Morning light over Loch Esk.

It’s been approximately far too long since I’ve been out for a proper wild camp [I’m not counting the camp when Canoeing the Spey]. In fact, looking back at the blog, it appears the last one was in June [!] up Glen Derry. I had attempted a couple of times since then, but was scuppered for a variety of reasons. Anyway, the most important thing is I managed it this time. I had a few ideas prior to the weekend, but settled on a walk up Jock’s Road at the head of Glen Clova/Glen Doll. The forecast was favourable. Decent conditions with a chance of rain later on, with snow above 600m.

The plan, walking clockwise, camping halfway.

The walk begins with a section through Glen Doll forest along Jock’s Road, it’s not unpleasant, but uneventful, there are signs of felling operations but the route was pretty quiet. The drive up Glen Clova had been very quiet, I don’t think I passed any cars, very odd for a dry Saturday.

Craig Maud, with Jock’s Road on the right.

Once the forest opened out, I could see a rugged track, rising up into the hills beyond. Jock’s Road has a bit of a reputation. As I climbed I could see why, the path was rough and slow going. The higher you get the worse it is. Trying to walk a straight line was impossible. I wouldn’t like to attempt walking the whole thing in adverse weather conditions. I was only on it for the climb, but if the conditions underfoot remained as poor for the rest of the 14 miles to Braemar, I could see how you could get caught out in winter.

Looking back down a gloomy Glen Doll.

The snow started as I reached the head of the glen, not particularly heavy, but the forecast was right! I passed the subterranean shelter by the path and continued on, completely missing my turn off to head NE toward Loch Esk. I figured as much and started heading east to come at the loch from above, there were better views from higher up anyway. The area surrounding the loch looks somewhat alien, at least to my eye. There are rocky outcrops and small pools all around. The wind had dropped to nothing which lent a certain eeriness. I was going to enjoy camping up here.

Loch Esk, just below the snowline.

The snow had stopped, but the cloud was starting to come down. I’m a bit particular about where I pitch up [I’d brought the Akto]. Finding a flat spot which isn’t bog in Scotland is often difficult due to the heather and tussock grass. Add to this the requirement for a nearby water source and decent view and the odds drop further. Eventually, I found a spot on a buttress overlooking the loch. I got myself pitched up before the cloud came down and went off to find a stream before the light went completely.

I got fed and had an Irish coffee to warm myself up. It had the side effect of sending me to sleep at 5pm. I woke a while later and lay listening to music, atmospherics provided by Philip Glass’s Kundun score, then Peter Gabriel’s Last Temptation of Christ soundtrack. Scorsese knows how to pick his collaborators.

The snow had started again, heavier this time, I could hear it sliding down the Akto flysheet onto the ground. I hoped it wouldn’t be too heavy, I didn’t fancy the tent collapsing during the night. The wind picked up and was noisily flapping the fly. I was uncomfortably cold in my sleeping bag, it look my a while to figure out that I was sweating. I was in that strange place where the difference between damp and cold or clammy and warm are no longer obvious. My baselayer was still damp from the climb, I’d managed to overpower my Paramo VAL, even with vents open. Ideally I should have just been in my baselayer and a windshirt for the steep section, as I was too warm in the Paramo, but I hadn’t brought one. I’ll know next time.

The clamminess in the sleeping bag was rectified by removing my Rab Generator. I think my sweat was condensing in the cool air and giving me a chill. My temperature regulated after that, my baselayers dried out and I warmed up. Helped along by a Soreen Go bar, which are ace, by the way. So, a somewhat counter-intuitive lesson was learned, and I made a mental note to read up on vapour barriers.

The wind was howling by this point, but the snow seemed to have stopped lashing the tent. I needed a pee, so popped out quickly, the sky overhead and out west was clear and inky blue, unfettered by light pollution. Orion was clear as a bell, as was the Milky Way. Despite the cold wind cutting me in half, I took in a few constellations and shooting stars, annoyed it wasn’t more favourable temperature wise for some extended stargazing. I only lasted a few minutes before dodging back into the tent and relative warmth. I was annoyed I didn’t have a tripod to make an attempt at getting some astro shots.

Earplugs in, I eventually drifted back off to sleep and woke at around six to a much calmer hillside. I dozed for a bit a but got up once I saw it getting lighter, my boots were frozen solid. I grabbed the camera and headed out.

It was cool out, but there was no breeze. I warmed up quickly as I was dashing about trying to get as many photos as I could as the light changed. Eventually I had to take my balaclava off. I still had my earplugs in, silence felt right somehow.

As the sun came over the horizon the hillside started to glow. I love the morning light at this time of year. Whenever I see it, I always wish I were better at early starts.

Fafernie, NE of the loch.

Once I’d finished running around the hillside I grabbed a cuppa, some breakfast and let the sun warm me.

Waiting on the water boiling.

It took a while, the water froze in my platypus overnight.

Once I was fed and packed I headed off down past the loch, picking a route through frozen pools, scaring off Ptarmigan and mountain Hares as I went. The wildlife in the area is pretty abundant. The previous evening, two Ptarmigan, the most un-aerodynamic of birds, came in fast and low like a pair of Spitfires, flapping and squawking [or whatever it is Ptarmigan do…]. They missed me by a couple of feet, I just about shat myself.

Looking north, toward Broad Cairn.

I picked my way down through the iced track, as I lost height the frozen ground turn squelchy, the path was waterlogged in places and didn’t really improve until I was well down into the glen. I passed a couple of walkers and further down, four guys on mountain bikes. Rather them than me.

Down into the glen.

I could hear stags calling high above on both sides of the glen. I could see a herd up on the right in the West Corrie of the plateau between Glen Doll and the head of Glen Clova. I’d seen this same herd from Jock’s Road in the snow the previous day. Further down the glen, I noticed a pair of raptors circling high above Broom Hill, but they were too distant to make out what they were exactly. It was so nice to see such a variety of wildlife and no livestock on the hills.

I stopped for a drink by the river, but pressed on as the glen was cool in the shade and my thoughts were turning to the peperami I’d left to the boot of the car. I forded the river and followed the diversion avoiding more timber operations, along the bank and through the forest. I was back to the car sooner than expected and was glad to see it as I left it. The sign in the visitor centre car park states ‘no overnight parking’, which I had duly ignored. I honestly don’t see why not, in a nation perennially ranked as one of the unhealthiest in Europe, you’d have thought they’d be trying to encourage people out into the wilds. After my recent run of hiking inactivity and failed wild camps, I wasn’t going to let a sign stop me. It was good to be out, I won’t leave it so long next time.