THE alarm goes off at 6.45am but it has been eclipsed by events. The Braemar campsite ducks have been creating a racket for more than an hour – to the point where someone emerges from a tent and kicks a couple. In the stillness of early dawn there is the sound of a flysheet zip being undone, followed by a hard, dull thud and an instantaneous clamour of flapping wings and outraged quacks. Then another hard, dull thud and more clamour. It is a very gratifying series of events to witness.
So I emerge at 6.50am into a heavily overcast morning – sans ducks. I have three plans: A) a long day in the high Cairngorms (which I abandon immediately because of the cloud cover); B) to climb the two peaks to the east of the Glenshee ski station, which are of moderate altitude; C) an ascent of the three little Munros to the west of the ski station – the most accessible of all the Munros in Scotland and only to be climbed if the weather is not suitable to send a dog out into.
This expression – the dog one – reminds me of an incident in the shipyard when I was an apprentice electrician. Lunch break had ended and about six of us were standing at the workshop door waiting to go back on the boat (The Tonelero, an Oberon class submarine for the Brazilian navy) – but the heavens had opened and rain was clattering down like nobody’s business. It was bouncing off the dockside. I was standing next to an old guy from Haverthwaite called Bob Coglan, and next to him were three female cleaners. He said, to no one in particular: “Bloody hell. Look at that rain. I wouldn’t send a dog out into that. Come on ladies, off you go.” That made me laugh for ages.
I sit in my car on the top of the Glenshee pass, watching the mist lift and then settle again on my Plan B mountains, while the Plan C group smile smugly beneath the clouds. Eventually, at 10.30am, I say what the hell and head up through the ski tows to the Plan B group and a direct ascent of Glas Maol.
Three blokes are fixing a snow fence on the ski run near the summit of Meall Odhar. They have their radio on full blast. One of them, a dapper little chap in neat bib-and-brace overalls and with his sleeves rolled up, asks me if I would like to buy his new boots – they have just been issued that morning. For some reason, they all think this is funny. I decline his offer and leave them listening to Ken Bruce and the eternally-smug Jeremy Vine rattling on about nothing in particular on Radio 2.
I am soon engulfed by mist, and almost as soon I’m on the summit plateau of Glas Maol. The plateau is expansive and featureless, but in the mist, and with the aid of an indistinct path, I manage to navigate the half-mile or so to the summit cairn. I then, with minimal bother, deliver myself to the narrow ridge that connects the summit to its neighbouring Munro, Creag Leacach, where I manage a quick kip in the lee of the summit cairn.
The drop down via the South Top is unremarkable, as is the slog back up the main road to the car – except for an old and abandoned section of the original A93 which has been left intact and is shown on the map as the Devil’s Elbow. The Devil must have possessed hundreds of elbows because they are all over the British Isles. But what makes this one interesting is the double row of concrete blocks that marches down the mountain immediately beyond the abandoned hairpin bend. I assume at first that they must have been installed for carrying a water pipe down the valley, but then chance on the theory that they formed part of a tank trap to stop the Nazis getting over the pass and along the defenceless road to Balmoral – where the royals would be hiding if they hadn’t done a bunk to the US. If armoured columns were advancing up the glen, the place to halt them would be the hairpin bend where they would be most vulnerable. That’s my theory anyway.
To be continued . . .