Monday, 11 June 2018

Balmy under the stormy

The long north ridge of Carn Mor Dearg
Out there, it's been a stunning summer so far, apparently, but spare time has been scarce these past few months. Time to crawl out from under a blanket of Edinburgh haar. The plan was a trip to some of the remoter, obscurer bothies and mountains of Assynt, and so it remained until Aviemore. Having lunch in a cafe, my eye caught the weather forecast on the screen high on the wall. The north and west of the country were invisible under an angry yellow and purple rash of thunderstorms. Weather warnings were in place. Time to reassess...

Lower Glen Feshie was humid and dusty when I parked up near the Achlean road-end. The storms would be hitting the Cairngorms too but hopefully a little later tomorrow than out west. The glen was quiet and still, even the birdsong was muted under the blanket of heat. Dark green fritillaries weaved and fluttered over the heather. Humans were in short supply today; the deep green calm of the Caledonian pine woods welcomed me in.


The transformation in Glen Feshie continues. Everywhere you look the forest is coming back - pine, birch, juniper.

There are old lone pines, survivors from the days of high deer numbers and overgrazing, and very young saplings from since the deer were banished. Inbetween in age are the plantation pines, serried ranks, all the same age. It will take time for nature to fully blur the hard edges of human management and decisions - a long time. But this place is entrancing, immersive nonetheless.

Through it all runs the Feshie river. Just now after weeks of dry weather it's a tame affair, chattering through the stones and fordable just about anywhere. But it's a major force in the glen, sinuous and thrashing when in spate, ranging across its wide bed of boulders, eroding, tearing away and reshaping.

My target is Ruigh-aiteachan bothy. It's just undergone a major refurbishment and must now be the most luxurious bothy in Scotland. Wood is provided, there are toilets, and the two downstairs rooms each have a sturdy stove. Upstairs the loft has been wood-panelled and is cosy. A large group of mountain bikers on a tour of the Cairngorms arrive just after me but it would take more to make this bothy feel crowded. I think winter would be the time to visit here and appreciate the creature comforts. Tonight it never really gets dark, and it's far too warm for a fire. The bikers get one going for a bit to dry out their gear but the bothy is soon sweltering. Outside, though, there are voracious midges...

Next morning I leave by 7, hoping to beat the storms. A short distance south of the bothy I ford the river and start climbing up the track towards Glen Tromie to the west. It's raining lightly, and still, and fog drifts across the hillsides.

Near the top of the pass lies tiny Lochan an t-Sluic. It's guarded by a small wading bird, possibly a golden plover, who stands on a rock in the water and calls insistently as I pass.

I'm making for Carn Mor Dearg, an unpretentious Corbett that encloses mid Glen Feshie to the west. The gravel track takes me high up the hillside, into a bank of thick fog, then fainter ATV tracks straggle up to the broad ridge south west of the summit. It's an easy plod to the top, visibility restored above a scrappy inversion.

What to do now? Another Corbett lies a few miles west but already the unstable thunderheads are piling up from west round to north. A few minutes of dithering and indecision and I decide to play safe and head back to Achlean down Carn Mor Dearg's long and easy north ridge. A good decision as it turns out; I'd not gone that far when I heard the first distant thunder from a monster cloud formation that had quickly built up over the Monadh Liath on the other side of Strathspey. Closer to hand, cloud was evolving in alarming ways over the Cairngorm plateau too.

But right now my route was bathed in sunshine. The pipits fussed and the insects hummed. At one point I watched as at least 10 bumble bees, possibly carder bees, crawled and buzzed over a few square feet of moorland. What were they doing? Working on some tiny flowers I couldn't make out? Or perhaps their nest entrance had been damaged and they couldn't find it?

Dropping off the end of the ridge I bush-whacked down to the Feshie through deep heather and birch saplings, overwhelmed with the richness of it all.

As I approached the road-end at Achlean, more thunder sounded. Carn Mor Dearg was under the storm now. I'd enjoyed this impromtu visit to the Feshie more than I would've imagined. Big plans for the outdoors crash and burn all the time, it's a faith-based business really. If it's not life it's the weather. I felt blessed that this time I'd found a gem amongst the wreckage.

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