Ben Chonzie Cross-Country (1984)

Stephen Senn

Ten days of storm and snow had frozen the Lowlands and the Highland into the one piece. I set off in a blizzard from my home in Ceres for a club meet to Ben Chonzie and had travelled less than two miles before reality, in the form of a snowdrift, intervened. Thanks to foresight I had a shovel in the boot; thanks to fortune it was enough (just) to free me from the drift and I was able, after twenty minutes battle with the snow, to return home. I then had a day of touring the surrounding hills and hamlets on my cross-country skis the like of which I could not have had these past twenty years, if the memory of the farmer up the lane is to be trusted. I had stubbed my toe on an adventure lying outside my front door while my eyes had been fixed on one forty miles away.

But there is nothing so greedy as a skier and a cross-country skier is no exception. I hadn't forgotten Ben Chonzie. I had been up the hill twice on foot but never on skis, but I knew that given the right conditions it would be perfect. When would I get them?

The meet was rearranged for the following Sunday but that Sunday saw me, in very bad temper, touring the forest tracks of Dunkeld. "While the snow is down we may as well do a low level tour" was the argument and I could persuade no one to try the hill with me. I did, however, ascend Deuchary, tempting three hardy souls off tracks in search of rougher country. We staked an hour of effort for the prize of a view and won our gamble. A cloud to the northwest lifted and suddenly over the prow of our hill ther was Schiehallion, like some great berg afloat on a sea of foam. There, also, was Ben Chozie, no great beauty when viewed in this or any other company, but a fine place to view from, a friendly hill with a bonny glen at its foot and broad ski-able flanks.

Nearly a fortnight later and everything was ready: the roads were clear, the hills were covered in snow and the weather was fine and settled. Then the friend I was to tour with rang to say that he could not go.

If there is one nightmare I have it is that of being the cause of a rescue call out and receiving a lecture (no doubt merited) on the folly of solo ski-touring from an irate mountain rescue leader. Still, I could see that if I didn't go alone, I wouldn't go at all. I packed my skis with what was required, sorted out my skis and set my alarm.

So early one Sunday morning in February I was using the shovel which had freed me from the drifts three weeks before to dig out a parking space for the car at Coishevachan. That done, I shouldered my pack walked 100 yards up the lane and put on my skis. It was just as I had hoped that it always would be. The day was mild and balmy; there was a covering of thin cloud but the sun was sweeping it from the sky; the snow was soft but bearing my weight and I was leaving the low-life of the forest tracks behind and heading for the high life on the hills. Nevertheless, a track is what I was following first of all and it led me prettily by the burn. Lower down it held more snow than the surrounding moor and was clearly visible but it soon disappeared, hiding its coils in the snowfields above, and showing its back but briefly and rarely like some monster in a loch. It was, as I repeat, as I had always hoped it would be. Just one detail was missing: there were no blue mountain hares.

Ben Chonzie has hares like some hills have rabbits. On a very different day, almost exactly three years previously, when Chonzie's brown summit showed only a few flecks of white, I had seen hundreds racing from patch to patch. Today I saw none. Were they perfectly camouflaged or had they left the hill in search of food? Lying in my path, however, was the foreleg of a hare, its white fur spattered with blood. Since, I argued to myself, a hare is cousin to a rabbit, and since a rabbit's foot is a good luck charm, this is a good omen. I pressed on with renewed optimism.

The route to the summit

I was now on a great snowfield and climbing steadily higher. The sun shot out from behind the clouds, flooding the hill with light and I was reminded of ski-touring in the Alps. In climbing higher, however, I had two advantages over an Alpine tour: the altitude was modest and my skis were light. Nevertheless for a half hour, during which time all was heat and dazzle, I felt as I have felt on many a morning in Switzerland when the pass has seemed far off and the task never ending as I have counted the steps until the next rest. There was no rest, however, nor any need of one. I was soon on the summit ridge and in a few minutes had reached the cairn.

I pottered about taking photographs. The view of Schiehallion was disappointing and it was difficult to distinguish one hill from another in the Braes of Angus but Ben More and Stobinian were splendid pyramids, Ben Lawers looked as fine as I have ever seen it and, wonder of wonders, Loch Turret was frozen.

View of Loch Turret

I had my lunch and though of touring further. I decided against it; I did not wish to miss the ski down my route of ascent and I did not wish to tempt a bountiful providence with greed or presumption. The sun disappeared momentarily behind a cloud and I was reminded that the weather in the hills can change quickly. I set off for home.

First there was section of gentle gradient on which I had ample cause to reflect upon the inadequacy of my diagonal stride. As a converted downhiller I just cannot take seriously these skills of the forest tracks. But then I came to the flanks of the hill. They were at just the right steepness and I can make what claims I like but if I say that there followed turn upon turn without pause or tumble until I stood once more by the burn, then the credit must go to the hill and the day and not to the skier. I had discovered that Ben Chonzie, which is only rated as a hill of moderate interest to the Alpine style tourer, is perfect for Nordic skis.

Ben Lawers group from the summit

Back at the car, I looked at my watch. I had been three hours on the hill exactly; a short morning had given me a perfect day.

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