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Landscape by Keith Ratcliffe  
© 2009

Softly Softly

There were high expectations for last Monday. The forecast was brilliant and last week’s snow was still around – great for a high mountain day. The reality was somewhat different. It was dull and overcast with a cloud base of about 250 m, time to think again and a local walk filled the bill. Wednesday’s forecast was also good and this time accurate, so we went for a bigger hill.

I wanted to explore the area around Loch Turret and the plateau which included the Corbett of Auchnafree Hill looked promising, so off we set with a temperature of –4 degrees C on the car thermometer. The road up Glen Turret serves the reservoir so I expected it to be kept clear of ice and so it was up to the main building but the last mile had patches where thawed water had spread during the day then frozen overnight. I picked a careful way through and hoped for no extension of the ice field while we were walking.

Turret reservoir

Whilst kitting up in the car park another vehicle arrived and two walkers piled out with a cheery greeting. One of them went to inspect a patch of snow and declared “ Great! Frozen snow nothing like that soft stuff that tires you out”. They were also out to ‘bag’ the Corbett but their route was more direct – in,up & out. We parted while they were still having a brew. The walk began alongside the reservoir and it was spectacular in frozen, winter garb – some interesting leads in the ice spread like fingers from an inflowing stream. The path was snow covered but well beaten at first with evidence of a bike & land rover passage. Our route took a side track up the burn beside Ton Eich and there the tracks reduced to one set of footprints.

We were soon well into soft snow in the small valley and the footprints were no guide to solid ground at all. We frequently fell into holes of various depths and as soon as the slope on our left eased a little we broke out onto it. It appeared to be snow covering heather but we quickly realised that for the last few days it had been a lee slope and had accumulated a lot of blown snow.

The heather was of various depths from shallow to very deep and the crust formed by freezing was fragile. Progress slowed into a series of breakthroughs & wallows that sapped energy and morale. At one point I broke through big time and resorting to a swimming technique to maintain progress. The slope was low angle and I reasoned that the heather cover held it from avalanche so we soldiered on. We began to see hares on this section, resplendent in their arctic coats and one real discovery was of a couple of them bedded down inside their own little igloos in the heather. I inspected one of the dwellings after they had bolted. It was a complete cave formed around their body – I think they must have shuffled backwards to start the construction but then the wind blown snow built up over them to complete it. It certainly looked like a very cosy snow hole for a hare.

Boundary post

Eventually it began to level out and we could survey the route ahead. The choice was to head direct across a series of small valleys or skirt in a big arc eastwards and follow the vague hump of the ridge. We opted for the latter on the basis of our recent experience of valleys. On our chosen route we had lost the blown snow and were left with the frozen crusty stuff. Trouble was it wasn’t always strong enough to support us, so the rhythm of walking was in a distinctly jazz time signature. 1-2-3-fall-1-2-fall-1-2-3-4-5-6-fall-fall-fall. This went on for a long time before we hit the crest of the ridge and better conditions. Having complained about the snow conditions I must say that the ice forms & snow shapes were varied and spectacular so frequent photo breaks allowed recovery. Hares were everywhere on the plateau, sitting in sentinel pose, then running off in different directions as we approached. I think we counted up to twenty then stopped.

The two summit cairns hove into sight and there were people at one of them. Ha! I thought, our friends on the direct route have beaten us to it. This was no surprise as I knew we had taken rather longer than guidebook time because of the conditions. As we got closer we could see that the two people were actually sat on a snow mobile and appeared to have guns. As we drew close I cautiously took a photo of them but only after letting them eye us up without making a challenge to my photography. A second snow mobile chugged up to the cairn as we got there and they joined the others in lunch. A good idea we thought so we sat by the cairn for a bite to eat. After 3 hours thrashing we were peckish. An occasional glance at their guns revealed that they were high velocity rifles with huge telescopic sights. They meant business with whatever was their quarry.

I worked out that the four people were probably gamekeepers as this is an important grouse moor so I engaged them in conversation.
“ What are you hunting?” I said.
“ Foxes mainly “ was the reply, followed by “ And hillwalkers “ said amidst laughter from his mates.
“ Especially English ones? “ I cautiously questioned.
“ We had noticed “ was the droll retort. We all shared the joke and continued our lunch. Eventually they piled onto their sleds and set off along our approach route at speed. It took them about 10 minutes to cover what we had taken the best part of an hour to walk.

Heather & cairn

We also set off, firstly visiting the true summit then following a bearing down the easy angled slopes towards the head of Glen Turret. As there were no fresh footprints around the top we concluded that we were ahead of our friends from the car park and kept a look out for them. The going was a lot easier now and we made good progress down towards a burn that led onto the main track in the valley. This last bit was short but quite steep and in deep snow, so a wallowing technique became the order of the day. The burn was just as unpredictable as the ascent route and we both got wet feet but with the track in sight we were not downhearted.

The head of Glen Turret is a wild place and once on the track we surveyed its fastness as we gathered our breath. The walk out was uneventful but with no sign of the other party and their known aversion to soft snow we concluded that they may have turned back.

The upper end of Loch Turret was unfrozen and with a down valley wind that had built up it created a spectacular edge where the waves met the ice. Accompanied by a loud hissing sound the ice boundary was breaking up and advancing with the waves in a way that I have only seen before on films about the Arctic.

Back at the car park the other party’s car was still there so they must still be out on the hill – perhaps their route was as time consuming as ours. The drive out was uneventful, the ice patches were still there and melting but passed without any drama – except for a cyclist coming uphill who had to dismount on one and performed a ballet with machine and feet until he got his grip.

A final stop for a picture of the Ochils with a nice group of Highland cattle in the foreground completed a superb day out but one that had been taken ‘ Softly, softly’.

© Keith Ratcliffe
February 2009

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