When we first started to put together routes for our summer fundraising challenge, we asked our son if there was anything he particularly wanted to do; overnight trips? single day trips? He immediately asked to see the sunrise from the top of a mountain, wanting to walk up during the night rather than just roll out of the tent while summit camping. It is always interesting to see what ideas he comes up with for experiences he would like when we are outdoors.
We had initially been somewhat against doing this during our summer challenge due to the (very!) early sunrise times meaning we would have to miss most of a night’s sleep and so were suggesting to our son that we could wait until autumn for the shorter days to do this. However, as we entered the final week of our challenge we were faced with an unhelpful weather forecast and tiredness was starting to take a toll, especially on our son.
The weather for the entire last week was British summer at its best; sunny periods with many heavy, potentially thundery showers coming through. As we are relatively slow on the mountains we were not keen to be spending long times up high, particularly in the late afternoon and evening when the risk was highest. This put our 6 Munro, 3 day route off the cards for us and left us wondering what to do. A moment of carpe diem hit us and we turned around to our son and said ‘you know that summit sunrise you were wanting… let’s do it now.’
We picked our hill to be Beinn Bhreac in the Cairngorms as you can cycle a large amount of the long valley walk in, and then the remaining ascent and distance is relatively short – ideal for a night time walk with a target time to be on the summit.
Our plan was simple; cycle in to Derry lodge on Tuesday afternoon, play around by the river for the rest of the afternoon and evening before grabbing some sleep in our tent and waking up eeeeaaarrrrrllllllyyyy! I scouted the cycle route from Derry lodge to where we would leave the bikes that evening so we had at least a clear idea of what obstacles we would meet (a good few drainage ditches) and where the faint path headed off to the right (easy to miss in the dark). We worked out our timings, reckoning that if we set off from the tent at 2:30 am we should reach the top around 5:15am all being good, which would be great for sunrise.
With all the prep done we went to bed. The other problem with night walking in summer is the long light evenings, so we had quite a task settling down to get some sleep. I think excitement and light got the better of our son, whilst tiredness got the better of me and we had a bit of a grumpy time before we finally all fell asleep. My alarm went off at 2am and I first woke Stacey. We wondered if we should call it off given the late bedtime and spent some time procrastinating before finally we decided to wake our son and ask him. He took an age to stir and was very sleepy asking us to let him go back to sleep until I asked if he actually wanted to walk the mountain for sunrise. At this point it was like a switch was flicked. He jumped up and started saying ‘yay summit sunrise!’ and had a real bounce in him as we hastily scoffed down some breakfast and got dressed.
We set off at about 2:50 in the end, a bit later than we had hoped, but we hoped we would still make the summit in time. The ride up went pretty easily with us all being glad I had a good idea of hazards and the path turn off. We have very bright bike lights, but still riding up narrow rough tracks in the dark is not the easiest.
We locked our bikes to the tree and set off up the boggy wet and small path. We all had head torches and both myself and our son had the bright bike lights too. These were very helpful to give our son lots of light and also for me to route find along the vague path in the pitch dark through the woods.
As we gained height the colours started changing, with the first signs of dawn already coming in when we were well below the summit. I was a bit worried we would miss it, but forgot just how long before sunrise proper the sky starts to lighten in summer.
The path became easier to pick out, even if it didn’t get any drier underfoot and it wasn’t long before we were able to turn off our torches totally and just walk by the early morning pre-dawn light. We made good progress chatting away, looking out for wildlife and enjoying the emptiness of the night time mountains around us.
After some time we reached the final ascent towards the summit and we realised we still had quite a way to go and not much time to get there. The procrastination when we woke up was starting to bite us in the bums. We all sped up as much as we could, eager to not miss the big reveal we had got up early and put all the effort in to see. The clouds were clearing nicely and we pulled onto the summit around 5:20 am. We added our extra layers including down jackets to keep warm and had a wonderful 15-20 minutes eating snack and watching the sky change from blues and pinks, to reds and finally for the sun to burst over the neighbouring mountain in a glorious sunrise. It was a fantastic spot to watch from, with great views over towards Lochnagar, which had been our second walk of the challenge, just over three weeks earlier.
We were all feeling a little cool after this, so got out our bothy bag to allow us to all warm up a bit before we set off down the hill. This was the first time we had used it with our son and he took great delight in clambering inside the orange shelter and calling it our ‘family body bag’. I think it will remain known as our body bag from now on to us – we couldn’t help but find that funny in a slightly odd, somewhat grisly way! We had a little dance to Trolls and Moana music (a one off treat as we normally never listen to music on the mountains, being strictly no electronics apart from cameras and gps). These have been the theme tunes to our summer… for better or worse….a bit catchy and soooo annoying! We’re such a pushover hearing him sing though 🙂
After a while we set off, retracing our route down the mountain in the early morning sunlight. As we descended the wind dropped and the midges started to wake up (or maybe we could just see them now). We kept going pretty much without break back to the bikes and got ourselves back on these as quick as we could to escape the swarms.
As we cycled back down the path we went pat a couple of early walkers heading up past us. They looked a little surprised seeing us heading down, particularly with our son! We made it back to the tent just before 8 am and all dived back inside as quickly as we could. Once in it sounded as if it was raining there were so many midges on a kamakazi mission to eat us. We squished the few that had got in when we did, snuggled up under our quilt and promptly fell asleep again, waking a couple of hours later.
We had hoped to spend most of the day at Derry lodge, but the lack of wind was still allowing the midges to swarm so we packed up as much as we could inside before taking the tent down in record time and enjoying the ride back downhill to our van. We headed home later that day, all tired but all with huge smiles on our face at the unique adventure we had done as part of our summer challenge.
Summit sunrise tips for families:
- Check sunrise times and weather forecast – be prepared for an early start.
- Pre-pack your bags, include hats, gloves, extra layers etc
- Check batteries on head torches!
- Check route info, make sure you have an idea of where you’re going and any turn offs you need to keep an eye out for.
- Be realistic with route – time for ascent etc. Will you get to the top in time?
- Have your kids already on board with this idea!
- Think like a Hobbit, it’s ok to have first breakfast, second breakfast, third breakfast…. same for on summit sunrise mountain days 🙂
- You know your kids, what works to keep them going and what doesn’t. Try to keep it fun, light hearted. You might just want them to do this again one day!