For some reason, any camping trip to the Cairngorms (this was my 3rd) I undertake seems to be in peak Midge season, but that didn’t put me off from organising another overnight adventure in one of my favourite places. Slowly but surely, I’m working my way through all of the Munros in the Cairngorms and I managed to add another 4 to the tally, plus a second ascent of Ben Macdui.
Having had a couple of great hill days post-lockdown, I was keen to organise my first camping trip of 2020. What better place than the Cairngorms, definitely one of my favourite areas for walking and camping. I was struggling to decide on the hills I wanted to tackle, but finally settled on a long circuit of 5 Munros: Beinn Bhreac, Beinn a’Chaorainn, Derry Cairngorm, Ben Macdui and Carn a’Mhaim. I decided that a wild camp at Derry Lodge would allow me to start early without the 3-or-so hour drive from Ayrshire in the morning before a big walk, so my Friday afternoon was spent enjoying the beautiful scenery up the A9 and then the A93 – a rather fun road to drive!
I arrived at the Linn of Dee car park around 1700 where there were a few spaces left after seeing a notice back in Glenshee saying that the car park was full. I suppose it was a good time to arrive with the majority of day walkers heading back home. Boots and rucksack on and it was time to head up the very pretty Glen Lui towards Derry Lodge. I had walked as far as here in November last year on a weekend away to Braemar, but the weather was a tad better this time around…!
The walk in took just under an hour and I found a great wee spot amongst the pine trees. It was fairly busy around the lodge – around a dozen tents in total – but it was surprisingly quiet and thankfully it stayed that way during the night. After a bite to eat and a wee wander to take some photos, I headed to bed for an early night in preparation for the long day to follow.
I hadn’t really decided on what time to get up (I knew it was fairly likely I’d wake up at some point early in the morning), so when I woke at around 0445 this seemed like the ideal time to get packed up and head off before the sun came out and the temperature rose. The only issue with my plan was the fact that it was a perfect morning with not a breath of wind, which can only mean one thing in the Cairngorms – MIDGES! In fairness, I don’t think it was the worst I had ever experienced, but it was pretty awful trying to take down a tent and pack a rucksack with the wee blighters for company. I was fed, watered and packed around 0545 and headed off along Glen Derry to begin my long day in the hills.
The first objective of the day was Beinn Bhreac, a fairly small hill by Cairngorms standards at 931m. To reach the summit, I headed along Glen Derry for around a mile from Derry Lodge before turning off to head along a boggy path through the trees and heather. It was a bit of a slog on a cloudy and dull morning, but the temperature was almost perfect for walking so progress wasn’t too difficult at all.
The path disappeared into a couple of boggy areas but was easy enough to follow and I found myself at the summit of Beinn Bhreac around 0700, an hour and 15 mins after setting off from my camp spot. I had a quick drink and a snack before setting off once more – there wasn’t much point in hanging around in the cloud with a lot of distance still to cover.
The next objective of the day was Beinn a’Chaorainn, which was around 3 miles from Beinn Bhreac across the Moine Bhealaidh, a boggy and fairly featureless plateau. There was a fairly obvious path until around half way across the plateau, but after that it was simply a case of avoiding the wetter sections and aiming for the eastern shoulder of Beinn a’Chaorainn.
By now the cloud was lifting rapidly and the high cairngorms to the west were revealing themselves, making me very excited for what was to come later in the day. My efforts saw me across the plateau and up the shoulder to the summit at around 0820, an hour and 20 mins from Beinn Bhreac. 2 down – 3 to go!
The next task was to find my way down to the Lairig an Laoigh where I could pick up the path from Derry Lodge to Coire Etchachan and passed the Hutchison Memorial Hut. There were traces of a path from the summit of Beinn a’Chaorainn, but this soon petered out and it was just a case of picking a sensible line towards the valley floor below. With around 50m to drop there were hints of a path starting to appear down a scree slope, so I followed this to reach the collection of very small lochans at the high point of the Lairig an Laoigh.
Due to the layout of the paths, a slight detour downhill and south for a kilometre or so was required to pick up the path in to Coire Etchachan, where I stopped for a quick break and a water refill at the bridge across the burn. Other than being attacked by midges, it was a lovely spot indeed for a wee break.
Feeling refreshed, it was another push to reach the 3rd Munro of the day, Derry Cairngorm. I first had the steep climb past the Hutchison Memorial hut towards Loch Etchachan which, although steep in places, wasn’t as bad as I first thought it would be. By now there were almost no clouds to speak of and the temperature was soaring, but there was a small and occasional breeze keeping me just about comfortable enough to maintain a good pace.
After reaching Loch Etchachan – a place I had camped on a Cairngorms trip in 2017 – I followed the well made path towards Ben Macdui, before turning off at around 1050m to head for Derry Cairngorm. Once again there wasn’t much of a path to speak of for the first few hundred metres, but after that an obvious path appeared, which I followed until it disappeared once more on the boulder-strewn summit slopes of Derry Cairngorm. After some boulder hopping, I reached my 3rd summit of the day around 1040 – around 2 and a half hours after leaving the summit of Beinn a’Chaorainn. I was pleased with my progress so far, having covered around 10 miles and 3 Munros. I had another small break and took in the amazing views from Derry Cairngorm before retracing my steps back to the path high above Loch Etchachan to head for my 4th Munro – Ben Macdui.
I had walked this way on my trip in 2017, but it was a much better experience this time around as I wasn’t in the clouds this time! The stream following the path was a good opportunity for my last fill-up point until the Luibeg burn, which would still be a few hours away. There were no difficulties following the excellent path to the summit and this was by far the busiest section of my route – no real surprise on such a wonderful day.
I reached my 4th and highest summit of the day around 1150, just over an hour after Derry Cairngorm and about 6 hours after striking camp in the morning. I took a seat in one of the many shelters on the summit and tucked into some food and water, enjoying the views over towards Braeriach and Cairn Toul, something I had missed out on the last time I had visited this awesome mountain. To date, this has been the only Munro I have summited more than once, but it would have been silly not to include it on my circuit!
Knowing I was on the ‘home stretch’, I set off from the summit of the second highest mountain in the UK towards Carn a’Mhaim. The descent was long and tough after covering around 12/13 miles already and I was getting rather sick of boulder hopping, but the boulders kept coming all the way to around 950m, where they finally relented and I was able to follow the excellent path to the bealach and then onwards to the summit of Carn a’Mhaim. Although not difficult at all, there were some narrow (by Cairngorms standards) sections of the ridge that were very enjoyable, although this was nothing to write home about compared to the likes of Arran’s Corbetts!
I reached the summit of my 5th and final Munro of the day at around 1315, just over an hour after my break on Ben Macdui. I was really pleased with how quickly I had managed to complete the day’s route and took one last snack and drink break before heading south down the well made path and onwards towards the Linn of Dee. I was disappointed that my trip was almost over, but it had been an utterly epic day in one of my favourite places in Scotland!
Much of the descent from Carn a’Mhaim was on a rocky staircase which made it easy to trundle along and eat up the miles. At the bottom of this section the main path into Glen Dee is reached and from here I followed this towards the Luibeg burn, where an annoying and boggy detour of around a kilometre was required to cross the river at the footbridge rather than at the ford further downstream. Better to do this and stay dry though, rather than risking a dunking!
After this last obstacle it was a simple – but very long – walk out past Derry Lodge back to the Linn of Dee. I had one final water break at Derry Lodge to half-fill one bottle to see me to the car, then made my way back along the land rover track towards the car. It was at this point I was passed by all the people I had overtaken on my descent from Ben Macdui and Carn a’Mhaim who had brought bikes as far as Derry Lodge. Maybe next time…
I reached the car at around 1540, meaning my 25 mile circuit had taken me 9hrs 56mins in all. With almost 2000m of ascent, a lot of boulder hopping and some rough and boggy plateau to navigate, I was very pleased indeed. What wasn’t so pleasing was the 3+ hour drive back to Ayrshire, but I hardly stopped smiling on the way home thinking about my awesome day in the Cairngorms!