The Art of Getting Back Before Dark

Some days hill walking plans change.  It can be as simple as not being able to park the car; maybe a road being blocked or, as happens (a lot) in Scotland, the weather being not quite what was anticipated.  The upshot is that it is better to have a backup plan – just in case.  In this particular “tail” the “just in case” became the “hmm, what if…”.

For myself, Cap’n Jack and the Fatdog this hike would likely be the last of the year.  I had marked out a couple of possible hills that were a relatively short drive apart so that if the first didn’t suit then we could swap over to the other without a huge loss of time.  It is mid-November 2008 and we are heading back to a hill I’d climbed in snow two years before and which you may have read about in the recent post ‘A “tail” of Snow, Snakes and Something Special’.   We were headed back to Ben Vrackie – for what turned out to be merely a warm up to the main event.

“I had been promised a damn near cloudless day and instead I was faced with patchy cloud and a sodding rainbow.  The weather had been post dawn sunshine and blue skies all the way up the A9 but what was waiting for me over Pitlochry…well, I looked away in disgust.  Scanning the horizon I gazed longingly at a whole host of cloudless hills to the west then turned back to look at Ben Vrackie. That bloody rainbow was still there, its multicoloured inverted grin framing the grey topped Corbett. Likely to be the last outing of the year with Cap’n Jack I had hoped this trip would produce decent views and a good walk, but it appeared I had managed to pick the only hill in Perthshire with an attendant rain cloud.”

At this point I should warn you that this post has almost zero to do with the walk we subsequently took up Ben Vrackie.  As walks go it proved…um…nice. It was one of those days where the views were a bit average and there wasn’t a whole lot else to get excited about, especially at the summit where once more I was thwarted by cloud.  Don’t get me wrong this is a great little hill walk so out of respect for Ben Vrackie itself, here are a few snaps.  It was what we decided to do after Ben Vrackie that became the interesting part of the day.

“…and so, about 3 hours (and a short car drive) later here we are, half way up the mighty Schiehallion.  This morning we put about 700m (2296’) of ascent into the legs on Ben Vrackie and here we are going for another 760m (2493’) on this great lump of rock.  It was supposed to be a back-up plan in case we decided against Ben Vrackie, instead we’ve decided to give it a go as well.  Will it prove to be a good call?

The legs are decidedly tired now and I’m beginning to wonder if we’ve done the right thing. It had been a nice gentle start up the path but as soon as the gradient increased the legs started to slow.  Cap’n Jack seems to be faring better than me and accompanied by the Fatdog is now about 20m in front. I know this hill, it’s my second visit and am mentally prepared for what we are about to see. I know the effect it will have – on one of us in particular. As we ease ourselves over the shoulder onto that long summit approach, the substantial remainder of rock strewn Schiehallion stretches out in front of us.

(please remember to click on the individual photos for full screen image)

I hear the anticipated groan as Cap’n Jack realises how far there is to go to reach the summit. Although I’m not exactly overjoyed by the distance still to be covered, there is something perversely satisfying about listening to your first born suffer. Revenge for sleepless nights, dirty nappies, school parents evenings, etc. may have something to do with it.

The wind has also picked up on the crest of Schiehallions great whaleback. Pockets are zipped up, Velcro cuffs fastened shut and any other potential clothing gaps closed. A muttering Cap’n Jack, who up until now had been strolling up the mountain in his “hoodie”, has now pulled on his Rab PrimaLoft top. Things must be getting serious.  We’ve reached the snowline and found winter waiting for us.

Admittedly only fragments of earlier snow falls remain. The gaps between the rocks are filled but there are not too many areas of flat white. Some of the footprints are showing signs of earlier knee deep struggles but we’re not having much difficulty making progress. We left Ben Vrackie about 12.30pm hoping to start Schiehallion around 1pm, but we’re now running about 20 minutes behind schedule.  I reckoned we could do most of this hike in daylight with only the last half hour of the descent in near darkness. As the last stretch will be on a veritable motorway of a track I have assumed that not even I could lose our route home. Judging by the distance left to do it’s looking like we’re not going to make the summit until after 3.15pm. With sunset beginning around 4pm and given the cloud cover, it will definitely be dark by the time we reach the car, if not before.

We’ve caught up with the cloud but it’s not particularly thick. It is however thick enough to wash out any hopes of decent photographs, a shame as the sun is beginning to drop closer to the horizon. Too be honest it doesn’t really matter as there is too much thick low cloud to the west for a decent sunset shot. On the other hand I’ve never been on mountain near sunset so the whole experience is a first and to be savoured.

It’s 3.30pm and we’ve managed to get a bit of glow from the dying sun, just enough to light up the ice on the summit rocks. Not much but we’ll take it. There are no views to speak of. We’ve managed to catch the occasional glimpse of Loch Rannoch, the Munros to the south west and Beinn a Ghlo to the east but the swirling cloud makes vista photography a waste of time…unless you happen to like fuzzy pale grey monochrome that is.

There appears to be substantial cloud building to the west so we start back down the hill with the aim of ensuring that we reach the made up track at the edge of the shoulder before we lose the light. We’ve been munching occasionally as we go but other than the car journey between hills we’ve been walking since 9am and haven’t had a proper break. My tummy is now beginning to rumble but we must make the path before we stop to eat.

It’s one of these strange scenarios that can’t be scripted. Descending over the snow filled boulder field I’m a bit slower than Cap’n Jack and the Fatdog who are now a few metres in front. This gives me a good view of the precise timing of events as they unfold. As my two companions head straight downhill a pair of ptarmigan walk straight across their path, right to left, and only 2m in front.  Astonishingly both pairs are entirely oblivious to the presence of the other. In fact the only reason there is any reaction from either party is the fact that I am by now bouncing up and down like a demented budgie waving my hands trying to gain the Cap’ns attention. Cap’n Jack turns right to look at me, thus missing the two ptarmigan who by this time have crossed to his left. In homage to Scoobie Doo scripts of old I animatedly stare and gesture frantically towards the two birds who by this time realise that the tourists haven’t all gone home. With a loud tut-tutting they take to the air giving a spinning Cap’ Jack only a brief glimpse of white tail feathers as they make their retreat. The Fatdog still has no idea what is happening and plods relentlessly on.  Fortunately for my ptarmigan challenged companions there are quite a number of the white, winter coated, birds on the hill and we see quite a few of them on our way down.

As predicted nightfall begins to descend and by half way down the track the Fatdog, some 5m in front, is beginning to blend in with the darkening moorland. Then with a sudden crash from the heather a family of grouse take to the sky in a witch’s brew of manic cackling and flapping. FD, scared of her own shadow, is unhappy at the sudden sound (not to mention the dark) and heads off down the trail at an ever increasing pace, now anxious to get back to the car as soon as possible. Unfortunately my leg muscles have tightened to the point where I’m virtually waddling down the hill with the brakes on. Every so often I need to stop and stretch just to squeeze another hundred metres out of them. The Fatdog clearly wishes I would hurry up.

It’s now after 5pm and rather dark.  It was quite a day.  We managed a respectable total of 1460m (4789’) of ascent and we’re now sitting in the car…having lunch!”

It has been great fun going through these old “tails” and making them a bit more presentable than they were in their original format. I have hacked out nearly all of the route detail (sorry purists) to make the stories flow better. Another benefit to the project as a whole is that it has been necessary to go back and re-edit the photographs – the original versions having been part of a “rush job” to put the trip report on a hill walking web forum. I still battle with the decision of how much of the original text to leave in and how much to re-write. Having said that, in the case of this post, I changed very little of the text as published all those years ago about which I have to say I was rather pleased 🙂 .

Onto todays music choice. Given it was dark when we reached the car it has to be “Back in the Night” – Dr Feelgood. I saw them at Leith town hall, I think in the same year that this video was shot (1975). And on that depressing thought I will bid you adieu for now.