THERE are humans about. I can hear them and smell them. In the great, desolate, boggy, inhospitable emptiness where Glen Geusachan sweeps down to join Glen Dee in the heart of the Cairngorms, my hunter-gatherer instincts alert me to the presence of other beings and I crouch low in the heather, nose twitching, muscles taut. Excuse me, but this is how Homo sapiens triumphed over Neanderthal man . . .
Three blokes loom out of the heather. I’m down-wind and I know, without a word exchanged between us, that they have spent the night in Carrour bothy.
A smoky fragrance wafts before them. They actually reek of bothy. I have yet to venture across the threshold of Carrour – which lies about a mile-and-a-half to the north – but I know what it smells like. It smells of bothy. Smoke, ashes, cold walls, cold floor, dampness and last week’s milk.
The bothy boys greet me with a cheery hello. Like myself, they are heading for the summit of Monadh Mor, but they are taking the direct route towards the col that separates the mountain from its neighbouring Munro, Beinn Bhrotain, then veering off to the right up what appears to be – from a couple of thousand feet below – a steep grassy slope. That’s their plan, anyway.
I wish them luck and continue along Glen Geusachan to tackle Monadh Mor from the north. I have struggled up enough high-altitude – and seemingly easy – steep grassy slopes to know that they are anything but easy and more like slippery church roofs without the gargoyles to hang on to. Those blokes will be clinging to tufts of grass with their teeth before the morning’s out.
I’ll just backtrack here because I’ve some helpful information for anyone planning to climb Monadh Mor and Beinn Bhrotain from Linn of Dee. Early this morning I rattled up a winding track on my pink mountain bike to White Bridge, beneath a sky so blue it could have featured in a holiday brochure. At White Bridge I veered off the track and followed a stony path. This was an extremely hard and uncomfortable ride, and I was relieved – and a bit sore – when it became just a bit too rough. I ditched the bike in a bank of heather and continued up the Dee.
Beneath the slabby ramparts of the Devil’s Point I turned west into Glen Geusachan, which is where I met the bothy boys. And it’s here that I stand now, braced – mentally and physically – for a hard wet slog up the glen because my guidebook says there is no path and the terrain is harsh.
So I am surprised to discover a neat little path that heads dutifully in the direction I intend to travel, and it does not waver once. It follows Geusachan Burn on its south bank more or less all the way to Loch nan Stuirtaig on the north flank of Monadh Mor. From the loch, an easy slope leads to the summit. Job cracked.
The bothy boys beat me to the cairn by thirty seconds – literally. Their fingernails are broken and one of them has lost three teeth. Just kidding. But so much for short cuts and easy slopes.
An hour later, after straying from the path to take in an outlying top, I shelter from the biting wind on the peculiarly stony summit of Beinn Bhrotain, which I find quite delightful. And below me lies a wild and enchanting country that stretches to a distant blue horizon – untamed and unchanged in thousands of years. Unchanged since the first Mesolithic settlers ventured along the banks of the Dee and built their rudimentary huts.
Even now, thousands of years later, I can still smell them – smoke, dampness, ashes, cold floors and last week’s milk. Things don’t change much in the Cairngorms.