Updated: Mar 30, 2022
Inspired by Donnie Nicolson's wild camp a month endeavour, I set myself the goal of doing a bivvy a month for 2022. A bivvy or bivouac is a temporary camp without tents or cover where the only thing between you and the elements is your sleeping bag and an outer waterproof bivvy bag. This provides much less protection than a tent, but that is kind of the point. It is the most raw way to experience the outdoors overnight, as you see the all the changes in the landscape from day to night. There is nothing like being tucked up snug inside your bivouac whilst watching the cosmos arc across the sky.
It was mid-January and I asked fellow Scottish Adventurer Jack to see if he would join me for my inaugural bivvy of the year. Our calendars aligned and with a weekend weather window and favourable ground conditions up high, we decided to aim for a summit camp.
If you walk the usual route from the Glenmuick to Lochnagar, after around 4 km you meet a large cairn where you will turn left to head up to the famous Munro. If you were to head right however, you would take one of the many minor tracks up the hillside to the top of a Corbett called Conachcraig. I had walked past this (yet to be realised) grand viewpoint of a hill many times before and figured it was about time I paid it a visit. I did some research to see if an overnighter here was possible and I mainly used a brilliant website called Geograph. Geograph aims to collect geographically representative photographs and information for every square kilometre of Great Britain and Ireland. I zoomed into the summit of Conachcraig and looked at the pictures of the hilltop. These showed a flat topped hill with many large granite boulders which would be ideal to shelter behind. I cross checked this with an Ordnance Survey map which confirmed what Geograph showed.
Sample image of Conachcraig summit plateau from Geograph
With the plan set and all elements communicated, we arrived at the small car park at Easter Balmoral at around 6pm on a cool and clear Friday evening. We shouldered our heavy packs and set off on mountain bikes in the dark, through the forest and up the long ascent to the Corbett beyond. About a kilometre off our route was a bothy called Gelder Shiel and with neither of us having visted it before we, thought it was worth a detour to go and check out. We were warmly welcomed by a friendly couple who had the fire on and candles lit. It's a very well kept bothy with fine wood panelling, four sets of bunkbeds and a copy of Edwin Landseer's: The Monarch of the Glen hanging on the wall. We were told that the Balmoral Estate even provides firewood! We spent around half an hour blethering away and sipping beers and we could have happily stayed all night by the fire, but alas we had an objective to complete!
Jack at Gelder Shiel Bothy
Beyond the bothy the track becomes rather unconsolidated and cycling uphill on sandy tracks was really hard work. It was still clear where we were - the near full moon had been our constant companion all evening - however we could see up ahead that our target was cloaked in cloud. Our hopes of getting above it or it clearing were seemingly thin. We finally reached the turn off point after many vertical metres. Here we stashed our bikes in the heather and made our way up towards the summit. When we reached the top, the mist was thick as anything and our head torches cast a dazzling haze of light - it was almost easier to see without them. After congratulating ourselves for reaching the summit, we sought out a spot to spent the night. We opted for a small patch of grass on the north east side of a huge granite block, which sheltered us nicely from the south westerly wind. The temperature was now in the low single digits, so we hunkered down into our bags, layered up and got the kettles on for some re-hydrated dinner.
Preparing our beds
As we were waiting for our tea, we noticed a change above us. Our old lunar friend was slowly making an appearance through the mist. After only just a couple of minutes the cloud had completely cleared, giving ethereal moonlit views of Lochnagar and Deeside. At the same time I got an alert for the aurora borealis / northern lights on my phone. So - still in my bivvy bag - I pointed my camera north and took a snap. I was amazed to see line of emerald green blazing across the sky on the back of my camera screen. The aurora intensified over the next 15 minutes to the point where we could just about make it out with the naked eye. This was the best display I had seen to date and we were thankful that we were just in the right place at the right time!
The northern lights over Deeside
The aurora from the bivvy
A moonlit Lochnagar
Shortly after with the temperature still falling, we cinched our bags up tight and said goodnight. For me at least, sleep did not come easily though, as the moon which seemed as bright as the midday sun was shining down directly on me. I hadn't realised I needed to pack an eye mask!
A long night of little sleep finally drew to a close with a powerful golden stripe filling up the eastern horizon. Once coffee had been made (whilst still technically in bed), we emerged out of our cocoons into the icy landscape and witnessed a glorious sunrise over the surrounding hills. Lochnagar to our south west stole the show as it slowly shed the mist around its summit to reveal those jagged cliffs and crags.
The view over the Glen Clova hills
Sunrise over Glen Muick and the River Muick
Ben Avon and Beinn a'Bhuird under cloud
The crags clearing
Lochnagar and Meikle Pap in all their dawn glory
Once our fingers were numb from photographing in the cold, we went back to strike camp. I remembered just how easy it is to pack up when bivvying; you simply roll everything up, stuff it into your backpack and you're done. We made sure to not leave anything behind and headed the short distance down to the bikes, which had developed a ghostly white film of frost all over. The hard work of the previous evening was paid back in full as we enjoyed a superb descent, with amazing dawn views over Ballochbuie Forest and Ben Avon beyond.
Packing away camp. We made sure to leave no trace.
A red grouse enjoying the morning sun
We were back at the car in no time and after just gone 10 am. We stopped for a quick breakfast of flat whites and cinnamon swirls at the delicious Tarmachan Cafe in Crathie and I even managed to deliver Jack back in Aberdeen in time for his lunchtime booking. This was a great microadventure and saw us both tick of a new bothy, a new hill and a display of the merry dancers. I'm already looking forward to bivvy number two in February!
The descent from Conachcraig