I was supposed to be alone for 2 weeks in the Arctic Circle this year, but oh well.
Instead I ended up driving 9 hours to the Cairngorms National Park in Scotland, apparently the largest remote wilderness area in the UK.
In preparation I did what I always do: a whole lot of weight-training and strengthening exercises, a whole lot more obsessively checking over and weighing my gear, and endless hours planning my main route, some backup routes and a handful of escape routes. (I really enjoy maps.)
Despite planning such an elaborate expedition, I ended up not actually following this at all.
My trips are usually based on the premise that “I need to get from point A to point B in N days”, and if I do not arrive at point B by the time N days were up, then I miss my flight home. And I’m usually cocky enough to plan too much mileage so that every day is chased by some low-key anxiety that I wont make it.
But this time, when I woke up in my tent the first morning, I realised that I didn’t really need to rush anything. So long as I was vaguely near the car when I ran out of food, then I could do whatever. And even running out of food (or fuel) didn’t have to mean the end of the trip. The Cairngorms aren’t even that big really: I could walk at most a day in any direction, arrive at a town, buy more food, and head back into the hills.
Basically I chilled right out. The plan went out the window, and I decided that every morning I would wake up and plan my route for the day based on the weather and how I was feeling. I could walk 10 hours in a day or only 2, whatever, and just focus on enjoying being by myself in the rain with 9kg worth of belongings.
I write posts like this mainly for my own benefit to stop my adventures fading from my memory so much over time. Seriously, some from years ago have become very hazy, which bums me out. The last time I wrote about a trip I did a sort of day-by-day journal thing. I am not doing that here since I ended up simply meandering about on the hills. This will be a short highlight reel which is not in any sort of order whatsoever.
I had spent a very soggy night camped next to Bob Scott’s bothy and knew that the weather could possibly be a repeat of the day before: ie. rain and low cloud and more rain. When I woke up I saw all the surrounding hills draped in rising mist, turned golden by the sun. Despite the cloud, I thought the day felt promising. It felt like it could become a day for a munro.
The rain had finally ceased, so I packed up slowly and left very late to give the tent longer to dry off a little. I walked north following Derry Burn, forked west over the river after about 8 kilometres, and climbed past the Hutchinson Memorial Hut until I reached Loch Etchachan at an altitude of about 930 metres. The walk had taken me approximately 3 hours and by the time I arrived the clag had completely lifted, giving me stunning views of the nearby munros. A promising day indeed.
I spent an hour or so wandering around the perimeter of the water until I found a good spot to camp that night. I set up my tent to finish drying in the sun and wind, packed my day-bag with warm layers and left everything else while I continued onwards and upwards.
Getting to the summit of Ben Macdui, at 1309 metres the second highest mountain in the UK, took around another hour (actually I forgot to check, may have been less) and the climb from the east was very easy going. There was the odd bit of snow on the ground, and the wind brought the temperature down to freezing. The top of Ben Macdui is less a peak, and more a plateau. Without the cairn marking it, it would be kind of difficult to find the highest point. The wind was fierce and I layered up in down the second I stopped moving.
I hung around taking in the views until I could no longer feel my cheeks. I had plenty of time before sunset, so I followed some criss-crossing trails as I made my way in a slow general north-easterly direction back to my campsite. The increasingly harsh winds, racing clouds and cold blue skies made the landscape incredibly dramatic.
When I got back to the tent, I reset the guy lines under rocks. I wasn’t 100% sure what the wind was going to do, but while the spot I had was very picturesque, it was a bit exposed. In the end I needn’t have worried: the wind dropped from 20mph gusts to nothing overnight, and I woke to a complete and icy silence the following morning. This peace lasted all of 30 minutes before it started raining again, and continued to do so non-stop for the next 48 hours.
The Lairig Ghru mountain pass
This was a wild night. The day was pretty uneventful since it was all on-and-off sleet, unpleasant gusts, and low cloud. One of those days where you stick to the valleys because there is no point in climbing a mountain only to barely see your frozen hand in front of your frozen face.
So I had been wombling most of the day along the river Dee, up the Geusachan Burn round the foot of Devil’s Point and then back round and up into the Lairig Ghru. Eventually I got fed up of squelching through bog and wanted to feel dry and warm again. So I stopped outside Corrour Bothy and tried to get a fix on a wind direction to set my tent up securely.
As the forecast promised, conditions only got worse. I had read that the tops of the munros would see gusts above 70mph that night. I may not have been pinned at 900 metres to the side of a mountain, but I was at the end of what was basically a very long wind-tunnel and I probably should have tried a little harder to find somewhere less exposed. But I couldn’t be bothered. I figured that if worse came to worst I could always head into the bothy to ride out the storm. It was already occupied, so it would have been a choice between potentially catching Covid or maybe dying of exposure if my tent got swept away.
A bit melodramatic, I know. But by 9pm the wind had picked up and was lifting my tent so much that I honestly wondered whether the weight of me inside would enough to hold it down all night. By 10pm I had to get out and check my lines. 3 out of 6 stakes had been dragged up, so I staggered about in the gale, tightening everything and weighing every stake and guy-out with the biggest rocks that I could lift.
After I was thrown back into the tent by a well-timed blast, things became even more exciting. The ever strengthening wind was keeping up a steady barrage against the walls of my tent, but then intermittent gusts also began in earnest. Above the general noise, I could hear them building in the pass to the north. A high whistling would start in the distance, moving closer and getting louder until it sounded like demons were screaming towards me. When they hit they came from all sides causing the tent to lift and then flatten on top of me as the vortex swirled around. When it passed and the noise outside the thin canvas dropped to a general roar, I lay waiting for the next one. It was exhilarating.
After an hour of this, nerves frayed and yet still grinning like an idiot, I was increasingly worried that my tent poles would not survive much longer. The MSR Hubba Hubba NX is well know for being pretty much perfect for everything except for how it holds up in wind. By this point I had resigned myself to a sleepless night, because even without the extraordinary noise, lying in the dark watching your shelter and only means of defence against the elements flex and bend to near breaking point around you doesn’t exactly induce calm.
The next time the demons came I sat up and braced my hand against one end of the crossbeam. The force of it was intense and not a little painful, but I damn near facepalmed when the lightbulb went off. I realised I could totally automate this process. I already had the means of adding more structural stability to my shelter: trekking poles! Honestly it’s a bit embarrassing that it took me so long to think of it.
To all MSR Hubba owners: wedging trekking poles under each end of the roof crossbeam will make your tent pretty much rock solid in severe to extreme wind. I now do this whenever I feel even the slightest breeze, because that tent really is annoying when it bends.
I ended up falling into a very relaxed and dead sleep. When I woke to absolute calm the following morning I was quite disappointed that I had missed all the drama.
I didn’t get many cloud and rain free days, but the couple I did get made the whole trip worth it.
The morning following the demon wind was clear and still so I packed up and headed to the summit of Devil’s Point, the shadow of which I had slept in. The initial steep climb of that 1004 metres was the most technical I came across on this trip, though that is not really saying much. Relatively it was still very straightforward, but it was the only time in my 8 days where I thought a beginner could struggle in poor conditions.
I relaxed at the top for a good while, before turning north with the intention of following the ridge to in turn summit Cairn Toul, Angel’s Peak, Carn na Criche and finally the Braeriach plateau.
Annoyingly, just a couple of hundred metres short of that first peak, I began to feel really wobbly and had to stop for a couple of hours while I lost my breakfast.
After most of the early afternoon went lying in the heather, watching eagles circling above, I realised I wasn’t feeling any less weak and decided to give in for the day. I ambled slowly round to the western side of Stob Coire an t-Saighdeir and found a gorgeous spot at around 950 metres to pitch up and wait out whatever was wrong with me.
The following morning I felt 100% back to normal, ready to scrape the ice off the tent and continue to Braeriach. Unfortunately by 10am the mist and rain had descended over the peaks and I wasn’t able to appreciate just how spectacular that ridge walk is. Around mid-afternoon I dropped back down to squelch south along the Lairig Gruh back to Corrour and reclaim my old camp site.
As I mentioned earlier, there is nothing very difficult about walking the Cairngorms. In fact I would really recommend it for complete beginners. There are no trail blazes or signposts anywhere, but generations of hillwalkers have carved very clear paths through the landscape. Combined with a good map (I use OS Explorer 1:25k) and decent conditions and you would have to try really hard to get lost. (Obviously that is a different story in winter, but I would not recommend a beginner hitting the Cairngorms in snow.)
While the trails and terrain make the Cairngorms more accessible to inexperienced walkers, the weather is still extremely changeable and dangerous no matter the season. A quick google for deaths and rescues in the Cairngorms and other highland areas illustrates this. The Cairngorms may not be the most remote place in the world (aside from a couple of rainy days, I did run into other walkers now and then), but you can suffer from hypothermia in your back yard if you are stupid about it. Knowing the routes, taking the right gear, wearing the right clothes and listening to the advice of weather services is essential. Don’t head for the hills in a pair of jeans, cotton hoody and with no map is what I am saying.
If are planning on being out a couple of days, you cannot count on spending overnight in a bothy or mountain shelter. It is not like Norway or Patagonia or most other places where you have huge cabins with bookable bunk-beds. UK emergency refuges are exactly that: last resorts. While people do happily pack themselves in like sardines (in non-Covid years at least), they are teeny and space may run out by the time you get there. Bring a tent.
I took a 2 person tent which, weighing around 1.7kg, I worried would be overkill for just me. In the end I was glad of the extra space and comfort. The weather was pretty crap most of the time, which meant I had no option of hanging around outside when I was as camp. I will eventually spend some Serious Money and buy something which will give me the same space for a third of the weight.
The temperature hovered around 5 celsius during the day, once or twice nearly hitting 10, and around freezing each night, once or twice sliding just below. I don’t bring much clothing with me, but I choose it all very carefully and I wasn’t cold. My mat/liner/bag sleep system was probably a bit much for this trip (I was too warm a couple of nights) but I was very happy with it and slept so well. I am neither a too-cold nor too-warm sleeper, but it is something I am paranoid about. You can find my full gearlist here, but when picking your own gear it is important to know your own body, regardless of what works for random people on the internet.
I parked at the Linn of Dee car park and it was fine to leave the car there for 8 nights. Another perk of driving is that I could bring a set of cosy and clean clothes to change into at the end, as well as a ton of unhealthy snacks. That car park accepts coins only so make sure you load up before you go. The town of Braemar is nearby, so if you forget you can run to a shop like I did to break some notes. Parking costs £3 per day which I think is very reasonable.
Normally at the end of a trip I would have pushed myself so hard that I collapse in the airport and spend an uncomfortable journey home as various muscle, joint and nerve issues (yes, I have all that!) make themselves known. This time I was… fine. Probably for the best, since I had a 9 hour drive to look forward to, but I did miss the satisfied exhaustion of pushing my body to its breaking point.
Maybe next time. Now I know that 9-10 hours on the road is not very difficult I’ll probably be heading back a lot more.
And finally: I made sure to strictly follow Leave No Trace rules to keep the wilderness wild.