Saturday 30 June 2018

Heatwave in the Cairngorms

The heat has been extraordinary. 30°C in the glens, 20°C on the summit of Cairn Gorm. And much, much hotter in the blazing sun under cloudless skies. To take advantage of the conditions I wanted a night out in the Cairngorms, and to see dawn and dusk high in the hills. But I didn’t want to climb up there in this heat. I knew what it would be like – exhausting, enervating, a feeling of fighting through thick dense air, the heat almost palpable.

Cairn Lochan
To avoid this I decided to head up late in the evening, walking into the half-dark gloom that constitutes night at this time of year. I went for a long gradual ascent without any really steep slopes. Even so the air felt heavy and the walking was sweaty and arduous. Only after 10pm did the temperature start to slowly fall. The cliffs of Cairn Lochan were turning golden brown in the low sun as I passed below them before watching the sun set over Creag an Leth-choin.


I camped on wide open slopes in the heart of the Cairngorm Plateau with extensive views towards Cairn Gorm and Bynack More. The air was still. A big moon rose, just one day after full. The ground was dry and crunchy. I walked barefoot and sat outside. The last red haze from the sun stretched across the sky behind Cairn Gorm.

Before sunrise

After a few hours sleep I was up at 3.30am to watch the dawn. To the east the sky was paler. Red, yellow and orange streaks coloured the sky above Cairn Gorm. The air was cool, 10°C, and I needed a jacket. I watched and waited in the silence. Then the sun came, a red disc slowly climbing over Bynack More through thin clouds. 

After an hour I retreated to the tent for a little more sleep before the heat woke me. Even with the doors wide open my little tent was too hot once the sun was high in the sky. I sat outside for breakfast. It was 7.30am. A bird called and I could just hear the trickle of a stream. Otherwise silence.
Before departing I spread my gear out in front of the tent. It’s rare to be able to do this at 1150 metres in the Cairngorms. It’s usually too cold, too windy, too wet, or too midgey. Not today. Today was perfect.

By the time I left this idyllic camp the sun was savagely hot. The walk up Ben Macdui, only a kilometre and a 150 metres of ascent away, was draining. The pale stones underfoot felt hot and reflected the heat back at me. On the summit a man in shorts and boots – no shirt, no rucksack – appeared followed by a mountain biker carrying his bike. I met no others all day. I wandered to favourite viewpoints and stared down the Lairig Ghru to the dark outline of Beinn a’Ghlo.

View down the Lairig Ghru from Ben Macdui

On the slopes above the rushing Garbh Uisge Mor were many snow patches, some quite extensive. It’ll be a while yet before it all melts. Beside the burn and in boggy areas the ground was bright red and green with moss and vegetation. Away from the water the land was dry and dusty and bleached by the sun. I was reminded of the deserts of the American Southwest where there is the same pattern of fresh succulent water-given life and parched arid sand and rock but on a much greater scale. I’m not often reminded of hot deserts in the Cairngorms.

The Garbh Uisge Mor

At the top of the slabs running down to Loch Avon, a brilliant blue in the sunlight, I found a seat and sat and watched the landscape shimmering. On Hell’s Lum crag I could see pairs of climbers inching upwards, the sun shining directly on them. It must be so, so hot, I thought.

Crossing the Plateau again I startled two families of ptarmigan that scuttled away across the rocks, heads down, the mothers doing their broken wing act to lure me away, and a cluster of dotterel either side of a burn that relied on immobility as protection.

View down to Loch Avon

Even descending the heat was overwhelming even though there was now a breeze. The usually busy edge of the Northern Corries was strangely deserted for a dry summer day. There were few cars in the Coire Cas car park. Down in Glenmore I found out where everyone was. Loch Morlich with its golden sand beach. Cars were crammed along the verges, every car park full.

I posted the pictures of my gear laid out on social media and received quite a few comments, what tent is that, how do you get your gear so light, that gear looks heavy, what hat are you wearing. A few people suggested I should write about the gear and I will do that in a future post though not for a while as this weekend I’m finishing pieces for The Great Outdoors and then on Monday I’m heading down to Manchester to the Outdoor Trade Show to look at more gear. There was also a suggestion that I should do some YouTube videos. I’m thinking about it!

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