An epic Cairngorm crossing
by KeithS » Sun Dec 04, 2011 2:21 am
Munros included on this walk: Braeriach, Cairn Toul, Sgòr an Lochain Uaine, The Devil's Point
Date walked: 15/05/1996
Time taken: 13 hours
Distance: 33 km
Ascent: 1800m5 people think this report is great. Register or Login free to be able to rate and comment on reports (as well as access 1:25000 mapping).
I had been bagging some of the northern Cairngorms and it was time to move to the south. What better way than to walk? One of the obvious routes would be to use the Lairig Ghru. Too obvious. I thought I would combine the crossing with gathering a few Munros on the way. I had the problem of getting my camping equipment from Loch Morlich to Braemar without having to carry it, especially as I was using a trailer tent which may have presented a few problems pulling it up the steeper slopes. Fortunately my father was my camping companion and he could tow our stuff round to Braemar. Father's do have some uses, as I tell my kids, even if it's to lug stuff about for them.
It was the middle of May so I was guaranteed good weather. Sorry, I forgot, this is Scotland, the forecast predicted snow on the tops. I had just been on a winter survival course and was happy to try out my new found skills. “It can't be that bad”, I thought to myself, “even if there is a little bit of snow, it's nearly summer”. I prepared for the worst and packed up gear for bad conditions, including crampons and walking axe. I was also carrying a GPS which I had borrowed, although I had only used one once before. This was cutting edge technology at the time.
My father dropped me off on the Cairn Gorm road near to the Sugar Bowl. I crossed the river and set off up the path heading up to the Chalamain Gap which never seemed to get any closer. Once through the boulders I dropped down to cross the Lairig Ghru path near to the ruins of an old bothy. This was the Angus Sinclair hut which had been destroyed by the estate a few years earlier due to misuse by walkers, and for safety reasons.
After a short break I started the first main climb of the day, up the path to Braeriach. Initially I had views down to the Lairig Ghru but soon a few flakes of snow indicated that the Met Office had not been kidding me. These soon built up into heavy snow and I went into cloud. It was not too difficult to follow the well defined path at first but the higher I climbed the more the snow was settling. Soon the path was gone. The snow was now fully covering the ground. The initially steep terrain eased and I had to cross a snow slope. I stopped to put on my crampons and took the axe from the back of my pack. I was keen to try some braking so, on a not too steep section, I had a few practice slides down the slope which I managed to arrest without too much difficulty, and as a bonus I didn't put the ice axe through my chest as I deliberately threw myself onto the snow.
I brushed myself down and made my way back up the slope, knocking the snow off my crampons every few steps as I had been shown. I was making use of the GPS which led me over the top of Sron an Lairige. The visibility was decreasing and the wind was increasing so the snow was coming in almost horizontally. Having descended from the top I started the final climb. The snow was deepening and the wind was blowing the surface into ridges. At times I was sinking in up to my knees. It was hard to see what was up and what was down. The GPS told me I was near the top but I couldn't find the cairn. I knew I was near the summit of the third highest mountain in the country so there had to be some recognition of the highest point. The wind was whipping the snow into my face and, as I checked the GPS a message came on the screen; 'no satellite coverage' and refused to tell me where I was. “You're having a larf!” I said to myself, trying to shake it or warm it or even talk to it to persuade it not to let me down. It had other ideas and kept giving the same message before turning itself off. I was now on the summit of Braeriach, alone with no GPS, in a snow storm. I spent about 20 minutes scouring the area trying to find a cairn. It was hard to work out the top from the gradient, as conditions by now were practically full white-out. Oh well, I resigned myself to the fact that I was going to have to navigate off the mountain by more traditional means. I abandoned the hunt for the cairn as I was starting to get cold staying in the same place.
There was no point in heading back down the way I had come, my father by now was probably already in Braemar so I had little choice but to head south. I knew there were steep cliffs falling 800ft down to the Lairig Ghru, vertical at first and then levelling out to the valley below, although I could see none of this. I knew that, as the wind had been from the west that there was a high chance of cornices at the top of the cliffs. The ground to the west dropped gradually down for miles, ultimately leading to Loch Eunach.
I checked the map and compass and started pacing. Time wasn't an issue as the days were long at this time of year. I kept the top of the cliffs as close as I safely could to my left, to navigate, watching carefully for cracks in the snow, as I didn't fancy too speedy a trip down to the valley below, and I left the top. I paced a hundred meters, rechecked map and compass, paced another hundred, rechecked, paced and continued through the whiteout, gradually working my way, south-west at first and then following the lip of the corrie round to head south.
I kept pacing/checking map and compass and working out my route. The snow eased off, although the visibility was still poor and the snow still lay on the ground. My pace was slow as I took time and care navigating. After a couple of hours I finally dropped out of the cloud and suddenly I could see for miles ahead, under the cloud, towards Angels Peak with Cairn Toul beyond, both with their heads reaching back into the clouds. I kept crampons on as there was still plenty of snow, although the boulders were now starting to show through.
I continued and started to ascend the slopes of Sgor an Lochain Uanie, or Angel's Peak, a subsidiary top of Cairn Toul. Before you all write in to complain and correct me that Angel's Peak is a Munro, not a top, please bear in mind that this walk was in 1996 and it was not promoted until 1997. I took a well earned rest on the top, and made a point of touching the top of the cairn, as, although I don't make a point of collecting tops, I do touch the tops of the tops I have topped. (I was pleased the following year that I had done this as it saved a long return journey.)
It was a relatively simple continuation to Cairn Toul itself, popping out and then back into the cloud en route. Crampons finally came off as there was now more solid ground than snow. I had planned to descend off the plateau via Coire Odhar but had a short detour first. Leaving my rucksack at the cairn which marks the top of the path down I made my way up the gentle slope to the summit of The Devil's Point. The view from the summit took my breath away. Although not the highest peak in the area this has made it onto my top ten list of Munros, partly for the views and partly following the effort made to reach it.
Returning to the cairn I descended, steeply at first, down to the Corrour bothy where I had a hot drink and chatted with a group who were staying there. They appeared duly impressed with my progress of the day. Before I had settled in too comfortably, as I still had several hours to go, I continued with my walk and headed, via Luibeg Bridge, for remote Derry Lodge, passing deer grazing in the woods.
Eventually I met my father who had walked up the path from the road to meet me as we had arranged, and we walked back together to the road and the car near to the Linn of Dee, exhausted but feeling I had achieved quite something that day.
As a post script I was left with the moral dilemma that I had not actually found the summit cairn of Braeriach. Later in the year I was camping with my family at Loch Morlich. Having been going on as to 'did I or didn't I?' for several days my wife said “For G-d's sake, just go and climb the bloody thing will you and stop whittling”. Not one to turn down such an offer, and being an obedient husband, the following day I set off from the camp site and just went and 'climbed the bloody thing'. This time the weather was fine and clear and I found the large summit cairn with ease. Having done so I am fairly confident, from the lay of the land, that I had reached the summit the first time but the snow was probably that deep that the cairn was covered.
I now have a tick with a clear conscience and memories of an experience I will never forget.
I realize this report has gone on for quite some time. Well done if you have made it this far, if you have not made it this far you will not be reading this anyway.
Thank you for letting me share my day.
by LeithySuburbs » Sun Dec 04, 2011 10:01 am
by KeithS » Sun Dec 04, 2011 10:57 am
I ought to point out that I didn't do this walk today, as indicated at the top, it was 15th May 1996. I thought I had put that date in when I did the report but it seems to have reverted to the day of the report. Paul W, I don't know if you can amend that, otherwise never mind.
This walk has been one of my highlights. In a bizarre way, a day like this takes you so far away from any worries at work or home or elsewhere that it is mentally relaxing, even if physically exhausting.
by davetherave » Sun Dec 04, 2011 2:01 pm
Some reports work perfectly well without the use of photos.
Really enjoyed that report.
by Bod » Sun Dec 04, 2011 3:49 pm
by helenw » Sun Dec 04, 2011 4:10 pm
Great to read this report as the snow batters on the window and the last light seems to be fading (at 10 past 3 in the afternoon! roll on the winter solstice and longer days).
by clivegrif » Sun Dec 04, 2011 6:14 pm
It reminded me of my trip into those hills - particularly blundering about in the fog.....
I went in from the Linn of Dee having worked out that a mountain bike could be used to good effect in these parts, and ended up doing The Devils Point, Carn Toul, Angel's Peak, Braeriach, then back via Monadh Mor, Beinn Bhrotain and Carn Cloich-mhuilinn having left my bike at the bottom. However in that fog I could have been anywhere.
The day was most notable for other reasons though. On my map there was a track that led to the Devils Point, but when I got there the track had been grubbed up and turned into the Lairig Ghru path. Never, mind can still go scooting along that.
What I didn't notice was that they also cut drainage notches in the path. I hit one, bike stops and I go over the handbars, landing face first.
The next day my spectacular black eye certainly drew the attention of the good lady at Braemar general stores...
...And then I found out the President George Bush had also acquired a black eye falling off his bike.
Look forward to more tales of 'daring - do', Keith, I enjoyed this one.
by KeithS » Sun Dec 04, 2011 11:06 pm
I enjoyed writing the report, especially after such a long time. It helps me to relive the walk. I'm not sure if I could still do it now. I did make some notes at the time but most is from memory. Ask me what I did yesterday, or even ten minutes ago and I can't tell you. Ask me about a walk fifteen years ago and I can remember every step.
I'm off to relive some of my other memories now. I might share them if I can find the right words.
Walkhighlands community forum is advert free
Can you help support Walkhighlands and the online community by donating by direct debit?