I'd completed the fifteen Welsh peaks over 3000ft in a single day walk back in 2004 and was now looking for a new challenge. Whilst casting around for possibilities, I stumbled across an old OS Outdoor Leisure map of the Cairngorms in the corner of a charity shop. Opening it up, I was stunned to see a huge area of wilderness with not a single public road. I had no idea that such places existed in Britain!
The map was criss-crossed by a network of footpaths and it was clear that there were plenty of bothies, huts, refuges and howffs offering basic shelter from the elements. This looked to be a place where I could happily wander for two weeks, making up the route as I went along. When the weather was fine I could climb Munros and camp high, if not there would be plenty to explore at lower levels. I'd walked the Great Glen Way, the Ben Nevis tourist path and the West Highland Way in March, but was now keen to venture into much wilder parts of the Highlands.
The central Cairngorms is an arctic-alpine plateau, the largest area of ground over 3000ft in the country, including the second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth highest mountains in Scotland. The Cairngorm plateau is bisected by deep two glacial trenches which provide fine mountain passes through the range: the Lairig an Laoigh to the east and the most famous mountain pass in Britain, the Lairig Ghru, in the west.
Being on the east side of Scotland, the influence of the Gulf Stream is reduced, and much of the weather comes from the north and east. High up on the plateau, fragile arctic-alpine plants cling on in the harsh conditions. Lower down, slopes of heather give way to stands of ancient gnarled Scots Pines that line the Cairngorm glens. To the north, Rothiemurchus Forest represents the largest remnant of the old Caledonian Pine Forest that once filled all the Highland glens. In the Cairngorms, the transition from pine woodland, to heather moorland, to arctic-alpine vegetation represents the finest example of alpine succession in the country.
A friend from work, Greg, was also interested in visiting the Cairngorms. He'd already climbed Ben Nevis and was keen to visit Ben Macdui, the second highest mountain in Scotland. Greg's instinct was to approach Macdui by a long walk in from the south, rather than from the more developed Aviemore side in the north. The Youth Hostel in Inverey, located 5 miles west of Braemar, looked to be an ideal base for this trip. Richie from work also wanted to come and Greg decided to drive the three of us up in a single day from Southampton.
Greg and Richie were only interested in staying for a couple of days across the May Day weekend. I had two weeks booked off work and brought sufficient food to last a week of backpacking. My plan was to then replenish food supplies in Aviemore before heading out for another week of backpacking, and finally returning to catch the train home from Aviemore.
Written January 2013
We set off bright and early and made good time up the motorways. From Blairgowrie we took the A93 up Glen Shee to Braemar. By this time it was dark and we drove slowly along the final few miles of minor road to Inverey Youth Hostel. There was a big herd of red deer standing by the road, which caused quite a bit of excitement, particularly from Richie who had never seen such animals before. We unwound Greg's sunroof and attempted to take photos in a makeshift-equivalent of a safari vehicle!
Finally we reached the rustic Inverey Youth Hostel and were given a very warm welcome from the two volunteer wardens. We were ushered into the lounge a given a place to warm up by the fire. The other residents were very friendly and were keen to share their knowledge of the Cairngorms, from the routes of ancient rights of way through the area to the pronunciation of Gaelic names.
Sunday 1st May 2005
Rather than walk along the road, we drove the final few miles up to the road-head at the Linn of Dee. We set off through the beautifully wooded Glen Lui, passing pines festooned with beard lichen. As the glen opened out we could see the mountains were well cloaked in low cloud today. The colours in the glen were vivid: the bottle-green Scots Pines, the brown-purple heather, yellow grasses yet take on the green of summer, the pink granite, rushing grey burns and the occasional brilliant white snow patch. In Southampton it was spring, but here the winter was still clinging on.
We passed by Bob Scott's Bothy unaware of its presence by the river. This convenient bothy was destroyed by an untended fire in December 2003 and at the time of our visit it must have been in the process of being rebuilt, due to reopen in July 2005. A little further on we saw the boarded-up Derry Lodge and a wooden hut with an emergency telephone. Crossing the Derry Burn we turned west up Glen Luibeg, admiring more fine stands of native Scots pines.
We continued following the Luibeg Burn as it swung north into an enclosed corrie. This corrie is split by the long nose of Sròn Riach, which was our route to the summit of Ben Macdui. Navigation was initially straightforward on this ridge, but higher up it merged into the plateau and Greg produced a GPS with built-in mapping to help with the navigation. The conditions were wet, cold and windy and we were all glad to have good waterproofs.
Another party making the ascent at the same time as us were kitted out in jeans, and must have been most uncomfortable with the cold, wet, cotton clinging to their legs.
The final section of the ascent was across a wide patch of remaining snow - with all the swirling white mist this was most disorientating and we would have struggled to navigate without Greg's GPS.
At the summit trig we stopped for the obligatory photo and had a brief discussion of the return route. I suggested that we vary the route and follow the well-trodden path down to Loch Etchachan and into upper Glen Derry. The Hutchison Memorial Hut would offer some shelter from the elements and a good lunch stop.
We guided the group in the wet jeans to the top of the Sròn Riach path - from here they could follow a compass bearing due south to pick the right ridge down into Glen Luibeg.
We then continued towards Loch Etchachan, double-checking our position on the GPS. There were some sizable snow drifts still remaining over the Coire Etchachan Burn. Inside the Hutchison Hut, Richie changed into some dry clothes and we enjoyed a bite to eat. Greg had forgotten his sandwiches so we shared out our remaining food between three.
Pinned to the wall of the bothy there was an amusing poem (conveying a serious message):
FAECAL FACTS If you need to do a sh*te Don't p*ss around, do it right Take a spade, it's provided Dig a hole, cheeks divided Once you're done and wiped your a*s Fill the hole, replace the grass Then walk off, you've done your bit At least you're not a lazy git Thank You.
We continued descending into Coire Etchachan, crossing over the Coire Etchachan Burn. Further down in Glen Derry, we were glad of the shelter offered by the beautiful Scots pines. The National Trust for Scotland has enclosed some areas with fences to allow the trees to regenerate away from the attentions of grazing deer. Once the trees are re-established these regimented fences will be removed.
At Derry Lodge we re-joined the outward route and tromped wearily along the track back to the Linn of Dee. 19 miles was quite a long walk, particularly in less than ideal weather conditions and was a tough introduction to hillwalking for Richie. Nevertheless Richie thoroughly enjoyed it and was always recalling the trip and asking when we could go on another one.
Back at the hostel we were handed cups of tea by the wardens and ushered in to warm up by the log fire. The residents and wardens listened to the account of our Macdui walk with interest and shared their day's routes with us. These volunteer wardens were doing a splendid job, not just doing the chores, but also encouraging a convivial atmosphere. The hostel closed in 2007, a sad loss to the Cairngorms and an insult to those who gave up their own time to keep it going. Inverey had an intimate atmosphere that simply cannot be found in the larger more accessible hostels.
Monday 2nd May 2005
Greg and Richie set off early in the car. Richie had a flight booked back from Edinburgh to Southampton. Greg was going to drop him off at the airport then go for a long scenic drive through the Highlands up to his favourite corner in the far north-west. Before leaving, they gave me a lift up to the Linn of Dee, where I repeated the previous day's route up Glen Lui for a few miles.
I planned to tackle the remoter Munros on the eastern side of the Cairngorms in the first week. My first objective was Beinn Bhreac, which I reached via a stomp over heather moorland up Meall nan Uan and along the side of Meall an Lundain. This point could have been reached with less effort from Glen Derry, but I was keen to vary the route from the previous day.
Higher up the heather became less rampant and I climbed easy slopes to the twin summits of Beinn Bhreac. There is little visual difference between these two summits - the east one is apparently higher, but I visited both to make sure! I was now up on the Cairngorm plateau and picked a way over the moorland, avoiding the peat hags and occasional boggy areas.
The second objective for today was Beinn a' Chaorainn - approached from this direction this Munro is little more than a slight rise in the plateau. Visibility was good today and I had a view down to the Fords of Avon and across to Beinn Mheadhoin on the opposite side of the Lairig an Laoigh. From the summit I took a slightly different route back down to the plateau and set up camp for the night.
Today's walk would take me into the remotest part of the Cairngorms over Beinn a' Bhùird and Ben Avon. This is the next highest ground in the Cairngorms after the main cluster of peaks around the Lairig Ghru. The first few miles were similar to yesterday, bog-trotting over moorland.
Gradually I climbed up towards the North Top of Beinn a' Bhùird. Approached from this direction it was easy to see why it had earnt its name, the Gaelic meaning "table mountain". On the east side, however, there is a line of steep cliffs that plunge down to the corrie below, the classic case of the half-missing mountain, taken away by a glacier during the last ice age.
Beyond the summit I set off towards Cnap a' Chleirich. Glancing northwards I noticed that dark clouds were approaching and the wind had picked up. A storm approached with remarkable speed and ferocity - I barely had time to put on waterproofs before I was being pelted by driving hailstones and cold rain. Up on the high plateau I felt very exposed and it would be several more miles before I could drop down to more sheltered slopes.
The low point between Beinn a' Bhùird and Ben Avon is a 986m bealach called The Sneck. Today it was a desolate place, buffeted by the wind being funnelled up the glen. As I climbed up towards Leabaidh an Dàimh Bhuidhe the highest point on Ben Avon, the wind-driven hail stung my face.
The vast sprawling summit plateau of Ben Avon is decorated by a number of distinctive granite tors, calling to mind similar (albeit lower) landscapes on Dartmoor. Most of these tors can be ascended by Grade 1 scrambles by their easiest lines. The hardest (but not the highest point on Ben Avon) is the central pillar of Clach Bun Rudhtair which is reached by a Grade 2 scramble and remained unclimbed until the 1930s. Another tor, Clach Bhàn, has some interesting "potholes" on its summit which were used for bathing by pregnant women up until the 1860s, believing it would bring easier childbirth.
The weather today was not congenial to exploring tors, and with limited visibility I used my GPS to locate Leabaidh an Dàimh Bhuidhe. I left my pack at the foot of the tor, where an easy groove took me up to a little notch. From here I carefully picked a way up slabs to the true summit. The wind and wet rock made the slabs most unpleasant, and I was glad to get off the windswept tor and start descending from the mountain.
I was aiming for Glen Avon to take shelter in a wooden building known as the Ponyman's Hut. There was no path and visibility was poor, so I relied on compass bearings and confirmation from the GPS. I aimed for the ridge Sròn na h-Iolaire, projecting northwards - it was essential to get to the top of this ridge as there were precipitous corries on either side.
Lower down the ridge, visibility improved, but the rain and wind were relentless. Despite my waterproofs, I was completely soaked. The next challenge was to cross the Caochan an Uamha, which was now in spate. I cast around for various crossing points, none of which looked particularly attractive. Finally I located a section where the burn was split by a vegetated rock. The surface of the rock was too small and uneven to jump onto, but I figured I could "fall" forward onto it, then scrabble up on-top, and finally leap from the rock to the far bank. This rather desperate move luckily proved successful.
There was one last obstacle - a poorly-maintained suspension bridge across the roaring torrent of the River Avon. Many of the wooden planks were missing and those that remained were seriously rotten. I kept clinging on to the rusty wire cables as I edged across, Indiana Jones style, and gratefully reached the track and Ponyman's Hut on the far bank. I wonder if this bridge still exists, or has now been removed for safety reasons. There is another bridge further down the River Avon, but this would have necessitated a detour of around 6 miles.
I was grateful to get inside the Ponyman's Hut and out of the storm. The hut is little more than a shed and judging by the graffiti on the walls looks to be used mostly by Duke of Edinburgh groups. I had read about the hut in a wonderful book called "The Cairngorm Glens" - a personal survey of the Cairngorm Glens for mountain-bikers and walkers by Peter D. Koch-Osborne. The book has beautiful handwritten text, unique hand-drawn maps and pencil drawings to illustrate the Cairngorm scenery (along similar lines to Wainwright's Lake District books). Some of the information is out of date and the book is currently out of print, presumably due to the difficulty of updating its handwritten contents.
Rather foolishly I got into my synthetic sleeping bag in damp clothes. I was hoping the moisture would evaporate through the bag and out into the air. Instead clouds of vapour accumulated inside the bag making it unpleasantly humid, and I had to keep opening the zip to let the steam out. The synthetic filling absorbed the moisture and it took several days to fully dry out. Fortunately this did not affect the warmth of the bag as it would have in a down bag. I know now that it is best to take wet clothes off and keep them separate, then put the wet clothes back on in the morning. Clothes do dry remarkably quickly if there is a breeze, although putting on cold wet clothes in the morning is not the most pleasant thing!
Wednesday 4th May 2005
By the morning the weather had improved. The skies were still cloudy, but the clouds were well above the summits. I had a very pleasant walk following a track along the twisting course of the River Avon upstream to the Fords of Avon. At the halfway point I stopped for a break and explored the remote bothy at Faindouran Lodge. Inside there was an angry note from the keeper threatening closure of the bothy if any more fence posts were ripped up and burnt. There was another note warning of the leaning chimney stack. The chimney was subsequently repaired with some difficulty by the Mountain Bothies Association in 2011, but unfortunately collapsed entirely in February 2013, closing the bothy until further notice.
Reaching the Fords of Avon I briefly investigated the refuge there. At the time of my visit, this was a decaying rusty box with badly-fitting door, weighed down with boulders to prevent it from being blown away. Inside the floor was damp and scattered with an assortment of orange survival bags. It didn't look like a pleasant place to spend the night, unless there was no other choice.
By 2011 the 40-year old refuge was in a really dilapidated state and after consultation it was decided to remove the existing box and replace it with a new hut, providing essential shelter which could save lives in an emergency. The improvement work started late August 2011 and was completed in September - just in time to be christened by a fierce October storm. For details of the rebuilding work see here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-highlands-islands-14707803
Rather than cross the Avon I climbed northwards out of the glen and up onto the Munro Top, A' Choinneach. A little further on I reached the summit of Bynack More, my only Munro for the day. En route there was a distinctive line of three granite tors called the Little Barns of Bynack (the real Barns of Bynack were out of sight on the right, and I decided not to investigate). From the summit I took a similar route back to A' Choinneach, then dropped down to a juncture of paths called The Saddle at the head of Strath Nethy.
I was now back on a footpath again, following a spectacular route along the north shore of Loch Avon. At 700m above sea level, Loch Avon is a remarkable vast water body, surrounded by steep slopes on all sides. To the northwest lies Cairn Gorm, to the southeast Beinn Mheadhoin, with Carn Etchachan and the Shelter Stone Crag marking the head of this great trench. This area can rightly be described as "the heart of the Cairngorms". Thankfully Loch Avon has remained untainted by the ugly ski developments that are not far away on the north side of Cairn Gorm.
At the head of Loch Avon there is a well-known howff called the Shelter Stone - a 1500-ton boulder fallen from the crags of Carn Etchachan, with enough space underneath to comfortably sleep 5 people. The main disadvantage is the damp floor comprising discarded plastic survival bags, earth and assorted detritus. Of the cluster of fallen boulders below the crags, it is the largest and lowest, marked by a cairn on top. Despite its place in Cairngorm climbing history, I didn't feel inclined to spend a night sleeping on damp rubbish, and instead put my tent up on a grassy patch near the head of the loch.
Thursday 5th May 2005
Today would be a fairly short walk to climb both Beinn Mheadhoin and Derry Cairngorm. Another storm had arrived in the night and today was wet and blustery. I set off up the well-trodden path to Loch Etchachan, then diverted off north to the rough slopes of Beinn Mheadhoin. This Munro's Gaelic name means "middle hill", appropriately since the mountain sits in the heart of the Cairngorms. It is a sort of island peak, surrounded on all sides by deep glens rising beyond to more mountains, making it rather inaccessible from the nearest road.
The summit boulder-field is dotted with granite tors, the Barns of Beinn Mheadhoin, giving it a similar character to Ben Avon. Also in common with Ben Avon, an easy scramble up a tor is required to reach the summit. The highest ground is marked by a clump of three tors - the biggest is the true summit and is easily climbed up its northern side (all other sides are sheer). The wind was blowing so hard that I was struggling to stand up, so I left my pack at the foot of the tor and carefully scrambled up to touch the top.
In "Walking in the Cairngorms", Ron Turnbull states Beinn Mheadhoin is "the mainland's second-least accessible summit (equal with Ben Avon)". Presumably Ron means in terms of scrambling difficulty, although he does not actually say which is the least accessible mainland summit - there are several candidates including The Cobbler, the northern pinnacles of Liathach and the western summit of Stac Pollaidh.
I retreated back to Loch Etchachan then headed up the far side, over Creagan a' Choire Etchachan to reach Derry Cairngorm. I don't remember much about this section other than endless pink granite boulders, gravel and scree. Back at Loch Etchachan I sought shelter in Coire Etchachan at the Hutchison Memorial Hut. Rather surprisingly for a week day, the hut was jammed full of people, no doubt sheltering from the wind and rain. I didn't fancy a sleepless night crammed into a tiny hut, so opted to put my tent up close by.
Friday 6th May 2005
In the night the wind was fierce and I was glad of the quality of my Hilleberg tent. The single aluminium hoop yielded to gusts of wind but bounced back every time. In the morning one of the chaps from the hut said he'd been out for a pee in the night and seen the tent pushed right down by the wind. He was very surprised that it was still standing in the morning!
By now my food was running low and it was time to start finding a way to Aviemore. I climbed back up to Loch Etchachan and retraced steps to Loch Avon, then picked up a little path through Coire Raibeirt. Two of the guys from the hut caught up with me on the way - they were returning to their van at the Coire Cas car park, and offered me a lift. They must have felt rather sorry for me last night, and said they would have made room in the hut if I'd wanted to come in. They gave me some boiled sweets to keep my energy up.
Less than a mile beyond the summit we stopped at the 1097m Ptarmigan Station at the top of the funicular railway up Cairn Gorm. In the winter this is used by people to quickly gain height on Cairn Gorm, to do winter-sports. In the summer it mainly operates as a tourist railway. There is a café and restaurant at the Ptarmigan Station and the views across Rothiemurchus are stunning. To prevent damage to the fragile mountain environment, and to discourage inexperienced people from venturing onto the mountain, the funicular operates a closed system. If you come in at the bottom, you have to go out at the bottom. At the time of our visit, people entering at the top had to sign a register and surrender their rucksacks to ensure that they left by the same route. This has now changed and it is possible to take the funicular down off the mountain.
The Cairngorm Mountain Railway is the highest railway in the United Kingdom and opened in 2001. The reason for the construction was that the chair lift was too sensitive to the strong winds in the area (the funicular can operate in winds up to 60 to 75 mph). The development was very controversial and took place in the face of vehement opposition from conservation groups. The tunnel blasted through the granite in the upper section represents what is probably the most severe environmental damage ever inflicted on a Munro. Despite qualms about its suitability, now it was there we decided to go inside and get a cup of tea to warm up.
Once refreshed we retrieved our packs and headed out the back door and down easy slopes into Coire Cas, weaving around the messy ski fences. The car park is at 600m above sea level. I wanted to stay at Glenmore Lodge and get a shower, so that I could quickly nip in and out of Aviemore the following day and pick up some food. The guys gave me a lift down to Glenmore, but unfortunately the lodge was fully booked. I considered trying the Glenmore youth hostel, but instead decided to use the opportunity to visit Ryvoan Bothy.
The walk was several miles, initially through pines, then through the steep-sided Ryvoan Pass past An Lochan Uaine. The bothy, owned by the RSPB, is a little further on near Lochan a' Chait. This charming bothy has a reputation of being haunted and there are various stories of people's dog's barking at the wall and one person who claims to have seen a Roman soldier. I was unaware of these stories at the time and the night passed without incident.
I decided to take it easy and have a leisurely walk through Rothiemurchus Forest to Aviemore. Initially I had to retrace steps to Glenmore Lodge, then followed paths along the south side of Loch Morlich. This loch has sandy shores and people use it as an inland beach in summer! I followed a well-maintained track, then a path through the trees to a major juncture of paths known informally as "Piccadilly Junction". From here I followed the All Druidh, crossing the Cairngorm Club Footbridge. I then headed west to the beautiful wooded shores of Loch an Eilein and admired the evocative ruined castle on the island in the loch.
A track and minor road took me to Inverdruie, where it was then a short walk into Aviemore. Once in Aviemore I tried the youth hostel, which was fully booked, so instead found a reasonably-priced B&B. Tesco had everything I needed to replenish supplies and I deposited rather a lot of unwanted food packaging in the bin in my room! It was great to have a shower and a decent wash after a week out in wild.
Sunday 8th May 2005
Rather than plod back out to Rothiemurchus I took a taxi from Aviemore to the first car park east of Coylumbridge. The path from here was surprisingly overgrown and indistinct, and eventually I made my way back to Piccadilly Junction. The weather was not good for climbing Munros and with a fully-laden pack I opted for an "easier" day walking up the Lairig Ghru.
"Easier" being a relative term - I still had to climb to 800m at the top of the pass, and a blizzard came in as I was crossing and descending the far side. This reduced visibility and I had to take care not to lose the main line of the path. Surrounding the Lairig Ghru are the highest and most spectacular peaks in the Cairngorms: Ben Macdui, Braeriach, Sgòr an Lochain Uaine and Cairn Toul. With the swirling wind-blown snow I saw little of these views.
Near the The Devil's Point I located the footbridge over the River Dee (essential since it is difficult or impossible to ford here) and picked a way across the sea of bog that protects Corrour Bothy from all but the most intrepid. At the time of my visit, this well-known and well-used bothy is famed more for its stunning location than the quality of its facilities.
The only sleeping space was a cold stone floor and the surrounding area had been severely over-used as a toilet by the many visitors. On threat of closure by the National Trust, the Mountain Bothies Association took steps to improve the situation. A composting toilet with removable bags has now been installed in a little extension. The inside of the bothy has been made more cosy with a wooden sleeping platform and a wood-burning stove.
I was sharing the bothy this evening with a couple of young chaps who'd hiked up from Blair Atholl through Glen Tilt. They said that every year they'd head out on a walking trip through the Highlands. Some other people doing the TGO coast-to-coast challenge were camping outside the bothy.
A while later a New Zealander burst in from the blizzard, with a pair of cross-country skis strapped to his back. He stopped for a while to chat, and stuffed a handful of raw oats into his mouth, washing them down with a few gulps of water. He declared that Corrour was too tame and headed off up to Garbh Choire Refuge (misleadingly marked on the map as a bothy). He'd stayed there previously and said it was a little leaky, but preferred the remoteness to the busyness of Corrour!
The two young chaps were very friendly and shared some of their chocolate pudding with me. In the morning they were heading north and debating whether to take the high route over the The Devil's Point, Cairn Toul, Sgòr an Lochain Uaine and Braeriach, or the easier route through the Lairig Ghru. I was hoping that they'd take the higher route so that I could tag along.
In the morning it was still snowing, so I turned again to the Cairngorm Glens book and headed south, following the River Dee to White Bridge. Crossing the Dee, I followed the Geldie Burn upstream along a track. Just beyond where the Bynack Burn joins the Geldie there is a ruined bothy (Ruighe Ealasaid), which I stopped to investigate. At the time it was possible to explore inside, but recent reports say that it is now fenced off with notices all around advising people to keep out because of its dilapidated state.
A couple passed me on mountain bikes - they were on their way to climb Càrn an Fhidhleir and An Sgarsoch above the Tarf. They forded the Geldie Burn and left their bikes by the ruins of Geldie Lodge. This lodge, together with Bynack Lodge and Derry Lodge represent the three main hunting lodges on the Mar Lodge Estate, built in the late nineteenth-century during the rise of hunting as a popular pursuit by the aristocracy.
I set up camp close to the headwaters of the Geldie and enjoyed soaking up the desolate atmosphere of this high area of moorland. There have been various plans over the years to build a road here to connect Deeside with Speyside. Thankfully these plans never came to fruition and with ownership now by the National Trust and prohibitive costs, it seems unlikely that the road will ever be built.
A little later I saw the walkers return to Geldie Lodge to collect their bikes and cycle back down the glen towards Linn of Dee.
Tuesday 10th May 2005
I followed the Geldie for a few more miles, then the path cut across moorland to a footbridge over the River Eidart. The path now joined the River Feshie which would be my companion for the rest of today. The upper part of the glen is heather moorland, but lower down there is one of the most sublimely beautiful stands of native Scots pines in the country, often called the "jewel in the crown of the Cairngorms".
In 1997 there was controversy when the 42,000 acre Glen Feshie Estate was sold to the Copenhagen company Danstrup Lund Holdings, owned by Danish industrialist Klaus Helmersen and his family. There was concern that ownership of one of the finest Scottish glens was passing out of control of Scottish people. They needn't have worried - the new owners were greatly taken with the natural beauty of Glen Feshie and committed to carrying out an effective conservation policy, in consultation with local bodies.
In 2006 the glen was sold again, this time to Danish clothing millionaire Anders Holch Povlsen. Conservation has remained a priority of the estate. One of the techniques has been to cull deer to reduce the amount of grazing and encourage regeneration without the need for ugly deer fences. They have also undertaken to plant new trees and want to more than double the area of native woodland: http://www.mountainwoodlands.org/events/18-jul-2012-tree-planting-in-glen-feshie.asp . This conservation work has not been without criticism and some locals worry that Glen Feshie will be turned into a "woodland jungle".
This evening I was heading for Ruigh-aiteachain a.k.a. Landseer's Bothy, which nestles in an attractive position amongst the pines besides the River Feshie. Sir Edwin Landseer, creator of the iconic painting "The Monarch of the Glen", did indeed live in Glen Feshie, but his house was next to the bothy. All that remains of Landseer's house is a free-standing chimney adjacent to the bothy. Ruigh-aiteachain is a fine bothy - the entrance room has a rough floor and is used for chopping and storing wood, the next room has the fire and a number of sleeping platforms. There is an "upstairs" with further sleeping room, but I think this might now have been closed for fire safety reasons.
Outside there is a "squat and drop" toilet that empties into a septic tank, one of the few bothies in the country with "modern" toilet facilites. Every so often a special vehicle has to get up the glen to pump out the tank. This delicate operation is logistically difficult as it requires a ford over the Feshie. The availability of the vehicle has to be synchronised with when the Feshie is not in spate.
I spent some time collecting fallen wood from the vicinity of the bothy for use on the fire. Soon I was joined by troops of walkers who were doing the TGO coast-to-coast challenge. This event takes place every year and entering it is subject to submitting a reasonable route plan to TGO. Numbers are limited, but nevertheless it seems to funnel walkers through a number of bottlenecks and Glen Feshie is one. The walkers were all friendly and considerate, but I couldn't help but feel that it was putting too much environmental pressure on particular bothies. The evening's conversation focussed on foot repair and choices of route from Laggan.
The weather had improved, so after four days on lower ground, I would now be venturing back up onto the Cairngorm plateau. I followed a well-constructed stalkers' path up through the trees which initially took a gentle line, then higher up used a series of zigzags to reach Lochan nam Bo. From here I followed the ridge of Druim nan Bo to the summit of Mullach Clach a' Bhlàir.
I now had to cross the vast high moorland of the Moine Mhor, the great moss. This was made simple by a bulldozed estate track that went most of the way. There were some considerable snow patches remaining on the high plateau, especially in the notch formed by the Caochan Dubh burn. A mile or so beyond here I turned off on a smaller path towards the Munro Top Carn Ban Mor. The next peak along was the second and final Munro of the day, Sgòr Gaoith.
I wanted to get down to Loch Eanaich, but the direct route was blocked by steep glaciated cliffs. I headed northwards for a few miles to reach Coire na Saobhaidh, which offered an easy route down. I subsequently learnt that there is a walking route up from the head of Loch Eanaich, described by Ron Turnbull in "Walking in the Cairngorms". Backtracking for a few miles below the cliffs, I crossed the outflow of Loch Eanaich and set up camp by its shore.
Thursday 12th May 2005
Time was running out - I still had quite a few Munros to climb and only two days walking remaining. The weather was fine today, so I decided to follow the ridge above the west side of the Lairig Ghru and collect four Munros. The initial climb was tough up relentless pathless slopes to the Einich Cairn.
Once established on the high plateau, I had a fantastic day following the cliff edge from Braeriach past the Pools of Dee to the Top Càrn na Ciche, then above An Garbh Choire to the pointed Sgòr an Lochain Uaine, the Angel's Peak. Views down into the Lairig Ghru and across to Ben Macdui and Càrn a' Mhàim were stunning.
More climbing took me up to Cairn Toul, then over another Top, Stob Coire an t-Saighdeir to reach the final Munro of the day, the The Devil's Point. Here I chatted to a chap who had left his pack at Corrour Bothy to nip up and climb this Munro. I told him what I'd done in the past two weeks and he seemed to think that I could have climbed more Munros in the same time. On this trip I'd been equally interested in exploring the glens and the remote shelters as reaching the high peaks. My inexperience at the time had made me wary of crossing high ground in poor weather.
I did consider continuing on to climb Monadh Mòr and Beinn Bhrotain, but it was getting late in the day and I didn't want to venture too far south, as I had to get back to Aviemore by the following evening. Instead I took the well-used path down Coire Odhar and arrived at Corrour Bothy for a second time this trip. This time I would be spending the night alone.
There have been reports of ghostly happenings at this bothy, perhaps the most famous story was told by the author Affleck Grey in his book "The Big Grey Man". One day he had reached the bothy soaked through, and since the weather showed no signs of improvement, he decided to stay the night. As he dozed in front of the fire, the inner door was closed, but the outer door was outer wide open. Suddenly he heard it close. Curious he went to investigate and found the outer door tightly barred. The only means of getting out was by squeezing through a small hinged window. Once outside, he came to the simple conclusion that a sudden gust of wind had slammed the door.
However rather than re-enter by door, without thinking he instinctively re-entered the bothy via the window. Contemplating it afterwards, Affleck couldn't explain why he'd avoided the door - the only possible explanation was that he was prompted by some unrecognised primitive fear. My stay was also affected by a disturbance in the night, but in a more mundane way by a couple of mice coming down the chimney and rustling about in the fireplace. I soon put a stop to their activities by setting fire to the little collection of rubbish piled up in the grate.
Realistically there was only one more Cairngorm Munro that I could climb this time: Càrn a' Mhàim. From the Lairig Ghru I contoured around pathless slopes until the angle relented and I could make some progress upwards. Once on top I descended the only true rocky ridge in the Cairngorms, the Ceann Crion Càrn a' Mhàim (the Fiacaill Ridge in the northern corries also counts, but it is shorter and more of a scramble).
I could have dropped down into the Lairig Ghru, but instead opted to vary the route and ascend Ben Macdui for a second time this trip. The ascent followed the Tailor Burn (the Allt Clach nan Taillear, named after three tailors who tried to cross the Lairig Ghru on a winters night and died sheltering by a rock now named Clach nan Taillear, near the foot of the burn).
The climb to the summit of Ben Macdui was a long tough haul up seemingly endless slopes of boulders. Visibility was fantastic and it was wonderful to survey the Cairngorms from the second highest mountain in Scotland, picking out the places I'd visited over the past two weeks.
The summit plateau of Ben Macdui is supposedly haunted by a giant hairy figure or an unseen presence that causes uneasy feelings in people who climb the mountain. This is known as "The Big Grey Man of Ben Macdui" or in Gaelic, Am Fear Liath Mòr. Some have compared it to the Yeti of the Himalaya and the Sasquatch or Bigfoot of North America. In 1925 at the Annual Dinner of the Cairngorm Club, the noted climber John Norman Collie recounted a terrifying experience he'd endured whilst alone near the summit of Ben Macdui some 35 years previously. Collie was Honorary President of the Club, and had been asked for a dinner speech:
"I began to think I heard something else than merely the noise of my own footsteps. For every few steps I took I heard a crunch, and then another crunch as if someone was walking after me but taking steps three or four times the length of my own". Collie was unable to make out the source of the noises because of mist, and continued "... [as] the eerie crunch, crunch, sounded behind me, I was seized with terror and took to my heels, staggering blindly among the boulders for four or five miles." Collie had to forcibly resist the temptation to hurl himself over the precipitous cliffs of Lurcher's Crag to escape from the terror, and ran some distance almost all the way down to Rothiemurchus Forest before he felt free from his pursuer.
Other climbers have also reported similar experiences, many describing uncontrollable feelings of fear and panic, some actually seeing a huge grey figure behind them, and others only hearing sounds or succumbing to inexplicable feelings of terror while in the area. One explanation is the remoteness of the position, the lack of navigational landmarks on the featureless rounded plateau, the unyielding aspect of nature and the lack of personal control, evokes a rising sense of fear in some people. If left unchecked this can quickly rise to a panic. The figure itself might be explained by the brockenspectre, a phenomena caused by your own shadow being reflected on clouds below.
Whatever the explanation, these days the Big Greg Man is somewhat of a minor celebrity and has even made it onto the big screen with his own film in 2008: http://www.biggreyman.co.uk/. I felt no such fear on the summit of Ben Macdui, and gladly walked along the edge of Lurcher's Crag enjoying the remarkable views over Rothiemurchus. This route took me gently down to the Lairig Ghru path where I followed the now familiar route down to Piccadilly Junction and on to the Cairngorm Club footbridge.
Last time from this point I'd continued to Loch an Eilein, but this time I took the long straight path to Coylumbridge, past pines and juniper bushes. From here is was then a few miles along the road to Aviemore. I bought a ticket for the first train the following day heading south to Edinburgh, then went off to find accommodation. Once again the youth hostel was fully booked, so I had to use the campsite on the south side of the town.
The campsite was most unwelcoming - the toilet blocks operated on a key card system, but since I was departing early the following morning they would not give me a key, because I would be leaving before the office opened. Rather embarrassingly I had to keep loitering outside the toilets waiting for someone else to open the door. The ground of the campsite was rock hard and I ended up mangling nearly all my pegs whilst putting the tent up. After the joys of wild camping this was quite a shock.
I decided to treat myself to a slap up meal at a curry house in Aviemore. The food was delicious, but after two weeks of rations my stomach had shrunk - I couldn't eat much and ended up feeling rather bloated. I wished that after buying my ticket I'd headed back to Rothiemurchus for one more night under the stars. Thus an utterly fantastic trip to the Cairngorms had a rather inauspicious ending. To end this account on a more positive note, here are two quotes from guidebooks, one specific and one general, which really stuck in my mind after the trip:
...from the Lonely Planet guide to Walking in Scotland:
"The Cairngorms can seem intimidatingly bleak and featureless. However once you have spent some time there, you may understand what Henry Alexander, an early Scottish Mountaineering Club guidebook author meant by: "the greatness and dignity and calm of the Cairngorms cast their spell over the spirit"."
...from the Cairngorm Glens book:
Where-so-ever you go, remain a hermit inwardly, then your world can never weaken you. Do not leave your peace where you found it. Bring it back with you into this life, whose agitation can then rarely reach you. Hold to is as your most treasured possession, and, unafraid, you may let all storms blow past you. anon.