I'm quite lazy when it comes to driving to hill walks, I much prefer the shortest drive possible to the start, even if it means a longer walk. Having done a couple of big Cairngorm day walks this summer from the Aviemore side (Beinn Mheadhoin and Derry Cairngorm from the Cairngorm Ski Centre, and Sgor an Lochain Uaine, Cairn Toul and The Devil's Point from Glen Feshie), I wondered what else I could do as a day walk to save myself the drive to Linn of Dee.
The weather forecast the night before showed good conditions predicted everywhere, but MWIS had the Cairngorms with the holy grail of "Almost Certain" cloud free summits. So Cairngorms it was! Dogplodder's report on Beinn a'Chaorainn from Glenmore Lodge prompted me to choose that hill, especially as it involved the potentially tricky river crossing at Fords of Avon and the recent dry weather made that a less daunting prospect. But I knew it was usually done with Beinn Bhreac, albeit from Linn of Dee. Even with the slightly longer walk (and more up-down) walk in, maybe I could do both ...? I couldn't see any walk reports covering those 2 hills as a day walk from the Glenmore Lodge / Cairrngorm Ski Centre area, so I wasn't sure if I was missing some obvious barrier (other than distance). I went to bed still undecided on route...
Got up the next morning at an abnormally early time for me on a day off, and set off to Aviemore, still not sure whether to do Beinn a'Chaorainn from Glenmore Lodge or not. The weather was fantastic even from this time in the morning though, so I decided that with perfect visibility on the route, I'd try for something different. So parked up at Cairngorm Ski Centre car park and set off at 8.15am, deciding to go up the Fiacaill a Choire Chais path on the way up, and take in a visit to Cairn Gorm summit, one of my first munros done on moving to Inverness 6 years ago.
I was expecting to find some sort of path from the summit area down to The Saddle, but I didn't on the fairly direct route I took, and so ended up using hands and feet to get down steeper ground to The Saddle (I took a path on the return!). When my hands weren't holding on to rocks or clumps of heather, they were picking blaeberries on this slope . Some cliffs/slabs to avoid but I just went to the side of them.
A nice clear day, so I could see the cross roads of paths at The Saddle and aimed for that, then followed the path heading to the north end of Loch Avon. I could see Beinn a'Chaorainn on the other side of Beinn Mheadhoin and it didn't look too worryingly far away. I stuck pretty much to the path for the 2km walk to the refuge at Fords of Avon, passing a couple of good fast flowing burns on the way to refill my water bottles - I'd taken 2.5 litres and didn't want to scrimp on drinking water in this weather so intended to refill at any fast flowing burn.
The spare socks in my rucksack taken with the expectation of getting wet feet at the Fords of Avon were surplus to requirements as the river was easy to cross on stepping stones. Same for the tributary joining it along the base of Beinn a'Chaorainn. The steep walk straight up the side of the mountain wasn't as exhausting as it looked from the bottom and the heather then rocks were straightforward to go up. Getting on to the northern ridge resulted in finding a bit of a worn path along the ridge and a nice (relatively) gentle gradient to the summit and its big cairn. Reached it at noon exactly.
Nobody in sight, so I was able to hog the summit cairn as shelter from the breeze for a few minutes while I tried all 3 phones I'd taken to see which one (O2, ee, Vodafone), if any, had signal. Vodafone managed a couple of bars, so I managed to phone my mum to wish her a happy birthday.
I'd left the decision about whether to definitely go for Beinn Bhreac until I was at the Beinn a Chaorainn summit, and to be honest, I still wasn't 100% sure when I was standing there. On the one hand, it looked a long way away still; on the other hand, the ground conditions were as good as I could hope for, visibility was great, and I was relatively close with at least 8hrs of day light left. I decided to at least try for it, but that if the 4 or 5km walk (of which 3km was bog and peat hags) was too slow going I'd abandon it. (A big benefit of living in the Highlands is that it's easy to say I'll just come back and do it another day if conditions get too bad or time runs out).
I hadn't read walk reports for the pair of hills as I hadn't really planned on doing both, but as most people seem to do them together from Linn of Dee, I expected to see a worn path running between them. Nope. Couldn't see anything looking even vaguely like a path. I headed south down the slope to the flat expanse of hags and marsh of the Moine Bhealaidh and tried to skirt to the east a bit to avoid the worst of it. Thank god I was doing it after a dry spell, I'd hate to think what it would be like in wet weather. As it was, I could avoid the wet and overly muddy parts with some meandering, though it seemed to take a long time before I felt I was getting any nearer Beinn Bhreac.
As I finally left the flat ground behind and started the easy, gradual rise towards Beinn Bhreac, I came across ...a path! What?! Where did that come from?? I looked back north towards where I'd come from, and could see it clearly heading up the far east side of Moine Bhealaidh, avoiding the worst of the wet ground. No idea if it then veered west up the slopes of Beinna'Chaorainn, but it's something I'll bear in mind if I'm up here again!! (I've just read the WH route now for the 2 hills from Linn of Dee and it says to take this path. Maybe I should have read it before I set off rather after I'd come home )
Nothing difficult at all about finding the summit of Beinn Bhreac on this beautiful day, the summit being the east of the 2 tops. Still nobody in sight. Most people were at work on this midweek day in September I guess.
My focus was now on getting back to the car - I remembered there was a path down to the Lairig an Laoigh somewhere just to the south west of Beinn a Chaorainn so set off towards that. A direct line meant going through the worst of the hags though, so when I found myself at the top of where the Glas Allt Mor starts its steep descent down the western flank, I couldn't really see why I couldn't just go down near there. On my OS Landranger map it didn't look any steeper than the where the path was further north (both places being very steep!) and no crags or scree were marked, so I decided just to go down there. I think some of it was psychological, just wanting to get back down to the lower level and an easy path to follow and feel I was on the final stretch.
I descended around and down the slopes on the south side of the Glas Allt Mor, mainly on grass, some minor burns or marshy bits to cross, then through some heather lower down (more blaeberries to eat on the way too), crossed the Glas Allt Mor near the bottom (another great water restocking point!) and got safely on to the clear path of the Lairig an Laoigh. It was still only 3pm as I hit the path, not sure why I'd felt like I was under some slight time pressure.
The drawback of heading down from the plateau at this point then became evident when I saw the Lairig an Laoigh path stretching before me and heading up to its high point in the pass ...think I'd subconsciously been thinking it would be a nice flat path even though the map clearly showed it crossing a lot of contours On the good side, it meant I got to walk a nice stretch of the Lairig an Laoigh route, all the way back to Fords of Avon. For variety I could have gone up and over via Loch Etchachan, but I'd been there fairly recently anyway, and my knees didn't fancy the steep descent down to the south end of Loch Avon from there so I went via Fords of Avon and over the stepping stones again.
Retraced my steps from Fords of Avon to The Saddle, but rather than head steeply up and over Cairn Gorm and re-tread the start of the walk, I took a path heading north up the slopes more gradually. First person to speak to all day was passed here! Stopped for a chat - he'd been doing Bynack More - then I headed on, though I lost the path again at one point and he caught me up while I was looking at my map (his Harvey map showed the path, my old OS Landranger one didn't). Saw on his it ran alongside the burn further up, so found it and it was clear from then on again.
Reaching Ptarmigan Restaurant felt like the end of the walk, as from there it's a constructed path back to the car park so no route finding problems. Think that 2km descent was the toughest part of the walk though! My knees were aching from it, and I was glad to sit down in the car when I got back, even if I was joined by midges and so had to keep the doors shut.
Another absolutely brilliant day out though! I'd had a bit of a break from the Cairngorms the last 2 or 3 years, but this year I've done some great multi munro day walks there and reminded myself that on a clear day with good visibility, it's a great place to do different routes and combinations of hills . .... Think I might finally have to draw the line at trying to do Beinn a' Bhuird and Ben Avon from this side on a day walk though ..
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