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Misty scrambling and Eight Tops around Cairn Gorm

Misty scrambling and Eight Tops around Cairn Gorm

Postby Driftwood » Thu Aug 11, 2016 11:48 pm

Route description: Beinn Mheadhoin via the Shelter Stone

Munros included on this walk: Beinn Mheadhoin, Cairn Gorm

Date walked: 18/06/2016

Time taken: 12.25 hours

Distance: 34.4 km

Ascent: 2300m

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This was a route of my own devising, intended to take in not just the two Munros but also visit all of their Tops (and some Tops of Ben Macdui that I had missed when walking it several years previously).

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Matters were further complicated by my wanting to reach the plateau by the Fiacail Ridge, a relative rarity for the area in that it is a scramble without being (at least, from my viewpoint) an outright climb. By doing things this way, there were options to shorten the walk towards the end. In particular, Sron Riach adds a lot of distance and ascent/descent; it's far better reached from the south. But I enjoy a big day when the weather's suitable and hadn't really done many walks to test myself so far this trip.

I was staying at the Glenmore Hostel, though the last few days had seen (or not seen) low cloud and persistent heavy rain on the hills and even lower ground. That had driven me to walk further west, but the forecast for Saturday looked much more promising. So I had extended my stay by another day and made a not-particularly-early start for the Ski centre carpark.

Things looked forboding when I arrived and got ready for about 8:45. There was grey cloud, a wind and temperatures chilly enough that I started out wearing a warm jacket - and even kept it on for several hours of walking and scrambling. I also put on my gaiters, not for wet ground or vegetation but as some extra insulation that's less restrictive than over-trousers. At least the weather was dry - and I told myself that cold and cloud were perfect to avoid overheating on the way up.
I had plenty in my pack, trying to be prepared for a long day, but the approach path is exceptionally made and follows a leisurely gradient south-southwest across the feet of the Northern Corries. I descended briefly from the carpark to cross Allt a' Choire Chais, then about 10 minutes later crossed Allt Coire an t'Sneachda by some stone block steps. Although still cloudy, the skies were behaving and it looked like the rock should be dry for scrambling.
Approach path (and Meall a' Bhuachaille)

I left the main, mapped footpath soon after the burn, aiming south up a very broad ridge, usually following a smaller worn-rather-than-built path The ground was covered with a mix of coarse grass, heather and scattered stones. The heather is low and not a hassle to walk through, so doesn't hide the rocks, which in turn tend to be well-seated rather than loose and troublesome. Things do become more bouldery further up as the ridge starts to narrow, but the first 400+ metres of ascent are pretty straightforward.
The path faded and reappeared over the stony ground, but by that point the shape of the hill is also a guide. I reached the cloud layer at 1050+ metres, but it was thin enough to see some way ahead and also felt like there wasn't a huge amount of cloud overhead. There is a minor top, a bouldery outcrop followed by a slight scramble down the south side of the pink granite tor. I packed away my walking poles (a stand-in pair, which were feeling rather clunky compared to the set that I'd lost several days before), but kept on jacket and gloves.
After the first rise and dip, the ridge narrows into a rounded arrete, if that's not a contradiction in terms. I knew from reading other reports that there was more definite scrambling, including a possible chimney, but also the option of a bypass path if necessary. Higher ground began to loom ahead, then a blocky tower came into view, the first of three main steps, though the mist and their position meant that I could only see one stage at a time, with hints of more lurking in the cloud.
I tackled the first, easiest stage fairly directly, finding plenty of grip for hands and feet; the granite is very accessible and reassuring. I took my time for plenty of photos and to chose my route, as well as prolonging the fun.
Fiacaill Buttress looming through the mist

The middle stage is the highest and steepest and there was some water soaking a few north-facing slabs. But there were still plenty of holds and steps, so I continued up the scramble rather than look for ways around to the right side. The ridge gets very narrow after this, especially the drop into Coire an t-Sneachda, but without a lot of wind still felt good going. There's a third blocky tower, with much less need to pick a route, then the ridge eases off and becomes broad again.
Fiacaill ridge

I reached the plateau still covered by cloud, needing some compass work for reassurance. A right turn brought me along the northern edge of Coire an Lochain, not that I could see that far down through the mist. Then I followed the corrie rim to the largest of a series of cairns (it looked like there were more further around), marking my first Munro Top of the day.
Cairn Lochan shrouded in cloud

After a few photos, I turned around and descended back to the junction with the Fiacaill ridge. Then a right turn eastwards with a much-used path worn into the granite-grit. I met another walker for the first time since Coire Cas, though there were to be plenty of others around the route. A gentle climb brought me to a second summit, Stob Coire an t-Sneachda, still with the path and frequent cairns had I needed and guidance. There was a glimpse of some interesting pinacles below and north of the summit, though no clear view due to the mist.
Stob Coire an t-Sneachda

I took 10 minutes or so at this Top, as far as I remember the first food stop of the walk. The cloud was even thinner by now (about 11am) and more people were about. I continued along the path north-eastwards, bypassing the minor top of Fiacaill a'Choire Chais where the paths divide and one heads straight towards Cairn Gorm. The clouds had finally thined so much that sunshine started peeking through and blue appeared through the white wispy mist.
The remainder of the morning felt quite busy with walkers, most seeming to come from over Cairn Gorm, so many that I needed to step aside on the path at one point. It was certainly past the point where you have time to exchange more than a quick "Hello" or "lovely morning" as you pass. I felt a little warm for this ascent, though it's only steep in terms of needing some effort, but kept my jacket on while pushing towards the top.
The radio mast, shelter and cairn came into view, then I was at the summit. Which I had to myself for about two minutes, enough to take a couple of photos, before people started to arrive through the mist still clinging round paths to the north and north-east.
Cairn Gorm as clouds give way to crowds

I did pause for a little longer, enough to have a drink, check my map and glance over the summit architecture. I also packed away the jacket, then the gathering throng felt like too much. Crowds in a town are one thing, but it didn't feel like the best atmosphere for taking a lunch stop. So I joined one of the northward paths, then left that to turn northeast just before the top of a ski tow. Midday approached and the mist had lifted, though fluffy clouds still hung close to the hill.
An easy wander over bouldery ground brought me to the semi-tor atop Cnap Coire na Spreidhe. This has a minimal re-ascent from Cairn Gorm, but stands a little way from the summit so felt quite tranquil to enjoy the beautiful weather to myself.
Cnap Coire na Spreidhe

From here, my third Top of the day, I descended south into the corrie of Ciste Mhearad. A snow-bank lay to one side, one of many around Cairn Gorm, but I crossed slightly lower where a burn was almost raging with snow-melt. One memorable point of the day was how much snow remained and the quantities of water rushing downhill, contrasting with the bright blue skies and sun-dried ground.
Ciste Mhearad burn and snowbanks

I soon found a path heading southwards beyond the burn. This wasn't like the finely-built busier paths, but still a helpful way to descend the steepish east-facing slopes towards the Saddle (this one being a bealach, rather than the Munro of that name). Another large burn crossed the path partway along, contributing to some dampness, but the ground was steep and stony enough to be mostly dry footing rather than too boggy.
I met another walker headed in the same direction on this stretch; we also co-incided later on alongside Loch Avon. Both of us took the left (south-western) path down from the Saddle, which descends further before contouring alongside the Loch. My plans had never involved crossing the Fords of Avon downstream, which were probably flowing strongly, but I was feeling wary about the handful of significant burns needing to be forded on my intended route.

After 10 minutes along the Loch, I paused for a longer lunch stop where paths meet below Coire Raibert. An Irish couple were also stopped there, having made a more direct descent from the Cairn Gorm plateau, and another group came down the same path during this break. This was a good chance to discuss the state of the burns, top up on sun lotion and bask in the glorious conditions.
I continued by the narrow lochside path, which rises and falls, crossing and moving around boulders but felt a world of difference from the equivalent path to the north of Loch Mullardoch. I went slightly off-piste after a knoll at the west end of Loch Avon, wanting to find a point to cross the burn (really more like a river) beyond. This drains a broad area of the Cairn Gorm and Ben Macdui plateau and was carrying a lot of water, which fell as white cascades threading the great crags off to my right.

I went a short way upstream before finding a shallow stretch flowing over beds of pebbles and round stones; a prod using my walking pole confirmed the depth wasn't just a trick of the eye and clear water. My boots, with a bit of help from gaiters, were tall enough to make a crossing with dry feet. I spotted the great Shelter Stone and other boulders not far away, but resisted the templation to go and investigate. I was already 5 hours into the walk, with a lot of ascent and distance to cover; also, it seemed a good excuse to return and visit what was missed.
So I turned left again, joining a path that leads east above beautiful sandy beaches (though they were mostly submerged at that point). But I soon left that in turn to zig-zag my way up towards the burn between Carn Etchachan and Stacan Dubha.
Stag Rocks above Loch Avon beach

I climbed only slowly, feeling the warmth of the afternoon sun and steepness of the ground. That improved slightly once I was back onto a path, but the views were also good reasons to pause occasionally.
Cairn Gorm and Loch Avon from Allt nan Stacan Dubha path

I topped up with water from one of the minor burns just beneath Stacan Dubha as it was time to leave the path again. The ground grew bouldery, then more of the sparse granite soil and thin vegetation made for easy walking to the summit. This is a rounded, weathered tor with hollows worn into the rock that held water from the last few rainy days. Despite being over 1000 metres, it's cradled by higher Tops and Munros to all sides, including what looked like a steepish rise to the main ridge of Beinn Mheadhoin.
Stacan Dubha summit

After a Ptarmigan encounter, I opted to head fairly directly for the 1163-metre minor top. That seemed a better choice than traversing, or ascending, the steeper rocky slopes further left, while not going too far out of my way. I met another walker descending and he confirmed that, though loose, this slope was no worse than the route up from Loch Etchachan.
Once onto the ridge, the hill changed character again, a rounded plateau of pink stones mottling coarse green turf beneath azure skies and fluffy white clouds. The clear air and scale of things made judging distances difficult, but it only took ten minutes or so to get among the group of tors that form the summit. I passed one couple along the way, though they caught me up while I was reaching the top itself.
I remembered reading about the main tor offering several scrambling approaches, though to my novice eye most of the sides would need what I think of as climbing. I did get up a smaller tor against the southern side, but that only reaches half-way, with almost-sheer flanks above. So I ended up admitting defeat and using the easy route around the back (north-east); the gradient and grippy rock there can be walked up, at least in the dry, with hardly any need for hands. At least the views offered some consolation.
Beinn Mheadhoinn tors

From Beinn Mheadhoin, my route became more unusual. Though I had reached both of my planned Munros, there were still four more Tops unvisited, located miles and hundreds of metres apart. So, after returning partway along the summit ridge, I veered left (southwards) to make a descending traverse of the bouldery slopes towards Stob Coire Etchachan.
I had walked Beinn Bhreac and Beinn a' Chaorainn last year, when cloud and strong winds discouraged me from adding on Beinn Mheadhoin. With the stunning summer conditions today, I wanted to get the most out of the day. This approach to Stob Coire Etchachan is much easier, especially once past the bouldery ground above 1100 metres.
I took a 15-minute break at the summit. The best views here are east, especially the massive "table" of Beinn a' Bhuird across the wide, flat and relatively-low expanse of Moine Bhealaidh.
Stob Coire Etchachan towards Beinn a' Chaorainn and Beinn Bhuird

At this stage, I also studied the slopes that would need to be crossed next. The afternoon was flowing by - I'd been walking for 7.5 hours - but I still wanted to reach Sron Riach, over three miles away. The quickest route appeared to be descending west across some steep boulder-fields towards Loch Etchachan, which would bring me to what I knew was a decent path up onto Ben Macdui.
After a fair start, these slopes turned out to be the trickiest part of the day. The stones tend to be large, but felt less stable than the others I crossed, while I needed to pick around, or beneath, some steeper areas. My walking poles were useful, but again reminded me that they were only standing in for the lost pair. One of them did bend a little way, but I managed to straighten it out again with a bit of careful force and a knee.
I eventually negociated my way onto some easier, though damp, ground near the outflow of Little Loch Etchachan. I crossed the burn on some stones slightly above the ford, which was in use by a group of youngsters heading northwards, it looks like on an expedition. Stob Coire Etchachan and some of Beinn a' Bhuird are in the background.
Crossing Coire Etchachan burn

Beyond the crossing, I was onto a good path and made much better time. I met one lady descending the path, giving a chance to chat about enjoying the hills outside of the busiest hours. She was planning to walk into the night, then catch a bus from Braemar tomorrow, in preparation for another trip to celebrate a significant birthday a month later. It put my all-day walk into perspective, as well as reminding me that I could be making more of the day. I still have plans, or at least hopes, for a long route across the western Cairngorms; maybe next year.
The well-built path also provided my wildflower photo for the report, spotted on the slopes above the loch.
Marsh Marigold near Creagan a' Choire Etchachan

There was a snowfield over the path higher up, as there had been when I walked Ben Macdui about two years before. But this was no trouble to get round, then I crossed the wide stony slopes east-south-east of the Ben. Beyond them, I needed to descend nearly 150 metres before the slight ascent onto Sron Riach, a minor Munro Top which I'd missed previously. (Not having checked the lists much at that point, it hadn't looked significant when approaching from Carn a' Mhaim).
Sron Riach from near Stob Coire Sputan Dearg

Although it only stands up a little way from its parent Munro, Sron Riach stands out more from Glen Luibeg beneath, and steep slopes north and east make it a viewpoint above another Lochan Uaine. I'd left my pack partway down the boulder slopes, so retraced my steps (and that 150 metres of ascent) to recross the shoulder of Ben Macdui, this time headed north.
At this point, I could have reached Ben Macdui in at most minutes, but the day was more about Tops than Munros. So I aimed east of north instead, following the western side of a broad ridge that points towards Loch Etchachan. My next target was already in sight, though over a mile away; Cairn Gorm a further 2 miles off offered another reminder of the distances covered and remaining to be crossed as evening went by.
Carn Etchachan and the Garbh Uisge Mor

The ground was fair going; there are a lot of stones and boulders, but those tend to be settled and stable footing. I crossed a rise and first outcrop, then more of a dip before a modest and gradual ascent to the Top. This stretches some way south to north, so I headed along to visit several cairns until I was satisfied of having visited the highest point. Then I retraced my steps to the middle before turning west, with a broad shallow corrie and several strong burns to cross before I should return to any paths. I'd been out for about 10 hours by now, so expected to be dining late but didn't want to miss this feast of hills and stunning scenery.
Ben Macdui snowfields from Carn Etchachan

I crossed the Garbh Uisge Mor and Garbh Uisge Beag with care but no difficulties. These carry about half of the flow that I'd forded hours before above Loch Avon. Next was a further stretch of slab, boulder and other slopes to contour around into the wide grassy basin surrounding Feith Buidhe. Apart from being so exposed, this looked a stunning spot to stop, but time kept flowing by. So I followed the broad burn for some way until stones and gravel banks offered a fording-place.
Carn Etchachan beyond Feith Buidhe

At this point, I could see a few other people making their way north or south on the paths between Ben Macdui and the Cairn Gorm Tops. Two paused near a snowfield over the path close ahead and I met one with his pack loaded for camping. We chatted (and, I confess that I nearly raved with enthusiasm) about the stunning conditions and forecast to follow. I was certain at the time that this was Chris Townsend, but didn't want to ask and fortunately found confirmation when he blogged about that same trip.

I cut across the southern end of Cairn Lochan, deciding that a bit of very-gentle ascent and descent was easier and quicker than the extra distance to go along two sides of the "triangle" by paths. On easy ground, and with a day-pack or lighter, I reckon that it's worth adding 10 metres vertically if it saves 70 metres or more of distance. Either way, I was soon onto a built path that runs above the east side of the Lairig Ghru, almost parallel with Sron na Lairig. It also offered views of the big western Cairngorms and even a glimpse of another Lochan Uaine, cradled by Cairn Toul and the Angel's ridge.
Cairn Toul and Sgor an Lochain Uaine

I made good progress on the excellent path, which has a similar surface to the stretch I'd used earlier that morning - they're actually both the same path. But I parted from the route again to cross the former Top of Miadan Creag an Leth-Choin, though that involves only the slightest rise of ground and it's easy to see why it was removed from the list.
Fiacaill Coire an t-Sneachda from Miadan Creag an Leth-choin

Wide easy slopes lead gradually down, then become slightly more defined for the stonier rise to Creag an Leth-choin.
I reached this, the final Top of the day, at gone 8pm. I'd abandoned any hopes of stopping somewhere for dinner (though had some food to cook back at the Hostel, so was in no danger of starvation), but there wasn't far to reach Coire Cas again.
Sron na Lairige / Braeriach from Creag an Leth-choin

I descended a short stony stretch, then east across an easy burn and some dampish ground well above Lurcher's Gulley. A descending traverse returned me to drier turf, to keep a brisk pace and rejoin the fine path back round to the car park.
Descending around the north ridge of Miadan Creag an Leth-choin

I did struggle on this last stretch back. Not with the walking, my feet and legs were as delighted as the rest of me, but the temptation to look around and, especially, take photos. There were also good views of the Fiacaill Coire an t-Sneachda as my path headed back to where I'd started uphill long before.
A farewell to the Fiacaill

I eventually recrossed the Allt Choire Chais bridge and passed the giant chain-link sculptures at about 9pm. It had been a long day, but one which left me wishing for much more time and wanting to visit so many other spots. Now, if only the weather was always like that!
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Re: Misty scrambling and Eight Tops around Cairn Gorm

Postby prog99 » Fri Aug 12, 2016 7:49 am

Nice photos. I did a very similar route on the same day so possibly our paths crossed.
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Re: Misty scrambling and Eight Tops around Cairn Gorm

Postby Cairngorm creeper » Fri Aug 12, 2016 8:59 am

Great report and route around so many of the excellent nooks and crannies and tops in the Cairngorms. One of the best things about this area is that you can plan your own routes and explore without having to wade through heather and bracken.
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Re: Misty scrambling and Eight Tops around Cairn Gorm

Postby Driftwood » Fri Aug 12, 2016 11:43 pm

prog99 wrote:Nice photos. I did a very similar route on the same day so possibly our paths crossed.

Cheers, the hills were being very photogenic and deservedly very popular. I love the mixture of paths and highlights with rougher and quieter sides, with such a variety of routes possible.

Cairngorm creeper wrote:Great report and route around so many of the excellent nooks and crannies and tops in the Cairngorms. One of the best things about this area is that you can plan your own routes and explore without having to wade through heather and bracken.

Thanks; this was my first real exploration of the plateau and really got me hooked, though I'm well aware (and glad) that there's so much more to draw me back again.
The sparse grit-soil and even boulder-fields, at least when they're settled, were a delight after the lower slopes of some western hills where you need to stick to paths and even then are brushing through tick-habitat.
That said, I do appreciate the way that heather and grass cling on when you're foolish enough to head off-piste over some steep slopes :roll:
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