“If we wait on the weather to be right we’ll never do anything in Scotland.”
Steph is certainly right about that. We’ve been planning to hike up the Munros Mayar and Driesh for ages now. Every day we’ve set aside for the walk has been miserable, even by Scottish standards. Today is no different mind you, we’ve just decided to go anyway.
Summer – the word, the concept – has no real meaning in Scotland. A patchwork of stray, disjointed afternoons with a bit of sunshine and temps in the low 20’s (Celsius people, do try to keep up) is what constitutes “summer” for folk here. I wouldn’t be surprised if the original inhabitants of this land had no word for differentiating between spring, summer and fall. There must be dozens for describing the various types of wet and stormy weather.
The drive in through Glen Clova is nothing short of spectacular. Low clouds are shrouding most of the hill tops above the valley, dumping more rain into the burns which feed into the already swolen River South Esk. We spot a few deer, dodge several sheep on the road and scare up a ptarmigan as we slowly drive by. Normally this is the part in a blog post where I would insert a pretty picture of the scene, but it’s just raining too damn hard to get the camera out, even for a few seconds.
Speaking of the camera, today I’ve left my usual companion – the Nikon D300s – home in favour of the Nikon P7000. Knowing there is little chance of getting a camera out I’ve chosen the lightweight option, although it should be said that the P7000 has full manual controls and produces fine 10.1 megapixel RAW files should we get a break in the weather.
We’ve made a few other, uh, interesting gear choices for today. For starters, we’ll both be wearing Salomon Speedcross 3’s on our feet, a brilliant, lightweight trail running shoe with mega-grippy soles. We’ll not be carrying much in our packs so the lightweight nature of the shoes won’t be a problem. The fact that they’re water resistant and not waterproof might be.
Steph has no choice in the matter as her hiking boots are no longer fit for purpose and need to be replaced. I could have worn my hiking boots – Salomon Quest 4D GTX – but I want to see just how water resistant the Speedcross 3’s are, and if they’re comfortable enough to wear once they get squishy.
For a jacket I’ll be wearing the Patagonia Mixed Guide Hoody, a garment designed for fast and light alpine climbing in cold conditions. Parts of the jacket are waterproof, but the bulk of it is made from Polartec Power Shield, a durable, highly breathable water resistant material. Again, like with the shoes I know I’ll get wet today, I just want to see how much the jacket can take. Oh, and it’s possible somebody left her lightweight waterproof jacket at work and will instead be wearing my Patagonia Rain Shadow jacket, leaving me little choice but to give the Mixed Guide a test drive.
From the car park the trail – or rather track – winds gently uphill through the lush greenery of Glendoll Forest. We stop at each of the interpretive sign posts, learning all about the fascinating geology and ecology of the area. Eventually the track tapers down to trail size before popping out of the forest and into Corrie Fee. The view from here is absolutely stunning. Unfortunately, the rain still hasn’t let up, and if anything has gotten heavier. An hour in and we still haven’t been able to make a single photo.
Just a few minutes later though we catch a break as the heavy rain fades to a drizzle, light enough that I’m willing to get the camera out for a few quick snaps. Logically I know it’s not the end of the world if we can’t get any pics on some of our little adventures – we’ll still of course have the satisfaction of the experience itself – but as a photographer the prospect of an imageless trek makes me jittery, like a meth-head in need of a fix. Except for the part where I have nice teeth and haven’t robbed a convenience store to fund my addiction.
With the rain returned in ernest, we put our hoods back on and power up the steep headwall of the corrie. The trail acts as a stream bed in places, funnelling rain downhill to the Fee Burn below. The Speedcross 3’s held up well to the heavy rain, but chugging through shallow running water and boggy bare ground has them thoroughly saturated, as expected. Happily, however, I find them perfectly comfortable when soaked, and not noticeably heavier on my feet. The treads dig in hard and offer rock solid footing on the wet ground.
Likewise, the Mixed Guide jacket has held up well to this point, especially considering how heavy the rain has been. The waterproof sections are all beaded up nicely and I’m really digging the breathability of the Polartec parts, especially across my back which usually gets horribly sweaty when I’m wearing a full waterproof. I can see the Polartec material starting to saturate but as yet I’m not feeling any wetness inside the jacket. I expect that may be about to change.
“Wind is picking up. I think it’s going to be bad on the plateau. Forecast was for steady winds at 35 – 40 mph, gusting up to 70 on the higher, exposed sections.”
I get no reply from Steph. After our recent West Highland Way thru hike – all 7 days of which Steph spent with wet, blistered feet – I’m guessing she’s not feeling the Speedcross 3’s right now. Note to self: Buy the wife new hiking boots, stat!
As forecast the wind, blowing from directly behind us, is getting really strong as we continue to climb the corrie and is now pushing the still heavy rain through the Polartec material on my jacket. Then it starts to hail, just like it has on every other Munro we have climbed. As if conditions weren’t miserable enough the clouds have descended fast, obscuring all but the ground directly in front of us from our sight. I feel we’re slipping ever so slightly into the danger zone here.
Checking my compass and the trail notes frequently we find our way to the small cairn which marks the summit of Mayar and immediately attempt to take shelter behind the leeward side. Not wanting to tempt hypothermia we stay for all of a minute before getting up and heading in the general direction of Driesh, the wind now quartering across from our left.
“I can hardly stand up. Are you sure we should do this?”
In my younger years I would have gladly powered through and risked becoming another mountain accident statistic. I’ve had more than a few brushes with disaster in my time, somehow always managing to come out the other side relatively unscathed. It’s built up a strong false sense of
immorality immortality (Freudian slip there) within me, something I’ve recently been trying to dial back a notch or two.
“You’re right. We’ll retreat back down the way we came.”
We turn back straight into the wind and hail and walk down from the exposed plateau. Once into the corrie the wind subsides again. If we had continued on towards Driesh there would have been no such reprieve from the wind, at least not until we reached the small shelter on the summit. Provided, of course, that we could find it through the hail and clouds.
The rest of the hike down the corrie and through the forest is uneventful. We manage a few more pics when the rain lets up – ever so briefly mind you – and stop into the visitors centre at the car park, warming up a bit as we peruse the displays and brochures.
“Did we turn back too soon? Maybe we should have carried on and tried.”
“No way Steph, we did the right thing. We’ll be back for Driesh another time. It’s not going anywhere.”
In the words of Ed Viesturs, the first American to climb all 14 of the world’s 8,000 meter peaks without supplemental oxygen, “Reaching the summit is optional. Getting down is mandatory.”