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Angels, Devils and the Fall

PostPosted: Mon Apr 02, 2012 11:39 pm
by adamarchie

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Following the previous weekend's epic two days in Kintail, my metatarsal heads were feeling in need of an easy day out rather than the Great Wilderness expedition which had been simmering in the back of my mind. I'd enjoyed a fine day in the Cairngorms a few weeks previously (Fiacaill Ridge, Ben Macdui, Derry Cairngorm, Cairn Gorm) and, having read Dan Bailey and Andrew Dempster's recommendations of the NE ridge of Angel's Peak, this looked like the ideal way to unlock the western plateau. I'd only visited this region of the massif once before on a there-and-back outing to Braeriach from the north - and that in poor visibility - so once above the level of the Lairig Ghru, all of this would be new territory.

The alarm was duly set for the regulation 5am start and my car and I wound our way back down from my uncle and aunt's near Huntly to Braemar through a thin smirr. Waterproof trousers were donned at Linn of Dee for the ride in but soon proved unnecessary as the northerlies got to work on the Cairngorm clag. The track to Derry Lodge is excellent and really not bad beyond. The last half mile or so to Robber's Copse is incised by drainage ditches which, given that mine's a 20 year old unsuspended mountain bike with road tires, occasioned some waddling. Meanwhile, the whole approach is gorgeously tree, stream and river-lined: food for the soul after the desolation of west Affric the previous weekend.

Cloud-shrouded Macdui and Derry Cairngorm

I locked the bike to a purpose-built tree in the Copse and forded the river. (Incidentally, the 1:25,000 doesn't, I think, have the ford location quite right, sending you across a bit too early. The thing to do is to stay on the north bank until you can clearly see path on the other side.) The contouring path around the south of Carn a' Mhaim eases you in gently and builds the suspense. Any minute you're expecting the Devil's Point (penis in the Gaelic - or perhaps glans would be more apt) to rear up around the next corner. Today, darkened by threatening clouds, its entrance was imposing.

First sight of Devil's Point

The path continues its parabolic contour into the Lairig Ghru and Corrour comes into view, dwarfed beneath the shattered rearing Devil-rock and the bulk of Cairn Toul lost high in the cloud ahead. At this point the view up the Lairig was a snowy mist descending fairly rapidly towards me. Fortunately the thin blizzard was short-lived. Indeed, I was soon enjoying a contrastingly stupendous view back down the glen, gunmetal rocks glinting in the sun.

A snowy Lairig beckons

Back down the Lairig

Once firmly in the grip of Cairn Toul and Ben Macdui, it was time to strike off over rough ground and ford the Dee, which I managed fairly easily by going upstream of its dividing point and taking it in two bites. From here a gradually ascending contour led into the jaws of An Garbh Coire, "the rough corrie" a rather prosaic name for this most majestic of corries: four dramatic hanging valleys, their bottoms ripped out in one giant glacier-gouge.

It was at this point that I looked up from my heather and turf negotiations to see a yellow helicopter wasping its way into the corrie ahead of me under a cloud-girt Braeriach. At first I suspected a mountain rescue, but judging by the cursory flight path it was a training exercise, and soon the wee beastie was back out and buzzing round Macdui's head.

Chopper under Braeriach

Chopping clag over Macdui

It was perhaps a good thing the chopper didn't hang around as the next section of the day was to prove the most thought-provoking. I'd considered striking up obliquely into the Lochan Uaine corrie from an earlier point, which would have been easier, but the lure of the (at this point) hidden waterfall that spouts over its precipitous edge was too strong. Sure enough, the expectation was justified.

Lochan Uaine Falls, slabs to the viewer's left

Looking up, I reckoned on picking a line through the unencouragingly smooth and occasionally steep slabs to the left of the fall. At first this was relatively straightforward, notwithstanding the thin coating of snow which I was encountering with increasing height. However, the slabs were becoming ever-smoother, without much in the way of cracks either in or between them. At length I found myself attempting to get from one set of thin footholds onto an upward slanting crack that would hopefully take me to easier ground on the right. The difficulty was that there wasn't much of anything in the way of stabilising handholds above it: definitely required for this big and slightly exposed step up. In the end I delicately de-rucksacked and got out my ice axe in the hope of torquing it into the earth-choked crack for a bit of much-needed balance. Unfortunately, in spite of some rather enthusiastic hacking, the crack wouldn't admit so much as an inch of pick tip. Foiled, one last attempt at a haul up left me in no doubt that I'd soon be relying on that particularly expensive and descent-prone form of friction-climbing: Paramo jacket spreadeagled on rock. A retreat was in order, followed by a traverse to the right in the hope of better - if wetter - ground by the waterfall.

Well, this turned out to be my best move of the day: the sight that greeted me was water cascading in a hundred ways over beautifully coppered rock flanked by a steep but wonderfully blocky wall, perfectly cut out of the hillside. The holds were positive and the setting could not have been bettered as I found my way skywards.

Idyllic climbing

A truly sublime water feature

Neither was the view at the top an anticlimax as the day's official objective, hidden from below, reared back against the clouds. The Angel's Ridge is almost unique in the Cairngorms, its finer features normally associated with more distant western cousins. Today, commanding a view of the entire Garbh Coire, it looked a fine prospect.

Ridge of the Angels

The lower slopes are something of a dull boulder field, but things soon start to get more enjoyable as the ridge narrows and the pitch steepens. Meanwhile, today, as I paused for backward glances, a sun-blue lochan widened beneath me against the backdrop of Macdui, a giant panettone beyond. Interest - and beauty - were added to the climbing by the considerable degree of ice-riming on the rocks which necessitated some careful footwork, including a retreat at one point where a critical thin, angled foothold proved too slippery. A traverse out to the right followed by a blocky chimney regained the ridge and the final steep section below the summit posed no problems taken direct.

Lochan Uaine, Macdui in panettone beyond

Rime ice and blue skies ahead

One last pull up and I was on a sun-drenched summit, somewhat surprising another walker who I don't think had expected traffic from my direction. I was grateful for a smooth rock-seat as lunch and chocolate milk was quickly dispatched while he and I exchanged stories of our days thus far, all the time enjoying the most stunning blue skied views of plateau and corrie. It is testament to our shared sense of wonder at these majestic surroundings that it was only a few minutes into the descent towards Cairn Toul that we discovered our mutual membership of the medical profession: something that, for better or worse, in my experience generally occurs after a maximum of two minutes of acquaintance.

Looking out across An Garbh Coire from the summit

We parted ways as I struck up for the summit of Cairn Toul, passing some walkers headed in the other direction with vague notions of a return trip to Braeriach. Normally I enjoy being the only party on the hill, but having seen so few fellow-climbers on the previous weekend's Affric/Kintail round (none at all on a 23 mile first day) I found myself feeling very comradely towards all and sundry.

The climb up to Cairn Toul itself is notable for its views rather than any intrinsic quality and both I and my camera were enjoying the former, particularly looking back at the profile of Angel's Ridge.

Angel's cornice, the ridge in profile, Braeriach beyond

More rough ground but eye-feast on the corrie-edge route to Stob Coire an t-Saighdeir which a Munrosis-sufferer might mistakenly contour around, before a surprise bonus of a descent over an easy-angled spring snowfield of just the right softness to permit a relaxing stride: very welcome after all the preceding boulder hopping.

Tracks in a perfect spring snowfield

Now down to the bealach below Devil's Point, it was an easy pull up to the summit. I was very happy to be accompanied part of the way by a none-too-shy ptarmigan couple: always a treat and a good opportunity to try out the zoom on my "new" point-and-click camera. (Thanks Bronagh!)

Ptarmigan atop Devil's Point

No trouble spotting this one

The views north and south from the summit were stunning - I'd not seen the south-meandering Dee from this angle before - particularly when accompanied by further Bombay mix/chocolate consumption. I was joined at the top by a small lady with a large pack - rather the opposite of me that day, but who in spite of which made it down to Corrour first. In my defence, I was taking it easy on my hill-weary knees and stopped halfway down to fill my Zambia-tested-and-recently-rediscovered water filter bottle in the Allt a' Choire Odhair. Speaking of the descent, due to the recent unseasonably mild weather the axe proved unnecessary: an unusual situation at the top of this NE-facing corrie at the beginning of April I should imagine.

Cairn Toul from the Devil's Point

The Dee winds its way south

Back down on the valley floor, I had a quick peek inside the bothy and a chat with its inhabitants for the forthcoming night. The late afternoon light was now truly stupendous. Indeed I've never seen the Lairig Ghru in such fine garb.

Corrour and Cairn Toul under blue skies

Sunstreams over the Devil's shoulder

The Dee and the Lairig Ghru

From here it was no hardship to retrace my steps of earlier in the day back round to Robber's Copse, though the metatarsal heads were now starting to complain a bit. (I've since got some fantastically spongy insoles which seem to be working.) So I was pretty happy to round a corner and see the copse beneath, now bathed in evening glow.

In view of Robber's Copse

Ben Macdui and Derry Cairngorm under evening sun

Fortunately the copse hadn't lived up to its name - not many chavs in these parts on a weekend - and the bike was where I'd left it. I had a bit of drama early on the way back as the chain popped off. Unfortunately I was both too lazy to extract the surgical gloves from the first aid kit at the bottom of my rucksack and had been too weight-conscious to pack a bike tool, so the front derailleur malfunction which had occasioned it became the subject of a bit of an improvised repair which at least held the chain on the smallest sprocket long enough for me to cruise home - mostly downhill of course. This cycle out really was a pleasure at the end of a fairly long day and one I look forward to repeating. Of course, you do feel a bit bad for the poor foot-soldiers you pass en route. Well, bad mixed with a slug of smug if I'm honest! Incidentally, the footpath which cuts directly for the car park is perfectly cyclable other than a couple of steps and takes you through some gorgeous woodland. It was the perfect end to a day that could only have been bettered by a cordon bleu dinner awaiting me at home - which is exactly what I got on my return to my aunt and uncle's. Sometimes you have all the luck, eh?

Re: Angels, Devils and the Fall

PostPosted: Wed Apr 11, 2012 10:11 pm
by adamarchie
That last bit sounded a bit smug as well, didn't it? :D

Re: Angels, Devils and the Fall

PostPosted: Thu Apr 12, 2012 12:14 am
by Ranger
This ridge is high on my wish list - will be perfect for a Summers day :D

You did well considering the ice and snow still around, makes this a pretty big day for these conditions :thumbup:

Re: Angels, Devils and the Fall

PostPosted: Thu Apr 12, 2012 12:44 pm
by adamarchie
Thanks Ranger. Perfect indeed for a summer's day.

Speaking of snow and ice, an ascent of the Allt na Lochain Uaine waterfall in full winter conditions would be scintillating.

Re: Angels, Devils and the Fall

PostPosted: Thu Apr 12, 2012 1:17 pm
by Alastair S
Nice one Adam. Definitely want to do this route for my next visit to the Angel & the Devil.

I did the more conventional route a week earlier last year and as well as there being a bit more snow about Lochan Uaine was still fully iced over. Details over here.

Re: Angels, Devils and the Fall

PostPosted: Thu Apr 12, 2012 1:52 pm
by malky_c
You jammy git 8)

I did the NE ridge of Angel's Peak in rubbish weather with lots of unconsolidated snow a few years ago, and it scared the shite out of me, as well as providing no views. Definitely high on my repeat list.

Re: Angels, Devils and the Fall

PostPosted: Thu Apr 12, 2012 3:11 pm
by adamarchie
Superb photos, Alastair. Even nicer than mine! Great view of the frozen lochan. That cycle in and out is a great trick, eh? Can see that being repeated many times on future trips.

Re: Angels, Devils and the Fall

PostPosted: Thu Apr 12, 2012 3:16 pm
by adamarchie
Aye Malky, nothing like horribly powdered rock to get the pulse racing. Good thing God invented skis and powder-choked corries for such days!