esIce crystals showered down from the inside of my tent as I unzipped the outer door. I knew that it would be snowing even before I looked out. It was so quiet and even the noise of the rushing river was blurred and the only thing that muffles outside sounds in this way is snow.
My tent was pitched beside a partially frozen river at the foot of Beinn Mheadhonach, a humpbacked hill hidden away up Glen Tilt to the north of Blair Atholl. It’s not a spectacular hill but has long been a wee favourite of mine for its pretty approach walk and airy summit plateau, and on this visit, painted with a fresh coat of snow, it was looking irresistable. The previous day I’d enjoyed a gorgeous walk through Glen Tilt with my hillwalking buddy, Graham, after we’d arrived in Blair Atholl on a late night train and thrown the tents up in woods above the River Tilt. Despite the weak winter sun, the glen was gripped in ice and old, hard snow, making for treacherous walking.
The Glen Tilt track meandered through winter-bare woods above the river and crossed over frozen cascades on old stone bridges before emerging onto open terrain where up ahead patches of sunshine highlighted the contours on the snow-covered flanks of Beinn A’Ghlo. In the cold air crystals of thick, white frost grew on the trees, grasses and boulders, and might have grown on Graham given his slow speed after a long absence from the hills. My friend aside, there were few signs of life on the move, only a small herd of roe deer nibbling at the field margins and the occasional robin with feathers puffed up against the cold. The landscape was a still life in muted colours except for the russets of the old trackside bracken.
If we had continued walking north through Glen Tilt without breaking legs on the icy track, we would have eventually slid into Strathspey. Instead we left the main route and ate lunch in the sunshine with our backs against the broken walls of an old shieling before nervously shuffling along a slippy path barely the width of a boot on the side of a precipitous gorge. Icicles hung from the underside of the arch of an ancient stone bridge that crossed the next partially frozen tributary. On the far side there was a camp spot, just big enough for the two tents. It was a bitterly cold evening – my little zipper-pull thermometer dropped to -10 degrees at one point – but, safe in the knowledge that nobody would be seeing me in my underwear any time soon, I was wearing very large, not very sexy, thick, woollen knickers and matching vest. I was oblivious to the temperature and cooked supper by torchlight with the tent wide open so I could marvel at the stars in the night sky above.
When I unzipped the tent next morning, yesterday’s sunshine had been replaced by steely-grey cloud and gently falling flurries. Nonetheless, we picked our way up Beinn Mheadhonach through deep snow banks on its leeward side, putting up mountain hares in their white winter coats and a flock of grouse. After a view-free, freezing few minutes on top, a quick descent took us back to the tents for a warming lunch before we packed up and braved for a second time the gorge path whose icy sections were now hidden by fresh snow. The path rejoined the main trail and headed back down the glen as flakes kept falling. Soon it was again enveloped by the winter woods and the crack of ice under footsteps was the only sound that broke the silence of snow.
Start/finish: Blair Atholl Rail Station, regularly serviced by the Edinburgh/Glasgow to Inverness route
Map: OS Landranger 43
Route: Turn right out of the station and pick up the trail that follows the west bank of the River Tilt north – marked by yellow arrows much of the way. Stay on the west bank at Gilberts Bridge, continue north and just after the next bridge over a tributary, take the small path that splits northwest at Grid Ref NN 888 712. Cross the next bridge and ascend the south ridge of Beinn Mheodhonach (no difficulties). To vary the return walk retrace your steps to Gilberts Bridge, cross it and turn right down the main track but follow a small path signed to the left after a couple of hundred metres, which joins another trail back to Blair Atholl.
Tips: If you have spare time before your train home, the Atholl Arms Hotel next to the station does meals, soup, hot drinks and (if you’re reading this in summer) cold alcoholic beveridges.!