Biggles is really in my good books right now. In fact he’s earned himself so much “good boy” credit that I didn’t even react this morning when he knocked Susan’s (empty) cereal bowl onto the floor and ran off with her spoon for a licking session. Actually that’s not entirely true – I did react at first, grumbling “Uggh who’s been naughty ?” but when I saw it was Biggles I came back with “Fair enough little boy, you’ve earned it.” And so he had, during our latest hillwalk in the very very early hours of Thursday morning.
The goal this time was to get to “Stuc a’Chroin” by sunrise, using adjoining Munro-class peak Ben Vorlich as the staging post. The first part went really well; we arrived at Ben Vorlich’s summit trig point just an hour and forty minutes after leaving the van. All that remained now was the somewhat shorter (partly downhill) walk over the other side to the “saddle” ridge joining the two peaks, followed by a shortish but reportedly steep ascent up to Stuc a’Chroin. With over a hundred minutes left before official sunrise, I figured we had time for a sit down, a drink, and a serving of mini-Jumbones. Visibility was very poor because we were in cloud but the path seemed easy enough to follow, so foolishly I didn’t bother to re-examine the guide I’d printed out. When the munching was finished (which didn’t take long) I got back up and started confidently along what I thought was the second part of the route. It was indeed the second part of “a” route, just not the one I wanted to follow. I’d been walking for a good while, maybe 20-30 minutes, before we were sufficiently out of the clouds for me to see my mistake. I had a choice to make: I could drag us right back up to Vorlich’s summit and take the correct path, or just cut across to the saddle ridge from our current location. The second option was both shorter and less steep, but it meant clambering over a lot of boulders and scree. Overall, it still looked to be the better option, so off we went.
Typically Beanie copes the best of all us when the terrain is rocky, being very nimble and sure-footed. This time however she kept making some very bad decisions; more than once she ended up behind a boulder so big and smooth that she couldn’t get over it, and I had to come to her rescue. Biggles on the other hand was doing spectacularly well, consistently finding low but solid footing. In fact he was doing such a great job of weaving his way through the rocks that I started following him. Progress was being made towards the saddle , but the closer we got, the bigger and more challenging the task appeared to be; I started having big doubts that we could even get there before sunrise, let alone up to the summit of Stuc a’Chroin. Then, out of the blue, Biggles seemed to go off course. My eyes were telling me that we needed to keep picking our way up and across the boulders, but he wanted to head down slightly. Shining my headtorch in his direction I saw that he’d found a path. It was narrow and very faint, but there was a line in the scree that looked like it had been trodden underfoot. I knew there was an alternate route between Stuc and Vorlich that cut through scree – maybe this was it? I decided it was worth the gamble, and committed to following the Bigglet. He stayed locked on to the path even when my eyes couldn’t follow it, and in due course we emerged from the rocks and joined the Vorlich side of the saddle.
I checked my watch; we now had barely forty minutes left until sunrise, and Stuc a’Chroin looked impossibly tall. I concluded that we wouldn’t make it in time. On the other hand, the top of Stuc was in cloud; as long as it stayed covered it didn’t matter if we got there a little late. We pressed onwards across the saddle and began the ascent of this second peak. Part way up the path became hard to follow but once again Biggles came to the rescue. His path-finding abilities wavered only once, but that was to send a rogue mountain goat on its way, which was entirely forgivable. As we got closer to what looked like the top of the climb, the path changed from winding to direct vertical ascent. Apparently the makers of the path had said to themselves “Right, sod this zig-zagging nonsense, let’s just go for it”. It was tough, but about fifteen minutes after sunrise we popped up onto the prow of Stuc a’Chroin.
Visibility was very poor due to cloud, but I could see the bright disk of the sun through it. I knew that if we could just hang on in there for long enough the sun would likely burn through it. On recent hillwalks any extended waiting has proved both challenging and noisy, but this time everything was in my favor: it was relatively warm and wind-free, there were plenty of sniffy rocks to explore, and my pockets were stuffed with cow ears and dog biscuits. Just under an hour later the pups were at the limit of their patience, but the cloud-base had lowered enough to give us some spectacular views.
Just in the nick of time, the wait is over. Beanie & Biggles are muddy, impatient, and ready to woof
See? Told you so..
But that retreating cloud is fascinating stuff, and the woofing soon gives way to silent contemplation
Ben Vorlich, viewed from the head of Stuc a’Chroin
Looking back along Stuc a’Chroin to its two summit cairns (two little nodules just visible near the top/right corner)
As the sun warmed the grass it released a host of insects. Given the time of year I expected to be inundated by midges, but they were relatively scarce. Instead, lots of large, strange buzzy things took to the air and insisted on doing regular flybys. Beanie dedicated herself to trying to catch them, and pretty soon Biggles joined in on the act.
After a while it became clear that the cloud-base was on the rise again so we started the long walk back to the van, which of course now included a repeat ascent of Ben Vorlich. Even before we got to that we had to make our way down Stuc a’Chroin, following the sometimes indistinct path. On my own – in my increasingly tired state – this would have been difficult, but in this case all I had to do was follow the little mostly-white bottom of Chief Pathfinder Biggles.
While I pause for a drink of water, Beanie & Biggles resume their fly catching activities.
As we reached Vorlich’s summit trig point I came close to repeating the mistake that had taken us off course originally. Visibility wasn’t the problem this time – but fatigue was. However, once again Biggles stepped in to guide me to the correct path. In due course we arrived back at the van. Beagle breakfast was served first of course, and then I began downing as many caffeine-rich cappuccinos as I could stomach. I’d only had two hours’ sleep prior to the hillwalk, and now I had to get fully awake for the two hour drive back home. The contented snoozing sounds from the furry types wasn’t helping with this at all.
I decided the only way to get home safely was to deploy the caffeine equivalent of a nuke: Japanese green tea. I mixed an excessive amount of this in my drink bottle with the intention of slugging it periodically during the journey home. As it turned out only a few slugs were required before my eyes felt like they were being held open by that weird gizmo in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Certainly if green tea had been made available to the inhabitants of Elm Street back in the 80’s, Freddy Kreuger’s kill rate would have been way, way down.
Two day’s on from the walk I’m still knackered and the pups are back to their normal pesky selves, but Biggles isn’t getting told off. I don’t know how long it will take for him to use up all the good boy credits he earned on the hillwalk, but I do know it wouldn’t have gone nearly so well without him.