Monday 15 December 2008

A Wet, Cold Backpacking Weekend

Having recently written about cold, wet backpacking and spent time last week replying to comments on my Backpacking feature on that subject I suppose it was only appropriate that my latest backpacking trip should be one of the wettest of the year. It was only a short trip, an overnight with Cameron McNeish through the Gaick Pass in the western Cairngorms, but it rained steadily almost the whole time. Combined with much thawing snow this made for a trip with wetness at its heart. (Cameron has written about our trip on his site and you can read his account here).

For much of the way we plodded through several inches of wet, sloppy snow that deadened our footfall and gave no spring for the next stride, making for surprisingly hard going. The snow did give a little lightness to the otherwise dour day however. The sky was overcast with dark grey featureless clouds shrouding the summits and there was little colour anywhere. An occasional grouse crashed out of the heather at rare intervals, large herds of deer drifted across the hillsides, standing out on snow patches but hard to see against darker vegetation. At one point a golden eagle flew across the slopes, its huge wings beating slowly up and down before it caught an air current and glided out of sight. Mostly though nothing moved and it was calm and dull. Usually I walk solo and enjoy being alone but for once I was glad to have a companion and interesting conversation.

Gaick Pass lies between very steep-sided hills that crowd in around the narrowing glen whose floor is filled by a chain of three lochs. As we threaded a way through this wild defile past the half-frozen, silent and cold waters we felt we could have been in remote mountains anywhere, even the Himalayas, for the steep slopes rising either side into the clouds might have continued upwards for many thousands of feet to pointed, icy summits instead of the flat heather moorland hills we knew lay not far into the mist. The Gaick Pass is reputedly the most haunted place in Scotland with many stories of the supernatural and it was easy to see why on a shadowy dark day like this but it’s for a natural disaster that it’s remembered by hill goers. In January 1800 four men died here when the bothy they were sleeping in was destroyed by an avalanche, the site marked by a standing stone. Looking up at the hills towering above I was glad the snow was thin and patchy as we passed by.

With no danger of avalanches and no sign of the land of faery the biggest risk for us was slipping on an icy patch hidden under the snow or disguised by heather. Trekking poles were a great help in keeping our feet. We did see some strange lights as we descended after dark into Glen Tromie. They looked like the brightly lit windows of a house. Cameron, who knows the area better than me, was sure there was no house there. But there was, a brand new big house with lights blazing from every curtainless window.

Leaving the snow behind we camped in Glen Tromie near Bhran Cottage, an old barn, a pleasant enough site in such dark December weather with scattered trees round about and the rushing river nor far away. There was no wind, and had been none all day, unusual at any time of year, so the camp was calm and peaceful with just the gentle pattering of the rain on the tents and the occasional hiss of stoves and the bubbling of boiling water. The temperature had been a few degrees above freezing all day but during the evening fell to a few degrees below and the rain turned to sleet and wet snow. In the tent it was dry though, despite the condensation that quickly formed on the flysheet, and it felt wonderful to lie half encased in my warm sleeping bag propped up on one elbow with a hot drink and a good book, relaxing after what had been a tougher day than expected.

Photo info: Early morning at the Glen Tromie camp. Sigma DP1, f4.5@1/20, ISO 800, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.


  1. No wind is rare indeed Chris. Did you use the tent on the left? Looks a good winter tent.

  2. Yes, it's a Hilleberg Soulo I have on test. I need some strong winds before I come to a conclusion!

  3. Either that or you just had your tent robbed ;-) Thought the thing in Cameron's hand had swag on it ;-) Looks like he was in a rush...


  4. Very funny Tony! Actually we were trying to get packed up before the rain started again, which we just managed.

  5. the shutter speed of 1/20th, was that hand held or tripod mounted?

  6. Hand held with cold fingers! Just possible with a 16.6mm lens (equivalent to 28mm in 35mm).