Routes Less Travelled: B.Macdui and Cairngorm via Loch Avon

Route: Ben Macdui and Cairngorm

Munros: Ben Macdui, Cairn Gorm

Date walked: 20/06/2022

Time taken: 9.75 hours

Distance: 20km

Ascent: 1357m

ImageAscending above the loch by Anne C, on Flickr

It’s not every hill walk you set off and end up in love but that was how I felt after seeing Loch Avon for the first time last month. How did I manage not to see this amazing place for so long? :shock: I suppose over the years it hadn’t lent itself immediately to being included in various Munro rounds in Cairngorm. We’d walked up Glen Derry for Derry Cairngorm and Beinn Mheadhoin plus the two Munros immediately to the east. Heading up via the ski centre onto the plateau of course was the usual approach to Cairngorm and also to my one foray out to Ben Macdui. A Glen Luibeg camp had set us up for the Devil’s Point, Cairn Toul and Angel’s Peak.
But a wonderful Colin Prior image of a frosty Loch Avon, taken from the Feith Buidhe above Hell's Lum Crag, had always stayed with me. In fact, I bought that print for my son’s first flat, as he’d long admired it too. Although Loch Avon sits at a lofty 730m, that is still almost 600m lower than some of the neighbouring peaks; for that reason I imagined it as a dark, brooding kind of place that probably sat in shadow much of the time. How wrong I was!
But it was Ben Macdui that we were focused on getting to one sunny Monday morning in June, with no thought at all of visiting Loch Avon. In fact, the chances were, we wouldn’t even make it onto the plateau! The forecast was suddenly predicting 50mph winds for the Monday, building from 25- 30mph in the morning, so a low level walk seemed more likely. Strangely , the Met Office suggested only 6mp winds, the complete opposite of MWIS. :?
However, Monday dawned very sunny and clear and there seemed nothing to lose by at least getting ourselves up to the start of the walk and seeing whether it was worth chancing something high. An early start too might beat the gale too. So at 7.45am, we got out of the car at the ski centre and - there wasn't a breath of wind!
The plan was to walk out to Beinn Macdui then retrace our steps round the Northern Corries and head up Cairngorm itself. Little did we know then, that that fairly easy day would change substantially after Chris's brainwave new route.
So suited and booted, we headed up the Fiachaill Coire Cas, finding then losing a bouldery path before it established itself higher up.

ImageHeading up the Fiachaill a Coire Cas route to the plateau by Anne C, on Flickr

At that point I looked back and realised there was a much easier approach to this point on the ridge on what looked like a blaes path! Don’t know how we missed it. :roll:

The benign summery conditions were a joy compared to when we ventured up here last March.

ImageChris heading off the summit - Cairn Gorm.Very icy. by Anne C, on Flickr

I’d made a complete faff of descending this easy ridge when it was covered in hard packed snow and a lot of ice. In fact, I’d spent part of the descent on my backside.Very embarrassing as groups from Glenmore Lodge were being led up the same slope with ice axes at the ready and everyone kitted out with crampons. I could imagine the leader’s warning later '…that’s how NOT to get down an icy slope…’ In contrast, as it happened, Chris’s spikes were new and he had no difficulties at all. A lesson learned that these things have to be maintained/sharpened ( or replaced) or they’re not going to do their job! That said, they are still lurking untouched and blunt in a cupboard. :wink:

But today, the ridge was lovely and the magnificent Northern Corries were free of snow, though still equally impressive.
It took us about an hour to get up onto the plateau and it was completely deserted.

ImageBeautiful path round the Northern Corries.Loch Etchachan visible by Anne C, on Flickr

Beinn Mheadhoin looking good...

ImageBeinn Mheadhoin with Tors and Derry Cairngorm(right) by Anne C, on Flickr

Away in the distance I could just make out a corner of lonely Loch Etchachan and we talked about what a lovely spot it was. Derry Cairngorm looked great too. Still not a breath of wind…uncanny but the Met Office seemed to have got it right, thank goodness. How could two forecasts be so different??

Great views to the crags as we made our way round the corrie rim.

ImageCoire an t-Sneachda by Anne C, on Flickr

Looking back to Cairngorm summit itself...

ImageLooking back to very benign Cairngorm summit itself by Anne C, on Flickr

I felt that we’d already broken the back of the day having done 500m of the 800m or so of ascent to Ben Macdui. I remember thinking to myself ‘this is such a lovely, easy walk’ (words which I repeated out loud on a couple of occasions to come and which came back to haunt me 8 hours later! :roll: ) I had a quick look down at the Goat Track which was the route of descent on the one time I’d climbed Ben Macdui. It was on a Glenmore Lodge course and we’d camped the night before on the plateau, climbed up to the mist shrouded summit of Beinn Macdui next morning, not seen a thing, then got off the plateau quickly with the weather worsening. Sobering to realise that that was 25 years ago…where did the time go? :shock: The Goat Track certainly looked fiercer today in clear weather or I’ve just got older and more feart! :)

ImageNear the Goat Track by Anne C, on Flickr

At this point, a flat track branched off left towards Beinn Macdui, cutting out Cairn Lochan and we decided to take it as it looked so lovely. We could easily pick up the rest of the Northern Corries route on the return.

ImageLovely flattish path across the plateau.Beinn Macdui on left by Anne C, on Flickr

Met a number of people on this track who seemed to be returning from the summit – they must have been up and away heck of an early. We felt like slouches now instead of early birds!

As we approached the final pull up on more bouldery but easy angled slopes, the tops of Braeriach, Angel’s Peak and Cairn Toul looked incredible and crystal clear - so much so that they looked close enough to touch. In fact that was a feature of the day - something about the air clarity perhaps combined with the general terrain that made everything seem much closer than it actually was ; that was the opposite of how things usually are on a hill. I've often thought how far away a summit looks only to find it really isn't that far at all.

Braeriach looking grand...

ImageBouldery slopes on Beinn Macdui, the UK's second highest mountain by Anne C, on Flickr

ImageLooking to Angel's Peak across the Lairig Ghru by Anne C, on Flickr

Three hours after setting off from the ski centre, after just over 800m of ascent and 8.4km, we reached the top of Beinn Macdui. (The name I believe translates as the Mountain of Macduff , referring to the Earls of Fife who owned the land.) On a day like this, as lovely a June day as could be imagined, there was no thought of the Old Grey Man, the ghostly figure which is said to haunt the mountain. I read Affleck Gray’s book about this phenomenon many years ago, fascinating stuff, especially given the famous names who’d claimed to have seen the Old Man - Norman Collie amongst them. The book concluded by suggesting that the summit is crisscrossed with ley lines which in certain atmospheric conditions, cause electro magnetic changes in the brain resulting in hallucination. It certainly sounded feasible and still quite scary albeit in a different way.
No wind and rain or whiteout today thankfully; there was barely a breath of wind up here on the 2nd highest peak in the UK – fantastic conditions and a far cry from that first visit.

I’d read that the view from here wasn’t as good as from Cairgorm but I actually thought it was even better…much better than I'd imagined somehow...

ImageCairngorm panorama.From Ben More and Stob Binnein to Ben Nevis by Anne C, on Flickr

Angel's Peak with Ben Alder and Ben Nevis zoomed...

ImageAngel's Peak with Ben Alder and Ben Nevis on far right by Anne C, on Flickr

ImageBen Nevis is the notched mountain on the right of Angel's Peak. by Anne C, on Flickr

The peaks on the other side of the Lairig Ghru looked fantastic - in some ways Cairn Toul looked a bit like the North Face of Ben Nevis from Carn Mor Dearg though I don't think that comes across in the photos. Through the gap we could see Ben Alder and away to the right was the cone of Ben Nevis, completely clear. Ben More and Stob Binnein were very distinct around Crianlarich.

ImageBen More and Stob Binnein(Crianlarich) visible by Anne C, on Flickr

Ben Wyvis’ great whale back was obvious to the north and the Strathfarrar hills looked very shapely.

ImageDevil's Peak left (cliffs below), rising to Cairn Toul by Anne C, on Flickr

ImageCloud changing the light by Anne C, on Flickr

ImageUntitled by Anne C, on Flickr

ImageChris and I delighted to be here by Anne C, on Flickr

I really wanted to get more of a view of the giants opposite so we headed over the very bouldery ground to the west until suddenly, the Lairg Ghru opened up below, setting the mountains off beautifully.

Beinn a Ghlo was very clear too...

ImageLooking down Glen Derry. Devil's Peak in middle.Beinn a Ghlo centre left. by Anne C, on Flickr

We spent a good 45 mins admiring it all and enjoying the balmy weather, demolishing cheese and onion sandwiches and, chocoholic as I am, a chunky bit of home-made Malteser Slice.

It was still only 11.30am and out of the blue Chris suggested not going straight back yet, but heading from the summit and descending 400m or so to Loch Etchachan then dropping another 200m down to Loch Avon, before heading up Coire Raibeirt and onto the plateau. THEN up Cairngorm.

A quick calculation suggested that meant just under 12km distance and around 600m of ascent but it had felt a fairly easy walk so far and we had all day, in pretty much perfect weather conditions. It was an offer I couldn't refuse - I love high level lochs and here was a chance to finally visit mysterious Loch Avon.

So, myself fuelled by a million calories from that Maltese Slice, we set off on a gorgeous dry path which snaked down easily to Loch Etchachan.

Heading down...

ImageDecision made - Loch Etchachan! by Anne C, on Flickr

In fact, the loch appeared below us quite quickly and I thought…oh that was easy, it's not very far away but those distances in Cairngorm are deceptive and it took us 50 mins to finally reach its shores.

ImageLoch Etchachan below B.Mheadhoin.Bynack Mor behind. by Anne C, on Flickr

Some impressive views over to Derry Cairngorm...

ImageLooking to Derry Cairngorm through Coire Sputan Dearg by Anne C, on Flickr

Loch Etchachan was much bigger than I remembered and absolutely beautiful.

ImageLoch Etchachan by Anne C, on Flickr

Apart from one tent pitched in an idyllic spot and a couple of people beside it, there wasn’t another soul around.

ImageLoch Etchachan..Cairngorm summit on left, Bynack Mor and B.Mheadhoin by Anne C, on Flickr

ImageEtchachan with the drop down to Loch Avon now visible by Anne C, on Flickr

Beinn Mheadhoin...

ImageBeinn Mheadhoin - not today by Anne C, on Flickr

Beinn Macdui direction...

ImageLooking back towards Beinn Macdui and our route down by Anne C, on Flickr

The path snaking up Beinn Mheadhoin was tempting but we had enough ascent as it was with the climb to come, up and out of Loch Avon then Cairngorm. I wanted to make sure I enjoyed that part of the walk rather than being jiggered.As it turned out, I think this was definitely the right decision.

The one bit of the walk that was niggling me was the pull up from Loch Avon to Coire Raibeirt ; I thought it looked quite steep on the map and was keen to get a better look at it.

ImageChris in amongst the boulders by Anne C, on Flickr

We crossed the bouldery high level pass beyond Etchachan and suddenly, the first view down - WAY down it seemed - to Loch Avon unfolded. It looked stunning!

ImageLoch Avon, Cairngorm summit above.Our onward ascent now visible above Loch Avon by Anne C, on Flickr

ImageHeading down on a steepish path to the loch.The loch is at 720m or so. by Anne C, on Flickr

ImageLoch Avon or Loch A'an, another spelling by Anne C, on Flickr

It was a spot to savour so we found some comfy rocks and had another break as it really was a breath taking spot .Now there were views of the loch’s creamy scalloped beaches backed by great cliffs and steep rocky slopes and sheer gullies. I got a good look at the Raibeirt ascent path, though part of it was hidden by the gully above which it traverses. I remember saying to Chris 'oh that looks fine, it’s not that steep.' Hah! :oops: Those words came back to bite me hard :lol:

Studying our route up out of the Loch Avon basin...

ImageThe route continues -I was having a good look at it, at this point.Looks easy (it wasn't) by Anne C, on Flickr

I was so glad we’d chosen this route – this was country I’d never seen and it was outstanding.

ImageShelter Stone crag by Anne C, on Flickr

We finished off some fruit as the water supplies were getting a bit low, then set off down the contour path above the loch. This was steeper at the top than I’d thought and quite eroded in places. In fact, a girl walking solo had said hello to us while we were still sitting down and I had noticed that she was using hands and feet at the top of the path.

I never like descending on steep, eroded and loose gravelly paths though you wouldn't have fallen very far. But still, I made a bit of a meal of coming down, taking my time as I didn't want to skite off and take a painful knock.This caution has definitely come with age and it's annoying but I suppose also natural to a fair extent; I think age has made me more risk aware (not that I was ever a risk taker anyway).It's probably a life preserving , injury limiting sense of caution.Fine words given the debacle I got myself into half an hour later. :roll:

It was somewhere to savour in these sunny, balmy conditions...

ImageBelow the crags by Anne C, on Flickr

Hell’s Lum Crag loomed above, as did the Shelter Stone Crag – such famous names. We passed the Shelter Stone itself which looked precarious - I don’t think I’d fancy sleeping under all those tons of rock!

ImageThe Shelter Stone by Anne C, on Flickr

ImageShelter Stone crag by Anne C, on Flickr

Chris reminisced about descending down the side of Hell’s Lum when he was supervising D of E groups and taking a bit of a shortcut to the Falls of Avon. It looked a bit impossible to me but he said he'd younger legs then. :D

ImageA fine spot by Anne C, on Flickr

We made our way easily over a small river crossing, the water very low and crystal clear then headed down to one of the loch’s gorgeous beaches.

ImageEasy (today) river crossing by Anne C, on Flickr

ImageThe beautiful beach on Loch Avon by Anne C, on Flickr

ImageLoved this spot by Anne C, on Flickr

ImageParadise and not a soul around by Anne C, on Flickr

ImageOne of several beautiful pink/white beaches by Anne C, on Flickr

What a spot! Clear, turquoise water, pinkish white sand, craggy mountains all around – it must be one of the most beautiful places in Scotland. Today, it looked a bit like paradise.

We spent 10 mins just admiring it all and me having a paddle; it was cold but really not too bad. A fantastic place for a wild swim.

ImageHad to have a paddle at least by Anne C, on Flickr

ImageUntitled by Anne C, on Flickr

There was a lone tent at Loch Avon - what a spot though a fair old walk in (and out) with all the gear.

ImageOur descent route just visible on opposite hillside by Anne C, on Flickr

The path was quite roughish along the loch’s shore, rising gradually towards the cleft in the hillside which was our ascent route up onto the plateau and Coire Raibeirt. The views back were quite something...

ImageAscending above the loch by Anne C, on Flickr

ImageHell's Lum crag towers above the beach by Anne C, on Flickr

I could just make out our descent path down to the loch on the other side...

ImageOur descent path to the right of the burn.Steeper in places than I'd thought and eroded by Anne C, on Flickr

It didn't take long and we were at the rocky gully/cleft where a river with little waterfalls made its way down to the loch. Crossing over boulders at the bottom of the burn, the route ahead now seemed to be a series of steep, scrambly rocky steps above the river itself. We had about 200m of steep ascent to the plateau via this ‘path’ and I didn’t like it much from the off; in fact it’s the sort of path I tend to avoid if I can. It hadn’t looked anywhere near this steep from the other side of the loch. Usually things look worse than they are from afar but this seemed to be reversed today in Cairngorm. (I found out after reading about this route, that it is also known as ‘The Steps of Doom.’)

But I’d already spied an alternative, an adjacent gully with rockfall in the middle but edged with heathery and grassy/ vegetated slopes.(Seen in previous photos...an obvious rockfall to the right of the proper path.) Chris thought it looked awful. But my reasoning was , this would at least give me something to hang onto instead of teetering and scrambling up eroded rocky steps and loose gravel which felt exposed. Once I've made up my mind I don't like a route, nothing will persuade me otherwise.

ImageThe start of the steep gully I chose to ascend by Anne C, on Flickr

Chris at the benign start of the Steps of Doom...

ImageThe benign start of the Steps of Doom path up to Coire Raibeirt - didn't like it and chickened out by Anne C, on Flickr

So Chris kept on up the ‘steps’ while I began what ended up being a 25 min horrible clamber up an ever steeping gully which I knew fairly quickly I had no hope of reversing. I'd started so I had to finish or it would be Mountain Rescue time :D In fact, as I clung onto the next clump of vegetation, dragging myself ever upwards a foot or so at a time, I remembered that this was also adder territory and - given my face was often inches from away from the heather and grass, it was so blinking steep - whatever snake was lurking there had from my body from top to toe to have a go at, if I disturbed it.The Beatles 'When I'm 64' (which I am) briefly went through my mind. I don't think this type of escapade was covered in those lyrics :lol:

ImageMy way up, awful but finally made it after a 25 min hands and feet clamber by Anne C, on Flickr

ImageAt the top above Loch Avon by Anne C, on Flickr

There seemed to be very few places that gave any purchase to my feet so it was a case of relying on my arms to haul myself up. It went on forever! A couple of times I called out to Chris, hoping to hear the comfort of his voice but all was silent. I had to take a lot of breaks, it was exhausting but nothing for it but head down and get on with it.
The relief when I saw the angle of the vegetation above me suddenly ease - a few more hauls and I could actually stand up and see the terrain ahead (and have another brief glance behind me for a quick photo but it doesn't really convey the gully very well.)

Chris sat a short distance away on a rock and gave me a casual wave.

‘How was it?’ I asked, trying to sound less panicked than I felt. ’Awful,’ he said. The steps route was very eroded and steep with a bit of exposure though mostly only at two points; it did improve, he said. He’d checked behind in case I’d decided to join him after all but very quickly couldn’t see anything below because of the steepness. He decided I would just have persevered and wasn’t surprised when he saw my head eventually pop up out of the abyss.

I will say now that that is the last time I go up or down from Coire Raibeirt! If I’d taken a moment to think we could have perhaps detoured to the end of the loch and picked up the path to The Saddle below Cairngorm (though Walkhighlands also suggests ‘care’ is needed on that route too.) That said, I suffer from vertigo and am very intimidated by some combinations of steepness but mostly , I don't handle exposure well. So anyone who doesn't suffer too badly from these things shouldn't be put off by my experience. However, if you are like me, be warned.

Anyway, it was utter joy to be back on a great Cairngorm path again. Perhaps the remoteness of that Coire route means it doesn’t get the attention of the other main routes re the erosion and of course it must be subject to such severe weather during the winter.

ImageBack to a lovely path at Coire Raibeirt by Anne C, on Flickr

ImageDerry Cairngorm and Beinn Macdui beyond the Shelter Stone crag by Anne C, on Flickr

ImageUntitled by Anne C, on Flickr

I really needed a rest once we got below the final slopes to Cairngorm, just a seat for 10 mins as my legs were starting to feel a bit shaky after the gully debacle.

Back where we started...

ImageBack where we started below Cairngorm summit. by Anne C, on Flickr

For the first time I can ever remember, Chris admitted that he was feeling a bit bushed too and maybe we should just head down but it seemed a shame not to make a final effort and climb the 100m or so up onto the summit.

ImageHeading up Cairngorm by Anne C, on Flickr

I’ve always loved that summit , the view is so good. So after a breather , taking our time, we were up on the summit in 20mins and looking back over some of the ground we’d covered today. Loch Avon was hidden of course but Loch Etchachan and Ben Macdui were clear though some hefty cloud was starting to drift over and the wind had picked up considerably, dropping the temperature to chilly.

ImageLooking back to where we'd just been by Anne C, on Flickr

ImageMade it! by Anne C, on Flickr

ImageBeinn Macdui and the Northern Corries, cloud coming in by Anne C, on Flickr

The Glenshee Munros were visible...

ImageGlenshee Munros in distance by Anne C, on Flickr

Lochnagar looked very distinctive beyond Beinn a Bhuird...

ImageLochnagar beyond Beinn a Bhuird by Anne C, on Flickr

The light was changing and the wind was (finally) picking up...

ImageLight changing by Anne C, on Flickr

Down the Windy Ridge route on that excellent path though I felt every footfall on my thighs already…I was going to suffer a bit after this one :roll:

ImageHeading down to the ski centre by Anne C, on Flickr

The easy way down...

ImagePtarmigan restaurant still closed by Anne C, on Flickr

What a day it had been. We’re already plotting another visit to Loch Avon by an easier route. It certainly lends itself to taking a tent in and having a bit more time to explore its wild shores. It shouldn't have taken this long to get there but better late than never.

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Anne C

User avatar
Activity: Walker
Pub: Any wild camping spot
Mountain: Quinag
Place: North Uist
Gear: Zamberlan Boots
Member: john Muir Trust;NTS;RSPB;Historic Scotland
Ideal day out: Mountain beside the coast or coastal walk with lots of wildlife spotting

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