Thursday 23 April 2015

Stars and Clouds and a Wild Camp

Camp on The Saddle

April has been a kind month in the Cairngorms. It’s not always so. Some years April can see big storms, heavy snow or torrential rain. But this year it has mostly been sunny, warm and calm. The mountains, still laced with snow, have shone in the strengthening spring sunshine. Rivers and streams full of snowmelt have sparkled and rippled, blue and white in the brightness. A green tinge of new growth is beginning to spread up from the glens though it will be many weeks before it reaches the mountain plateaux.

For the second time I decided to take advantage of the fine weather with a high remote camp. An evening start took me through the always lovely woods of Ryvoan Pass and out onto the open moorland that leads from Strath Nethy onto the broad northern flanks of Bynack More. Here I turned and followed the narrowing and increasingly rocky north ridge to the jumbled boulders that make up the summit. Although snow patches lay to either side there was none on the path or on the top, which was good as I was in trail shoes and had no ice axe or crampons. This, I’d decided, would be the first spring trip, the first of the year without the accoutrements of winter. If I encountered much snow I would take another route.

The Barns of Bynack
Beyond the summit the golden rays of the sinking sum lit up the big granite tors known as the Barns of Bynack. I passed these by and went on to the massive gentle rise of A’Choinneach, once a Munro. A solitary reindeer paused to watch me then continued its crossing from Strath Nethy to the Lairig an Laoigh. Ptarmigan called harshly and half-flew, half-ran over the mossy ground. To the west the sky turned briefly red above the north ridge of Cairn Gorm.

After sunset
I had hoped to camp on the south-western side of A’Choinneach overlooking Loch Avon but the terrain was more broken and rocky than I remembered, it having been many years since I last traversed this hill. I continued down until I reached the boggy neck of land separating Loch Avon from Strath Nethy known as The Saddle. Casting round in the almost-dark I found a dryish spot between the pools. Above the first stars were appearing.

The camp at night

And the next morning

The Saddle was splendid on a night like this, with a vast array of stars covering the sky and dark mountains all around splashed with pale snowfields. There was no wind and the air was soon freezing, with frost on the tent and ice on the puddles. Away to the north out beyond the mountain walls the Northern Lights briefly flickered, a wavering white curtain with just a hint of red. But the real glory was in the wild situation, in being here amongst the mountains and under the stars. 

Cloud monster
I woke to the first sun touching the tops high above. To the east a curving wave of pink wind-blown cloud appeared to be bearing down on the camp like a giant pterodactyl. The ground crunched underfoot, the pools hard with ice. I waited for the warmth of the sun but it never came. Clouds slid over the sky from the south, sinking down on the summits, and a cold wind began to blow. A ragged path led up the steep slopes of Cairn Gorm past big snowfields and into the little scoop of Ciste Mhearad, still full of snow. The slopes were gentle though and the snow firm but not slippery and I was soon on the wide ridge above, enveloped in the mist.

I crossed the ridge quickly, having no desire to linger in the damp cloud and biting wind, and descended above Coire na Ciste. On the far side skiers were gliding down the last remaining runs. Once out of the cloud I could see sunshine ahead over the forest and glistening Loch Morlich. Behind me the mist hung in a great curve over the tops with blue sky above. A last walk beside the cheerful and attractive stream of the Allt na Ciste took me through slowly thickening pine forest and back to Glen More. Down here the air was warm again and there was the rich scent of spring.


  1. Hi Chris looks amazing , for your MLD Mid what are you using for a pole ? as i see your 2 treking poles are out on the side ? im looking for a decent pole for my MLD duo mid cheers sean

    1. Hi Sean, I'm using the pole from a GoLite Shangri-La 3. I'm not sure I'd trust two trekking poles strapped together for a mid as tall as the Duomid XL.