Elusive … Tricksy … Shy … Retiring … Overshadowed … Part of the background … Unassuming … At one with the landscape … Unremarkable … Difficult to find … Lonely …
At 957m above sea level, Tom Buidhe is located in the midst of a rolling high moorland-plateau. It’s well set back from the Glen Shee hills of Cairn O’Claise and Carn an Tuirc. It’s just far enough off the Lochnagar circuit for most people to leave it out, while using Jock’s Road from either side (from Loch Callater or from Glen Doll) means a long walk in. Even on a clear day, it’s difficult to make out Tom Buidhe as it blends in so well with its surroundings – a rounded hummock with seemingly few defining features. It’s a navigational challenge in poor conditions: when the cloud base is down, or when there’s snow on the ground, careful use of the map and compass are required, together with techniques pacing and timing and a good understanding what the contour lines are telling you. On any hill, on any occasion, time, conditions underfoot or weather, or a combination of all three factors can conspire against the hill-goer.
There now follows The Tale Of Mary And Tom Buidhe:
Once upon a time there was a mountaineer called Mary. Mary was working her way through her Munros, was doing really well, but kept coming up against the problem of Tom Buidhe. It wasn’t that Tom Buidhe was a technically challenging hill in the same sense that the Black Cuillin Munros are. It wasn’t even that Tom Buidhe was deliberately being difficult, but time after time, Mary’s attempts to stand on the summit of this hill were thwarted. The first attempt was made from Auchallater one April under snow conditions. However, time constraints prompted a descent to Glen Callater from the summit of Tolmount, rather than proceeding from there on to Tom Buidhe. A second attempt was made from Glen Shee, but due to navigational error the expedition ended up on neighbouring Tolmount. With limited daylight, the sensible decision to turn around was made – after all, Tom Buidhe wasn’t going anywhere – it would still be there for the next time…. Now the number three is highly significant in fairy tales (it features heavily in Goldilocks and the Three Bears, for example), so by this token, Mary should have bagged Tom Buidhe on the third attempt. This time, however, conditions were extremely challenging. Heavy snow made the going underfoot difficult, the wind was ferocious and visibility atrociously poor. A variant on the second route was chosen (coming up between Carn an Tuirc and Cairn O’Claise), but in the end the weather prevailed and Mary’s party beat a rapid retreat.
However frustrating this was, the key to staying safe is always to respect the mountain. Foolhardiness – that heady combination of proceeding regardless in extremely poor conditions coupled with summit fever- has often led hill-goers into trouble and in some cases to their death. The UK mountains are sometimes regarded with derision as they lack the altitude of many international ranges, but due to the wide and often very rapidly changing weather conditions and also the nature of the terrain they can be every bit as challenging to the unprepared – and also to the prepared. The bottom line (without scaremongering) is that people can die out in the UK hills. Without a shadow of doubt, Mary made the correct call each time …
And so, this weekend just gone, a large party set off from the Glen Shee ski car park. Visibility was set to be good until early afternoon, when a rain bearing front was expected to move in. Mary’s fourth bid for the summit of Tom Buidhe was on the way! Over Glas Maol, then to Cairn O’ Claise. Careful identification of our objective had already been made from Glas Maol, from where Tom Buidhe appears as but a small rise dwarfed by the surrounding landscape rather than a distinct hill – it’s only when you’re on the final approach that it finally assumes a presence. The wind was picking up and the weather changing as we finally approached the summit of the elusive Tom Buidhe. And yes, Mary bagged her summit this time, with time to admire the vista and take in its rather unique position in relation to all the hills that surround it.
And the moral of the story? The mountain will always be there for another day.
[Note: Many thanks for a fantastic day to Mary, Pauline, Elaine, Iain, Angela, James, Claudia and Danny – and canine companions Heidi, Olive and Fergus]