Moonshadows And The Devil

‘Valiant and quite possibly insane (blame the full moon) overnight outing to Devil’s Point, located in the midst of the Cairngorms. Approx. 32 km, 11 hrs and 58 mins (including some hefty breaks), over a mixture of terrains, some of them kinder to us than others. Started at 10.30 p.m. and gained the summit of Devil’s Point at 4.05 in the morning in miserable conditions, then long walk out via White Bridge.’

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Sometimes I have an idea. Sometimes that idea (fortunately) remains nothing more than an idea, but at other times something drives me forward to put that particular scheme into practice and make it a reality. Unfortunate or not, it’s usually the more way-out inspirations that are the ones that come to life….

When I contacted Cameron on the spur of the moment with the idea of doing a hill day at night I figured that more than likely he would be busy with far more important and normal things, but the response was pretty immediate – after all, who would want to turn down such a crazy idea as a night hike into the middle of the Cairngorms? And this was not to be just a mere wild camping or bivvying trip – oh no – this was far less sensible. This would mean starting late in the evening and walking through the night and on into the following morning. Even on my Mountain Leader training and assessment, night navigation had taken up only a part of the night. And any alpine starts for high altitude peaks had usually been early morning, again not through the entire night. The closest I had come to running a mountain ‘day’ on the back of a ‘normal’ day was when Iain and I made what was, to us at any rate, a fairly epic ascent of Mount Rainier (Washington State, US, 36 hours on the mountain – 45 hrs more or less without sleep – but that’s another story altogether) – but even for this we did have a few hours of rest. With that particular adventure under my belt, I knew that what I was planning now was feasible.

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The sinister black cliffs of Devil’s Point can be seen on the left of this winter photo. It guards the entrance to the lower reaches of the Lairig Ghru like a sentinel.

Devil’s Point gets its name from a rather sanitised translation of the Scots Gaelic Bod an Deamhain. The story goes that John Brown, Queen Victoria’s ghillie, in accordance with the straight-laced sensibilities of the day, provided her with a somewhat more bland translation than the rather earthy ‘Penis of the Devil’. The mountain is technically a subsidiary peak of Cairn Toul (third highest Munro), which rises some 287m above it to the north west. However, Devil’s Point is classed as a Munro – and it’s a hill that, since he heard of it, Cameron has always wanted to bag. It has a glowering, brooding and sometimes almost sinister presence, particularly evident when approached from the south. Its sheer black cliffs are distinctive and what it lacks in height (a mere 1004m, which is nothing in Cairngorm terms), it certainly makes up for in character.

And so it was that we arrived at the Linn of Dee car park at 10 p.m. Cameron was highly organised and was ready to go within a matter of minutes, while I took slightly longer, having to switch my mind to mountaineering from horse riding mode. Rather than sticking with just the one insane plan, I had opted to go for a reasonably long hack directly before coming out to the mountains, so riding paraphernalia was jostling with mountain kit to lay claim to space in my car boot. Eventually, after I had located the necessary items, we were ready and set off around 10.30 p.m. P1010826

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This part of Scotland is so far north that at the height of summer the sun sets just after 10 p.m. and, on a clear night, it never really gets dark at all – sunrise is usually not long after 4 a.m. We had more than reasonable light as we left the car park. Numerous stops were made in attempts to capture the amazing evening light on camera, but we were making very good progress on the track out to Derry Lodge. At one point, just after I’d mentioned that the full moon would have risen in the south east, the stratus layers started to fragment and suddenly there was the moon, sailing in and out of the clouds. As the remaining evening light dimmed, there was absolute amazement to see our shadows cast to the side of the track so clearly: moonshadows. It’s easy to forget just how much light the moon does actually cast upon the landscape when living in a built up area, where the moon doesn’t stand a chance against street lighting. There’s something magical and mad about moonlight: a half light, a glow that can be deceptive: all is not what it seems in the light of the moon. To the north west there was a red glow in the sky, while to the west, the sky was ‘quiet’: not completely dark, a strange not-even-half light was ahead of us. We passed Derry Lodge, quietly made our way across the bridge and continued along the path towards the Lairig Ghru.P1010843

Our first break was by the Luibeg Burn. Doing a full mountain ‘day’ at night, when that night is a continuation of a day (where more than twelve hours have already been spent active), proves more of a challenge because you are working against the natural rhythms of your bodyclock. At 12.30am the body isn’t accustomed to taking on board food or vast quantities of water. Despite eating being reduced to a mere mechanical process, it was still necessary to take on some food and liquid.  Our first break over, we continued on our way, on, on and on. The moon floated in and out of the clouds, but was eventually overwhelmed while ahead of us, in the strange dim light of a Scottish summer night, we could see the cloud base resting on Beinn Bhrotain.

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Crossing the Luibeg Burn

It was a strange feeling to think that we may well have been the only people on the move through the mountains that night. The path took us around the bottom of Carn a’Mhaim and turned northwards while (depressingly) starting to lose height, dropping towards the youthful River Dee. Across the river, past Corrour Bothy (with numerous tents pitched outside – the Bothy was probably overflowing as it was a local holiday weekend) and as we started to climb, the weather started to come in. There were spits and spots of rain initially, then the wind started to really pick up and the cloud base dropped. We were on the final approach to the rim of the Corrie Odhar before we stopped again. Substantial wisps of cloud were pelting over the top of the corrie and it seemed like a very good idea to don any extra layers before putting our heads above the parapet. It was definitely lighting up by this time, but sadly it didn’t look as though we were going to see the sunrise from the summit of Devil’s Point.

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The view at the summit of Devil’s Point

Once over the lip of the Corrie, the wind was not nearly as bad as just below (very often this is the case). We had poor visibility, but there was a path of sorts. We followed this, but checking the compass bearing frequently (as paths cannot always be trusted to take you to where you actually want to go!). After more climbing, it became apparent that we were handrailing the cliffs to the south side of the mountain, and pretty soon we could make out the summit cairn/shelter. 4.05am.P1010858

A lengthy break ensued. There was the vain hope that the skies would clear and we would get views, but the weather began to worsen. Cameron was introduced to the usefulness of a group shelter, effectively a huge lightweight bag which climbers can sit inside to provide some protection from the elements. With people inside, the environment soon warms up, and if you insulate yourself even further by sitting on your rucksack (or sit mat), it can turn a miserable break into a semi-luxurious rest. After sensible food – and then the obligatory chocolate bar – with the sound of rain battering against the shelter and that very natural 4-in-the-morning tiredness catching up on us, it was all too tempting just to stay sitting there.  But no, we still had a very long way to go.

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Propping up the group shelter…

We dropped down from the summit to the col, where the visibility was just slightly better, briefly considered going on to Cairn Toul before deciding that the sensible plan was to head down. Down, down through Corrie Odhar, with frequent stops to shed the many layers that had been required on the summit. Conversation revolved around the Devil: all those sayings – ‘The Devil in us’; ‘Devil take the hindmost’; ‘Devil’s advocate’; ‘Needs must when the Devil drives’; ‘The Devil makes work for idle hands’; ‘The Devil is in the detail.’ The idea that the Devil is something inside all of us that needs to be confronted and dealt with….yeah, well just see what erudite discussions you can come up with at that time of morning! We silently walked past the tents outside Corrour Bothy feeling extremely smug that we’d been doing our mountain day at night, while all these hill-goers had chosen the soft option to sleep.

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Devil’s Point

Now it was a case of walking out. The cloud base remained at a consistent level, around the 800m mark, and until the very last, Devil’s Point refused to reveal itself. We followed the east side of the Dee on a path that involved quite a lot of mud (although I have walked this route when it’s been far worse…), energy, distance and time. Eventually we reached White Bridge (and no, it’s not white) for the final plod back to the car park along a good track. We enviously eyed up the bicycles that were being used by walkers coming in the opposite direction. One guy cheerily called out ‘Good Morning.’ We looked at each other in amazement. What did he mean – ‘morning’? Our morning had started some 9 and a half hours earlier and as far as we were concerned it was already well and truly over.

And so it was that we arrived back at our starting point. The one thing that wasn’t any different to any other hill day, was that relieved thought of ‘Oh good, the car’s still there’. But the experience was an unforgettable challenge that will remain in the memory banks forever.slide6P1010881

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