The five Cairngorm four-thousanders

Vista of Cairn Toul and Braeriach from Cairngorm

From near the top of Cairngorm looking back to Cairn Toul and Braeriach on the far horizon

What a day!

From the wind-battered, closed-in isolation of the morning to the wide open afternoon with its views right out to the horizon and the cool, blue-sky evening cradled between the mountains, it was quality mountain day all the way.

Deciding to do all five Cairngorm ‘four-thousanders’ in a day – Cairn Toul, Angel’s Peak, Braeriach, Cairngorm and Ben MacDui – gave me some trouble initially. Was I doing it to prove something? Was it just a stunt? In the end I decided it didn’t matter: I’d had the notion to do it for years and it hadn’t gone away – and, if it turned out to be an empty feat, well, that was only one day ‘wasted’; contrarily, if I waited too many more years I’d not be fit enough to do it and would always regret the missed opportunity.

So in the end I did it, and it wasn’t any sort of a feat at all, for I’d decided I was going to do it and had no doubts that I could and would, so all that was left was to enjoy an absolutely cracking day. It was a positive indulgence, in fact. How many times had I walked this hill or that hill and looked longingly across to another, thinking how good it looked and how nice it would be to be there?  In fact, had I had more time (and, being honest, better legs) I was tempted by the sight of Beinn Mheadhoin and, on the final descent to Corrour, almost considered nipping along to Carn a Mhaim too, although by then the legs really were gone.

An early breakfast had seen me ready to go at 7am, looking out of Corrour Bothy just in time to see the first wisps of cloud brush the top of Cairn Toul. I headed straight for it, slanting diagonally up the mountain’s east face, and we came to meet one another: by the time I reached the bowl of Coire an t-Sabhail, which nestles under the two tops, I was looking up into the grey void which was to cocoon me for the rest of the morning.

Just before I reached here I was startled by a hen ptarmigan scuttling away through the rocks and heather trailing a ‘broken’ wing and, sure enough, when I looked down at my feet I was about to step in the bird’s nest, complete with seven eggs. I paused only long enough to take this photo before moving on to allow the hen back to the eggs.

Ptarmigan eggs on a nest on Cairn Toul, Cairngorms

Ptarmigan eggs in a nest on Cairn Toul

Nature photography behind me, I had to make up my mind about this cloud, for it didn’t look like it was going to shift in a hurry, despite the strength of the wind, which was blowing hard out of the west. There was no path up the easier north ridge of the coire but the way was easy enough to follow, so on I went, senses focussing on a narrower and narrower field as I climbed deeper into the cloud. By the time I reached a band of snow visibility was so confined that, though I was sure there was an edge there,  I couldn’t make it out, so I took a bearing for the last wee stretch to the cairn, then another to set me off in the right direction when I carried on after a short pause to Sgurr an Lochan Uaine. Not that it was needed, for the path was clear and the cliffs to my right still had a prominent fringe of snow.

Neil Reid at summit of Cairn Toul, Cairngorms

The magnificent views from Cairn Toul. Hah!

With the wind now battering into my face, there was no incentive to stop at Sgurr an Lochan Uaine and I continued to follow the path round the coire rim.

Melting cornices above Coire an Lochan Uaine and Garbh Choire, Cairngorms

The rotting cornices over Garbh Choire were my handrail for this stage of the journey

Walking in thick cloud is a strange, isolating experience. In clear weather you can see where you are: you can see that hill or that col that you’re aiming for, you can see when you’re getting closer, or veering away, you can see how your position changes in relation to the landscape; you know where you are both consciously and unconsciously. In thick cloud so many of the clues are removed. You do not know where you are except at an intellectual level. Your only knowledge of where you are is what you can reason from bearings and timings and pacing of distances and, without vision to confirm it, your reasoned position is a theoretical one, a point on the creased paper of a map, often with no way of really knowing that it corresponds to the few square metres of boulder and sandy scree you have within sight. But you have to make that do: the theoretical and the real have to come together.

Only, increasingly, they weren’t.

I’d jinked to avoid a snow patch that reached out from the edge, wanting to avoid it because I couldn’t make out the edge of it. But I hadn’t ‘unjinked’ enough once round it. There was no edge to my right, just ground sloping gently away. I’d come too far, too. And the wind was dropping in strength where, if I’d been on track, it would have been getting stronger around the col. So I was wrong. I was heading in a safe direction at least, for all directions away from the cliff were safe here, but I wanted that cliff to use as a handrail.

I knew I’d drifted off to the south but luckily, just as I sat down to have a look at the map, a couple of seconds of clear air below me revealed a stream, which allowed me to gauge a rough position and an exact recovery route, taking me to the coire edge at its lowest point. Oddly enough, although this error made me groan inwardly at the prospect of chasing the Grey Man through the mist over on the MacDui plateau, I didn’t even consider calling off the full walk.

After regaining the coire edge, following it was easy right round until the infant River Dee intruded on my solitary, wind battered cloud-cocoon of tundra and cornice-fringed void. On the banks of the river, already flowing strongly despite the source being so close and so high, I had something to eat and took a direct bearing to the summit.

The wind had already strengthened as the morning wore on, but on this stretch it was outdoing itself and several times I was sent staggering across the boulders and grit by unruly gusts. In my time I’ve heard the wind howl, heard it roar and even heard it scream, but now I heard a positive rumble. It came from the Garbh Choire Daidh below me and two seconds later the wind leapt out over the edge and bludgeoned me to my knees before tearing on across the plateau.

Was it that assault that also convinced the cloud that all was up? Who knows – but it was after that Aeolian assault that I first noticed a patch of blue away to the north, first realised that the final rise to Braeriach’s summit was visible before me.

Cairn Toul and Angel's Peak from Braeriach, Cairngorms

Looking back across to Cairn Toul – still cloud-capped – from Braeriach, as the day started to change

By the time i was at the top I could see all the way across to Cairn Toul, albeit with  cap on, and all the way round the edge of the great Garbh Choire and, just as I was leaving, spied my first people of the day, two retired teachers who had been staying at Corrour last night and were intending to do Braeriach and then Cairn Toul. I’d been thinking about them on my way around, sorry that they’d miss out on the stupendous views of one of Britain’s finest walks, but they’d timed it right and the weather continued to clear giving them endless views in every direction for the rest of the day.

For me it was on down into the Lairig Ghru. The teachers had confirmed to me that the old stalkers’ path into Coire Ruadh (the eastern one, above the Lairig) was clear of snow and easy to follow, so I headed down to the col between Braeriach and Sron na Lairig and tipped over the edge at the top of the path.

I was soon wondering what they were blethering about. I’d never actually used that path before, though I knew it was there, and was glad to see it so prominent at the top of the coire. However within a few yards I came on a snow patch which blocked progress. A step downwards was indicated by a boot-print below, but the path beyond that didn’t seem up to very much. Nor was it: it was a nightmare of loose rock and gritty dirt which required considerable attention to negotiate safely. It was only once I was down into the bowl that I was able to look up and see the path – looking very obvious now. I should have gone up at the snowpatch rather than down.

Coire Ruadh and stalkers' path on Braeriach, from the MacDui side of  the Lairig Ghru

Looking back into Coire Ruadh from the MacDui side of the Lairig Ghru. The line of the stalkers’ path can be seen as a faint zig-zag coming down from the lowest point of the col, but I had descended directly from the small snow patch – not to be recommended.

The rest of the descent to the Lairig was rough going, down a mixture of heather, boulders, holes and bog, but the clearing weather meant I could survey the way ahead. I’d planned on making a brutally steep but direct ascent up the March Burn but I could see now that snow blocked the higher reaches of it, with a clear path through the broken outcrops looking unlikely so, after (very) briefly considering walking through to the Chalamain Gap and up over Lurcher’s, I spied the relatively easy-angled north ridge of Coire Mhor. I followed the Lairig path southwards for a couple of hundred metres then sloped up the hill towards the vague ridge, passing a trio of deer on the way, who seemed happy to stand where they were unless I moved in their direction. Less happy was a hare a couple of hundred feet further on, who legged it up the hill at a speed I could only envy.

Lairig Ghru and Lurcher's Crag, Cairngorms

Looking north through the Lairig Ghru to Lurcher’s Crag

It was a fortuitous choice of route for, apart from the once more increasing wind, which once more had me on my knees, the climb up to the plateau was much easier than I had feared it might be, with occasional stops to glance backwards at the hills I had already done, marvelling at how far apart they seemed under what was now a predominantly blue sky. I’d already done a good day and it was only a little after lunchtime.

Cairn Toul, Angel's Peak and Braeriach, Cairngorms

My morning’s work, now under a blue sky: from Cairn Toul on the left over Angel’s Peak (Sgurr an Lochain Uaine), and round the Garbh Choire cliffs to Braeriach, whose summit is just out of picture

As the gradient eased into an uphill daunder the terrain turned for a time to sunny grassland with a stream flowing through so crystal clear that, though I’d filled my water bottle in the Lairig, I emptied it out and refilled it. When I drank of it in this spring sunshine I could taste the snow in it and, sure enough, not far uphill the stream came out from under one of several large snowfields which still lay across the plateau now spread out before me across to Cairn Lochan and round to Cairngorm itself, seeming impossibly distant.

Beinn Mheadhoin in the Cairngorms

Beinn Mheadhoin from the Cairngorm-MacDui plateau. Was it a serious temptation?

But for all the distance I was starting with a slight downward gradient and the highway between the two hills was easy walking and, though the speed dropped across the snowfields, I made good time, enjoying the changing perspectives and tempted by the clear air to think almost that Beinn Mheadhoin could be included in my itinerary. Madness, obviously, possibly a sign of tiredness.

The way from the top of the Goat Track (still choked with snow) over the top of

Loch Morlich in the Cairngorms

Loch Morlich from above Coire an t-Sneachda

Coire an t-Sneachda was enlivened by the views across the cliffs and down to Loch Morlich and by the chatter of a large group of school kids, but the last pull up Cairngorm looked like being an ordeal. For the first time in the day I was suffering to the point of wondering why I was bothering, but a handful of Sports Mixtures and a slowing of the pace was enough to restore some equilibrium and by the time I was at the top I was content again and didn’t begrudge a group of tourists who had come up on the funicular their easy summit, or the snow buntings that so delighted them. It was the guide with them who told me the wind had been gusting to 70mph earlier in the day. No wonder I’d been struggling at times.

The journey back across the plateau was marked by views back to the hills I’d started on, now clear under the blue sky, and by the clouds which sat high above the winds: some lenticular and others almost forming globes at times.

Coire an-t Sneachda, Cairngorms

Clouds over Coire an t-Sneachda

Clouds above Coifre an-t Sneachda

I loved the cloud forms as they changed against the blue backdrop

Unusual clouds over the Cairngorm-MacDui plateau

A final shot of the clouds

Walkers on the final ascent to Ben MacDui, Cairngorms

And a shot of two walkers ahead of me on the final ascent to the top of MacDui. The snow and the blue sky gives this an almost alpine feel

However the journey was over. By the time I was bypassing the north top of MacDui on the way to the main top I was still enjoying myself but the summit itself had the air of being a formality rather than a climax and I didn’t pause any longer than it took to take a selfie at the trig point before heading west to drop down the north-bounding ridge of Coire Clach nan Taillear, finding an unsuspected path some of the way down which meant only a short stretch of boulderfield before getting onto easier ground and the final descent to the Lairig path, which led me back, still walking at a brisk pace, to Corrour. Brisk? Well, yes: brisk. I’d expected to be on my last legs by the end but, by taking my own time and going at my own pace, though tired I still had a lot more go left in me than I’d ever have thought.

It had been a day of two halves – western plateau and central plateau, cloud and sunshine – but most of all it had been a big day, a cracking day, a day to remember. And, already, one I think I would enjoy doing again.

Neil Reid at the summit of Ben MacDui, Cairngorms. Cairn Toul is in the background

First and last top. Me, on the summit of MacDui, with my first top of the day, Cairn Toul, in the background


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10 Responses to The five Cairngorm four-thousanders

  1. andy says:

    Absolutely fantastic day there, Neil! Magnificent, and inspirational. I’ll do it myself one of these days, thanks for that. Couple of things; the path down into Coire Ruadh, that’s the one called Duke’s path or something like that, right? I did it a couple of summers ago, and there was a section above the slabs that I thought “wouldn’t fancy doing this when snow’s around”! There was some aircraft wreckage too in that area, both above and below the zig-zags. Then, the cornices and going off route: I always think what it must be like to get caught in a white-out on that ridge walk in the winter. Frightening thought. And if even an experienced Gormer like you can get caught short, that certainly gives pause. And finally, on the roaring wind coming up the corrie: once I was camping by Loch nan Stuirteag and I heard this roar coming up the glen and my tent shook as if it was an earthquake. Must be a phenomenon that happens a lot off the Lairig Ghru.

    Anyway, enough with my blether. Still a big thank you for such a great yarn. More please!

    • Cheers Andy, it was a day well worth doing. Yes, that was the path called the Duke’s Path, and it’s one I think I’d avoid in snow if there was any danger at all of avalanche. When it’s clear, though, I think it would be easy to follow. I went wrong because I tried to take a shortcut.
      Getting caught in a white-out is no fun, especially round there but the reason I got caught out was complacency, not the amount of snow: I should have been taking bearings and walking on them.

  2. alanfmackay says:

    Inspirational, Mr Reid! I think I’ve found a ‘QMD’ for my ML log book. I don’t need much persuading to head for Corrour again, but your prose has me studying the diary for the first opperchancity to point The Kangoo at The Linn o Dee carpark.

    • Aye, any one of those hills would give you a QMD, but you especially want to get clear weather for the circuit from Cairn Toul to Braeriach – and take time out to wander around the plateau there (better than the Cairngorm-MacDui one) and visit the Wells of Dee. A magical place which rewards exploration and repeat visits.

  3. malcolm macpherson says:

    Just back from doing the 4 on the western side. My legs were done in after that! Great night in Corrour if a little warm. My fault for carrying in some coal, which I wasn’t going to not use 🙂

  4. Aye, thats what its all about. Good effort Mr Wanderer, a good story and some lovely pics n aw. “Had no doubts I could and would”

  5. Dave Robson says:

    As one of the blethering retired teachers I can confirm that our walk onto Braeriach and Carn Toul after we’d passed Neil was just incredible. The pair of us wandered to and fro across the plateau – to the Wells of Dee, over to the West of the plateau, down to the Falls of Dee (with the river disappearing and reappearing in and out of the snow even as it fell over the edge). We spent about half an hour just gazing at the cloud formations that Neil has in a couple of his photos. We did feel very fortunate that we’d taken the long way round to the plateau from the Bothy (via the Pools of Dee) and so managed to hit the tops just as the cloud lifted, while sympathising that Neil’s manic assault straight up from the Bothy (which we watched as we ambled up the Lairig Ghru) had led him straight into an all encompassing blanket.
    The path up from the Pools of Dee to the col between Braeriach and Sron na Lairig is obviously much more visible from below than it is from above. Its top is marked by some quite substantial aircraft wreckage but that’s of little use if the path then proves elusive.
    A fine account of an impressive walk Neil.

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