On Thursday 23rd of February I made the long journey north to Fort William. Arriving at a chalet that a friend and his family had rented for a break in Glen Nevis at about 10:20pm.
“What are we doing tomorrow then Steve?” I asked.
“Golden Oldy on Aonach Mor I reckon. I’ve done it before. Great route.” replied Steve.
“Sounds good to me”.
We had a beer and looked at the guidebook, discussed the kit we’d need and what time we were getting up.
“The first gondola up the mountain is at 8am. If we’re up for 6:30 that should give us plenty of time” With that, we went to bed.
Friday dawned calm and partly clear, the snow-covered mountains clearly visible and we drove to the Nevis Range car park. We arrived in plenty of time for the first Gondola with only a few other mountaineers for company. At the top station, we turned right and walked towards the approach for the Western face of the mountain. After a short while we parted company with Thomas, Steve’s son who was out for a walk over to Aonach Beag. We descended into the valley between Aonach Mor and Carn Dearg Meadhonach the ground was deep with powdery snow which had fallen the day before. We trod carefully in the footsteps of the other mountaineers in front of us, who in turn were following the footsteps of people the day before. This must have saved us a lot of energy as when we parted company we were soon thigh deep in powder.
The final approach to the bottom of Golden Oldy was hard work; energy sapping snow, post-holing every few steps. We stopped on the lower reaches to put on crampons, harnesses, helmets and retrieve ice axes from our packs.
Setting off up to the climb we separated from the other climbers. They had said they were going to do Golden Oldy too so we were a little surprised. Whether they had changed their minds or just taken the wrong route we didn’t know. What we did know is that they were heading up Gendarme Ridge.
After a short while of solo climbing we stopped in a corner to get the rope out and pitch up. Looking left I saw the other climbers abseiling back off their route. When we’d got ourselves sorted we were off again, climbing up onto the boulders that make up the route. The climbing was slow and difficult. Hindered by soft snow covering the route and crumbling away underfoot everything took too much time.
Steve led a few pitches, I led a pitch, Steve took over again. By now the wind was picking up and some of the more exposed sections felt a lot more challenging. Looking off either side of the ridge it would have been a long drop that I didn’t want to experience.
Eventually we got to the final snow slope. We put away the rope and finished the route. By now it was about 5pm. We knew we’d missed the last gondola back down the mountain but thought we were but a couple of hours from the car.
Climbing onto the summit plateau we were immediately battered by strong winds. Whiteout conditions. We stowed the axes, got out walking poles and checked the map. “North. If we head north we should encounter the ski runs and from there the top gondola station”. We set off following the compass, but careful not to get too close to the western edge. I knew the summit plateau kept a fairly consistent gradient for a Km or two in the direction we wanted to go. After a while, maybe fifteen minutes, I called Steve to stop because the ground seemed to fall away more steeply than I had expected. We stopped and I took the map from my pocket. The wind tore the map from my hand and it sailed from view. “Noooo!” We backed away from the unexpected slope a little way. Steve was about six metres from me and moving south. I shouted to him but he couldn’t hear me over the wind. I turned and followed him.
A few moments later I was falling.
I thought I had just slipped into a little dent in the ground but I kept falling. For what seemed like an age I fell, spinning and rolling. I couldn’t stop. Every time I thought I was slowing down I’d hit a bump and fall further. I bashed my head on a rock. The helmet made a sickening bang. I was glad to be wearing it. A voice in my head said, ever so calmly, “Well. This is it then”. I thought that was me done for, that I was about to die.
There was no panic, just resignation to the fact that there was nothing I could do.
Eventually I stopped. Surprised to be alive I felt my arms, legs and chest. Everything seemed to be in the right place. I wasn’t in great pain. I felt my face. It was wet. Was it blood? Was I smashed up? I tasted the liquid, it was just water. I realised I had lost my Leki pole in the fall. I began to laugh and shouted into the storm “I’ve found Coire an Lochan!” Steve heard my laughter and began to approach me. He was much higher than me and descending to meet me. I didn’t know at the time that he had fallen too. He slipped about 30m. I had gone about 100m down towards the lochan. We both had our axes out now and began to climb out of the Coire.
After a short while climbing, a crack opened in the snow above us. It looked just like someone had unzipped the snow. Slowly at first and then all of a sudden quickly a windslab avalanche came crashing over me. I hung onto my axe and managed to stick to the slope. After a few deep breaths I carried on. Another unzip. Another avalanche. I couldn’t hang on this time and went crashing back down the slope. Not too far, but scary, nevertheless. One more try. Almost to the top this time. Unzip. Crash. We were sent tumbling down the slope. Snow rolling over us. We came to a rest and Steve had been caught by my crampon spikes as we fell together. He was in pain but we didn’t think badly injured.
Climbing out was no longer an option. We tried to traverse below the crags to continue our journey north and off the mountain.
The snow was too deep, too loose. It was dark now and we were soaking wet. Our only option was to get to safe ground and get in the bothy bag that I was carrying. We walked down the slopes, their angle getting easier. Soon we were at the edge of the lochan. Hard to see as it was frozen and covered in fresh snow. We found a large boulder that we thought might offer some protection from the howling wind. We threw our packs down and got out the bothy bag and climbed in.
Steve’s take on the accident:
5.38pm Jay turns north and he’s gone.
Just like that – one second he’s there the next gone. I don’t have a clue where, perhaps he headed down a gentle slope, maybe he walked further back, perhaps he’s just fallen over a cliff and is dead or horribly injured. What do you do when your partner has just fallen over a cliff? Leave him! I had to have a look, so I did.
I’m falling – time has stood still. I’m dead. Simple as that. I’m free falling trying to plunge my pathetic walking pole in to ice. There’s no fear; why should there be? I’m dead and there is nothing I can do about it. I’ve let everyone down with some stupid, stupid useless hobby. All my family, all my friends. I hit snow and roll once, then I stop. I’m alive. I stand up.
Visibility still pretty poor, I could still be a few feet from a massive cliff face. What about Jay – did he fall? If he did he must be dead. Maybe he didn’t fall! Perhaps he’s still up there, the spindrift just hid him for a moment. I’m totally alone. Jay’s lying dead down the mountain, I can’t find him and I don’t know where I am. It’s nearly dark but there’s hardly any wind, I’m on the lee slope. I move down a few feet and the mist is clearing. I can see huge dark cliffs to one side but it’s a gully. Yes, we managed to fall down a gully – two miles of 300 foot cliffs and we chose to fall down a gully. Maybe Jay is down there. I start shouting. Nothing. Then incredibly I see him and he’s laughing. He’s 200 feet below me and he’s laughing. He’s laughing because he’s alive, he’s not even injured.
We hadn’t managed to stop for lunch on the climb and by now we were starving. It was about 8pm by this point. We ate our lunch and drank the flask of now lukewarm coffee. We discussed our options. Given the weather and our own conditions the best course of action was to sit tight in the bothy bag and wait until morning. We knew Steve’s wife and son would be missing us and would have most likely raised the alarm with mountain rescue so we needed to get the message out that we were safe.
I called 999 and was put through to the Police in Fort William. We explained who we were, what had happened, gave our location and told them that our plan was to sit tight. “Do you have food? Are your clothes wet? Have you spent a night out like this before? Are you experienced mountaineers?” We answered the duty sergeant’s questions and she remained sceptical that we would survive. My phone was not connected on my own network and was classed as roaming so I couldn’t receive any calls. We were asked to call back in ten minutes after she had spoken to the Lochaber Mountain Rescue team. It was by now almost 10pm. I called back the Police station. She informed us that the team were not coming unless our condition got worse. The weather was too dangerous to send a team up the mountain unless we were in immediate danger. There was a plan to send a ski-patrol avalanche assessor to find us at about 7am and help us off the mountain.
We were set. A cold night in a small waterproof shelter in a storm. Steve was freezing cold so he took the spare down jacket. This warmed him briefly but it was soon soaked through. We sat huddled together to share what warmth we had. Every hour we’d award ourselves with a boiled sweet. (Chocolate limes have never been so delicious). I checked my watch, 10:30. After a while 10:32. Then 10:34. Sometimes I zoned out, I don’t think I slept but every now and again I’d find thirty minutes had passed. They were happy times. The night was punctuated by agonising leg cramps that we’d need to try to stretch out whilst remaining in the shelter. For me this proved impossible so every hour or so I’d leave the shelter to stretch and look around. All through the night Steve shivered away next to me. I occupied myself with looking at the time and squeezing water out of the fleece liners of my mittens. I have no idea how they could hold so much water but at least they stayed warm.
Eventually the sun rose and we could finally see our location. We were about 5 metres from the edge of the lochan. Our shelter was possibly on top of a rapidly thawing stream. Overnight it had rained heavily and a lot of the snow had melted away.
Seven AM came and went. Eight AM the same. No sign of anyone about. I was beginning to feel uncomfortably cold now, I was beginning to shiver -something I had mainly avoided through the night. We agreed that if by 9:30 help hadn’t arrived we would call 999 and let them know we were moving off to try to get ourselves out.
9:30 came and went so we made the call and got going. Terrain that had been frozen the night before was now knee to thigh-deep slush. My boots filled with freezing water within five minutes of leaving the spot where we’d sheltered. My foot got trapped in so much freezing slush I had to hack it out with my ice axe. We struggled through the slush to reach a higher, drier more rocky area where the going was easier. Moving north east around the Lochan we headed out of the coire to an area that Steve was familiar with from previous trips. “I know that ridge. That’s an easy enough route to the summit” said Steve. “I’m not going up that **** ridge in this **** wind!” I replied. “Let’s head up this slow slope under the ski lift instead”. We followed the ‘Braveheart’ ski-lift to its top and then further up towards a small col. At the head of the slope there was a steeper, rockier section. In normal circumstances, we’d probably have had a go at scrambling up and out.
These were not normal circumstances.
I said to Steve that we needed to pitch it as we were tired, cold, wet and his leg was hurting where he was spiked. Steve is a far better climber than I am and would usually lead. Due to his condition, it was agreed that I would lead the pitch. I set off with the intention of using as much protection as I could possibly fit on the route.
Every spike I passed I put a sling on. I found cracks for nuts that I would normally not have noticed. I really didn’t want to fall off. Some sections I climbed the snow, other times the rock. The route was a bit windy but I just wanted to get to the top.
The final section was a steep bulge of snow followed by a ramp then topped with a small cornice. I had one axe and wasn’t wearing my crampons. I’d get the best placement I could manage with my axe and then kicked steps. Most steps were double kicked to get any feeling of security. I topped out with the snow crumbling under my feet. We’d thought that I might just have to belay from the ground a long way back but luckily, I found a perfect rock to put a sling over and brought Steve up.
Back on the summit we were back in the wind. We got the rope away as quickly as we could and walked towards the ski area on easy ground. When we were in sight of the top gondola station my phone burst into life. A message from an unknown number said “Hi, I work for Nevis Range and Lochaber MRT. Give me a call when you get this”. I called back straightaway. “Hi, where are you?”
“We’re in sight of the gondola station, on the ski runs”
“I see you. Come into the station for a cuppa and to warm up when you arrive”
A short while of walking and glissading later we staggered into the gondola station. We were met and taken to the medical room where we were given tea and blankets. We explained what had happened and reported the avalanches to the SAIS avalanche assessor. More tea and a bowl of soup was brought to us. It was the most delicious soup ever tasted. Couldn’t tell you what flavour it was but it was hot and fantastic.
After Steve’s leg injury had been cleaned and dressed and we’d warmed up sufficiently that we weren’t worrying them we took the gondola down to the car park. Altogether it had taken thirty hours to get back to the car.
Reflections on how it went so wrong.
• We knew the weather for the day of the climb was forecast to be OK but turning bad late in the evening. We knew fresh snow had fallen the day before.
On reflection, these were not good conditions to be out mountaineering in. A walk, preferably on snow shoes would have been more fun and safer.
• When we got to the summit I made an assumption as to whereabouts on the western flank we were. This is what I based by ‘walk north’ strategy on (Though we did realise afterwards that the SMC guidebook says walk north to get off the summit too).
The problem with walking north from this point is that the summit is so narrow with a cross wind (which we had) and in poor visibility (which we had) a small error takes you to the cliffs of Coire an Lochan.
Had we been 10 metres to our left we’d have gone over cliffs and unlikely to have survived the fall.
• No spare map
A backup map is something I often carry. I also have ViewRanger but not for this particular mountain.
In hindsight, a properly thought out plan for what to do on the summit should have been prepared – including a clearer idea of where on the ridge we finished the climb.
Things we got right.
• I always carry the bothy bag and down jacket in my pack in winter. I have never before needed them.
• We informed the Police of our status and sought the opinion of Lochaber MRT
• We didn’t panic, we made a plan to sit out the night and did so keeping the Police informed as we went and when we left in the morning.
• The kit I was wearing performed really well; long-sleeved baselayer, Montane prism jacket, waterproof shell. Montane terra stretch trousers with long-johns underneath. In the bivi I added waterproof trousers.
• Two pairs of gloves and one pair of mittens were carried and they all got used!
Through the whole experience Steve and I remained positive and continued to work as a team.
We were told when we spoke to the Police on our return to the chalet that there had been a break in communications and that on the morning the Nevis Range ski patrol didn’t know we were there. When I phoned to say we were moving out they were minutes from launching a rescue team to come and find us.
I wanted to write this post partly to clear it out of my head; for a few days since it happened I kept replaying it and imagining ‘what-if’ scenarios.
Another aim I had was that if anyone reads it, sees what mistakes we made they can avoid them and avoid a cold night in a bothy bag!
Summary first, explanation later!
I really like this tent, I’d give it 4 out of 5. If I gave ratings.
I have had a long history of avoiding Vango tents. The first backpacking tent I ever bought was an Equinox 200. I took it out for a test run; a pole snapped and I discovered that the TBS straps had been stitched the wrong way around -so they locked in the wrong direction!
I sent it back to the shop who returned it to Vango for repairs. It came back ‘repaired’ I discovered that they had done nothing and it was still as useless as before. I got my money back and bought a Terra Nova Solar 2. This tent was £100 more, 2kg lighter and still in great shape today, 18 years later!
This experience and sleeping in other people’s Vangos over the years kept me away from the brand.
Recently I bought equipment for my school’s outdoor education program. I needed the full works from tents to maps to boots.
I was wary of Vango for the reasons outlined above but I had seen a lot of people were giving them good reviews. The Tempest 300 is on the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award recommended kit list.
I took the plunge and bought some for the school.
I wanted to try the tent so I could iron out any niggles or pitching problems before handing them over to students so I took one from the store on a camping trip with my two children to Kilchoan in Ardnamurchan in Scotland.
The tent went up easily, I skimmed through the instructions in the bag -they seemed fairly sensible and straightforward: Three poles, colour-coded to pole sleeves on the fly. In common with all tunnels, peg one end, pull taut, peg the other end and the guy.
The tent pitched quickly and all in one. The porch groundsheet clipped in and pegged out. Once the tent was up I tightened the peg adjusters and then the TBS2 Tension Bands which prevent sideways movement of the poles adding stiffness.
Over the next three days we experienced bursts of heavy rain and prolonged winds with strong gusts. The tent took everything in its stride. I always left the top of the porch door open and rain never got in. A breeze blew through the tent from the open vent at the back and out of the top vent and porch meaning that there was never a drop of condensation on the inside of the fly -this is a pretty rate thing in these conditions in my experience.
The tent is marketed as a 3 person tent. We used it with three people but two of them were under ten years old. The tent definitely would not fit three full-length (180cm) Thermarests inside, they’d overlap. We used two of these and a ‘body shape’ Neoair and they just about fit. The porch was fairly generous. We had waterproofs, wellies and a stove and plenty of room to move, put on or take off the waterproofs (one person at a time) in the closed porch. It would have been considerable more cramped with three large backpacks stowed in there. When it is used by the school the space should be OK. Three teenagers will take up a little less room (except for their kit, which will be strewn everywhere!).
Overall I was very impressed with the tent. We had plenty of room, it was definitely strong enough for the wild West-coast Scottish weather and pitched easily. I’m glad I chose that model.
Things I liked:
- Enough headroom and ‘foot room’
- Colour-coded, alloy poles (I HATE fibreglass poles! Nasty, bendy rubbish)
- Easy, all-in-one pitching with no faffy adjustments needed
- The list price is reasonable for the quality of tent. (And different retailers discount heavily)
- Good ventilation (Which could be reduced if needed by closing the rear vent)
- Sturdy design put up with wind and heavy rain
- Little touches like the loop on the porch door zip made it easy to grab
- Plenty of pockets inside
Things that could be better:
- Not a ‘Three MAN’ tent (I’m 1.88m tall -three of me wouldn’t fit) Three teenagers would be OK or Two men would have luxury
Time for another backpacking weekend and another two Quality Mountain Days. I had a long planned trip to Ennerdale in the North-Western Lake District in mind, part of the area I’d not visited before.
On Friday I rushed home from work, threw the ready-to-go backpack into the car and set off for the three hour drive to Cumbria.
Keswick is about 2 hours from home and Ennerdale isn’t that far from Keswick, on a map. In terms of Lakeland roads it’s another hour.
The plan was to spend Friday night in the Youth Hostel before setting off, up onto the ridge along the Northern edge of the valley, along to the head of the valley and Great Gable and back along the Southern side, finding somewhere to spend the Saturday night.
I parked the car at the car park in the forest and walked the mile or so to the youth hostel in darkness. I soon discovered I was not alone…
The road had a large number of frogs hopping about and so it became necessary to use my torch to prevent me standing on them. Although I never saw what it was, there was also company in the forest to my side. I’d hear the crack of branches and movement within the trees. Despite casting my torch I never saw what was in there.
Arriving at the youth hostel I was greeted by the friendly warden. A Dutchman. We chatted briefly and I tried to impress with the six or so words of Dutch I know. I settled into the shared lounge with a couple of beers and my maps.
The next morning I took advantage of a cooked breakfast before heading out into the hills.I only had to follow the low level track a short way before a break in the trees allowed me easy access to the hills above. I paused for a while on the summit of Red Pike (755m) and took photos and checked the map. From here my route followed the ridge to the south east towards Haystacks, the final resting place of Alfred Wainwright.
Haystacks was crowded, the first time I’d seen more than a single person since I left the youth hostel a few hours earlier.I found a comfortable rock and made my lunch. Tuna and cheese wraps, pretty standard backpacking food for me.
My plan for the afternoon was to continue onward to Green and Great Gable before moving towards Kirk fell and a bed for the evening.
The crowds thinned out again as I walked away from Haystacks. The weather was superb, beautiful blue skies and not cold at all.
I’d never been on Great Gable before and had heard several people extol its virtues. I thought it was okay but nothing amazing. I preferred Kirk Fell, or more accurately the views from it.
There was not a breath of wind and so I decided to pitch my tent in an exposed place on Kirk Fell. It was a four season tent so even if the wind picked up I was confident I’d survive. The spot I chose offered me amazing views of the Scafells.
The night sky was beautifully clear and so I spent a long time out of my tent just looking at the stars and at the head torches I could see on Scafell Pike. Eventually it was too cold to stay out to I retreated to the warmth of my tent and sleeping bag.
The next morning was just as still and clear as the previous and I enjoyed the views while I made breakfast.
After a light breakfast I packed up and continued on towards Pillar and the descent back to the valley and my car.
I had a day to myself today and decided that a wander in the Yorkshire Dales was in order. The forecast was warm with light breeze and patches of sun. Definitely no rain. I packed a light bag and then made it heavy by adding my camera and its bag.
I drove out to Malham, an absolute honey-pot for the tourists. Famous for its cove, tarn and for Goredale Scar. All of which would be swarming with walkers later in the day. Leaving the car a short way from the tarn I took a bridleway to the North East towards Arncliffe.
My plan wasn’t to follow marked trails but to strike off from the track and find ‘things’ marked on the map. There were many antiquities marked in the Gothic font in the area and I wanted to try to find some, to practice my navigation and just to visit new places.
Leaving the bridleway I plotted a course to take me to a tip (ruin) which was a couple of kilometres away. To get there I followed natural features (an edge) and walls. The area is all covered by CRoW Access land but I had to climb over several dry stone walls to get to where I wanted to go. In several cases there were gates which would have been useful but they were padlocked shut and often had barbed wire across the top -not very inviting to users of the land.
I found the tip (disused) marked on the map. On the ground there was a large pile of rocks partly covered in grass and a large cairn-like structure. I took a bearing towards the next point of interest, a settlement just under a kilometre away. On the map it was shown as being in a ring contour, from this distance there was nothing to be seen. After a swig of water I set off back the way I came a short way, to climb the wall in the same place and climb the next one too.
I had the map out at this point and began to get puzzled. The walls I could see on the ground didn’t quite match what I’d expected to see from the map. The angles seemed wrong. The contours were a pretty close match between map and ground but doubt crept in. I crossed a small valley, climbed up the other side onto the top of a small hill where I thought the settlement should be. There was nothing that my untrained eye could discern as human activity here. I was definitely on a ring contour though.
I took off my pack and took out my phone to check the grid reference, just to make sure I hadn’t wandered off track. The GPS confirmed my location was exactly as it should have been which I was very pleased about. I’d not be much good as a mountain leader if I got lost in broad daylight!
It had taken me quite a bit of time to get to this point in my walk. It wasn’t that far I’d traveled but crossing walls and careful navigating had cost me a lot of time. It was getting towards lunchtime so I walked on to a scenic spot where I could sit and test out my new stove.
I had been walking for about three hours now and hadn’t seen a soul. Not one single person, near or far since I parked my car at about 10am.
After lunch I walked northwards towards a small gorge with a stream flowing down off the hills towards Arncliffe. Contouring upstream to find a place to cross which didn’t require the use of a rope. As I got closer to the stream and to the bridleway on the opposite side I heard voices. The first other people in almost four hours. The voices belonged to two ladies enjoying the afternoon sun and two young boys building a dam in the stream. I said hi, photographed the view and walked on.
I was running out of time now so I opted to follow the bridleway back to the car. Within a few minutes my people count was up to seven, then nine, then more. Back into the popular areas. The walk out had taken four hours. The walk back, along a well trod bridleway only one.
I’ve recently added another stove to my little collection. When I began backpacking, about 18 years ago my gear was budget brand and heavy. Through the years I have upgraded and changed. The first stove I had was a solid fuel ‘hexy’ stove which cost about £4 with several fuel tablets. I still have and occasionally use that stove. Soon after I moved to a gas stove, a Coleman I think with extendable pot supports. It worked well and still does but it rarely sees daylight these days.
Moving from gas to liquid fuel
I began to get fed up with gas stoves because when its cold, they don’t work very well. When the gas can is getting empty, they don’t work very well. When its windy, they don’t work very well. I bought an MSR dragonfly for my overseas backpacking trips. Its lot heavier than any gas stove but I liked it because it works superbly in almost all conditions -I once had difficulty priming it on a hot day in the Spanish Pyrenees, but other than that no problems. I also like the fact you can see how much fuel you have left so running out isn’t as much of a worry. This was my main stove for the majority of my backpacking trips.
Going lighter, going back to gas
I began to re-evaluate my pack and its contents and decided I couldn’t justify the weight and space taken up by the dragonfly and its fuel bottle. The smallest, lightest stove I could find without paying silly money was an MSR pocket rocket. The reviews were positive and the stove is tiny.
The Pocket Rocket is a really good stove, its powerful and gets water to a boil in a decent time and it weighs only a few grams. I had moved from using a pan in my cookset to a titanium mug to save weight. A 100g gas can, lighter and several drink sachets fit nicely inside the mug leaving only the stove itself outside making my new and improved (solo) cookset a heck of a lot lighter and smaller than the petrol stove, fuel bottle and pan it replaced.
The stove is a fairly basic style and as such suffers the same problems as most other stoves (wind and gas pressure). This means I have ended up with a collection of part-filled gas cans!
Adding weight, solving problems
After another trip frustrated by wind increasing boil times to annoying levels -and being unable to cook in the tent porch I started to research ‘stove systems’ (MSR Windburner, MSR Reactor, JetBoil etc). They were all faster to boil and much more fuel efficient so the added weight of the heat exchanger was balanced by the better fuel use.
After reading a load of reviews and having a long-term love of the brand I settled on the MSR Windburner. My third MSR stove!
I’ve only been able to test it a couple of times and deliberately sited the stove in the breeze. The first time I used it I was amazed, I poured in enough water to make a coffee and it had boiled within thirty seconds. I’ve used it again to make coffee and with enough water left over for instant noodles. Again, the boil time was superb (I wasn’t geeky enough to time it!).
(Disclaimer: I’m not paid by MSR and I’ve bought all these things myself. That said, if MSR would like to give me free things they should feel free to do so…)
Pros and Cons
Basic gas stove:
Pros: Lightweight. Dead easy to use. Small pack size. Cheap
Cons: Best used out of the wind. Almost useless in really cold weather
Liquid fuel stove:
Pros: Super-powerful. One fuel bottle lasts a very long time (great if you need to cook for a group or boil all your water)
Cons: Heavy. Slow to set up. Takes up a lot of pack space. Expensive
Gas stove system:
Pros: Fast! More gas-efficient than the ‘normal type’. Continues to perform as the can empties.
Cons: Heavier and bigger than the smallest ‘normal’ gas stoves. Expensive
Last week I began the Hadrian’s Wall Path long distance trail with a friend and my two children (aged 6 and 9). The path runs across Northern England following the route of a Roman wall which was built about 2000 years ago to keep the Scots and Picts out of the Roman empire. For several miles sections of the original wall remain, although due to centuries of pilfering stones, not intact.
The route is 84 miles long from Bowness-on-Solway in the West to Wallsend in the East. The route covers urban, rolling pasture and wild uplands along its length.
We began our journey at the Western end hoping to finish off in familiar surroundings of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and a train back home to Bradford. The original plan was to cover about 10-11 miles per day and cover the whole trail in the eight days we had available. Two days into the route we revised our plan and aimed to do the first half at a more leisurely pace. We finished with a train to Newcastle from Bardon Mill (A few miles south of the path).
It became apparent within the first two days that our pace wouldn’t allow us to complete the route in the time we had available.
We re-planned with an aim of about 10km (6 miles) per day with plenty of time for resting and enjoying the views.
This trip was Sophie’s (6 year old) first backpacking trip. Edward (9 year old) has been backpacking twice before and Mark has completed the Dales Way with me, but many years ago. All four of us carried a pack. Sophie’s contained her water bottle, sandals, sleeping bag and cuddly toy. Edward had sleeping bag, mat, clothes, sandals and water bottle. Mark and I shared out the rest including a tent each and two large bags of food to last several days.
The first two days of walking weren’t through the most inspiring bits of the country. Some of it was pleasant enough but there were a lot of diversions and footpath closures which meant many miles on roads and tired feet. After Carlisle things improved as more of the route was through fields and countryside.
The kids were enjoying themselves but wondered where the wall was. The western parts were never brick wall, they were earth mounds and ditches with wooden defenses atop them. It wasn’t until we reached Banks on the third day we actually saw ‘wall’ in the form of Hare Hill.
This raised spirits immeasurably and we really felt that the walk was beginning at this point. Soon, our second section of wall was found with a ruined fort just after Banks, towards Bankshead and the camping barn we hoped to stay in – we were keen on showering.
Unfortunately there was no answer at the farm where the camping barn was so after a while spent waiting near the farm we retraced our steps back into Banks and to a campsite.
After Banks the wall seemed to be an almost constant feature with many mile castles and forts to keep us company.
The countryside became more remote-feeling from this point, like we’d taken steps closer to wilderness. The ground was more rugged with craggy hills and rougher grasses rather than cultivated farm land.
The ups and downs began to take their toll on smaller legs and the pace dropped appreciably. We were all glad to reach Greenhead and our bed for the night. The map showed a campsite which had been long abandoned. The youth hostel had thankfully been taken into private ownership by the local hotel and was still open. We were glad of the shower and accommodation that didn’t need building. To complete our evening of relaxation we went to the hotel for a delicious and reasonably priced meal. £10 for a main course – The chicken and haggis was superb. The sticky toffee pudding that followed it excellent too! We retired to our beds full and happy.
The next morning we visited the ruins of Thirlwall castle and then the Roman Army Museum.
Up to this point we had been very fortunate with the weather. Winds had been gentle, rain absent and nights mild. Throughout the next day the rain came down. Not especially heavy rain, but constant rain. We were heading for Once brewed and our final night under canvas. When we arrived the ground was sodden and everything we touched turned to mud. Once again we availed ourselves of the local facilities and ate in the Twice Brewed Inn.
After a night of rain and mud we ate the last of the breakfast food we had brought, packed up one final time and walked out to Bardon Mill via the Vindolanda Roman Fort.
Our timing was, by chance, excellent and within fifteen minutes we were on a train heading for Newcastle.
Notes about the trail
As mentioned above the Western end isn’t the best. I think I were to do this trail again I’d begin at Carlisle. Its a lot easier to get to and the walking is better East of there. Many of the villages you pass through aren’t big enough to support a local shop or pub, this is bad if you’re looking to resupply or eat meals as you go. What we did find though is that a lot of the villages have honesty boxes containing soft drinks and snacks so light refreshment is possible as you go.
Places we stayed, ate and drank
Day 1: The highland laddie inn a brief stop for a drink
We slept at the Roman Wall Lodges this was a small campsite with a couple of camping lodges. We could use the (excellent) facilities in the chalet. This campsite was five minutes walk from the pub, the Drovers Rest in Monkhill. Food was served here and it looked good but we had eaten in camp.
Day 2: Cakes and ale Cafe a brief stop for, umm, cake and ale.
Our stop this night was at Stonewalls farm campsite in Laversdale. This was a basic farm site but it had a handy shed containing a kettle and microwave.
Day 3: Reading room cafe, Walton another short stop for cake and a drink. Lovely little cafe next to the village hall.
We made use of an ‘honesty box’ for a coke which was conveniently half way up the hill on the way to Banks.
The night’s accommodation was a campsite in Banks (can’t find a link. Its signposted at a house on the side of the road near the village green) We had hoped to stay in the camping barn but couldn’t make contact when we arrived.
Day 4: Birdoswald fort for a drink and a cake. House of Meg tearoom lunch stop. We opted for the ‘all-day’ breakfast. (Served until 1pm). All very tasty except the sausages which were disappointing and cheap. The pub nearest the cafe was shut at lunchtimes but about half a mile away the Samson Inn was open and on the route.
Our overnight accommodation was at Greenhead Youth Hostel (Independently owned). This gave us our first shower of the trip. We ate dinner in the hotel too. Good ale and food with reasonable prices. £10 for chicken breast with haggis -delicious.
We’d expected to stay in the campsite marked on the map but it no longer exists.
Day 5: We had an early lunch in the Roman Army museum cafe at Walltown before continuing on our way to camp at once brewed at Winshields farm. The farm had a tearoom, served breakfast and had a camping barn. We didn’t have opportunity to test these.
Not really looking forward to a pasta n sauce dinner sat in a soaking wet tent we went to the twice brewed inn. The inn offered a range of ales and good food. It also had accommodation.
Day 6: Vindolanda this was our final visit on the way to the train. Nice little cafe in the museum.
Backpacking with young children
I thought it might be useful to anyone else considering this sort of undertaking to offer information and suggestions about taking little’uns on multi-day walks.
- Mileage: We found that a plan for 2kmh was about right – this includes rests and meal breaks
- Pack weight: As light as you can! – throughout the trip as my pack got lighter due to food consumption I moved things from theirs to mine to make it easier on them.
- Bed: All of us had a Thermarest type mattress -yes, Karrimats are lighter and probably character building but I wanted peaceful sleep all round!
- Sleeping bags: We used lightweight summer bags and both kids also slept in onesies – these were only used in the tent to keep them clean.
- Footwear: The kids wore walking boots with proper walking socks. We all had sandals for in-camp use.
- Warm wear: Both kids had a fleece jumper and would wear waterproofs as a walking warm layer (Remember: they cool down much easier/faster than adults so wore more clothes as a general rule).
- Water: Make sure they drink it! -We took one of those super concentrated squash bottles where a tiny squirt makes a glass of squash.
They liked to have their own packs because they felt like part of the team, they could also keep their own snacks and water bottles. Edward used an old pack of mine and Sophie used her school bag. As a walking backpack it wasn’t ideal as the straps were too close together at the shoulders which meant she needed a hood or similar to stop the straps rubbing her neck. I used this pack because it’s pink and she likes it! Sometimes giving in to their irrationalities is worthwhile to keep them happy. Both children took a small soft toy for bed time and a book each.
During the day they took turns (sometimes argued about) at being the leader and going first. The trail is superbly well way-marked with the national trail acorn emblem so route finding was never an issue.
Sophie as group leader finding the acorns.
In order to keep pack weights down we had to be flexible with clothing choices and not to squeamish about repeat-wearing pants!
The waterproof trousers and jackets doubled as a warm layer for the kids along with their jumpers. Edward wore his precious football shirts as his wicking baselayer, Sophie had to make do with standard T shirts. Shorts paired with waterproof trousers make a comfortable and practical set of legwear keeping the wind out but not too sweaty.
On an evening, as soon as the tents were up the boots came off to dry/air and the sandals went on to let hot feet breathe.
Meals: Obviously you know your kids and what they like. Food is fuel on the trail so its important they eat plenty
Breakfast: We had ‘red’ Alpen (the one with sugar in) mixed with full fat milk powder. Just adding hot or cold water made a delicious, creamy breakfast
Lunches: Tortillas (decent shelf life) with Primula squirty cheese or John West Tuna sachets in a variety of flavours
Dinners: A variety of things including: Uncle Ben’s microwave rice packets (add a little water to prevent burning) mixed with a ‘Look What We Found’ Chili con Carne’ (Three rice and one chili to get plenty of carbs) Good old pasta n sauce, Cheap Ramen noodles (BBQ beef flavour) and the best meal… Ainsley Harriot flavoured cous cous, chorizo (chorizo almost always makes it into my pack because its delicious, keeps well without a fridge and its delicious!) and dried apricots.
Snacks and trail food: A bag of dried fruit and nuts, bags of ‘Percy pigs’ gummy sweets, marshmallows (also added to hot chocolate), jelly cubes.
When we could we’d pop into cafes and have a drink and some cake to keep morale up and support the local economy!
If I were to offer any advice to people up for assessment It would be this…
- It really is quite hard! -Be fit and mentally prepared
- Make sure your kit is up to it and have a few spares and repair kit items
- A good torch makes night navigation so much easier
- Never forget your group -you don’t need to treat the other candidates like novices but don’t forget they’re there
- Remember spare kit for the group – group shelter, spare rain coat, food etc.
- Make sure you’re equally confident using a 1:50K OS map as a 1:25K OS map
- Bearings to faraway points won’t be the best navigational strategy, you need to be confident with contours and map features (this is almost easier in the dark when you can’t see to take bearings!)
- Look at the map carefully before you set off. How far away is that point? Is there a climb to it? How long will it take to get there? What are your tick-off features?
Moving point-to-point is not a race. Take your time to think over your plan.
- When you’re relocating use all the evidence you can to make your decision
- If you realise you’ve cocked up, admit it. Correcting an error is so much better than blindly carrying on
- Be prepared to not get everything 100% especially when you’re tired
You’ll spend a week in the mountains. You’re there because you love the mountains. Don’t forget to look around and enjoy the views!
Last week I drove back to Plas Y Brenin at Capel Curig in North Wales. The visit was from Sunday night until Friday afternoon for the Mountain Leader assessment.
I did the training in the February half term in 2014 and I’ve spent many days, nights and weekends wandering the mountains of Scotland, England and Wales between then and now gaining logbook experience ready for the assessment. I booked my place at PyB months ago, as soon as the dates were published. As the months passed I became more anxious, wondering if I really was up to the challenge. Would I make an arse of myself?
I booked in and went to my room. Jim, my room mate and fellow assessment candidate was there already. A fellow teacher -one of several on the assessment (It was half term, after all) but from a very different subject and workplace.
The week began with the standard PyB welcome briefing to all guests and the centre director told us that on that evening Alan Hinkes, Britain’s greatest living Yorkshireman, top mountaineer and one of my heroes would be giving a talk in the evening. We separated off into our groups and Dave, our course director outlined the week ahead for us and introduced us to the assessors we’d spend the week with.
1:25k navigation. We were taken down the road by minibus and we set off to walk up Moel Siabod via a tussocky, boggy route. We were a group of four; Jim, Dom, Mike and myself accompanied by Greg, our assessor. We took it in turns to lead a leg and declare when we’d reached our destination. The other members of the group would have to identify where they thought they were by pointing a blade of grass at a relevant point on the map and explaining the evidence they’d used to make that decision.
While we were navigating our way Jim and Mike took the opportunity to deliver their 5 minute hill talks. Jim described what the Romans would have found when they got to Wales. This was a fascinating talk and easily ten minutes of enthusiastically delivered information. Mike explained glacial processes and the impact on the landscape.
Greg commented that as a group we kept up a really good pace as he was a fast walker and we took in the difficult ground without problem. He said that we may need to moderate our pace if we were walking with a less experienced group.
On the final descent back to PyB each of us was given individual feedback about our performance that day, good bits, things to improve on and other tips.
On the evening we were given a route planning task to be done that evening and handed in at reception along with our paper logs, home papers and first aid certificates.
After the homework was done I grabbed a pint and went to the Hinkes talk. Even had opportunity to speak to the man himself!
1:50K navigation and steep ground. We were dropped off by minibus part way between Pen Y Pass and Llanberis. Our groups was now without Jim who’d been re-assigned to another group due to changes in numbers. Today’s assessor was Dave, the course director. The format was similar; each of us was given a ‘leg’ to navigate and we’d make our way over the broken ground to our target, declare we were there and the others had to say where ‘there’ was. I was given a point to navigate to, which in hindsight was a piece of cake; find the flat bit on the spur down from Crib Goch and head to a small contour line. I completely screwed this leg up. I kept stopping, checking, walking off. I didn’t take in the big picture and got bogged down in the detail and basically lost it! Dave gave handy hints and tips and eventually I made it. On arrival I was questioned thoroughly as to how I knew (partly because I’d previously declared I was ‘there’ when I was nowhere near). This screw up hit me hard and really knocked my confidence. I took extra care over everything else I did that day but the thought that I wasn’t up to it began to take hold.
Coming down a ridge line I slipped on some wet grass and landed on my arse. Unhurt, I leapt up with a ‘Tah-Da!’ but it didn’t help my faltering confidence.
When we were back on easier ground we got our feedback. Dave explained that my poorly done navigation on that one point would have affected a group’s confidence in me if I was their leader. He was completely right, I looked like I didn’t know what I was doing. He gave me some great advice about how to plan the navigation, the big picture and things of that sort. I got back on the minibus beginning to think I was now fighting for a deferral, rather than a failure.
Back at base we were given instructions about the next few days which would be spent on expedition. We spent the remainder of the evening in the bar chatting and having a restful evening before the ‘big days’ ahead. I possibly had two too many beers and ended up getting to bed somewhat later than was ideal.
1:25K Navigation, rope use camp craft and expedition skills. Andy was our assessor for this part of the expedition. I was given the first leg to navigate, a truly easy point on a bend on a footpath! -I found it, using timings, the map and common sense (I had a feeling they’d given me an easy one due to my earlier screw ups). En-route I took the opportunity to give my five minute talk. I’d originally planned to talk about the CroW act the Scottish access code but had decided that it was too dry and instead gave a talk on choosing a water source to drink from. The other guys took their turns and I got my second one. Another easy leg to an easy-to-find lake on the slopes of Snowdon. (I really did think they were giving me the ‘Noddy’ points to keep me going but that I wasn’t going to pass). We walked towards Cwn Tregalan and I was given another point. In retrospect another completely simple piece of nav. I messed up again! I made a ridiculous assessment of the map and declared that the point was about 500m further than it was. Andy questioned me, gave me a bit of info and It fell into place. I was definitely not passing this course. Walking to the point the realisation of just how easy the point was to find hit me. What an idiot!
We reached the place where we’d spend the night. We got the tents up, not without issue, one of the poles from Mike’s Jack Wolfskin tent snapped! Luckily we’d both come prepared with a pole sleeve and I had a roll of duck tape. A repair made, we got the tent up and made a brew. We demonstrated our skills at lowering someone down a cliff and tying up an anchor to belay from. I kept on tying a stopper knot wrong. I climb most weeks and can do a stopper without thinking but something in my brain kept sabotaging me!
Darkness fell and we set off night navigating. The first leg was mine and I got us there no problem. On arrival I explained to Andy what my procedure was and the evidence I had found. A few more points and it was my turn again, a ford on the Watkin path. As we set off uphill to my point we heard a sound. Was that a whistle? A sheep? A person? We waited a while and looked around. It was definitely a whistle and we saw a weak torch on another path almost a kilometre away. We set off at once the whistling continued we also heard a shout for help. We arrived at the path to find a lady and her young daughter seeking help. They’d been up Snowdon with other members of their family but had come down a different route and got caught out by the darkness and had no map. Their torch was a keyring type torch, not really up to the job of navigating.
Our night navigation had become a genuine assistance! We checked they were uninjured and warm and set off. I gave my spare headtorch to the little girl who also had a few of our wine gums. She was very calm considering she was in the dark on a mountain. After a while we came across a pair of well-equipped walkers who were out practicing their night navigation in preparation for an ML assessment! They’d heard the help shout and were looking for the woman too.
We handed the lady and daughter over to them and exchanged phone numbers. We carried on our navigation exercise. Later on we got a text to say that all was well and the party were reunited.
We cooked dinner and crawled into our tents at about ten pm after what had been a long and tiring day.
1:50k navigation and security on steep ground, including rope use. We got up, packed up and donned waterproofs. Each of us in turn took a navigation leg. We walked far from tracks and other people eventually stopping for lunch next to Llyn Nadroedd. After lunch Dom gave us his five minute talk which was on the subject of droving. The movement of sheep from the valleys to the markets.
Talk done we shouldered our packs and set off down a small scree and boulder slop where we demonstrated our short-roping technique. Towards the end of the journey I was given a point to get us to and I screwed up. Again! I’d got it into my head that I was leading us to a camp site and this thought took over my brain and I missed the point I was to take us to. I declared “we’re here” when we were no such thing. WHile the others were relocating I re-checked the map and the ground and realised my error. I told Andy I was wrong and showed him the actual location and where we should have been. He said that he’d have been concerned if I hadn’t corrected myself but he was happy I had done. I was certain that I wasn’t passing the assessment.
We arrived at the location of our camp and set up the tents. We whispered amongst ourselves; “Are we night navving tonight?” “I dunno, hope not” “Lets not mention it…”
Andy came over and told us he’d seen enough the previous night so we didn’t need to leave camp until the next morning. We were very pleased with this! As we sat on a large flat rock enjoying a brew and cooking our dinner I asked if the assessment was effectively complete as we only had about 3km to walk into Llanberis the next morning. Andy said it was more or less over unless we burned our tent down. In which case we’d fail! As the night grew colder we began to yawn. We were all in our tents by 8pm.
The next morning dawned and we wandered into Llanberis and Pete’s Eats café and waited for the minibus.
Back at PyB we returned borrowed kit, showered and awaited our summons to collect the results.
I knew I’d failed. Too many mistakes. I waited glumly with the other candidates. One by one they went in to see Dave and to get their results. Pass, Pass, Pass, Pass, Defer (Ropes), Defer (Navigation).
Dom -Pass. My turn. I was hoping it was defer and not fail. I went to the office and sat down. Dave turned to me and said “Congratulations, you’re a mountain leader”
“Fuck me!” was my ineloquent reply.
I’d done it! I’d fucking done it! I couldn’t believe it. My brain had focused on everything I’d got wrong through the week. Everything I could have done better. I’d forgotten all the things I’d got right.
I came out with a huge grin and returned to the bar. Mike was last. He went in, got his result -a pass and came back to the bar. Our team had done it! The three of us had been together since the Monday and we’d all done it.
The elation of passing even made the five hour journey home (usually 2.5 hours) seem bearable!
This last weekend I got in the car and drove the 120 miles or so to the Ogwen valley in Snowdonia. A place that I began my proper mountain walking journey almost twenty years ago.
The views never grow tired. Old friends like Tryfan and Pen Yr Ole Wen on opposite sides of the valley. I’ve been there several times over the years but only recently ventured into the Carneddau on a backpacking trip last year.
This time I was based at Gwern Gof Isaf camp site with a bigger tent and more gear. A comfy weekend of day walks.
The original plan for the Saturday was a walk up Y Garn’s right hand ridge. I’d never been up Y Garn before and the line of the ridge looked really attractive. As we walked (Dan and I) from the campsite along the track near to the valley road we began to think up an alternative. The lower part of the right hand ridge looked a bit, well, dull. The upper part still appealed, it was just the zig-zag trudge to get there. As we approached the mountain a ridge to the left of the stream looked enticing. We imagined a route scrambling up the rocky ridge to the high ground and then maybe cut across to the other side near to Llyn Clyd.
The scrambling was great fun. The rock solid and grippy. Little nobbles and bumps adding character and grip. Some of the sections were quite exposed and exciting -especially as we hadn’t brought the rope or scrambling guide with us. After an hour or more we approached the final section, the base of Castell y Geifr. Through the mist all we could see were rock walls with no way through. After a short discussion we headed left and found a gully. The gully wasn’t too loose and we thought it looked reversible if we found we couldn’t make progress through it.
At the head of the gully we reached a short wall which we could climb onto from the right hand side. From here guarding the summit was an airy rock walkway and an imposing steep section with a large crack in it. Both sides of the walkway had long, steep drops. One side the gully, the other a boulder and scree field.
I must admit that the thought of attempting to climb the last section with its inevitable consequences for failure didn’t appeal. Not without a rope (or even a guidebook to encourage us). After a look at the map and a short conversation we climbed down the opposite side of the wall and began to traverse below the walls of Castell y Geifr looking for an easier route onto the summit ridge.
After a few hundred metres the wall dipped and all that separated us from the summit ridge was a short scramble over large boulders.
After a quick lunch on the summit we turned to walk along the tops to Glyder Fawr. We encountered a large number of runners and walkers attempting the Welsh 3000 challenge. We passed and were passed by the same people several times over the next few kilometres. They were faster than us on the flat, then struggled on the ascents. Dan and I kept a fairly even pace over all the terrain.
A while later, as we bypassed Castell y Gwynt a voice behind us asked if we were heading to the Ogwen Valley. We turned to see a man in mountain running kit, sporting a competitor’s number. We told him we were, heading to the campsite. He said he had been in the race but was giving up and wanted to head down to the car park. We pointed him in the right direction; “Get to that lake (Llyn Caseg-fraith) then turn left”. “This way” he said, pointing in the opposite direction. “no” we replied. “that way”.
“Oh, Ok. Thanks” and off he jogged.
We got to the lake and there he was again looking confused. “This is the Ogwen valley, isn’t it?”. “Yes” I replied taking out the map. The man looked puzzled and wondered aloud if that was actually the valley he wanted, or if he wanted to be in Llanberis! We sent him on his way to the valley where we knew there were marshals for the race.
We carried on down a rocky outcrop straight to the campsite where we spent the evening wondering what became of the runner.
On Sunday we set off for Moel Siabod. Via the café of the same name to eat the eponymous breakfast (highly recommended).
From the café a short walk through the forest to the Plas Y Brenin mountain skills training centre took us to the start of the path to Moel Siabod. We eschewed the tourist path (dull) for a more interesting walk to the back of the mountain and an easy (striding edge-esqe) scramble to the summit. This route had none of the technicalities of the previous day but was just as much fun. Again the rock was dry and grippy and nobbly. I’m not sure what type it is but it makes good climbing rock!
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.