Outdoor pursuits had not got off to the best of starts this week. I managed to fall off the bike midweek in Blairadam Forest, due to looking at where my front wheel was going rather than where I actually wanted it to go. This was closely followed by a chain snappage, on-trail repair and hasty retreat home for a beer. A window of opportunity presented itself for a weekend overnighter, since taking a new job in May, such events have been rare – so best seize it!
My old favourite, the Cairngorms were the destination. I had a vague plan to camp at the end of Glen Derry somewhere. I love this part of the Scotland. The free-draining grit underfoot, the Scots pines, the wide open spaces and remoteness. The journey up past Glenshee to Braemar and Linn of Dee feels like a journey – a great road especially in great weather. Under blue skies, the Cairngorms can feel un-Scottish, almost North American maybe?
I cycled up to Derry Lodge and left the bike. There were plenty of folk around and a fair number of tents too. Onward up Glen Derry, I was thinking of pitching up above Loch Etchachan, near a spot I’d enjoyed a couple of years ago. Despite the sun, the wind was pretty strong even down in the glen, and when I bumped into an Aberdonian coming back from Derry Cairngorm, he confirmed it was even worse up high. Two pairs of mountain bikers descending back down the glen were at least now enjoying the tailwind, having fought their way into the wind on their outward route.
I reached the end of the glen and swung north-west, into the pass between Derry Cairngorm and Beinn Mheahoin, climbing up toward the Hutchison Memorial Hut. I passed a group of three overdressed walkers coming the other way. Further up, the penny dropped, they’d been repairing the path, hence the PU coated waterproofs rather than bling brand names. They’ve put in a fair amount of drainage channels, but the path has not yet had enough traffic to be fully compacted.
I stuck my head into the bothy, to be confronted by a combination of musty/fresh paint smell, a note from the MBA confirmed they’d spruced the place up just last week. It’s now slightly less hovel-like than last time I visited. I briefly considered sleeping here, given the wind. But I hadn’t walked all the way up the glen to sleep indoors. I had a bit to eat and pressed on, up to Loch Etchachan. The wind was still strong, so I decided to carry on, dropping down steeply to Loch A’an. I hadn’t been this far before, but was struck by the green tinge to the water and the sandy shores. Unfortunately I could see there were a few tents dotted around. I wanted the place to myself, but wasn’t prepared to spend the night anywhere else, it’s an awesome spot, with high crags all around and waterfalls crashing down off the mountain. I’d just have to share. It occurred to me that I’d be testing the limits of the Contrail in this wind.
Losing altitude the wind dropped a bit. The path down is steep and loose. I could see figures leaping from boulder to boulder, over by the famous Shelter Stone. It was inhabited too. I picked a spot equidistant from the other tents. Imagine the horror of someone pitching up right next to you way out here. 😉 I was in a spot below the shelter stone and was afforded some shelter of my own by a giant boulder. I tried to imagine the sort of force required to deposit such a sizeable chunk of geology in it’s current position, either through glaciation, or snapping off the crags above and thundering downhill into the basin. I imagined the splat such a thing landing on my Contrail in the night would make. Cheery thoughts.
I got fed and wandered about, taking photos and occasionally eyeing the Contrail to see if it was still standing. The wind had picked up again and was making any attempts at long exposures futile. The Contrail seemed to be doing okay, a wee bit flappy, but okay. I crawled into my sleeping bag, stuck the earplugs in and fell asleep.
I must’ve had around an hour or two sleep before waking with the tent half collapsed on top of me. The wind had upped it’s game. It was getting nasty. I assumed a peg had come out and jumped out to sort it. The wind had been changing direction regularly. The Contrail should have been end to the wind, but was getting blasted broadside. By this point it was dark, I was pleased to have kept my socks and goretex oversocks on in the sleeping bag, meaning I could jump straight out onto the soggy ground.
The Y-pegs were fine, they held tight, even in the soft ground. The adjustable peg point had come loose, I re-tensioned it and the others and was about to go back inside, when I noticed my walking pole sticking through the fabric at the door. It had jumped out of the metal grommet during the flapping and had gone straight through the silnylon. Bollocks. I reseated it and went back inside. If it rained, there would be some dampness in the porch, not a big deal.
Half an hour or so later, I was struggling to get back to sleep, when the pegging point gave again. I reluctantly decide to strike, pack up and make a night hike back to the Hutchison Hut. It probably says a lot about me that I didn’t really consider crashing the Shelter Stone. I’d rather just hike back over the bealach to the [hopefully deserted] bothy.
I’d only brought my Black Diamond Ion headtorch, which is fine for around camp, but has limited range. I immediately realised that I didn’t have an accurate mental picture of how to get back out. The number of criss-crossing paths on the lower slopes confused matters further. I’d have to pick my way out, up through steep/loose terrain, 2 metres at a time, as dictated by the reach of my headtorch. It was burning on the low output, wary of running down the battery before I’d safely made it to the bothy. It’s safe to say I was a bit anxious at this point, especially with the wind ripping at my pack and twisting me off balance. It was a battle to stay on course, and I was glad of the poles to help me balance and brace against the stronger gusts. Slowly I noted one familiar feature on the ground after another, I just had to keep finding them all the way back to the bothy.
There was a bit of relief as the gradient eased and I made the top of the bealach, although I was well aware that I still had to pick my way through the stream/bog/path past Loch Etchachan, the trails petered out a few times. To make matters worse, the cloud had come down, making the output from the headtorch into a ghostly fog, obscuring features from the terrain ahead. I shut it off once or twice to get my bearings and pick out my position relative to the loch. Those gritty Cairngorm trails glow nicely under torchlight, offering a bit of reassurance underfoot. If the trails had been muddier, routefinding would have been more problematic. I may have had to shelter by a rock until dawn allowed my to see where I was going. I was also lucky in that the rain stayed off, there was some drizzle, but nothing significant. I made the outflow on Loch Etchachan and rock hopped precariously to the other side. Another obstacle cleared. The worst was over. Now back down on the new path to the relative comfort of the Hutchison hut. I remember giving thanks to whoever had the foresight to wrap the bothy porch with reflective tape. Inside, I checked the time, 0300, it would be getting light in a couple of hours. I’d made it back without needing to take a bearing or check the map. Time for some shut-eye.
I woke in the morning to the wind ripping at the bothy roof. No let up then. Outside the window I could see clear skies. I decided I didn’t fancy following my proposed route up Derry Cairngorm and back to Derry Lodge. Anyone who’s been on the bouldery summit of Derry Cairngorm knows there’s plenty of potential for a leg break up there. One big gust at the wrong moment…
No doubt the views from the summit would have been outstanding, but the conditions put me off, I’d pushed my luck enough for one weekend. I retraced my steps back down Glen Derry, the wind dropped as I reached the shelter of the trees near Derry Lodge and it was warm in the sun. I enjoyed the walk by the river, through the pines and stopped for lunch at the footbridge over Derry Burn. A short blast on the bike to the car at Linn of Dee left me with a feeling the trip was over too soon, despite my uncomfortable night hike. The wind had become a light breeze by Braemar and the prospect of a late afternoon spent in the garden with a beer wasn’t so bad.
This is the first time I’ve ever found myself in a ‘situation’ in the hills. One entirely of my own creation, stemming from the decision to leave my Akto at home and take the Contrail instead, despite having seen the forecast beforehand. This sort of gung-ho attitude is not something I’d ever entertain in winter. In summer, you’ll get wet and cold maybe. But in winter you’d get dead.
Loch A’an is about as remote as you can get in the Cairngorms, so you’re a good distance from help, should you need it. But in summer at least, there are a reasonable amount of people around too. If I’d been really desperate, I’d have gatecrashed the Shelter Stone. I think I also spotted a smaller, less enclosed shelter nearby that someone has constructed under a large boulder, presumably when there was no room at the Shelter Stone.
I’m reasonably pleased with my response to the situation, I extracted myself without much fuss. Lessons to be learned: MWIS should be obeyed. And if you’re going to push your luck, do it somewhere you’re more familiar with. I knew the trails as far as Loch Etchachan, but the last section over to Loch A’an was new to me, meaning I didn’t have absolute confidence in finding the right trail back to the bothy in the dark.
Update: To put all this into perspective, there’s an interesting article describing the Cairngorm Disaster of 1971 written by RAF Sqn Ldr Bill Campbell here which happened around the same area.
Thoughts on Kit
I pushed the Contrail beyond it’s design parameters, I can’t blame Henry Shires for that. It’s still usable, despite the hole. But only for low level pitches in good conditions. Time for a TrailStar? There is a large amount of material in the Contrail, if anyone can think of a MYOG project that could use the fabric, you’re welcome to it, leave a comment. Lots of silnylon stuff bags maybe?
My Fizan poles were great [apart from puncturing my shelter]. The security and stability offered when climbing the loose, steep ground up to the bealach in high wind was most welcome.
My BD Ion was the star of the show. The £15 headtorch was just powerful enough to get me back to the bothy. Either of my Petzls would have been preferable, the XP2 would have illuminated much further ahead, which would have inspired confidence in my route finding skills. But without the Ion, I’d have be sat shivering under a rock until dawn. Given my reliance on it this trip, at 28g, maybe it’s time to start carrying it as a backup throughout winter.