A Cairngorm Circular – September 2015.

“Braemar and back again.”

The Cairngorms

Day 1 – Glenmore to Loch Etchachan.
Day 2 – Beinn Mheadhoin, Ben Macdui and Derry Cairngorm
Day 3 – Loch Etchachan to Mar Lodge
Day 4 – Braemar
Day 5 – Mar Lodge to Fords of Avon
Day 6 – Fords of Avon to Glenmore
Day 7 – Post-circular extras


So, I’d decided I wanted to see Braemar Castle. The Cally Sleeper would take me to Aviemore, bus to Glenmore and Shanks’s pony down to the castle and back. Seems there’s a few Munros on the way too and seven of them were right in my way.

Looks like fun.

Day 1. Glenmore to Loch Etchachan (via Cairn Gorm). 9½ miles, 4475ft ascent.

I arrived in Aviemore on time but then realised that the bus I had planned to get to take me the 6 or 7 miles into Glenmore only ran on school holidays, and this wasn’t a school holiday. The next bus would be an hour. Luckily just then a taxi turned up…

I got to Glenmore at around 8.30am and leaving the hectic (another car came!) main road set off into the forest – The Queen’s Forest no less! – heading towards Cairn Gorm (via the Coire na Ciste route) over the Abhainn Ruigh-eunachan. HM’s forest was nice at first, cool and fresh and the paths were clear.

But after a little while the path had disappeared and I ended wandering way off course and had to compass-correct myself with a tough ascent up the banking on the left using ferns and tree roots as grips. Up and over at the top and back on some sort of a semblance of a path, although the thick heather and tall ferns would suggest it wasn’t used much. It was all so dripping wet with dew that the waterproofs had to come out despite it being bright and sunny. The ground was uneven and rising, it was hot and damp and a boring start to the day. Pretty though.

Eventually I was out of the woods, figuratively and literally, and finally heading up what looked like a proper mountain. It had taken the best part of 45mins to get through the woods, and shortly after when I had passed the lower ski car-park the bus I could’ve waited for went by, round the sharp hairpin. I could have just been sitting down in Aviemore drinking tea for the past hour and only been about quarter of mile behind where I was now! And a tenner better off. Oh well, I wouldn’t have a good discussion about Scottish independence from my Islington-born and Camden Town-schooled taxi driver. Anyways, the bus may not have dropped me there anyways, or that’s what I’m telling myself at least.

Although the weather was looking good behind us, ahead of us there was a slight hint of mist.

It was a steady slog up a clear path, but not much to look at. Things just slowly appeared from and then disappeared back into the mist. A strange sign post…

At first an alien spacecraft which just turned out to be rickety-looking ski-lifts…

Reindeer, feeding up before their hectic Christmas schedule…

And a digger! A chat to the driver’s mate quickly turned to midges as conversation often does round here.

And an emergency stop button hovering a good 10 or 12ft up in the air. The winter snow here must easily cover the wooden fencing when it’s skiing season. Impressive.

The other photo is, I think, the Marquis’s Well – at around 4,000ft the highest spring in Britain. I’m not too sure though, there was a damp patch a bit further but this one looked more the sort of thing a Marquis of Huntly would go for. Not far to the top now!

Funny how one’s pace is quickened by the sight of a cairn! The cairn of Cairn Gorm was reached. Phew! Quite a slog with the full pack on.

It was very windy here, and what I thought was a shelter must have been just for the University of Edinburgh’s meteorologists. So I settled down for a chilli-egg sandwich in the lee of the weather station. But suddenly the relaxing peace was shattered by a strange mechanical whirring, and the top of the large dust-bin type thing on top of the weather was slowly but purposefully opening up. At first I wasn’t quite sure what was going on – the misty winds do things to a young man’s mind up here, but it turned out that the dust-bin was actually the weather station taking one its half-hourly readings. The vane waggled furiously and anemometer was having a blast. The sandwich was finished and onwards we went.

As I got towards the far side of the lunar-like rocky summit plateau of Cairn Gorm I could hear the weather station closing up again for another 26 minutes, and the view ahead of me looked a lot more appealing. (I later checked out the website to see what the wind-speeds were while I was up there, but couldn’t make head nor the tail of the data!)

What wasn’t so enticing was the view of someone’s carefully bagged up litter just below the top. The odd crisp packet whisked away from a careless hand by an eager wind I can understand, but just leaving crap like this knowing that the park rangers will clear it up at some point is a tad grating.  Luckily my gaze was distracted by Loch Avon (Loch A’an to the locals I was later told) in the near distance.

The beaches of Loch Avon looked very enticing, but a long way down.

The descent down the very well-constructed granite steps of Coire Raibeirt was torturous!  On the knees but also because every now and then as I cautiously and unavoidingly took a large step down, my pack would catch on the step behind me, nudging me forwards before my foot was set down, and so nearly send me hurtling downwards, to end up in a Sea-King no doubt.

Thankfully I made it all the way down to lochside without major incident, and swung to the west to head round the beach-end of it via the Shelter Stone.

But annoyingly it took me so long to navigate the drops and bogs and streams and dead-end paths at the top of loch that when I got near the Shelter Stone I just couldn’t be bothered actually going towards for a look. This is what I missed. I like the cairn on top though – good effort someone! The abandoned (peat?) spade wasn’t budging though.

Anyways, we got across the glen eventually and on my way up the Allt nan Stacan Dubha saw my second people of the day after the digger crew, a local fella and a very nicely made up (always important when walking!) American girl who was here for a wedding. Anyways, they were very pleasant and we chatted briefly. But just after what seemed like about 5 minutes they were down and on the beach, across what had taken me about half an hour to get across!! How did they do it?! I also saw some very colourful mosses.

As I got higher I took one final look back at Loch Avon, and saw my first ptarmigan of the day. I’d managed to walk obliviously past the Ptarmigan on the top of Cairn Gorm with it right under my nose because of the mist. Not that I really minded though. The feathered kind was much nicer and much more in-keeping with the surroundings that some tourist cafe. Mind you, I was soon to get very fed up of ptarmigan – they’re worse than grouse for suddenly and noisily appearing out of the undergrowth while you’re rambling on peacefully miles away in a world of your own, croaking and squawking like some angry strangulated terrier puppy. Bloody things. I like their trousers though.

Once at the top of the Allt nan Stacan Dubha I had one last look back, I think – I can’t remember which way that photo is looking now, and headed down to Loch Etchachan – my campsite for the next two nights. Unfortunately when I got down there hoping for hermit-esque solitude I was aghast to see someone had beaten me to it, and not only that but he seemed to have bagged the only dry spot in the marshy loch-periphery. By the time I’d found a spot and settled, and pitched up it was getting dark so for some reason I didn’t take a photo of my first evening’s camping.

But what I did take a photo of was some more rubbish. Working on a small pit to use for nature’s callings behind a large boulder about 20yards away from my tent I uncovered a drink carton and a foil packet of sausage and beans. Judging from the date on the foil they’d been there at least 2½ years and obviously were not far into their decomposition process. (A couple of very nice locals – Duncan & John – much later on in Aviemore on hearing this tail just rolled their eyes, and said “Aye – that’ll be the army cadets…”, and curiously much later I Googled “army cadet ration packs” and it does look similar. Come on lads, sort it out!)

No problem getting to sleep that night, although I did wake up in night needing a wee visit. It was still quite light it seemed although it was about 3.45am. Not very bright but bright enough for my hand to be clearly silhouetted against the tent. I went outside to a clear sky but no moon – the nocturnal illumination was provided by nothing but starlight. The Milky Way clearly visible to the delight of my eyes and annoyance of my neck. Usually when I camping out under these skies I sleep straight through it all, but it’s really not to be missed. Such an amazing sight – our ancestors were spoilt!

Today’s walk. Top

Day 2. Beinn Mheadhoin, Ben Macdui and Derry Cairngorm. 11 miles, 3547ft ascent.

Next morning the skies were still clear and the first thing I noticed was how much nicer it would have been on the top of Cairn Gorm today! I’d finished breakfast and been to my own little shelter stone (ie. loo) by the time the sun was warming my tent.

My plan today was to head up Beinn Mheadhoin and then dip down the Lairig an Laoigh to head up Beinn a’Chaorainn. Didn’t look too bad on the map, and I might even have time for some afters somewhere too. On the way up Stob Coire Etchachan I got my first good view of my campsite. My tent is just above about half-way along the smaller loch.

After a short but steep climb up the views were grand, Loch Avon and the Barns of Beinn Mheadhoin above.

The walk over the plateau towards the barns was very pleasant indeed, clear firm ground and clear blue skies. The view above left is looking backwards in SW direction.

Looking SW again through the barns, but I can’t remember which the other view is. Northerly somewhere I think.

A summit-selfie, and behind yours-truly a truly fine panorama. The low-lying mist is above the Aberneth Forst / Nethy Bridge I think.

Heading briskly over towards Beinn a’Chaorainn via the cairned peak above Stob Coire Etchachan I noticed an odd perfectly circular lichen on the way looking like a company logo or something.

Once up at the top of said little peak I had a better view of where I was going and it didn’t look too promising. I couldn’t see any path, which isn’t the end of the world, but the drop down the Lairig an Laoigh did look like the end of the world and I couldn’t see a way up the other side either. Also pretty much the whole way as far as I could see was a boulder field and not easy to get across. So I could’ve got to the top of the drop, not seen any way down and then have to retrace my steps all the way back across the boulders which wouldn’t have been fun and could taken a good hour or two. So with plenty of other hills dotted around I headed back – Beinn a’Chaorainn was going nowhere and could wait for another day.

The view down Glen Derry from the top of Stob Coire Etchachan. The Hutchinson hut clearly visible in the sunshine.

On the way back down to camp Etchachan I wondered how that boulder got on top of that boulder? Also I wondered how my neighbour across the loch with (I think) the same tent didn’t seem to be suffering the same sagging problems as me…

With plenty of time left today getting Ben Macdui and Derry Cairngorm out of the way would make the walk – with pack – down to Braemar much easier tomorrow. So that was now the plan.

Looking back down over Loch Etchachan from the walk up underneath Creagan a’ Choire Etchachan. It was getting warm now as I headed up towards Ben MacDui.

On the way up I paused for a breather by this gap above Coire Sputan Dearg, two young men also paused on their way down. Without saying hello they started moaning about the view! “Not much down there, is there?”, “Nah, couple of crags but that’s it.”, “Not as rugged as the Lakes is it?”. I thought maybe they were climbers looking for good craggy ascents. “All we’ve seen so far is Aviemore and some windmills…”. Hard to please some folk!

The ruins of the Sappers’ Bothy indicated I was nearing the top of Ben Macdui.

The terrain leveled off towards the top, but was very rocky so I hopped and jumped the rest of the way to trig point.

The top of Ben Macdui was chockablock!! Families, ladies’ rugby teams, French people – the world and his wife was up here. Up on the large summit cairn as I was coming down two girls came up, and like the two lads earlier had no time to give me the time of day as I stood to one side to let them pass. They went off to discussing the best spot to catch some rays, and generally nattering loudly as they went.

After a spot of lunch I headed back down the same way I’d came – splendid views in every direction! But the two girls from the top had left about the same time as me, and were 20 yards or so behind… and never stopped talking all the way down. Grrrrr.

As we headed down my plan was to cut across in a west-ish direction to cut the corner a bit and left the two girls behind to carry on chattering away amongst themselves. But when I got towards the bottom of my short-cut to join the Derry Cairngorm path heading south I saw the two girls now ahead of me on the path up to DC! I should’ve just stayed on the path too – I might have been far enough ahead of them to be out of earshot by now. They were studying a map so maybe they were going a different way, dipping down in to the glen perhaps? I passed them but just after that they set off again. And so once again I had them right behind me all the way up Derry Cairngorm, nattering endlessly and pointlessly. Is it just me being a cantankerous old grump or is that really annoying??

Anyways, lots more boulders to hop, skip and jump across and I got to the first of two cairns.

The second one seemed to be the summit, so I had a rest here and made a new friend in the form of a Staffie with a collar saying “Deadly friendly” on it. And so he was! His owner, who was heading off home, on hearing I was camping kindly offered me his rations. A nice pair they were! He was also telling me about how last night he’d stayed in the Hutchinson shelter, and while it was only a few degrees above freezing outside, inside the hut was that crammed and the fire so stacked it was closer to 90 degs! Eventually a couple of lads there couldn’t stand it anymore and although it was late and dark and left to trudge all the way down to Bob Scott to stay there. I think he was in a tent, wisely.

The girls turned up, so I gave it plenty of time at the top for them to disappear off. Which wasn’t too bad as sitting down out of the breeze the top of Derry Cairngorm is a not too bad a place to be.

Clouding over a bit on the way down Derry Gairngorm.

I saw quite a few of these neat round holes in the granite – I wonder how they were formed. Wind and rain I suppose… but how?!

Lots more boulders to skip over and not all of them firmly anchored. Got to look after the ankles! As my campsite came back into view I noticed another tent not far from mine. After the initial annoyance of having a near neighbour I suddenly started worrying that he might have found me lavatory stone, as I hadn’t covered the hole up yet!

On the way down to my as-usual saggy tent I got chatting to a bloke and talk again inevitably turned to midges. I mentioned that my Sainsbury’s insect repellent hadn’t been working too well and he very kindly gave me a squirt of Avon Skin So Soft. It seemed to work pretty well – and it certainly smelled nicer than the Sainsbury’s! My tea that evening was didn’t seem midge free but I’m sure they weren’t biting, so I reckon I’ll be applying my own Skin So Soft on the next trip.

That evening two lads without bags turned up and walked round the entire loch seemingly inspecting the water all the way round in an almost official looking capacity. They disappeared briefly, returned with their packs and set up camp on the other side of the loch, then proceeded to strip off and plunge into the refreshing Ethcachan waters taking nothing with them except for a bar of soap. I think they were foreign. My worries for tomorrow’s drinking water were right now overtaken by my worries about how many of my new neighbours would spend the night providing the rest of us with a cacophony of snoring…

Today’s walk. Top




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