cairngorms high camping

Mon, Aug 16, 2010

At long last our mutual diaries were clear and I met up with my oldest and bestest friend Allan, aka The Penguin, at the wee car park on the ski road and headed off into the wilds for a high camp on Braeriach. So it was down to the river, swollen with the interminable summer rain this year and up past Lapland, the reindeer station and along the excellent path to the Chalamain Gap. It’s an interesting name is Chalamain. Calman is the Gaelic for dove but it’s pronounced with the svarahbakti vowel, which means it sounds like calaman and I suspect it’s just been named after the peak directly above it, Creag a’Chalamain or rock of the dove, as Chalamain isn’t a real word on its own, meaning “of the dove”. So there must have been a colony of rock doves here at some point and rocky it certainly is.

Allan in the Chalamain Gap

There’s no path through the main boulder field in the gap but it’s delightful hopping from rock to rock or following large table sized slabs of granite. Once out of the gap the character changes again and it’s bog most of the way down to the Lairig Ghru where you don’t need to ford the burn as it runs underground where the path crosses to the other side. Just as well as it was swollen with the copious amounts of rain we’ve been having lately.

We filled up here from the very cold burn as I knew from last time there wouldn’t be any water up on Sron na Lairige and not realising there’s a new path, we headed straight up the eroded path to the site of the Sinclair Hut.

There’s nothing there now as it was demolished in the early 1990’s although here’s a picture of what it was like inside. I vaguely remember it as a cold hovel. It was removed in a sweeping policy decision after much debate and as a direct consequence of one of the worst disasters in the Cairngorms, when five kids died in a winter storm on the plateau at the back of Cairngorm. It came to be known as The Cairngorm Tragedy, when on November 22nd 1971, a party of teenagers and their leader were caught in a vicious storm in one of the most wild and spectacular areas, the Feith Buidhe, or yellow bog. I went through that area on my ML assessment and it really is elemental in bad weather. Very remote and very exposed to the battering winds that scream up from the south east and are accelerated to over a hundred miles an hour by the shape of the landscape. The party were trying to reach the Curran Refuge but most of them perished before they reached it and it was a reaction to this attempt to reach wild shelter instead of getting out of there that ended with the demolition of most of the Cairngorms high shelters. There’s a fascinating account of the rescue of the survivors from the helicopter crew here.

Penguin and I have stayed in one of the remaining shelters, the Garbh Coire Refuge and it wasn’t a particularly pleasant experience. What with the inside being rancid hessian netting stretched over a rusting iron A frame with a skin of granite boulders. Solid as a rock but only room for two people. A refuge indeed.

But to our sunny walk into Braeriach I must return! It was a real slog up Sron na Lairige laden with enough water to make the high camp a pleasant experience and the higher we climbed the higher the cloud lifted until we popped out at 1150m on the plateau and made for the wee spot where I camped last time, surrounded by reindeer.

Wild camp on Sron na Lairige

We pitched the tents, got the grub on the stoves and settled down for a while to enjoy the view. By 8pm it was midge hell so we decided to make for Braeriach summit that night, knowing that we’d be coming back to the tents in the dark. So we threw some stuff into a rucksack and made our way in the gathering dusk over towards the summit, which was about 40mins away. We passed a couple of bivviers near the bealach and plodded up onto the summit ridge, followed the cliffs round and were greeted by the most amazing sight as the moon slowly set in the red western sky.

Allan on Braeriach summit just before 10pm

There was barely a breath of wind and little sound other than the muffled roar of water in the coire. To the south the gorgeous shapes of Cairn Toul and Sgurr an Lochain Uaine, sometimes known as Angel’s Peak, cradled the high lochan from where we’d descended to the Garbh Coire refuge years ago to spend a wild night in its rough shelter.

Cairn Toul and Sgurr an Lochain Uaine from Braeriach

The rocks round us were taking on that wonderful granite glow in the evening light. The sun had gone but the sky to the south had the high rosy band of the Alpenglow while to the north the lights of Aviemore began to twinkle below a blood red sky.

The moon setting in the west from Braeriach summit

All was still and silent as we sipped our 12 year old Laphroaig and rejoiced in how privileged we were to experience such remoteness and peace and calm and wonderful scenery in an almost spiritual moment of time. Everything seemed at peace with the world. The high tops and wild open plateau round the Wells of Dee were in deep silence. It felt like they were alive, these presences that knew the full spectrum of weather in these wild landscapes and were at that moment, just being themselves. It was a humbling moment.

We left the summit just before 10pm as the light was fading and the pink granite took on that magical, almost luminous glow. It’s very hard to describe but the rocks almost seem to emit a faint light, as if they’ve stored up the day’s sunshine and are slowly releasing it into the cool evening air. Every crystal on their surface is clear and sharp and to run your hands over their roughness is to bring you straight into the moment. You can feel the immensity of the mountain through their touch, the immensity of time that shaped them thus and to sit there while the moon slowly sets into the murkiness on the horizon in such a quiet place is truly beautiful. Your world and another as they descend into night and the stars appear as the cycle of millennia trundles on. To be on a remote summit at night, to watch the moon set and the stars come out, to wonder at the vividness of rocks and eroded sand and the faint sound of rushing water below gigantic cliffs, is to ground yourself in this wonderful planet and have your fading batteries recharged. In such benign weather, when the silence is like a membrane connecting all visible things, it’s truly wonderful to sit and become one of those glowing rocks.

It was a lovely walk back to the tents in the dark, eventually getting the headtorch out when I strayed off the path and Allan followed across the springy moss. I knew another path encircled the top we were crossing so wasn’t too bothered about route finding and indeed, sure enough, I eventually found the path that led us back to the tents. The reindeer had gone by now so we bedded down for the night, surrounded by the sound of the faint rush of water on Ben MacDui across the Lairig Ghru and the quiet swish of wind in the grass.

I awoke around 4:30 and opened up the tent as the midges had settled down and lay there gazing at the rising sun behind Cairngorm and Cairn Lochain.

Sunrise over Cairngorm and Cairn an Lochain

and by about 6am it was light enough to see we were above the clouds

Wild camp on Sron na Lairige

Early morning temperature inversion on Sron na Lairige

There had been a heavy dew in the night and the tent was heavy with moisture as I tucked into hot mango porridge for breakfast as the cloud layer lapped against the northern corries. Eventually it lumbered up out of the Lairig Ghru and enveloped us as we packed up and headed back to civilisation. I had that feeling I had years ago when I’d spent a long weekend bivvying at the head of Loch Avon, rock climbing for three days with Cap’n Bob around the crags of Loch Etchachan and Coire an Lochain, watching the sun set from Beinn Mheadhoin and having a whale of a time. I felt so depressed back in Aviemore after that trip and I felt a bit of that as we left our high camp. But we’ll be back no doubt, to walk the plateau and camp high again.

Allan below the Chalamain Gap

We ended our trip with a grub-up at the great wee cafe in Glenmore where we watched a red squirrel from a few feet away and you can watch them on their webcam too. As we were lazing on the outside deck of the cafe, supping our coffees and chewing the fat, Allan summed it all up nicely. He looked at his watch and said it wasn’t even 24 hours since we started but since then we’d camped at almost 1200m, ate our dinner with the reindeer, saw the sun set over one of the remotest areas of the UK, supped whisky as the moon set over the west, saw a billion stars in the cold clear night and watched the sun rise over a sea of cloud and to top it all off, two old friends sat watching a red squirrel tuck into a humungous pile of nuts a few feet from our table.

As Allan, in a philosophical mood, brought our trip to a conclusion. Most people are born, stay around for a few decades and then die. Not many actually live.

You can see all the pics here.