Derry Cairngorms

Here is another chapter from my book.

Derry Cairngorms

13th to 16th September 2016

Some feelings never decline. Certain experiences are so intense they always lurk at the edge of consciousness, to recur whenever the events that brought them forth are recalled. They never lose their edge and remain visceral. Like the moment my brother told me that our father had died, or when my phone rang at three in the morning from a Dundee number and I knew my mother was gone, or numerous moments during my time as a bicycle mechanic and messenger when I injured myself or crashed stupidly. Or when I locked myself out of the car at the Linn of Dee car park in a light drizzle and swarms of midges at two in the morning wearing only pyjamas and crocs.

From the moment I climbed out the rear flap to answer nature’s call and heard the mechanism click, I feared the worst, but went about my business in the hope I was wrong. When I tried to open the flap again and it did not budge, I was overwhelmed by panic and my mind ran riot. Every time I remember this, it all comes back. Exactly as it was. Complete panic. I tried again, this time with more force. No movement. Irritatingly it was not properly closed, just not openable. All the other doors were also locked. It was a long walk in crocs back to Braemar, and then what would I do? My money, ID and phone were all in the car. Could I hitch all the way home to fetch the spare key? Could I knock up some of the others who were probably asleep in vehicles in other bits of the car park? How was I going to explain this? What could they do to help anyway? How could I have been so stupid to have let this happen at all? Why had I not got out to piss using one of the regular doors? For then the act of opening would have tripped the mechanism and unlocked the whole car.

Even as I headed up Glen Lui the next morning, the bewilderment, shame and fear were still rattling around my head. During the rest of the night, the memory of it all disturbed my sleep, awakening me in terrors. So I was glad to be on the move, the car locked, the key safe in my pocket and everything I needed on my back. The weather was warm and close. Thin cloud swirled around the high peaks holding back the sun. I worked up a sweat quickly, augmented by Decapeptyl flushes. Every time I stopped to cool down and freshen up by a burn, I was attacked by midges. Adrenaline kept me going. In my head I knew I was not locked out of the car in the middle of the night, but every time I remembered that I had been, my heart pounded. I plodded on, trying to maintain a balance between speed enough to waft off the midges while not overheating, telling myself that I was not locked out of the car at two in the morning wearing only crocs and pyjamas in a fine drizzle and clouds of midges.

I had taken the path out of the car park through the woods to Glen Lui, and at Derry Lodge crossed the river to regenerating forests in Gleann Laoigh Bheag. At Luibeg Bridge I followed the glen north along a faint path rising gradually through boggy heather. The cloud was low but not thick, and the air was dense and humid. I was beginning to believe I might not be locked out of the car wearing only night clothes. In an effort to avoid the midges I plodded forward without break, stopping only to refresh my water bottle. It is not a steep climb and even if the path is not well defined, it is clear that many boots have plodded this way before. I followed the right of the burn along the bottom of the enormous west flank of Derry Cairngorm. To my left, the flanks of Carn a’ Mhaim and the arête to the great round shoulder of Beinn Macduibh, ahead the little promontory at the south edge of the high plateau, keeping its tip in the cloud and darkening the implausibly long drop into out of sight corries. The ground flattened at length into slabs and scattered boulders and then steepened a bit before the broad bealach between Derry Cairngorm and Beinn Macduibh. Somewhere on the other side of this was a path from the latter down to the beauties of Loch Etchachan, my goal for the night.

At the bealach there was thick cloud to ground level. Visibility was not good, so I had to trust that I would find the path on the way down the rocky slope. It began raining slightly. I was getting tired, having not really stopped to rest since leaving the car and still having to remind myself from time to time that I was not locked out of the car in the middle of the night in swarms of midges and a light drizzle wearing only crocs and pyjamas. The mist on the other side of the col was much thicker and the loch took rather longer to appear than I anticipated, but it was there, just as I remembered it, calm and still. First I crossed the causeway at the outflow from Loch Etchachan into Little Loch Etchachan in search of flat ground that I thought I remembered from another visit to this place, next to the path down to the Shelter Stone, but found nothing well-drained enough. So I returned over the causeway and plumped at last for a grubby bit of ground between some boulders that had evidently been used often before. Despite my initial doubts, it was a good place; sheltered, flat, near water and peaceful. There was however nothing to see outside but mist and soggy ground, so I ate and settled in for the night.

The next morning there was still mist, but it was thinner and the sun shone through sometimes, suggesting that here was The Cairngorms’ micro climate at work, holding onto the weather as surrounding countryside basked in glorious sunshine. Optimistically, I strolled up the path to the summit of Beinn Macduibh. The path was easy to follow and led all the way to the top, where the cloud was now predominantly below me, swirling in updrafts from the depths of the Lairig Ghru, pouring over the escarpment of Braeriach, revealing only the tips of the high peaks and offering only glimpses of the plateau. I lingered awhile utterly in awe of this place; presently the cloud cleared and I saw the enormity of the plateau, from this its highest point. Red and grey stones piled above shallow bowls of darker ground where water gathers into green banked channels before plunging off precipices. There is not much to this summit, and were it not for the big cairn and trig point, its precise location would not be obvious. It must be one of the least prominent in the country, although it is second in height only to Ben Nevis, and is unquestionably one of the biggest mountains in Scotland. I returned the way I had come and swung right before the path dipped back down to the loch, so I could continue along the round north shoulder of Derry Cairngorm. Again the cloud was thin at the top, but this peak was not quite high enough to peek out into the sunshine. Disappointed that I had not had a view, I returned to my tent, whereupon the sun came out and the enormous splendour of this place burst forth.

Loch Etchachan nestles at an altitude of about 930 metres in a flat corrie that also forms bealachs between Beinn Mheadhoin (pronounced Ben Vane), Derry Cairngorm and Carn Etchachan, the highest point on one of the eastern shoulders of Beinn Macduibh. The outflow is east into Glen Derry and it is fed by a substantial burn, the source of which is high on the plateau less than a kilometre from the summit of Beinn Macduibh. It is backed at the west by sheer two hundred metre cliffs, while to the north the ground rises slightly and then plunges two hundred metres to the banks of Loch Avon and the tumble of house-sized blocks of stone that over centuries have fallen off Carn Etchachan and the Shelter Stone Crag, and under which there are cavities big enough to shelter tired bodies. It is not a deep loch; for most of the winter it is frozen solid and in the summer the water is so clear that the bottom appears sharp and clean, the surface invisible. It is surrounded by gravelly stones, tussocky grass and squelchy peat, concealing stunted trees; tiny pines, alders and birches hugging the ground like heather. I spent the rest of the day hanging out in the sunshine, taking photos and exploring the margins of the loch. Near the end of the day a party of two tents and three people made an encampment not far off, one of whom came over to introduce himself. He was a guide and the others his clients. We had an interesting conversation as light faded.

The next morning I awoke early to a glorious dawn of pink light painting the cliffs behind the loch. I ate my usual breakfast and bounded the short distance to the top of Beinn Mheadhoin. This is a remote peak and it is concealed by many others, but it is high, only twenty five feet short of four thousand and the thirteenth in Munro’s tables. All along the flat summit there are prominent weather-beaten tors of pink granite, known as the Barns of Beinn Mheadhoin. These are similar to the rock formations on the Bynacks, some of which are known as the Barns of Bynack. Further east on the massive plateau of Ben Avon, apart from the summit, there are several high points, all of which are similarly graced with these rather incongruous lumps of rock.

The highest point of Beinn Mheadhoin is at the top of the most easterly of its barns; the path through the others is reminiscent of the wild west, gravelly ground, round stones, tussocks of tough grass, strange rock formations. It took me a while to figure out which was the best way up the summit barn, and indeed where the highest point was. Many feet had evidently clambered all over it and found ways up to many viewpoints. There was a fierce wind from the south west and the air was warm and thick. But it was cloudless. Ridges faded in layers to the horizon, with the most distant recognisable hills The Lomonds near my home in Fife. I found a way up the barn and stood at the top bracing into the wind. It was not yet nine in the morning. The exhilaration was intense. I laughed out loud with the sheer joy of being here in the very heart of my favourite mountains, surrounded by old friends. Although Cairn Toul and the Angel’s Peak were hidden behind the great bulk of Beinn Macduibh, Braeriach was peeking over flat ground of the plateau, a dip where snow lies thick in winter and melts through gravel and mosses to be filtered clean, seeping and bubbling out again into the burns of Feith Bhuide and Garbh Uisge, before pouring down gullies and slabs to feed the depths of Loch Avon. A couple of patches of eternal snow nestled still under cliffs.

I was standing at an altitude higher than the bulk of the plateau, able to see forms on the ground that I had hitherto only seen represented on maps, or walked over. To the north the green expanse of Abernethy with the North Sea glimmering on the distant horizon. Beneath and to the east, my route for the rest of the day, towards Beinn a’ Chaorainn, with Beinn a’ Bhuird and the barns of Ben Avon in the far distance. South, the pointy summit of Derry Cairngorm and the Caledonian forest of Glen Derry, evidently now expanding and healthier than when I first saw it twenty-five or so years ago. The sun shone strong, beckoning a day of heat. This high desert is a fascinating viewpoint, well worth the effort of getting here. I hung out for a long time taking photos and being alive. I had almost forgotten that I had locked myself out of the car in the middle of the night wearing only crocs and pyjamas in clouds of midges and a fine drizzle.

Back at the tent, I was reluctant to leave this beautiful place, so I went for another wander round the loch. At about midday I dragged myself away and trundled down the path into Coire Etchachan following the outflow of the loch. The first drop is over crags and is a little tricky, but it settles into a steep downward slog on a gravel path to Hutcheson’s Hut, where I stopped at about one to shelter from intensifying heat. A thermometer in the shade outside read twenty Celsius. Inside it was warm but not scorching. I sat on the doorstep for a while snacking and preparing for the next stage of my expedition, the search for a nice place to camp on the southern slopes of Beinn a’ Chaorainn. I had a clear view from here of what this would entail; to follow the path for a while on its way back down into the forest, but to traverse left at about the altitude of the Lairig an Laoigh, heading for the path towards Abernethy, then finding a way up one of the gullies coming off the west flank of the mountain.

It was a slog. The ground was rough, then steep and then interminably haggy. It took a while before the burn I was following flattened out onto ground that was not squelchy, tussocky, gravelly or wet. At last though I found an almost perfect spot, on soft grass with the burn at my ear, not far below where it bubbled from the ground. I pitched my tent facing northeast and bounced up Beinn a’ Chaorainn. This is not a small mountain, but it is dwarfed by the high tops to the west, which were beginning to collect cloud again, their summits partially veiled by haze. The barns on Beinn Mheadhoin protruded strangely along the horizon. It looked like it was raining above the heart of the mountains, over Loch Etchachan. To the north east and south the views were clear. I was particularly drawn to the vast expanse of flat bog to the east with the lumps of Beinn a’ Bhuird and Ben A’an behind. I had once thought of combining these two giants with this summit and Beinn Bhreac, but looking at the ground now, I saw that it would be no fun at all finding a way across the featureless morass from here. The way south to Beinn Bhreac was also characterised many hags and little pools of glittering water. I felt the exhilaration again at the end of the day, standing in the warm wind on top of another mountain, looking back to the summit upon which I was standing at the start of the day.

I returned to my tent, ate and slept well. In the morning I lingered. The weather was again fine, but the high peaks to the west continued to hold onto their own little climate. The route to Beinn Bhreac was indeed a squelchy plod over tundra with no respite. Eventually I found rocks on the northern flanks where I could sit and snack before the final plod over piles of round stones to the summit. The high Cairngorms were still rumbling with their own little climate, while I sat in warm sunshine looking down on the forests of Glen Derry and Glen Quoich, beginning to plan a route up Beinn a’ Bhuird and Ben Avon from the latter.

The descent was straightforward to the first of two clefts that cut through the shoulder between Glen Quioch and Glen Derry, after which I found a path slanting diagonally into the latter. On the way down I met a man with a timid Labrador called Archie who walked into the heather to the end of a long lead as I chatted with his person. He was like that with everybody, the man told me.

Back in the forest, the heat of the day was captured now under the canopy and cooled, the ground is less boggy and more deeply carpeted with shrubs, heathers, new growth and mosses. Birds and insects fluttered about in a vibrant ecosystem protected by ancient pines. The owners of the land here have culled the red deer back to only a few small herds and the effect on the forest is remarkable. In comparison to the barren wastes through which I had been wandering the last few days, this was a verdant paradise, and judging by the number of young trees at and beyond its fringes, it is expanding. I sat once or twice on the way through the forest and again at the bridge near Derry Lodge. In the heat of the sun, the flushes seemed to return. Whereupon I realised that I could not remember being bothered that much by the flushes since making camp at Loch Etchachan. If only it were so in the city.

With another five added to the tally I trundled happily back to the car, at which point I remembered that I was not locked out, that after the initial panic, after all the images of walking through Deeside in pyjamas had overwhelmed me and I had shaken myself into the present, I saw that I had of course left all the windows slightly open, to ensure I would not suffocate as I slept in the back. I looked inside and could see the keys lying in the middle. I could also see walking poles almost within reach. I thrust my arm as far as it would go into the gap between the glass of the window and the door frame, then I did the same with my other arm. Gradually I forced them through the gap. I could feel my strength creaking at the window mechanism and damaging the innards of my forearms. I reached one of the walking poles and pulled it out triumphantly, then wondered what I was now going to do with it. My arms were scraped and bruised and I could not reach the keys using the walking pole as a hook. This act of desperation had resulted only in painfully bruised forearms and potential damage to my beloved old Volvo. But then I remembered that on the door handle on the driver’s side, next to buttons that operate the windows and rear view mirrors, was a little button that operated the central locking mechanism. I walked round to the driver’s door, on the way finding a stick with the right shape of squiggle at the end, so I could then gently reach down to depress the crucial button. There was a satisfying clunk as the car unlocked. I opened the door and returned to my sleeping bag to begin the process of convincing myself that I was not locked out of the car at the Linn of Dee at two in the morning in swarms of midges and a light drizzle wearing only pyjamas and crocs.

If you have enjoyed reading these words, without adverts obscuring the flow, this is because I have paid for it to be so. I recently received the bill from WordPress for the excellent service and for the next registration period for the domain name. It rather took me aback, as I am now scraping the bottom of my resources, living only from the PIP I receive from the state because I have what is euphemistically known as a long term illness.

If you feel able to contribute in any way to the cost of this site’s upkeep, please get in touch at dncnspnc at gmail dot com, or use the same address at PayPal with the reference I S B S – It’s shite being Scottish. 🙂

If you feel able to contribute to my fuel fund (the petrol for a return trip to the mountains in the campervan costs up to sixty quid) then please use the same address at PayPal with the reference I S B S, or get in touch in another way.

If you feel able to support the publication of my book or would like to fund me while I am writing it, please use the same email address, either to get in touch or with reference B O O K at PayPal.

If you would like me to sponsor, endorse or review technical clothing or equipment, please use the above email address to get in touch with a proposal.

Thank you for reading. Never give up. Love and peace.

Author: Duncan Spence

Mountaineer, retired bicycle messenger, philosopher, wordsmith, proofreader, Dutch translator.

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