HERE’S a wee tip for those of you thinking of taking a short cut through the trees to save time in the dying light of a winter descent: Don’t do it.
There’s nothing nicer than a walk in the woods and any mountain expedition that involves an approach through the birches, rowans, Scots pines et al greatly enhances the day.
But woods can be scary places, especially if you get off the beaten path with the light starting to fade. Just ask Red Riding Hood.
Trying to find alternative routes to the guide books is part of the fun of going out on the hills. But there’s usually a good reason for sticking to tried and tested directions. Long-established hill paths are designed to take you where you want to go with the minimum of fuss.
Twice over the last 12 months I’ve landed in a bit of bother by abandoning my usual good mountain sense when out alone. Last December, I was running late on a descent from Lochnagar, so I decided I could save myself a bit of time by nipping through a small section of woodland and picking up the path on the other side. Big mistake.
First the sun went down faster than I expected. Then the terrain - more a series of mantraps of fallen trees, deep moss and heather and even deeper holes - slowed me considerably.
By the time I reached the stream where the path was supposed to be it was pitch dark. If I hadn’t had a head torch I would have been in real trouble and probably would have had to settle in for the night. As it was, I took a couple of undignified tumbles and one soaking before I managed to locate the path further downstream.
You’d think that would have taught me a lesson. But just a few months later on a stunning spring day I made the same mistake during a circuit of two hills south of Loch Eil.
I had perfect views all the way round Meall nan Damh and Glas Bheinn, and from high up on the ridge could pick out the firebreak through the trees I needed to take to get back down to the track. It was all going well when I entered the gap. But after just a few minutes it all became a bit confused.
The supposed through route didn’t exist. After one abortive try of wrestling my way through snapping branches, I retreated and then turned right along another clearing. Then it just got mad.
Recent high winds had devastated the woods and everywhere I turned it seemed there was an impenetrative wall of fallen trees. No way forward, and, at times, no way back.
After around half an hour stumbling about, tight-rope walking and climbing along and over massive trunks and sinking into potentially neck-deep pools of cloying mud and moss, I admitted defeat and decided to head back the way I came even if it meant going back up on to the hill.
When I got back to the clearing however, I could see a way through in the opposite direction from the one the guide book had recommended, and eventually I reached the track, even though it involved a couple of climbs over barbed wire fences.
My last outing also involved a lot of dodging in and around forestry but this time it was (mostly) hassle-free. I combined two Grahams, Beinn Bhalgairean and Meall nan Gabhar, thanks to a precise, if somewhat convoluted, route picked up from one of the walking forums.
The firebreak for the first ascent was where it said it would be, and there were clear-cut corridors on to the second hill. I’m not so sure it would be so straightforward in the dark.
So you’ve been warned - you don’t need to reread the tales of the Brothers Grimm to know it’s best to stay out of the forest after dark. There are no breadcrumb trails to bail you out if you get it wrong.