Hillwalking: Where beauty is in the Ey of the beholder...

The breathtaking  view down Glen Ey.
The breathtaking view down Glen Ey.

After all the snow of the past few days we were in two minds as to whether or not to venture out; road conditions were our prime concern.

True, the forecasters were promising good conditions on the slopes so it stood to reason that every effort would be made to keep the Glenshee road open (we knew that the Cairn O’ Mount road had been impassable recently).

We decided to go for it.

Although the minor road from Braemar to Linn of Dee was in places ‘tricky’, we arrived at the car park at Inverey without undue difficulty and were thereafter rewarded with as grand a walk into Glen Ey as could have been wished for.

Below snow whitened slopes we walked along the Ey Burn and into a glen that, with every few hundred yards or so, seemed to be ever more tightly gripped by the recently fallen snow.

We soon crossed the river and, following the spoor of a fox, and then that of the stoat the fox had evidently been stalking, we passed the snow cocooned ruins of Auchellie. A sweep of the glen east and then another crossing by a wooden bridge brought us to the foot of Creag Fhuathais.

This little peak, very much ‘in your face’, was to give us the steepest work of the day, in both directions.

As we climbed so the views opened up below us. The floor of the steep walled glen behind us, well watered and in summer time green, must have been a good place to live in times past.

In the opposite direction, below Beinn Iutharn Mhor, a knot of dark firs betrayed the presence of the derelict Altanour Lodge, a former and supposedly haunted shooting lodge.

After ridding ourselves of the deep and snow clogged heather of the lower slopes, we climbed carefully on steep and treacherously iced boulders. The stony summit was bitterly cold.

To the north, passing in and out of thick snow clouds, the entire Cairngorm range tantalised us with its Arctic beauty.

Southwards, seeming to stretch for miles, the sinuous ridge of An Socach, (The Projecting Place), beckoned us forward.

There are two tops to this Munro. The East Top, the first we wished to visit, looked a long way off along the snow clutched plateau. The snow was deep in places, not quite perfect for walking, although another few days of hard frost would remedy that.

This mountain is renowned for its stony back, and where the wind had brushed away the deepest snow the going was easier.

That wind was in the northeast today and it bit hard; if we were to keep any feeling in our fingers, photographs would have to be taken at the speed of light!

As we left the East Top a vicious snow storm arrived to make things even more interesting. In fact it wasn’t really snow so much as tiny needle sharp hailstones. Like hermit crabs we scurried into the shelter of our Gore-Tex hoods. At least the wind was behind us, pushing us towards our final summit.

Suddenly, through a lull in the storm, the whole of Glen Clunie, opened up below us. Rank on rank of hills congealed out of the clouds. We saw the entire lands of Glenshee, Glas Maol and Carn an Tuirc; Carn a’ Claishe and the Munros of Angus. Above black Loch nan Eun, the sharp ridges of Glas Tulaichean looked fantastic with graceful cornices forming above its corries.

We met two other walkers (the only ones we met that day), as we neared the summit cairn. Having ascended from Glen Clunie, by way of Baddoch Burn, and now complaining bitterly about the cold conditions, they appeared to be in full retreat.

There being scant shelter at the cairn, it was too cold a place to stop for lunch. But we were ravenous, breakfast had been six hours ago. We backtracked to a little knot of rocks we’d passed a few minutes earlier, not the best protection yet better than the cairn. We didn’t sit down. We drank hot soup and ate chunky sandwiches while wandering about in the improving weather, mesmerised by the sparkling views in every direction.

The light was crystal clear. Not only did it illuminate the surrounding hills to perfection, it danced among the stones and boulders at our feet; these glittered like diamonds. Our fingers soon grew numb, but photographs just had to be taken.

Although the wind had actually stiffened, the weather had improved considerably to provide a perfect winter’s afternoon in which blue sky and racing clouds cast skipping shadows across the winter-white world. With a shower free afternoon in prospect we decided to head back by the way we’d come.

And glad we were for doing so! Although we could follow our own inward footsteps back (in fact we could see them snaking away far into the distance), it was amazing to see how quickly the morning’s raging snow, and now, swirling columns of spindrift, had tried to fill them in.

The light was so strong it made the snow appear blue and, where our boots and trekking poles had dug deep, the shadows within the resulting indentations gave off a blue ice hue akin to the colour of peppermint.

Before dropping back down the slopes of Creag Fhuathais, we ducked into a nearby ring cairn for another welcome cuppa.

With still another hour and a half of walking left, our final miles would be in the gloaming. With the weather as it was this would be magical.

A wary descent eventually had has back in the glen and on the track. With the gently rising ridge of Creag an Lochain above us, we planned a future outing, perhaps to Carn Bhac, another Munro which benefits from an Ey-side approach.

As the sun sank and the sky turned turquoise, red deer stags ranged down the lower slopes, pawing the snow in search of hidden titbits. Now, apart from the occasional barking of a farmyard dog or the alarmed clatter of roost bound pigeons, the only sound was the crunching of our boots on icy snow.

With the sun gone and the frost biting our ears and noses, we turned one last time to bid farewell; the hills, in spite of their snowy cloaks, were dark and sombre now.

Back at the car, drinking the last of our tea, we contemplated the journey home.

That could possibly be an adventure in itself...