A Bridge Too Far
by Grant Hutchison (our Dundee correspondent)
I climbed Ben Avon the other day. I just climbed it; I didn't do it. In my opinion, people who imagine that they can do a mountain should be staked out over a fire-ant nest with their eyelids cut off. But that's just my opinion. Look: you do the shopping, or the washing, or the dusting; and the distinguishing feature of all these activities is that once they're done, they're over, gone, finished. A moment's reflection will now reveal that, while mountains frequently do people, there are damn few people who can properly do a mountain (the exception being super-quarry contractors, of course).
Anyway. I was up Ben Avon. Which is a grand mountain, by the way, what with all these improbable tors scattered around the summit plateau, for all the world as if (in a spirit of reciprocity for London Bridge) a bit of the Arizona desert had been dismantled and shipped stone by stone to Britain. And there's a fine approach, too: Gleann an t-Slugain sort of folds up around you and turns into a lovely wee dell, with a flat grassy bottom that just weeps to have a tent-peg or two hammered into it. Then pop! you climb out the top into the big Cairngorm world again. And the upper reaches of the Quioch Water are pink. No, really. Pink. There's a burn pouring down off the Sneck over pink granite, which is absolutely the strangest thing I've seen since the night the guy in the next tent tried to change the cartridge on his gas stove by candlelight. And all this on a mid-week day when I didn't meet a single person in twenty miles of walking. Just the thing to make you stand on the summit with your arms outstretched and your head thrown back, giving it big ha-ha-ha's up into the clear blue sky. (Well, I did, anyway.)
But: it wasn't all fun and frolics, though. Quite the reverse. There's that first stretch through the trees behind Braemar. Now, I've never been properly lost on the hill; never in real danger of being done. But there's many a time when I've gone agley during that early approach phase through the forestry. Why, just the other month, in the company of no less a figure than our esteemed Editor, I marched purposefully for a full twenty minutes up a dead-end track in Glen Doll. (Professor Warbeck, who was in attendance with his good lady wife, became quite voluble at one point.) So: a certain amount of trepidation, then, at the maze of tracks marked on Sheet 43, coupled with an additional anxiety over the maze of tracks which were undoubtedly not marked on Sheet 43. Picture my delight, then, at coming to the first fork in the path, to discover a wee white sign with an arrow and the label "Alltdourie Farm and Walkers". I dismissed after an instant the notion that a proprietary brand of crisps was on sale at Alltdourie. Surely this friendly sign meant me: a Walker. I then puzzled briefly over the question of how the sign knew my planned destination. But clearly, this sign was intended for those walkers who do mountains; those for whom Ben Avon was the only worthwhile destination. Since my aim, on that day, coincided with that of the Common Herd, I strode unhesitatingly in the direction indicated.
Soon, this venture was rewarded with another white sign: "Alltdourie Farm and Walkers". And here, the first hints of trepidation tickled my cerebral cortex. For, in the direction indicated, there milled an unruly herd of sinister, silent sheep. Sheep such as haunt the darker recesses of artist ChrisTyler's imagination: diabolical, carnivorous sheep. Had I been a cartoon character, the word "Gulp" would have appeared above my head in wiggly letters. But I pushed nervously onwards, sidling past the glowering sheep, until I came to a bridge. Beyond lay only the forested slopes of Creag a' Chleirich: this was clearly not the way I should have come. I hesitated, dithering. The sitkas swayed in the wind, whispering and nudging each other: Mirkwood-on-Dee. Why would the signs have so wilfully misled me? What fate awaited the unsuspecting Walker in the woods ahead?
I considered leaving a trail of Kendal Mint Cake behind me through the forest. (This is, after all, the only thing to do with Kendal Mint Cake: crumble it into small pieces and drop it on the ground.) Belatedly, I checked the map. I was too far south. Ahead, in the depths of the forest, was something called Balnagower Cottage. A gingerbread house, no doubt. Or perhaps something more suited to the entrapment of Walkers: a three-pints-of-lager-and-a-packet-of-salted-nuts house? My blood chilled in my veins. Was that a wolf I could hear howling?
So, anyway, I walked up the side of the burn and climbed over a fence, and found the right path. But it was a damn close thing, I can tell you. And the really, really spooky thing was this: when I came back, and walked down the right path, the "Walkers" sign was pointing back the way I'd come. Someone had obviously turned it around after I had marched off to my doom... (or maybe you just went down the wrong path again? - Ed.) Well, I suppose that's another possibility, yes. But it was bloody scary. Really.
Ed. - And I'm not so sure about washing, ironing etc being "done": in my house it's more of an eternal continuum. Incidentally, I once did hammer a tent-peg or two into a flat grassy bit of Gleann an t-Slugain, only to be woken next morning by a Land Rover trying to drive over me. This contained a reasonably civil and cheery stalker, plus around half-a-dozen overweight tweedy clients with guns. One of these fat cats (sorry, nimble hill-tigers) even sported a monocle, like he was timewarped from a Waugh or Wodehouse novel. A brief Mexican standoff occurred, before the shooters unhappily disgorged from their wagon whilst it circumnavigated the tent via some bumpy ground. The Colin Montgomerie lookalikes then squeezed back in and headed off for their day's sport.
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