A Winter Walk up Beinn Chonzie, Perthshire

 

One of the easiest Munros (mountains over 3,000 feet), rising above attractive Glen Lednock near Comrie. Height  931m.  Do-able as a day trip from Glasgow from which it is around a 1 hour 40 minute drive at most. Perthshire is rich, rolling country backed by some beautiful mountains.

My youngest son and I set off along the good wide track at Coishavachan, Glen Lednock,  on a freezing January day of blue skies and bitter cold. The Mountain Weather Information Service promised 35-45 mile per hour winds on the mountains and ice.Not a good combination! However, Gregor was keen to get another Munro under his belt, having decided to revive his mountain hiking enthusiasm of a few years ago, in order to ‘bag’ as many as possible of the 282 Munros which there are in Scotland. ‘Munro Bagging’ is very popular, something which can become an addiction.It certainly does provide a great incentive for getting up on a cold morning at stupid o’clock and heading for a tough slog up a large mountain. But I won’t go up a hill just to tick off ‘doing it.’ I like the reward of great views on a decent weather day, a chance to enjoy the wildlife  – grouse, ptarmigan, red deer, eagles  – and just feel my soul refreshed from a close connection with a truly wild place. And I enjoy taking countless photos to remind me of how glorious our wild country is.The light, the colours, the contours……everything draws my eye.

But a chance to hike with Youngest Son was the best draw of all, despite a VERY icky forecast for the high places.We would, we decided ‘see how it went’ given the poor conditions predicted for the day.

So after a busy first week of January with family meals and family staying over  – all hugely enjoyable but exhausting too  –  I found myself waking up to the bedside alarm at the groggy hour of 6.15am on a dark, cold Saturday morning.The one problem about doing a biggish hill in winter is the short daylight hours.It’s not light till 8.15am and dark again by 4.30pm or so, so an early start is imperative.Not sensible to have to descend in the dark or with a head torch. Plus, even more importantly, we were going out for a curry at 6.30pm to celebrate Gregor’s upcoming 27th birthday. No way were we going to be back too late to enjoy that!

45 minutes later , at 7am, suited and booted, flask of soup made up, sandwiches packed, chocolate brownie supply wrapped in foil and we were off. Our objective was the small parking area at Invergeldie at the end of the public road in Glen Lednock.

Flashing ice warnings greeted us every few miles on the motorway beyond Stirling but the tarmac was dry  – until we turned off onto the A822 road to Braco and then hit the B827 moor road over to Comrie.It was dodgy and needed care, hard packed slush and occasional ice.Lovely road though, giving us our first taste of Highland scenery, albeit the softer kind; sheep grazed farmland, heather moor beyond and rolling hills.The high ground was all covered in snow today, a winter wonderland.Ghostly short eared owls often hunt in this area but there was no sign today; they hunt during the day, beautiful, dappled, cream coloured birds almost dancing in flight over the grasses and shallow gullies, ever on the lookout for voles.

Then through pretty Comrie village, a well – to – do wee place of white washed churches and traditional stone cottages before we turned sharply right up the unmarked road which climbed up through woodland to Glen Lednock.

The glen itself was a picture postcard of Scotland in winter. Craggy hills , partly snow covered except for grey rocky outcrops; and behind, the big mountains themselves,  solidly white. Beautiful.

My husband Chris and I have hiked up Beinn Chonzie 4 or 5 times.The name means John’s Mountain and it’s pronounced Ben Hyoni, with the ‘y’ sound as in ‘yes.’ The summit is a big plateau posing no difficulties so it’s a popular hill all year round for those who need to commune with the mountains without the fear of getting into difficulties in sometimes Arctic conditions.The hill was my first thought for a potential ‘Munro bag’ in deepest darkest winter, it’s just under an 8 mile walk all in,  with over 700m of ascent; 4-5 hours is the suggested time , in total, there and back.

At 8.35am we pulled onto the frozen grass verge at Coishavachan, near a small hamlet of three or so houses. Ten minutes to don hiking boots, double check rucksacks, check I had the map and compass, sort out walking poles, don my super-cosy duvet jacket and  – we were off.

It was around 3C, on paper not too cold, but the cruel wind was obvious even down here in the glen so already it felt well below zero.In fact, the forecast promised wind chill of -20C up on the tops and temperatures were set to drop to – 15C overnight in the glens.Chilly.

The approach track was frozen over,  so walking on the verge was the thing before we reached a rougher track beyond a couple of farm gates. I was already surprised at the depth of snow this low down though it was nice and crunchy to walk on, not difficult.I had brought a pair of ice spikes rather than crampons but Gregor still didn’t have anything like that; I’d also  left my ice axe at home too because if we faced those conditions, I’d already decided we were turning back as he wasn’t equipped for that kind of scenario yet.

‘Now remember, I’m in my 60th year so I’m not fast!’ I warned my very fit son, six feet tall, big long strides and a naturally fast walker. He soon took off, leaving me in his wake, as we made our way awkwardly up the deep snow which covered the track.In fact you wouldn’t have thought there was a track at all! In places, we sank knee deep, occasionally nearly hip deep if we weren’t careful and at times, we had to detour up onto what was the high bank beside the path, just to find decent ground to walk on.It made for slow, arduous walking! Exhausting, actually.

Every so often Gregor stopped to let me catch up and we chatted about the hill and walking in general. A flock of snow buntings fluttered over the moor to our right, with that dipping flight and high pitched chattering that they have, beautiful little Arctic birds, a joy to see and hear.

Red grouse are usually prevalent here but they’d obviously sought out ground where they could more easily feed so their familiar kek- kek -kek- kek cry was absent today.The landscape was clothed in a thick white blanket, masking sound.Arctic hares are also usually plentiful as are ptarmigan but none were to be seen. All were hiding – much more sensible than we humans!

The wind was bone chilling already, a strong North Easterly blowing in from Scandinavia and the continent. Brrrrr. Mind you, I was boiling in my duvet jacket, which is usually too warm for any ascent work. But there quickly came a point,  as we gained height,  where we felt the wind more fiercely and became enveloped in a deep Arctic chill. Gregor stopped to don his own insulating jacket, even though we were still slogging uphill.

We met a group making their way downhill and they told us that the wind was just too fierce up near the top to continue.Hmmm…that wasn’t good news.

We drew level eventually with a small rocky outcrop and we now saw that the way ahead to the col – the low point in the ridge which gave access to the summit plateau – was completely covered in very deep virgin snow.No trail blazed by anyone today. And here, as we stood, the wind hit with huge force, buffeting us considerably.

There had been a single walker ahead and we noticed he had made his way up to a rocky minor top , so we followed his footsteps, getting more exposed to the full strength of the wind with every step as we emerged from the shelter of the moorland contours.I thought if we at least got up onto the skyline, felt the force of the wind full on, we’d have a better idea of how practical it was to carry on to the plateau itself, where another 40 mins or so of more exposed walking lay ahead. Gregor had donned his goggles at this point to protect his eyes form windblown snow, as had I. Minutes later, as we trudged through knee deep snow, I was nearly knocked over as the 35-45mph winds hit me side on.Well, the MWIS HAD warned of ‘severe buffeting’ and ‘strenuous’ walking conditions – here they were in all their slightly frightening glory!

Wow, terrible winds indeed.I was nearly knocked over AGAIN but we managed a few photos and an admire of the splendid panorama of the Southern Highlands in winter raiment which lay before us.Well worth the effort for that alone, plus a chance to contemplate the whole snowy winter scene around us.

 

It was my call whether to go on. The single walker chap chatted with us about the ‘wild’ conditions and his concern about the summit plateau proper and the additional wind exposure up there for another mile or so of walking.Gregor’s hands , even in his good gloves, were feeling the chill even for the short time that we stopped. I was finding it difficult to walk with any steadiness at all. A big part of me wanted to try to battle our way on but my head was saying ‘ forget it.This is crazy.’

I could see the wind whipping up the surface snow along the summit ridge and sweeping it downhill rapidly. Spectacular to watch but not really where you want to be walking. Any fall or injury up there on ice (more likely on the plateau where the snow covering would be blown off , with a heightened risk of a fall or bad footing given the severe buffeting) and immobility would be very serious in – 20C. So I decided we should turn back, knowing how disappointing this was to both of us. I hate turning back; there is such a sense of failure.But my gut instinct was, it was too dodgy.

So down we plodded.

We’d set off early but as we got further down the track, more walkers appeared.We spoke to one guy who said his ‘missus’ was just behind him and he was going to try to go on, but we came across her a good way down, refusing to go any further given the conditions.She’d texted him several times to say so, but you are so well wrapped up in these conditions it can be difficult to extract anything from the multiple layers of clothing and gear worn! I doubt he heard his phone.

‘The hill isn’t going anywhere,’ is always the thought I TRY to have in these circumstances.But it did dampen my spirits a lot. FAILURE! Never mind, a great curry lay ahead – always something to perk up a Glaswegian! Beinn Chonzie, we’ll be back in kinder conditions!

3 WEEKS LATER, WITH CHRIS, WE MADE THE TOP OF JOHN’S HILL ,  STILL UNDER SNOW BUT MUCH MORE COMPACTED.THE APPROACH PATH ITSELF WAS CLEAR OF SNOW TOO.NO VIEWS AT THE TOP AS THE MIST STAYED LOW AND AS EVER, ONLY CLEARED ON THE DESCENT! BUT WE STILL ENJOYED SOME LOVELY VIEWS WHEN IT LIFTED.IN FACT, IT WAS A GREAT DAY ON THE HILL, A REMINDER OF HOW GOOD IT IS TO BE OUT UNDER WINTER CONDITIONS IN BENIGN WEATHER.

 

 

 

 

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