Sunday, 17 May 2009

Return to the Cairngorms

After my last trip which was a bit of a disaster I'd been looking forward to going back. The weather at the start of the week had been brilliant but by the time I was set to go the forecast was looking less promising with low cloud and high winds and an area of low pressure settling over the UK. My gear was sorted and remained pretty much as it was in my Sorted post with one or two additions/omissions.

The drive up to Braemar was blessed with pleasant weather even if it was a little hot in the car. Things started to fall apart as soon as I arrived in Braemar, I tried to phone home only to discover that my phone battery was almost dead. I quick run around the shops ended at the filling station and one car charger added and £8 lighter the phone problem was sorted. I had to hang around until 4.00pm before I managed to make contact and then set off towards Derry Lodge.

The weather was really nice, blue skies, sunshine and just a slight breeze. I wanted to get up to Loch Etchachan so decided to head up to the Hutchison hut and pitch up. It started to get a bit colder as I came up to the fork in the path and was definitely getting chilly at the hut, by this stage it was 7.30 - 8.00pm. I spotted out a couple of likely pitches but the bothy was empty and as I'd never stayed in a bothy before the temptation was too much. I didn't unpack too much at first, half expecting a group of TGO'ers to arrive in which case I'd have moved out and let them have the extra space. I made something to eat and by 9.00pm decided to settle in for the night. A weird thing happened though, I kept thinking I heard voices, not close by but as if they were being carried on the wind from some distance, as it turned out it was the soles of my boots on the wooden floor boards (I think).

I decided that if the weather forecast was correct, rather than sticking to my plan of going straight up to Loch Etchachan next morning with the intention of making Beinn Mheadhoin and Derry Cairngorm before aiming to pitch up again at Lochan Uaine I'd go back down to Glen Derry and head up the Larig an Laoigh to the Fords of Avon and then up Loch Avon to the Shelter Stone before going up to the saddle to Loch Etchachan. I figured that if the cloud base was low and the weather turned nasty I could drop back to the Hutchinson hut but if the weather was reasonable I could still make Bein Mheadhoin/Derry Cairngorm and ultimately Lochan Uaine. Fed watered and with plans laid I settled down for what turned out to be a comfortable night.

I awoke at about 7.00am on Friday morning but was lazy and stayed put for another hour or so. At that stage the conditions weren't too bad with a bit of sunshine coming through the bothy window. I leisurely breakfast and a bit of footering around saw me ready to leave at 10.00am but by now the conditions were definitely looking less promising.

There was a stiff breeze with just light showers on the way back down to the Larig an Laoigh but by the time I reached the high point and could see Dubh Lochan the rain was pretty persistent.

I was a stones throw from the Fords of Avon refuge when a walker dashed out to collect water, crossing over with care I discovered 3 (AFAIK) TGO'ers sheltering in the refuge for a cuppa, sheltering is a fairly loose description as the rain was blowing straight in the refuge door. I stopped briefly, wished them well and turned for Loch Avon.

The 1st part was a bit nasty, the path as far as I could tell alternated between grass, boulders and peaty bogs but I was soon at the high point looking up Loch Avon towards Coire Dhomain and Feith Buidhe. The walk up the shores of Loch Avon was pleasant enough, wind and rain weren't a problem as they were coming from behind so I kept my jacket open. I'd stopped about halfway along the Loch when a really big gust hit and lifted a plume of spray which was carried almost the length of the Loch, of course it didn't happen again after I got the camera out. I soon arrived at the end of the loch and figured it was about time to get a hot drink.

I initially stopped right on the Loch shore but decided to over the high ground and look for shelter on the other side. It looks like a great place to camp in better weather but at the time every potential pitch looked like it could easily end up under a couple of inches of water. I tried looking for the Shelter Stone but ended up settling for a shelter stone which offered complete protection from wind and rain. I soon had the meths burner fired up and a cuppa-soup followed by biscuits and coffee hit the spot.

Of course the problem with finding such a pleasant spot is that the prospect of having to leave and head up into less visibility, higher winds and more rain isn't too encouraging. I always find it takes a good 10 minutes to loosen up after a stop but it didn't take (too) long to reach the saddle.

The visibility was down to 10m at times and never improved much above 15m so after passing the small un-named lochan north of Loch Etchachan I switched on the GPS, checked my position and typed in the coordinates for the Loch Etchachan outflow. There were a few places where there was no wind whatsoever and yet I recorded 25mph+ winds only a few yards away. When I reached the outflow the wind was really blasting up between Creagan a Choire Etchachan and Stob Coire Etchachan, hitting over 35mph and with visibility down to 10m or less. I crossed the outflow to take the track down the south side of the burn and in a brief clearing saw the Hutchison hut.

At this stage I hadn't really decided what my next move was going to be, clearly the weather was deteriorating quicker than the forecast had predicted (The most up to date forecast I had was from Wednesday at 16.00) so I decided to stop at the bothy and sort myself out.

I was pretty surprised to find there was already an occupant but we started talking and both decided that we might as well stay in the bothy. Louis had come in from Coylumbridge via the Larig Ghru, Lurcher's and the plateau leading to Ben MacDui but had descended and found the Hutchison hut. Friday night was a wild one, what had looked like potential pitches outside the bothy earlier had turned into feeders for the burn. Louis was intending walking out to Braemar the next morning to meet relatives who were on the TGO and as I hadn't been able to contact anyone at home I decided to walk out with him although at this stage I didn't really know what my next move would be. It was a wild night with the wind hitting the bothy side on and sounding like it might blow the windows in but I fell asleep around 10.00pm wakening once around 4.00 and eventually surfacing at about 7.30 as we'd planned to leave at around 8.30.

We eventually set off at 9.00 and with Louis setting the pace made a quick dash to Derry Lodge. I had toyed with the idea of stopping off at Derry Lodge to asses the situation and even considered going over to the west coast to either Fort William or Glencoe but by the time we reached Derry Lodge and with little sign of an improvement in the weather I decided to walk out with Louis to the Linn of Dee. Louis was intending to walk into Braemar to get the bus home and declined my offer of a lift. I drove out to Braemar phoned home and pretty much decided to bug out and try for an earlier sailing back home. As it turned out all the sailings from Troon had been cancelled so I had to transfer to Cairnryan and drive down for check-in before the 8.00pm sailing.

I find that once I've made a decision to bug out then it has to be ASAP, of course an hour after arriving home I'm thinking I should have stayed. Part of the problem this time was that I hadn't been able to contact those at home, the low cloud meant I couldn't or wouldn't attempt to get high enough to get reception (previously I'd only managed from Carn a Mhaim) and attempting to do so meant walking out to the Linn of Dee at which point I wasn't enthusiastic about walking back back in to Derry Lodge. I didn't even get to use the tent this time which is pretty annoying so it looks like I'll have to go back again, 3rd time lucky hopefully.

I had some new gear to try this time and before setting off I'd formed a few opinions on what would work for me and what wouldn't, as it turned out there were a few surprises but I'll deal with that later.

All thing considered it wasn't too bad, with the benefit of hindsight I should have stuck it out even if it meant sitting around at Derry Lodge for a day. The lack of a reliable form of communication is an issue for me and I'm thinking that maybe a Spot Tracker would help, something to look into anyway.


  1. A good read, and good photos. You were a bit luckier with the weather, Mac; until it turned. I guess we'd have passed each other either in Braemar or on the road.

  2. I was in Braemar about 12.00-12.30. I wasn't out of the car, just parked in the car park for about 10.00mins to make a phonecall. I didn't even go into Braemar Mtn Sports as I'd intended to stop at the Tiso shop in a village just south of Auchtrarder but I didn't stop there either, I guess I hadn't my buying head on ;-)

    If the weather had stayed like it was on Friday morning it would've been fine as the tops were clear, still there's always next time :-)

  3. Great write up and photos Mac, keep up the good work. Looking forward to your gear reports....

  4. just checked photo's data, and the photo of Darren in the Braemar car park was 11:55am. We'd have been lunching at the time you arrived. Close, but no cigar ;-)

  5. Shame the weather wasn't better. I'm hoping it will be OK in a week's time.

  6. Enjoyed this report Mac and sorry to hear the weather wasn't in your favour a bit more. I can't wait to get out again abd the latest trip reports and mobile blogs from the TGOers is really winding me up!

    Looking forward to reading about what kit worked and what didn't.

  7. Nice write up! The best layed plans an all that...

    I've had great days and rough days up there, both at either ends of the scale. Both types make trips all teh more memorable.

    Your comments on teh wind strike a chord. Wind in the gorms can be a devil. The combination of the high plateau and the deep lairigs seem to make for unpredicatable and at times fierce winds. They can be very localised too.