A Bad night on Braeriach
I had planned a big circuit around the highest mountains in the Cairngorms. I had checked and rechecked the equipment and packed enough food for four days. My plan was to do a short walk in on the first day- about 4km to the point where the deep glen of the Lairig Ghru rises upwards to the ridge of Sron Lairige. However, when I arrived at the Lairig Ghru at 6:30 I was feeling strong and the evening sun was promising. Things looked benign and I felt that I could push onto the first Munro summit I had planned: the mighty Braeriach.
However, I only had one water bottle with me: full it would give me a litre of water. I cursed myself. I had lifted another bottle and put it back in my kit box, trying to shave off some weight. I had to make the summit of Braeriach and go beyond it to the stream feeding Falls of Dee if I wanted to have enough to drink and rehydrate the packs of food that I had brought.
At nine o’clock, after a strenuous ascent of Sron Lairige I was on a grassy bealach that led up to Braeriach. The sun was out, there was hardly any wind and there was a flat grassy patch of ground that would make an ideal pitch for the tent. I thought of my litre of water – now depleted by a few sips on the way up and decided that I would push on to Braeriach and beyond.
Just a little way up the bealach I found some twisted metal- it looked like aircraft wreckage, maybe hydraulic parts. I find this stuff intriguing, it sparks up my childhood interest in aviation and warfare but now I find these lumps of twisted machinery sad reminders of fragility and mortality. I found a piece that I recognised as the undercarriage struts of a WW2 vintage aircraft. I remembered the shape from a childhood spent assembling airfix models. The delicacy of the little plastic parts held in childish fingers confronting heavy hydraulic struts and alloy. Because they are mainly made from aluminium and high grade steel these smashed remnants linger, uncorroded for decades- the violence of their ending frozen forever.
On the summit plateau the weather rapidly changed. The cloud rolled in as approached the summit. The deep crags of the vast right angled ring of cliffs of Braeriach looked dark and hard. One of them glowed luminously white with the remnants of winter snow- oddly bright in the fading greyness of the cloud and dusk. Having made the summit I took a bearing on the stream leading to the pools that fed the Falls of Dee. Then the weather abruptly changed. A fierce wind and driven rain hit. I forgot about finding the water, what I had would see me through the night. It was time to get the tent pitched.
I was about to discover that the Vango Blade is not a tent that is suitable for use in the Scottish Hills. I like this little tent, on numerous low level expeditions and wild camping trips where it has been left set up low it has been roomy and weather proof and stable. However, it pitches inner first. A gravelly patch of flattish ground looked like a reasonable pitch. The inner tent was soaked in seconds so I knew things were going to be wet. What I wasn’t ready for was the fact that the wind wouldn’t let the big alloy pole that the entire tent takes it strength from to sit correctly. It was flexed and twisted out of shape by the force of the wind. Moreover, I had forgotten to put on my waterproof over-trousers, so my lower half was instantly soaked in the driving rain.
It took over twenty minutes to get the tent looking even half way habitable- pegs and guy-lines were popping out and where the fabric should have been taught and tight it was flabby and sagging- collapsing in on itself.
But it would have to do.
I threw everything into the tent. The ground sheet was virtually awash with water. I fumbled for a head-torch in my pack, switched it on- dead. Switched on the spare head-torch- it started to blink out its low battery warning. Shivering and more than a little panicked at the prospect of pitch darkness in this bleak night I found my spare set of batteries and after a few minutes had them installed before the other head-torch blinked its last. I inflated the air mattress and lay back exhausted. I had to get out of the wet gear, into something dry and into my sleeping bag. At this point the side of the tent gave way and pushed towards me. I burst out of the tent expecting the worst but it was simply that a guy had given way and the tent had flopped on its side. The central ridge pole had also taken on a weird serpentine kink. It did not look good. I pegged in the guy again and did my best to straighten the alloy pole. I had come out of the tent so quickly that I had not put my waterproof jacket on. I was now soaked through top and bottom. Back in the tent I was starting to shiver and to feel panicked again. I rationalised and thought of the spare gear that I had- down jacket and a complete set of clothes in dry bags. I even had a survival bag. If the tent did burst or collapse I could get into that with my sleeping bag and would easily get through the night. I was fine- I was uncomfortable but I was fine.
Then I discovered that some of my ‘dry bags’ did not perform in a manner that matched their name. My down jacket, warm as toast, a snug comfort blanket in cold tents was soaked. This worried me.
It would be a shivery night if all the gear was equally wet. Thankfully the dry bag with the clothes was fine and the sleeping bag was okay. Within ten minutes I was in warm and dry clothing, cocooned inside the sleeping bag. The wind and the rain coupled with the flabby fabric of the tent to create conditions that made sleep impossible but I was warm and dry. I did manage to convince myself that the whispery snuffling that touched each corner of the tent was just the sagging flysheet and not a malign presence: the Grey Man of Ben Macdui was in all probability not paying me a courtesy visit but I wasn’t getting out of the sleeping bag to check.
I discovered that my phone had a perfectly serviceable 3G connection to the internet. It was weird to be connected like this in such a remote place: it was a welcome distraction but the reach of the mundane onto the mountain top was also unsettling and unwelcome. I read the Guardian and checked weather reports on two different sites. More immediately important, I constantly pushed the central pole back into place as the wind tried to flatten the tent against the summit.
Then, sometime after three in the morning, the wind abated and the rain stopped. I slept and didn’t wake up to the tent collapsed around me. I had decided that the tent wasn’t up to the job, another night like this wouldn’t kill me, I could keep things together, but it would be enormously uncomfortable and I wasn’t up for that. I was packing up, heading back down the Lairig Ghru and going home to buy a new tent and some new dry bags.
And in the end that all came about because of the lack of one extra water bottle- “Because of a nail the shoe was lost/Because of a shoe the horse was lost… and so on and so on.