Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Day 39 - Eastern Cairngorms

I began the Cairngorms seeing them as a mental block, and ended them with the most fulfilling several days I’ve yet done.

I’d been looking at the Cairngorms for a while. When I first saw them close to hand at the start of June, they looked like they’d stepped straight out of Antarctica. It was sobering to see. I went on my way ticking off the Grampian Munros in perfect weather, watching snow melting off the Cairngorms, the high stony peaks climbing into blue skies. I had so long to wait until I finally got on them! Would the good weather hold out?

On the 8th June, I’d climbed An Sgarsoch and Carn an Fhidhleir, two Munros still outstanding, and located in the middle of nowhere. I was feeling rushed becuase I had to walk into the Cairngorms that evening. The weather window would end in three day's time - just the amount of time I needed to get through the Cairngorms. Dad and I rushed back to Braemar, got a meal, I typed out a quick blog post (sorry if it showed!) and got gear sorted. Then the clincher: the Cairngorms map was nowhere to be found. Dad needed be heading home – work in the morning. I needed a map quick. The Fife Arms staff couldn’t help, neither could folk at the bar.

The Youth Hostel was the answer. I came out £7 down, happy with a new map, and headed off to Keiloch where dad finally dropped me. After so long looking at the Cairngorms, I was finally going to be on them.

Sunset, Gleann an t-Slugain
With a rucksack bulging and crammed to capacity, I marched off past the old pines into Gleann an t-Slugain. I was speeding to beat the night, (not that there is much nighttime right now) and walked in wonder to the sight of dark pines and sky on fire in the sunset. Deer watched silently from the woods then trotted off. Detail and scale of distant Beinn a' Bhuird was lost among the gathering twilight and curls of wispy mist rolled in across the hills as the light finally failed.

After the long walk in, I settled in at 11pm, candle light shimmering on stone walls, the bothy door shut behind. I cooked a last meal and turned over to sleep.


9 June

The following morning after breakfast, I set off for my first Cairngorm Munro, Ben Avon. The skies were heavy, and a huge black cloud above Beinn a’ Bhuird made me nervous. But I was walking on good paths, all the way to The Sneck, which is the name for the saddle between Ben Avon and Beinn a’ Bhuird. Ben Avon was a popular place, and the atmosphere was suddenly social rather than pleasantly isolated.

Ben Avon summit tor, Leabaidh an Diamh Bhuidhe (try pronounce that!)

Myself and Struan climbed these Munros last year and I was happy to revisit them. They seemed easier this time, which could just be a fitness thing. I was glad to see they were easy walking, lots of flat terrain where I could switch off and go into auto-mode. Beinn a’ Bhuird is a huge, flat mountain with enormous glacially-scooped coires that would repay a lot of further exploration. It's 1197m high: the 11th highest Munro. I've been up it twice and I feel like I've barely scratched the surface.

The advantage of the high mountains is that the terrain tends to get easier the higher you go, the grasses and heather thin out. The walking, especially in the Cairngorms is more akin to walking along a beach since the granite erodes into gravelly balls. Once I'd finished the first two Munros, it seemed an inconvenience to dip back to the heather-clad 900m contour and climb the next two of my day; Beinn Bhreac and Beinn a’ Chaorainn. You have to cross the Moine Bhealaidh to complete these: flat miles of heather, peat hag and grass, with a Munro at either end, each just a rocky swelling. I picked them off in turn, starting with Beinn Bhreac, beginning to tire of the relentless heather plodding. Leaving the rucksack each time was a minor relief, Beinn a’ Chaorainn was a simple formality and I descended back to the rucksack and headed off for the Hutchison Hut.

Dark skies from Beinn a' Chaorainn

There, I met Ian, who was bothying in the Cairngorms with his dog Mallie (named after the bothy!). We shared a lot of good chat, I learned yet more about the Cairngorms. As a range, the Gorms are a slow-burner and the meeting somehow made the trip feel much deeper. I got a real sense of the deep cultural history of these hills, of which I’m always learning more. I understand for the first time how someone could spend a lifetime exploring this range. They're like an island on their own, elevated in altitude from surrounding Scottish mountains. Their character is unique, sometimes inhuman and there is just so much depth.

Hutchison Memorial Hut

Reluctant to break the flowing conversation, I packed my rucksack once more after dinner, and climbed Derry Cairngorm that night. I would regret it in the morning if I didn't, when I already had a big day planned. I climbed directly up from the bothy for Derry Cairngorm, light mist rolling in and out, the evening sun breaking through to give life to the blue mist. I enjoyed the fifth Munro of my day, but ultimately it was a relief to descend to the bothy and be done with hills for the night.

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