Thursday, 18 August 2016


They say you learn something new every day. My very first hillwalk that I did with Pauline was on the northern edge of Loch Tay on the 13th August 1995.

In many peoples opinion, including mine, it is the most enjoyable ridge walk in Scotland and is called The Tarmachan Ridge. But for the past 21 years I've always thought it was spelt Ptarmigan, like the Scottish bird. Then, last Saturday, on the 13th August 2016, I returned to walk the ridge again. Only when I parked the car did I spot a sign pointing to the main summit, did I notice its correct spelling.

I had intended to walk the route last August, on the 20th anniversary, but a small thing like a brain haemorrhage got in the way. Then on this attempt I couldn't reach the start point on the 13th, as a serious accident on the only route to Killin, closed the road for several hours. When it eventually opened it was early evening, but I decided to continue on and camp the night. The forecast was to be better the following day anyway.

I awoke the next morning, camped at 500m, to very low cloud and grey skies. This was not the forecast. I sat it out for a while, then around 9am, when it had lifted to the point where it was just shrouding the tops, I packed the tent away and set out for the hill. There are two ways to tackle this mountain. If you're only interested in "bagging" a Munro peak then there's a boring, fairly steep path in a straight line to the summit. A far more enjoyable way is to head west along its base for about 4km along a dirt track, then ascend onto a ridge, turn west and walk to the summit from there.

This is the way Pauline had guided us 21 years ago, so this was always going to be my choice on this day. But I reached the ridge only to be enveloped in cloud. I could see nothing. I waited for a while but it seemed it would not clear, so I headed back down 50m or so, to get out of the chill breeze, to have some food.

My experience since the last ascent has been vast, as has my knowledge and skill in the hills. As I tucked into my carefully balanced packed lunch of high energy foods, I recalled a similar lunch spot there 21 years ago. Back then the choice of foods suited specifically to take hillwalking had not yet evolved, and I liked to take all the elements of my sandwiches separately with me and make them fresh on the hill, as I hated soggy sandwiches. What had also not evolved was my understanding of having everything as super lightweight as possible. To this day it makes Pauline and I laugh when we remember how I pulled from my pack the elements to make my lunch, which included a full pack of butter! Even my camping skills needed a little tweaking as I used to take a full bar of soap . . . in a nice plastic, light blue soap dish holder!

As I sat reminiscing, smiling, I noticed the cloud just above me had cleared. To the east I could make out the shape of one of the craggy sections of the ridge. I also noticed the direction of the light breeze was at right angles to the ridge, thus blowing the cloud away from me. So I opted to go back up and start walking to see how it was. I could always turn back if it didn't improve or got worse.

But half an hour later the low cloud lifted, revealing the ridge in all its glory. All around me in the distance the other mountains were still shrouded, but here, right now, the ridge was clear, and only got better and better as the day went on.

In places the ridge narrows, and I'm not good with exposure. There is only one point that the guides say is a "scramble". From a distance it looks like nothing, but up close, though short, it's a little nerve racking. As you place your feet carefully on the almost vertical craggy section, you keep telling yourself not to look down.

I looked down.

Then the path in front of me vanished. Erosion had taken away a fairly crucial small section. In order to continue I would have had to take a small leap. Thinking that there was a very real possibility of falling, albeit a short distance, the risk of another bash on the head made me turn back. I had no sooner taken that decision than I discovered a less exposed path that I'd missed on the way up, and I was pleased to be able to continue on.

The guides online had advised the whole circular route would take seven hours. Not counting the stop for lunch, I reached the actual summit of the Munro, Meall nan Tarmachan, at 1043m, in around three, with another hour to descend. The final approach to the top is long and gentle, and you are rewarded with a great view back along the ridge, with its path twisting and winding, up and down, through the craggy peaks.

Down below me I could see that in the intervening years the original enormous car park had been removed, together with the visitor centre building for Ben Lawers (the next, higher Munro along), to be replaced by a much more hidden car park. There has also been a great deal of planting of indigenous trees through an ongoing regeneration programme, turning what was had once been a bare barren landscape, back into something of it's original beauty.

And the spelling of the name? Well Meall nan Tarmachan translates from the Gaelic to "Hill of the Ptarmigans", so I don't feel too stupid.

And I didn't carry a whole block of butter either.

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