Tuesday 18 July 2023

Strange hours, dawn light, a little-visited Cairngorms ridge

The heavy rain was easing as I set off. It was already 8.30 in the evening. The forecast was for a short break in a week of rain and thunderstorms. Threatened thunderstorms anyway. Every day. Having been out in exposed places in thunderstorms on too many occasions when they’re forecast I stay off the hills.

As I left the woods behind a deep bright chasm appeared in the clouds as the sun neared the horizon. Soon afterwards I watched the sunset colouring the sky.

Continuing on in the twilight I didn’t start looking for somewhere to camp until 11pm. It was after midnight before I found anywhere. The rains of the last week had saturated the ground. Everywhere oozed water. Eventually I found a flat spot slightly above the bogs. I hoped it would have a good view. But that had to wait for the next day. Immediately I wanted a meal and then sleep. At 2am I finally switched off my headlamp and closed my eyes.

Brightness woke me, shining straight into my face. 5am and the sun was rising. A golden light suffused the landscape. I was out of the tent in minutes, marvelling at the world. 

High above the granite tors of the Barns of Bynack shone. Through a telephoto lens I could see the details of these distant rocks.

Looking away from the sun I could see low clouds creeping over the hills. The gold light wouldn’t last. Barely half an hour passed and the sky was grey. I was soon fast asleep again, not waking until 11.30.

Outside rain was falling and the highest hills were hidden, the glory of the dawn long gone. Clouds swirled around the Barns of Bynack.

My plan was to climb Creag Mhor, an 895 metre Corbett, then follow its north-east ridge which stretches over 7 kilometres from the river Avon to the Water of Caiplich. I’d been up the hill a few times before but always just up and down to the summit. I’d never walked that ridge.

The ascent was short and easy, if boggy in places, as I was already at 700 metres. Granite tors decorate the summit and other little tops along the ridge. Up here the vegetation was short and sparse and there were large patches of gravel and flat stones, typical Cairngorm plateau country. The walking was easy, the views splendid despite the racing clouds. There was no path and no cairn on the summit, though I did find one on a minor top. I guess few people come this way. Ravens circled me, curious.

As the ridge declined the terrain became boggy with deeper heather and many tussocks, making the going tough. This continued as I left Creag Mhor to cross the lower slopes of Bynack Mhor to rejoin my outward route. Back in the woods the rain became heavier. In Aviemore it was torrential.

The next day a thunderstorm finally broke over my house. I was glad I was inside and glad I’d seized the very brief gap between storms. The half hour of dawn light would have made the whole trip worthwhile on its own. The fine Creag Mhor ridge added to that.

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