An unexpected breakfast

I set a dangerous precedent on Wednesday morning: I served Beagle breakfast without a preceding walk. While the sudden and unexpected appearance of full bowls was welcome, the break from routine caught our two pupplets completely by surprise. Biggles was so thrown he forgot to make his customary, very noisy pre-breakfast announcement, and Beanie had a mad scramble to escape the covers on our bed – only just making it to her serving position in time. After breakfast confusion ensued – was this a gym day, and if so, shouldn’t they be visiting the outside loo before reporting to their crates for a dental chew and a nap?

As it turned out they did end up in their crates, but only after a couple of hours’ digestion time, and the crates in question were in the Beaglemobile as we headed to Inveruglas for a walk to the summit of Ben Vane.

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On arrival at Inveruglas there was another irregular feeding as we all had packed lunches to fuel us for the coming walk. For the sake of convenience I just popped the lids off and served the lunches in their Tupperware boxes – but just as Susan had predicted this approach had a significant downside; I had to interrupt my lunch to rescue one box from Biggles who figured he would try eating it as well as its contents.

By mid afternoon – just as other walkers were heading down the mountain – we were heading up, with the intention of staying until sunset. As is common with Scottish mountains the first section was boggy, but the ground quickly firmed up as we gained height.

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Ben Vane has a reputation for two things: a surprisingly steep climb, and a seemingly endless stream of false summits. In all honesty the climb didn’t seem that hard, but this was our first hillwalk in daylight this year so maybe that golden sun made things seem easier. The false summits prediction however was spot on; I could see from their body language that even Beanie and Biggles were getting a bit tired of aiming for the top, only to find yet another level beyond it. Nevertheless we made it to the true summit in due course, finding a huge puddle of fresh, sheep-poo flavored water right by the summit cairn. The puddle was a bit smaller by the time Beanie & Biggles had finished drinking from it; though somewhat tempted I just made do with slightly warm bottled water.

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View From Ben Vane [5D4_4869]

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We spent our time at the top exploring the views from all directions, we muched our way through Pedigree Mini-Jumbones and cow ears, and then with my head torch at the ready, we started on our way back to the Beaglemobile. The descent of the mountain itself went smoothly, but things went comically wrong when we reached the boggy field at the bottom.

In the daylight it had been relatively easy to see where other walkers had trodden, but now it was really, really dark and even with my head torch at full power I couldn’t see any definite paths. Direction wasn’t an issue – I knew that we just had to keep heading right and we’d emerge by a firm, gravel covered forestry road that would take us back to the van. The problem was just getting to that road without injury; the field was covered in thick, tall, almost uniform grass, but underneath that grass the ground was anything but uniform. Time and again I put my leading foot on what I thought was solid earth only to have it plunge down into deep, sticky bog. Seeing an opportunity to get me face-down in the mud, the pups started with their time honored double-act; Biggles pulled unpredictably, and Beanie stopped dead right under my foot, always at exactly the wrong time. They succeeded in getting me over more than once, and the one time I fell without their “help”, they exchanged curious glances at each other as though to say “Hey, I didn’t even cause that one, was it you?”

Eventually of course we did escape from that horrible field. Back at the van I served water and cow ears, pulled the boots off my feet and made myself a coffee. It was now quite late and I wanted to drive us back home before I felt the call of sleep. I started assembling one of the travel crates but even before I’d finished it and installed a cosy bed, Biggles had taken up residence. Boy was he ready for a nap! I faced the opposite problem with The Beanster; she’d curled up on the driver’s seat and was very reluctant to budge. I had to pick her up, plonk her in the crate and zip it up really fast before she could escape back to the seat. The drive home was uneventful and very, very quiet (if you discount the snoring).

Biggles – World’s Best Mountain Guide

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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.

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Just in the nick of time, the wait is over. Beanie & Biggles are muddy, impatient, and ready to woof

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See? Told you so..

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But that retreating cloud is fascinating stuff, and the woofing soon gives way to silent contemplation

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Cairn on Stuc a'Chroin [5D4_2659]

Looking back to Ben Vorlich [5D4_2781]

Ben Vorlich, viewed from the head of Stuc a’Chroin

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Looking back along Stuc a’Chroin to its two summit cairns (two little nodules just visible near the top/right corner)

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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.

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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.

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While I pause for a drink of water, Beanie & Biggles resume their fly catching activities.

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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.

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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.

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The Skullbuster – Beinn an Lochain

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“It’ll break your lungs, your legs, your lower back..”

The words of Steve Austin (the wrestler, not the secret agent with notoriously unreliable bionics) were playing in my head last Thursday morning as I made my way up Arrochar’s Beinn an Lochain in the dark. I’ve no doubt the “Skullbuster” obstacle course is in reality much tougher than a walk up that almost-but-not-quite Munro-class hill, but it is nevertheless a steep little bugger that does everything in its power to break your morale.

Less than 48 hours earlier the walk had been in danger of not happening at all. I’d finished my gym session early and while I was waiting for Susan to finish her workout, I nipped into The Range and ended up in the pet section. They had some new toys I hadn’t seen before and I started testing them out, closing my eyes and imagining that my right hand was a Beagle mouth (my mouth analogue tends to be better at finding good toys for Biggles, while Susan’s “mouth” is more suited to Beanie). In this case, a furry, squeaky slipper felt particularly nice, and though it only had one squeaker it was well positioned and didn’t require a lot of pressure to activate. The slipper fell into my shopping basket, along with a cheap pack of tripe sticks that I figured would be great for the hillwalk. I didn’t try the tripe sticks in my “mouth” as it isn’t good at chewing, lacks taste-buds and isn’t connected directly to a stomach, but I did let Beanie & Biggles try them in person as soon as we got home, along with the slipper. The slipper was a bit of a non-event, but the tripe sticks went down very well indeed. Unfortunately they also came back up really well about three hours later, leaving us with two large piles of Beagle stomach contents – one on the lounge rug and another on the corridor carpet (the much easier to clean laminate flooring was, as always, barf-free). Needless to say the tripe sticks went straight in the bin and I waited somewhat anxiously to see if their ill effects would carry over to the next day. Happily they didn’t and Beinn an Lochain was declared a “go”.

Anyway, back to the hill climb. Beinn an Lochain is basically a big, steep and lumpy ridge, and because it is so lumpy it presents one false summit after another as you climb it. After the first few surprises I gave up trying to determine if the currently visible “top” was the real deal or not and limited my view to the path immediately before me. Even that wasn’t exactly easy; the path kept turning abruptly and skipping round featureless rock as though deliberately trying to hide from the beam of my headtorch. Fortunately my two furry companions were on the case; almost every time my eyes lost the path, a wet black nose found it. Thanks to this teamwork and the heavier leg workouts I’ve been doing recently, we arrived at the real summit well ahead of my expectations.

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Given a choice I’d always rather get to the top of a hill early, but in this case I’d seriously overdone it – we had nearly a full hour to kill before sunrise and Beanie & Biggles don’t do waiting very well. We strolled between the official summit and another close-by high point a few times, consuming about ten minutes. We took another five minutes to munch our way through a total of four cow ears. A pack of 4 Pedigree mini-jumbones (yep, those advertised with the ever-lasting om-noms) was gone in barely 2 minutes.  By the time sunrise was finally approaching, things were getting pretty woofy on Beinn an Lochain I can tell you.

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To make things worse, the clear skies promised in weather forecasts never materialized; instead we got only grey clouds and windchill. I traded a handful of my traditional “summit” peanuts for a long exposure shot by the cairn, and then reluctantly started on the journey back down.

Beinn an Lochain Summit LE [5D4_2322]

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Back at the Beaglemobile I served up two bowls of breakfast for the pups and kicked off my walking boots, hoping to enjoy the last of my peanuts unmolested. Like the sunrise, this didn’t quite work out as planned :)

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A crossed leg is no barrier to The Beanster