pea soup with a wild camp ben avon and beinn abhuird

Sun, Sep 21, 2008

At long last, after too long away from big hills, I loaded the car with bike, panniers, tent and rucksack and headed for the southern ‘gorms. I’d attempted this same getaway about a month ago but the car failed to start as the starter motor finally packed in. So, with a new one fitted, a great forecast and bags of enthusiasm, I roared off into the sunset on the 4 hour trip from Skye to Braemar. The plan was to cycle up to Slugain lodge ruin, camp overnight on the Friday and then head round Ben Avon and Beinn a’Bhuird on the Saturday. New ground, new area, brimful of excitement. These were two of my last three munros and I was raring to get into the wilds again.

Getting ready to cycle to Slugain at Keiloch

It was a beautiful drive past Tomintoul and over the Lecht with the tors of Ben Avon clearly visible on the skyline, with the warm evening sunshine bathing the heathery hills and shadows starting to lengthen as I trundled into Keiloch car park and loaded up the bike. I always let the bike do the work so I use panniers whenever possible, especially as the path up to Slugain was a good landrover track. It was great fun racing across the couple of fords on the way, sending up great waves of spray, before taking the left fork into the gloomy upper glen, known as the Fairy Glen. It immediately narrowed to about 50 feet across and there were only two places you could camp. A large area at the bottom of the glen with a smaller one about 50 metres further up the path. At this point the going got too tough to cycle as the track had narrowed to a very rough footpath with loads of scree and boulders and the weight of the panniers meant the nose kept rising up with the steepness of the climb, so off I got and pushed/hauled the old ‘gal up to the ruins of the lodge and on past it to the wee lochan at the top of the glen, where I got a sheltered spot and introduced the Akto to the craggy gorge.

Camp at Slugain

Just enough time to make dinner before it got dark at 8pm, then I crawled inside and read for an hour and then head down for an early night, with the muffled white noise of the burn lulling me to sleep.

Saturday dawned grey and grim with the ground a bit damp from the night’s light rain and low cloud hung round the big hills at the head of Glen Quoich. Porridge and Strawberries for breakfast and a tin of peach slices (you can carry what you want on the bike!) and I plodded out of the narrow gorge and burst out upon the wide open spaces of Glen Quoich, marching along to Beethoven on the mp3, strutting the superb path along the side of the glen. I’d thought about camping where the burn comes down from Carn Eas but when I got there it was devoid of flat places. However, where the path crosses Glas Allt Mor, there’s a small flat area where you could easily camp and maybe squeeze in two tents, although the burn would be noisy as it’s only inches away. There’s a new path up from here to Clach a’Chleirich with a sign urging you to avoid the very badly eroded old path as it will be removed at some point and the switchback detour adds nothing to the journey. The path is so good from Keiloch to Clach a’Chleirich that you could cycle all the way to the big rock and there’s even a tiny spot next to it to place a small tent although it would be really exposed and well above the water source. I say cycle all the way, if you take the higher track which bypasses Slugain ruin high above on the hillside. The newer, higher path is much easier to cycle than the lower one that takes you past the ruined lodge.

Clach aChleirich

From the rock the path degrades to a standard ‘gorm bog path that takes you all the way to the Sneck. By this time I was deep in the cloud, with a light smirr of rain soaking everything so it was on with the waterproofs and by the time I reached the Sneck it was blowing a gale. 40mph as forecast although the lifting of the clouds didn’t occur all day. Hang a right, up into a screaming gale and left across the plateau, following the path all the way to Ben Avon. Not much need of the compass as the path is visible all the way apart from where it crosses a sandy area heading down into the small depression before the summit. It eventually reappears on the other side though. I scrambled up a nice wee chimney and across the tor ridge to shelter, dumped the ‘sac and scrambled up the wet granite onto the smallest summit in these parts. It was exciting to say the least as the grip was minimal due to the water on the rocks and the gale force winds were being whipped up over the top, threatening to blow me off the summit and over the considerable drop on the other side. Man, it was great to be here! I was so elated at being in the wilds again that I scrambled along the tors to the eastern one, a more difficult scramble than the summit, buffeted and blasted by the wind and rain with the top being a 4 foot square exposed pillar.

I spent about 40mins at the summit, sheltering from the wind and watching the cloud scraggily scudding past, with blue sky and cirrus tantalisingly just out of reach above the clag. Now and then the plateau cleared but was quickly engulfed in more billowing clouds and the wind kept screaming through the gaps in the tors.

I headed back down the path and down to the Sneck where it cleared enough to get some superb views into the wild Garbh Choire and remote glens to the north, where long tracks penetrate the wilderness, making for the Fords of Avon and the mountain fastness of Loch Avon. I plodded up the steep and sandy scree out of the Sneck and back up into the cloud and rain. This time I needed a plan as there was no path to Beinn a’Bhuird. There’s a good path up out of the Sneck but at the change in slope it disappears, so it was here that I went to the edge of the cliffs to narrow down my position on the change in slope angle and took a bearing for the top north of Cnap a’Chleirich. Lots of step counting and contour gathering then took me to the rocky top, where a collection of mini tors stood fast against the storm. It was then a bearing across the plateau, taking in the two burns that flow into the Allt Dearg before hitting the cliffs of Coire nan Clach, which I used as a guide rail onto the summit plateau. All the way across from the Sneck the visibility was down to 30 metres and it was a real challenge to get across the plateau, especially as the wind tended to blast me around. That’s why I chose to gather features such as the burns and tops rather than make a beeline for the summit area as I knew I’d end up missing it. At least with features you can gather them up and tick them off and you know exactly where you are by pacing. The summit cairn is notoriously difficult to find, especially in 30m vis, so I formulated another plan to reach my penultimate munro. I followed the cliffs round to where they turned south then took a bearing for the summit area and paced out 150m whereupon the cairn appeared out of the gloom 30m to the east. It was a real pea souper and the forecasted clearing of the clouds just wasn’t happening. If anything it was getting worse. It reminded me of my ML assessment when we’d wandered around the summit area of Ben Macdui in similar conditions, only with more rain and at midnight!

Me on the summit of Beinn aBhuird

I munched down another roll and admired the wildness and remoteness of this gloomy and wind blasted summit. All the eye could see was mist, mist and more mist. It was like the surface of another planet, the sandy ground stretching into the murk and everything furred with moisture. A lone walker appeared from the south, we chatted and she headed off into the gloom, making for Ben Avon and I retraced the back bearing to the cliffs, where I met another walker, giving him the bearing to the cairn. In all I saw four other people. It was a day for navigators. The Cairngorm plateau in these conditions isn’t an area you want to be wandering around in if you’re not sure about your map and compass work. I had the GPS with me but I didn’t use it. It’s just too satisfying using the “bumps and squiggles” to get across almost featureless ground just below 1200m.

I followed the cliff edge south towards A’Chioch with only about 30m vis round about me and at the big spur above Duch Lochain I followed the edge round, though in the end it would have been easier to have just taken a bearing across to the next section of cliff. Where the edge swung round to the south east and started heading up A’Chioch I sighted along the cliffs and followed that bearing directly across the plateau making for the cliffs above Coire na Ciche, intending to handrail them to get onto the ridge down to Carn Fiaclach but I was so enjoying being in the middle of nowhere and making headway against the fierce blasts and revelling in the remoteness and the “‘gorm-ness” of the experience that I let myself go off bearing, tending to lean into the wind and being drawn too far to the south. I had an idea this was what had happened so I paced out 300m and if the slope fell off steeply without any cliffs I knew where I’d be, on the steep grassy slopes to the west of Coire na Ciche. And lo, for that is what I saw. Steepening grassy slopes. At this point I could have just walked on a right angle bearing to the east to pick up the crags but I thought I’d test the GPS and it confirmed where I’d placed myself on the map. So back in the pack it went and I took a bearing for 500m down to the burn, then hard left and I popped out of the cloud on the Carn Fiaclach ridge.

I plodded down to the bealach, surrounded by the sombre ochres and greys of the autumnal ‘gorm landscape. Moody, cloudy and gloomy. It was superb. From the bealach there’s a good path which took me down to the Quoich Water and a decent river crossing. Just enough water to make it difficult to get across dry-shod but nowhere near enough to give cause for concern (which is crotch height for me!). Off with the shoes and socks and out with the fully extended pole and I crossed at the tip of the island, cool clear water very refreshing on the feet after almost 8 hours on the go. I lazed on the banks and gobbled up the last roll and made my way back to the tent, turning to look at the vast openness of Glen Quoich and its brown and dappled grey landscape. A land I really really like.

Camp at Slugain

I also really like this time of year. On the way up Beinn a’Bhuird I thought about the approach of Halloween and the dark and cosy nights in front of the fire and it conjured up images of the past, where tales from big remote lands such as this would circulate round the hearthside. Tales that lived in the lives of the people who inhabited the foothills of these sub-arctic tundras. Names such as Clach a’Chleirich and Cnap a’Chleirich (rock and top of the Clergyman) speak of human influences in these remote lands.

In these days of technology and instant access I think we’ve lost something of what it is to be human. It only takes a minute or two on the internet to debunk a myth. There is no romance on the wire. On Halloween, one must de-google oneself and go for a long walk in sombre coloured mountains far from the press of civilisation. Take your humble shelter far into the hills and sit and listen. Perhaps you’ll hear the voices of a past age. An age when wild lands held creatures of the imagination in their dark and brooding corries. Long live the wilderness I say!

You can see all the pics here.

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