A Vicious Circle
by Paul Hesp (our Netherlands / Vienna correspondent)
"...Whether you could love even what was unpleasant and abandoned, whether you could love the landscape during all those hours and days and weeks when it rained..." - Bohumil Hrabal, I served the King of England
The Highland midge entered my life early one morning while camping in upper Glen Prosen, by a small ruin called Kilbo. Awakened by a gentle patter on the flysheet I zipped open my tent and saw a landscape shrouded in thick, dripping cloud. As I briefly contemplated the outlook - so different from yesterday's - my nose and ears were attacked by a swarm of minuscule Stingers. I ducked behind the mosquito net, cursing the hermetic streak which had made me pitch my tent here the night before: to think that I could have been executing my Morning Duty in the safety of Glendoll youth hostel now!
Brewing a cup of coffee and packing, crouched in bestial posture, within the confines of a seven foot tent was a claustrophobic business. But it minimized unnecessary exposure. H-hour: I shot out of the tent and collapsed it with one hand, using the other to brush off the midges. They died by the dozen, but kept up their inhuman wave tactics. Stuffing the dripping mess in its bag required two hands; a brief but harrowing experience. I trudged off with flailing arms, a mad hunchback in the halflight. Then it started blowing, and the beasts gave up.
I only had five miles to go and it all looked very straightforward: north/northeast up Shank of Drumwhallo to the bealach, down along the flank of Shank of Drumfollow until White Water was reached, over to the YH on the opposite bank. There was a clear track up Shank of Drumwhallo along a Forestry Commission fence which ran due north, as far as I could see (which wasn't very far). No compass required.
It was a good thing I didn't have to pay attention to navigation: the higher I got, the harder it blew and the heavier the rain came down - came across, rather. I soon found myself fighting my poncho (those were my pre-Goretex days) to keep it below eye level. Not that there was much to be seen. The fence disappeared at some point, and then the track. But as the Shank of Drumwhallo led straight to the saddle there was no reason to worry.
The slope levelled out; not far to the descent now. But I went up again - and soon found myself on a ridge, lashed by a rainstorm and with grey murk on three sides. Got out the map. It was perfectly obvious: on the bealach I had strayed to the left - up Shank of Drumfollow, away from the track down. I peered down to my right: no track to be seen, but then there was not much to be seen. The slope didn't seem too acute, so I inched my way down. Still no track; probably overgrown. After a while I could see a little stream below, and then the outline of a plantation. That was okay, though the wood was much smaller than indicated on the map. They'd been logging of course. I came to a fence, a dead deer hanging from the barbed wire, hamstrung. Walked down along the fence - there was White Water. White Water ran in the wrong direction.
I just stood there for a minute, completely numb. A cloud of midges attacked me, brought me to my senses. And then I saw a small ruin: Kilbo. A flame of panic shot round the back of my neck. Then I ripped my tent from my pack, slipped the poles in their holes and rammed the pegs down, all the while attacked by wave upon wave of kamikaze pilots.
Once snug in my sleeping bag I munched a bar of chocolate and had a look at the map. I soon understood what had gone wrong. Not wishing to bother with navigational aids as I fought the elements, I had simply kept to the right-hand edge of Shank of Drumwhallo. Of course the edge curved round as I approached the saddle; this I hadn't noticed because of near-zero visibility (nor had I noticed, for some reason, that the wind had shifted from my left to my back to my right). Northeast had become southeast, and instead of descending along the slope of Shank of Drumfollow I'd come down Little Driesh. No compass required, eh?! But it was not until I started reading TAC that I realised the enormity of my mistake... I could've bagged two Munros (Driesh and Mayar) if only I'd strayed off the straight and narrow a bit further!
There were three ways open to me: (a) retreat down Glen Prosen; (b) up again by the same route; (c) straight up through the corrie, with the stream to guide me. (a) was rejected out of hand, and I could not face (b) again even with my compass. So (c) it was - and very wet through knee-high heather and bracken. After an age I made it to the bealach. An enormous cairn marked the descent to Glen Doll. I must've passed within fifty yards of it on my first attempt.
The rest was easy, but the hostel was of course closed by the time I got there. YHA members were (are?) expected to do something in the fresh air during the day. Like getting lost a bit longer than I did. Fortunately, there was another early customer who had come by car. Now cars shouldn't be allowed within a radius of ten miles from a youth hostel; but that day I was very grateful for the shelter offered by the owner, a seeing-eye dog trainer. I could've done with one of those dogs myself that day!
Oddly enough, no midges bothered me during the rest of my walking tour, which took me to Aviemore via Lochnagar and then south again to Pitlochry. A large enough stretch of land, I would say, to encounter midges in. Are they known to suffer from agoraphobia? Or was it my talisman - a white baby sock found on Capel Mounth, two days later?
TAC 24 Index