Late last year a small group of friends, my wife and I decided to do 6 challenges for Crohn's and Colitis UK, a charity for sufferers of Inflammatory Bowel Disease which my wife suffers from. When planning which challenges to do we wanted variety and difficulty in equal measure. Our mix of military and sporting backgrounds meant that we would raise little in the way of funds and awareness unless we achieved that aim.
One of the challenges that began to emerge was the 6 Peaks Challenge. It started out as the classic National 3 Peaks but was deemed too mainstream and some of us had done it before. The idea of the 3 highest UK peaks was put forward before we realised that 5 of the 6 highest UK peaks were all in one area of the Cairngorms. We almost settled on doing all 9 4000ft UK peaks before sanity was restored.
So it was decided that we would do the Cairngorm 4000ers followed immediately by Ben Nevis to complete the 6 Peaks. Only 3 members of our 8 strong group had ever hiked before so it was going to be an adventure!
In the months leading up to the challenge we were consumed by the other challenges we were conducting as a group, so we only managed to get two practice hikes in. One up Snowdon and one up Pen y Fan. Not ideal preparation. At least one member of the group learned that hiking in steel toe capped work boots was a big no no!
Summer on the high plateau can be as delectable as honey; it can also be a roaring scourge
Having arrived in Aviemore at 0200 on Saturday 30 July, 5 hours later than intended due to traffic, we checked into the Youth Hostel for 6 hours of kip. At 1030 we set off from Sugarbowl Car Park looking to complete the Cairngorm 4000ers, from Braeriach to Cairn Gorm, in under 15 hours. We would soon understand the meaning behind my favourite Nan Shepherd quote (above).
The sun was beginning to burn through some of the low lying clag and the air was fresh. It was a glorious start to the day. We took the track down to the stream, crossing over the bridge and up onto a plateau before moving off towards the Chalamain Gap. We had heard a lot about the Chalamain Gap and anticipation was split amongst the group, with some fearing the boulders and some relishing the opportunity to skip over them. One of the older members of the group has broken his ankles numerous times and was particularly worried about the challenge faced by the 1000m or so of boulder field.
As it was, we reached the Gap in 40 minutes which is good going for us. Morale was extremely high so we continued to try and maintain a decent speed through it. The best way through the Gap is undoubtably staying in the low ground and hopping from large boulder to large boulder. We knew it was due to rain later in the day so we were blessed to pass through it in good order and under good weather. Even our resident old timer was seen skipping over some of the the boulders!
Moving through the Chalamain Gap
With the Gap crossed in 10 minutes we pushed on towards the first peak, Braeriach. I loved walking out towards the Lairig Ghru from the Gap, the valley opening out and Braeriach towering over the far side. We could see the track that we were going to take winding up the hillside towards Sron na Lairige on the other side of the river and there was a palpable sense of excitement.
On crossing the river it is all uphill to the summit of Braeriach from the Lairig Ghru and is quite hard going, even though the ground underfoot is good. Moving up the spur to the top of Sron na Lairige takes you across some boulder fields; we found a decent path close to the edge of the mountain that meandered through them and afforded us a wonderful view over the Lairig Ghru.
Moving up from the Lairig Ghru towards Sron na Lairige
As we moved closer to Braeriach the clag began to close in and visibility dropped. The weather also began to change and the first signs of rain were in the air. Despite this morale stayed high and we continued to push on after a 5 minute stop just out of the wind off the summit of Braeriach.
Hiking from Braeriach towards The Angel's Peak (Sgor an Lachain Uaine) gives you some absolutely astonishing views. I was in awe of the beauty and ruggedness of the mountains, the pleasantness of the waterfalls and lakes and the abundance of flora and fauna.
The Angel's Peak in the middle distance
Looking down on a beautiful rainbow - no pots of gold to be seen!
We had one hairy moment where I thought the group had separated near the Falls of Dee. The clag had reduced visibility to below 100m and, unbeknown to me who was navigating at the front, the rear 3 members of the group had stopped to put on waterproofs. They had then wandered off in the wrong direction. We managed to regroup quickly after some frantic searching and the point was driven home to those who took navigation for granted!
A quick nav check to ensure all is well
We summited The Angel's Peak after 4 hours and I was deeply impressed with how the group were going. We had maintained around 3.5kph and there were plenty of laughs and jokes going around. Even though visibility was poor, when the sun burned through just enough for us to see into the valley it was as if the big man himself had decided we deserved some reward for our endeavours.
Morale was high!
After a few sandwiches and pork pies we pushed on to summit Cairn Toul, the third peak of the challenge. Cairn Toul summit is surrounded by a boulder field which slowed us down somewhat. We did manage to find a goat track that led us to the summit and then another smaller track right on the edge of the ridge which led us down in the direction of the Devil's Peak.
Pushing on to the summit
Having completed Cairn Toul, we took the steep track towards the Corrour Bothy in the Lairig Ghru. The knowledge that we were losing so much height only to have to regain it on the way up to Ben Macdui was demoralising. Fortunately, the weather was still ok and the beauty of the mountains had not worn off yet so we were still in good spirits. The track down is very steep initially and follows the river/waterfall into the valley. It is a wonderful sight coming down that way.
On the way down to the bothy
We decided to take a 15 minute break at the corrour bothy to have some food and sort kit out. The knowledge of what we were about to attempt was causing some apprehension amongst the group and there was an undertone of nervousness about climbing up Ben Macdui. We were, however, only 5.5 hours into the hike and I was very pleased that we were on course to get up to Cairn Gorm before last light. I was quietly optimistic that we would enjoy the remainder of the Cairngorms hike as much as the first bit; however, the weather always has a vote.
I have no photos of what took place next because we dared not stop to get phones or cameras out. We set off from the Corrour Bothy and followed the prominent track down the Lairig Ghru towards Ben Macdui. We then took a small track to begin the climb up which followed the Allt Clach Nan Tailleur, a prominent river running down from the mountain. It was at this point that things started to worsen.
First of all, we moved out of the river bed too soon in order to push on towards the summit which meant that we had to hike through quite dense shrub and rock formations. This also led us to approach the mountain from further West than I had intended, which made it a more hideous climb up.
Secondly, the heavens opened.
The gradient up towards the summit was relentless and it actually turned into a mini scramble at the top before the plateau. The rocks at the top were very loose and there were a few dodgy moments where you could hear shouts of "below!" as a sizeable boulder crashed at pace down the mountainside. Add to this heavy rain and 30mph winds and some members of the group began to suffer. It took us 90 minutes to travel the 2.4km from the Lairig Ghru to the summit.
Just prior to reaching the top we cowered behind rocks to shelter from the wind and put on our warm and waterproof gear. We were still doing well for time, being 7.5 hours in to the hike, and whilst I was confident we would complete it in good order, I was conscious we needed to get moving quickly. Some members of the group were suffering quite badly with the cold, with temperatures feeling around -2 due to wind and a lack of proper warm kit.
We moved off from the summit quickly. The clag had returned and visibility was now no more than around 50m. It is times like that when trust in the compass is paramount. So, we followed the compass and the cairns off North from the top of Ben Macdui towards Stob Coire an t-Sneachda. We moved rapidly to stay warm, although some were suffering with blisters which meant that keeping the group together in the decreasing visibility was proving problematic. There is a prominent track that you eventually hit if you follow the cairns which will take you all the way in.
We reached Stob Coire an t-Sneachda in impressive time, moving at around 5kph (that's what the cold will do for you!) and pushed straight on to summit Cairn Gorm. The kick up to Cairn Gorm was a lot harder than we had envisaged and the weather was predictably appalling on the summit, so we moved on towards the Base Station car park quickly.
The route down to the Base Station is very simple. It is a large track which runs right up the mountain, which was a blessing for us as we were able to get down to the van (with my dad who was driving ready to go) before darkness set in! A superb result for us as we completed the 4000ers in 11 hours. Not bad for a group that included complete novices.
‘Ben Nevis’ is derived from the Gaelic ‘Beinn Nibheis’, meaning ‘Venomous Mountain’
We had returned briefly to the Youth Hostel in Aviemore, who were amazing and allowed us to have a quick shower, get some food to eat and sort kit out before heading off towards Ben Nevis. There was very little sleep to be had on the mini bus as there was a mixture of excitement and trepidation at what the walk up the mountain would entail.
As it stands, we took the tourist route, recently renamed the mountain path, up to the top. By this point we had been awake for coming up to 20 hours when we set off at 0300 and the legs were tired. Still we managed to get to the top in under 3 hours which was good going, with some members of the group really suffering with burning quads and blisters on their feet. The weather was also poor on the summit and no views were to be had unfortunately, but we were not too fussed as we were one descent away from completing the entire challenge!
The ItTakesGuts team at the summit!
We made our way down the mountain, following the same route, as quickly as we could which saw us split into two groups for the first time. The first group made it down in under 2 hours and the second group arrived 45 minutes later. We, a mixture of experienced hikers and pure novices had completed the 6 Peaks Challenge! A fantastic achievement. We were all in pain at the bottom, largely due to the descent down the tourist track. The boulders and rocks on the path cause damage to the knees and back! Add that to the blisters and burning quads and thighs and we were ready for a pint and a relaxing evening!
We spent the day, evening and night at the Clachaig Inn which was excellent.
In summary, the Cairngorms 4000ers was absolutely fantastic, despite the weather at the summit of Ben Macdui. I would gladly return for a more leisurely stroll and a few members of the group, myself included, are interested in some future munro bagging and possibly having a crack at the Bob Graham Round.
Ben Nevis was ok but in all honesty is full of people and bit bland. If i were to do it again i'd probably go for it in winter up an ice climb or look to traverse across using the Carn Mor Dearg Arete.
Only one member of our party was a regular hiker before this but I think it's safe to say that we will be attempting more things in the future.