As part of the research for an article I’m working on about ptarmigan, I have been forced to enter a murky world; a world of rustly jackets, fabric conditioner and trekking poles. I have had to become a hill walker.
Having shot ptarmigan a few years ago and been fascinated by them, I’m quite sure that there is potential for some interesting research in the direction of Scotland’s hardiest grouse. However, being a native of the mild south, the nearest ptarmigan is about two hours away on the slopes of Ben Lomond – not an impossible trek, but not the sort of distance I can travel without a bit of planning. From what I am starting to see, the heaviest concentrations of ptarmigan are up the eastern and central highlands, with some good pockets up the north western highlands (where I shot my birds). Elsewhere, they are present but in pretty indifferent quantities. Deciding to push my luck and try somewhere nearby but not with a great reputation for ptarmigan, I headed up to Argyll on Sunday to walk with a friend on the hills above Loch Fyne. There are ptarmigan in these hills, but they are the exception rather than the rule.
There is a bizarre and totally incomprehensible interest in hillwalking which surrounds the idea of “munro bagging”. I have climbed maybe a dozen munros in my life, but I’ve climbed far more hills which were below the “golden” 3,000 foot mark and have never really cared whether I touch the cairn at the top or not. However, there is a school of walkers who are besotted with ticking off hills from a list, and while I’m delighted that they get pleasure from the experience, it seems totally hollow to me. They climb mountains in heavy cloud when jaw dropping ridges are totally concealed from sight, then touch the cairn and head back down again with equal enthusiasm. I follow the idea that if it’s not a nice day and you’re not going to be able to see much from the top, it’s probably a day for doing something else. After all, it’s not as if the hill is going anywhere, and it can always be done on a clear day. Anyway, I could go on in some detail about these “baggers”, but it’s not for me to make fun of them. As I wrote in a previous post, we all have our interests and I’m sure that munro baggers would have a pretty good laugh at my hobbies if they wanted to. Suffice it to say that the mountain known as Beinn an Lochain (at Rest-and-Be-Thankful) was chosen as a good spot for a walk, given the fact that it is slightly lower than a munro and would hopefully be more peaceful as a result.
The angle we had chosen to climb turned out to be extremely dramatic. There was a great deal of literal “climbing” which involved the use of both hands and feet, and the hill started to get pretty hairy as shocking falls began to develop on either side. Having said that I wouldn’t poke fun at hill walkers, I can’t resist mentioning that as I rested for a moment on a vast stack of stone, I smelt a waft of distinctive fabric conditioner from somewhere below me. Sure enough, ten minutes later, a “hill bagger” emerged and walked past, smelling strongly of “Comfort”. It is quite often the case that you can smell human beings long before you see them when you’re out in the countryside, and this fellow had a real aroma. I wonder if scented fabric conditioner is like blue rinse – that you don’t notice it after a while, so you up the dosage until it gets stronger and stronger. The marketing companies have been clever in making people think that the chemical perfume of their product is synonymous with the smell of “clean”. In my experience, a characteristic of “clean” is that it doesn’t smell of anything, but that’s old hat apparently. I also regard scent diffusers and air fresheners as the abhorrent work of satan, but that’s for another day. It’s amazing that we bother to have noses when we batter and abuse them with artificial chemicals to such an extent.
At one point further up, I stopped to pick up a scrap of quartz at my feet, turned my head very slightly to the right and looked down onto the backs of a group of red deer hinds almost eight hundred feet below me. I’ve never felt even the slightest sensation of fear when looking down from a great height, but some kind of stunning paralysis overtook me then as the horizon started to swim and the secure platform of rock that I was standing on began to pitch and roll like a boat on the water. For twenty minutes, I suffered from a case of the screaming ab-dabs, and wouldn’t even let the dog go more than ten feet away from me incase she fell, which she clearly wasn’t going to do. All the while, my friend was telling me that it was perfectly safe that there was no danger, which only antagonised me – I would have felt better to have been scared of actual danger rather than look stupid for panicking over an imagined hazard. After a little while, the swimming head subsided and I had a cup of coffee before passing up over a low brow and up onto the bare peaks of the hill, 901 metres above sea level.
A quick sandwich at the top, then a long loop through some extraordinary piles of shattered scree on the west face of the mountain, working the dog infront of me to find where the ptarmigan were lying up. She was very interested at certain points, but not even a feather did I see all day. There was no shortage of cowberry on the very summit, and great pads of crowberry slightly lower down, but the undergrowth itself seemed to me to be dominated by grass and deer shit – a possible explanation for the lack of ptarmigan.
I will admit that I was a bit uncertain about whether or not ptarmigan would be a good research project to pursue, but that walk certainly cemented the idea. Not seeing ptarmigan gave the experience a tantalising little buzz, as if to say “don’t think it’s going to be easy”, and the discovery of the fact that I suffer from vertigo will certainly be an interesting challenge in future. Sadly, it looks as though Argyll will go down to the bottom of the list for ptarmigan spotting for now, and Angus or the Cairngorms might well be next – (which might not have such terrifyingly steep, sheer sided hills). Still, I am determined to see ptarmigan in the south west highlands, and hope to get up again before the snow comes down.