Written September 2013

Cairngorms

After I completed the Munros in July, I'd planned to go on one more backpacking trip before the end of the summer. However, putting this website together took more time than anticipated, the weeks passed by, and before I knew it the summer was almost gone. Finishing the Munros was liberating - I could literally go anywhere, the only limitation now was the planning and preparation time required to put a trip together.

My sister Ruth had already arranged to be up in Scotland for two weeks with her boyfriend Mike and my niece Emma. They would spend the first week in Killin on the shore of Loch Tay, and the second week in Boat of Garten on the northern side of the Cairngorms. My sister invited me to join them for the second week, staying in a holiday cottage. After this week I had a tentative plan to go backpacking for up four days, depending on the weather.

My first Munro backpacking trip was in the Cairngorms, in 2005. Since then I've always had great affection for the Cairngorms, and was looking forward to revisiting some of my favourite places and also exploring some hidden corners that I'd missed on previous trips. I was also looking forward to catching up with my sister and my niece; every time I see my niece she's taken big leaps forward.


Friday 23rd August 2013

This was a bank holiday weekend, so arranging transport up to Scotland was not straightforward. I'd wanted to take the sleeper train direct from London to Aviemore at the foot of the Cairngorms, but this was too expensive. After a lot of searching I found a new Megabus Gold sleeper service running from London to Aberdeen. This stopped in Perth where I could catch the first train to Aviemore in the morning, so looked like a good alternative, costing £47.50.

I took a National Express coach direct from Southampton to London (costing £9), arriving a few hours before the Megabus departed at 9:30pm. There is an excellent fish & chip shop a few doors down from the bus station, which has a good range of responsibly-sourced fish from Scotland. I had a delicious fish-burger, created from a whole piece of battered fish, sandwiched in a bun. Top marks!

The bus station was jam packed with people heading off for the bank holiday weekend. The temperature was high, it was hot and stuffy, and it was relief to get out of there onto the plush new twin-decker air-conditioned Megabus Gold Coach.

I'd used a Megabus sleeper before - that service was a single decker, with both seats and beds. This new model was a double-decker with beds on both decks. The beds were arranged either side of a narrow corridor, on two levels; fixed beds at ground level with suspended hammock-style beds above. On one side of the corridor, at ground level, were double beds, and these were assigned to people who were travelling together. For someone travelling on the inside, away from the corridor, it would be impossible to get out without disturbing someone else.

I was assigned a hammock bed, suspended above a single bed. These beds have vertical straps that clip into the ceiling to prevent the occupant rolling out in the night. I unclipped the straps to get into bed, and then was faced with a conundrum: the straps wouldn't clip back in! I finally realised that they wouldn't clip in with weight on the bed - catch 22! Other people were also having the same problem, and what with the cramped conditions everyone spontaneously broke out laughing at the ridiculousness of it all!

I finally got the straps clipped in, and manoeuvred into the hammock. Perhaps "narrow stretcher" is a better description - rolling in either direction resulted in coming up against a metal bar on the side of the hammock. People were literally packed in like sardines; if anyone had a brought a cat there wouldn't have been anywhere to swing it. The conditions brought to mind the Brookes slave ship plan, printed by the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1788.


Saturday 24th August 2013

Despite the cramped conditions I somehow got off to sleep, but awoke in the night acutely aware that the coach wasn't moving. I caught snatches of voices outside the coach, and it sounded like some technical problem had occurred. It was no surprise that shortly after an announcement was made for everyone to disembark, ready to transfer to another coach. So much for getting a good night's sleep!

We'd broken down on the M6 Toll near Birmingham. The problem was something to do with a bolt that had sheared off, severing a cable that operated the gears, making it impossible to change gear. The coach was brand new so it was disappointing that the problem had developed so early in its lifetime. People were very friendly as we waited outside for the replacement coach. Some were regular travellers on night buses, and had been forced to use the more expensive sleeper since the standard buses were fully booked over the bank holiday.

After an hour's wait the replacement coach showed up, and soon we were on the road again. There were enough seats for each person to spread out across two. I managed to curl up across two seats, and get some fitful sleep. There was further disruption with another change of coach just north of Glasgow. By now I was wide awake and the first light of dawn was beginning to colour the overcast sky. The coach dropped me off Broxden Park & Ride on the outskirts of Perth - it doesn't go all the way to the city centre. I now had two miles to walk, and due to the lateness of the coach, less than an hour to reach the railway station.

This was a rather rude awakening and I got quite hot rushing with my fully packed rucksack. I reached the station a little before eight, and had just enough time to buy a ticket (£25) and a cup of tea & Danish, before my train departed at 8:10. The train journey went smoothly and I arrived at Aviemore at 09:49.

I'd considered taking the Strathspey Steam Railway to Boat of Garten, but my sister was due to arrive early afternoon (around 1:30pm), so there was plenty of time to walk there along the Speyside Way. This route was surprisingly rich in flora, and I spent time photographing including hair bells, devil's bit scabious, broom seed pods, fungi, ferns, lichen, bearberries, juniper, birches and scots pines.

Halfway along I diverted off the Speyside Way, doubling back for a short distance down a track to reach the bank of the Spey. I then followed the riverbank all the way to Boat of Garten, at a quicker pace than earlier, reaching the village a few minutes after my sister. They had stopped off on the way from Killin to visit the Birks of Aberfeldy, subject of a song by Robert Burns and now home to a statue of the man himself.



Juniper bush on the Speyside Way
Juniper bush on the Speyside Way
Bearberries on the Speyside Way
Bearberries on the Speyside Way

Sunday 25th August 2013

The weather forecast looked good so we decided to head immediately for the high mountains, and climb Ben Macdui together with Cairn Gorm. The ski centre car park at 630m gives a great head start to climbing these hills, plus the paths around the northern corries and Macdui plateau are well-maintained.

We set off into the mist, but soon the clouds began to lift and disperse revealing dramatic views. We took the spur leading up past Lurcher's Crag, and then skirted along the eastern rim of the Lairig Ghru. Mist was still swirling about, but we had glimpses across to Cairn Toul and the Angel's Peak (Sgòr an Lochain Uaine) looming ominously on the far side of the lairig.

A little further along we spotted three reindeer grazing on the high plateau, two females and a calf. Reindeer are native to Scotland, but a combination of habitat change and hunting had resulted in them being wiped out. The Cairngorm herd were re-introduced in 1952 by a Swedish Reindeer Herder, Mikel Utsi. Starting with just a few reindeer, the herd has grown in numbers over the years and is currently held between 130 and 150 through controlling breeding. For most of the year the reindeer live in their natural environment in the Cairngorm Mountains and the Cromdale Hills, but there are periods of the year when the males and females are brought into pastures at lower levels.

The summit of Ben Macdui was rather cold and misty, as we stopped for lunch in a rock shelter near the summit trig. Some small birds caused amusement, scavenging for sandwich crumbs and fighting amongst each other for the food. It's a pity these birds have become attracted to this spot, tamed by the presence of humans, and the regular supply of food.

On descent we soon escaped from the clump of cloud lodged on Ben Macdui, and retraced our steps to Lochan Buidhe. We diverted from the path to explore a patch of icy snow that had survived the summer, allowing us to have a snowball fight in August! Now off the path, we followed the waterlogged upper reaches of the Fèith Buidhe, savouring the wildness of the high plateau.

After this short diversion, we headed northwards to rejoin the path on the rim of Coire an t-Sneachda (pronounced "trecht" not "snecter"). Looking south down Coire Domhain, there were tantalising glimpses of the Shelter Stone Crag and Beinn Mheadhoin (pronounced "Vane") above Loch Avon. To the north we had great views of the Fiacaill Ridge in profile, great towers of exposed granite. There was a short ascent over the Munro Top of Stob Coire an t-Sneachda, before the final haul up the granite dome of Cairn Gorm.

From here it was plain sailing, following a line of closely-spaced cairns leading to a path between guide-ropes and the Ptarmigan Station. This route exists as a fool-proof means of descent from Cairn Gorm, a mountain popular with tourists who may not have the experience or equipment to navigate in poor visibility. The degradation of the wildness is objectionable, but is nothing compared to the extensive ski developments on this side of the mountain, and worst of all, the funicular railway which links Ptarmigan Station to the car park.

We decided to stop for a hot drink at the Ptarmigan Station, which has a cafeteria fitted out in alpine style with wood-panelled walls. Once finished we explored the labyrinthine building, visiting the gift shop, exhibition, toilets and the rather disappointing viewing platform (we'd had better views all day!)

When the funicular was built, the funicular was subject to operating a closed system in summer i.e. you couldn't get out at the top, nor use it as a quick way of descending the mountain. The purpose was to protect the fragile arctic-alpine vegetation and prevent inexperienced tourists from getting into difficulty on the mountain. The latter restriction has subsequently been overturned, and Ruth was tempted to take the train down, but in the end we decided to descend via the Sròn an Aonaich path. On the way down we paused to check out a geocache hidden under a granite outcrop.

It was still fairly early, and the weather was now warm and sunny, so we stopped off at Loch Morlich. This loch nestles in the heart of Rothiemurchus Forest, surrounded by ancient Scots Pines. Long stretches of its shoreline are formed of sandy beaches, making it a popular location for inland beach holidays! It's home to a watersports centre with kayaking, sailing and windsurfing among the activities available. Everyone went for a dip in the loch except me - apparently the water was quite warm, but I wasn't convinced!



Looking down into Glen More from Macdui plateau
Looking down into Glen More from Macdui plateau
Remaining snow patch on Ben Macdui
Remaining snow patch on Ben Macdui
Fiacaill Ridge and Coire an t-Sneachda
Fiacaill Ridge and Coire an t-Sneachda

Monday 26th August 2013

We decided to have an easier day today and visit the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd, starting from The Reindeer Centre near Loch Morlich. Once we'd paid £12 each, we were instructed to wait in cars beside the road, and then follow a grey van at 11am! The van lead us in convoy up to the Sugarbowl Car Park, and from there we had a short walk, cutting across the wooded Allt Mòr valley and onto a high pasture above Rothiemurchus Forest. Emma got the job of carrying one of the bags of food for the reindeer.

The reindeer were sheltering from the heat of the day in a stable, but soon came trotting out with the prospect of food. Our guide spread the larger bag of food out on the ground for the herd so that they could all had a chance to eat first (some individuals prefer not to feed near people). Once the bulk feed was over, we were given some instructions on hand feeding the reindeer. There's no danger of being bitten (different from feeding a horse), all you have to do is keep clear of the antlers, and hold your hands up when all the food is gone. Emma was a little nervous at first, but soon got confident and kept asking for extra handfuls of food!

After the hill visit we drove back to the Reindeer Centre, and had a quick look around the shop, exhibition and paddocks where a few reindeer were being kept. Here we were lucky to see a red squirrel in the trees, evidently scavenging for reindeer food! We then drove to Loch an Eilein for lunch; this is apparently the UK's favourite picnic spot, which is reflected in the £4.50 car park charge!

Ruth and Emma went for a dip - apparently the water was much colder than Loch Morlich and the conditions underfoot were much stonier, so I definitely wasn't tempted. After lunch we decided to go for a walk around the loch (in a clockwise direction) keeping close to the shore, after a short distance coming to a sandy inlet that would have been perfect for swimming! A little further we came to a waterlogged river delta that was home to ticks, so we cut back onto the main track around the loch. There were many bilberries (aka blaeberries) and bearberries growing under the trees, which made for delicious pickings. I also collected some edible mushrooms (Bay Boletes) and later on found a hedgehog mushroom (it has spines instead of gills under the cap).

We decided to also walk around Loch Gamhna, which flows into Loch an Eilien. This loch has a much narrower path going around it, and a much wilder feel. Mike thought he caught a glimpse of an otter in the water, but it disappeared too quickly to be certain.

On the way back we stopped on the shore opposite the ruined castle in Loch an Eilein. The castle was once a stronghold of the Wolf of Badenoch (great-grandson of Robert the Bruce) who died around the turn of the 15th century. The Jacobites, retreating from Cromdale in 1690, besieged the castle, but were driven off. At this time the castle was connected to the shore by a causeway. The causeway was lost when the water level in the loch was raised in the 18th century, a change made to allow the floating of logs downstream for timber. Ruth went in for another swim - the water was no warmer than earlier, so this loch must be deeper than Loch Morlich.



Emma hand-feeds a reindeer
Emma hand-feeds a reindeer
Ruth wild-swimming in Loch an Eilein
Ruth wild-swimming in Loch an Eilein

Tuesday 27th August 2013

Today I suggested that we explorer the west side of the Cairngorms around Glen Feshie, and proposed a route from Ron Turbull's Cairgorms guide, climbing Mullach Clach a' Bhlàir. This Munro is often dismissed is a boring hill, but that's because most people take a boring track up and down it! Turnbull proposes a pioneering route up the seldom-visited Coire Garbhlach, with an optional scramble at the head of the corrie. The descent route follows an abandoned stalkers' path through native pinewoods to a bothy in Glen Feshie, which Emma was quite excited about visiting.

The initial part of the walk was along the road, then good paths in Glen Feshie, but as soon as we turned off up the Allt Garbhlach the going got rough in deep heather. Higher up it was easier to take to the boulder-strewn stream bed - this would be much harder in spate! Two-thirds the way up we came to a pretty waterfall, which was bypassed on the north side by an exposed deer path. The upper corrie was grassier, but still pathless with uneven ground. Coire Garbhlach is a very atmospheric place, hemmed in on both sides by steep rock walls.

At the head of the corrie there is a fork, the right-hand branch offering a scramble up a steep stream gully. This looked wet and in places exposed, unsuitable for Emma, so we took the left-hand fork up a dry valley, with a steep clamber up onto the plateau. Having overcome the majority of the difficulties, we stopped for lunch enjoying the views down Coire Garbhlach.

After following the rim of Coire Garbhlach, we picked up a track for a short section leading towards Mullach Clach a' Bhlàir. There were fantastic views across the vast green tableland of the Mòine Mòr, with the exposed granite profiles of the Angel's Peak (Sgòr an Lochain Uaine) and Cairn Toul rising up beyond. We could also see the huge bulk of Braeriach and the fin of Sgòr Gaoith, enclosing the hidden corrie of Loch Eanaich.

The summit of Mullach Clach a' Bhlàir has a scruffy cairn, quite unremarkable, and soon we were on the way down, walking over low arctic-alpine vegetation along the ridge of Druim nam Bò. On this ridge we found a copper rain collector, partially submerged in the ground. Perhaps this place is used during deer stalking as a spot for a quick brew - there was a stone wind shelter nearby. Next we had a steep drop down to the 770m Loch nam Bò. I was delighted to find a cloudberry growing near the lake - this was the first time I've tasted one and it was delicious, with the flavour of a tropical fruit.

We had a quick paddle in the loch, before heading off to locate the cairn marking the start of a stalkers' path down to Glen Feshie. The zigzags were hard to follow in the rampant heather, until we reached a straight section leading to the Allt nam Bò. Views down to the River Feshie were extraordinary - this river is a rare British example of a braided river; the wide shifting gravel flats have multiple water channels.

We now entered the scattered Scots Pines and juniper woodland of Glen Feshie, a beautiful remnant of the Caledonian Forest that once filled all the glens in Scotland. This estate was bought in 2006 by Danish clothing millionaire Anders Holch Povlsen. He has a policy of encouraging natural regeneration of woodland in the glen, through culling deer that would otherwise feed on the young shoots.

I'd taken this stalker's path way back in 2005, but the reduced grazing has subsequently resulted in the path becoming very overgrown, and it was now very hard to discern. My previous visit had been in early May, so perhaps the path is easier to follow in the spring with lower vegetation. As we were descending the skies darkened, a heavy shower hit, and we rushed for cover under a tree. After donning waterproofs, we followed the remainder of the path down to the shelter of Ruigh-aiteachain. Of this path Ron Turnbull says "you'll find juniper in your socks and pine twigs lodged under the lid of your rucksack"!

We reached the bothy just as the heavens opened, and hurried inside for some welcome shelter. Since my last visit, the upstairs has been closed, and the stairs removed, presumably for fire safety reasons. Replacement bunks have been built in the entrance room, and there are further sleeping platforms in the main room, which now has a wood-burning stove. If we'd had sleeping bags and enough food, we would have definitely spent the night here! We still had three miles to walk along the glen back to the car and energy levels were flagging.

It was unfortunate the beauty of the area around Ruigh-aiteachain was somewhat diminished today by dark skies and rain; I hope Ruth and Mike return to Glen Feshie in better weather, and perhaps to explore the upper glen which provides a sublime through-route along the River Geldie and Dee to Braemar. At least we were now on a good flat path, and the rain was stopping, so we could enjoy the rest of the walk in better conditions. Amazingly Emma still had bags of energy, and kept running on ahead - she is a really strong walker and has good stamina, particularly after a long walk over challenging terrain.

By the time we got back to the car it was quite late and we decided to stop off in Aviemore on the way back for some fish and chips.



Ruth negotiates rough terrain in Coire Garbhlach
Ruth negotiates rough terrain in Coire Garbhlach
The braided River Feshie and its gravel flat
The braided River Feshie and its gravel flats
Emma and Mike descend into Glen Feshie
Emma and Mike descend into Glen Feshie

Wednesday 28th August 2013

Today we were all quite tired and decided to have an easier day visiting Landmark Forest Adventure Park in Carrbridge. Ruth had some Tesco vouchers so we got in for next to nothing! The high ropes (Ropeworx & Tarzan Trail), climbing wall (Pinnacle) and parachute simulator (SkyDive) were quite challenging and really got the adrenaline pumping. Emma was particularly good at the climbing wall and climbed it five times in five minutes! There are also some rides such as the water slide (Wild Water Coaster) which Emma and Mike went on, and a small roller coaster (Runaway Timber Train) which Mike and I went on.

There are some attractions that followed wooden walkways, such a maze (Lost Labyrinth) and trails through native pine woodland (Red Squirrel Trail, Treetop Trail and Wildlife Feeding Area). There is also a tall tower constructed entirely from wood (Fire Tower), which provides far-reaching views over the treetops to the Cairngorms beyond. Lastly there are some indoor attractions, such as an exhibition of optical illusions (Bamboozeleum) and some larger installations designed to disorientate the senses (Wonder Wood).

After all that we were feeling quite shell-shocked and exhausted! Landmark Adventure really does have a lot to offer, and considerable thought has been put into its design and layout. We were also very impressed with the friendliness of the staff and the high staff levels.

It was late afternoon so we still had time for a short walk. Ruth wasn't feeling very well so she stayed behind at the cottage, while Mike and I took Emma for a short walk along the short of Loch Garten. There were plenty of wild mushrooms growing, particularly boletes, brightly-coloured russula and the occasional milk cap. We even found some tiny chanterelles growing by a log pile. We paid a quick visit to the Opsprey Centre, but it was closed with a note announcing that two healthy chicks had fledged, and the ospreys were now migrating to wintering grounds in West Africa. By the time we got back Ruth had prepared a delicious meal of jacket potatoes.



Landmark Forest Adventure Park
Landmark Forest Adventure Park

Thursday 29th August 2013

The forecast was for dry weather today, the only hazard being strong winds on the higher ground. Mike is climbing the Munros, so we decided to pick a Munro for today's walk. Braeriach though the Chalamain Gap and the Lairig Ghru was one possibility, but this would have been very exposed to the westerly winds, and was a very long day with no possibility of a circular walk. Another candidate was Beinn Mheadhoin, but this is quite inaccessible, involving an ascent and descent to reach Loch Avon before the final climb to the summit.

In the end we decided on Bynack More, an isolated Munro located to the east of Cairn Gorm. We parked near the Glenmore Visitor Centre, and began the long walk in along a track past Glenmore Lodge outdoor training centre. We passed through beautiful native Scots Pine woodland, and the narrow gap of the Ryvoan Pass. Hemmed in on both sides by crags nestles the magical An Lochan Uaine, with waters said to be coloured green-blue by the local fairies washing their clothes.

As we climbed higher there were good views of the shapely Corbett, Meall a' Bhuachaille, and the scattered Scots Pines in the upper reaches of Abernethy Forest. This whole area is owned by the RSPB, including Ryvoan Bothy - we hoped to make a short detour to visit the bothy on the way back. After a mile we crossed the River Nethy at the former site of Bynack Stable. This corrugated iron hut was finally blown down in 2005; all that remains is a pleasant patch of grass, providing a good spot for wild camping.

To the right was Strath Nethy, a rough valley with a vague path that leads up towards Loch Avon. We took a ditinct path, which climbs gently up the moors beyond. This path is part of the Lairig an Laoigh, a challenging cross-country trek along an historic route from Aviemore to Braemar; much less well-known than the celebrated Lairig Ghru, but potentially tougher with a river crossing at Fords of Avon. We followed this well-maintained path up onto the arctic-alpine plateau, with the granite spine of Bynack More rising up beyond.

To reach Bynack More we branched off away from the Lairig an Laoigh path. The final climb was surprisingly prolonged and conditions got increasingly windy as we climbed higher. To the east there were fantastic views across vast heather moors over Glen Avon to the granite-tor-studded plateau of Ben Avon beyond. All the Munros to the west including Cairn Gorm were shrouded in cloud, so we'd made a good choice for today's mountain.

We'd considered descending to Strath Nethy on the return route, but once at the summit this option didn't look very attractive. On the spur of the moment I suggested a diversion to investigate the Barns of Bynack. These huge granite tors - amongst the largest in the Cairngorms - are not in view from the summit; some smaller tors are visible (the 'Little Barns') which we aimed for first. The Little Barns provided some shelter from the wind during a stop for lunch, and we also had fun clambering up the outcrops to pose for photos.

Heading downhill over steeper ground to the east, we soon reached the massive Barns of Bynack, perched precariously on the side of Bynack More. These granite tors are quite remarkable in their size, and have no easy scrambling routes to their summits. There was also a ghostly echo from the largest of the tors. Looking northwards it was just possible to get a glimpse of the Fords of Avon, flanked on either side by Beinn Mheadhoin and Beinn a' Chaorainn. This is the route taken by the Lairig an Laoigh to Glen Derry.

From here we descended steep heather slopes to re-join the Lairig an Laoigh path, a mile or so further on from where we left it. This way required a small amount of re-ascent, but the diversion to see the Barns was definitely worth it, and really made the walk. As we began the final descent to the River Nethy a pair of raptors circled high above - they were quite far away, but I'm fairly sure they were Golden Eagles.

As a special treat for Emma we made the short diversion to visit Ryvoan Bothy. There were lots of tents camped on the grass outside, but thankfully the inside of the bothy was empty and we could explore it with disturbing anyone. This bothy is reputedly haunted and Emma was quite keen to see if she could spot any ghostly happenings! It was originally a croft dating from the 18th century and was abandoned in 1877.

We then had a long walk out though the Ryvoan Pass, and couldn't resist the temptation to stop at Glenmore Lodge for some food. Mike kindly went to pick the car up and brought it to the car park at the lodge. Ruth and Mike opted for curries, while I couldn't resist the fish and chips.



The green-blue waters of An Lochan Uaine
The green-blue waters of An Lochan Uaine
The massive Barns of Bynack
The massive Barns of Bynack
Ryvoan Bothy
Ryvoan Bothy

Friday 30th August 2013

Today was the last day we had the cottage - Ruth, Mike and Emma were travelling back on Saturday (via Edinburgh to visit the pandas). After checking the forecast I decided to head off in the late afternoon for four days of backpacking, before catching a train back on Wednesday.

We decided first to hire some bikes from the conveniently-located Cairngorm Bike and Hike shop in Boat of Garten. The chap in the shop was really thorough and after checking out our abilities, recommended a 15 mile circular route through Abernethy Forest and the village of Nethybridge. He went through every step of the route, pointing out the key decision points. He also made adjustments to ensure our bikes were comfortable, and got Emma to do some practice circuits around the car park. The cost came to £12 each for a half day, and £6 for Emma.

The road out of Boat of Garten was a little busy, but soon we were on forest tracks with the occasional quiet minor road. Around halfway around we turned north to follow the River Nethy downstream to Nethybridge. On the opposite bank is Aultmore House, a property that was bought in 2007 by Bob Dylan as an investment. The return route followed the Speyside Way back to Boat of Garten. Back at the cycle hire shop we thanked the owner for an excellent recommendation of route. Emma had done really well - I was surprised at how good she is at cycling now.

Mike kindly offered to drop me off at the Ski Centre car park - at 630m this would make an excellent head start. I thanked Ruth and Mike for an excellent and enjoyable week, then set off towards Coire an t-Sneachda. After dropping me off they would go for a short walk to Lochan na Beinne from the nearby Coire na Ciste car park.

My plan for the rest of the day was to ascend the Fiacaill Ridge, a grade 1 scramble leading up to the Cairngorm plateau. I'd wanted to do this scramble for years so was really looking forward to it. The bulk of the ascent is over bouldery ground; only the final section does the ridge narrow to a spine, with granite blocks leading up to the Cairngorm plateau. The ridge was clear of cloud, but light showers were sweeping across at regular intervals, temporarily reducing visibility. I was lucky to enjoy the final section in clear conditions, but it was very windy, so I stuck to the west side of the ridge, rather than the more exposed crest.

Just before the top another squall hit, so I sheltered in a gully, putting on my waterproofs before venturing onto the exposed plateau. I now aimed for the well-maintained path descending Coire Domhain to Loch Avon. This area can really be described as the heart of the Cairngorms - at the head of the loch the Shelter Stone Crag dominates, alongside a dramatic expanse of granite slabs over which the Garbh Uisge and Fèith Buidhe tumble. Loch Avon is flanked on the north side by the undeveloped side of Cairn Gorm, and to the south by Beinn Mheadhoin. Loch Avon exudes an aura of wildness and remoteness, despite its close proximity to the Cairngorm Ski Centre.

I was planning to camp beside Loch Avon, but it was extremely windy and would have made for sleepless night. My waterproofs were quite damp, and I didn't fancy spending my first night in a damp tent, so I headed for the Shelter Stone. This 1500-ton boulder, fallen from the crags of Carn Etchachan, has enough space underneath to sleep four or five people. Gaps have been plugged up over the years with stones, and entrance is via a narrow passageway.

The floor was reputed to be comprised of damp compacted earth and rubbish, but I was pleased to see that a tent groundsheet now covered most of the floor. The entrance ("hallway") had been covered with granite gravel; perhaps someone had carried it up from a streambed to stop the entrance getting wet and muddy. I had quite a comfortable night here, despite the wind howling outside. It was a little draughty, but not cold, and the only disturbance was the occasional fierce gust of wind sweeping in through the entrance and flapping the groundsheet.



The rocky upper section of the Fiacaill Ridge
The rocky upper section of the Fiacaill Ridge
Shelter Stone Crag and the Avon Slabs
Shelter Stone Crag and the Avon Slabs

Saturday 31st August 2013

I awoke to bright light diffusing through the entrance of the shelter, and outside was pleased to see bright blue skies with splendid views in all directions. Today I was hoping to do a scramble up the Avon Slabs, a route recommended by Ron Turnbull in his Cairngorms guidebook: "to my mind the most intensely enjoyable route in this book". I was elated to have clear conditions for this scramble, and a perfect morning start at the base of the slabs.

From the Shelter Stone, Ron's route traverses over rough vegetation and boulders to reach the Garbh Uisge falls. En route I had good views to the left up pinnacle gully (a grade 1 scramble), with the prominent forefinger pinnacle (grade 3) guarding the head of the gully. A good reason to visit this area again on another trip!

Once at the Garbh Uisge (garruv ooshgi), there are two scrambling options. Grade 2 sticks close to the stream on a rib of clean granite, while grade 1 stays further to the left on grass and slabs. I picked the easier option as I didn't fancy the exposure with a heavy pack.

The purpose of this first section is to overcome a steep smooth wall at the foot of the Avon Slabs on the far side of the Garbh Uisge. The book wasn't entirely clear about the location of the crossing point. I saw one possibility halfway up the waterfalls, but thinking the objective was to overcome the falls, I continued on the same line. After a short distance the ground became wet and unpleasant over slimy rocks, so I retreated and took the obvious crossing point over the Garbh Uisge. In places this was exposed to cascading water, and I got quite damp in the process. The guidebook notes that a higher crossing point would have to be found when the burn is in spate.

I was now on the great expanse of easy-angled granite slabs that lie between the Fèith Buidhe and the Garbh Uisge. The slabs gave good friction and I enjoyed the dramatic views down the full length of Loch Avon, as I traversed diagonally to the right. At the top of these slabs on the Fèith Buidhe side there are three steps (the lower, middle and upper steepening), with terraces between them.

I easily got onto the first terrace, but continued on it too far to the right towards the Fèith Buidhe. The route is supposed to ascend to the next terrace immediately prior to a damp area ("the trickle"), but I missed the turning and continued over the slimy rocks, then had to surmount both the middle and upper steepening, before I could traverse back left onto drier rocks. It's really hard for a guidebook to give precise descriptions for an area with no natural lines - there are literally hundreds of choices of route over the Avon Slabs at varying degrees of difficulty and dampness.

For the rest of the day I decided to take a cross country route exploring the seldom-seen craggy faces of Ben Macdui. The granite plateau of Macdui is so vast that its cliff faces are set far back from the summit. My first objective was Loch Etchachan and the cliffs of Carn Etchachan, which I reached by cutting across the Garbh Uisge Beag and Garbh Uisge Mòr, then a steep descent to the loch.

From here there was a short climb to reach the "Queen Victoria Path" up Ben Macdui, coming up from Glen Derry and Coire Etchachan. This path follows the line of cliffs on the southeast side of Ben Macdui, but stays well away from the edge. I was tempted to descend, and then walk along the base of the cliffs, paying a visit Lochan Uaine, before climbing back up to the plateau. This looked rather rough-going, so I decided instead to walk along the rim of the cliffs and enjoyed spectacular views of Lochan Uaine from above.

I felt in no way tempted to revisit the summit of Ben Macdui, even though it was only half a mile across the plateau, and instead headed for the Tailor Burn (Allt Clach nan Taillear). This route is occasionally used to ascend Ben Macdui; the path is a little sketchy at the top, but is quite clear at the bottom where it meets the Lairig Ghru path. The burn is named after three tailors who tried to cross the Lairig Ghru on a winter's night and died sheltering by a rock near the foot of the burn.

On the descent I had fine views of the Càrn a' Mhàim ridge, and the wet slabs of the The Devil's Point and Beinn Bhrotain, gleaming evilly in the sun. Looking north I could see deep into An Garbh Choire, the Falls of Dee at its head and the imposing Coire Bhrochain on the right. I was aiming for the refuge in An Garbh Choire for the night - the wind was still high, even stronger than yesterday and anywhere high up in the mountains would be unsuitable for camping.

I could have forded the River Dee and then contoured around the lower slopes of Cairn Toul to reach the Garbh Choire refuge, but this route is wet and rough going. Instead I followed the Lairig Ghru path northwards for a few miles, almost to the Pools of Dee, before picking up a sketchy path that backtracks, contouring into An Garbh Choire. The path vanishes a few hundred metres before the refuge, the only marker for those coming in the opposite direction is a small cairn built from white rocks.

I'd managed without waterproofs for the entire day, but now a squall was coming in, so I hurried up the final slope, diving into the refuge out of the rain. Since my last visit in 2012, the door has come off its hinges, but the place is still reasonably weather-tight, with an old tent groundsheet suspended from the ceiling to divert any drips! On the door was a new message: "Those who use this bothy would be advised to take their litter home with them. Failure to adhere to this will result in a visit from the man of the hills, the guardian. Ignore at your peril, for if you look into his eyes he will steal your soul."

There was a good sleeping mat in the refuge that made for a comfortable night. There were also some candles, which made the place quite atmospheric after dark (I took any used ones away with me, and also collected up various other bits of litter). In the night the wind was frighteningly strong, the force of it lashing against the back wall was incredible in the night, but I felt safe inside this little refuge that has withstood Cairngorm storms since 1966.



The massive Shelter Stone boulder
The massive Shelter Stone boulder
Cairn Gorm and Loch Avon from top of slabs
Cairn Gorm and Loch Avon from top of slabs
View over Loch Etchachan to Beinn Mheadhoin
View over Loch Etchachan to Beinn Mheadhoin
Garbh Choire Refuge
Garbh Choire Refuge

Sunday 1st September 2013

I awoke to considerably worse weather conditions; cloud was down to 900m (low in Cairngorm terms), and the wind was strong enough to make standing up difficult. There are three possible escape routes for the walker from An Garbh Choire, on the south side there is the northeast ridge of the Angel's Peak (Sgòr an Lochain Uaine) (a grade 1 scramble that I did in 2012), and the parallel Corrie of the Chokestone Gully route. On the north side, the ridge bounding the southern arm of Coire Bhrochain offers a straightforward way to the plateau, which looked the easiest option given the weather.

It was hard to leave the warmth and shelter of the refuge and finally set off into wind and drizzle. The initial part of the climb involved following a stream to the lip of Coire Bhrochain. Ron Turnbull recommends going to the back of the corrie to reach "a stone shelter alongside a stream, a delicious lunch spot", but I decided against this since it was too misty to really appreciate the splendour of this corrie, reckoned to be the most imposing in the Cairngorms.

The climb up the south ridge was initially quite awkward over rock and boulders, but soon I was up on the plateau, exposed to the full force of the wind. I'd considered staying up on the plateau for a few miles, then scrambling down the southern arm of Coire Dhondail, but now I wanted to get out of the freezing conditions as quickly as possible! It was too windy to have the map out, so I followed a compass bearing northeast, keeping well away from the edge of Coire an Lochain to the right.

Picking up the western arm of Coire an Lochain, I curved round to the north to reach a flatter area. By some miracle I spotted a cairn marking the start of an old stalkers' path descending west to Gleann Eanaich. A stone runnel had been cleared of rocks, making light work of the steep bouldery slopes zigzagging down the hillside. Soon I emerged from the cloud and could see down along Gleann Eanaich to Loch Mhic Ghille-chaoil. Views of Loch Eanaich were dramatic; the surface was covered in white horses and occasional blasts of wind were whipping clouds of spray into the air.

Near the bottom the stalker's path vanished, and without checking the map I unfortunately picked a rather steep awkward slope to descend, through deep heather. It was a relief to reach the track in Gleann Eanaich, and find a sheltered spot for lunch; the experience of crossing Braeriach in a Cairngorm storm had been intense!

This evening I wanted to reach Drake's Bothy in the Inshriach and Invereshie National Nature Reserve. Due to the continuing high winds I was keen to descend to lower levels and spend the final two days of the trek in gentler wooded surroundings. The direct route to here involved more cross-country walking, first wading barefoot across the chilly waters of the River Eanaich, then a gradual ascent over rough grass to Lochan Beanaidh. Views back to Loch Eanaich continued to be awe-inspiring with more clouds of spay being blasted into the air by the force of the wind.

Next I crossed the Allt Ruige na Sròine, and began the steeper climb up Creag Dhubh to the Argyle Stone, the westernmost and lowest in altitude of the Cairngorm granite tors. A party of Campbells on the way to the battle of Glenlivet in 1594 is said to have gained a last glimpse of Argyll from this spot. On top it was even windier than Braeriach and I could barely stand up against the force of the wind. On walking behind the tor, I nearly fell over at the sudden drop of wind on the lee side!

As I descended towards the trees in Coire Follais, the wind began to subside, and I picked up an overgrown path along the Allt Coire Follais. Near the top I disturbed a female reindeer and her calf grazing in corrie - they had strayed quite far from Rothiemurchus! To the right were the crags of Creag Fhiaclach where Scots Pines grow at 625m, probably the highest native pinewood tree line in the country. Beneath the pines are mature juniper bushes, in places growing right across the path.

After the past two days on barren windswept mountains, the shelter and gentler beauty of the native pinewood was a welcome sight. I even spotted some bright yellow chanterelles growing amongst some tree roots. It was tempting to collect them for cooking, but since I had no cooking oil I decided to leave them be.

Towards the bottom, the path came out of the streambed and desceded an open hillside. From here I had a stunning views northwards over pine forests to Loch an Eilein and Loch Gamhna. The western flanks of the Cairngorm Mountains, between Rothiemurchus and Glen Feshie is owned by Scottish Natural Heritage and managed as the Inshriach and Invereshie National Nature Reserve.

The woodland is this area is a remnant of the once extensive Caledonian Forest. In the 19th century the woods were exploited for their timber to feed sawmills and boatyards. Some of the older pines here are 200 years old, but until recently the pressure of red deer grazing has prevented woodland regeneration, and only in the past two decades has new growth started to become established. This has been achieved without fences, solely by reducing deer numbers, with an annual cull in the first three weeks of October. These woods are now home to Black Grouse, Capercaillie, Crossbill and Crested Tit. Mammals are elusive, but include Pine Marten, Otter, Red Squirrel and Wildcat.

At the foot of the path I turned left onto a wider more established path, leading to the wooden shelter of Drake's Bothy. This is one of the finest remaining wooden shelters in the Cairngorms National Park. Set in beautiful wooded surroundings this is one of the nicest bothies that I've ever visited. Seldom does the timelessness of the mountains extend down to the glens, but here the march of progress has held in check, giving a tantalising glimpse of what once was.



Looking up the windswept Gleann Eanaich
Looking up the windswept Gleann Eanaich
Stray reindeer in Coire Follais
Stray reindeer in Coire Follais
View over Inshriach to Loch an Eilein
View over Inshriach to Loch an Eilein
Drake's Bothy in Inshriach Nature Reserve
Drake's Bothy in Inshriach Nature Reserve

Monday 2nd September 2013

Today's walk would be mostly low-level, following the River Feshie upstream. Before setting off I had to backtrack a few hundred metres in the opposite direction to collect water from the Allt Coire Follais, for there would be no safe drinking sources for most of the day. Just before the stream I saw a red squirrel feeding on the path - it ran off as soon as it saw me. Heading back in the other direction I soon came to the edge of the SNH land, and entered a Forestry Commission plantation.

There was a van on the forest road and a couple of people, one from SNH and one from the National Park authority. I asked for directions to Feshiebridge and they gave two options, one which goes straight there and the other which comes out on the road a mile south of Feshiebridge by the Cairngorm Gliding Club landing strip. This second option might have been interesting if I was following the east side of the Feshie, but I'd already been this way in the previous week on the Mullach Clach a' Bhlàir walk, so had decided on the west bank of the Feshie.

Most of the way to Feshiebridge was on wide forest roads, not particularly scenic, the only nice section was in the middle over the Moor of Feshie, where the track narrowed and became grassy. The track emerged on the road at Feshiebruach, where there was a short descent to the old stone bridge at Feshiebridge. The bridge was currently covered in scaffolding, undergoing some repair work. A couple of cyclists stopped and asked me to take their photo - they were on a Land's End to John o' Groats bike ride, and had just a few days left to go.

From the bridge I picked up track on the west side of the Feshie, marked by a Scottish Rights of Way Society sign. There were lots of wild raspberries growing beside the track, which was a nice treat. On this section there were lots of mature birches growing, with their leaves just beginning to take on the gold of autumn. Occasionally there were close-up views of the distinctive gravel flats on the banks of the Feshie.

The next five miles would be on tarmac; a mile on a public road, then four more miles to Glenfeshie Lodge. A bicycle would have been very useful on this section. Not the most pleasant surface to walk on, but the scenery in Glen Feshie was faultless, becoming more and more beautiful as I headed upstream. I passed by the Pony Bridge, the last crossing over the Feshie, since the Carnachuin Bridge two miles upstream was destroyed by a flood in September 2009.

At the Pony Bridge, a sign warned that the path up the east side of the Feshie has suffered from landslips and severe erosion, which could make it difficult or even dangerous when carrying a bicycle or heavy pack. The only alternative is to ford the Feshie at least three times, which is not possible in spate. I hope that the estate get the path fixed, since this is one of the classic through-routes in the Cairngorms and also part of Cameron Mcneish's Scottish National Trail.

On the way up the glen I admired the fine stands of Scots Pines, and the young saplings that are now growing as a result of reduced deer numbers. Views across to the wooded hillsides on the east side of the glen were particularly sublime.

At Carnachuin, I took a look at the sad remains of the old wooden bridge. A notice from the estate announced intentions to build a replica bridge in the same location in May-June 2010, but there was no evidence of this other than a pile of timber on the far bank. Apparently the National Park planning process has been an obstacle - a great pity since this historic bridge was well used and much loved by hillwalkers.

Beyond Glenfeshie Lodge the tarmac road became a gravel track. A mile onwards, at the low ruins of Ruigh-fionntaig, I passed a group of three healthy-looking horses. The track now turned away from the Feshie, and began a gentle climb up a valley to Lochan an t-Sluic. It was still a little windy, but I found a sheltered grassy spot to camp at the head of the loch, my first camp of the trip!



Birches on the banks of the Feshie
Birches on the banks of the Feshie
Wooded slopes above the Feshie
Wooded slopes above the Feshie
The ruined bridge at Carnachuin
The ruined bridge at Carnachuin

Tuesday 3rd September 2013

This was to be the last full day of walking on this trip - I had to get within a few miles of Kingussie by this evening, so that I could catch the first train on Wednesday morning. The track continued uphill to a forestry plantation. My map showed an old path running through the plantation, but it looked seldom-used and overgrown, so I climbed higher up the track, traversing above the plantation. I was tempted to climb the Corbett of Carn Dearg Mòr - at 700m the track is a mere 150m below the summit!

A mile further on at a second plantation I left the track and descended rough ground cross-country to reach the banks of the Allt Bhran. There was a fantastic feeling of openness and space on this wild bit of moorland. The river had wide gravel flats and was quite braided like the River Feshie.

The path along the riverbank was initially quite vague, but became more distinct between the tributaries of Fèith an Dubh-chadha and Allt nam Plaidean. I spotted a landrover and quad bike on the opposite bank and tried to keep out of sight. There were plenty of grouse and red deer in this area, and I hoped that I wasn't disturbing stalking activities. Beyond the Allt nam Plaidean, all traces of path vanished and once beyond the vehicles I crossed the river to gain the track. A mile further on I reached a lodge and a sign marking the entrance to the Gaick Estate.

The next four miles would be on a tarmac track down Glen Tromie. Once again the quality of the scenery surpassed the conditions underfoot. In upper Glen Tromie there is a fenced area which is in the early stages of mixed woodland regeneration. Further down the glen was an impressive stand of mature juniper bushes/trees, whilst in the lower glen the dominant tree was birch.

At Glentromie Lodge I turned to take the route over the moorland to Ruthven Barracks. The initial part of this path climbs up though the birch woods, and a diversion has been put in place to avoid the lodge. Unfortunately the path has become overgrown with bracken and was infested with ticks. I spent nearly an hour beating back bracken, slowly making progress up the hillside. The shade of the trees made ideal conditions for midges, and I was being eaten alive! It was quite a relief to climb a ladder stile and emerge onto the open heather moorland.

After half a mile, I decided to stop for the day - Kingussie was just two miles away. There was not much water around - I had to drop a short distance to the Burn of Ruthven, which was little more than a trickle. I decided to boil the water to kill any bacteria and parasites before drinking it. It had to be an early night, since I would need to get up around 5:30am, to catch the train at 7:37am.



Deer above the Allt Bhran
Deer above the Allt Bhran
Upper Glen Tromie
Upper Glen Tromie

Wednesday 4th September 2013

In the morning there was a beautiful sunrise, the sky painted in pastel pinks, blues, yellows, oranges and purples. I was now on the final section of the "Summer Road To Ruthven", the route used in the 18th century by redcoat Hanoverian soldiers travelling from Blair Atholl and Dalnacardoch, via the Minigaig and Gaick Passes, to Ruthven Barracks.

The mound, on which the Barracks stands, is naturally formed of sands and gravels deposited by the melt waters of glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age. The ditch at the front of the Barracks is the former course of the Spey, which subsequently moved to the far side, forming the Strathspey flood plain. This left the mound standing free, guarding one of the few reliable fords in the middle reaches of the Spey, before the river was bridged in the 18th Century. The mound was the site of a wooden, then a stone castle before the construction of the Barracks.

Ruthven Barracks is one of four identical infantry garrisons built by the Hanoverian government at strategic locations to discourage further rebellion after in the Jacobite Uprising in 1715. The main construction was between 1719 and 1721, with stables being added in 1724 to assist General Wade's building of military roads. After the Jacobite defeat at the Battle of Culloden in 1746, around three thousand survivors gathered at Ruthven, hoping that Bonnie Prince Charlie would join them. On 19th April they received their final instruction from the Prince: "Let every man seek his own safety in the best way he can". The Jacobites burnt the Barracks as a final act of defiance before dispersing, leaving the atmospheric ruins we see today.

I had just enough time for a quick look around the Barracks, before rushing off to Kingussie Station. Looking around the stables I inadvertently disturbed a cyclist who was "wild" camping behind a wall! The Barracks had made an interesting historic end to the trip, but now I had to hurry on, past the Insh Marshes, owned by the RSPB; one of the most important wetlands in Europe. I then crossed the Spey on the Ruthven Bridge (constructed in 1894), and entered Kingussie. I've passed through here many times by train, but this was my first visit on foot.

Kingussie has an historic railway station: in the summers before World War 2 it was particularly busy with shooting parties. Some parties hired their own trains or carriages, and some trains reputedly comprised 36 carriages! On one record-breaking day 46 trains arrived between 4pm and 11pm. The station has a particularly long platform to accommodate this level of traffic. There was no on board catering, but passengers could telegraph ahead orders for breakfast/lunch/dinner, which were delivered in baskets on arrival, with up to 500 baskets being supplied on busy days. The trains used to stop for a short comfort break at the station, and extensive toilet facilities were provided including 44 urinals!

My train departed a little late, but arrived on time in Edinburgh at 10am. I had just enough time to grab some food for the rest of the journey before the London train departed at 10:30am. From London King's Cross (around 3pm) I was recommended an unusual route via Paddington, changing in Reading, arriving back in Southampton at 5pm.

I'd had an excellent holiday with plenty of variety and stunning scenery. The pinewoods of Abernethy, Rothiemurchus, Inshriach and Invereshie, and the rich wildlife that they support, make this part of Scotland extra special. I also enjoyed exploring parts of the mountains that I've missed on previous trips, in particular the scrambles. Lastly I enjoyed spending the week with Ruth, Emma and Mike, and now that I've finished the Munros hope to have more time to do this kind of holiday, with the option of a solo trek at the end of the trip.



Sunrise on moors above Kingussie
Sunrise on moors above Kingussie
Ruthven Barracks at dawn
Ruthven Barracks at dawn