Covid dreams 20: The breathtaking places

There are some places that are simply breathtaking. Loch Avon, in its deep, rocky-sided trench, is one of them. From most approaches it appears suddenly: a jewel in a perfect setting. There are so many viewpoints around the cirque of mountains which surround the loch that offer heartstopping views, but this, coming over from Loch Etchachan – itself a precious gem – is one of my favourites.

This spring day was particularly fine. The water was a vivid blue under the sunshine and the rocks and snow-streaked hills seemed etched in crystal detail. There was an intensity to the world in that space which demanded attention, and I sat for a long time, just gazing at the views and breathing in the memory of a day that would not fade.

The views? Plural? Oh yes. I remember seeing a website which contrasted common iconic tourist views with photos taken from another viewpoint: the Mona Lisa and the packed bodies, the lions stalking the Veltd and the convoys of four-wheel-drive tourist buses, the Great Pyramid and the Sphinx and, with a slight twist of viewpoint, the modern city they sit in the suburbs of.  But here, gazing down on Loch Avon, you can turn your head with impunity. For, behind you, that view will also take your breath away. There are some places that really are special.

A series of Covid dreams. Just a photo or two from the archives and a few words: memories of the Cairngorms to stay in the heart while we’re kept away from the hills.

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Covid dreams 19: The carefree days

‘Lithgae’ Jim Wright is caught mid-leap. A hill from the daft days. A hill started by walking away and sneaking round the back. A hill climbed by hiding from the views until the last.

If you want to climb Beinn a Chaorainn then follow the route from the Munros books. It’s sensible. Or follow the stravaiger’s way, the way that doesn’t make the sensible choices, the way that makes choices because they’re not sensible.

We went to climb a hill that day, but it wasn’t really about the top, nor yet the view. It was about the laughs and the craic, leaping the burn from bank to bank, scrambling up the ravine we could have avoided, staying for the rocky steps in the stream.

It was the Allt an Aghaidh Mhilis – burn of the sweet face – and we got the tip-off from Ronald Turnbull’s excellent wee Cicerone Guide to walks and scrambles in the Cairngorms.

Daft route up a hill really. Try it someday.

 

A series of Covid dreams. Just a photo or two from the archives and a few words: memories of the Cairngorms to stay in the heart while we’re kept away from the hills.

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Covid Dreams 18: Traverse of the Gods

It’s one of the most magnificent panoramas and one of the finest walks in Scotland, from Cairn Toul round to Braeriach.  Six kilometres of almost continuous cliff runs between the two summits, broken by only a handful of routes where a capable and level headed walker can travel between corrie and plateau.

Walking the skyline is walking a tightrope between the vertiginous drop of rough, granite cliffs on one side and the expanse of desert tundra on the other. The cliffs have the attraction of photogenic drama and excitement, but the sandy, boulder-strewn plateau, trackless and seemingly featureless, has its own pull. And wanderers will be rewarded, both in the wandering itself and if they aim for a spot between the low rises of Carn na Criche and Einich Cairn to find the Wells of Dee, where the crystal clear waters that will become the River Dee spring from a mossy flush in the barren ground, the stream growing faster than you might believe at such a height to rush with impressive force over the edge of the plateau and into the Garbh Coire Daidh before running into its own glen and on to join the sea as a major river at Aberdeen.

The Cairn Toul-Braeriach traverse is one of the great plums of walking routes in Britain. It offers rewards in all seasons, all weathers, but for a first visit chose a day that promises blue skies and memories that will go on forever.

 

A series of Covid dreams. Just a photo or two from the archives and a few words: memories of the Cairngorms to stay in the heart while we’re kept away from the hills.

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Covid Dreams 17: Where sky and mountains meet

What jumps out first is the cloud-dappled sky… until you realise there’s land where there could be none and there’s a momentary sense of dislocation until you realise it’s not sky, nor even the reflection of clouds, but a frozen loch in the process of thawing.

It’s Loch Etchachan, April 2019. I’d set off planning to go over by Loch Etchachan to Loch Avon, and was looking down onto Loch Avon when I decided I was too lazy to go down there and climb back up again. So instead I ended up with a longer walk, climbing up the side of Carn Etchachan and following the ridge up onto Ben Macdui at the head of the Tailors’ Burn, which I followed down to Glen Dee before heading back through the glen to Bob Scott’s, a stravaig across hills led by whim rather than plan.

It was while I was climbing the steep rib up onto Carn Etchachan that I noticed how the thawing of the ice on the loch resembled clouds in a blue sky. The second photo shows more of the loch and even though the surrounding landscape gives more context the illusion of clouds is still strong.

A series of Covid dreams. Just a photo or two from the archives and a few words: memories of the Cairngorms to stay in the heart while we’re kept away from the hills.

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Covid Dreams 16: Vertical pleasures

Another dip into the past, going back to 1996, when Colin McGregor and I climbed Squareface, the classic V Diff route in the Garbh Choire of Beinn a Bhuird. The angle is deceptive here – it’s always hard to capture the true angle when climber and photographer are on the same rope – as nowhere did this route seem harder than its grade.

From below the flat-faced buttress towering above looks intimidating – indeed, I had ‘a moment’ before we started, and Colin cut short lunch to leave me no more time to talk myself out of it. But once started this was a delight the whole way, full of variety. It wanders about the face, between the centre and the edges, but the line is always obvious, with blocky grooves, slabs, cracks, traverses and that delightful layback Colin is pictured on. You can’t see his face well, but he has a huge, delighted grin; as we climbed it had started drizzling, and we were both a little concerned, but the rock remained grippy enough to be a joy to climb and he was within sight of the top, an almost cartoon finish where cliff transitions to flat at almost right angles, with no gradual easing.

In the second photo you can just make out  a figure at the top of the route. This was a couple who had started out behind us. Possibly also concerned at the approaching rain, the leader had joined pitches two and three together in one run-out. When he reached the top and belayed we heard him shout “Taking in!” and almost immediately the cry “That’s me!” came from below: he had made it with no more than a couple of feet of rope to spare. In the event the rain and distant rumbles of thunder came to nothing and we got back to the Secret Howff dry – and immensely satisfied.

 

A series of Covid dreams. Just a photo or two from the archives and a few words: memories of the Cairngorms to stay in the heart while we’re kept away from the hills.

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Covid Dreams 15: Glory and madness

It’s hardly seasonal but what the heck. This must be close on 30 years ago but I remember still how blown away we were by the sheer, in your face glory of it all. I don’t recall why we weren’t climbing – in those days it was all about climbing, and we had been set on Coire an t-Sneachda, where we climbed on the Sunday – but however it happened we were out for a walk. Up over the Fiacaill a Choire Chais and down Coire Raibeirt to a completely white Loch Avon.

It had been one of those great, blue-sky winter days from the start, and as we emerged from the gully of Coire Raibeirt the view that opened up was breathtaking. The loch was frozen and snow-covered from end to end – and there was a set of prints right up the middle.

We were younger then and, as barely competent winter climbers, accustomed to taking what I’d now look on as rash decisions. So we went out to join those tracks. The edges needed treating with care, but out in the middle of the loch, where we went, the snow was about six inches deep over ice that felt solid. At one point curiosity overcame any remnant of reason and I took my axe to the ice to see how thick it was. I was down about another six inches before water started to rise through. Thick enough? Probably not, but we got off with it that day.

We walked right up the middle of the loch, surrounded by some of the most magnificent scenery in Scotland: great cliffs soaring – Carn Etchachan; the mighty column of An Sticil, the Shelterstone Crag; the Garbh Uisge crag; great, slab-faced Hell’s Lum Crag; and the aretes and faces of Stag Rocks – all of them striking black against the billowing snow which softened the contours and gleamed blinding white in the sunlight, the whole spectacle capped with a ceiling of blue more intense than can ever be conveyed in a fading photo.

It was stupid. But it was glorious. We were in heaven that day.

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Covid Dreams 14: Light in Glen Derry

I love the light in this photograph: the clarity of the air, the glow of the sunlit pines; in the distance, the cloud thinning and lifting to reveal a first dusting of snow on the tops, the sun catching the  clean, cold whiteness fringing the cliffs above Lochan Uaine.

November gets such a bad reputation for being grey, wet and dismal but on the right day the sharpness in the air from winter’s first tentative forays is matched by a sharpness of vision and colours to catch at your heart.  And Glen Derry is the perfect stage for this autumnal show. Great Caledonian pines which grew before deer became king in these mountains, and new seedlings thrusting through the undergrowth since the deer were deposed; the long, straight cut of the glen through towards the pyramid cliffs of Sgurr an Lochan Uaine and Stob Coire Etchachan.

This photo was taken in November, but looking at it here I imagine standing in these woods just now and listening to the spring birdsong, or standing in lush grass under the shade of these great trees on a hot summer’s day, the smell of resin after a summer shower. A glen for all seasons.

A series of Covid dreams. Just a photo or two from the archives and a few words: memories of the Cairngorms to stay in the heart while we’re kept away from the hills.

Posted in Stravaiging, Topography | Tagged | 3 Comments