A circuit of the hills in the eastern Cairngorms with an overnight camp on Beinn a’ Bhuird
Date: 20th-21st October 2012
Time: 28 hrs 30 mins
Hills: Beinn a’ Bhuird (Munro), Beinn a’ Chaorainn (Munro), Beinn Bhreac (Munro)
Weather: Predominantly sunny, very cold wind and icy temperatures
Route: View on OS Maps
Four weeks ago I was supposed to be in Assynt, enjoying the wild lands of the far north and climbing my halfway Munro. My car however had different ideas, breaking down and leaving me stranded in Aberdeen on a sunny Friday. It took two weeks and more money than I really care to think about to sort it out but at least I have a car again. For my return to camping trips I wasn’t up for something as distant as Assynt, instead I chose to head back to my favourite stomping ground, the Cairngorms.
It was mid-August 2009 that I was last on the summit of one of the eastern giants of the range - Beinn a’ Bhuird and Ben Avon - which occupy a vast tract of land between Braemar and Tomintoul. Earlier this year I walked down Glen Gairn with the hope of heading up to Ben Avon but was forced by high winds and low cloud to stay low that day. This had made me keener than ever to reacquaint myself with these high, wild mountains which, whilst less popular than their neighbours, certainly don’t lack for character.
Heading to the Aberdeen side of the Cairngorms generally affords for a leisurely start, and this one was no different. Despite rising early I didn’t hit the road until just after 9. There was patchy sunshine along Deeside and as it came into view above Ballater I could see that the upper reaches of Lochnagar had a substantial plastering of snow. At the Linn of Quoich parking area the car thermometer promised a chilly 7 degrees.
Glen Quoich is a perfect Cairngorm glen. More enclosed than neighbouring Lui, it’s also less well visited, particularly away from the car park and Punch Bowl, and yet it still has all the classic ingredients of a Cairngorm glen. A river chatters through a mix of green pine and golden birchwoods whilst the big hills crowd around the far end. The vehicle track on the west side of the glen makes for gentle progress in and I took my time, enjoying the sights and smells of autumn.
At the closed bridge I paused for a lunchbreak, the water racing through the narrow linn, and the sunlight breaking through the trees. It was perfect.
After lunch I carried on at an easy pace down the glen, enjoying the evolving views as first Beinn Bhreac and then Beinn a’ Bhuird came into sight. The river crossing was straightforward with just a slight toe wetting to deal with and then it was onwards, climbing up through the short strand of Scots Pine and then up the open hillside onto the long ridge of An Diollard.
The corrie was sombre and still but coming out onto more open ground brought with it wonderful views down the length of the Dubh-Ghleann towards the big peaks of the central Cairngorms. Below me the allt wound its way below the slopes of Beinn Bhreac and down to the point where I had crossed it back down in Glen Quoich.
Slightly higher up and now out of the protection of the corrie the wind was much colder and more blustery. However, the views continued to develop and I was now looking out across the vast marshy land marking the watershed between the heads of the Dubh Glen and the glen of the Cumh na Choinnich and distant Glen Derry. Here was the long march of the central Cairngorms, from Derry on the left to Bynack More on the right, from the distinctive tors on Beinn Mheadhoin and across the dark cliffs surrounding Loch Etchachan towards a sparkling white Ben MacDui.
I continued my way up the easy slope, pausing every now and then to watch as the views developed and the afternoon light changed below an increasingly complex arrangement of clouds strung out over a blue sky.
The gentle rising path eventually brought me out on the barren, windswept plateau. Close at hand was the lip of the Dubh Coire with the dark cliffs of A’ Chioch rising up to the south.
Far below the Dubh Lochan was a cold and sombre blue, reflecting the moody colours of the sky. The plateau was crusted with a couple of inches of snow, windswept, barren and with not a single other person in sight. I made my way north now, following the line of the cliffs and gazing down into each passing coire. The tors on Ben Avon provided the backdrop and further off Lochnagar was occassionally glimpsed below low-set cloud.
Underfoot conditions weren’t ideal for trail shoes but I made progress and eventually the plateau rose gently to the cairn marking the north top of Beinn a’ Bhuird. A minimalist cairn, more a pile of rocks than anything else, marks this 1,179m high Munro and offered little in the way of shelter from the wind. Nevertheless it was good to sit, hunkered down against the chill, and enjoy a chocolate bar whilst looking out at the long crest of the Cairngorms.
I had only a vague plan for a camping spot and although the hour was still relatively early, with the wind blowing about I wanted to be sure I was relatively sheltered once the tent was pitched. I briefly toyed with the idea of heading over to Ben Avon but was already thinking that the views of the Cairngorms would be better if I headed west the next day and so decided to stay on Beinn a’ Bhuird. By this time I had crossed east from the summit, passing the head of the distinctive twin burns where I finally found a little more shelter from the wind. I passed to the west of the Beinn’ a Bhuird’s most easterly top, Cnap a Chleirich, and then dropped down northwards towards another rocky tor, Stob an t-Sluichd.
Here, I came across another burn and beyond it a grassy rise with stunning views over the Slochd Mor to Ben Avon’s summit. I briefly continued on towards the Stob but as the wind rose again and the ground became rockier, I turned back to the grassy rise where the comination of views, slight shelter and water persuaded me to pitch for the night. Despite the fact it was only 4pm I was pleased with my location and despite an unruly breeze quickly got the tent up. With a windbreak available I got the stove on in the tent porch for a cup of tea, the first of several hot drinks.
As the afternoon turned to evening the skies grew cloudier. The wind died a little and I had a wander round the local area. The hills were dusky with a hint of pink, especially north over Moray where the distinctive shape of Ben Rinnes was clearly seen.
It was cold though and I soon retired back to the tent for dinner. After a Fuizion meal I got through a few chapters of A Feast for Crows on my Kindle and then snuggled down into my down sleeping bag to listen to a couple of podcasts.
Heading outside briefly to brush my teeth I found it was still cloudy outside with a breeze still coming in from the southwest. For a few minutes a gap in the clouds revealed the glorious arc of the Milky Way and the constellations of Perseus, Cassiopea and Cygnus. All too soon though more cloud had swept in and as the stars faded from view I zipped back up the tent and settled down to sleep.
I had warmed up during the night and woke amidst a pile of socks and insulation layers that had been scattered about the tent. There was the palest of lights on the tent walls and I opened up the east door to find the most stunning pre-dawn sky. A deep orange band stretched across the gap between Ben Avon and Beinn a’ Bhuird whilst the hilltops remained silhouetted against a depthless indigo sky. A few bright stars shone in the sky and Venus was a dazzling point above Cnap a’ Chleirich.
I briefly entertained the notion of staying in bed and getting another half hour of sleep but the beauty of the dawn persuaded me to throw on all my layers and bundle myself out of the tent. There was a bitingly cold breeze but it was less gusty than the previous evening. I warmed myself up with a round of the area, getting the views as the light slowly changed.
Sunrise was still sometime off but the changing views kept me occupied. A thick layer of cloud was billowing up from Deeside, running along Ben Avon and spilling over the Sneck like a slow-motion waterfall. It swirled around the granite summit tors and then disappeared as it headed further north. Meanwhile, dappled clouds filled the sky overhead and these lightened in color before turning pink as the sun finally crested Ben Avon.
Cup of coffee in hand I watched as the sun rose above the drifting clouds. The landscape was suddenly illuminated; the rocks and grasses and mosses shining golden and splendid.
The day was looking promising and so after breakfast I quickly got everything packed away and was striding out across the icy plateau a little after 8am. The good weather confirmed my plan to strike west and complete the circuit of the Dubh-Ghleann, picking up the two Munros on the east side of Glen Derry which I had climbed back in February 2011.
The first part of the walk was through an icy wonderland. Blue skies overhead and sunlight catching a million ice crystals. I made good progress across the plateau but as I reached the gentle western slopes of Beinn a’ Bhuird found that the first of a series of cloud patches had swept in from the south, enclosing me in a thick and cloying mist.
Navigating on compass I set myself a series of bearings that took me down a broad ridge, descending through slushy snow and then onto bare grass. I passed by a crescent lochan and then dropped down to the head of the Allt Cumh na Choinnich. Here I dropped below the cloud into a land of browns and russets with a chattering stream heading north towards the Avon.
I crossed the steep-sided gorge and then climbed out on the other side picking up the outlying ridge of Beinn a’ Chaorainn Beag. The cloud began to thin and lift as I climbed higher and soon I could see the outline of Beinn a’ Bhuird behind me and the vast, watery expanse of the Moine Bheadlaidh stretched out to the south. As I approached the summit the cloud drifted off completely and I was left slack jawed as I crested the ridge with stunning views out over the northern Cairngorms.
The cairn offered some shelter from the cold wind and I took the opportunity to rest, admiring the views and eating a few jelly babies.
As the next band of clouds rolled in I left the summit, dropping down to the grouping of lochans on the saddle and then climbing up the slopes to Beinn a’ Chaorainn and the second Munro summit of the trip. The cloud was a bit more stubborn here but I continued to get glimpses of the hills across the Lairig an Laoigh including Bynack More and Beinn Mheadhoin with Cairn Gorm further off and plastered in snow. South I got some views of Beinn Bhreac across the shimmering moss.
The bitter wind soon got the better of me and I started my descent in the mist. Last time I had been in this area the ground was covered in snow and progress had been reasonable. Now the bogs were wet and inviting and I had to take a less than direct route to keep to the higher and slightly drier ground.
Off to my right I watched as the cloud gradually lifted off of the Derry group, the cliffs surrounding Loch Etchachan looked dark and forbidding. Behind me Beinn a’ Chaorainn was shedding its covering of mist and the blue sky was streaked with huge sweeping cloud formations.
The rise up to Beinn Bhreac’s west top afforded me better views down Glen Derry and I paused for a bite of lunch looking back north and east over the hills I had traversed.
Up on the summit the sun was now shining and the day was much warmer. The Cairngorms had largely shaken off their cloud and I marvelled at the clarity of the air and the views. South away from me the mountains stretched towards a misty Perthshire with Lochnagar dominating the east and Beinn a’ Ghlo in the west.
I wanted to stay high for as long as possible so from Beinn Bhreac I descended easy slopes south and slightly west to the col between Bhreac and Meall an Lundain. I then climbed the heathery slopes of this overlooked hill and found myself drawn back to the views down Glen Derry.
A neat and sizeable cairn marked the summit of this broad hill and then it was down the southeastern ridge towards the river in Glen Quoich.
The upper hill was easy and I was able to follow various deer tracks down through the heather. Lower down as I got closer to the streams the ground became boggier and more uneven. Eventually I found myself crossing a fence and then thrashing through a meadow until I came out on the good footpath.
Now a few hundred metres lower and in the shelter of the valley it was appreciably warmer and I took off a good few layers before getting the stove on for a final brew. The burn chattered away lazily and I took the opportunity to have a wash and freshen up.
Then it was just a simple case of following my outward route back through Glen Quoich to the car. As the afternoon progressed the warm sunshine dipped below the surrounding hills but the trees held on to some lingering heat and I never felt chilly. The glorious autumnal colours were even more striking than the day before and although it was good to get back to the car I wished I had the time to linger in this most wonderful of places.
It had been a great way to break a long stretch without being in the mountains and the variety of weather and views meant that the trip, despite being just over 28 hours in length, felt a bit longer. Though winter seems to be fast encroaching I’m hopeful of at least one more autumnal camp before the snow really sets in.