Friday 13 October 2023

Five Days in the Eastern Cairngorms: an incredibly shrinking trip ends in a big storm

Coire na Ciche, Beinn a' Bhuird

Sometimes plans don’t quite work out. Sometimes they fade into the distance, always about to happen. Sometimes they change into something completely different. I’d planned on walking the Cape Wrath Trail in around three weeks in September and early October. Then various events occurred as events will, and the start date had to be pushed back a little. No big deal. Then it got pushed back a little more. Then I caught covid. It was mild and I was only ill for a few days but the recovery time afterwards took days and days and days. A commitment in October came up. My time for the CWT was squeezed. I didn’t want to feel under any pressure to rush so I dropped the plan for now. Instead I’d do a two-week walk in the Cairngorms, a circular walk closer to home I could more easily shorten if more commitments came up or the covid recovery took longer still. It did. The Cairngorms fortnight was shortened to ten days.

Tony in Glen Quoich

Tony Hobbs was joining me for part of the trip. Originally that was half-way along the Cape Wrath Trail. Now it was in Braemar. Covid recovery dragged on. The five-day walk to Braemar became a more direct two days then no days at all. I drove instead. The three-week trip was now down to a maximum six days and instead of having an aim there was now no plan other than to wander into the Eastern Cairngorms and see what we felt like doing, what the weather did, and how my covid recovery held up.

In Glen Quoich. Thanks Tony for taking the picture

From the Linn of Quoich we wandered through the lovely woods beside the rushing Quoich Water, full of recent rainfall. The autumn colours were just beginning. Light showers fell. A rainbow arced over the trees. It was very peaceful and calming. We splashed through side streams and then the Quoich Water itself, our trail shoes soon soaked. They would stay that way for the rest of the trip.

First camp, Beinn a' Bhuird in the background

Our first camp was beyond the last trees and gave spacious views of Beinn a’ Bhuird and Ben Avon, though we couldn’t see the summits of either of these vast mountains. The ground was boggy and bumpy, oozing water at every step, and it took a while before we found dryish, flattish ground on a small island with a little overflow channel barely trickling down one side and the main Quoich Water racing down the other.

Where's the view gone?

Rain had me closing the tent doors for the night. I opened them to dark grey skies, clouds down on the hills, and more rain. The overflow channel was a proper little stream now. The forecast, obtained via the Garmin InReach Satellite Communicator, suggested a dry though breezy afternoon.

Dubh Lochan

Deciding to stay here a second night wet set off with light packs for the magnificent corries on the east side of Beinn a’ Bhuird, which I hadn’t visited for many years. I had thought of continuing to the summit but the strength of the wind as we gained height soon quelled that idea. Coire an Dubh Lochan was an impressive destination anyway, the dark rippling water backed by a ring of great cliffs, a wild and wonderful place.

Dubh Lochain

We descended beside the burn that runs out of the lochan into the smaller pools called the Dubh Lochain. The views back were superb, a reason to stop and look frequently. The evening in camp was windy but clear. High above white clouds streaked across the sky.

Our second dawn came with dark clouds hiding the summits again and a gusty breeze. Hoping for the same weather as the day before we set off up the glen aiming for Beinn a’ Bhuird or Ben Avon, maybe both, we’d decide later. What we actually decided though was to go back down. At the narrow gap between the mountains called The Sneck the wind was blowing hard and we were in a damp cloud. The summits lay another 200 metres higher. A navigation exercise in a buffeting wind didn’t appeal.

Soon after we started down rain began, slowly becoming heavier and heavier. Back in the tents we listened to an hour of it hammering on the flysheets. We’d made the right decision.

First camp. Beside the overflow channel

Spending all afternoon and all the next night in our small tents didn’t appeal either so we decided to move on once the rain eased. The choice was to go back down into the forest or over a low pass and down Glen Gairn. We went for the latter. That was not the right decision.

The walk was uneventful. There was a breeze but no rain. We camped at dusk by a side stream, a pleasant spot with spacious views.

A few hours after darkness fell the wind began to pick up and was soon roaring down the glen. The noise on the tent was deafening. I would get no sleep. I was using a makeshift pole to hold up the tent. It quivered somewhat alarmingly. I think it would probably have survived the night but I didn’t want to wait eight hours to find out so I roused a reluctant Tony and persuaded him we should move.

Over the years I’ve done this quite a few times, rather too many in fact. I’d rather be walking in the dark than waiting for dawn in a shaking tent. This night was dry and mild and I felt happier outside the tent than in it.


About a kilometre down the glen we found a locked shooting lodge. One end gave shelter from the wind though and I suggested we bivvied here. For extra wind protection I used the ultralight bivi bag that’s been on every walk for many years but is hardly ever used. Tony managed to pitch his shelter though he had to crawl to get in.

I slept a little and was certainly more comfortable than I’d have been at the earlier camp. The wind was still strong at dawn. A track led over the hills to Deeside, reaching a height of 750 metres. Here Tony’s anemometer recorded a wind speed of 35mph, enough to affect walking.

Calm in the woods

Once down in the woods we found a sheltered site beside a stream. It was the most comfortable of the trip. The forecast though was for heavy rain for the next two days with a Met Office warning for floods. This would be our last night.

The stream in the forest the morning after the rain began

As predicted the rain began at dusk. By morning the nearby stream was a raging torrent. The track beside the Dee was sometimes in it as the river had already spread over its flood plain. Fording the side streams tearing down the hillsides wasn’t difficult. A few hours later it might have been. I was glad to reach the cars. The three-week trip had become a five day one. But it wasn’t one I’d forget.

I wrote more about the last day in the rain and the floods of that weekend in this post

More images from the trip:

Stream crossing

Rainbow over Glen Quoich

Tony in Coire an Dubh Lochan

Dubh Lochan

View back to Beinn a' Bhuird

First camp

Photography note: most of the images were taken with the Sony a6700 camera with the Sigma 18-50 f2.8 and Sony 10-20 f4 lenses. Raw files processed in DxO PhotoLabs 7.

On the last day I only took a few photos with my smartphone and none with my camera. Reaching the cars and then a cafe in Braemar were uppermost in my mind!

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