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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.