded bump, the rain turned to sleet, the wind grew stronger, the stones underfoot were slippery, and the short day was rapidly disappearing. Views were, er, limited. Another stop in the lee of the dyke for a bite and sip took longer than expected due to futile attempts by the Smoker(s) to light a fag in the breeze, but eventually we got going onto better ground, and the final slopes of Glas Maol. Unfortunately, at this crucial juncture, the wall decided to disappear, leaving the party increasingly spread out over the featureless plateau as a white-out set in. In order to boost morale, the Meet Organiser was phoned - and rather surprisingly reached - in reassuring tones.

The Leader put most of his route-finding faith in the occasional fence-post stump, though these were rapidly disappearing under snow, but others with maps and compasses had other ideas, while the Smokers (who had a GPS) coughed and grunted their way up in the rear. Large-scale shouting and waving got everybody together just as they were about to disappear into the murk on all sides, and a final couple of hundred metres straight into the gale at last led us to the cairn, where a photograph or two were rather optimistically taken.

Where are we?

The summit

For some reason, no-one seemed inclined to linger long for celebrations in the gathering gloom (it was now 2:50 pm, 30 minutes before sunset), and with further map-compass consultation, we set out again over the featureless plateau. With fierce wind-driven sleet on his left and a steep corrie wall known to be on his right, nothing discourages a leader so much as members of his party, each huddled over a compass, starting to head off in slightly different directions. Moreover, the correct descent from Glas Maol is quite tricky even in good conditions, which these were certainly not.

Eventually, at the top of a steepish but not too alarming slope, the Leader took the Decision to head downwards, with due care and his fingers crossed. To his relief, the party followed, though some showed their misgivings by first ostentatiously disentangling their ice-axes. To his further relief, the slope eventually relented to a grassy flat, where the party foregathered. Another bump, and the long-promised ski ironmongery and detritus appeared through the dusk, with a road (sort of) and further descent made easier. But still the A93 refused to appear until after a further bump, when the Leader abandoned all principles and ran for the bus, for which we were now rather late. However, it was still there, though (of course) at the opposite end of the enormous car park.

The summit photographer

Soon, all were ensconced inside, with the Leader’s spirits only dampened (like his clothing, and indeed the entire bus) by the sudden appearance of the Meet Organiser, who had clearly doubted our ability to (a) return in reasonable time and/or (b) survive, and had got herself transported up to the ski centre by no less a personage than the Day Meets Coordinator, presumably in order to instruct the bus driver how to lay out the bodies. All such carping was however laid aside as the bus made its way down the road to Braemar and the golf club, with its very welcome bar, meal and ceilidh (in that order). Oh, and with the rest of the meet participants, who all seemed remarkably fresh (or refreshed), only emitting the occasional murmur about lack of bridges over rivers having disturbed the even tenor of their day …

Author: Ken Thomson