Sub-zero summer in the Cairngorms
I spent an unseasonably cold August Bank holiday wandering the Cairngorm mountains of Scotland. I’ve been there before, twice. But in winter and from the Northern side where all the skiing is. I’d never really ventured far beyond a few km from the ski station car park. As this part of Scotland is 6 hours away from home by car I need to have a long weekend at least to make a visit feasible. On Thursday morning I loaded the car and set off up the M6 and over the border. By 5pm I was getting out of the car in the Linn of Dee car park and swatting away the infamous midges.
I quickly applied some insect repellent, steeling myself for the airborne plague I would undoubtedly suffer for the next few days. Its rare I get from parking the car to getting on the trail as quickly as I did that day but I didn’t fancy getting eaten before leaving the car park.
My route began with a few hundred metres down a forestry track to the edge of the woodland. Out here on the open moor there were no flies, I suspect the breeze had grounded them all. Stopping to put on my gaiters I surveyed my intended route. Uphill, through calf-deep heather towards a little hill called Carn an ‘Ic Duibhe. Halfway up the hill was a long and apparently recently erected double fence. The fence had little signs along it at intervals. The signs said ‘Caution! Electric Fence’. Hazard number one. There was a sufficient gap at the bottom of the fence to squeeze through without my pack on. I through my walking poles over lay down on my back and shuffled through taking great care to avoid the wires. Reaching back through I pulled on my backpack. Once on the other side I was free to continue my journey.
Puffing and panting up the heathery hillside I was feeling decidedly unfit. I hadn’t been backpacking for a few months and had put on about half a stone whilst on holiday. Coupled with the heaviest pack I’d had all year and the toughest terrain I wondered about the wisdom of my plans. After a couple of hours walking I reached my intended stop for the night, a sheltered area just below the summit of Sgor Mor (813m). I’d seen an area on the map just lower than the summit and on the Southern side. I’d hoped it would be protected from the Northerly wind which was blowing in. It is amazing just how much difference a couple of metres makes. Down at my tent it was calm and not too cold. Outside the shelter of the hillock it was breezy and cold.
I prepared my kit for the night and sorted out what I’d have for dinner. It made sense to have the heaviest food first so it was stuffed ricotta and spinach tortellini with meatballs in a tomato sauce. Pudding was a Mars bar.
I popped my head out of the tent to look around and saw a group of deer about 20m from me. As soon as they realised I was there they bounded away over the hill and were never seen again.
I’d brought the harmonica I’d been given for my birthday so I could continue my practicing while I was away. Checking there was no one about to be upset the noise of my terrible playing I played through a few short tunes that I’d learned from my ‘harmonica for beginners book’.
Bed time comes early on backpacking trips so I was into my sleeping bag not long after 9pm.
During the night it rained and so in the morning I had to put away the tent wet. This isn’t so bad if you’re going home but not great if you need to use it again. I checked the map and set off over the brow of the hill Northwards. Today’s target was Ben Macdui, the highest mountain in the Cairngorms and the second highest in the UK.
The reason I chose to head over the tops towards Ben Macdui was that in the weeks prior to my visit a ‘once in 200 hundred years’ flood had knocked out at least one of the footbridges over the river flowing from Glen Derry. Large parts of the footpath had also been damaged.
The route from my campsite to Ben Macdui took me down into Glen Lui towards a bridge over the river. The latest information I’d found on the net was that this bridge was still extant. I could see the water level was still high in the burn but the bridge was still there. I stopped to fill my water bottle from a stream, no large flocks of sheep or people here. The river flowing quickly and clearly over a stony base. -It ticked all the boxes to be drunk without treatment of any sort. As I proceded up Glen Lui I needed to re-cross the river to get on to the hill Sron Riach. My recently purchased map (OL403, 2011 edition) showed a footbridge at NO012951 but I could not find it anywhere. There was no sign of a bridge washed away or damaged by floods either. (Later I noticed on the older version of the map (2004 edition) the bridge is not marked at this point. I wondered if it was an Ordnance Survey ‘fingerprint’ to identify copying).
Fording the stream with the help of my walking poles I was on my way again, climbing into the mist. There was no footpath from Sron Riach to Ben Macdui either on the ground or the map so I followed the edge over a tricky boulder field to the stream running SW from the mountain. Following this stream to its source I got onto a clear track to the summit.
The summit of Ben Macdui has many stone wind shelters, (perhaps a clue to the prevailing weather up there) a trig point and a view point stone. I could see very little from the summit, certainly none of the peaks listed on the view point stone. After a short while I retraced my steps towards the ruin and the path. I’d taken a bearing from the ruin to the summit on the way up in case I couldn’t see it on the way back. I’m glad I did because with all the wind shelters the summit looks similar in all directions when its misty.
Descending towards Loch Etchachan I met a walker coming the other way. We stopped and chatted for a while. He was in shirt sleeves and feeling warm, he expressed surprise and my fastened up coat, hat and gloves. He said he was staying at the bothy below the loch. I had intended to camp near the loch but as I was cold and the weather was not expected to improve I decided to give the bothy a try.
The Hutchinson Memorial Hut (Coire Etchachan Bothy) is a simple stone hut recently refurbished by the Mountain Bothy Association. It has a small entry porch with space to hang a few coats, leave boots and some backpacks and a larger room with a bench along one side and a stove. Bothies are free for anyone to use and are very popular. This was my first night in a UK bothy but I have stayed in similar huts in the Picos, Pyrenees and Sierra de Gredos in Spain.
At the same time as I arrived at the Bothy a young French couple arrived from the opposite direction. Already inside was a German chap whom I’d expected as the man I’d met on the mountain mentioned he was there. We got chatting and worked out how many people were likely to stay in the small hut and thinking at least some of us will need to camp. I didn’t mind the thought of camping but I was looking forward to be able to sit and cook indoors.
Eventually there were 7 people and 2 dogs at the bothy, this would have made it more than cosy. The man who’d brought the dogs and the German pitched their tents outside leaving 5 of us to sleep in the hut. We all cooked and ate inside and spent the evening chatting about mountains, veganism, Scottish independence and a variety of other topics. The conversation was helped along by a hip flask of Jura I’d brought along, just for this sort of occasion. Bed time came early and with three of us on the floor and two on the bench we said good night.
The next morning dawned cloudy and cold but not raining and after breakfast I headed back up to Loch Etchachan. Three of the others took the opposite direction, back towards Braemar.
I climbed up to the Loch feeling heavy and unfit, but happy after my enjoyable evening in the bothy. I crossed the stream as it left the loch and headed Northwest towards Loch A’an.
The wind picked up and the rain started and got heavy. I stopped to don waterproof gear and carried on into the wind, descending to the Western edge of Loch A’an. I’d been told that I might see reindeer near to the loch so I kept my eyes open to see them. I saw no reindeer but I did see a couple of tents pitched on the loch shore near to a sandy beach. A beautiful spot, I made a note of it for future use.
My path on the other side of the loch was a steep track up the side of a cascading stream. I stopped to remove the waterproofs before beginning the climb and set off. I made surprisingly good progress up the 250m or so climb to the flat ground at the top. Looking back over the loch to where I’d come from I remembered why I was there. I love being in wild places, hardly a sign of the modern world. For a while even the weather seemed kind. It didn’t last.
Waterproofs back on I continued along the path towards the summit of Cairngorm itself. The heaviness returned. I felt slow and unfit once more. Eventually I reached the summit which was marked by a large cairn and a radio transmitter. I took shelter on the southern side of the cairn and made myself some lunch. I had to remove my gloves to prepare my food and by the time I had got them back on they were numb and losing mobility.
I wasn’t having the most fun being SO COLD IN AUGUST and thought about my options. I knew the weather wasn’t going to be brilliant but this felt like Winter and I wasn’t quite equipped for that. I had cold weather gear but I was missing my thick down jacket and winter gloves.
I looked up the weather facts when I got home. When I was sat on Cairngorm it was 1.5°C. The wind was blowing at 25mph and above. This calculates to a wind chill factor of below -5°C!!
It seemed like I had three choices;
-Descend towards the ski stations and work my way around to the car at lower level. -Maybe through Glen Feshie. No. That’s too far and I don’t have all the route on my map.
-Stick to the plan and head West across the northern edge of the plateau, descending in to the Lairig Ghru. -This was a high level walk using the edge of the plateau as a ‘handrail’ until I could descend. I was confident in my ability to manage the walk but it didn’t seem like a ‘fun’ trip in the weather.
-Retrace my steps and get back to the bothy where I know I’d be warm again and could dry off -This looked like the most sensible option. I’d be walking with the wind behind me and descending out of it.
Right then. Back to the bothy it was. I packed up, wrapped up and set off. After less than 1km I’d reached the fork in the path; left to the bothy, straight on across the plateau.
At that moment the wind dropped, the rain stopped and the mist lifted. I could see the Northern coires ahead of me and took it as a sign to carry on and not retrace my steps. I pressed on, stopping a while later to remove my waterproof gear once again.
The walking felt easy, over Stob Coire an t-Sneachda, Cairn Lochan each footstep felt good. The views superb. I heard a helicopter below me and looked over the edge of the cliffs to see the search and rescue chopper hovering close to the rock walls before turning and flying away.
The mist returned and a little drizzle but thankfully the wind stayed away. As I approached Lurcher’s crag I looked down into the coire I saw a small herd of reindeer. Too far away to photograph but definitely reindeer.
I turned north and climbed over Lurcher’s crag looking for a path down off the plateau into the Lairig Ghru. The map showed it as indistinct and I saw no trace on the ground. I checked my distances from summits and points on the map, I was definitely in the right place. Scanning the hillside below I saw a path a little way below me but nothing close by. I made up my own route to join up with the path and made it with no trouble.
The descent was long and tedious. The path was rocky in places, boulder in others, long and occasionally steep. I was very pleased to get down to the river. I refilled my water bottle and set off South into the Lairig Ghru. Seven km to the South of me was another bothy, the Corrour bothy. I had no intention of trying to make it there as my feet were tiring and a bothy in the middle of the Lairig Ghru would be absolutely heaving on a bank holiday Saturday evening.
My map showed some potential camping spots a couple of km away, flat spots on the map -but would they be bogs? I needed a place which was flattish, levelish and with a little breeze to keep the midges down. The first potential spots turned out to be bogs but a spot a little further along, too small to see on the map turned out to fit the bill. It wasn’t the most level site (I spent the night sliding down the tent) but it was midge-free and close to water.
The rain began again and the wind picked up. I spent the evening in a very damp tent. Dinner was Super Noodles (I’ve remembered why I gave up on them as camping food now) and a dehydrated stew which was better than the noodles. A spot of harmonica practice and then bed time again.
The next morning dawned cold and wet and I decided against getting a brew on in favour of a sharp exit. By seven o clock I was on my way to the car. I wanted to get back for about 1pm so I could arrive home before it was too late.
The first two kilometres took me 1 hour as my legs refused to move quickly over the boulders. After the terrain improved my speed picked up and soon I was striding along past Corrour bothy and greeting my first passer-by of the day.
I had chosen to follow the River Dee from its source to the car. This was because It looked good on the map and didn’t require me to cross any missing bridges.
The final section of my journey began at the Chests of Dee where the track turned into hard-packed land rover trail back to the car. The final five kilometres flew past but my feet felt worn by the end of them.
The journey complete I dived into the car before the midges realised I was there.
I’d spent three days wandering the cairngorms in the height of summer and had barely seen the legendary pests. It had been close to freezing though and occasionally below.