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Cairngorms Trip, 15-20 Mar 2020

Our much-anticipated Easter vacation trip to the Cairngorms was sadly cut short for several participants due to circumstances beyond our control – but we were unbelievably lucky that it should have happened at all.

It began as you might expect: with 15 hillwalkers and their gear piling into 3 comically inadequately-sized cars and hitting the road North. Spirits were high, despite the discomfort of being entombed in the back seat for many hours by numerous rucksacks, winter hillwalking kit, bags of Tesco shopping and an obscene number of toilet rolls. Toby’s little red car struggled to cope with the load, crawling up hills at less than 10 miles an hour. Little did we know that we had made it out of Cambridge in the nick of time - that had we been a day later, we wouldn’t have made it to Scotland at all. Even as we made our way northwards, the news reached us that the University of Cambridge was asking all students to go home as soon as possible due to the escalating coronavirus outbreak – a bombshell that reduced several club members to tears.

We finally arrived at Muir Cottage, a comfortably furnished bunkhouse nestled in the beautiful wooded Dee valley, amidst dazzling stars and the glowing eyes of red deer caught in the headlights. Everyone quickly got down to business, unpacking enough food to feed a small army and planning routes for the next day.

Dawn revealed mature Caledonian pinewoods on all sides and glorious weather for our first day of walking. Six winter skills course participants – Patrick, Miriam, Michal, Oliver Ne, Oliver No, and Ellie – headed for the easily accessible snow slopes at Glenshee Ski Centre with their instructor Mike, while Paul F took Bill and Cameron off for a separate winter skills course. Meanwhile, everyone else made for the nearest Munro summit, Beinn Bhreac, which was still a sizeable walk in from the bunkhouse, but made for a fantastic first day, with a bit of crampon work required to reach the icy summit, and even some glissading on the way down.

That evening, everything changed. Simon had driven up to Braemar to get signal while everyone else relaxed by the wood-burning fire. When Simon returned grim-faced and asked for a private word with the trip leader, Mary, we all knew something was wrong, especially as Mary called first the safety officers and then the other drivers to join their discussion. Silence fell around the wood-burning stove. The tension was palpable as Mary finally gathered everyone together and announced that the government had just announced drastic measures to contain the COVID-19 outbreak, including banning all non-essential travel. Under these changed circumstances, Mary had no choice but to officially end the trip. As individuals, we could choose to leave or to stay on in an unofficial capacity. Simon had already decided to drive home to his parents the following morning, offering four car spaces to anyone who wished to join him, while the other two drivers, Bill and Toby, chose to stay for the remainder of the trip. After driving back to Braemar to phone family members, Mary, Cameron, Patrick and Tom decided to travel back to their families with Simon the next day. Everyone else decided to stay on for an unofficial trip, as there was no additional risk of catching the disease by staying three days longer in isolation in the Cairngorms. Shaken by the news, the only remaining thing to do was to open the keg (and several packets of biscuits) to drown our sorrows while working out what to do with the club kit. Meanwhile, Toby drove up the road to purchase shares in Netflix.

Tuesday morning was a subdued affair. Simon’s car departed into a frosty dawn shortly after 7am, taking with him four finalists whose last trip with CUHWC had just been cut abruptly short. Watching some of my closest friends in the club drive away to quarantine, with no idea when I would next see them, was nothing short of heartbreaking.

Nevertheless, a strong sense of stoicism helped us keep calm and carry on. The winter skills course, minus Patrick, set out for a day of navigation practice and Munro-bagging at the ski centre, while Heather and I set out for Derry Cairngorm, shortening the walk-in using two rather vintage mountain bikes borrowed from the bunkhouse. The weather was dazzling, with bright Highland light glancing off the River Dee as we ascended Derry Cairngorm in a howling gale. Making our way round the corrie towards Ben Macdui, the weather closed in and rapidly deteriorated into full-on whiteout conditions. Undeterred, perhaps foolishly, we pushed on to the summit, following a compass bearing for over 1km until we miraculously passed within five metres of the summit cairn, which was heaped with rime frost and just visible through the blizzard. Needless to say, we made it back down in one piece, a bit windswept and very thankful that our nav skills had held out. That night we bid farewell to Oliver No, who was off for more hillwalking adventures with his dad, and to most of the club kit, which went with him. Everyone enjoyed tucking into a well-earned pile of curry, followed by some banana bread that was supposed to be Mary’s birthday cake.

Wednesday had been set aside as a day of advanced winter skills training with Mike for old hands Mary, Cameron, Toby, Tom, and Bronwen, but as most of these had left, the course was opened to those who had just completed the basic course. In the end, virtually everyone came, including Oliver Neale as official photographer, leaving Ellie and Paul to bag Carn Bhac, a beautiful peak to the south of the bunkhouse. After an entertaining hour digging around in the snow to practice snow belays, Mike led us on a carefully navigated journey to bag Carn Aosda and Carn a’ Gheoidh. On the way we encountered some cross-country skiers, incredible sastrugi patterns in the snow, a mad fell runner, and several mountain hares which cleverly evaded Toby and Oliver’s cameras. Back in the Glenshee carpark, we received cryptic news from Cambridge that the University was shutting down completely in two days’ time.

Despite dealing with this further psychological blow, everyone enjoyed the best day yet on Thursday, with most people opting for a gentle stroll up the gorgeous Dee Valley. Paul set out solo to bag Beinn Bhreac, while Ellie, Heather and Bronwen took the bikes 12km up the valley to tackle Bheinn Bhrotain and Monadh Mór, two Munros in the heart of the Cairngorms. Striding through a remote glen surrounded by rock, ice and shining water, it was hard to believe that the world had fallen apart in the space of less than a week. Surrounded by the peace of the mountains, it was comforting to realise that nature carries on regardless, and that the hills will always be there, unchanged no matter what.

Friday morning dawned bright and frosty, and saw a flurry of frantic activity to pack up and clean the bunkhouse. We even fed the birds, and Ellie picked a bouquet of pine branches to put in Toby’s empty gin bottle to welcome the next guests. Packing nine people into the two cars, along with the remaining kit and several bags of rubbish, resulted in Oliver, Bronwen and Heather being quite literally buried alive in the back of Bill’s car until we reached Braemar and dumped the rubbish in someone’s wheelie bin.

Driving out over the Glenshee pass with the Lord of the Rings soundtrack blaring triumphantly from the speakers, we all felt grateful for having had a few days of solace in the hills before returning to a world that was changing beyond recognition. For too many of us, this trip had abruptly turned into our last, given that next term’s trips will almost certainly be cancelled. But if that is the case, what a special trip it was to end on. For Mary, Cameron, Patrick, Tom, myself, and so many others, our time with CUHWC has been unforgettable. Thank you to everyone who made it such a special time in our lives. We will be back!

Trip List: Mary M, Simon M, Cameron R, Bronwen F, Toby R, Paul F, Tom S, Miriam G, Oliver No, Patrick T, William C, Oliver Ne, Michael B, Ellie K, Heather C

Bronwen Fraser