Following in the footsteps of Nan Shepherd

During lockdown, while I was hungering to be back out in the hills, my friend Sylvia loaned me a book. Then, after listening to me rave to her about it for weeks, she told me it wasn't a loan. It was a gift.

That was how I found Nan Shepherd.

I read The Living Mountain with a sense of absolute wonder: she has a luminous affection for the hills of the Cairngorms, a deep intimate familiarity with the waters and the glens and the summits, and she emphasizes a slow learning love that has allowed her, over a lifetime, to feel that when she visits the hills, she is going to be with an old friend.

Reading her book over lockdown was the reason that my first overnight into the hills in July was into the heart of the Cairngorms, and why I had returned there a few weeks later. And since Sylvia had introduced me to her, it was only right that I invite her to join me on a pilgrimage, visiting the places Nan loved.

The plan was two nights, starting from Glenmore Lodge outside Aviemore. We would walk south along Strath Nethy, up over the saddle below Cairn Gorm and then camp by Loch A'an the first night. The second day we would climb the steep path up to Loch Etchachan, loop around Beinn Mheadoin and then pick up the Lairig an Laoigh to come north and rejoin our original route.

All in all, the walk would be about 25 miles, and except for the steep climb up to Loch Etchachan, it would consist of sticking to the valleys below the great hills of the Cairngorms.

Day 1: Glenmore Lodge to Loch A'an

We parked up mid-morning by the Glenmore Lodge. (Well, actually we parked about a mile down the road since I didn't read the sign very closely but it ended up being a lovely walk in through pines forests along a single track road, so no harm no foul).

The first part of the walk is a lovely warm-up, just a gentle well-maintained track through the woods, with lovely glens and lochs opening up to the left and right. Just over two miles in, the road forked and we headed south, with field of heather opening up before us.

From there is was another mile and a half to the bridge over the River Nethy, and then we veered off the main track into a barely-there path through the boggy ground. We met a couple of campers coming towards us who warned that the midges were out in force ahead (they had cut their trip short because of the little pests), but we had head nets and Skin So Soft and were sure we would be fine, so we pressed on.

From the bridge to the saddle is just under five miles, and from the trail, it looked relatively flat, particularly in contrast to the hills soaring above it. It was a long slow walk though, and it was only that night when I looked closer at my map that I realized why: what had looked flat from below was actually a long steady climb of 350 meters through very boggy terrain.

But the day was beautiful -- warm, but misty and with a gentle breeze. Every now and then a light shower would come down, keeping us cool as we trudged ever upward.

And, of course, the dogs were in heaven.

By the time we reached the top, we were red-faced and sweaty, but the views looking down to Loch A'an was amazing.

Looking out over Loch A'an from the Saddle

We detoured down a steep path to ford the river at the east end of the loch, and then made our way back west along the southern shore. I had in my mind that I wanted to sleep on one of those picturesque beaches I had seen on my walk with Carol -- and by now we were starting to be mindful of the midges, so we were looking for a place that might have a good breeze.

We ended up on a beautiful stone beach about halfway along the Loch (you can see it in the big picture above) and immediately both of us peeled off our boots and socks and waded into the cold clear Loch.

It called to mind a passage from The Living Mountain:

  • We had started at dawn, crossed the Cairn Gorm about nine o'clock, and made our way by the Saddle to the lower end of the loch. Then we idled our way up the side, facing the gaunt corrie, and at last when the noonday sun penetrated directly into the water, we stripped and bathed. The clear water was at our knees, then at our thighs. How clear it was only this walking into it could reveal. To look through it was to discover its own properties. What we saw underwater had a sharper clarity than what we saw through air. We waded on into the brightness, and the width of the water increased, as it always does when one is on or in it, so that the loch no longer seemed narrow, but the far side was a long way off. Then I looked down; and at my feet there opened a gulf of brightness so profound that the mind stopped. **

When you step into the loch, the water is so clear that you can see the end of the shelf on which you stand. White sand stretches away from you for a few meters and then plummets into the depths, leaving clear darkness in its place. It is beautiful and serene -- and you have a sense of the scale of the depth below you matching the height of Cairn Gorm soaring overhead.

We cooked a quick meal, and then bedded down. The midges seemed present, but not excessively so, so we felt a little smug as we headed into our tents.

Day 2: Loch A'an to the base of Creag Mhor

The next morning dawned cold and bright. Shielded as we were by the mountains, we saw the sun gleaming off the "gaunt corrie" to the east, but didn't have the benefit of its warmth as we broke camp.

Before we packed, I enjoyed a barefoot ramble through the soft boggy surrounds, letting the sound of the breeze in the heather flowers and the water of the loch wake me gently.

The morning's walk started gently -- with an easy walk about a mile further along the loch, and then we faced the steep scrambling from the Shelter Stone up to gap that shelters Loch Etchachan between the hills. I had not enjoyed walking down this path previously, so was nervous about climbing up it.

The best thing I can say about the climb is that it was short. Only about half of mile of painful uphill work, and then we were in the flat plain that opens out into the loch. We paused for breakfast and coffee and snacks for the dogs. I looked up at the hills above us, wondering if we should add them into our day, but we were both feeling tired (it turns out that camping on a stone beach, while picturesque, does not lead to the most comfortable night's sleep) so instead we turned and headed down the hill below Beinn Mheadhoin.

Halfway down we stopped in at the Hutchinson Memorial Hut where Sylvia pointed out to me that it wasn't just dogs who might benefit from a mid-day nap, and we settled in for some shut eye.

90 minutes later, refreshed and recharged, we struck back down the hill, making for the Lairig an Laoigh where it crawled up the opposite side of the valley. All was well until we crested over the saddle, and then, sheltered as we now were from the breeze, we encountered the midges.

Not a cloud of midges. Not even a swarm. A wall of midges.

As we took off running down the Lairig, I had a moment to regret my cocky attitude about midges the night before and then pure panic set in. The four of us just raced down the valley, covering the two miles between the saddle and the Fords of Avon refuge in short order and discovering that said refuge was (a) a tiny windowless airless room and (b) filled with midges. There was no possible way we could camp here tonight. So we filled our water bladders again and set off.

There wasn't any relief as long as we stayed in the valley, so we climbed the steep side of Creag Mhor and eventually the breeze shooed them away.

After the panicked run we had had, it was a little slice of heaven to set up camp in the afternoon sunshine and enjoy our remote home for the night.

Of course, as soon as darkness fell, the midges we returned, so we headed into our tents and spent the night listening to the horror movie soundtrack of an army of bloodthirsty midges waiting to pounce.

Day 3: Home again

When I woke, it was still to the sounds of midges outside the tent, so I hunkered down as long as possible but eventually both Perry and I the outdoors so we braved it. Sylvia was still in her tent, so I decided to climb up to the plateau above us to catch the view -- and escape the midges. It was a rough boggy climb, but absolutely worth it once I emerged up onto the plateau.

Back down the hill to pack up camp, but the midges were back in force again so it was a challenge getting the tent down and wrapped. It wasn't just that I was having trouble breathing even with the net over my head, but that Perry was terrified of the midges and refused to leave the tent, even after I took all the tent poles out!

Finally we were packed and off again at speed to try to outrun the midges. As long as we kept in motion, we were fine, but anytime we tried to stop for coffee or a snack, they would descend again. Still, it was the most beautiful sunny day yet, and eventually we climbed up into the hills below Bynak More. and the midges became a distant memory. We stopped to wash our faces, soak our toes and fill our waterskins (not in that order) and basked in the beauty of the day.

As we neared the ridge where our trail would rejoin the trail leading down from the summit of Bynak More, a thick band of fog rolled in and for the next while we walked through a cloud.

We emerged out the other side high above the trail we had started out on, and slowly came down the ridge to rejoin. Then it was just an gentle walk the 3.5 miles back out to the car.

Citation from:

Shepherd, Nan. 2011. The Living Mountain. Edinburgh: Canongate Books. Page 12.