If you were to take a straw poll to discover the most dangerous Munros in Scotland, it is unlikely that either A’Bhuidheanach Bheag or Sgairneach Mhor would feature high on the list. The various Skye Cuillin, Aonach Eagach and the Torridon giants would most probably jostle for the top spots, perhaps being elbowed aside by the inaccessibility of those tops hidden in the wildness of the Fisherfield Forest or the Rough Bounds of Knoydart. Any of these would have a justifiable claim, but not some rounded lumps that line the A9 as it crosses the Drumochter Pass. In fact, I suspect that most of those tickers of Sir Hugh’s collection of bumps and lumps would be hard put to place them. Yet it was on these most innocuous of hills where I most felt that something incurable might occur.
At either the beginning or end of the Michaelmas Half Term, Ron had to either deposit or collect his son at or from his boarding school near Elgin. I quickly realised that if I hitched a lift, I could be dropped at a suitable spot between Perth and Inverness and while Ron was fulfilling his familial duties, I could add these rather remote hills to my collection. The plan was simple: be dropped off at the head of the Drumochter Pass, climb the 1500 ft or so to the top of A’Bhuidheanach Bheag, amble along to the second Munro, Carn na Caim before making a gentle descent to Dalwhinnie. I probably would to have to hang around for a bit waiting for my lift but fortunately there was an inn where I could while away the time until Ron, with or without son, arrived.
It was soon after I had waved good-bye and set foot on the hill proper that I realised the mist which had been around all week had become a degree or two thicker. Navigation uphill to a summit is relatively easy. If the ground rises before you, you just keep going. When it doesn’t you must be somewhere near the top. The sharper the summit, the easier it is, but the top of the smaller A’Bhuidheanach is something of a plateau and it took a bit of casting about before I eventually bumped into the trig point. As there was no view to admire, I set out towards my next objective Carn na Cairn. This featureless bit of land required accurate map and compass work and I was therefore more than a little dismayed when I discovered the needle of my compass had become detached from its fulcrum and was lying forlornly on the floor of the casing. After much juggling I managed to persuade it to return to its proper position and I was able to continue. However, any sudden joggle would cause the needle to resume its recumbent position. The remainder of the day was spent alternating between walking a few yards and repositioning the offending piece of equipment into its proper place, a game of miniature bagatelle that continued until I felt the tarmac of the A9 safely under my feet. Needless to say, by the time I reached Dalwhinnie, Ron was on his second pint.
The following year the same opportunity arose. On this occasion I decided to tackle the four Munros lying to the west of the A9 before finishing in Dalwhinnie once more. With a brand new Silva compass and a spare in my rucksack, I crossed the Alt Dubhaig and set off up the hill to my first objective, Sgairneach Mhor. I plodded up knee-deep soft snow hoping to find some relief when I reached the summit ridge. There was less snow but no relief. Up to now I had been sheltered from the wind. But now exposed to its full force I found myself surrounded by swirling snowflakes and a complete white-out. My next objective, Beinn Udlamain lay a mile or so to the west but to reach it I had to complete two sides of a triangle, descending to a watershed, then climbing a minor peak before turning sharp north to my objective. My dilemma was that if I misjudged the length of the descent and started to follow the line of least resistance, I could easily end up in the wrong valley and a very long way from base. If I compensated against such an error, I might, according to the map, tumble over some rather nasty looking crags. It was one of those occasions when compass and instinct can violently disagree and you have to constantly remind yourself which of the two is the more fallible. The major problem with a white-out is you cannot judge distances and on more than one occasion I found myself teetering over a fathomless drop that turned out to be no more than a minor dip in the ridge. Eventually I reached a point where the land fell away on both sides before starting to rise before me.
Up onto the ridge to the minor peak and turn north and most of my troubles would be over. The map showed that the ridge was a county boundary that took the high ground over the top of my two next objectives, Beinn Udlamain and A’Mharconaich. With a bit of luck there should be some sort of fencing to indicate the demarcation. And indeed there was. A series of ice-clad fence posts pointed the way. If matters got worse, I could cut short my journey and continue to follow the boundary as it descended to cross the main road. But no such retreat was necessary. As I reached the summit of A’Mharconaich, the weather changed. The wind dropped, the snow settled and the clouds rolled away. I stopped and looked back at my old adversary. Now in the sunlight I could see it in its true colours.
The ‘fathomless drops’ had been transformed into a gentle ridge, the sort of place you might suggest as suitable for an elderly relative and the ‘nasty looking crags’ revealed themselves as little more than a collection of boulders. And so, somewhat chastened, to Geal Charn, the fourth and final Munro of the day in what was now a perfect autumnal evening, stopping from time to time to admire the views over Loch Ericht towards the Ben Alder massif. Eventually I reached the door of the inn at Dalwhinnie. Ron, if I remember rightly, was on his third pint.