Published 7th March 2020, 15:04

    IT wasn't so much a weather window as just a small pane in the top corner, but with the Atlantic storms showing no sign of blowing out, it would have to do.

    A couple of hours of sunshine, a few more watching the clouds boil and the sky turning darker, the prelude for another battering.

    It's difficult to remember another spell which has left so many going stir crazy. Even those who advocate there no such thing as 'bad' weather are coming round.

    This is winter gone rogue: no settled cold spells, no run of blue skies to alleviate the gloom, just storm after storm after storm, a continuous upheaval. Even the forecasters have had to resort to using a thesaurus to find new words to describe wind.

    Still, you grab what you can when you can. Early signs were promising even though it felt like travelling through a Scottish bayou at times; sun sparkling on waterlogged fields, grasses swaying with the wind or standing rigidly angular, snared by frozen waters.

    Dark Lochnagar was anything but, a brilliant white behemoth dominating Glen Muick, beautifully alluring, but unwise in the time available. A shorter venture up onto the high ground to the south and east of Loch Muick seemed a better choice.

    It didn't take long to hit the snowline, but that's the advantage of starting at around 400 metres. The path weaving up alongside the Allt Darrarie was alternatively ice coated and soft and deep. The normally white spume was more a dirty yellow, overshadowed by the unblemished coverage on the steep flanks, as it spilled over its boulder barriers. 

    Higher in the deepening glen, the stream divided, disappearing as it carved secretive lines amid deep channels fringed by icicles and rock faces where random, bare trees were clinging on grimly against the odds. The emptiness of the landscape of heather and bog that stretches out from the crown of this ascent is stark, and winter white merely exaggerates its bleakness. It is hard to explain how you can be less than a couple of miles from a road yet feel in the middle of nowhere.

    Hidden somewhere in the folds is the Shielin of Mark bothy, a tiny refuge near impossible to find in inclement conditions except by luck or a precise compass bearing, its remoteness more down to location than travelling distance.

    Aside from the rush of the wind, there was no sound. Wildlife was in short supply as well. There were animal and bird prints on the early rise of the path but they soon disappeared. I did later spot two tiny silhouettes on the skyline, grouse sentinels resembling a couple of blown leaves, keeping a close eye on this intruder into their desolate domain.

    The sky was swallowing distant peaks and the earlier blue had been replaced by a wave of gauze coming down from the south-west, while the incoming grey was accompanied by strengthening and colder winds. The signs were ominous: the hourglass was emptying, but there was still a couple of hours before things started really going downhill.

    This landscape is perfect for the true spirit of stravaiging – with the emphasis heavily on the 'vague' – where following a straight line is impractical on every level. There are many marked and named high points, but most of the rises are imperceptible, and the ground is intercut by a maze of slow flowing streams, their width camouflaged by deep white walls and snow bridges with no foundations.

    There's a lot of detours to find the surest route, but there is no sure route. Every step is an adventure, a lucky dip. Regular pacing is a fantasy, staggering the new norm. It very quickly saps the strength. And there's the inevitable ambush, when one foot disappears down a hole up to the knee, and emerges dripping with that rust-coloured, viscous liquid that only ever seems to be in evidence in times of snow cover.

    The skies were darkening fast, and a chilled, soaked foot concentrates the mind. You need a destination on a snow walk, and mine was now the route down. My wanderings had taken me further north, however, and there was an intervening ridge to negotiate.

    What should have been a simple descent was complicated by being driven into contour corridors to avoid the worst of the traps. Some of the snow banks on the peat hags were twice my height, but conversely, the ground in these white dungeons was the firmest and easiest to walk on.

    Coming out of one deep dip, there was a mass flutter ahead, some 40 or 50 grouse rising from their shelter to take choreographed flight at my approach, whirling then gliding to a pre-planned safety spot further up the heather slope. It was probably the gang that had posted those sentries encountered earlier.

    I hadn't realised the distance I had covered until dropping into one glen only to discover it was the next one over, an area known as The Scoube. The choice – follow it out and walk down the road, or climb up and over. I chose the latter.

    This proved inspired, as I inadvertently cut off most of the incoming route, and made it out before the storm hit. A fortunate, but accidental, conclusion to a few hours of aimless winter wandering.