Camping in the Cairngorms

Walk report

Last week I created my “munro map” on the Walkhighlands website, which showed me just how few I have climbed and filled me with motivation to get up some more at the weekend. Chris also had his new MSR Wind Burner stove to try out and our tent hadn’t had an airing for a while, as we’ve been using the van for our trips (eg. Kintyre, Cairngorms and Galloway and Dumfries), so I suggested that we go for a two day walk with a wild camp. On Thursday evening, we got the OS maps out and Chris showed me all the multi-day walks he has done in the Cairngorms, and I proposed a trip that combined two routes from the Munros book (Cameron McNeish) and included five new munros for me and four for Chris, with an obvious area for a camp (the first time I have come up with a route for us!).

We left on Friday night and drove up to Braemar with our usual lunch boxes of pizza for dinner; it such a bright night, the moon was casting shadows on the mountains. We had a fairly laid back start on Saturday, not leaving from the Lin of Dee until about 9.20am. We set off following the signs up the track through Glen Lui, towards Derry Lodge, as we had done a month or so ago. We stopped for snack but our break was cut rather short by the large number of midges, many of which were hiding in Chris’ rucksack. Rather than heading north into Glen Derry, we continued east to the Luibeg Bridge. This whole section is fairly flat with excellent paths and lovely scenery: we spotted lots of male bumblebees on the Devil’s-bit scabious and a red squirrel near to Derry lodge.

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After the bridge, there is a little bit of ascent that gives you good views down Glen Dee and Glen Geusachen, and then as the path curves around the bottom of Carn a’Mhaim, you get the first sight of the Devil’s Point and the Lairig Ghru.

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View from the Luibeg Bridge

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The Devil’s Point

We left the main path up the Lairig Ghru and crossed the river Dee at the bridge, heading up to Corrour Bothy. It was actually the first time that I had been inside a bothy and I honestly think that in summer I’d rather camp, although I can see that it would be much nicer in there if the weather was bad!

I actually found this long flat first stage the most difficult of the day; we left the bothy and attacked our first real ascent at 2pm and I found it much more enjoyable, perhaps due to the effort distracting me from aching feet and shoulders! Once onto the plateau, we nipped up to the Devil’s Point, where I looked up from chatting to sudden and absolutely amazing views that makes it feel really remote. There were also a couple of ptarmigan that waddled along ahead of us for a while: seeing them always makes me happy.

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From the top of the Devil’s Point

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Having taken in the endless landscape as best we could, we retraced our steps back to the top of the path above the bothy and then followed the edge of the plateau over one summit and on to the summit of Cairn Toul.

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Happy summit selfie (Cairn Toul)

Both of these summits are made up mainly of boulder fields, which isn’t too bad for the ascent but makes descending a bit trickier. At the top of Cairn Toul there are two cairns, the more northerly one (the second you reach from this direction) is the highest but the first is worth going to as the views are better, and they are pretty spectacular.

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On the way to Angel’s Peak

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Admiring the view

It didn’t take us long to follow the top of the cliffs down and then climb up to the top of the Angel’s Peak (Sgor an Lochain Uaine), which was our final munro of the day.

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Down into the Lairig Ghru

We then left the views of the coires, the Lairig Ghru and Ben Macdui behind us and descended south east down the ridge. There was no path here and we just picked our way down the patches of grass and boulders aiming to camp somewhere near the bottom of the saddle above Loch nan Stuirteag. As we wanted to be near some water and the flatter areas at the bottom looked boggy, we moved onto the north eastern side of the ridge and found a flattish patch near the streams that become Allt Luineag: it turns out slightly damp grass and moss makes a very nice tent base: easy to put the pegs in and very soft to sleep on.

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A lovely evening

The tent was up in minutes; we love our tent, it’s so sturdy and easy to put up and down. A herd of about 20 red deer watched us as the sun dropped. Dinner was also ready in minutes, which was a vast improvement to our last camping trip when we froze waiting to eat half crunchy, barely-warm noodles. So we were very impressed with the MSR stove performance, although conditions were very benign: there was almost not enough wind to keep the midges at bay.

We both had a lovely sleep: decent camping mats and sleeping bags have made a world of difference to our camping experiences! We woke up in a cloud as usual but the sun was trying to break through as we left camp at about 8.40am.

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Misty morning

Once we were up the steepest section of Monadh Mor, visibility became pretty poor and as the slope flattened off we started navigating properly and I got some great practice walking on bearings and timing distances. There was no obvious path and we walked to a bearing all the way to the saddle between Monadh Mor and Beinn Bhrotain, where the cloud lessened a little and clear path led up to the trig point.

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Chilly on top of Monadh Mor; not much of a view either.

All we needed to do from there was find our way down onto the track beside the river Dee to the White Bridge: easier said than done. We didn’t really want to climb the steep looking Cairn Cloch-mhuilinn and there was a lot of bog between us and it, so we tried a short-cut down beside the Allt Garbh straight to the track. No luck. Once around the shoulder of Cairn Cloch-mhuilinn, it became steep and there were other streams and gullies to cross, so we bashed through the heather all around the shoulder, under some slabby cliffs, back to the flatter ground leading to Carn Fiaclach. Short cuts never work and we had to break out the chocolate raisins! There was still no sign of a path and the ground wasn’t very easy as we made our way towards Carn Fiaclach. Don’t go right up this: it’s steep down the other side! We had to go down the south side and stomp through the heather and lumpy, holey ground right down to the track.

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The Allt Garbh is very pretty

I have to say, these last two munros were not much fun to get off and wouldn’t be much fun to get up either, so this route is a great way to get them done, without making a special trip for them. We had a paddle in the stream and ate our last rolls before marching along the path to the bridge. Here we had a little lie-down in the sun and some more chocolate raisins. From this point there is only the 5km or so to walk back along the track to the Lin of Dee, which didn’t take too long; we were back at the van by 4.30pm and ready for a meal in Blairgowrie on the way home.

A superb weekend!

Details

Distance: ~42 km

Time: 2 days (9 hrs + 7 hrs)

Summits: 5 munros, the Devil’s Point, Cairn Toul, the Angel’s Peak (Sgor an Lochain Uaine), Monadh Mor and Beinn Bhrotain

Comments:

Two good length days with a long flat walk-in and out. Excellent first day! Lots of  good paths but also some sections with no paths, so good navigation required in poor visibility. Good area to camp halfway with access to water. Not too boggy except for some patches on descent on the second day.

 

Most useful piece of kit/advice:

Jessica says: Make sure you know how to use a map and compass and take midge repellent. Chocolate raisins were also essential for this walk.

Chris says: For long distance walks it is important to conserve your energy. Using walking poles is a great way to do this: it saves the knees on the down hill a bit too.

Microadventure: A night under one star

The weather in Scotland had been beautiful all week and was set to continue over the weekend, however I really needed to work on my PhD thesis. So  Chris suggested that if I worked during the day on Saturday,  we could go and spend the night on Dumyat, which is our local hill.

We packed our things after dinner and drove the van to Stirling University campus where we parked it….in case the midges were awful and we had to retreat from the hill! We found a nice spot part of the way up that caught the sun as it was setting, but would also allow us to see the sunrise.

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From about 9pm the temperature dropped quickly and I soon regretted leaving my down jacket at home, but it was nice to relax with a cider (and beer for Chris).

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At about 10.30pm, we were cold and decided it was time to unpack our beds. Choosing a spot for bivvying is quite strange: which patch of grass do we like most? On top of the bank where we have the view, but catch the wind so it might be chilly, or lower down where we will be more sheltered? But sheltered might mean midges! Which patch has fewest lumps, is flattest, and has the least sheep poo?

Then you have the “should I have my sleeping mat inside or outside of my bivvy bag?” dilemma. Apparently this depends on your bivvy bag: my Robens Primacore sleeping mat fitted perfectly inside my Alpkit Hunka bivvy bag, until I tried to get in too….I could not move at all! In contrast, Chris was comfortable with his Exped DownMat Light 5 inside his Rab Storm bivvy bag. At 11pm when we were in our sleeping bags, it was still light enough to see perfectly. It was also a bit cloudy, so rather than being able to lie and look at the stars,we had to make-do with the single star that was visible.

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I was surprisingly warm and comfortable, but the cool breeze on your face and the strange noises makes for broken sleep. I woke up startled by a particularly loud noise at one point, only to realise it was just a sheep. Even then, it still wasn’t very dark. At 4.50am, it was daylight again and I could no longer deny that I needed a wee, but after that we slept on until 7.20 am! This was despite the light, and the walkers and runners who were up VERY early for a Sunday morning.

We didn’t get to see the sunrise though: we were completely surrounded by cloud, so the view while we shared our Bran Flakes for breakfast was not as pretty as we had anticipated.

However, it was a good little microadventure that nicely broke up my PhD weekend.

 

Dreaming in Contours: Summer Mountain Leader Assessment

After all the long days out on the hill, seeking out the bad weather, and the nights spent practising navigation, it was time to make the journey up to Glenmore Lodge where I would be spending the next five days on a Summer Mountain Leader assessment.

I did my training course at the Lodge two years ago, which was a great experience. I learned loads about the responsibilities of, and what it means to be, a mountain leader. We also worked on the navigation and rope work skills required do the job. It was also super sunny!

My consolidation period consisted of the pursuit of the 40 quality mountain days (QMD’s) required before you can take the assessment. I was lucky enough to head all over the UK from Snowdonia, to the Lake District and the highlands and lowlands of Scotland, taking on long and challenging days requiring early starts and camping out in the mountains. This provided me with great experience of all the different mountain terrain, weather, and challenges that can be thrown at you, whilst also developing the soft skills which allow you to take less experienced people into that harsh environment.

A big challenge for me was learning about the flora and fauna, as well as the mountain geology and weather. Jessica, being a biologist, was a massive help with this, as were a lot of our friends who are also in that field. I also watched geology documentaries on “Youtube” and attended a “Getting to know your upland plants” workshop, which was one of the best £10 I have ever spent. Having weather posters showing the different air masses and cloud types above my desk at work, has helped me learn about weather patterns in the UK. Exciting stuff! Altogether this has provided me with a broad knowledge of the mountain environment.

So although I was still feeling nervous on the night before the assessment began, I knew I had put the work in and had a tool kit that I thought would get me through the next week successfully. We would soon find out!

Day One tested us on emergency procedures, river crossings and a good bit of environment chat. We did not need to go incredibly far and our assessor made us feel comfortable enough to show him everything we knew. When it was time to get in the river it was challenging but, dare I say it, fun!

Day Two was a different beast: it was the steep ground day. From the Cairngorm Ski Centre car park to in and around Coire an t’Sneachda, we were tested on our ability to look after groups on steep and rocky terrain. Having had a lot of climbing experience and taken people out on scrambles and mountain ridges, I felt confident throughout the day and was able to work freely, which was a good confidence booster. Getting out and practising all the rope work and abseiling during my consolidation period proved invaluable to making the task of lowering a person down a steep rock step as slick as possible.

Next, it was expedition time! Having packed my bag the previous night, we drove south, away from the still snowy northern Cairngorms to Blair Atholl, where our route would take us up and over Beinn Dearg and down into Glen Feshie. After setting off there was lots more environmental chat, but the main focus was on navigation. The real challenge hit us at around 2pm when the mist came over us and it was micro nav until the end of the day. In the evening we set up a high camp just north of Beinn Dearg. Fortunately no night navigation was required due to the thick cloud still covering the hills in the morning. This was to be the most challenging day of the assessment with low visibility and heavy rain. Our pacing, timing, map and compass skills were all thoroughly tested, and when we did eventually drop out of the clouds it was not long before we got to camp.

The final day of the expedition and the assessment was a simple walk out to our pick up point at Auchlean in Glen Feshie. Once back at the lodge we then had an agonising wait to find out if we had been successful. There was time for a shower and lunch before, one by one, we were called up to get our result. It was a nerve racking time: I was going over and over any potential mistakes I had made, as I walked up the stairs to the debrief room….had I done enough?

“Congratulations you are a Summer Mountain Leader!” were the words from Mark Chadwick, the course director.

It was an amazing feeling. All that hard work had come together and paid off and now I have the opportunity do what I love as a profession, which is just incredible!

Going through the award had been an incredible journey and I would recommend it to anyone who loves being out in the mountains.  Advice I would give to anyone else going for this qualification would be to get out on the hill with other experienced people and ask a lot of questions; I was able to pick up so many hints and tips from the people I went out with. Although it is an individual award it’s very hard to do it on your own: those people who have woken up at silly o’clock and been out in the driving rain with you will probably be the reason you have your 40+ QMD’s. Thank you, Jessica. Also, respect the process. Do as much as you can and more than you think is necessary. It’s not easy and it will take a lot of hard work, but stick with it and stay positive. Look through the syllabus and tirelessly practise the skills required until you are in fact dreaming in contours.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First camp of the year: a new level of bog

Our new van didn’t come with us on last weekend’s adventure, we decided to wild camp instead. We set off from the car in the early afternoon, rather than the early morning, which felt quite strange, but with the extra light and the fact we were staying out, we had plenty of time. When we parked and set off from Sheperd’s Bridge on Saturday, the weather was much better than we had hoped for. We headed off northwards along a landrover track, beyond which, finding the bridge supposedly hidden in the trees, proved difficult, largely due to the fact that there were not any trees. However, it was warm enough to make the idea of taking our boots off quite nice, until our feet actually entered the water; then it was painfully cold, but refreshing when we were out on the other side.

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From then on the path upwards consisted of streams through the grass, heather and sphagnum, which were impossible to avoid as it constituted the entire hillside. The going dried up a bit on the approach to the first munro summit, A’Chailleach. Here, we got good views of crumbling cornices around the corries.

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It was much snowier on the way to the second summit, Carn Sgulain, and we saw the first mountain hare of the weekend, racing across the hillside. The distance that they travel is very impressive and it is possible to see the incredible length of their strides in the prints on the snow.

The second summit was very unremarkable and we left quickly to find a camping spot a short way away. Noodles, chicken and sweet chilli sauce should have made for a delicious dinner but when the temperature dropped rapidly they went cold so fast they were not very appetising. Fortunately, it was much warmer in the tent.

It snowed during the night; it sounds different to rain and after a while you could hear the clumps that had collected, sliding down the outer fabric. Happily, it had stopped by the time we packed up the tent in the morning, and we set off at 8am into a cloud.

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The whiteout conditions remained for much of the walk across the plateau and it soon started to sleet again. This represented an excellent opportunity for navigation practise for Chris, who thoroughly enjoyed himself. The snow was absolutely covered in hare tracks and we saw numerous ptarmigan.

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The summit of the third munro, Carn Dearg, is on a narrow ridge with steep ground on one side. We followed the ridge down to a saddle/bealach and descended on the east side, rather than the west, as there was a path on the map that we wanted to join. We soon dropped below the layer of cloud into a stunning valley, where we found a large herd of red deer and were treated to beautiful colours and the view of a remote lochan, Loch Dubh.

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We did find the path but it quickly disappeared into a maze of streams, mud and bog. Indeed, we walked through water for almost the entire way back from that point, which for this reason felt very long. At one point the path on the map crosses a river and once again there was not a bridge. Our feet were so wet by this point that we chose the easiest and safest crossing point and simply waded through the water, which came up to my shins. We did see lots of frog spawn and sadly a frog massacre, consisting of a lot headless frogs. The cause of this remains a mystery to us.

We arrived back at the car at about 4.30pm after what felt like a very long day to me, despite the minimal ascent. We have never had such wet feet after a walk. We both like our Scarpa boots, but this was simply too much for them: water poured out of Chris’ socks when he took his feet out his boots. The fajitas we had for dinner that night were very well deserved.