Oh Biggles!!!

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Prior to my ascent of Beinn Luibhean every single major hill I’d climbed had involved zig-zags; they’d either been part of the path – trading increased distance for a gentler gradient – or had been forced on me by natural obstacles. More than once I’d considered them irritating and unnecessary, and wondered what it would be like simply to set my sights on the top of a hill and head straight for it in an uncompromising straight line. If you’ve ever wondered that too, I can tell you right now exactly what it’s like: awful, especially if you’ve got deep snow to go through.

It’s even worse if you’ve got little boy called “Oh Biggles!!!” tied to your waist. Yes, during the course of our most recent hill climb I did indeed change my boy’s name from plain “Biggles” to “Oh Biggles!!!” with no less than three exclamation marks, but sometimes five or six. He earned this new appellation by constantly – and I do mean constantly – getting himself tied up in his own lead, forcing me to grind to a halt and untangle him. On several occasions he even got himself caught up in Beanie’s lead while I was still trying to free his back legs from his own.

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Munching on cow ears before the final push to the summit, and Oh Biggles!!! has got himself tied up yet again

The supreme irony of this whole venture was that I’d chosen Beinn Luibhean as a nice “warmup” hill for 2017 due to its modest height, easy path-free navigation (set your eyes on the summit and start walking), short length (less than 5km) and safe grassy surface. Thanks to the snow and my little furry numpty on legs it mutated into the freezing cold mother of all workouts. At times I was forced to scramble on all fours to get past the steeper snow-covered sections; Beanie & Biggles were scrambling on all fours too (it is after all their default state) but it wasn’t working for them. There was one particularly rough bit that went something like this:

  • Dig my hands into the snow for extra purchase and take one big step up and forward
  • Discover that Biggles is stuck behind me; pick him up and lift him forward, and in doing so, slip back one foot
  • Extract Biggles from the tangle he created almost immediately on being released
  • Discover that Beanie is stuck behind me; pick her up and lift her forward while sticking my head under Biggles’ bum to stop him slipping back
  • Extract Beanie’s lead from between Biggles’ legs (he’s just re-tangled)
  • Repeat all the above, over and over again

I’d long given up hope of getting any decent photograpy from the summit due to the white-out conditions; now it was just about beating what should have been a pretty trivial hill. Beanie at least was fully behind the “get to the top” plan – she was the first to get moving again after our cow ear-break.

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Onward and upward! Beanie’s never happy until she’s reached the top.

By the time we reached what appeared to be the highest point I was more than ready for my traditional summit treat – chocolate milk – except that by now it had frozen solid. Fortunately other treats – specifically a packet of meat and cheese nibbles with a picture of a happy labrador on the front – were unaffected by the conditions. I saw no point staying up there in the cold with nothing to see, so we started back down even before all the nibbles had been fully nibbled.

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No Dad, one serving is not going to cut it this time!

If going up a steep snow-covered hill is extra hard, going down is extra easy and extra fun. Even if you slip you’re guaranteed a soft landing! The lower we went, the more the white-out cleared, revealing glimpses of neighbouring mountains. And of course it got it warmer too; as our van came into view at the bottom of the hill my chocolate milk had thawed enough to drink, and I gave myself a thumping ice-cream headache with my first gulp.

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Doggy breakfast was served at the van, after which we drove just a couple of miles up the road to visit an old pictoresque stone bridge known as “The Butterbridge“. I’d had the satnav coordinates for the bridge in my phone for over two years, but had always given it a miss, often citing the excuse that the weather was “too good” – it’s one of those sites that looks disappointingly bland under sun and blues skies. On this day, there was no such problem :)

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The Silence of the Biggles

The area we live in doesn’t seem to get much Autumn color; one minute the leaves are on the trees – green and happy – and the next they’re lying on the ground, brown and soaking wet from relentless rain, and there doesn’t seem to be much in between. The region around Callander however is different, so we headed there in the Beaglemobile one weekend when work eased off.

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Our first stop was at Bracklinn Falls, a popular beauty spot with an easy circular walk that takes in not one but two pretty waterfalls. It was while we were on this circuit that I realised why I don’t generally get a lot of Autumn photographs: the weather is usually really, really crap at this time of year. In this case we were fortunate and it was only moderately crap, but it still kept trying to rain every five minutes or so.

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The colors however were spectacular, as were the sniffs. This was one of those rare walks that perfectly hit the sweet spot between stimulation and excitement; Beanie and Biggles eagerly scampered around from one nasal treat to the next, their noses sounding like Geiger counters, and yet there was no desparate pulling or baying outbreaks. By the time we got back to the van the pups were seriously ready for a naptime, even though they hadn’t gone much further than on a regular walk at home.

We spent the night in the van close to Loch Lubnaig, and though Beanie and Biggles started out in their own beds on the van seats, they didn’t stay there for long; even before the clock had ticked over into the next day there was a bed migration. Beanie was the first, curling up neatly by Susan’s stomach, and shortly thereafter Biggles also burrowed into our bed. I’ve noted in previous years how Biggles often seems to acquire a new ability after each birthday; I’d have to say that his eighth birthday has granted him the power of extreme expansion. I’m well used to him taking way more space than his little 13kg frame requires, but on this night he took it to a new level. At one point he actually managed to force not only me and Susan out of bed, but Beanie too. If the Beanster hadn’t been so sleepy she’d probably have bitten his bottom, but as it was, she ended up perched on a corner of the bed with no covers and a look of drugged bewilderment on her face. I was actually grateful when my smartphone’s alarm sounded; it meant it was time to embark on my hillwalk in the cold and dark, but even that was preferable to spending more time contorted around The Incredible BiggleHulk.

The target hill this time was Beinn Each. At just over 800m high it belongs in the “corbett” class, but the actual ascent listed on the Walkhighlands site is only 693 metres, so I wasn’t expecting it to be particularly taxing. My feeling of confidence seemed to rub off on my furry companions as we walked; despite having slept poorly the Beanster had a spring in her step and Biggles was walking wide and tall, his back legs making extra room for an enormous pair of imaginary testicles. Perhaps it was those imaginary testicles that had forced the rest of us out of bed. Regardless, this morning he was a Beagle at the top of his game and he wasn’t afraid to let the world know it. He started aaarrrffing, not necessarily because he smelled something, but just because it felt good. About ten minutes later he really did have something to bay at – a couple of sheep – and his cries sent them scurrying away. Perfect – just the way things should be! He let out another warbling, grunting aaarrrfff in triumph as the sheep disappeared from view but then suddenly – out of the darkness – something answered him!

At first the response sounded a bit like a group of disgruntled politicians in the House of Commons, but then it grew deeper, louder and more piercing. It lasted for what seemed like an age, and when it had finished Biggles wasn’t in the mood for aaarrfffing any more. He had his head down, pretending to concentrate on a sniffy bit of the path, and his tail was lowered. Even Beanie was looking round at me in the torchlight, her face asking “is it OK Dad, or would now be a good time to put on my soothing Christmas jumper?” I didn’t answer her straight away; for one thing I didn’t have her Christmas jumper in my backpack, and for another I was still trying work out what had made that sound. After a second I reasoned that it had to be a deer, but one with a really, really powerful call – every bit the deer equivalent of Beanie’s Howl of Death. I relaxed now that I knew what I’d heard and this put Beanie’s mind at rest too, but Biggles stayed silent for the rest of the walk; his bubble had been well and truly burst.

It soon turned out I’d been over-confident too; despite its modest ascent and length, the later stages of the climb were surprisingly challenging physically. The weather didn’t help either; the forecast had promised sunny intervals, but all we got was mist, rain and wind. We made it the summit in time for sunrise, but the only visible confirmation of that was the mist turning a slightly lighter shade of grey. The three of us huddled by the summit for a few minutes. I figured it was worth hanging on a while to see if the weather would clear, but once we’d run out of cow ears and bone-shaped biscuits we had a show of paws to determine if we should call it quits, and I lost. On the way back down we got an occasional hint of the color and beauty that was hiding behind all that mist.

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The way back from Ben Each [IMG_9892]

About half-way down the hill I felt the irresistible urge to do one of the many things that bears do in the woods. As we weren’t actually in the woods at that point I just a took a little detour off the path and prepared to squat; the only complication – other than the absence of toilet paper – was that I had two Beagles tide to my waist, one of whom had previously snacked on her Mum’s forbidden brown fruit. Biggles genuinely showed no interest in the proceedings, but Beanie was watching me closely, and believe me, I was watching her right back. I held up a cautionary index finger as I finished and pulled up my pants, and she held her position. As I reached down to pick up my backpack my eyes slipped from hers for a split-second, and though she lunged forward slightly, my finger brought her to a halt before she reached the drop zone. Ever seen that Doctor Who episode where deadly angel statues can only move when you’re not looking right at them? The writer of that episode must have owned a Beagle.  Anyway, I was almost there.. I just needed my tripod now. I reached to pick it up but fumbled slightly and my concentration on Beanie wavered a second time; unfortunately this was long enough for Beanie to tick another item off her bucket-list.

I guess I learned three lessons from our trip to Callander:

  • Never trust BBC weather forecasts in Autumn
  • Never aaarrrfff at a deer because it might answer back
  • Never accept kisses from Beanie when she’s been on a hillwalk

Double munro-lite and a large serving of Oo-mox – Part 2

Susan and Rob’s visit was blessed by remarkably good weather, and as I checked the forecasts back at the campsite it looked like the trend was set to continue. We decided to spend one more day in the Stonehaven area, then head towards Loch Tay for a sunrise ascent of Ben Lawers. All we had to do now was find somewhere local for a nice, relaxed but hopefully sniffy dog walk. After a couple of minutes of searching, Susan came up with nearby St. Cyrus.

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The beach there is the equal of any we saw on our tour of the west coast, and ticked all the boxes from a Beagle persepective: weird-shaped rocks to explore, miles of untouched sand, and of course seagull guano.

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Few things are as versatile as Seagull guano: it’s good to sniff, good to roll in, and good to eat.

I guess the rule is this: just head north and just about everything gets more dramatic and beautiful. Another rule is: don’t think you can eat a Cornetto in peace when you shared your fish supper with Beagles the previous day. And don’t ever think you can have the back seat of the Beagle limo all to yourself either.

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After an afternoon of deep snoozing we set off for Ben Lawers. We spent the night in the car park and then, very early the next morning, I headed out with my two intrepid adventurers to walk up the mountain itself.

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Technically Ben Lawers is the tenth highest mountain in Scotland, but thanks to the height of the car park there’s less walking involved than you might expect – sort of a munro “lite”. What’s more, you walk over the top of a slightly smaller peak called Beinn Glas on the way, so you tick off two munro-class summits for the price of one. The path is excellent too; wooden walkways cover the bulk of the early boggy areas so you don’t have to play a round of “where did my shoe go” whilst desperately holding on to pulling Beagles.

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Sunrise from Beinn Glas, with Ben Lawers up ahead

I still wouldn’t describe Ben Lawers as a “walk in the park” however; for one thing, the later sections are quite steep and offer a decent workout, and for another, parks don’t have sheep, but Beinn Glas and Ben Lawers do. There were in fact only two sheep that caused problems during our ascent, but they were really pesky and had no respect whatsoever for Mr Biggles’ authoritah. Time and again he’d have choice words for them, but they’d just stand there, chewing grass insolently and mocking him like the French soldiers in Monty Python’s Holy Grail.

Biggles: “Woof, warble, aaarrff, squeal, grunt!!!!”

Sheep: “Your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries!”

When we got close enough to them they’d move on, but only to a further point on the same path, causing the cycle to repeat over and over again. Finally, as we started up the last section of Ben Lawers itself, Beanie got rid of them for good. You see The Beanster has two levels of aaarrff; there’s the fairly standard Beagle cry that she uses when pursuing little birds on the beach, then there’s the Howl Of Death. Honestly, I’ve heard lots of other hounds in full cry, but none of them – not a single one – has come close to the volume and spine-chilling qualities of Beanie’s HOD. She doesn’t use it often, but when she does, other dog owners – even the most irresponsible ones – immediately lead-up their dogs and steer a wide path around us; young mothers hurriedly pick up their children and carry them away; and sheep – even really pesky ones with mock French accents and an appreciation for anarchic 1970s British humor – run for their lives.

“Well done Beanie!” I said as the sheep sped out of view. She looked round out at me and I gave her a little bone-shaped biccie as a reward. Biggles got a biccie too because, well, that’s the law.

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On the way back down we ran into other walkers making their way up the hill, some of whom had offlead dogs with them. One of them asked me: “are there any sheep up there?” I smiled to myself and replied “No. Not anymore.”

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