As we have already seen the hillgoer has a problem with Covid 19 or any other number for that matter and this is particularly true of the bagger who has been at the game for some time. There is a natural inclination for the novice to climb the hills within easy reach, but once these have been completed, the ever widening circle of exploration eventually requires an overnight stay. Currently this option is not available and most, if not all, are reduced to avoiding a variety of dogs and their owners on the local and oft-trodden paths.
So it is at times like these that the climber has to fall back on the old standby of journeying once more among the blue remembered hills. Inevitably, when thinking of hills, there is a certain breed, with whom lists will loom large and so provide an excuse to rummage in the archives of your memory and encourage a bit of virtual mountaineering to take place. My list would be short and to the point – the worst and best of a day on the hill.
The prerequisites of a really bad day are threefold. Inclement weather, a featureless lump and a sincerely held belief that you would be far better off somewhere else (usually in a pub). By ‘inclement’ I do not mean a glowering storm whistling down Glencoe or a whiteout on the top of the Cairngorm plateau, both of which can offer a certain amount of exhilaration and fear, but a rain-sodden day with sufficient gusts of wind to intermittently lash your face with the toggles of your cagoule hood. It goes without saying that the mist must be somewhere near sea-level. What distinguishes the ‘featureless lump’ is more often than not its location – in the middle of an ill-drained peatbog miles from anywhere – and a composition of rotten and rotting vegetation. When you reach what might be the top you, of course, can see nothing and even if you could, there would be nothing to see. As to what constitutes ‘somewhere else’, the choice is infinite and is driven by taste, habit or upbringing.
Given these criteria, my worst day is a toss-up between the ascents of Meal Chuaich and Toll Creagach. On both occasions they were fitted in on the way back from trips beyond the Great Glen and therefore would have necessarily suffered in comparison. To make matters worse, on both occasions several days of good weather had come to an abrupt end, leaving me to climb the first named in the dreich conditions that only August can bring and the second in an early winter snowfall where every step forward meant two slithers back. If I had to choose between the two it would be the latter. I had unilaterally decided a better route of ascent was up what appeared to be a gully but in fact was a stream bed which every now and then steepened into a short pitch. Halfway up I had persuaded myself that the whole affair could avalanche at a moment’s notice and my progress became pitifully slow. Ron, of course, had taken a more sensible option and had been forced to wait at the cairn in a slurry of sleet. Queen Victoria comes to mind.
The criteria for the best day in many ways is the opposite side of the coin. The weather must be fine, the clouds high and the sun not too hot. The hill must be good to look at and as importantly good to look from. Finally, the expedition should be of sufficient length and height to be a real challenge and the climber must be sufficiently fit to fully enjoy it. There is to my mind only one serious contender that fulfils all these demands – Ladhar Bheinn from Kinloch Hourne. The combination of the six-mile coastal walk along Loch Hourne, the beauty of Barrisdale bay and the approach into Coire Dhorrcail is the perfect aperitif. The Coire itself is one of the finest in Scotland ringed by 1,000 ft cliffs and once the ridge has been reached you are surrounded with magnificent views across to Skye which then continue in all directions as you complete the horseshoe over the summit itself and the subsidiary peak of Aonach Sgoilte before, regretfully, turning north and making the steep descent to Barrisdale and your waiting vehicle. There is only one drawback and that it is a long way to the nearest pub.
Curiously enough. An Socath on the west side of Glen Shee came close to heading both categories. After a long and highly satisfactory day, I decided to go the extra mile and add this outlier to my collection. It was more than a bit out of my way but I already had too many isolates lying around that would entail an unnecessary number of long journeys north with little in the way of reward. I reached the bealach that separates this twin-peaked hill and turned east to the summit as marked on the O.S. map. On the way down I disturbed a golden eagle scavenging the carcase of a dead sheep and for a moment it seemed that man and bird might collide. I managed to stop and watch, as if in slow-motion, its laborious efforts to get airborne. Once up, however, its movements were effortless as it covered the ground in minutes that had previously taken me hours. A perfect end to a perfect day, you might think. The only trouble was that the O.S. had got it wrong and the true summit, and therefore the Munro, was not the east but the west peak of An Socath.