Friday, 19 June 2015

Loch A'an backpacking round, Jun'15

John was leading a group of heardy folk backpacking over the Munros surrounding Loch A'an in the Cairngorms. Here's how it went......

When sitting planning trips, you always have a vision in your mind's eye of what it will look like. A midsummer back-packing trip taking in 4 Munros, some wild Cairngorm terrain, an idyllic camp spot next to the highest body of water of its size in the UK, (Loch Etchacan at 927m), a midnight night-nav to a summit etc, all done in long hours of daylight under wide blue skies and just enough breeze to keep the midges off. Hmmm.

Victoria, Valerie, Daniel and I set off from the road end at Glenmore having left a car at the ski centre for our return. Despite the foreboding wintery forecast for Saturday, we were buoyed by the promise of clear skies overnight and into Sunday. The walk along the fine track towards Ryvoan was brisk given our weighty packs, and after a wee pause to coo at the Green Lochan, (An Lochan Uaine), we cheerily greeted the sodden groups of teenagers on their DofE's as they filed past us after their expedition, en route to a hot bath and a meal. We were already in our waterproofs, and the promised showers of light rain merged into a persistent drizzle as we ascended the slopes of Bynack More. The new path now goes pretty much all the way, and though not favoured by some, makes for easy going in the mist.

The summit of Bynack More was where we said goodbye to any other people, as the one chap and another couple whom we had seen en route turned tail for the comforts of Aviemore. We struck out South West into the clag. At least it wasn't windy though, just proper dreich. Passing the Barns of Bynack, (the granite tors so ubiquitous on the hills in this part of the Cairngorms), we made our way by compass over A'Choinneach to the Saddle, and down for lunch on the beach at the Eastern end of Loch A'an. Poor Daniel on his first Scottish hill trip could only take our word for it what the views would have been like, although the cloud did lift just enough to give an idea of the glacial splendour of the Loch area.

After an impromptu swim from the beach inspired by the clear water and golden sand (not really!), we realised we were really going to have to paddle to cross the outflow. The burn was in spate due to the rain, and we surmised the safest place to cross was at the stiller but deeper outflow. I went first to assess the depth, with my crocs on and trousers rolled up. I nearly got them wet, so decided to strip to my pants to assist the team across. My word it was cold! The air temperature was 4°c, and the melt-water that was making up the loch can only just have been above freezing. The team took it in their stride, but by my fourth crossing, I was shivering hard. Even my soaking wet boots were a relief to get back on after that.

Thankfully, we had a steep pull up onto our next Munro, Beinn Mheadhoin, with more granite tors, and this warmed us up quickly. We scrambled carefully up the wet but grippy granite of the tor to the true summit at 1182m, and had a group high-five. Sadly there are no pictures due to rain. It was then just a matter of more compass work down to the idyllic setting of Loch Etchacan to make camp.

There are few things more dispiriting than pitching a tent in the rain, except maybe pitching in the rain and 2°c, and the group showed their mettle by their cheerfulness as they set about the task. The blessing was that there was only light wind. Organising our wet gear, and trying to get some warm food into us, we settled down to await the clearing promised. The plan was to get a few hours rest in our warm, dry sacks, before rising at 23:00 for a navigation session up to Derry Cairngorm.

The ordained hour came, and I dreaded donning my wet clothes, especially if the guys decided against the excursion. Consequently to keep my dry clothes dry, I leapt out in my boxers to rouse the team, braving the freezing drizzle for a while. In the claggy, drizzly half-light, the sleepy faces from the tents said it all, and we wisely decided to stay warm, and await the clearing. It will come, won't it? Won't it?

What did come was the unmistakable zuzzing sound of snowfall on the tents around 3am. Snow and low temperatures are one thing, but added to 10 hours of a drenching, it is pretty unpleasant and unwelcome, especially on June 14th! There was a few centimetres of cover over 1000m, and all our tents were frozen as the temperature dropped below freezing. At least with our judicious decision the evening before, we had dry clothes for this morning, and thankfully the rain stopped around 5am as we rose.

We packed away as quickly as you can with numb fingers and wet gear, and was on the way towards Ben Macdui by 06:30. By now it was full winter conditions, old snow under foot, with a dusting of new above, and heavy hill fog. We were developing a coating of hoar frost as we ascended, our wet gear freezing solid, and yet again on the compass. Our spirits were high though, and everyone was enjoying the warmth generated by the walk. Suddenly, we were rewarded by a clearing! What a gift just a glimpse of sun and blue sky is after so many hours of clag and wet.

We took our photo on the summit of the second highest summit in the UK in what looked like mid-winter, not mid-summer, and shared a few snacks before our descent. As we chatted, the clearings became more frequent, and by the time we were at the two lochans, we had views all around. What a change. The promised improvement finally, if only 8hrs late. The warmth of the sun and the excellent views up and down the Lairig Ghru made all the wet travails worthwhile, and we rested and soaked it all up just above Coire Lochain.

There was certain smugness in our replies as we greeted the strings of folks ascending the path to Macdui - Yes, we really had been out all night. Yes, it was cold. Yes, we really were on our way down already. Yes we really had braved yesterday's weather. No, we really weren't mad b**'s! An hour or so later as we sipped coffee in the Active Cafe, the warm feeling of having experienced something challenging swept over us all. Yes it had been very wet indeed, (more than forecast), yes it had been cold, and yes it had been murkier than we had hoped, but the dry walk off, the final views and the sense of achievement united us with that odd sense of masochism that we hill-goers share!

But I still wouldn't mind some summer if the Big Man is reading this.......

More of John's photos are up on Flickr !