June 21st : To the Loch
I love a wild, high lochan and even better if we can camp on its lonely shores. We were keen to ‘bag’ a couple of the more remote Munros (mountains over 3,000 feet) but didn’t fancy doing them as a 20 mile day trip, as suggested in Walkhighlands.So we planned our own route, much shorter and made all the easier by doing a walk in on Day 1 and enjoying a wild camp in the sub-Arctic tundra landscape of Cairngorm National Park in the Glenshee area.
The plan was to reach Beinn Iutharn Mhor , translating from the Gaelic as the Big Mountain of Hell and Carn an Righ, the Rocky Top of the King. Our camp would be on the peaceful shores of Loch nan Eun, the Loch of the Bird, sitting at around 800m or 2,600 feet up. I love understanding the names of our mountains though I was hoping that the first mountain would be a more pleasant affair than its name suggested!
We paid a small amount (£5?) to leave the car overnight at the lovely Dalmunzie Castle hotel, a few miles south of Glenshee’s Ski Centre. This saved us 2km each way which sounds a measly distance, but given that we were carrying in the camping gear and food, any distance saved was a bonus and the small fee was well worth it especially on our return.
Chris had been working in the morning so it was late afternoon – after 3.30pm – before we set off with all the gear and as ever it felt SO heavy. I’m definitely not built to carry a load. Mind you, I tried Chris’s rucksack and couldn’t even lift it off the ground! I do dread long walk ins with a load of gear and was worried (my default frame of mind) that I would find it exhausting but we were here now – onwards and upwards!
The track up Glen Taitneach – the Delightful Glen – was excellent so that helped; in fact, it was good enough for a bike. We had a hike of 8km to the loch, with around 460m of gradual ascent so it wasn’t too strenuous. We only met three people in total, all returning from the hills and one family going as far as the waterfalls. The good wide path eventually became the usual rough sheep track we are used to on Scotland’s hills but the weather was gorgeous – blue sky, big white scudding cloud, the air fresh and sweet as it always is in the Highlands. There was a minor clamber or two beside small waterfalls (the river here is the Allt Easgaidh, the River of the Waterfalls, aptly named) but in less than two hours the loch came into sight – our home for the night. The hike in had been a lot easier than I’d thought but still – good to dump the gear and the rucksack and get the Trangia going for a cup of tea.
What a lonely, beautiful spot it was too. A little spit of land looked ideal for the tent but as we were putting it up and getting the gear sorted, we heard gulls squealing above us (gulls !They are everywhere these days, even so far from the sea.) Looking up, an Osprey was circling above the loch, a predator the gulls did not want to have around. It easily out manoeuvred them but was also out numbered and in a minute or two it gave up and headed off. I never expected to see this beautiful bird of prey so high up – that was a first. It’s always a fine sight to see Ospreys.
We had brought a tin of chicken curry and rice for dinner but first, I had my little mini bottle of sparkling wine to celebrate with some crisps, while Chris opened his bottle of Chardonnay and had a first cup.This is always the moment I think – nothing can buy this experience. Sitting on the grass, yes, a bit of a chill in the air at 2,600 feet up in the Cairngorms, but the sun beating down, the soft sound of the loch’s dark waters lapping at our feet; the heather moorland all around, the sweet scent of the summer grasses and wildflowers; the overall quiet of the evening, we, the only people up here amongst the lovely benign hills. Paradise.
My Down jacket kept me cosy as we cooked our dinner and despite it being tinned, the outdoors seems to make everything taste pretty good! Then chocolate for me, some fruit and gallons of tea. In mid-June it hardly gets dark, but by 10pm we were pretty knackered so got into our sleeping bags – plus it was getting cold out. The ThermaRests we use nowadays are light years ahead of the old roll mats we once used and which were incredibly uncomfortable. At one point I thought I’d have to give up camping, I was feeling so sore on them and also quite cold. But these have transformed camping, plus Chris bought me a mega cosy sleeping bag for Christmas one year, an expensive one which I use all year round. Mind you, we’ve both still got our full clothes on in the bags, even in mid summer – it’s rarely warm enough at night to take many layers off though it does happen. This high up, the temperature was due to fall tonight to around 4C so…chilly.
I got up once during the night around 2am (I’ve been training myself to try only to go once but all that tea has to go somewhere…) and crawling out of the tent, I emerged into an ethereal half light – not dark, you could walk in it, a sort of gloaming. A crescent moon in a pale pink/grey sky; the air sharply cold, far too cold for midges, a steady ripple of light wind disturbing the loch’s surface but only mildly. That’s the one advantage of having to go during the night; it can feel like such a stramash, getting out of the bag, shuffling outside after being cosy but the wonders of the sky and the light in the wee small hours! Perhaps it’s at its best when the nights are darker and the sky is peppered with stars and planets, the Milky Way a crystal clear super highway cutting a swathe through the galaxies. Chris of course sleeps through it all; I’m sure he has two bladders.
22 June Day 2
We woke around 6am, the tent warm now as the sun had been up around 3.30am. In fact, I was sweltering in my sleeping bag now and had to take off some gear. Got the Trangia on for tea, retrieved the milk from the loch and we shared a tin of Grapefruit. I made myself a wee Pot -o-Porridge with plenty of sugar in it (oh, my MIL would be horrified) and we were all set for today’s hike. The plan was to leave the tent up and brew up a final cup of tea on the stove once we got back, always nice to look forward to.
Off we set at 7.45am, an easy climb up a heather slope via a deer track, to a col below a hill called Mam nan Carn.Two stags raced off across the moorland, alarmed at our sudden appearance. Way below, we could see a large herd of red deer grazing, a grand sight.
Then a mild ascent up to the summit, barely 200m above our camp but giving us wider views now of the mountains all around.The real thrill however, was seeing a Dotterel, a small quiet bird of remote high moorland, standing quite still as we approached. This was our first sighting ever of this uncommon bird – what a special start to the day, we were so chuffed!
A lovely track took us over benign tundra-like slopes, a bit of a drop then the short pull up onto Beinn Iutharn Mhor, getting stonier at the top.
At 1045m or 3,400 feet, this was the higher of today’s two hills but very easily won from our high starting point – barely an hour’s walk. Nothing hellish about it either – in fact it felt like heaven up here. It was a beautiful day and we sat at the cairn for half an hour or so, having some fruit and just admiring the layer upon layer of hills and glens before us. The Cairngorms are big rounded plateaux mostly, unlike the sharper more shapely Western Highlands, but they have a majesty of their own too.
The Rocky Top of the King now beckoned so off we set, using a good path on nice dry ground, contouring Mam nan Carn and making for another track that took us down to a low col. From there, a well worn path made its way up to our second and final summit. It looked more of a slog than it actually was and we were soon at the top. It had taken us 90 mins in total from Iutharn Mhor – it was now just before 11am, three hours since we set out.We had a better view of the most outlying of Beinn a Ghlo’s four summits, a big day out, that one. We’d had the joy of finding a tiny Leveret at the summit of that mountain, many years back, cowering into the heather and watching us with its huge brown eyes. What a lovely wee thing it was.
There is a tradition of placing a stone on a summit cairn and Chris aways picks one up then hands it to me to do the honours.But the sheer size of the stone (boulder!) he chooses , leaves me staggering under its weight and I usually drop it in relief at the bottom of the cairn which sort of defeats the purpose of building it up:(
Another half hour spent just sitting admiring it all, trying to identify distant summits, remembering those we’d been on. So many memories.
It’s always a wrench to leave the high tops but down we eventually headed, picking up the track that took us back to the tent .
By 12.30pm we’d reached the loch and the Trangia was fired up while we got the tent down and the gear packed up. Then a final few cups of tea as we talked about the day – a very short one, yet filled with sights and memories. One last special sighting at the loch was a Black Throated Diver, one of our most beautiful wild birds, which haunts lonely lochans in summer with its unearthly, eerie cry.
Bye bye Loch of the Bird, you are well named indeed. Then the descent into the glen, past the little waterfalls and the steeper ground, until the terrain flattened out and we hit the big track once more. We had seen perhaps half a dozen folk all day – none close enough to chat with, just a wave to acknowledge sharing this special place on a fine summer’s day. One final sight as we walked below the crags of the lower glen – a Golden Eagle, wings spread wide, glided around a rocky outcrop then disappeared up and over the skyline, giving us a brief glimpse of the King of the Skies. The Delightful Glen indeed.