Friday 22 April 2022

Woods, Winds, & Water: A First Spring Overnight Trip That Didn't Go Quite According To Plan

Shelter at last

Sometimes trips don’t go quite according to plan, and sometimes trips give rewards that weren’t expected. My first spring trip of the year was both those. With warm weather forecast and most of the snow below 1000 metres gone a trip with a lighter pack without the ice axe, crampons, snowshoes, and winter camping gear I’d been carrying since November appealed. I wanted the freedom of not feeling burdened down.

View across Rothiemurchus Forest to the Lairig Ghru

Not wanting to drive far for an overnight trip I decided on the northerly extension of Braeriach, a big wedge of ground between Gleann Einich and the Lairig Ghru in the Cairngorms that’s mostly between 600 and 700 metres high. This is little-frequented pathless country so once away from the main track in Gleann Einich I didn’t expect to see anyone else. 

In Gleann Einich

The air was warm, the sky bright, and the mountains shining as I set off. There was a strong breeze though, even down here in the forest. The woods were still peaceful and the walk to Gleann Einich relaxing. I appreciated the lighter load too.

Once I left the last trees the wind was fierce, roaring straight down the glen into my face. Dark ragged clouds ripped across the mountains. Two mountain bikers with skis on their packs passed me cycling out. They’d gone to ski a line called The Escalator on Braeriach but had only skied part of it as the wind was just too strong high up. I was glad I wasn’t going that high.

Once I turned off the track the going became tough, the terrain all tussocks and bogs. Having been here before I knew it was like this and didn’t expect to make fast progress. The wind hindered me too, strong enough to knock me sideways occasionally. I’d planned on camping near a lochan on this open moorland and then going up the tops not far away, perhaps watching the sunset from one of them. The wind ended that idea. I could find nowhere sheltered and didn’t fancy a night in a shaking noisy shelter. The wind was coming from the south. On the far side of the hills just above the lochan was a shallow glen running north-east. Maybe there would be more shelter in it. 

Old tree, young trees

There wasn’t. The wind was funnelling straight down the glen. I went right up to its head. Here I found the remains of a long-abandoned shieling. No-one came here often now but once they did. I guessed there was a path long ago. Turning away I followed the burn gently downwards. There were stumps of long-dead trees in the peat, A lonely pine appeared, a surviving remnant of the forest that was once here. No, not lonely. As I neared I could see a scattering of little pines, no more than a metre or so high, around the old tree. As always, seeing the forest returning was uplifting.

The glen steepens

Still battered by the wind I continued past the pines and into the narrower lower glen. The terrain became stony, scoured by floods and snowmelt. The banks either side grew steeper. I decided I should climb up to the moorland above while I could before I reached a drop I couldn’t descend and had to retreat. The scramble up steep slopes of heather and rock was hard work. Knees and elbows came into play at times, and I was glad of the strength of some of the heather.

Once up and on flatter ground I realised to camp anywhere sheltered I would have to go down again, down to the Allt Druidh, which drains the north side of the Lairig Ghru. The descent was down even rougher slopes than those I’d just climbed with big boulders hidden in the heather, some covered with slippery moss. 

Creag an Leth-choin at dusk

Once down the terrain was no easier. The river was a raging torrent. The Lairig Ghru path lay not far up the other side but there was no way I could ford safely. I went downstream into the first trees, searching for a camp site. After climbing another steep rough bank and descending again to avoid a crag I found a lovely spot beside some old birches. With relief I made camp. I’d now been searching for a camp site for several hours and was far from where I’d planned to be. There’d be no hills this evening. Sunset came with a touch of colour amongst the racing clouds.

A peaceful camp

The night was warm, especially after the wind died down. I could hear the river roaring but even so this was a peaceful place. I lingered in the morning, admiring the old trees. And because I knew there was hard work to come. To cross the river I needed to go back upstream, beyond some feeder streams to where the Lairig Ghru path crossed it on steeping stones. To get there meant climbing back up the steep banks above camp and then crossing rough undulating moorland. Then I’d be on the path that lay just a few hundred metres away across the river from camp.

Allt Druidh

The ascent required more use of knees and elbows and more pulling on heather stems. Once out of the trees the wind was blasting against me again. I was now heading into it, across heather and boggy moorland that seemed even rougher than the day before. There were many little young pines to keep my spirits up. I weaved in and out of little stream gullies, trying to contour and not lose or gain much height. The river became a shallower stream and much less powerful as it flowed over flatter ground. I forded it before I reached the path at a wide pebbly stretch. The water was ankle deep and cold. My boots were sodden from all the bogs anyway.

Clouds over the Lairig Ghru

Once across I soon reached the path and could stride out, for the first time since I’d left Gleann Einich. Back in the trees I paused and gazed across the white thrashing river far below. There on the far side was the campsite I’d left three hours earlier. Now the hard work was over there was just the pleasant walk back through the forest to my car. 

Looking back across the river to my campsite

No summits were reached, and only short distances walked yet this was an arduous trip due to the wind and the terrain. The joy was in the regenerating forest and in the lovely camp site. A good start to spring.


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