Sometimes the weather creeps up on you. You read the forecast and decide there’s nothing doing on the hills for a while and so turn your attention to other things. Or at least that’s what I did this New Year. I was sitting at my computer in my home in Inverness working on a little video promo for Alex Roddie’s new book when I looked up and notice the sun was shining in. Then I look out of my window, I live three floors up, and noticed the Ben Wyvis is almost cloud free.
I then followed my usual weather checking routine. I check the MWIS forecast which mentioned a very short lived lull in the up land gales that seem to have cursed us for the last six weeks or so. Then I use the most reliable forecasting method there is for the day ahead, I look out of the window. The tops of the trees, which are level with my window sill, are still. On then to my final check, I look up the river Ness towards the castle, a red sandstone, Victorian monstrosity, that glares down belligerently at the town of Inverness as though it is about to sweep it into the sea. The building, imposing as it is, is used as a court office and when the more unruly of the Highland population are a receiving their sentences a cheery little flag flies from the upmost tower. This emblem of power I have found to be an extremely reliable guide over the years for giving both wind direction and force. If the flag is fully extended I know, without doubt, that the tops of the hills will be swept with gale force winds and so return to my settee safe in the knowledge that I’m missing nothing. The flag is absent today as the Highland sheriffs, having seen in 2014, are no doubt snoozing, feet up, slippers on, in their legislative arm chairs.
I’ve seen enough though, it’s ten minutes to ten and if I’m quick I can save the day. I throw my kit into a bag, squeeze into my hill gear and leap into the car, heading off to that beacon of wildness that is Ben Wyvis. I’m just about to cross the Kessock Bridge, that hefts the A9 northwards across the Moray Firth, when a policeman waves me down and bids me pull over into a layby. “Just a winter safety check,” he assures me, casting a cursory glance at my two year old Skoda. “Did you have anything to drink last night sir?” he asks casually, as though my answer is of no real importance and he is merely saying something to pass the time. I instantly panic, it’s new year’s day, surely I was up late last night imbibing whisky and growing tearful at the thought of lost acquaintances. What will I say? Then suddenly I remember, last night I went to bed early at half past ten, and achievement in itself but then I recall something even more amazing, I went to bed sober. Worn out by Christmas jollification I had decided to have an early night. I’m in the clear!
At this point a little mischievous monkey climbs on to my shoulder and whisper’s into my ear, “Your safe, you could pretend to be drunk,” It occurs to me I could suddenly stagger sideways and fall into the ditch, I could burst into to song or invite the officer dance with me about the lay by. I could do all of these things in sure and certain knowledge that there is not a drop of alcohol in me, not even enough to flavour the tiniest portion of trifle. I’ve done quite a few stupid things in my life but even I am not that reckless, after all there is probably some obscure Highland offence like, “Being found sober at Hogmanay ,” or “Confusing an officer by pretending to be intoxicated on the Queens Highway,” or “Pirouetting in a public place without the excuse of inebriation.” So I just say, “No nothing at all.” A mixed expression crosses the officer’s face he is obviously pleased I’m not committing an offence but, at the same time, I can see him thinking what a sad life I must lead to have been sober at new year’s eve.
Ben Wyvis is, well I have to say, a bit of a disappointment. Much of the snow has gone and what is left is frozen and rock hard. I ascend the tourist path as part of a grim procession, of joggers, dog walkers and other mountain folk, there must be at least fifty of them. The path from the car park is a dull slog through the forestry. It’s a very good path and one that is well maintained and well surfaced but, having been installed in relatively recent years as a quick way through the forest, it is not a natural line and heads up, gunshot straight, from the car park. It’s a route that has obviously been planned and drawn by a committee on a map rather than one followed by ancient use over hundreds of years that is in sympathy with the landscape. A few hundred feet from the summit I’m overtaken by a fit of the “can’t be bothereds.” I am an antisocial walker and prefer to wander the hills in solitude on paths less travelled. There is something of a tradition of folk climbing Ben Wyvis on New Year’s day, which accounts for its relatively crowded state.
By three thirty I’m back in my flat in Inverness, drinking tea and eating my solitary remaining mince pie, as the cloud billows over the now distant Ben Wyvis. I’ll go back another day, I decide, and do it by some surreptitious route perhaps under darkness, wearing some sort of disguise so some cheery gaudily clad jogger can’t wish me a happy New Year. Then I’ll be free to climb the hill alone in my own dark cloud of dismal grumpiness, then I can really enjoy it.