Thursday, 13 December 2012

Dancing on ice

It's been two and a half years since I've trekked and camped in the Scottish mountains with my friend Pauline. I guess there was the small matter of a round-the-world cycle in between. So we decided to take the opportunity of a window of available time and head north, though I thought it was going to be hillwalking, not hill skating.

With a good weather forecast we left Edinburgh for Blair Atholl, and the neighbouring valley Glen Tilt, on a late train on Tuesday evening. Arriving in Blair Atholl in the dead of night we were greeted with a bit of a surprise . . . snow!

Having travelled the night before we were in a great position to get an early start to our trek into the hills and Glen Tilt on a glorious day. Not a breath of wind and unbroken blue skies. However it was slow going as all the small streams that crossed the paths were frozen and we gingerly stepped across, occasionally skating as we lost our grip. One bridge was covered with two inches of solid polished ice making it impassable. Our only choice was to detour around.

All around us a frozen mist hung in the valleys and wildlife foraged for food in the frozen landscape. Up ahead roe deer darted across the path, their large white behinds flashing by; a mountain hare in its snowy white winter coat sprinted up the hillside; a puffed up robin kept us company as we trekked along.

We camped for the night next to an old stone bridge and our tents were pitched by four o'clock. By five o'clock, as the sun was casting its fire-red glow onto nearby mountains, the temperature had dropped to minus 5. Just one hour later it had plummeted to minus 10. During the night I was wearing my full thermals, trousers, two pairs of socks, three further layers up top, my hat and buff. Added to that I was wrapped up in a winter season sleeping bag . . . and I was still cold! On the bright side it never got entirely dark due to the clear sky and a proliferation of stars, their light reflecting off the surrounding snow.

The following day we opted to scale a nearby hill, ascending through soft six-inch deep snow, with small flurries of snow gently falling. As we neared the summit we entered some hill fog. I lost sight of Pauline up ahead and resorted to following her footprints in the snow.

Two hours later we were back down and wandering out along the track towards Blair Atholl and a hot bowl of soup. Streams that had flowed the previous day were now frozen due to the very low temperatures of the previous evening, creating an ice rink across our path every 20 feet or so. For five miles we stumbled and slid ungracefully.

Mind you, at one point Pauline almost managed a full pirouette which wouldn't have been out of place on Dancing On Ice. It was a pretty good 7 out of 10.

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