Having spent a fair bit of the last few months working on the mountains on the west coast of Scotland, it was great to find myself heading up the A9 on Friday morning for three days worth of outings in the Cairngorms. These were the hills I grew up exploring as a teenager, and there’s always a sense of ‘coming home’ when I find myself back on those vast rolling plateaux.
The plan for the trip involved a day trip out and back to Bynack More with a mixed group on Friday, followed by a more complex trip on Saturday with three options for folks depending on their confidence and fitness levels; setting off from the Ski Centre car park, the first option was for people to journey across Cairngorm, the second group carried on from Cairngorm and across to Ben Macdui before returning via Cairn Lochan, while the third group had signed up for a two day trip which involved descending from Ben Macdui to Corrour Bothy for an overnight stay, before returning via the four Munros on the western side of the Lairig Ghru on Sunday.
This time last year, Scotland was basking in something of a heatwave in the midst of the Commonwealth Games; this time round, conditions felt more autumnal as we set off from Glenmore on Friday, with low lying cloud and frequent heavy rain showers. Thankfully, our arrival at the summit coincided with the cloud parting temporarily to allow a wee bit of view, although not before we’d squeezed ourselves into the group shelter and passed round the hip flask to celebrate one of the girls getting to the top of her first Munro.
The poor weather conditions continued into Saturday, with the wind forecast to gust up to 70mph early in the day, along with the potential for snow showers on the highest tops. All three groups set off at the same time, making our way up Coire Cas, before cresting the ridge and arriving at point 1141. The blustery wind was a wee bit unsettling for some folks, but a helping hand and reassuring word from one of the three MLs on hand was enough to get everyone up safe and sound as we made our way up the broad slopes of Cairngorm and huddled behind the weather station to get a break from the wind.
After getting the obligatory summit photo, the Cairngorm group set off towards the Ptarmigan restaurant under the care of one of my fellow MLs, while the rest of us set off across the plateau towards Ben Macdui. Thankfully, the wind gradually eased, and the predicted showers were largely absent, although the cloud continued to stubbornly cling to the surrounding summits as we made our way past Lochan Buidhe and on to the large summit cairn of Ben Macdui. The blustery wind made getting our summit snaps a bit tricky. Along with the stories of the ‘old grey man, one of the other distinctive features of Ben Macdui’s summit is the large number of stone sangers erected there by troops during WW II; they seem incongruous most of the time, but today they offered welcome shelter from the wind as we hunkered down to grab a bite of eat before going our separate ways.
After waving goodbye to the group who were heading back to the cars, our team of overnight campers set off across the plateau and down towards the Lairig Ghru via the Tailor’s Burn. As we descended, the cloud finally broke up, and by the time we made our way across the bridge to Corrour Bothy, the sun was bathing us in early evening light.
There was a decent crowd already in situ at the bothy when we arrived, but it was no problem to find space for our tents, and we’d soon constructed a little temporary hamlet for the night, and a selection of stoves were churning out food for hungry walkers.
With a long day ahead of us on Sunday, we agreed to an early start and, after a bit of negotiation, settled on 7.00am. The overnight rain had thankfully eased by 6am, but we were greeted with another layer of low cloud hanging over the peaks around us as we set off up the path which leads from the bothy up onto the bealach between the Devil’s Point and Cairn Toul. We made good time up the bealach before dropping our packs and enjoying a burden-free ascent of Bod an Deamhain. Heading up Cairn Toul was a bit more of a chore with our bags back on our backs, but we made steady progress upwards, and arrived at the cloud-encased summit by mid-morning. The last time I’d done this route, as part of a three day round with Catriona, I’d laboured up carrying an 80 litre rucksack, and I was enjoying the experience of carrying everything in a 38 litre bag this time round; it was interesting to reflect on all the stuff I wasn’t carrying this time round, yet still enjoying a comfortable night out in fairly wet, murky conditions.
Once you’ve reached the summit of Cairn Toul, the hard work of ascent is largely done for the day, and Angel’s Peak is a fairly straightforward ‘tick’ en-route to Braeriach. As we neared the Wells of Dee, we encountered the wild reindeer herd that frequents the area, including the slightly eerie white reindeer that paid me a visit during my ML assessment! In a scene vaguely reminiscent of Twin Peaks, I’d been sitting at the door of my tent in the evening of the second day, when I looked up and found a pure white reindeer staring at me from about 10 metres away. he remained looking at me for a few minutes, before turning away and disappearing back over the slight rise we were camped beside.
The climb up to Braeriach from the south is very gradual; a long gentle slope up to the summit cairn perched on the edge of Garbh Coire. We’d now bagged all four Munros for the day, but we still had around 10 km still to journey back to our starting point, down Sron na Lairig, across the Lairig Ghru and through the Chalamain Gap. Unfortunately, there’s no direct path from the eastern end of the Gap back to the ski centre, so we had to take ourselves cross-country across some fairly arduous country for a kilometer or so until we reached to path from Coire an t-Sneachda and the last easy walk back to the cars. A stop off at the Happy Haggis in Aviemore gave us the chance to refuel tired bodies and begin the inevitable blether about our upcoming trips to Lochnagar and Ben Alder.