Marhofn 280.16 - May 2014

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Connoisseur of cols

Alan Dawson

As a habitual list maker, I once made a mental list of great moments in hillwalking, though I can only remember a few of them now. Obviously, reaching a summit (especially a new one) was in there, possibly in the number one slot. Reaching a col was not, and I am sure it will not feature as a highlight in baglogs. But last year I started to pay more attention to cols and to appreciate them more, rather than regarding them as an inconvenient necessity for getting from one summit to another. I am of course making a virtue out of that necessity, as I spent many hours hanging around many cols, waiting for my Leica GPS to record satellite data for 20-60 minutes at a time. Surveying a summit is all very well, but it's only half the job.

I do not need to go on about the well-known attractions of summits and summit views, but what do cols have to offer? Well it varies, rather a lot. With a summit you tend to know more or less what to expect, and most summits have something going for them, if only a tick. With a col you never know what it is going to be like until you get there, and that variety is part of their appeal, or so I have convinced myself. Maps may offer clues but they do not tell you whether you're going to find grass, heather, peat bog, boulders or something else. It is the nature and uncertainty of the 'something else' that can enhance enjoyment of cols and the col surveying process. For example, the map of the col for Lamberton Hill shows a small area of water near a gap between two burns. This turned out to be a reclaimed quarry that now appears to be a rural boating lake, with a hut, a dinghy, a jetty and even a narrow beach. It all looked lovely on a sunny June day. The col itself now has a small unmapped pond that looks like an unofficial bird reserve, with a row of hides overlooking the water and the flourishing vegetation. It was not feasible to set up a survey point inside the fenced-off pond area, but readings were taken in the flat fields either side, and both of them showed the col to be over 150m lower than the summit.

The map of the col for Sell Moor Hill shows nothing at all, but the col turns out to contain a sizeable area of Panamanian jungle teleported in from the Darien Gap, with impenetrable bushes, trees and shrubs surrounded by long lush grass that can easily swallow a one-metre survey pole without trace. There may be unknown tribes evolving within the central core of jungle, though none were observed through the pall of insects that orbited the jungle area. I could use Google Earth to get an aerial preview of such places, but why spoil the surprise?

Even if maps are accurate and up-to-date, they cannot identify the specific point that separates one hill from another and is the optimum point to set up a col survey. I recall once reading in the much-missed Angry Corrie that a hill has only one top but a million bottoms. While this is sort of true, working out which point is the top can take a long time. On the former Marilyn of Carn Liath near Braemar, it took me over an hour of faffing around with an Abney level and GPS in order to establish which of the many candidate rocks to use as the summit survey point. It turned out to be the one given in DOBIH. Yet summits are easy compared to cols, where you have to eliminate N-1 false bottoms. Water is often the biggest clue; observing the way it flows and where it settles can help eliminate numerous non-bottoms. It is not easy to use an Abney level when lying on the ground amongst thick vegetation, but a couple of poles can help with sightings. Fences may be useful but can also be misleading, as they sometimes sneakily dip down below the hill-to-hill line, requiring the survey point to be set up on higher ground away from the fence (in the col-to-col direction).

Survey team in action at An Coileachan col (photo: Chris Watson)

Survey team in action at An Coileachan col (photo: Chris Watson)

Cols may not have quite the aesthetic appeal of summits, but they also offer all-round views - down in two directions and up in two, offering more variety than the predictable all-down panorama of a summit. Sometimes the view from a col is far superior, as a col may be clear when a summit is not. Cols also give good views of the approaches to summits, allowing you to study various features or routes at leisure. They may also be less windy than summits. However, not always. Sometimes there may be no wind at all, which in summer means a bonanza for entomologists, with immense quantities of biting blighters to compensate for lack of variety of species. Ungulates may also congregate in large numbers at a col, as in the case of the Killyleoch Hill col, where their symphony of ululation at an intruder provided harmonious accompaniment to the surveyor's occasional muted hum.

According to the even-more-missed Douglas Adams, the phrase 'as pretty as an airport' does not feature as a slogan in any of the universe's several million languages. A chapter on 'the beauty of peat hags' is similarly absent from each of the several million hillwalking guidebooks published each year. And yet... peat hags can be kind of interesting once you start to study them; not so much the peat as the vegetation that clings to it. Those annoyingly slippery lumpy bumpy clumps can be colourful and varied when studied at a micro-level. They can also offer soft and natural split-level lunchtime seating accommodation, allowing feet to rest gently on the rich soft peat below the buttock tussock.

Hill of Goauch col (photo: Alan Dawson)

Hill of Goauch col (photo: Alan Dawson)

In my experience there are worse types of col than the haggy ones, by far. While full tropical jungle seems to be relatively rare in Scotland, there are plenty of trees and bushes, there are big squelchy bogs, there are sometimes roads or tracks, and occasionally there are houses. Roads and houses are useful things of course, but not when trying to survey a hill. These impediments offer the possibility of more unexpected features, such as the precocious child that turned up in the garden of the house at the Hill of Goauch col. He did live in the house so he possibly felt that a survey team was more unexpected than a child in the garden/col. He had the day off school, so received extra-curricular lessons on topography, satellites, maps, contours, hill categories and more. Bright lad with plenty of questions and ambitions to become a scientist. By chance it was the same day as the announcement of the Knight's Peak survey result, so he was recommended to watch Reporting Scotland that evening. I wonder if he did? Perhaps he was inspired to follow in the steps of his TV heroes and will one day become a hill surveyor instead of a research chemist. Then again, perhaps not.

Anyway, here is a new list, not the one I started off writing about, but one summarising a qualitative typology of col features, based on hanging around several of them for quite a while.

Feature Archetypal col Location Aesthetic appeal Rating
Bog Cramalt Craig NT1524 Splishy***
Child Hill of Goauch NO6394 Inquisitive****
Field Caeliber Isaf SO2090 Convenient***
Forest Meall Bhanbhaidh NN0979 Accessible**
Grass An Coileachan NH2368 Hospitable*****
Hags Marg na Craige NN6099 Challenging**
Heather Meall na Duibhe NN2362 Panoramic***
Hummocks Biod an Fhithich NG9514 Undulating****
Jungle Sell Moor Hill NT4750 Luxuriant*
Meadow Killyleoch Hill NX8786 Sonorous***
Path Stob na Doire NN2153 Montane****
Pond Lamberton Hill NT8859 Circumambulable***
Railway Cairnie Hill NO2715 Horizontal**
Road Langlaw Hill NT1040 Parkable**
Rock Sgurr a'Bhasteir NG4625 Poucheresque*****
Shore Sgorr Tuath NC1007 Atmospheric****
Snow Aonach Beag NN4674 Diggable****
Stones Baca Ruadh NG4755 Bracing***
Track Fastheugh Hill NT3725 Predictable***
Trees Cruach Bhuidhe NS1294 Elusive*
Tussocks Blacklorg Hill NS6404 Extensive**

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