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If there is any part of Scotland that is what makes me think about the real wilderness it is the CairnGorm Mountain range so it is only natural that I wanted to go there sometime. Always daunted by the scale of the place I was put off for a long time, and when I went I wanted to make it worthwhile by taking in a good amount of it. The plan was then to get gear together and plenty walking to be prepared for 2-3 days in the hills and get the best of the views and the higher grounds. Walking was not too much of an issue as I regularly walked anyway but not with what would eventually amount to a 16kg rucksack (at it’s last weigh before adding more) in carrying mainly a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, spare clothes, and food for up to 3 days. All that with a number of smaller things that add up at an alarming rate.
On early searching I found too that to get the two main summits you had to first climb to one then drop all the way down to almost starting height then back up again! this with any route involving some stage of pretty steep walking. Then again this sort of landscape and scenery was never going to be easy to access. I tested the camping gear with a night in minus temperatures and it all performed well, the sleeping bag was very warm so should cope easy with June temperatures. The wee 2 man tent (very cosy for 2) done well and packed away to a good small size. The rucksack I had was not good enough for a long trek so got myself a Vango Explorer which had excellent waist and shoulder padding which was to prove very worthwhile! So just logistics to arrange. I decided to go by ferry and buses rather than driving because that meant I would not be tied to times, come and go almost as much as I pleased. Ferry at 7am out, bus to Glasgow, then Perth, then Aviemore. A full day travel either side of my hike, something that most folk dont have to do but the pleasure of living on an island means that our trips are extended in time and cost…but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I stayed at the Cairngorm Lodge Youth Hostel, and it was a great place, a former hunting lodge I think, that looked out over the mountains that were clear in the low light from the sun by the time I got settled in.
Staff were great and the breakfast in the morning was brilliant! The sun was shining and the wind calm as I left and started the walk along the road from Glenmore to the end of the forestry where the path would lead off to the right and the start of my adventure. At a car park just before going off road I met a guy that was staying at the youth hostel the previous night, he said he was going to the same hill as my first target, Braeriach, Britain’s 3rd highest hill, so I asked if he wanted to tag along with me “I don’t want to keep you back” he said. With my rucksack for up to 3 days making his wee day bag look like a pick and mix I said I would be more likely to keep him back but he insisted so I headed off while he prepared for his walk. Now you would think at this point there would be signs to say “Braeriach this way” or something, anything? but no, nothing. A girl was heading toward the start of the track and I asked if that was the main track to Braeriach, “you going through the Chalamain Gap? with that rucksack on?” she asked, “aye” I said with a hint of why about it, “yes this is the best way” she said, and jogged off with 2 dogs at foot. At this point I thought nothing about the rucksack reference and assumed she wondered why I needed something so big just to go to Braeriach. This was it then, the start of my hike/camp.
The weather was still nice and I was in a t-shirt, feeling the weight of my rucksack but that would pass soon enough. It is surprising how quickly something that feels so heavy to start can become part of you after a wee while, I remember thinking a mile into the walk that I might have to turn around due to it’s bulk! After negotiating a gully and over a footbridge I was on a clear track that I could see heading to the Chalamain Gap which was a long way off! This was my first realisation of the scale of the place. The Gap was so far way and yet on the map it seemed quite a small distance to settle me into the walk, nonetheless it was not too bad and a steady climb to get the legs and shoulders broken in. Then at the Gap I was met with a snow bank, the first of a few on this walk. After getting accross that I was entering the Chalamain Gap and I now knew why the girl had asked about going through here with the rucksack, the boulders are huge in places! It is easy to get across but care is needed and with the big pack it is magnified, This also was much longer than I expected, probably about 600 yards compared to what I thought was about 50 yards.
On the other side of the Gap I could now see the Braeriach but it was now starting to cover in cloud, this would worsen throughout the day, and it was still a long way off. I had started at below 400m, gone up to about 700m in the Gap, now dropping through a gull to about 600m and now on my way up the long climb to the top at 1296m. I could see Trevor, the guy from the youth hostel, was still the same distance back so I decided to wait on him as we were obviously going at near enough the same pace. I had a drink and one of my flapjacks while I waited. He soon got to where I was and we set off after he put another layer on, it was getting colder but I still felt ok in the t-shirt. We chatted to some of the path workers on the way up and soon got into the start of the cloud so we stopped again for each of us to put a layer on.
We took in the two mounds at 1180m and 1184m on Sron na Lairige and onto the summit of Braeriach, still covered in snow and some amazing ridges. We each took pictures for one another before Trevor headed back down the hill and I turned to continue my hike.
At this point the weather was changing and I was in cloud almost all the time with breaks every now and again to allow me to see the views, even the small breaks were more than enough with stunning scenery all around! Across the Wells of Dee I met two guys going the opposite way, they had stayed in the bothy which was my target for the day. The cloud now had dropped in severely and visibility was reduced to a few meters at times.
On I went taking in the peaks of Carn na Criche (1265), Angels Peak (1258) and Cairn Toul (1291) before the steep downhill to the Corrour Bothy which sits at about 550m. It was a big drop in a small distance and it resulted in me spraining my knee a little, at this point though it was not too bad, but it would get worse. Coming down the hill I seen a couple setting up tent beside the bothy and another trio coming across the footbridge to the bothy. I arrived just after the trio and cooked up some pasta straight away to get some heat and energy back. I got speaking to the young trio and said they should sleep in the bothy but they had found bedding set up in there so we all set up our tents. The owners of the bedding never showed up so the couple ended up sleeping in there but not until after a few drinks and a really good laugh at the warmth of the fire before I went to my tent. The couple (Steve and Sharron? I am hopeless with names) had the good idea to go collect some wood for the fire, this both passed time (I arrived here a lot earlier that I expected) and provided warmth and light in the bothy.
Through the night I woke a couple of times to hear strong winds and heavy rain attacking the tent, just as the forecast said it would (they always get it right when it’s bad weather) but the tent was excellent in the bad conditions and I stayed warm and dry inside until I got up at 7am. Quick wash at the burn then up to the bothy where I could see there was movement now from the couple that slept there overnight. I lit up my wee stove and cooked some porridge and a nice cup of coffee and I was ready to go. After saying goodbye to the couple (the young trio typically were still asleep) I headed off for my next day of walking.
I had been contemplating a few options overnight for a few reasons, mainly after seeing the stunning Lairig Grhu glen I was tempted to walk back along that but that would have taken me back to almost where I started so I counted that out (for another time), I had also seen a path up the Allt Clach nan Taillear that would have been a very quick route to the summit of Ben MacDhui but I quickly discounted that too as it was mental steep and I was not here just to reach summits, it was all about the scenery so I stuck with the original plan, south and east around the bottom of Carn na Mhaim to the Luibeg Bridge and follow the Luibeg Burn north along to the slopes of Sron Riach. My knee was starting to give a bit of grief on any downhill parts of the walk and with a lot to go I was worrying about it a bit and I would have to take care on it.
There was low cloud all around and still a few showers so the waterproof jacket was on but not yet the trousers. This was making me very warm though as I started the climb up the Sron Riach which was a very steep climb at some points! The track was good though and I made steady progress. Getting to a flat area just short of the top there are some amazing rock formations to break the monotony of the steep track, then back to a climb but now getting very rocky then boulder fields near the top. Intermittent broken cloud gave some nice views and Lochan Uaine looked nice from the top of Sron Riach.
After a few snaps I started heading for the top of Ben MacDhui and as soon as I started the heavens opened! torrential rain and visibility down to a minimum again. Quickly put the rucksack cover on and my waterproof over-trouser before everything was soaked and weighing even more.
Making my way up another wee steep track I heard voices coming toward me and in seconds they were there, 2 Dutch guys just off MacDhui and heading down the route I had just walked. They asked about the track down, moaned about the weather, then headed off again disappearing in just a few seconds into the grey air. I had a couple of snow fields to walk across and the boulder ground was huge. Very awkward walking and care needed not to get a bad injury, I could feel my knee now getting sorer with every downward movement. The Viewranger GPS app on my iphone was proving to be priceless in this conditions, showing me the way confidently across the boulder fields in very little visibility, it is very easy to see how people get lost in this vast landscape with conditions like this! The size of the boulders reduced and I could start to see more now as the clouds lightened a bit, patches of clear air were appearing now as I neared the top. Never seen any blue sky but only better views around at the same height. When the old Ruin near the top came into view I could put away the GPS and walk on with points of interest to lead me the way, from the ruin along past a number of round stone shelter walls and onto the top where you find a nice circular “compass” showing the direction to all the surrounding peaks. This sits just below the Trig Point set up on a mass of stones to mark the highest point. (1309m)
I carefully wandered along the boulder covered top toward the edge looking up the Lairig Grhu and got a couple of snaps, went back to the stone piled trig point and sat for a snack. I could see a few groups of people on their way up from the Ski Centre, the distance from here to the bottom looks quite short at first sight but the 3 groups of people put it into perspective as they look tiny in the large rolling hills. I had a big decision to make now…my original plan was to go from here and camp at loch Ethchachan overnight but two things made me think it wiser to just head back now. Firstly it was only 3pm and I had covered ground a lot faster than I’d thought I would so I could make it back in plenty time, not something I expected, and secondly my knee was now really getting painfull. The steep drop down to the loch could very easily finish off any more walking and I could be stuck! Time to be sensible for a change, I decided to head to the lower Ski Centre, a long way yet but I would just take it easy and make sure I was back on my own feet.
This was the first real stretches of downhill walking I had done all day and I realised very soon that the choice to get off the hills was the right one! By the time I had reached the March Burn and still at 1125m I was having to almost walk sideways downhill to stop the rotation on my knee sending stabbing pains through me.Apart from one small section of easy uphill it was all down from here, and some of it steep too. The steepest part was from the last high point of 1083m down to the Ski centre that sits at 600m. Over a distance of about 4km that obviously involves some steep parts and again the pathwork on those sections are a credit to the guys and girls that work on them all year round. I arrived at the Ski Centre after walking through some nice views again now that I was down and out of the cloud. It is just an endless array of beautiful views, photos can never do it justice.
At the Ski Centre a bus had just pulled away as I approached, I thought that was possibly the last one as my slow decent meant it was now 5.05pm. I asked someone in the car park if they knew about the buses and she said there was still one to go at 6pm so that was a relief straight away but then to make things even better she offered me a lift to Aviemore, and very grateful I was too. As I had not planned to be off the hills at this stage I now had to find somewhere to camp or stay. A room with a shower was a definite preference after being in the hills and all that walking so the Aviemore Bunkhouse that she recommended was perfect. A great wee place that it’s website does not do justice either, very helpful staff and the shared bunk rooms also have their own en-suite shower and separate toilet with towel included.
So that was that! Hike complete, showered and into fresh clothes and time to get a nice meal and a few beers and relax! An absolutely brilliant trip that I would recommend to anyone. The mountains are stunning and when you get there you really start to understand why some unfortunate incidents occur here, it has to be given your full respect, without compromise! Do that though and you can have an amazing experience that you will not find anywhere else. I met some great people along the way too and every single one was polite and friendly. One day I will go back and take in a few more sights but with just a day pack which will allow me to hop around in comparison to carrying that rucksack. I had a great day strolling about Aviemore the following day then reversed my journey home the following day.
Routes tracked using Viewranger