Hillwalking - A baby by Cairngorm standards


It hadn’t been too many weeks since I’d been walking around the southern base of Sgorr Mor, a Corbett on the southern fringe of the Cairngorms; now I was back again, this time walking around its northern toes and in an entirely different glen.

I was heading for the big hills I’d looked across at on that former visit.

From the car park at Linn of Dee I’d taken the trail through pine woods redolent with the tang of Caledonian scent. The only sounds were those of a trickling burn somewhere close by in the trees and the occasional chatter of forest birdlife waking up; though dawn was well already on I still needed the light from my head torch to help me along the woodland path.

With the sun rising behind me I left the woods and joined the manicured track for Derry Lodge; as I did so that rising sun was just beginning to light the hills ahead golden, a foretaste of the delights that waited for me miles ahead.

Half hidden in old pines, Derry Lodge is now abandoned and boarded up, a stone ghost with blind window eyes of weathering planks.

Here I left the track for the path into the Lairig Ghru, that famous and sometimes dangerous through route to Speyside. I left behind the trees too and passed below ‘the corrie of the tree of gold’, its name an enigmatic reference to an old legend of hidden, stolen treasure.

After crossing Luibeg Bridge I began my day’s first ascent. Since gaining National Park status much work has gone into the renovation of popular and therefore, well used paths in the area. I remember coming this way a few years ago when the ridge ahead had been strewn with huge white boulder filled bags; we’d chatted to the volunteers who’d been working tirelessly on the new path. Today their efforts had bedded in nicely and my way upwards, once so boggy and slippery, was a dream.

I climbed steeply but steadily, the sun on my back quickly drawing sweat. Carn a’ Mhaim, means: ‘large rounded hill’. Although she rises to a proud 1037 metres, she’s still a baby by Cairngorm standards; its neighbour and my next hill, Ben Macdui, is Britain’s second highest peak and dwarfs her. But what Carn ‘ Mhaim lacks in stature she gains in elegance, possibly possessing the only proper narrow ridge, or arête, in the entire Cairngorm range.

As I climbed mountain mist had enveloped me. After crossing scruffy boulder plagued ground near the summit I arrived at the cairn and the shelter of larger rocks; time for the day’s first brew. Sitting among cliff edge rocks I watched the Devil’s Peak, just across the gaping Lairig Ghru, playing hide and seek behind his own shifting shroud.

With the infant River Dee just a silver thread far below me I headed north. As I picked my way along the mountain’s rocky little spine the sun tore the mists to shreds revealing Cairn Toul and Braeriach, towering high above their own immense shadow filled corries. Down in the col I picked up the path that climbs up beside the Allt Clach nan Taillear; a good path to begin with it eventually deteriorated among the bothersome boulders which burned my thighs and slowly raised me onto the heights of Sputan Coire Dearg.

Ben Macdui was but a mile of gentle walking east. I passed the ruined ‘sapper’s bothy’, touched the summit cairn in mist, then beat it back to the shelter of the former howff for lunch.

It’s a grand down- hill plod, by Sputan Coire Dearg, with its little Lochan Uaine, all the way down to Loch Etchachan. So huge is the scale of things in this region, that the loch, at 922 metres above sea level, (and that’s Munro height, remember), is the highest body of water of its size in Britain.

Since the cloud had so kindly shredded as I’d descended, I made the short but sharp climb onto Macdui’s outlying top, Carn Etchechan and, afterwards, Beinn Mheadhoin’s easier top, Stuchan Dubha.

The views made it all worth while. Loch Avon and the great cliffs of Cairngorm’s eastern corries, looked stupendous as the sun and clouds dappled flanks and water with shades of gold and grey.

But it wasn’t only those views that grabbed my attention. I looked westward to see the skies darkening, thicker rain bearing clouds were steadily marching towards me. With the promised evening rain seemingly arriving early, it was time to reluctantly turn my footsteps homewards.

So back to Loch Etchachan I raced to pick up the footpath I’d watched the volunteers rebuild, it seems so many years ago now. The Hutchison Memorial bothy was empty this time around; no sign of walkers whatsoever. I recalled that previous visit with my brother; we’d met a woman here who was spending, not just a weekend or two amongst the hills, but months!

It has been many years since my brother and I first tramped these tranquil Derry miles.

Now it felt strange to be walking below the friendly flanks of Derry Cairngorm rather than over its pink boulder strewn tops.

My mind goes back to my very first walk here, so many years ago now. My brother and I had walked over Ben Macdui via Sron Riach and Sputan Coire Dearg, I remember it as wild and wintry.

Today was going to see the ‘time out’ record broken once again.

I’d already walked over many miles and over many hours; apart from those Taillier boulders on Sputan Coire Dearg, it had rarely been strenuous and even now the tiredness wasn’t really biting hard.

With the first smir of rain I quickened my pace to a military trot...there were many miles and more than two hours left to go before the comfort of the car.

High on the western flank of Coirean Fhir Bhoga (corrie of the bowman or archer), a great field of boulders resembled dirty porridge flowing down the hillside. I remember one young friend, years ago, gazing up there and asking: “does the council dump that rubble up there to get rid of it.....”

With the rain never really amounting to much, I trotted into the pinewoods above Derry Lodge. It was here, many years ago, that I saw my first blackcock. Not so numerous back then, they’ve since made a healthy comeback, thanks to conservation efforts by NTS; only this morning I’d seen a good number of these birds among the drumlins of Glen Luibeg.

I walked the last pine shadowed mile in as wonderful a gloaming as is only enjoyed in Scotland’s hills. The nearby river sang a boisterous lullaby, an occasional stag snorted somewhere close-by; again the woodland birds told the rest of the world that I was there.

Fully thirteen hours after my early morning start I walked into the car park where only two or three cars remained, probably left by some stalwart overnighters; I quietly stole away.