Monday, 3 October 2011

A Wild, Wild Camp

Sometimes trusting the weather forecast works, sometimes it doesn’t. Last night it didn’t. Eventually. A window between gales was suggested, clearing evening skies then a starry night before the next storm blew in and the winds began to rise the next day. The forecast was six or seven hours out. Most people wouldn’t have noticed. Most people would have been asleep when the weather changed. As I was. Except that I was also in a tent in the mountains at 700 metres.

The trip had begun as expected. I set off up Glen Feshie in the Northern Cairngorms on a cloudy afternoon. After a short while I left the main path and cut across tussocks and heather to a great cleft in the hillside, the mouth of Coire Garbhlach, a twisting, secretive valley that cuts deep into the Moine Mhor plateau. This is a curious place for the Cairngorms where corries are usually wide open and spacious. As you follow the stream on a series of rough, faint deer tracks there is a feeling of entering another world, a narrow canyon with steep walls and shattered rock towers high on its sides, the sky just a slash of pale light far above. Soon the mouth has vanished and nowhere else seems to exist. Long and thin, the corrie keeps going, the stream crashing down in waterslides, falls and cascades.

Eventually the slopes became steeper and stonier and I realised I was unlikely to find a camp site anywhere ahead. Some slightly sloping tussocks would have to do. As I pitched the tent a gentle breeze wafted up the corrie while high above blue sky appeared and sunlight lit the upper slopes. Leaving camp I clambered up loose scree and greasy vegetation to view the big final waterfall, hidden in a narrow ravine. The light was fading as I descended back to camp, finding the slippery terrain more awkward than in ascent. Stars began to appear in the darkening sky and I sat in the tent door way eating supper and staring out at the wild world. Then I fell asleep gazing out at the Plough hanging above the hillside.

1 a.m. and the world began to change. I was woken by cold air hitting my face and the tent door flapping noisily. I zipped it shut and lay back down, aware that the wind was coming down the corrie in great roaring gusts that I heard seconds before they shook the tent. I slept again though as it was 4 a.m. when I next glanced at my watch and wondered if the tent would hold. Half-waking, half-sleeping I slipped uneasily through the next two hours. Then the wind strengthened and the tent shook more, hitting me in the face. The pole was bending alarmingly. Time to pack up. Not bothering with careful packing I bundled everything into the pack inside the tent so nothing blew away then ventured outside. A rush of wind nearly took my legs from under me. I’d thought maybe a tent peg or two had pulled out but they were all firm. Instead some guylines had slackened off, allowing the fabric to flap wildly. The tent looked solid though. It was my carbon fibre trekking pole holding it up that concerned me. Soon I had the tent down and crammed into the top of the pack. All this was done by headlamp as the night was black and the sky now overcast. With the wind behind me I stumbled and lurched through the rocks and tussocks, down and out of that wild, wild place as the sky slowly lightened, with just an edge of dirty red to some clouds to show the sun was there. Down in the glen the trees were thrashing in the wind. I was back at my car less than seventeen hours after setting off. It felt longer. Soon, though, I was eating breakfast in an Aviemore café, watching the leaves blowing and rattling down the street. A gust of 75mph was recorded on Cairn Gorm, ferries were cancelled and travel disrupted. It was not a day for the hills.


  1. But lived to tell the tale.

  2. Ah, I love little tales like this. They stick in the craw.

  3. ah, any bad adventure one can walk away from, is a good adventure.... :) and also the most memorable... More please Mr. Townsend.

  4. I look back on some of the trips when we were chased off the hills by mother nature with fond memories now. At the time though it wasn't as much fun! Made for an eventful trip by the sounds of things.

  5. We were only a few miles away Chris!
    A wild few days, uncrossable rivers, pitching in the dark in a bog, the wettest night ever in a tent, nearly blown off a summit,.....

    Great stuff!

    Mike fae Dundee.

    Worrying DofE group. A group of kids ahead of us attempted to cross the Glas Allt Mhor at the top of Glen Derry. It was in spate, and clearly uncrossable. One girl was neck deep before being swept away. Lucky to be pulled out downriver. Where were the adults?

  6. Hi Chris,
    I enjoyed that story,
    Well done and I'm happy you're safe!

  7. Hi Chris, Would you have stayed had you been in the Akto?

  8. Thanks for the comments everyone.

    Alastair, I might have stayed in the Akto, though I expect it would have been thrashing around too. I might have stayed if I'd had an aluminium pole rather than a carbon fibre one. And I might have stayed if it had been 3am rather than 6am. As it was I knew it would be light soon after I set off walking.

    I have taken down the Akto and moved on during big storms.

  9. Glad you got out of that one with no damage done! It looks a great wee glen to explore with better conditions. It's amazing how quickly things can change. I spent Saturday night besides a mirror-flat Loch Einich