Cairngorm National Park recognition for bothies

Bert Barnett (left) and Kenny Freeman with commendation certificate for three Cairngorm bothies in CNP Design Awards 2016

Bert Barnett (left) and Kenny Freeman with the Commendation Certificate

The skill, hard work and dedication of many Cairngorm bothy volunteers was recognised at the Cairngorms National Park Design Awards this week.

Three of the area’s bothies, all renovated since the last design awards in the Park, were nominated. Although they lost out in the ‘Place-making’ category to Am Fasgadh at the Highland Folk Museum, Newtonmore, the three bothies – Corrour, Hutchison and Bob Scott’s – received a group commendation from the judges.

Celebrating Scotland’s Year of Innovation, Architecture and Design, the 2016 Cairngorms National Park Design Awards aimed to recognise exceptional standards of design and craftsmanship in the Park.

While the entries – and the prizes – were dominated by architect-led projects, the appearance of the bothies even in the shortlist was an achievement; to receive a commendation in the face of such professional competition was particularly gratifying.

Bob Scott's Bothy in the Cairngorms

Bob Scott’s Bothy

Bob Scott’s Bothy was nominated on the basis of its rebirth as a community project when it was rebuilt in 2005 after a disastrous fire. The hill walking and climbing community – past and present – and the local community up and down Deeside all became involved in creating a bothy designed to high visual and ecological standards. Playing an important part in the mountaineering heritage of the Cairngorms, it also benefits the local environment through the provision of toilet facilities and relieving pressure on camping in the surrounding area.

Corrour Bothy in the Lairig Ghru, Cairngorms

Corrour Bothy 

Corrour’s nomination was based on its extensive renovation over 2007-8 which turned an unwelcoming stone box into a first class resource with high standards of insulation and construction, with a sympathetically designed toilet extension which has led to a massive improvement in the ecology of the immediate surroundings and the wider area of the Lairig Ghru and Glen Dee.

Hutchison Memorial Hut in Coire Etchachan, Cairngorms. Hutchison bothy

The Hutchison Hut

In the case of the Hutchison Memorial Hut, the 2012 renovation transformed another cold and drafty howff into a much improved, wood-lined and insulated bothy, maintaining the original character while delivering major improvements, including a stove and storm porch, ensuring that the bothy can be used throughout the year and has been appreciated by mountain rescue teams as well as walkers and climbers.

All three bothies have played – and still play – important roles in the heritage of the Cairngorms and the renovations have recognised this and preserved all that was good while improving standards and ensuring the buildings will prove of value well into the future.

They were nominated by Kenny Freeman and his daughter Elaine, who have both been involved in work on the bothies, Kenny being the project manager for all three renovations as well as many other bothy projects in the Cairngorms. Kenny was accompanied at the awards ceremony in Boat of Garten on 14th November by Bert Barnett, who has drawn up plans for just about every Cairngorm project over the last decade and played a role as invaluable as the volunteers with more obvious contributions such as sawing wood and banging in nails.

A win would have been nice but, given the professional nature of the competition, the commendation is a much appreciated – and well earned – recognition by the Cairngorms National Park of the valuable contribution made by the volunteers who built, renovate and maintain an excellent suite of bothies for the use of all who walk and climb in the Cairngorms.

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A sense of wonder

Ben McDui in winter, Cairngorms

Sun cloud and snow on Ben Mc Dui

There were so many reasons not to be out there this day. On the ground the first big dump of snow of the winter had come, but the inevitable thaw had started already and on the way up Glen Derry I had been wading up a fast flowing path for half a mile at a time – not to mention a tenuous crossing of the Glas Allt Mhor. In the sky the forecast was equivocal: probably some showers, cloud at that height that could be just above or just below the tops. A few of my mates were elsewhere for a work party too, with good times guaranteed.

And there I was laboriously post-holing through thawing snow to reach the Hutchison Hut in Coire Etchachan, with the tops still in cloud, not at all sure I’d be going any further at all, let along the original target of Ben McDui.

I’d a notion to get up something though and, after refuelling at the Hutchie I set off to at least go up as far as Loch Etchachan, and possibly do Derry Cairngorm as a consolation.

On the way up the snow did improve underfoot, but near the top of the slope a look across to the south-facing slopes of Beinn Mheadhoinn showed evidence of what must be one of the first avalanches of the season: a 20 metre wide full-depth slab avalanche with the debris spread out about 100 metres downhill.

Avalanche scar on Beinn Mheadhoinn, Cairngorms

Avalanche scar and debris on Beinn Mheadhoinn

Past Loch Etchachan I was still thinking of opting for Derry Cairngorm instead of McDui until I stopped to watch an eagle rising out of Coire Sputain Dearg and cruising across to Beinn Mheadhoinn and beyond. After watching that I paused to survey the scene, realising the sense of utter remoteness, looking round from the black waters of Loch Etchachan, over the black and white of the cliffs rising to the south of the loch and over them towards the north top of McDui almost free of cloud. I recall opining that this place, at that time was the best place in the world. And so it seemed. And it was decided that Ben Mcdui  was to be my journey: where Derry Cairngorm was all about the summit, McDui is a whole world of its own, all about the journey rather than the destination.

Loch Etchachan and Ben McDui in winter

Remoteness

With that decision came the real start of the day: a day of beauty and of marvels, of immersion in  the landscape, of feeling completely at home, utterly happy in an uncompromising environment which, that day, was so filled with a beauty that was almost painful.

Two sets of recent footprints were the only sign that anyone was in this world of snow and – increasingly – of cloud. The lowest level of cloud had dropped once more onto the summit as I neared the Sappers’ Bothy and only lifted to just above my head as I reached a deserted summit cairn. There I saw my second eagle of the day, rising out of the Lairig and gliding northward, blithely ignoring anything the wind might be doing.

There wasn’t much in the way of view to keep me at the top but as I headed back towards the top of Sron Riach for the descent there was an ever-changing light show as the wind tore holes in the lowest, amorphous later of cloud to reveal myriad layers and forms of cloud above, backed with a startlingly blue sky. The sun would occasionally break free, dazzling the eye with an intense white glare from the snow, fringing high cloud with shimmering rainbow. Other times, veiled behind thin cloud it cast a golden glow over the snow. I looked across to the col between Beinn Bhrotain and Monadh Mor and saw a tunnel under the cloud cap, through which there was an intense golden glow, with a shaft of sunshine thrusting down into Glen Guiseachan.

img_9829img_9841img_9844img_9845img_9851img_9852img_9855Light and colour was in constant flux and I would stop to take out the camera to catch a view. By the time camera was out and thick glove off the scene had changed; I’d take a shot anyway, put the camera away and then take it out again almost immediately as an even more wonderful sight emerged. For all the bitter wind I would find myself standing still for minutes at a time, feeling a stillness, lost in a sense of wonder that delivered in equal parts peace and exhilaration.

By the time I was plunging down the perfectly textured, softly golden snow on the upper slopes of Sron Riach it was almost a relief when the switch was flicked and the light went out. Not immediately, but almost. The sun had finally lowered behind thick, grey cloud to the west and all the splendour and subtlety of the colours in sky and snow disappeared over the course of a couple of minutes, leaving the familiar winter colour scheme of black, white and grey, albeit with a sky that was still blue and distant clouds in the east showing a peachy, rosy glow.

The show almost - but not quite - over. Looking back up to the cliffs above Lochain Uaine from Sron Riach.

The show almost – but not quite – over. Looking back up to the cliffs above Lochain Uaine from Sron Riach.

The snow meant the normally knee-jarring descent was almost pleasant, and I was down into the glen before you could really call it dark… when I got my final treat: an almost full moon breaking free from the cloud, lighting the track back to Scottie’s and home. I only needed the head torch for crossing the bogs on the Derry Flats. A day – and a night – with a real sense of wonder. It’s why we do it.

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Derry bridge here to stay – and a new bridge for the Quoich

New Derry Burn footbridge near Derry Lodge, Cairngorms

Erected as a stopgap, the Derry Burn footbridge will now be a permanent feature

Last year’s ‘temporary’ bridge over the Derry Burn, near Derry Lodge, has now become permanent. And a new footpath is to be developed going around – rather than across – the Derry Flats.

ScotWays, the Scottish Rights of Way and Access Society, donated the footbridge to Mar Lodge Estate last April, as a temporary replacement for the bridge destroyed by floods the previous August.

The original plan was for this bridge to stay in place until a permanent replacement had been built but after the New Year floods at the end of 2015 left the bridge still in place, and after other options had been considered, ScotWays and Mar Lodge Estate have agreed to make this the permanent bridge.

ScotWays is keen that the banking is reinforced and the abutments strengthened – although the bridge was untouched by the last floods, the western bank was further eroded – and has also said it will fund construction of a new footbridge across the upper Quoich, which is expected to be in place by the end of November.

Both bridges will feature memorial plaques to Donald Bennet, a prominent member of the Scottish Mountaineering Club, founding member of the Mountaineering Council of Scotland and, at various times, Director, Chairman and Honorary President of ScotWays. He will be best known to most, though, as author of numerous books, including the SMC’s definitive Munro and Corbett guides. He died in 2013, aged 84.

Any funds left over after the two bridges are built will be used to divert the path that currently traverses the boggy Derry Flats, taking it down the west bank of the Derry Burn and then up the north bank of the Luibeg to join the existing path where it becomes a ‘made’ track at the corner of the plantation. This has been a long-held ambition for the estate, not only giving walkers a drier journey, but also taking them further away from the Black Grouse lecking ground on the Flats.

(Incidentally, if you’re curious about the strange triangular metal spans of the Derry Bridge, they started life as a radio mast. A great example of recycling.)

 

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‘Finniscoor’: an endless feast

Sgor Mor from Carn Crom, Cairngorms

Sgor Mor from Carn Crom. From some elevations the long ridge looks quite dramatic, but mostly it’s the most unprepossessing of hills.

When I was a bairn my father and uncle referred to it as Finniscoor, having picked that name up from some of the local keepers. Properly, Feith na Sgor (bog stream of the peaks) is the large, open corrie to the south of the Sgor Mor-Sgor Dubh ridge, which well lives up to its name, and if people these days refer to the hill at all (it’s a Corbett, so people do climb it) it’s simply as Sgor Mor.

Anyway, I’ve had a fondness for this little regarded hill for many years, and was quite pleased to see one of its rock features crop up on twitter recently – one of several near perfectly round rock basins to be found near the summit. Honestly, they’re worth the climb just to see them alone, but they’re like so much of this hill: delights to be seen through close examination rather than from afar.

basin-like rock formations near summit of Sgot Mor, Cairngorms

The round rock ‘basins’ near the summit of Sgor Mor. Each is about 18 inches across and flat bottomed.

Yet even when they climb it, most people seem to skim the proverbial surface. The views, especially looking north into the main Cairngorm hills, are superb, as is the case with many a smaller hill, and many may appreciate the relatively easy going between the main Sgor Mor top and the slightly lower Sgor Dubh, but it’s a hill that tends to be climbed, traversed and descended by the same linear route, leaving so much unexplored. For me, though, my acquaintance began with a treasure hunt and has continued that way ever since.

Ben MacDui from Sgor Mor, Cairngorms

Sgor Mor is ideally placed for views into the western and central massifs of the Cairngorms. Here you’re looking across the shoulder of Carn Crom on the right and Carn a Mhaim on the left to Ben MacDui, with Braeriach in the background.

I first became aware of Sgor Mor through a trip with my father, looking for a bottle of paraffin he’d left in a cleft in the rocks at Creag Phadruig there way back in the late 1940s. He always claimed that he and his pal Bruce (I forget the second name) would sometimes take a ‘short-cut’ over Finniscoor to camp at the Robbers’ Copse, and on one of these occasions they had stashed a glass demijohn of paraffin to save weight. Long gone, of course, but back then in the late ’60s we enjoyed poking around in the broken rocky outcrops above the track west of Linn of Dee, all the time convinced we were about to strike it lucky. I confess, I’ve had a kick around that area a few times since.

Many years later a friend took me up on that hillside promising to show me something. We walked scarcely more than 10 minutes from the Linn of Dee then started up the hillside, stopping after a rough climb just before a very large boulder.

“We’re here,” he said.

“Where?” said I.

“Look at your feet,” said he.

And there, at my feet, was a Lilliputian door in a recess under the rock. Lifting the door away, we crawled into a cave large enough for three adults to sit or  sleep (if not to actually stand). The sides were built up with rocks cemented into place and the perfect wooden floor a work of art. It was a great howff, handy for a late drive up and I was saddened a few years later to find, arriving on a dark and drizzly night, to discover someone had broken down the walls and burnt out the floor.

(Proving what a small world it is, some years after that I discovered that it had been one of the Cairngorm bothy crew – Kenny Freeman – who had constructed it.)

Ruined howff near Linn of Dee, Cairngorms

All that’s left of Kenny’s Howff. You can see the burnt out wooden floor, but the walls have been destroyed. Entry was by crawling in at the front.

If you walk past the site of the former howff and the mythical paraffin stash, you come on two or three gullies disappearing up the hillside. I now know that down in the Lake District there are many who specialise in ‘gill scrambling’ but so many years ago it was just curiosity that led me up one of these gullies rather than any notion it was something people do. I found a rose. A rose in bloom no less. Yellow and a cultivated variety rather than wild, so who knows how it got there. It was a freak, but the whole environment in the sometimes precipitous, steep-sided gully was markedly different from that ‘outside’ on the lightly forested open hillside.

That day I kept in the groove until the angle leaned back and the banks lowered in height until I could see over the sides, looking out onto the real Feith na Sgor, a great, wide, shallow corrie. I stayed at the banks of the Allt nan Leum Eassainn until the last climb up to the spine of the hill, as so often finding the banks of a burn the driest and firmest route through boggy ground.

More recently, on the north of the hill, I’ve followed the Allt a Choire Duibh, not so steep but still offering some entertaining scrambling up the rocky stream bed and with the benefit of those superb views into the main Cairngorms, evolving as height  is gained.

Rocky slabs in the Allt a Choire Duibh on Sgor Mor, Cairngorms

The Allt a Choire Duibh offers some entertaining scrambles in the lower reaches

Carn a Mhaim and Ben MacDui from Sgor Mor, Cairngorms

…and always those great views behind. This is looking up past the east face of Carn a Mhaim to Sron Riach and Coire Sputan Dearg of Ben MacDui

You could follow the burn right up to the rather boggy col between the main top and the irresistable rocky subsidiary of Creagan nan Gabhar (no goats there for many a year though), but I was tempted by a steep heather fight up to the ridge near the top.

And that ridge is a curiosity: a dry gravelly spine sandwiched between two bogs and punctuated by granite outcrops, some big enough to tempt the adventurous into some bouldering fun and collectively giving the ridge a deceivingly dramatic profile from the north.

Another piece of deception is Creag Dhoin, the slabby ribs in the wide corrie overlooking the road between Black Bridge and Derry Lodge, giving the hill a freshly scraped look as through the glaciers had not long passed.

Rocky ribs on Sgor Dubh, Glen Lui, Cairngorms

Looking across the slabby ribs overlooking the Derry Lodge road

In fact when you get up amongst them, they lean back considerably and many can be walked up. One or two of the most westerly might offer some interesting bouldering for the determined, but mainly it’s just an interesting area to wander about it.

Rocky slab overlooking Glen Lui on Sgor Dubh, Cairngorms

This slab might give some bouldering, although the steep slope at the bottom means a fall might end up a good way below the rock!

Grass 'cigar' shape found on Sgor Dubh, Cairngorms

Perhaps more interesting than the slab above was this cigar of tightly rolled grass, found on the steep grassy slope below the rock. Never did figure an explanation for it, but there were several others like it.

Next time I’m up there I hope to follow what appears like a horizontal fault line making a natural traverse across the corrie. I may well get distracted (it’s happened before) but there’s a large and forbiddingly steep crag in a hidden gully to the east of the ribs which I’d like another look at too. We’ll see. The great thing about ‘Finniscoor’ is that half a century after falling into a gravel quarry at its foot on my first ever visit to the Cairngorms there are still bits I want to explore. And the great thing about the Cairngorms is that Finniscoor, Feith na Sgor, Sgor Mor, however you want to call it, is only one such hill of many. There is no end to the possibilities.

View of Glen Luibeg from Sgor Dubh, Cairngorms

The view into Glen Luibeg

Luibeg Cottage, Glen Lui, Cairngorms

Looking down on a tiny Luibeg Cottage, once home of Bob Scott and site of the original Luibeg Bothy

Sundew in bog on Sgor Mor, Cairngorms

The abundance of boggy ground on the hill makes it an ideal hill to go looking for the carnivorous Sundew

Butterwort, on Sgor Mor

…and Butterwort, another carnivore

Divers botany on Sgor Mor

A slightly drier spot and more plants than I’d care to try and identify

Rushes on Sgor Mor, Cairngorms

Up near the plateau these clumps of rushes make fascinating rosette patterns

Rock basin near summit of Sgot Mor, Cairngorms

And finally, another look at one of the summit rock basins. I’d love to hear a convincing explanation of how these are formed: in the meantime we’ll have to stay with the notion that they were carved out by fastidious fairy folk.

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Crystals on show at Braemar Castle

If you’ve ever wondered what a Cairngorm crystal looks like in the flesh – so to speak – there’s a display of the raw and finished stones at Braemar Castle this season.

Roy Starkey, author of  Crystal Mountains (reviewed here) has put together an exhibition of Cairngorm gemstones, which features a selection of jewellery, lots of information about the stones and their history, and three of the largest surviving crystals of Cairngorm quartz, not normally on display to the public.

information and crystal display at Braemar Castle, CairngormsCairngorm stones on display in Braemar Castle, CairngormsThe display will run until October.

Braemar Castle is well worth a visit in its own right, of course.

Built in 1628 as an L-shaped tower, it was primarily a hunting lodge for the Earls of Mar, replacing the earlier 11th century castle, the ruins of which can be seen in the village.

The castle was burnt down by the Jacobites in 1689 to prevent government forces using it. It was still in ruins at the 1715 rebellion,  when the clans gathered in Braemar, but was taken over by John Farquharson in 1732. After the last Jacobite rising in 1745 he leased it to the British Army, who repaired the building and garrisoned it to quell any further thoughts of rebellion. The garrison remained some time after it was needed, and it wasn’t until 1831 that it returned to the Farquharson family.

These days it’s run as a tourist attraction by Braemar volunteers.

Braemar Castle, Cairngorms

Braemar Castle

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Under the summer snows

View out of entrance of ice tunnel on Feith Buidhe slabs, Ben Macdui, Cairngorms

The Shelter Stone Crag and Stacan Dubha from inside one of the Feith Buidhe ice tunnels

At last – the fabled ice tunnels of the Feith Buidhe slabs.

It was a long journey. About a month ago I’d been over in that area with a friend and climbed from Loch Avon to the plateau and Carn Etchachan via the steep slopes to the east of the Garbh Uisge. Then, just after, I was reminded of the Feith Buidhe snow and ice tunnels when that chronicler of Scotland’s summer snows, Iain Cameron, posted some pictures of tunnels formed by meltwater streams running under the the large snow patch on the Feith Buidhe slabs.

So two weeks later I was back again, this time descending onto the slabs from the plateau. I saw one collapsed tunnel but nothing I could get inside without a very tight and claustrophobic crawl between wet rock and tons of ice, a prospect as unattractive as it was unsafe. It was a fascinating visit all the same, and I wrote about this summer snow on Macdui in my last blogpost… and within days heard back from Iain Cameron with a link to some photos someone had just taken of the snow tunnels I’d missed. There had been two parts to the snow patch on the slabs; I’d explored the larger, upper section, but hadn’t descended the slabs far enough to look along the smaller section on the right, which appeared to be just a wee tail to the main event. (Although a photo I took as I walked away shows quite clear indications, in retrospect, that there were probably tunnels there.)

Feith Buidhe snow patch, Ben MacDui

Zoomed in on a distant view of the right hand side of the Feith Buidhe snow patch. You can see clearly the tunnel mouths along the bottom edge

So here I was, the following weekend, after a wet walk up Glen Derry and over by Loch Etchachan, heading down towards the Shelter Stone in the Loch Avon basin and coming into sight of a distant patch of snow high up  on the headwall to the left of the Hell’s Lum Crag. Even from that distance I could see tunnel mouths fringing the bottom edge of the right hand section. It was a long walk though, to get down to the glen floor and then climb back up, first following the Coire Domhain path then breaking away for the steep, rough, boggy climb up below Hell’s Lum and alongside the Feith Buidhe, crossing the stream just level with the foot of the cliffs onto a level tier of the slabs on the south bank. Bizarrely, though the Hell’s Lum cliffs were several hundred feet higher, the stepped slabs ahead of me now were the ones which made me feel small. Perhaps it’s the very fact that they are stepped and that the steps are four or five feet high, with 20 foot high walls, that gives the feeling of being a midget in a world made too large.

It’s easy to make progress on these slabs though: set at an angle that allows hands-free walking, the steps are angled into each other so that you can traverse from side to side and  zigzag upwards – which I did to reach the higher tier where the snow lay, with a row of half a dozen or more tunnels, the largest of which was up to six feet high, though steady melting meant they were only about 20 or 30 feet in length, with a bergschrund that was maybe 15 to 20 feet (which vagueness tells you I didn’t have any measuring device with me).

It’s an interesting experience entering one of these tunnels. You can put your hood up to fend off the constant dripping from the roof but you do become very aware of the mass of rock-hard ice arched over your head. I was even more aware of this natural engineering feat as I entered the largest tunnel and, halfway through, looked to my right and realised that there was a great gap through to the next-door tunnel, making a worryingly large area of unsupported roof. I couldn’t help it though – I had to crouch and crab-crawl through ‘next door’, where I was rewarded with the sight of a translucent blue skylight where the roof had grown almost thin enough to open into a hole.

Inside snow tunnel on Feith Buidhe slabs, Cairngorms

Inside the largest tunnel

Bergschrund behind snow tunnel on Feith Buidhe slabs, Ben Macdui

Looking up out of the bergschrund at the back of the snow patch – maybe about 15 feet deep.

Polygonal tunnels and blue translucence in one of the Feith Buidhe ice tunnels, Cairngorms

Near the entrance of this tunnel the roof is so thin it glows a translucent blue. This photo shows well the polygonal hollows which characterise the tunnel and overhang roofs. Near front and back of the tunnels the crests between the hollows are outlines in black plant debris

tunnel mouths in snow patch on Feith Buidhe slabs, Cairngorms

Like a row of hobbit doorways

Lots to see and wonder about – not least how those polygonal hollows outlined by plant debris form in the tunnel roofs – but eventually it was time to go. The fun was prolonged with a scramble up the slabby ramps and broken boulders beside the Feith Buidhe, then it was out onto the plateau, into cloud and the windblown rain I’d been sheltered from on the slabs, wandering near blind to the summit where there were the usual crowds despite the weather.

I’d half wondered if I’d see my pal Jim Wright up there. He was doing a charity walk taking in Braeriach, Sgor an Lochain Uaine, Cairn Toul, Devil’s Point, Carn a Mhaim, Ben Macdui and Cairngorm, all in a day. I wasn’t totally surprised not to see him (it turned out he didn’t reach Macdui until after 7pm) but did see his name in the Corrour Bothy visitors’ book the following day, when I was out there to change the toilet bags. That job was made considerably easier by the assistance of Dave from Stroud, an occasional visitor to Bob Scott’s who turned up on Saturday night and foolishly volunteered to come out with me on Sunday and give me a hand, then helped carry out some rubbish. Good effort, Dave.

View into the Loch Avon basin from the Feith Buidhe Slabs, Ben Macdui

And finally, despite the cloud, a part of the view that makes this area so special.

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Summer snow and rough waters on Macdui

Summer snow on the Feith Buidhe slabs, Ben Macdui, Cairngorms

A tenuous arch of snow is all that remains of a tunnel through the Feith Buidhe snow patch

Macdui was busy on Saturday. When I reached the summit cairn there must have been at least twenty folk there and lots more approaching and leaving. One group on their way off was a party led by Simon from Cairngorm Treks, who greeted me by asking where I was off to today. Hmm. Britain’s second-highest mountain might have been enough, but he obviously knows me: on Saturday the summit cairn was just on the way to where I was heading.

Within just a few minutes of leaving the summit I was on the North Top of Macdui, bypassed by the highway from Cairngorm so seldom trod, despite being only a few feet of reascent, then I was dropping down its northern slopes to one of the least visited yet easily accessible parts of the mountain, that area where the Feith Buidhe and Garbh Uisge streams gather strength before tipping down into the great chasm of Loch Avon.

I was heading for the Feith Buidhe slabs, in the hope of getting some photos of the snow tunnels and crevasses in the long-lying snow patches there. I was there a few years ago and got a few pictures like this – more a snow bridge than a tunnel.

Loch Avon through a snow bridge, 2013. Cairngorms

Loch Avon through a snow bridge, 2013

But I’d seen photos Ian Cameron took there last weekend and reckoned I might get something more impressive this time around. So after walking as far as the Feith Buidhe stream on the plateau, I zigged under some outcrops back to just above the Garbh Uisge Beag and then zagged back to find the snowfield on the Feith Buidhe slabs, which had been totally invisible from above, but was quite extensive.

The slabs between the Feith Buidhe and the Garbh Uisge are an impressive feature even on their own: great sheets of granite, easy enough angled to walk on and stepped layer upon layer, sometimes rearing up in vertical walls, but often with slanting ledges or stepped corners providing surprising ways through. These steps bank out completely under winter snow, and provide enough of an anchor to stop it sliding off in spring, as it does on Coire an Lochain’s Great Slab in the nearby northern corries of Cairngorm.

Late summer snow on the Feith Buidhe slabs, Cairngorm

Snow starting to break up into ice boulders on a heavily stepped area of the slabs

When I got up close it was a bit of a bust in terms of what I’d been looking for. A once impressive tunnel had collapsed, leaving just a slender sliver of snowbridge amidst a broken jumble of ice slabs and boulders. But the novelty of being up close to snow 10 feet deep or more (at the edges) in the middle of summer meant I wasn’t too downhearted and enjoyed an hour or so just wandering about on the slabs and ledges exploring what I could of the area. There was an interesting looking crevasse away in the middle, but with no-one else about I didn’t think it was wise to take too many chances; those ice boulders you see in the photo were very heavy – and very hard – and I didn’t fancy being under anything like that.

Broken ice on Feith Buidhe slabs, Cairngorms

Nothing soft about this snow: these ice boulders were solid.

View from bergschrund on Feith Buidhe slabs on Ben Macdui, Cairngorms

Looking out over Loch Avon from the bergschrund between ice and rock

Feith Buidhe snow patch, Ben Macdui, Cairngorms

This distant view shows the full extent of the snow patch. The broken snow boulders show the area I was exploring

After I’d amused myself for long enough around the edges of this summer snow I started heading back to base – that was a long way away at Bob Scott’s Bothy, but I had plans on the way. A few weeks earlier I’d been in the area with a friend and had climbed from the Shelter Stone up onto the plateau by a route parallel to the Garbh Uisge. We’d left the course of the burn to head over to Carn Etchachan on that occasion, but this time I wanted to follow the course of the burn further.

This is a tremendous area of Macdui. As I mentioned above, being away from the trade routes, it’s little frequented, and indeed, much of it is hidden from most places people are likely to be.

The Garbh Uisge is well named – rough water – and the ground it travels through is pretty rough too, all rock and scree with sparse vegetation, many of the hollows showing by the black moss on the stones how long they spend under snow. It’s fascinating looking at the different  states of the rock – all granite, yet showing so much variation, from bedrock slabs waterworn and smooth, to bulging outcrops with horizontal fault lines expanding into cracks and different types of blockfields, some where thinnish sheets of granite resemble a ruptured flagstone floor, others with more irregular boulders. Some rocks lie in close pieces, fractured, clearly fitting together, yet with edges so worn you know they have lain in pieces for millennia rather than mere years. It’s a place where you realise the erosion of mountains is an ongoing process rather than just an end result. Sit in the bowl of Loch Avon and look up at the cliffs all around – An Sticil, Carn Etchachan, Hell’s Lum, Stag Rocks and all the others – and there’s somehow a sense of permanence. But here, in the corrie of the Garbh Uisge Mor, you know both that you are seeing an unfinished landscape and that this mountain shaping is happening in a deep geological time that is beyond imagining. It is a wild place. In almost 50 years of coming to this mountain I have never seen anything resembling the mythical Grey Man but, if there was such a creature, this is where he would be found.

And yet it’s not a horrible place. On Saturday I walked with pleasure up the course of the Garbh Uisge Mor, delighting in the sheets of slabs, the rushing gullies, the sandy coves, the cataracts and the still pools, exclaiming at the surprise of a small lochan appearing at eye level, marveling at the bright delicacy of ferns growing in a crevice between rocks. Distant views ranged from the Cairngorm massif to the north to Beinn Mheadhoin’s tors further east, but they remained essentially a backdrop to the more intimate views of this secret corner of Ben Macdui.

When finally I left the course of the burn to contour round the buttress separating it from the main path up from Loch Etchachan and cross that to return over the top of Derry Cairngorm, there was still plenty of good walking to do, but nothing beat the highlight of those couple of hours of summer snow on granite slabs and the rough water of Macdui.

Garbh Uisge stream on Ben Macdui, Cairngorms

The lower reaches of the Garbh Uisge as you climb from the Loch Avon basin. (This photo was taken a few weeks earlier on a previous visit to the area)

Garbh Uisge cataract, Loch Avon basin, Cairngorms

Cataract in the lower reaches of the Garbh Uisge

Garbh Uisge Mor on granite slabs on Ben Macdui, Cairngorms

The Garbh Uisge Mor, sliding over sheets of granite before joining with the Garbh Uisge Beag to tumble over the edge of the plateau

Garbh Uisge Mor, on the Cairngorm plateau

Flowing over steps in the bedrock of the mountain

Lochan beside Garbh Uisge Mor, Ben Macdui

Flanked by lochans

Sandy beach in the Garbh Uisge Mor, Cairngorms

The shock of a sandy beach so high on the mountain – that’s the north top of Macdui on the right, at 1295 metres

Ferns high on Ben Macdui beside the Garbh Uisge Mor

And finally, the joy and delicacy of ferns erupting from crevices in the hard granite.

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