A Cairngorm blast.

Route: Cairn Toul - Braeriach traverse

Munros: Ben Macdui, Braeriach, Cairn Gorm, Cairn Toul, Sgòr an Lochain Uaine, The Devil's Point

Date walked: 15/07/2021

Time taken: 48 hours

Distance: 59km

Ascent: 3728m

Everything was starting to line up: a decent forecast, nothing in the diary, cheap rail tickets, a fresh supply of flapjack, Laphroaig on offer in Morrison’s, so a decision was made to head for Aviemore and attempt a four-night backpacking expedition over the big lads of the Cairngorms. The forecast got better and better, minimal chance of rain, sunshine and gentle breezes, enough to keep beasties away but not enough to deter high camps … or so I thought. You really would think that with over 150 Munros under the belt I’d be a little less gullible.
Day 1
Come the day, the train journey from the tropical deep south (Yorkshire) was spot on, depositing me on time at Aviemore just before 13:00. I’d planned to get up high on the Braeriach northern ridge and camp. As I was a newcomer to this part of the Cairngorms, I wanted to sample as many of the natural delights as possible, so chose a route that took me through the Rothiemurchus forest, up the northern end of the Lairig Ghru, to join the main route that comes down from the Chalamain gap from the ski area.
After a sweaty half-hour trudging the road to Coylumbridge I turned off onto the forest track at the campsite, and I was not disappointed, the woodland walk of 4-5 miles was both beautiful and peaceful.

Crossing the Cairngorm Mountaineering Club footbridge I gradually started to gain height, with occasional tantalising glimpses of the hills as the trees thinned.



Eventually I was on open moor for a mile or so, until the sides of the Lairig Ghru narrowed and I came to the point where major paths crossed.



After stopping to pick up water for the evening and breakfast meals, I crossed over the burn, hidden beneath boulders, no awkward river crossing there, and made my way up the well-constructed “tourist” path on the long northern ridge of Braeriach. Quite a few people were coming down the mountain after excellent days, interested to see me going the wrong way. Looking back down the path:

Lairig Ghru below:
My plan had been to camp on the bealach between the northern top of Sron na Lairig and Braeriach, where there were plenty of decent spots of ground to put the tent up. And that was about as far as the plan was to be adhered to.
Ben Macdui and Carn a'Mhaim behind the tent:

Devil's Point and Cairn Toul:

Decent views overall!

After a meal I spent a bit of time pottering about the area, taking photos, and enjoying the solitude.
About 20:30 I was quite surprised to see another walking moving swiftly along the direction I’d come from, heading for Braeriach summit and beyond. We had a good chat and he casually dropped in that the forecast was changing, and high winds were expected overnight and for the next two days at least. I didn’t think too much of that, at that point, and set about another late photo session, with a pleasant sunset over the Monadhliath.

Back in the tent, I enjoyed a medicinal one, and was soon off to sleep … only to be rudely awakened about 02:30 by horrendous noises of tent sides flapping, poles creaking, and a general feeling of “oh, ****!” After a couple of hours I gave up the concept of any more sleep and got up, had some breakfast and prepared for the off. I’d had the time to think about the plans for the next night, which had been to camp on the bealach at the end of Carn a’Mhaim, before the climb to Ben Macdui. I decided that another exposed camp was not the best idea, so considered I should make a long day of it and push on to Loch Etchachan.
Day 2

I was walking not long after 5 am, and it didn’t take long to get to the summit of Braeriach, with stunning views in all directions. sun rising above Cairn Gorm:

Coire Bhrochain:

Cairn Toul and Sgor an Lochan Uaine (The Angel's Peak), with Lochan Uaine below:

Morning light on the Monadhliath:

Braeriach summit:

The wind was strong, but at this stage not making walking difficult (my lack of fitness and geriatric condition saw to that).
I headed on over to the Dee, and the top of the falls, over Carn na Criche and on to the climb up Sgor na Lochan Uaine, by this time the cloud was building up and moving in, casting a misty veil over this Angel’s Peak. The covering lifted only intermittently over this Munro, and the next, Cairn Toul, with it’s short ridge.



Sgor an Loch Uaine summit:

Lochan Uaine from above:

On Cairn Toul:

These are big, bouldery hills, requiring hard work and care, tricky for someone who doesn’t get onto the hills on a regular basis, for whom “Twinkletoes” is certainly not his middle name. I was glad to eventually get to the long grassy drop down to the bealach at the top of Coire Odhar, where I left my pack to make the out-and-back to The Devil’s Point a little easier.

Ben Macdui from The Devils' Point:

I had clear views here, and enjoyed seeing the bulk of Monadh Mor and Beinn Bhrotain, hills I’d climbed the previous month.

The top of the path down to Corrour was steep and a bit loose, more care required.


I stopped and chatted to some chaps about my plans, we looked over at the scenery and spotted a path directly up Ben Macdui, by the side of the Allt Clach nan Taillear initially, before breaking out onto the inevitable boulder field. This path is not marked on the OS 1:25,000 map I’d used for GPS route planning and en-route navigation, but is marked on the Harvey’s map that I had with me as backup. This seemed a more sensible plan for the rest of the day, Carn a’Mhaim would have to wait for another day.
After lunching on tinned mackerel and flatbread, I walked the mile or so north back up the Lairig Ghru to the well-marked Ben Macdui path. Braeriach from the Ben Macdui path:

The only way is up, as the song goes, and never so true as for this choice of route. Every single step was up, an unremitting climb of 729 metres from the valley floor, only easing for the last half a kilometre or so on the summit plateau. The first part followed the gully of the Allt Clach nan Taillear, then the path disappeared into the boulder field as I broke out onto the broad shoulder from the Carn a’Mhaim bealach. This was hard work in the sunshine, but of course by the time I approached the summit cairn, all was in mist. As expected, there were plenty of folk milling around the trig point and the many shelters, but as I got up after sitting and snacking in my own shelter for 10 minutes, literally everyone had gone, and I was on my own in the thickening mist.

It’s easy to see how disorientating this flat summit area could be, and I used map and compass to locate the Loch Etchachan path. It wasn’t long before I dropped out of the cloud and saw my destination ahead.
The views were exceptional, notably Beinn Mheadhoin with its rocky tors looking like scattered boxes on the summit.

On tantalising occasions Derry Cairngorm was a stately feature to the south-east, mainly hidden from view most of the time.



On arrival at the loch it was clear that my hopes of some shelter from the strong westerly winds were ill founded. If anything, things seemed more unpredictable, with quiet moments being interrupted by savage gusts which seemed to be coming from random directions, making a plan for tent pitching very confusing.
I worked my way round to the north-west corner, hoping the cliffs below Carn Etchachan would act as a wind break to a degree. They certainly protected from gusts from the west, but there plenty coming directly across the loch, and then from the direction of Loch Avon to the north, very unpredictable.Nevertheless, I put the tent up in a small hollow which did have some benefit, but not a lot.
Tent site:

Looking down to Loch Avon in the evening light:

I had a decent potter about in the evening, had my meal and tried to settle just after 21:00. At that point nature decided to have a party and things just got windier, again with complete randomness of the direction. Quiet periods were ended by a gathering roar followed by a right old buffeting of the tent. After one particular blast which seemed to bend the roof cross poles through 90 degrees I made a decision to bug out and seek shelter lower down, while there was still a vestige of light to help.
I packed up in lightning speed, and took off down to the Loch Avon rocks, where I found a small spot to put the tent up.
Sadly, there was little improvement and sleep was to be elusive, so I had plenty of time to ponder my plans for continuing or not. There was no doubt that two sleepless nights in a row was not a robust basis for going back up to the Etchachan area and climbing more hills, particularly as there was no prospect of the wind lessening the next day. I therefore decided to cut my losses and head for home early on the Saturday morning, which at least would give me the opportunity to take in Cairn Gorm mountain on the way back.
Day 3

I packed up and set off at sunrise, picking my way amongst the lumps and bumps at the head of Loch Avon, eventually finding the Coire Raibert path.
Shelter Stone crags from the Coire Raibert path:

Loch Avon in the early morning light:

There was one last sting in the tail, as for some reason I went off the main path up the steep part, ending up on a very steep heather covered hillside, a long way off the path. It became obvious that I was way off track and so I traversed round back into the gully until I found the path again (see map photo!). I guess that fatigue leading to poor concentration and judgement was probably to blame. Aside from injured pride, no harm was done and I was glad to get into the flatter bowl of Coire Raibert, with excellent views behind me, of Beinn Mheadhoin and Derry Cairngorm (centre).

Turning to the north-east to climb to the summit of Cairn Gorm the wind picked up further, and of course, the mist came in.
Stob Coire an t-Sneachda from the bealach:

By the time I got to the summit plateau the gusts were truly ferocious, threatening to blow me off my feet, so it wasn’t a place for hanging around.

A couple of summit snaps later, I trotted off down the line of cairns, then the paved path leading to the Ptarmigan centre, and onwards to the Ski Centre complex.


I could see Aviemore in the distance, and was hoping to get the bus from the Ski Centre back into town, but of course, the bus doesn’t run on Saturdays, so I set off on foot, with five hours to cover the nine weary miles back to the train at Aviemore. Although I was absolutely knackered, it wasn’t really that bad, with footpath away from the road most of the way. Most importantly, I was in town in time for a pint and a packet of crisps before the train left.

Every day on the hills is a school day for one or more reasons. In this adventure I’d had to try and adapt to unforeseen conditions (high winds), by modifying my route. When it was apparent that changing my route still didn’t work, I made the decision to call it quits and make my way home, despite glorious dry and sunny days. I guess I could have carried on the next day, but the energy wasn’t there, because of lack of sleep. By making my decisions when I did, I had enough energy to enjoy the final walk out. The wind hadn’t made the walking impossible, just the sleeping. That’s ok for one day, but for more, not at all.
Overall I was still very satisfied, I’d done two six-hour train journeys, walked 37 kms, climbed over 10,000 feet and six Munros over a period of 60 hours. What I didn’t get was any significant sleep!

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