Bhuird and Avoncamping, hike

I’d been keen to have a nose around Braemar’s big northern mountains before winter was through, and a great weather window coincided with the weekend for once. It’s a long way in: I weighed up a bike/hike day trip, or an overnighter on foot, plumping for foot to allow for more flexibility on route rather than having to return to pick up the bike, with uncertainty in how snow would affect choices. I headed off along the Slugain in ideal conditions.

Trees beginning to accelerate behind fences in the Slugain
Nice crunchy puddles
Up above Fairy Glen
Coire na Ciche on Beinn a Bhuird
Zooming in to Allt Dearg gully: stream visible in the ‘snow pot’ which is unexpected

Branching from Clach a Chleirich left, I spoke to 2 others heading for A’ Chioch. They crossed the stream carefully as all the rocks were coated in ice, I had to cross too but didn’t spot an easy option, but eventually the stream was snow-bridged and I chanced the strength – it was hard neve and held ok.

Following the Allt Dearg tumbling over slabs and through pools, past A’ Chioch
Distant clouds but not nearby
Across the stream, mostly now under snow

I was heading for a higher up spot but was ahead of schedule and was tempted to have a look a the Dubh Lochain pools which are a fav scenic spot – good light and sky for some photos. I dumped my pack to save weight and headed down – taking a GPS fix to make sure I could find it again in the large and rugged boulder field!

A basic howff near Dubh Lochain
Dubh Lochain pools: a favourite vista with Dividing Buttress prominent
Boulders n ice – nice

The main lochan higher up, well I’d better take the opportunity to check it out, it’s another 100m higher up through a rumble of boulders, but I had to meander carefully to avoid parts fully covered over with neve, as the axe and crampons were back with the pack.

Beinn a Bhuird’s Dubh Lochan frozen solid
Corniced edge

The Dubh Lochan is mostly shaded by the overhanging cliffs, which also shelter from wind and as expected it was frozen thick and swathed in snow drifts. It’s often the last frozen place in The Cairngorms heading into spring. Blue, cold and barren. I wonder if any brave soul has ever skated here.

Heading back down, I thought I’d explored all the pools of Dubh Lochain – but no, there was another with interesting streaks and I headed for the unusual sight. On closer inspection rather than being snow-streaks, it was a elongated feathery crystallisation type lines, and for sure made for an interesting photo.

Frost-lines sweeping across Dubh Lochain

Next I had to head and make camp – in a previous trip I’d noted flattish terrain next to a pool near Coire nan Clach, and a far enough out from the cliffs as to not be in danger from a minor avalanche, unlike some of the spots deeper in Coire Dubh-Lochan. The location would also get some sunlight, though not quite have a direct line of sight to sunrise (I’d checked on photo ephemeris app).

Arriving at the site, the pool was frozen and the outflow covered, I’d need to scout (or dig!) for water later. I set up my tent pretty quickly though getting pegs into the frozen ground was tricky: I used the ice axe to bludgeon a spike hole then put the peg into this and a few taps seated them. I got the sleeping bag unfurled so it had plenty time to “loft-up” after being squished in a bag.

Camp set near Coire nan Clach

With a couple hours of daylight remaining, I headed off to follow the upper section of the stream I’d crossed earlier. It steepens and plunges through small waterfalls, then higher up as the slope lessens is a wide gully. In summer I’d just wade and climb upstream over the rocks, today it was either a steep snow slope, iced over, or bare loose gravel. The crampons and axe came out as the going got tricky; the old hard snow wasn’t very kickable for steps and had a few inches of softer stuff on top that was just enough to hinder bite.

Heading to the stream across layers of scoured old snow
Levelling off into the top gully

Entering the gully confirmed what I’d seen from afar – bare patches and the stream visible where normally there’d be many more feet of cover. Nonetheless it’s an impressive wall of snow, and in places where it was steep into water I spiked carefully along in crampons, before deciding against a full assault on the side or back walls and finding an easier way out to above.

Upper Allt Dearg peeping through
Big wall of hard old snow to the left, built by westerly winds
Spiking along the edge
Up and out. Looking back Allt Dearg ‘snow pot’
Looking south to Carn na Drochaide

I’d seen and heard a few ptarmigan nearby, then noticed this “take-off” snow print where the initial wing strokes create grooves. I created my own track heading down; while the shallow fresh over hard snow hadn’t been great for upward grip, it was good for bum-sliding (glissading) down.

Snow track one: ptarmigan’s wings at take-off
Snow track two: man’s bum sliding, occasional dab of ice axe

Back at camp I had a hunt around for water finding a few pools and rivulets clear of snow and ice that could be dunked. I intended an early night so got some basic cooking on the go of some random snack foods.

Finding water, now to dunk container without falling through ice margin
More liquid, one luxury good in the rucksack

I’d selected a high-strength ale for the trip, a ‘BIPA’ whatever that is, nowadays there’s all manner of these things, IPA this or that, hazy, sour, east west coast, triple.. anyway this one was damn fine and the blue can design matched the evening hues as sun begin to set.

Low quality main meal and dessert, but calories in

The main food had been bunged into the pack, having deciding against a few far out-of-date dehydrated meals in the cupboard (the prices of these are getting ridiculous and I can’t see me buying any more) I dug these out of the cupboard. It’s all tasty after a cold day outdoors, though I’ll need to work on some new options for camp meals with better nutrition. Also consumed was a mini pork pie and some mini-cheeses.

As the sun began to set and with a clear sky above, the temperature plummeted, frost crystals began to form on all hard surfaces. The forecast had been for minus 4, but it was going to go way below that. I got my down jacket on and a new thing: down shorts, a bargain from ‘magic mountain’. Although I have various insulated trousers, for this trip due to the distances involved I was packing as light as possible and the down shorts are just enough extra to put on over trousers to keep the upper leg warm while packing small and weighing very little.

Glas Maol with exaggerated shadows by the low sun
Final warming stroll around before an early bed
Ice fronds forming on every surface

I went for a pre-bed stroll to make sure I was warm before turning in.

I decided to layer up in my sleeping bag, it’s rated to minus 5c, but I thought tonight would go well below that, so I kept on my base layers, an airmesh fleece and my down shorts and jacket, figuring if I got too warm I could take them off (I didn’t).

My boots were pretty damp, normally in sub-zero conditions I’d stick them in the foot of the bag but I thought instead I’d put chemical hand-warmer sachets in them to stop them freezing. I took a couple electronic but n bobs inside the bag too, but not the water bottle.

Just before fully zipping up the tent, I noticed a small cloud to the east glowing oddly: on checking photoephemeris app, moon rise was imminent and illuminating the cloud higher up, I’d forgotten to check this when looking at sunrise angle earlier. I got back up, just in time as the full ‘snow moon’ first illuminated the cliff tops then broke over the crag edge, blasting the darkness of the corrie apart, woah! surprisingly bright on the snow, stunning!

Snow moon rising in Coire nan Clach
Moon-bright crags of Beinn a Bhuird

I stayed for a bit enjoying the spectacle and the stars and whizzing satellites in the pristine night sky overhead, but the cold was intense so I retired for the night, pulled my hat down over my eyes to shield from the glow and maybe dampen the odd gurgling noises of the irate local ptarmigan. There were a few unusual thump noises, maybe snowfall from cornices, or some hare actions. I drifted off in a comfortable temperature albeit wrapped up in almost every layer I had.

Alarm at 6 had me up quickly to get as much tasks done to be gone sharp after sunrise. I collected more water, needing some ice smashing to clear a hole, as my bottle had frozen solid, and soon I’d porridge and hot chocolate on the go, while some colour crept into the dawn.

Sunrise approaching
Lochnagar in the pink
Coire nan Clache first light hitting the crags
Sun away to burst free into the corrie

In the end a number of things delayed progress: my boots had frozen, the cold had overpowered the sachets. The tent pegs were also stuck in the ground, though I learned that I could use an ice axe as a lever to pull on small loops, and could dig out those without. The tent poles were frozen together, and a bare grip eventually loosened them albeit sucking any heat out of my fingers to stinging cold. The perfect beauty of the morning in such a location too had to be savoured; I’d hopefully make up time later on.

Levering against the adze giving some useful mechanical advantage
Following neve down for faster passage
Bidding Bhuird bye at Clach a Cleirich

The path up to the sneck was only covered higher up but had a few dicey slopes and stream crossings where steep pockets of hard snow needed care.

Glas Allt Mor path banked out in a few places
Big overhang west
Stream snow hollows
Contrails n streaky clouds

Going up the zig-zags to Ben Avon, I was feeling the rucksack weight, and was hot now in direct sun, but this would probably be the last ascent of the day. On to the plateau, the night’s freeze had coated the snow with a sparkling layer of ice crystals. With time being tight I shortcut towards my next target, disdaining the main top. Using rock pile 1119 as a navigation tick-point I headed east into the curves of the next gully, which was steeper and more concave than expected, and one moment was hard neve then knee deep powder. A couple glissades between the rockier bits had me down to the stream and I headed to explore the impressive snow wall within, though I didn’t get right up to it requiring more time than I had and a bit too much risk front-pointing along a 10-foot drop into the stream.

Zig-zag view back down the Glas Allt Mor
Hazy zoom south
Twinkling neve with ice crystals from the cold night
Point 1119 below pastel streaked sky
Not heading to the top of Ben Avon today
Glissaded down to the stream: looks like a big snow wall
Soft-looking snow wave but rock hard, crampons back on
Reaching the end of the gully, an impressive snow overhang

My curiosity to whether this location was a “snow corrie” had been proven correct, but for the purposes of snowholing both this and the one on Beinn a Bhuird are a long trek in, so only suited to the task for very determined folk. If nothing else, rarely visited places of winter snow-sculpture, and glad I’d went to see them.

Following downstream to the old ruin
“Gem hunter’s howff” ruin. Back in Victorian times, hardy souls came up here and stayed, looking for minerals such as Cairngorm quartz

Joining the Allt Eas Mhoir, the pace slowed through a jumble of frozen bog-trail, more hard snow slides, and icey boulders, the river crossing requiring shattering the verglas off the awkward pointy boulders across which didn’t fit nicely underneath a crampon. I was falling further behind schedule but care was needed until there was some semblance of ‘easy trail’ towards the River Gairn.

Alongside the Allt an Eas Mhoir a jumble of ice, boulders and snow patches
Big drifts hanging

There were a couple spots where the stream was fully bridged but not enough to replicate last year’s tunnels in this section, they’ll not last the months required to hollow upwards. After finally clearing all the snow, it was heather thrashing down to the Gairn path which was now an ice and mud filled rut. The plank bridge across the river looked like it had taken a few flood-bashes, hopefully it continues to last.

The Gairn with Culardoch behind

As I climbed up the other side, I had a look back at the east side of Ben Avon. The Allt Phouple was looking lean next to the Barns.

All Phouple to the right
Up past an icicled waterfall

Breaking out of Bealach Dearg, the view to the south of the Lochnagar hills was nice, but I had to get a stomp on to make schedule, thundering down the dusty tracking in a shuffly jog as much as can be done so with a 60L rucksack.

Lochnagar range south
Into the forest, glad of some shade – not cold now
The Stuic in view just before the end

At the car park my friend was there with a very welcome offer of a coffee brewed up, so throbbing feet were put at rest and we had a chill at the benches for a while before heading off. We also stopped again at the Highlanders Bakehouse, a great wee place beside Crathie. Further refuelling well earned from a worthy mountain adventure.

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