Lochnagar is a big mountain and it was a long walk in from Loch Callater. Two thirds of the way up the mountain we stopped in the lee of a small ridge for lunch. A gale force wind was blowing and it was very, very cold.
As I sat down my mobile phone went bleep, bleep. I had a signal for almost the first time leaving Mallaig! This hadn’t been a problem for the Gurkhas, whose high-tech phones (including camera, MP3 player and GPS) had maintained cover virtually all the way across the highlands, but for me it as moment of joy.
I calledTempleto tell him of our slow progress and that it was f*****g freezing up the mountain. He informed me that it was a gloriously warm sunny day in Ballater. Just what we wanted to hear.
We finally made the summit of Cac Carn Mor, 1050m, and climbed the huge natural stone cairn at the top. There followed the by-now obligatory whoops, and yells of “GURKHA HIGHLANDERS!”
I explained to the boys that this was not the summit of Lochnagar, but the secondary top. The real summit, Cac Carn Beag, which was 15 feet higher at 1055m, could be seen 600 yards to the north with a shallow coll separating the two. Our route off the mountain however lay to the south-east, so if they wanted to climb to the actual summit of Lochnagar it would require a further small detour and ascent.
A few minutes later Dugendra arrived, looking shattered. He, wisely, decided not to take on the extra climb, so we left him resting on a stone slab and hoofed it across to the rocky crag that was the summit. More whoops and hollers ensued, this time louder and longer.
To the boys’ disappointment you couldn’t actually see Balmoral Castle, hidden as it was in the valley of the River Dee, but the views in all directions were impressive. Arjun then undertook an exercise in non-self conscious posing that would have graced ‘Candid Camera’.
I was mightily impressed and not a little relieved that Dugendra had made it to the top, but I knew that going down was going to be the real challenge. We said our farewells to the summit and set off, skirting the enormous cliffs of the north face to their eastern extremity.
Here a well-defined path plunged north, down through a large boulder field into the bealach below Meikle Pap, the eastern guardian of Lochnagar before swinging east to meet with the track that would take us to Spittal of Glenmuick.
I was leading the way, the boys 100 yards to my rear, Dugendra tottering along behind at a snail’s pace, virtually on one leg. I heard a whoop to my right, but in the strong wind it was difficult to tell who or where exactly it was. Ten minutes later, as I was making my way off the slopes of Meikle Pap, I virtually fell over Arjun and Lal, who were nestled in a sheltered little hollow at the side of the track, enjoying an apple and looking for all the world as if they had been there for days.
I suddenly realised that the shout had belonged to them as they did another ‘determined infantryman’s’ direct assault through the boulder field and off the mountain. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and boy did they know it.
When Rajen and I eventually reached Spittal of Glenmuick it was early evening. I was disappointed not to seeTemple, then realised that he was parked two hundred yards further on, in the designated car park.
We peeled off our boots and damp socks and tended to our feet. My feet were fine; not a blister or hot spot in sight, but my right ankle was throbbing, despite the doughnut of white, orthopaedic felt that surrounded my ankle bone.
There was a hot drinks machine inside the wooden hut that comprised a museum and information centre of the local area, flora and fauna. The hot chocolate it served tasted delicious. We sat down to await the arrival of the others and I was astonished when, only fifteen minutes later, Dugendra limped into view. He had come off the mountain on one leg and two poles. I was in awe of his fortitude and grit. How could I ever have doubted his resilience and will to complete the walk? As I said – never, ever underestimate a Gurkha.
Temple had already called the hotel to say that we were going to be late, but even so it was clear that there was no way we were going to have time to drive back through Ballater to Banchory, check in to the hotel, change and drive all the way back to the Inver Hotel. We therefore decided that we would head straight to the Inver Hotel and they would just have to take us we were – sweaty and dressed in our walking gear.
As we alighted the bus at the Inver Hotel we were met by a white-haired, distinguished looking gentleman, immaculate in regimental blazer, 7th GR tie and tartan trews who proceeded to address the Gurkhas in fluent Gurkhali – Lt Col Alistair Rose (for it was he) had been a career Gurkha and despite the years gone by still retained an impressive command of the lingo. Having been suitably welcomed we walked into the hotel lounge, cum restaurant, cum bar where, to the accompaniment of pipe music supplied by two very young pipers, we were ushered along a welcoming line up comprising the Lord Lieutenant of Aberdeenshire, Sir Angus Farquarson of Finzean OBE, his wife and family, and John Forbes and his wife and family.
The Farquarsons and Forbes are two of the oldest and best respected dynasties in Aberdeenshire and I was stunned that the whole bang shoot had turned out in our honour. Derrick McIntyre and his wife Jayne, together withTemple’s wife Sarah, had driven up from Edinburgh and Glasgow to join us. We could not have been made more welcome as we were watered prior to being fed.
We were divided up and sat at two long tables, a third table behind us being occupied by a shooting party from Cornwall who were entertaining their ghillies and their wives to an end-of-week dinner.