Dateline: 3rd January 2020, when the year was new and full of promise and we were blissfully unaware of the the car crash it would turn into.
It was cold, but snow coverage was limited. I was in need of a cheeky wee overnighter but it was fairly windy so camping would have to be low down. As usual, I hummed, hawed and generally fannied about before making a choice. I do this in the hope that the weather in a particular region is more favourable, it rarely is. Decision made, I went North East, aiming for the familiar hills of my youth.
I set off with the full overnighter packed. The trail was quiet and the wind was at my back as I headed up the glen. The plan was to pitch up on the moine, but there was a small risk of the tent ending up in Norway. If I turned into the gale, I could see what little snow there was left being whipped off the top of Ben Avon.
I had to step aside about half way there to be passed by a transit van, which I later found parked at Callater stable. A work party. You know the sort, they do work, then they party. Things were in progress which involved the bunks being turfed outside, so I left them to it and headed on up and round the loch.
I picked my way through the river bends up Jock’s road. Someone once told me that Coire Kander is a brilliant camp spot. It’s been on the mental list for decades, so I did a full survey as I wandered past on the off chance that I’d be camping there. There was a pause in the lee of a wee lump for a hot choc and the most splendid of winter hill food, several slabs of Christmas cake.
By the time I got going again, the tops were clagged in and the wind was fierce. I ploutered on and soon reached Tolmount, which is without a doubt a dull hill, not helped by the fact I was being thrashed with small ice particles at 50mph. I didn’t linger, or indeed take any photos. I have albums full of cairns in the mist and cloud and spindrift, I don’t need any more. Turning back into the wind, I stumbled across to Fafernie, then up and onto Carn an t-sagiart Mor, by now facing full into the wind and the continuous barrage of wee daggers. By this point it was full-on Buff+goggles+sense of blind optimism territory. Any exposed skin was promptly reduced by a few layers.
The plan had been to head over to Lochnagar, but in the great tradition of Scottish mountaineering and I said ‘bugger this for a laugh’ and switched to exit planning. Within 5 minutes I was on the track heading back down to Callater. As I descended down to the loch side I could see the work party were heading off. A bothy night would ideal in such conditions. The plan promptly changed.
I settled into the bothy and got set up. I’d remembered that it was a bit of a cold hole the last time I was there. A stove or a fire is fairly essential for a bothy and Callater lacks both. What it did have was a Jeremy Clarkson book. All those firelighters and no fire, the irony. After dinner I made some feeble candle lit attempts to bring a sense of warmth to the atmosphere, but the flames were feeble and guttered out. It was still early-ish and I was cold and bored. The prospect of 14 hours with only Jeremy Clarkson for company was too much. I’d have been warmer in the tent. Now there’s an idea. It was time to revisit my youth.
I packed up and promptly buggered off back down the trail to the car, where I jumped in and drove round to Linn of Dee. I swapped out some down filled things for things filled with even more down and battered off up the trail.
My first proper mountain expedition was up Glen Derry, camping at Derry lodge. A squad of us 18 year olds lugged 20+kg packs up the trail which seemed to take forever. One of us had a slab of 24 cans of Tennents taking up the majority of his pack space, although mine was filled with the Eurohike tent. We were young and stupid. At least one of these things has changed now. The walk in to Derry seemed to take forever and it was like an oasis when we got there. It may have been that feeling of reaching some kind of hidden nirvana that the rest of the world was unaware of that really got me started all of this nonsense. I spent that night with chattering teeth, brushing frost off my Woolworths £7 sleeping bag. I really enjoyed it.
The next day was an attempt at Macdui, which was a complete failure. We got as far as the Hutchison hut and then bailed and went back to camp with our tails between our legs. Much has changed since then, for a start the Hutchy isn’t just a concrete box any more. I’ve been up Macdui more times than I can count and travelled across all of the Cairngorms this way and that, but one thing has stayed with me: I still know when it’s a good time to bail out.
Thirty-odd years after that first attempt I was back on the trail to Derry. The lodge arrived really quickly, to the point that I was surprised, having been lost in my reminiscing. My benchmark for what constitutes a long walk-in has changed somewhat since those first forays. That said, my pack was a wee bit lighter this time. I found a spot to pitch as close as I could remember to that first time. The tent went up and the stove went on. This was more like it. The wind was still brutal but by some lucky event of landscape I could hear it whoomphing away over the hill and battering into the trees up the glen a bit, but in my little corner of the woods it was relatively quiet and sheltered. The drizzle came on but could do little to dampen the mood. I was bouyant, I’d made the right call. The sheer joy of the place, being at one with the elements somewhere that felt truly wild was really what it was all about for me back then and now even more so. I fetched some water from the burn, casting my mind back to the first time I’d crossed that bridge and then been attacked by a capercaillie while trying to pitch a tent. I’m a bit more in tune with the wildlife now. I sat out for hours with multiple brews watching shooting stars over the big hills. Big sky is a thing when you’re away from the lights of the city, there’s wonder above you, there’s nothing quite like it.
After thousands of miles of trail, I was back where I’d started and it was bloody marvellous.