Saturday 3 September 2022

Seeing in September at a high camp in the Cairngorms, with a crescent moon

The last day of summer, the first day of autumn. Meteorological autumn anyway. Certainly a time when the seasons are more clearly changing, after the seeming statis of high summer. I saw September in at a camp on the Cairngorm Plateau. Appropriately the night was frosty and there was ice on the flysheet at dawn, for the first time since spring.

As the forecast was for light winds and knowing that the midges were still at full strength – I only had to step outside my front door on a calm day to learn that – a high camp called. I passed below the Northern Corries then climbed the eastern arm of Cairn Lochan to the Plateau. Crossing to Ben Macdui I paused to fill my depleted water bottle at the March Burn, close to where I’d camped only a few weeks earlier. This time I was going further.

A few walkers passed by, heading back from Ben Macdui. Three others were on the summit but soon departed. I didn’t linger long myself, wanting to set up camp with time to wander round in the dusk. Less than a kilometre from the summit I found a suitable patch of coarse dry grass amongst the stones and moss around the headwaters of Allt Clach nan Taillear. This was a spot I’d thought about camping many times, but I’d always gone north to the headwaters of the Garbh Uisge Mor where the immediate views were more dramatic. Here there was a sense of space, high summits distant other than the rounded slopes of Ben Macdui immediately above. Away to the south the undulating multi-topped Beinn a’ Ghlo stood out.

Camp established I spent the evening exploring. I looked down to the shadowed waters of Loch Etchachan with Bynack More and Beinn Mheadhoin glowing gold in the low sun. Then back across the slopes of Ben Macdui to the edge of the Lairig Ghru and the dark east face of Cairn Toul. A crescent moon hung high in the sky. I sat and watched and waited. The moon curved down gradually until it touched the corner of the mountain before sliding out of sight. The red glow on the horizon faded. The first stars appeared. I returned to my tent and sleep.

Waking at first light I glanced out at a cold world. There was ice on the flysheet. But the eastern sky was glowing with the promise of sunshine and I was soon up and out for a pre-breakfast amble into the dawn. This time the dark lochan was Lochan Uaine below the cliffs of Coire Sputan Dearg which were soon catching the rising sun. The shaded hills of the evening were now glowing gold. Away towards Lochnagar thin mists threaded the glens.

A few midges arrived in camp as the first warmth arrived, just as they had the previous evening. Not many but I still applied repellent and lit a mosquito coil in the tent porch. As the sun strengthened they soon gave up though. A first cup of coffee was most welcome after my dawn stroll. The tent flysheet was soaked with dew, inside and out. I packed it wet. It would be hours before the sun was high enough to be hot enough to dry it and there was no wind. 

Clouds were building when I finally departed for the long steep descent into the Lairig Ghru beside the Allt Clach nan Taillear. A rough path appeared and disappeared. Boulder fields required care but it was lower down on boggy ground where my feet shot into the air and I slid on my backside. No harm down. My trousers would dry quickly enough in the warm air.

The Lairig Ghru was as impressive as ever. It always feels remote, in the heart of the mountains, the familiar path a tiny human mark on a vast landscape, a landscape that feels eternal. It isn’t of course. It’s ever-changing. At the Pools of Dee at the top of the pass a pale reddish tongue of boulders and scree marked a fairly recent landslip, its source high in a narrow gully in the cliffs far above. 

A few other walkers were threading the Lairig. Not as many as I expected on a fine day. One told me this was his first visit for forty years. Another had been up five Munros either side of the pass, though not Ben Macdui, on a long day walk. “Twenty-two miles so far”. I reckoned he had at least another five to go.

I boulder-hopped through the Chalamain Gap then bog-slogged across open slopes to the Coire Cas car park, a slow end to the day enlivened by the sun lighting the cliffs of Coire an t-Sneachda and Coire an Lochain. Autumn has begun well.


  1. Great pictures Chris, as ever!, all the best from M & H xx

  2. It is comforting to know that even new,expensive tents get soaked at times.Brings back many fond memories of waking up to a wet forehead as i reached for the door zip!And I am going back some years now.Great photos.

  3. Somethings don't change! Every tent is prone to condensation, however expensive. Thanks for all your comments.