I SUPPOSE it was fitting that a day paved with false promise would start and end in ruins.
Ninety per cent chance of cloud-free summits, the forecast said. Widespread sunshine, little chance of rain.
So the surprise raindrops hitting the windshield on the way to Glenshee and the gauze of grey drifting slowly over the lower Cairngorms were surely just an early morning blip. Nope.
Although, as I parked beside the burnt-out shell of the hotel at Spittal of Glenshee, my optimism was still alive and well. It lasted about an hour or so.
I was heading for shapely Ben Earb, the finest summit on a long ridge sandwiched between Glen Lochsie to the north and Gleann Fearnach to the west. These peaks – from Meall Uaine to Meall na Spionaig – all come under the long reach of the Munro Glas Tulaichean, some ten kilometres to the north.
Despite the distance and the impressive combined amount of re-climbing involved, neither Ben Earb or its higher neighbour, Meall a’ Choire Bhuidhe, make the grade as Corbetts as they fail to hit the regulatory 150m minumum re-ascent figure at any point.
Never mind, Ben Earb has long been a favourite in these parts even if it fails to attract a wider audience.
The Cateran Trail provides the introduction, the frozen ground making for swift progress up to An Lairig. When the trail reaches a gate and fence, it’s time to turn north-west and follow a contorted line weaving through a few surprisingly craggy sections.
Ben Earb was looking particularly impressive framed through gaps in the ridge, but the patches of blue sky behind me were being swallowed fast. There was a war going on; swirls of low-lying mist took on the characteristics of mini tornadoes, and shafts of golden light pierced the gloom on the horizon, while occasional volleys of snowflakes blew across the ridge.
By the time I had crossed Ben Earb it was all over. Meall a’ Choire Bhuidhe had been guillotined, its head chopped off by the grey, and the walk across the plateau became merely an exercise in finding the cairn. Continuing further along the ridge was pointless in the gloom, so I decided to drop down to the lodge in Glen Lochsie from the next col, complete with lakes of frozen black peat.
It’s only been a year since I was last here but the deterioration in the building is marked. Part of the roof has collapsed and shapes that were recognisable as door and window spaces are now more ambiguous. It won’t be long until it is remembered only in photographs. The old rail line down the glen, another reminder of a grander past, was heavily iced but progress was still fast and I was soon back at the wreckage of the hotel.
There are many groups working to try to produce a phoenix here and we can only hope that something worthwhile can rise from the ashes. Whatever your feelings about the old hotel, it provided a warm fire and a warm welcome after some cold days on the hill.
The day may not have panned out as I planned but there’s certainly the potential for a good, long, challenging day around this ridge. A start at Enochdu to the south, taking in all the Corbett Tops as far as Gleann Mor, returning via Glen Loch along the shores of the wonderfully named Loch Loch, then down into Gleann Fearnach would be an epic.
Some 36km in total through some wild country, and not a Munro, Corbett or Graham on the menu.