A “Tail” of Snow, Snakes and Something Special

It’s when I opened my old word file with the original Ben Vrackie text I knew I had taken on a gargantuan task in reworking these old “tails”.  In fairness they were written for a specific hill walking audience whose primary interest was information – the details of the route taken, preferably with photographic evidence. (Ed. should there be subsequent legal proceedings if wee Jimmy fell off a crag not mentioned in the trip report)

This would be my first encounter of a hill + snow and, come to think of it, I’m not even sure I expected the snow to be there such was my level of inexperience at that time.  To this day it still remains one of my favourite hill walking days.  It had everything.  Well, it had snow for starters – it had people – it had dogs – it had amazing scenery – and for all that content it wasn’t a hard day out.  It also had…I’ll leave that as a wee surprise for now.

Ben Vrackie – November 2006

I had been left in charge of Friday evening’s weather forecasts and thus Saturday’s destination.  Graeme (my dog walking buddy) was hoping we could head for the Cobbler.  I wasn’t fussy one way or the other.  One hill was as good as another to me at that stage of my hillwalking “career”.  The Fatdog was completely ambivalent as to our destination as long as copious quantities of food were on offer.  The only criteria was the weather – minimum precipitation (preferably none) and a general absence of wind.  That shouldn’t be too hard to find in Scotland in November…should it?

Conflicting reports from the BBC and the mountain weather service led to much head scratching but the laws of probability dictated that heading north into Perthshire would be the best option.  Ben Vrackie had been muted as a possible destination in our e-mails during the week and seemed the way to go, so Saturday morning found us chugging up the A9 heading for Pitlochry.

The signed path took us from the car park through a short forest section.  This pleasant wee amble led us to a gate onto the open hill.  My first view of Ben Vrackie was – “Wow!”.  My first thought regarding the aforementioned Ben Vrackie was – “Oh crap, we’re heading up bloody Mount Everest!”  There is no doubt that even a tiny dusting of snow on a hill increases its level of intimidation to a novice hillwalker making them think they’ve maybe made the wrong call.  

Ben Vrackie looking a bit too “Himalayan” for the novice

The surrounding heather covered slopes had a light dusting of the white stuff, but the peak beyond was coated in brilliant white.  Patchy cloud stuttered fitfully across the sky.  Ben Vrackie was clear one minute and the next it was shrouded in a white mist.  I would realise part way up the ascent that this low passing cloud effect made for walking Nirvana.

As we climbed the views to Pitlochry and the south became clearer.  The River Tay was appropriately silvery, the early winter sun reflecting off the swollen river.  We passed through another gate, rounded Meall na h’Aodainn Moire (a very big name for a very little hill) and caught our first sight of a barely visible Loch a Choire sitting at the foot of the Ben.

Our motley crew for the day comprised four members.  Myself, G, the Fatdog and G’s retriever, Starr.  Starr liked water…in fact he liked water so much that, faced with such an inviting expanse of the wet stuff in Loch a Choire, he waded in, promptly lay down and refused to budge. 

We had met a few walkers on our way up and could see another bunch coming up behind but in front, just starting to weave upwards from the lochan, like some giant hillwalking python, a club expedition began slithering its way up the steeper section of the hill.  We watched it slowly stretch out and then quickly compress as the head waited for the tail to arrive before slinking upward once more. 

With Starr still observing his daily bathing ritual in the lochan, G and the Fatdog led the way upward in hot pursuit of this multicoloured reptile of the mountains. 

I was impressed when I discovered that the path included nicely built rock steps, making the steepening ascent that bit easier.  The snow, a mere scattering on the lower slopes, had become a bit deeper and the views to the south and the west just kept getting better.  I took note that the snow was well compacted on the steps underfoot.  I suspected that might lead to a much faster descent later in the day…probably bum first.

The only downer of the day was that the last 100m of ascent was marred by thickening cloud.  I did wonder what views to the north and east might have looked like.  Oh well, maybe the next time.  We arrived at the shrouded summit seconds in front of the “python”.  This led to severe summit overcrowding.  The head of the “snake” started to coil up around the concrete trig point, waiting for its tail to arrive. 

Now for my little surprise.  The appearance of a brocken spectre.  I was disappointed that it was a bit small and faint but I didn’t know at the time how rare it was to see this phenomenon.  It was a welcome distraction from the biting breeze that appeared with our arrival on the summit.  Just for a few seconds the cloud blew off allowing a 360 degree panorama, but before I could dig the camera out of the pack it had vanished and the dank gloom returned.

For the “python” it was mission complete and the fully assembled club group slithered off on its descent closely followed by our intrepid little band on the premise that, if we slipped on those snow laden steps, we would have a large human crash mat just in front of us.

Out of the blue, and after a fairly pedestrian ascent on his part, Starr suddenly decided to crank up the pace to catch up with our erstwhile companions.  G hurtled after him in hot pursuit.  Fortunately the Fatdog opted for a much more leisurely approach and we just gently eased our way down at the back taking in the views as the cloud cleared.  The much anticipated slipping and bouncing down the descent thankfully didn’t happen.

In front, the multicoloured “reptile” made what proved to be a serious error of judgement.  No, it didn’t veer off towards the deadly crags on the west face and no, it hadn’t opted as a group to bum-slide in soft snow in direction of the lochan below.  It had stopped for lunch.  Cue the Fatdog.

Up until now Maisie had been a paragon of doggy hillwalking excellence, always under control and keeping up her inimitable steady plod.  However, in snow and faced with the prospect of extra lunch rations, there was no faster downhiller than the Fatdog.  Slaloming her way down the slope past the rocks the Fatdog descended, arriving in a swirling blizzard of snow.  In the blink of an eye the Fatdog had come, pillaged and left, before the bewildered group could draw breath.

As I would discover through the years to come Maisie was a big hit with anybody she bumped into and on this occasion didn’t even have to rummage in a single rucksack to be treated to a whole variety of packed lunches. As we trundled back down the A9 G and I pondered on our next trip while, in the back, Starr dreamed of large puddles and the Fatdog spat out the last piece of red Goretex backpack that had been irritatingly stuck between her teeth…and chuckled to herself.