Tuesday 27 October 2009

A Two Camp Night

Sometimes weather forecasts can be just misleading enough to lure me out in the hope of good weather even though it hasn’t exactly been stated explicitly that this will occur. Add to that being lured into a scenic but exposed high level camp site and all is set for an unintended adventurous and exciting time. Such was the case two days ago when, after days of wind and rain, the forecast suggested a dry day with the possibility of some breaks in the cloud due to a weak ridge of high pressure. I decided on a night out in Glen Feshie, a favourite Cairngorm glen, especially in the autumn when the colours of the woods and the roaring of the red deer stags make it a place of beauty and wildness. I just love lying in the tent in the dark listening to the stags challenging each other across the hillsides and then waking to see the golden sweep of autumn birches amongst the magnificent old Scots pines. It’s a special place. A very special place.

By the time I set off the forecast had changed and the good weather window had shrunk to the afternoon and early the next morning. So I set off late, with just four hours of daylight remaining. The rain had stopped but the sky was still overcast. A hint of blue and the clouds rising to reveal the edges of the summits persuaded me to go up rather than along and I climbed up to the vast plateau of the Moine Mhor. The higher tops were in cloud but the moor grasses were a deep rich russet red and the boggy areas still shone green. The colourlessness of winter was still to come. I rounded the edge of the deep defile of Coire Garbhlach, its dark depths and ragged rocks looking grim and foreboding in the dull grey light. From the summit of Mullach Clach a’ Bhlair, just a rounded bump but the highest spot in the south-west corner of the plateau, I began my descent back into Glen Feshie down the Druim nam Bo ridge, hurrying now as dusk was creeping up on me. The dark pool of Lochan nam Bo appeared, set in a low cleft in the hillside. Beyond the lochan I knew the terrain dropped away steeply in rough slopes of rocks, bog and thick vegetation. An old little-used stalkers path zigzags down this hillside and then through the woods to the glen floor. Finding and following this path could be difficult in the dark. There was good dry and flat ground near the lochan. The decision was made and I pitched the tent.

Dinner over and warm and comfortable I lay down to sleep. A gentle breeze caressed the tent. An hour later I was woken by the roaring of the wind and the drumming of the tent fabric. I lay and listened to the storm. A corner of the tent sagged a little. Looking out I saw a peg had come loose and a guyline was thrashing in the wind. A quick and chilly dash outside – the temperature was 3.5ºC – and the tent was stable again. For another hour I dozed and woke, dozed and woke. The wind was strengthening and the billowing of the tent was moving the air inside, causing the thin shell of my quilt to move against me. I had no concerns about the tent collapsing - it was a winter mountain model after all – but realising that I was unlikely to sleep much and with six hours until dawn I decided I’d rather be walking so I packed up camp and headed into the black night. The descent was intense and committing yet also felt slightly unreal. Without the headlamp I could see nothing. A compass bearing took me to the path, which I then found and lost many times, guessing where it might go, missing turns then hitting it lower down. I stumbled into holes and over rocks. Without my trekking poles I’d have fallen several times. Then the first trees appeared and the path became more defined though still rough and knee deep in heather. At one point three pale skeletal dead pines were picked out by my headlamp beam, an eerie sight as nothing else was visible. Finally the slopes eased and I was out on the grassland in the wide glen with the roar of the river in the distance and giant gnarled pines looming up all around. The descent had taken hours in my mind but when I checked my watch it was just an hour and forty minutes since I’d left camp. A half-dead old pine provided some shelter from the wind, less forceful down here but still gusty, for the second camp of the night. Drizzle was drifting down and everything was damp. Finally at 3.30 a.m. I fell back to sleep. Four hours later heavy rain hammering on the tent woke me.

The storm blew me back down the glen to the car. The path was running with water in places, the River Feshie a savage tumult of deafening, crashing water. Three streams cut across the path, all swollen with rain, none bridged. The first was braided and I skipped from rock to tiny grass islet to tussock and kept my feet dry. But the Allt Garbhlach was an unbroken furious whitewater torrent, rushing down out of the corrie high above. Crossing safely became the issue, not keeping my feet dry. It took time to find a reasonable looking spot for a ford. Then careful footing on slippery rocks, hanging onto the trekking poles and a lurch from knee deep water to the bank saw me across. The last stream was nearly as deep but not as strong. With relief I reached the car, just twenty- two hours after leaving it. And then as a final flourish from the weather the drive home was difficult with large pools on the roads, heavy spray from other vehicles and lashing rain.

Photo info: Camp 2 in Glen Feshie, 02.49 am. Canon EOS 450D, Canon 18-55 IS @ 18mm, 1/60 @ f3.5, ISO 200, flash, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.5


  1. 2 camp sites in 1 night? Now that's just plain greedy, Chris ;)

    Enjoyable post, as always!

  2. That path is difficult to find even in daylight, lower down by the tree line it is almost totally obscured. Am heading up there tonight and starting out tommorow, aiming to be camping in Glen Feshie Friday.

  3. I've been up the path a few times - I think it's the best route on Mullach Clach a' Bhlair - and it is very overgrown in places. Sometimes the line where it follows a shelf is all you can see.

    I hope the weather it improves for you Dawn. It's raining again today and the Cairngorms are cloud-covered.

  4. It's a hard choice to make. To stay in your warm, cozy bag, and possibly not sleep. Or move to a better spot in the cold and darkness. :)
    I probably would have made the wrong choice! :)

    Nice wee adventure, Chris.

    Mike fae Dundee

  5. A great read Chris it highlights the level of experience you have and the confidence you have to pack up and move in the middle of the night. I assume it was the Soulo you were using. I did wonder if it give a new meaning to the term "wild camping"


  6. Mike, either choice could have been the wrong one! It was hard to leave the warmth of the tent. If it had been raining hard or snowing I would probably have stayed put.

    Nielsen, it was the Soulo. It's a rock solid tent but the wind was getting under the cap over the top vent and making it drum loudly. I've not had that happen before.

    I haven't packed up and moved in the night for many decades! I wouldn't have done so if the shelter of the glen hadn't been fairly close.

  7. Chris, your comment on seeing the skeletal dead pines reminded me of a passage in your book, the munros and tops where you mention that you feel your'e being watched. Have you read the third person? Its about adventurers who have sensed a presence when alone or when close to exhaustion. (im not suggesting you were close to exhaustion).I recently attended a lecture by Doug Scott "The 3 Peaks" he describes a similar experience.

    Nath, Yorkshire

  8. Nath, I haven't read that book but I have read accounts of mountaineers and other explorers feeling there was an extra companion with them when exhausted and I've heard Doug Scott speak about it in lectures. I've never had the experience myself - though I have been exhausted at times. I have though experienced a heightened sense of reality, which I had on the descent into Glen Feshie and which was probably one of the reasons those dead trees seemed so eerie. I think this comes about through an awareness that more than usual concentration and care is needed due to the unusual circumstances, in this case descending steep rough slopes on a very dark night.

  9. Great post Chris! Was on the edge of my office chair today reading it! I had never experienced sleeping out with the rutting stags until a fortnight ago at Loch Ossian it made the experience even more wild, incredible how loud some of them were. I had a similar experience of a stormy night once on the Carneddau in a collapsing tunnel tent and had to bail and ended up in a concrete shelter by a reservoir dam then down very early morning back to the car. You've just got to let nature win sometimes I suppose, you'd be daft not too.

  10. I much prefere the stormy weather and snow for camping, I will rarely trek in the woods in summer.
    I only carry a small oilcloth to make a lean-to shelter and get a lot of satisfaction out of making myself reasonably comfortable with very little.
    Le Loup.