Cairngorms May 19

Our recent wild camping and Munro bagging trip to the southern Cairngorms was a great success. Below are reports from Rhian, Lizzie and Jude, with some pictures from Rhian and Jude.

Rhian’s report:

Boulder Field in Chalamain Gap

‘After a very wet night wild camping at the Corrour Bothy I set off in the rain on Sunday morning to walk the remaining 12 miles of the Larig Ghru, a high mountain pass through the Cairngorms, to Glenmore via the Chalamain Gap.

 

Pools of Dee

The ascent up to the highest point took me to the Pools of Dee, widely regarded as the source of the River Dee. On the descent through the steep sided pass, great views of the Caledonian Forest and Rothiemurchus opened up.

After lunch the rain stopped. A short ascent to the Chalamain Gap and a clamber across a boulder field took me on to the lower flanks of Cairn Gorm. The descent then took me over a footbridge and through the forest to Glenmore Information Centre where I arrived at 2.30pm to a much needed cup of coffee and piece of cake.’

Lizzie’s report:

Walk Down to Glenmore

On Saturday morning nine of us made the walk in to the Culra bothy from the Linn of Dee car park near Braemar. Trepidation from our weather forecasts didn’t quite put us off the idea of wild camping in the notoriously uncompromising Cairngorm weather.

 

 

 

 

Early on Sunday morning Rhian could be seen walking out via the Lairig Ghru, whilst the remaining seven in the group finished their breakfast before bagging three Munros: 14km and 1150 of ascent across Bod an Deamhain (Devil’s point), Cairn Toul and Sgor an Lochain Uaine, before returning along the contour line.

Very rocky underfoot terrain and a very windy ridge made for a wobbly traverse. Rain and wind throughout the first night added to the rain for the second – Kev found himself in a moat and Damian almost flew away granting him the nickname Dorothy… Learned a lot from Di on fauna and flora and the wet weather helped consolidate what constitutes suitable mountain weather kit as several of us found our waterproof choice maybe wasn’t quite as waterproof as we thought… We cooked in the bothy both nights, where it was dry, and crammed in when more and more arrivals joined us and/or passed through for cover. We met some interesting characters and heard many adventure stories over the warmth of the cooking heat.

On Monday morning five of the group left Jude and Clive at camp to return to the Linn of Dee car park. Sunshine started to peek through, reminding us of how beautiful this part of the world can be when the cloud lifts. Finished off with a coffee and slice of cake at the bothy in Braemar making this overall a very memorable and enjoyable weekend.’

Jude’s report:

Jude in Glen Dee

‘May 2019 – The long awaited Scottish Highlands weekend was here at last. In the winter months, I had enjoyed researching and planning this trip with the aim for members of my mountaineering club, Bremex, to wild camp and bag some Munros.

Saturday

Nine members, including myself, set off from the Linn of Dee car park (near Braemar) to walk to Corrour Bothy in the southern Cairngorms. We were heavily laden to varying degrees, as different people had different aims. My partner and I were intending to wild camp for four nights and bag at least seven Munros, so we probably had the heaviest bags. Someone else was carrying little more than a day sack as her intention was to camp overnight, let her partner carry out the overnight kit, and continue to walk through the Lairig Ghru.

Good forestry tracks led up the Glen Lui all the way to Derry Lodge, our first waymark, and within an hour we were there. A few dozen bicycles were parked at the Mountain Rescue base, left by people doing a long day walk, and we wished that we could have taken advantage of those. My technique to take my mind off the 18kg pack was to try and do mental maths. Something that is not my forte, but trying to calculate what my load was as a percentage of my body weight, kept me occupied for some time. Then I got to thinking there must be a ‘golden ratio’, a formula to work out when you are definitely carrying too much. Or maybe I could just listen to my joints going Ahh!

Showers of drizzle had dampened our spirits a little, and we put aside our plan to bag a munro, Carn a Mhaim, on the way in, (by leaving our big packs by the glen path and ‘nipping up and down’). Instead, our main objective was to arrive at the bothy and get our tents up before it started to rain properly. After 4 hours of walking, we saw the bothy was surrounded by quite large patches of flattish grass, and pitching was duly achieved: we had all chosen a site to our satisfaction.

That evening we settled into our surroundings and enjoyed the shelter of the bothy to make our evening meal. Though basic and small (sleeping platform for 3) we managed to find seats and got to know our fellow walkers. That night 14 tents were pitched around the bothy, plus 6 people decided to sleep in the bothy. I wonder if this is a record? Now knowing how popular the bothy is, I can clearly understand why the Mountain Bothy Association took the trouble of building compost toilets and am so grateful – as the impact on the locality would be awful.

Sunday

On Sunday morning, I peeped out of my tent early and spotted a Ringed Ouzel bobbing about the turf in search of food. It was only the second time I had seen this shy bird in my many decades of mountain walking and it was the first of many Cairngorm flora and fauna species that we encountered. The rain had continued, quite heavy overnight, and throughout breakfast individuals told of massive puddles in tents and moats encircling. The best story was of the occupant of the tent who was acting as a dam and when they shifted, the body of water rushed below their groundsheet and deluged the tent further down the slope!

It continued to drizzle as we bade farewell to our friend who was walking out via the Lairig Ghru, to Aviemore. Then we started to ascend the good path alongside the stream to bag Devil’s Point, Cairn Toul and Angel’s Peak (Sgor an Lochain Uaine). The path was good until we started to ascend to the 1213m top on the way to Cairn Toul. The grantite boulders made the going hard work but at least navigation in the low cloud was not a problem as we were following the cliff edge. Trailing azalea was very common on the higher reaches of the mountain, with its tiny pink flowers, and occasionally we saw a prostrate evergreen shrub that we took to be juniper. The rain and boulders continued and in addition a freshening wind took up. The second top of Cairn Toul had a summit cairn to shelter in, which we were really glad of by then. A sudden downpour of rain saw me take out my secret weapon – a pink, floral folding umbrella – this provided the best shelter to avoid soggy sandwiches – and earned me the nickname of ‘brolly dolly’. The other nickname of the day was earned by someone who was trying out a substantial poncho. This was not the best item of clothing for a wet and windy mountain, and so she earned the nickname, ‘El Poncho’!

More staggering over boulders, being pushed by gusts of wind, saw us to the top of Angel’s Peak, the third munro of the day. Our return route was much the same but with contouring below the summit of Cairn Toul. This turned out to be a large contouring route as nobody fancied the ridge path of boulder hopping while the wind had become even stronger. What we hoped might be a route on lumpy grass, turned out to be more rock fields, this time for variety, a smaller version of the ridge boulder fields. Rocks small enough to always move and twist your ankle at every step. We were all very cold, and wet to the skin by now and constantly being blown off balance, wishing for the final descent path at every step. When we eventually walked over the rim and looked down into the glen at our tiny tents beside the bothy, we came into the full force of the wind. Without speaking to each other, we all knew our thoughts turned to – how could our tents stand up to this wind overnight?

The bothy became our sanctuary, a damp, drippy place where stoves were quickly lit to provide most-welcome hot drinks and hydrate ready meals. Our moods gradually changed as some people enjoyed their dry change of clothes and others (who like to travel light) steadily warmed up and let their body heat dry themselves out. Fellow hikers joined the party and we were regaling each other with adventurous tales and sharing much laughter. Some inevitably based around our new nicknames. I was most impressed by the recount from a pensioner couple who were doing a long leg of the National Scottish Trail. They were walking – self-sufficient for up to 6 days and to keep the weight down were only eating Mug Shots for their evening meals. They had had a tough day with 4 river crossings and I really admired them – ‘True grit!’

A big lesson that I had learnt whilst high up the mountain that day, is to prepare by looking at the ‘big picture’ of the weather forecast, much beyond the initial days of the trip, because the strong wind had not been forecast yet it may have been lurking out in the Atlantic. If I had looked more widely I would have had a better idea how long it would blow for. Nobody in the party had had a mobile signal while they were high up so we were no wiser about the wind situation. As I lay in my tent listening to the wind and counting the wee hours go by, I resolved that if it was still blowing in the morning, then we would break camp and walk out. Cutting our trip short by half.

Monday

A calm morning greeted us and we felt smug as we said goodbye to the remaining 6 of our party who were walking out to their cars today. As we breakfasted we watched the cloud lifting off the Devil’s Point and Ben Macdui on the other side of the glen. The lifting cloud revealed a light scattering of overnight snow on the latter and made it seem even higher and more daunting. Our objective, Ben Macdui, was now clear and we turned our thoughts to finding a path – as there weren’t any marked on the maps. From reading reports from other walkers, they favoured ascending by the Allt Clach nan Taillear and this is where we found a good, albeit sketchy at times, path. Steep and unrelenting but it did the job and soon we were at the stream source on the plateau, a few 100m west and we passed a curious ruin of what possibly had been a bothy and soon enough we came to the trig point. Almost surreal birdsong met us, as we approached and we noticed a snow bunting sitting on the pillar, oblivious to us, but intent on singing his heart out. This natural overture was a celebration of the wonderful clear views we had and we both felt privileged to be on Cairngorms highest point in such good visibility. The metal viewfinder disc helped us identify the mountains around us and especially the impressive corrie of Braeriach across the Lairig Ghru.

We descended quite a way back down the stream path, around patches of old winter snow, and then contoured across to pick up the ridge path to Carn a Mhaim. This was an entertaining ridge of small rocky tors, never enough rock to use your hands but enough to obscure the ridge and peak curiosity of what was next. What had been snow flurries on the summit of Ben Macdui now turned to showers of rain and the reward was a rainbow over the bothy in the glen. Quite a spectacle as we peered down the sheer cliffs.

Back at the bothy, it was apparent it was going to be a quiet night for a change as there was only a Belgium backpacker and the two of us. He told of his scary aeroplane landing at Inverness the other night as the pilot took 3 goes to land the plane in the extremely windy weather. The delay had meant he had missed his bus and he was very grateful to a fellow passenger who offered him a lift to Aviemore. This innate kindness he attribute to most of the Scottish population and compared his homeland fellows less favourably. I must say I can agree with the assumption that people associated with mountains and hiking are a generous lot.

That night I decided to sleep in the bothy as I would have it all to myself and would not have to listen to any wind rustling the tent. However, for an hour and a half I lay there trying to get to sleep and to no avail. The bothy seemed like a dark, cold cell. A very late arrival galvanized my decision, especially when he said he wanted to light the fire and make something to eat. I quickly dressed, packed up my sleeping kit and scurried into the night to my tent. My partner was not too grumpy as I bundled into the tent and settled down. Soon the familiar pitter-patter of drizzle eased my mind and the murmur of the stream became a lullaby. I realized the tent was a cozy haven and soon fell asleep.

Tuesday

Once again we watched the early morning low cloud lift from the mountains to reveal a bigger dusting of fresh over-night snow. The Belgium hiker was quite alarmed and we shared with him our recently gained knowledge of the stream path up to Ben Macdui. His route, which he had drawn on his map, went straight up the mountain face so I did my best to describe how arduous the boulder fields are and to persuade him of the benefits of a path in the Cairngorms.
We efficiently broke camp and packed up as we wanted to move further south down Glen Dee and set up camp at the base of Beinn Bhrotain . Here we would be well situated to complete the long day to bag this nearby munro and its remote neighbor, Monadh Mor. As part of my research, I had studied Google Earth to see if a path had been worn on the west side of the River Dee and sure enough others had had the same idea. It was this sketchy path that we initially set out to find. The bothy had served us well but moving camp also had the benefit of giving us a head start on the long walk out along Glen Dee. The river crossing in Glen Geusachan was easy enough as it hadn’t rained for a few days and the morning’s snow flurries didn’t really count either. We were soon pacing around in the heather checking for lumps in our new camping area. I have not often pitched onto heather and I learnt that the bouncy mattress effect was a bonus, however the ends of broken woody stems are really sharp and threatened to puncture the base of the tent. Finding faint paths, river crossings and making camp all took time and it wasn’t until 1pm that we started our ascent of the first munro.

We were glad to have the reduced weight of a day sack on our back as we ascended steep heathery ground alongside the burn, Caochan Roibidh. This was an interesting route without any sign of being trodden. The burn cascasdes over rock slides and in a dry summer I expect it offers an easy way up. The granite is very coarse and grippy and although the angle is steep it would be good sport. Without a path we continually looked for the best line and eventually walked via the Coire Caochan Roibidh to gain the flat-topped ridge. The rewards of a pathless route are often flora and fauna and on this day we saw a mountain version of King Buttercup, lizards, deer, Ptarmigan and a full nest of eggs. The nest was remarkably camouflaged, nestled in the coarse grass. We were only alerted to it when the startled bird flew off at the last minute. The squawks giving us quite a fright as well. Even though I knew it was just ahead of me and was taking great care, I almost trod on it.

Just after ticking off the first munro, Beinn Bhrotain, we descended again by a boulder field to the bealach and here we fell into step with another walker who was also on his way to Monadh Mor. We quickly strode over the plateau and enjoyed a chat about Speyside distilleries. What was curious about the next summit was our personal approach. We were in the presence of a real purist, of the degree that I had not encountered before. I am very happy just to be in the vicinity of the highest point. However, this chap touched the top rock of the cairn and then proceeded to check with his app where the actual highest rock was. To our amazement he paced out 5 metres South-east and was comparing the rock he was now perched upon with the cairn. This was our second day with fantastic clear views and we took special interest in the view to Cairn Toul and its neighbours: to retrace in our minds the ankle-breaking traverse we had done in the foul weather, two days before. Nobody lingered for long on the summit as the wind chill was about minus 6. As we strode back we discussed and compared our return routes. ‘The Purist’ was going to descend steeply from the bealach into Glen Geusachan, then follow the riverside path back to his tent, much further down Glen Dee, at Chest of Dee. We would just retrace our steps, but omit the final part of the summit ridge. I wondered if we were making the right choice as ours was evidently without a path for any of it. I was tempted as I looked down from the bealach and remembered comments from blogs that I had read, it being ‘dangerously steep’ but it looked okay with a narrow zigzag path. The only gain we had in retracing out steps was that it would be shorter and indeed we got back to our tent more than an hour before the other fellow walked passed. It had been a long 10 hour but satisfying day; breaking camp, following an almost none-existing path suggested by Google Earth, making a river crossing, finding a new pitch amongst the heather, ascending to bag 2 munros without any path and being treated to lots of wildlife sightings. After a quick evening meal, I had no need of a lullaby from the stream.

Wednesday

The next day greeted us with the cold start we had become accustomed to and to prove a point Jack Frost had been at work and coated the tent. Now that we were further south along Glen Dee though, the hills to the east were lower and the sun was soon warming us up and melting the ice. I took advantage of this magical hour, because there was not a breath of wind, and I had a full head-to-toe wash in the nearby stream. I had been wondering how I could possibly present myself to the civilization of Braemar, as we wished to spend a good hour or two in the trendy café having ‘real’ home-cooked food of the most delicious kind. This splendid solution felt invigorating and totally natural in that environment.

Following the River Dee as it winds down the glen, revealed the Chest of Dee, which is an impressive gorge. The Purist’s tent was still there, pitched on a wide patch of grass surrounded by a wide meander – an idyllic spot. We commented more than once to each other how the character of the river changed as we hiked the 10 kilometers to Linn of Dee. At times, it is very wide and shallow and surely is one of the best locations for fly-fishing, changing again at the Linn of Dee to charge through another rocky gorge. As always, the landscape evolves and we noticed new deer fencing around the river and its banks, in order to protect the new stands of native trees that had been planted. It will be some time before I am lucky enough to visit this magnificent glen again and I look forward to admiring the young saplings, which in turn will enhance the area and bring more wildlife.

Overall, this trip had provided all that we had wanted and much more. Not only the munros ticked but the whole shared experience of being out in the wild for a prolonged time. We have much to be thankful for. I can’t wait to start planning next year’s!’