It was meant to be elsewhere. Foinaven in fact. But it wasn’t. Plans change, deadlines shift, people have stuff to do. In between the banter, a vague plan was formed: Mount Keen, pick a day and the other details would take care of themselves.
The day in question was a Saturday and we were to meet at Gus’s gaff at lunchtime-ish. That’s almost military precision for us. Saturday morning are busy times, dancing lessons, rainbows and errands, so I got home at 11am and started packing. Last minute or just-in-time? A box was filled with random outdoor accoutrements and I scooted away, only to have to stop at the end of the drive and run back into the house to get some trousers.
A short drive later I was at Chez Gus with coffee in hand. Very civilised. I heard and felt a low rumble, like someone was driving a panzer up the street. Petesy had arrived. The retro pickup disgorged a box full of kit and we loaded up the van. Further cuppas were had, and then we hit the road. To Asda, about 500 metres away. Supplies were gathered, only the lightest and most essential provisions: wine, cheese, porridge, wine, pastries, wine, sweeties. You know that proverb that says it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey? It’s actually about the food on the journey. Fully laden we set off north east, in search of mountains.
We screeched to a halt in Edzell, for we had spotted something important: the last coffee shop before our destination. Petesy has an inbuilt radar for these things.Twenty minutes later and fully cuppa-and-sconed, we perused the checked shirts, tourist trinkets and hunter wellies. The highlight was the kilt socks, available in a dashing purple and a snip at £85. And you thought your hiking socks were expensive.
The last stretch of road up Glen Esk was short and we pulled into the icy car park at the same time as the darkness. Packs were stapped to capacity and then in Gus’s case had skis and boots stuck on top. We were off.
The landrover track up Glen Mark was covered in compressed snow and ice, and there was a constant smirr being blown across the headtorch beams. The snow coverage off the path was patchy in the extreme, surprising for the time of year. I’d expected to be snow plodding the whole way. We made steady progress, crossing a snowbridge over a burn and dodging the sections of ice with meltwater below. At this stage it occurred to me that we could introduce a new unit of distance measurement; the babybel. This unit would be based on the number of small cheeses consumed by Petesy per hour. After about 3 babybels we reached the Queens Well, which we could just make out by torchlight a little way off the track. Mark cottage was empty (but available for rent) and we started up the track beside the ladder burn.
There was much peching and panting, winter packs are heavy and in Gus’s case made worse by carrying ski gubbins. Eventually it paid off as we passed through the zig zag and onto the broad ridge, the snow was more consistent and Gus could don skis. He skinned up as we plodded.
We’d spotted a relatively flattish section on the map at around 750m and made for that; legs were tiring, it was getting late and there was still much to do. The wind was steady and fairly cold. We pitched the tents and constructed some small snow dykes to keep the worst of the wind at bay. Dinner was hastily prepared and consumed. Gus produced a plastic bottle containing 1.5l of red wine, which he started to heat on the stove. Warm Malbec Sir? Luxury camping indeed. Extra points awarded for carting that up the hill, as if he didn’t have enough to carry.
Lights were seen approaching up the ladder burn, so Gus and I set out to meet them. It was the other Gus, along with his buddy Eamonn, come to join the party and making good time despite ski gear to carry. A pair of Aktos were pitched and the fellowship was complete. Wine and banter flowed. The lingering cloud showed signs of breaking up, perhaps the morning would be clear. After a load of wine, chat and probably more cheese, we turned in, hopeful of more delights to come.
I crashed out quickly, and then was woken abruptly, firstly by the wind and then again by another sound. The grouse had started. The bastard grouse.
They cawed and chutted and arked. They squawked and pukked and orked. At some points seemingly about ten feet from my head. I couldn’t raise the energy to get out of the depths of my bag to look out. Then something had a good rummage about just outside the tent. Every so often I’d drop off only to be roused by another loud call from the little gits. Sometime around 3am the wind died off completely and it became still. I could have taken some star photos, but sleep took priority. I dozed on and off, with only the wee feathered terrors for entertainment until my brain registered a change in the light. I checked the watch, it was 45 mins until dawn, time to head out for a look. The sky was a wash of purples and deep oranges and browns. The day was fast approaching.
Breakfast was consumed in between taking photos and general wandering about and absorbing of the atmosphere. Heads popped out of tents and we gathered to form a plan. Petesy and I would wander up to the summit of Keen, those with planks would follow on and survey the best opportunities for some lengthy downhill runs. We left the camp in place, and thus unencumbered set off up the hill. The track was wide and well maintained, with decent long sections of well consolidated snow. We make quick progress. We could see the skiers following on further below and tried to direct them to the best snow we could from our advantage of altitude. The summit was beautifully rimed and had spectacular views of Lochnagar, the central Cairngorm and across to Bennachie, Clachnaben and the skyscrapers of Aberdeen.
We hung about snapping photos and shortly the line of skiers appeared, carrying their planks up the bouldery final section.
The east slope looked good, skis would be used on the descent. Petesy and I headed down towards camp to get the best view of the action on the snowy expanse. We stumbled across a beautifully carved boulder, looking like it had always been there. Intricate work, did someone do it on site or did they carve the rock and then install it? Either way, it was either one of these mountain art installations that seem to be popping up, or more likely a memorial stone. Did someone have their ashes scattered here? I can think of worse places to while away eternity.
Sitting in the sun on a rock looking out over the snow clad mountains, knowing that back at camp there was hot food and a cuppa. Joy.
The skiers hove into view, having made an wee traverse across from below the summit. They set off down the eastern expanse at a fine pace, carving turns down and then traversing across back to camp. We wandered behind, frightening ptarmigans and grouse, which were utterly silent now. Little swines.
Lunch was had and camp was struck, with the skiers heading off to investigate the snow packed gully and the walkers heading down the trail. We watched as the two Guses and Eamonn scudded down the gully, occasionally whooping as they were surprised by icy bits.
We met up at the zig zags and started the walk back to the van. The queens well was more visible this time. I still wouldn’t drink from it mind. The miles back to the car were sped by admiring the sun-kissed views.
We reconvened back at the coffee shop. Strangely, no-one had bought the socks.
February 14, 2015