I thought a good first post for my blog would be my favourite walk of 2014, in the Southern Cairngorms. This walk had everything – good weather, a first (first wild camp) a milestone (1/3 of the Munros now done) a few celebratory drinks and a transportation foul up. In short most of the usual elements of one of my walks. The participants other than me were my husband and a friend, and less pleasantly, about 8 billion midges (well it certainly felt like)..
I think it was about 5 years ago when we first started talking about doing a wild camp, and since then it has been on and off the agenda more times than I care to think about. The first time we intended to try one was after a friend’s Munro compleation, but in the end we were quite frankly far too knackered and given an iffy weather forecast decided to instead check ourselves into a posh hotel in Aviemore. There have been other similar instances since when either the weather or the energy levels just haven’t been up to it but having arranged a weekend to go and do one with our friend who has wild camped loads of times, we were pretty determined. Looking at the weather forecast I also couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing, namely that the forecast was good. This time, surely nothing would go wrong!!
There tends to be a theme with my walks namely that if something does not go wrong with the weather, something else will invariably go wrong instead. This looked to be happening when our train from Euston was slightly delayed and also had issues with the bar and the air conditioning. However this was rectified by managing to blag a first class upgrade which resulted in a bottle of (free) red wine being deposited in front of me! 😀 So nothing that went too wrong there. We stayed at our friend’s flat in Glasgow on Thursday night, she had to work on the Friday morning so the plan was to walk in and camp on Friday, do the hills on Saturday and then maybe camp another night and walk out on Sunday, or depending on time walk out after doing the hills. We’d settled after some discussion on the hills around Corrour Bothy as none of us had done any hills in that area with the exception of Ben MacDui, and being really honest I wanted to do the Devil’s Point because the name amuses me (at least when not mistranslated). Gear was checked and double checked, and a few things jettisoned or added (in my case, some red wine – in little cardboard cartons from ASDA of all things).
By the time we were well on the way to Braemar nothing seemed to have gone wrong and I was starting to panic about what now would, e.g. not being able to find a parking space at Linn of Dee for instance. No issues with that either and we were geared up and setting off down the good path at 6.30pm with the aim being to reach Corrour Bothy somewhen between 9 and 9.30. I was a bit dubious about the camping pack given my bad back – my husband had the tent, but I was carrying extra weight compared to normal given the sleeping bag, roll mat, extra food, wine and so forth. As it turned out I didn’t find it too bad, although I think I might have struggled with any serious ascent. The path being really good most of the way certainly helps and the views were good, it was still really warm and we all walked in in baselayers. We finally made it to Corrour just as the sun was starting to set and I had high hopes of sitting drinking a wine while watching all the colours change and the sun finally set.
And then came the attack! About 8 million midges all came in for the kill. Never experienced anything like it, there were so many of them it was difficult to see, or for that matter talk as I kept swallowing midges. So much for drinking wine, we abandoned any such plans in favour of getting the tent up as soon as possible, and getting ourselves inside it without too many unwelcome tent guests! We were in the tent at about 10.15 only to get dive bombed again any time any of us wanted to use the loo. Maybe the presence of that feature at the bothy doesn’t help, I don’t know, but they were certainly the worst I think I’ve ever encountered (including in Kintail or Skye). Arrrgh! Not having a book or anything else to entertain us, we settled for an early night and the prospect of an early start, having already decided that camping another night was probably a bad idea.
Hmmm.. up at about 7 the following morning, views lovely but the midges still horrendous, and I was suffering from a dreadful night’s sleep. I sometimes find it very hard to sleep in tents, though sometimes it is fine, so I’m not really sure what triggered it being a problem on this occasion (being covered in lumps from the midge attack?), but I just couldn’t settle and probably got about 4 hours maximum. Grrr!
Never mind, we ate some food, faffed about a bit and got going at 8.30, up the constructed path from the back of the bothy towards the Devil’s Point. The path is brilliant almost all the way up to the bealach, though there is a bit just below the bealach which was badly eroded, fine on the way up but needed care (and in my case the use of five points of contact) on the way down.
Even though I felt pretty wiped, the ascent of the Devil’s Point was easy, and we were on top shortly before 10am, to stunning views all round. Thinking about it, that is probably the earliest I have ever been on the summit of a Munro, given that early starts and me don’t really mix!
We didn’t stay at the summit for too long as there was still a lot of walking to be done and a heck of a lot of ascent to the next hill, Cairn Toul. This bit of the walk I found really hard going. The first bit of the ascent of the minor top, Carn an’-t’Saighdeir, was on a decent enough path but seemed to take forever – probably because it is over 300m of hard slog, with the last bit being over an annoying boulder field. Once over that, it was a reasonably short drop down to the low point before the final slog up the boulder field on Cairn Toul. I was really struggling with this bit and although I have got better at dealing with boulder fields I still need to take my time with them.
We discussed whether we should stop after Cairn Toul to make sure we had plenty of time to walk out if we wanted to but on seeing exactly how close Sgor an Lochain Uaine was it became clear it wouldn’t involve much extra effort (and would be a right pain to have to come back for) so was a bit of a no brainer. Any idea of doing Braeriach as well was however comprehensively getting binned as just too long a day, and the forecast had suggested worsening weather as well. In the end, we were on top of Cairn Toul at around midday, with the views again stunning all round. A decent break was however definitely called for and the summit shelter was certainly a decent place to stop for a bite to eat with the views over to Ben MacDui, etc continuing to be fantastic.
Food stop over, we decided to press on to the next hill, we would then contour round Cairn Toul and go back over the minor top and down the way we had come up, and would take a call at the bothy whether or not to camp another night or walk out. The ascent of Sgor an Lochain Uaine was relatively straightforward and we were on top around 1pm. Munro no.94 and therefore 1/3 of the way through the list, which even though I’m not convinced I will ever finish it, was a good feeling. We took another quick break while chatting to some guys from RAF mountain rescue, three more then turned up having run up Cairn Toul with no tops on – I had to ask whether it was a diet coke break!
We were conscious we had to press on and get back to the bothy, so didn’t have too long a break but dropped off the hill. Reasonably easy to contour Cairn Toul but it seemed better to go back over the minor top than try and contour it given the terrain. Unfortunately it was on the descent path that tiredness hit me and I made heavy weather of it, taking what seemed like ages to get down to the bealach and then needing to ease my way carefully down the eroded bit at the top of the path back to the bothy. Once past that bit the path is plain sailing but I had frankly run out of steam and we agreed that the others would zoom off back to the campsite and start striking camp; we had decided none of us could face another midgefest so would see if there was room in the bothy and if not, walk out at least some of the way and camp somewhere less infested! Back at the bothy, the decision was rather made for us by the arrival of a Duke of Edinburgh award group and some families so we decided to eat in the bothy and then walk out at least part of the way. After striking camp, packing all the stuff away and eating (Mountain House chilli – surprisingly palatable) we hefted the heavy packs and got moving at around 6 – just as the rain was starting, not to mention the odd rumble of thunder. Eek!!
The walk out was tough on top of the walk we’d already done that day and I was tired, although I felt better for the food. Somewhere around Luibeg Bridge I got something of a second wind and we decided that we would take a call at Derry Lodge. Once we got there though it seemed silly not to try and walk out and find a hotel – any potential camp spots didn’t seem to be any less midgy than at the bothy and the idea of a hot shower was starting to seem very appealing indeed! With a bit of help from friends back in Glasgow with internet access a hotel in Ballater was located which had availability. We got back to the car at 9 and drove to Ballater in driving rain and clouds of midges and checked in to the Deeside Hotel, very glad indeed they had availability as I don’t think any of us would have fancied camping in that weather! I don’t think a hot shower has ever felt so good, and the post walk drinks in the bar (and afterwards in the Balmoral Bar which had a later licence) certainly tasted good too!!
To sum up: a good walk, but a tough one, with terrain more challenging than I’d expected at times. Good to have reached 1/3 done, and also good to have finally done a wild camp after so long thinking about but not doing it! So would I do one again? I think the answer is yes, but would have to think carefully about route choice, and I think one night would be enough. No midges would be helpful too, but I suspect something of an impossibility in the Highlands in the summer!
Oh and the transport foul up? Sleeper train delayed getting in to Euston due to no driver available at shift change in Warrington. Only realised when my alarm went off at 6.30am and I realised we were just going through Birmingham!