The Cairngorms, 40 years on.
Cairn Toul and Sgor an Lochain Uaine from Braeriach
THE rain swept across the deep void of Coire Sputan Dearg like curtains being drawn and I knew that I only had seconds to get my waterproofs on.
Beyond the silvery veil the late afternoon sun was highlighting the rocky features of Cairn Toul, shining through a morass of thunderhead clouds that looked like some mass eruption of boiling vapour. Despite the incipient soaking, I was transfixed by the splendour of it all.
Showers had swept across the Cairngorms all day and in between the sun, shining through great rents in the cloud cover, had deepened the earth tones of late summer and picked out individual features with crystal clarity. Lochan Uaine, one of four green lochans in the Cairngorms, had suddenly changed in colour from quicksilver to translucent blue; patches of blue moss campion shone from the metallic greys of the scree covered slopes and away below me sunbeams swept across the pines of Glen Luibeg like a roving searchlight.
Despite the rain these are the best of days in the Cairngorms, when light and shade contrast sharply and the colours change constantly. I love the theatrical effect of it all. Such days are only challenged by the splendour of winter, when the entire landscape is covered in snow and the low winter sun casts shadows on its ermine surface. But winter brings another element into the Cairngorm experience, an element that heightens awareness and emotions - that of challenge and risk.
While I've always thrilled to that challenge I find it difficult to completely relax in winter conditions. An escapade with an avalanche over thirty years ago reminded me cruelly of my own mortality and I've rarely crossed an open snow slope since then without recalling that distant day and the slim and tenuous link that exists between life and death.
Indeed, my very first experience of the Cairngorms was cloaked in fear and apprehension, the first time I had been aware of such emotions on a mountain, a sensation that had been new, and unwelcome. I had served my hill apprenticeship on the jagged peaks of the west, albeit steep sided hills but rarely more than a couple of miles from a road. Work had taken me to Aberdeen and as soon as I could I packed a rucksack with overnight camping gear, drove to Linn of Dee and visited the Cairngorms for the very first time. I trekked up Glen Luibeg to Derry Lodge, and climbed the Sron Riach ridge of Beinn Macdui, the second highest mountain in the land.
My plan was to cross the high plateau to Cairngorm but no sooner had I passed the old Curran Bothy that once crouched close to Lochan Buidhe (it was demolished in 1975) than I became aware of the sheer enormity of this landscape. Cloud was coming and going in regular drifts and each time the landscape around me was newly revealed it seemed bigger and wider than the time before. Never before had I seen such massive, domed skies, never before had I felt so insignificant as I did that day and never before had I felt so incapable of dealing with it. I felt tired after my long walk-in and my confidence oozed like the stream running out of Lochan Buidhe. I became convinced I couldn't reach Cairn Gorm that day. Instead, I turned tail and scurried down beside the March Burn to the comparative haven of the Lairig Ghru.
I've often pondered on the negative feelings that erupted in me that day, feelings that I've never experienced since. I knew little, if anything, of the legend of Fearlas Mor, the Grey Man of Beinn Macdui, an apparition that had apparently struck fear and alarm in the likes of such experienced individuals as mountaineer Professor Norman Collie and the Scots patriot Wendy Wood. But I was aware that not long before five Edinburgh schoolchildren and their teacher had perished close to the spot where I turned tail. Was there something of their fate still lingering on the bare shores of Lochan Buidhe, some spirit of place that had filtered into my own exploratory enthusiasm, dimming my nascent sense of discovery and wonder that had accompanied me all the way to Macdui's summit and beyond? Or were the Cairngorms, and their reputation, just too much, just too demanding, for this tyro Cairngorm hiker?
I suspect it was the latter because that initial fear and alarm was quickly and effectively submerged by a deep and passionate love affair that has lasted almost as long as my marriage. The Cairngorms National Park is celebrating its thirteenth anniversary this year – I’m celebrating the 43rd anniversary of my introduction to what I now refer to as my 'hills of home’.
Bod an Deamhain (Devil's Point) from Beinn Bhrotain
The night of that first memorable day was spent in a tiny tent on a tundra-like swathe just below the summit of Devils's Point, or more correctly, Bod an Deamhain (try ‘pot-in-john’). I woke in the morning to a high and magnificent landscape that was flooded in early morning sunlight. From somewhere nearby a bird was pouring out a remarkable song and incredibly, about fifty metres away from my tent, stood three rather threadbare and quite ugly reindeers. At that early point in my outdoors career I was barely on acquaintance terms with red deer never mind reindeer and the sight of them was both exotic and bewildering. It was only later that I learned that Mr Utsi from Lapland and his colleague Dr Lindgren were trying to reintroduce reindeer into the Arctic-type landscape of the Cairngorms from their base in Glenmore.
The rest of that day passed in a dream. I climbed Cairn Toul before returning to the head of Coire Odhar where I followed the footpath back towards the little bothy that lay below the steep black slopes of Bod am Deamhaim. Another track followed the River Dee all the way back to Linn of Dee.
It was some years before I climbed Cairn Toul again, but this time from the comforting perspective of experience and familiarity with this high and spectacular mountain range. Some of our finest hills lie well beyond the convenience of roads or tracks and require considerable effort to reach their foot, never mind their summit. Cairn Toul is a good example. Rising in the middle of the Lairig Ghru, that geological slash that cuts through the heart of the central Cairngorms, its ascent requires a long walk-in from any direction, but, as with most isolated hills, the extra effort is worth it for that extra dimension of inaccessibility.
Cairn Toul, the ‘hill of the barn,’ is certainly one of the more shapely and elegant Cairngorms, despite its name. With its double-topped summit ridge thrown up by the apex of three well-sculpted corries its ascent is usually tacked on to the high level traverse of Braeriach and Sgor an Lochain Uaine (I refuse to call it Angel’s Peak as the OS suggests. Try ‘skoor an lochan oo-anya’ – what sounds better?) from the north, or from Coire Odhar in the south. Great routes as these are, Cairn Toul is worthy of a day dedicated to it alone.
It was, indeed, a long walk-in. Four hours to be exact from the Sugar Bowl car park on the Glenmore-Cairn Gorm road via the boulder-strewn Chalamain Gap and the Lairig Ghru. Four hours of hard walking and I was only at the foot of the An Garbh Choire, working out how to make my way up through an intricate maze of granite slabs and buttresses.
The plan was simple enough - to climb up into the mountain’s Coire Lochan Uaine, then continue to the summit by it’s north ridge, but as I stood at the foot of the hill and gazed up at the slopes that led to its upper corrie I couldn’t help feel both dwarfed and intimidated by the audacious scale of things. The An Garbh Choire is one of the biggest corries in Scotland and the sense of spaciousness, allied to the steepness of the ground before me, almost gave me second thoughts about attempting it.
It can be very disconcerting climbing a slope that lies only inches from your nose, but this kind of scrambling does heighten the senses, and makes you climb very carefully. A wriggling route led past rocky outcrops and all the time I was aware of a steep rock band looming down from the top of the slope. My salvation lay in the hope that there would be an easy ramp traversing below it onto the lip of the corrie. If there wasn’t I would probably have to reverse the route I’d come, and I wasn’t sure if I could do that.
The sense of relief and exhilaration when I pulled myself up between two outcrops to see a long easy- angled slab run below the black rock band was overwhelming. In no time at all I reached the corrie’s lip, rejoicing in the sheer mountain splendour of the place. A light breeze rippled the black waters of the corrie lochan, a steep ridge rose to the sharp peak of Sgor an Lochan Uaine and behind me the steep walls of the An Garbh Choire restrained this elemental world of rock, water and air. To say I floated up the rest of the route might be poetic exaggeration, but by this time the endorphins were in full flow – I was on a natural high.
I wish it lasted the rest of the day, but the descent to the Lairig Ghru was laborious and the long walk back exhausting. I had used up my reserves and it was a weary hill-walker who eventually limped into the car park in the gloom of evening. Long walk-ins are great – long walk-outs less so…
On the morning of that first wonderful camp in the Cairngorms I had been greeted by an audacious outpouring of song from a little bird that I couldn't identify. It was to be some years before I learned it has been the spring song of the cock snow bunting, as wonderful a sound as you'll hear anywhere.
Loch Avon from the Cairngorm plateau
Some years later my son and I had been making our way into Coire an t-Sneachda, the snowy corrie where three large pools reflected the Cyclopean masonry of the headwall beyond. From the largest of the pools, a slanting pathway climbs the rocky slopes to a notch in the headwall. It’s a rough, steep, loose, scree-girt trail, with some very mild scrambling thrown in for good measure.
It was near the top of the headwall that our little Arctic visitor made himself known. A comparatively rare breeder in Scotland, the snow bunting is a true lover of the high and lonely places, a black and white fleck of beauty to be seen against this wind-scoured landscape.
Rising from the screes the bird rapidly beats his white wings until twenty feet or so above the ground. Then, fluttering his outstretched wings like a skylark he glides earthwards again with an explosive and intense song. The music continues as he lands, wings upstretched, and as he closes his wings the outpouring of song becomes a cry, a moving and powerful anthem to these Arctic surroundings.
It’s the triumphant chord the snow bunting strikes that is both moving and encouraging and has the capacity for re-focusing the jaded eye. I’ve no idea how many times I’ve climbed up this Goat Track through Coire an t-Sneachda and made my way across the plateau towards Ben Macdhui. I’ve now lost count how often I’ve wandered in a desultory way over these high and lonely mountain tops, but something as naturally simple as the song of a snow bunting has the capacity to re-stimulate an element of awe at this, the highest tableland in the UK.
My son Gregor was keen to make the most of a visit home to photograph some of the classic views of the Cairngorms, so we tracked across the upper slopes of Coire Domhain to cross the chortling Feith Bhuidhe before it crashed down over the red granite slabs that form the headwalls of Glen Avon. Photographed, at a low angle, through the crashing waters, the view of Loch Avon in its mountain setting is for me, one of the finest scenes in Scotland.
Further round the headwall we dropped down into the bergschrund between the remains of the winter snowpack and the granite walls of the upper corrie. It was fun tracing a route along the line of the bergschrund, a wonderful form of ice caving where the deep, glistening blues of the ice contrast with the gnarly rough red of the granite slabs - a photographer’s delight.
A long but easy climb took us to Ben Macdui’s north summit where it was only a few minutes to the elevated trig point of Britain’s second highest mountain. I love this place. I love its spaciousness, I love its vast, open skies, I love how it drops abruptly into the deep chasm of the Lairig Ghru, I love its views that can be as widespread as Morven in Caithness to the Lammermuirs in Lothian.
We made our return by Creag an Leth-choin, to photograph the deep cleft of the Lairig Ghru, and wonder at the miscroscopic beauty of moss campion and dwarf cudweed, the wee brother of the edelweiss. In that wonder there was an instinctive recognition of the existence of order, a determined pattern behind the behaviour of things, a celebration of order and harmony. For those few hours we had felt part of it.
And in many ways I guess that’s the fundamental issue in my personal relationship with these marvelous hills. It’s a sense of belonging, mixed with the more tangible senses of familiarity and appreciation. In some years I may only tramp these high hills three or four times, in others three or four times a month, yet I never feel like a stranger. It's a comforting thought…
A family of reindeer grazing on the Moine Mhor