walkhighlands

Ben Macdui and the Lairig Ghru

Munros: Ben Macdui

Date walked: 09/07/2023

Time taken: 38 hours

Distance: 48.3km

Ascent: 1300m

A two night wild camping foray into the Cairngorms, which included a walk up beautiful Glen Derry, a wild camp at the foot of Lairig an Laoigh, a visit to remote Loch Etchachan, an early morning dash across the Ben Macdui plateau in perfect conditions, a lofty brew up on Lurcher's Crag, an arduous crossing of the Lairig Ghru, a wild camp and swim in magical Gleann Laoigh Bheag, followed by an easy walk out through the Caledonian Forest to Lui Bridge. A memorable outing.

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Day 1 - Lui Bridge to upper Glen Derry - 7.5 miles

After dropping my wife off in Aberdeen (she was visiting an old friend for a few days), I drove up Deeside in the late afternoon sunshine and parked just beyond Lui Bridge (free), not liking the look of the parking charges at the Linn of Dee. I was on my way by 1745.

I took the forestry road up Glen Lui, not tempted to take a diversion along the waymarked riverbank path as I wanted to get a few miles under my belt. At this stage of the walk I wasn't quite sure which route to take - the mountain forecast for the next two days was for heavy showers with the risk of thunderstorms and only a 40% chance of cloud free Munros, so I had tentatively planned a long circumnavigation of the Cairn Gorm massif, sticking to the valleys and passes, over Lairig an Laoigh and the Fords of Avon to Glenmore, before returning via the Lairig Ghru. I had confused my wife by leaving three different route plans - in the end I followed none of them!

I made good time up Glen Lui, despite frequently reaching for the camera to photograph the vintage pine trees of the native Caledonian forest. These forests are have their own special atmosphere, and a sense of peace descended upon me as I made my way up the glen.

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A sense of peace descended upon me as I made my way through the Caledonian pinewoods

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The footbridge over Derry Burn just beyond Derry Lodge

It didn't take me long to reach Derry Lodge, where Glen Lui splits in two. I took the northern branch, following a lovely path through the pinewoods of Glen Derry, on a par with those of Glen Feshie - the scent of the forest filled the air.

The trees thinned out higher up the valley, but the views of the mountains made up for that, the rocky 'Barns' (tors) on Beinn Mheadhoin in particular caught my eye, silhouetted against the evening sky. Ahead I could see the Lairig an Laoigh, at this stage still on my intended route, but time was marching on, so I decided to camp at the foot of the pass and postpone decision time until tomorrow after seeing what weather the morning would bring. My pitch wasn't the best - it was on boggy ground, and I had a patch of soggy sphagnum moss just outside my tent's porch, but the groundsheet did its job and I stayed dry, and the soft ground was very comfortable.

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Beautiful Glen Derry, with the Barns of Beinn Mheadhoin on the skyline in the distance

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Oblong Leaved Sundew beside the Glen Derry path. I spotted lots of Round Leaved Sundew too

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The trees thinned out as I made my way towards the head of the glen. Lairig an Laoigh is the pass to the right.

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I pressed on up to the head of the glen, hoping to catch the last of the sunlight pouring down Coire Etchachan

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Selecting my pitch amongst the bog myrtle in the last of the evening sunshine. The colours were amazing


Day 2 - Loch Etchachan, Ben Macdui and the Lairig Ghru - 18 miles

I awoke early after a decent night's sleep, and found that banks of cloud were clearing from the mountains, revealing beautiful blue skies. My original plan had been to head on over the Lairig an Laoigh, staying off the plateau for fear of the thunderstorms that had been forecast, but the lure of Ben Macdui and the plateau proved too strong. With an early start, I reasoned that I could be across the plateau before any showers brewed up, so I broke camp quickly and was on my way by 0515, breakfast being a swig of water and a lone bilberry snatched from a bush beside the track.

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Looking down Glen Derry after breaking camp. I was encouraged by the pale blue skies and the sunlight on the distant peak

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Early morning sunlight burning away the bank of cloud wreathing Sgurran Lochan Uaine

The path crossed a thin handrail free footbridge and then climbed gently into Coire Etchachan. The Hutchison Memorial Hut came into view; it occupies a magnificent position deep in the corrie, surrounded by towering crags on three sides. I resisted the temptation to poke my head in the door as it was still rather early, but one or two people were up and about, a man heading down the hill and a woman emerging from a nearby tent.

I continued on, the path steepening as it climbed above the tumbling burn, seemingly the only viable way out of the valley. The views behind me were spectacular.

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The footbridge over Coire Etchachan Burn

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The Hutchison Memorial Hut sits in a splendid location deep within the corrie, with the sunlit crags of Creagan a Choire Etchachan above. The path took me to the right of the crags

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Looking back down into the corrie from the steep path beside the burn. You can just make out the bothy

I crested the rise, and the view stopped me in my tracks - Loch Etchachan looked absolutely stunning in the early morning sun, with the sunlit granite cliffs beyond reflected in the still waters.

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Loch Etchachan

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Loch Etchachan

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Panoramic shot - click to enlarge

I eventually tore my hungry eyes away from the view, and took the path that climbs steadily around the shoulder of Creagan a Choire Etchachan towards Ben Macdui, the expanding view behind me giving me plenty of excuses to stop. Banks of cloud were drifting in from the south, framing Loch Etchachan and the mountains beyond, Cairn Gorm itself in the distance, and Beinn Mheadhoin to the right.

Suddenly there was a commotion just ahead of me - I had inadvertently flushed a ptarmigan family - the four well grown chicks scurried for cover whilst their anxious mother kept a close eye upon me.

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The anxious hen ptarmigan kept a close eye on me whilst her chicks made good their escape. She is perfectly camouflaged against the granite boulders

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Loch Etchachan framed by banks of drifting cloud

The gradient eased and I crossed a level area beside a tiny lochan, with steep cliffs plunging away to the south, before the ground steepened again as I climbed up onto the vast plateau. I was pleased to see some patches of snow around, but resisted the temptation to take a diversion across the boulders to get my feet in it!

I caught sight of what I thought was the summit cairn about half a mile ahead, but as I got closer I realised that this was the roofless ruin of a small building, complete with a stone lintelled fireplace - the ruin is actually marked on the 1:25000 map, and is sometimes referred to as the Sapper's Hut. What a place this would have been to spend a night, very welcome in a storm, I would imagine. I got a bit of a scare whilst taking the photo - I stood upon a large flat boulder to get a better view of the ruin - this promptly tipped, but somehow I managed to stay upright.

The true summit, crowned by a trig point on a broad stone plinth, came into view shortly afterwards - I arrived just before 0800. Sadly the summit is not that good a viewpoint, it being the highest point of a broad plateau that is higher than the surrounding mountains, so I didn't linger long. I could see that clouds were bubbling up to the south too, and thought again of the forecast thunderstorms. Time to move on!

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Cliffs plunged away into a deep corrie to the south

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I was quite taken by this shapely patch of eroded snow

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Ben Macdui's vast summit plateau

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The Sapper's Hut near the summit

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Ben Macdui's trig point sits upon a substantial stone plinth

I headed north across the plateau, quickly losing the path amongst the jumble of boulders - I realised that route finding would be really tricky up here in bad visibility. But not today - I could see the path ahead as it skirted the western side of the plateau, so I just angled to the right a bit and quickly got back on track. The going underfoot was a mixture of tricky boulder fields that demanded respect, interspersed with gravelly paths across grass, much easier going.

Conditions were perfect, and as I headed away from the summit the views to the west opened out, revealing the long line of high ground between the shapely duo of Cairn Toul and Sgorr an Lochan Uaine to the south, and mighty Braeriach to the north. Whilst taking it all in I involuntarily exclaimed "This is absolutely f****g wonderful" - excuse my Mountain Tourette's, but I was one happy walker!

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As I headed north across the plateau, the hills to the west started to reveal themselves

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I continued northwards across the plateau

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Cairn Toul, Sgorr an Lochan Uaine and Braeriach from the western slopes of Cairn Lochan

The plateau is vast, and it must have taken me an hour to reach the shoulder of Cairn Lochan. With an altitude of over 1100 metres it is easy to understand how people can get into such trouble up here in winter, especially as there is no easy way off.

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Cairn Toul and Sgorr an Lochan Uaine, with inaccessible Lochan Uaine cradled between them

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Looking back across the plateau towards Ben Macdui

Rather than follow the path down towards Glenmore, I went off piste and headed towards Creag an Leth-choin, more commonly known as Lurcher's Crag, a prominent peak guarding the northern approaches of the Lairig Ghru, a fine place to get a brew on and have a bite to eat as up until now I had eaten nothing but the lone bilberry! The views down into Lairig Ghru were spectacular, to say the least, but even from here I didn't fully appreciate the full extent of the massive glacial trench - it is scenery on a grand scale, difficult to comprehend after the Lakeland fells.

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Northwards over the shoulder of Cairn Lochan towards Lurcher's Crag

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Alpine Club Moss on the slopes of Cairn Lochan

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Looking down the length of the Lairig Ghru, undisputed king of Scottish mountain passes

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Lurcher's Crag dominates the northern approach to the Lairig Ghru

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Brew with a View - my Speedster Stove in action on top of Lurcher's Crag

After enjoying my tea and flapjack, I embarked upon the long descent to the entrance of the Lairig Ghru - this involved quite a detour to the north as the ground directly to the west was precipitous to say the least! The start of the path down was not at all obvious, but I had taken note of where it crossed some boulder scree lower down the hillside and correctly angled down the slope to intersect it. It was a rough descent, in places steep and loose, and with several tricky boulder fields to cross, some of the boulders being of the wobbly variety so care was needed. Eventually the gradient eased, and I joined the path that descends from the notorious Chalamain Gap, which thankfully wasn't on my route. The path took me down easily to the northern entrance of the Lairig Ghru.

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Descending the bouldery slopes of Lurcher's Crag, with Rothiemurchus Forest far below

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More boulders to negotiate! The shapely peak to the west is Sgoran Dubh Mor

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Heading towards the Lairig Ghru on the Chalamain path - easy going before the hard work to come

After the easy going on the well engineered Chalamain path, the Lairig Ghru was tough - I had naively thought that after the descent from Lurcher's Crag the worst was over! The path quickly deteriorated, often splitting and losing itself amongst vast fields of boulders, so many boulders that the substantial stream completely disappears underneath them. Progress at times was painstakingly slow!

To make matters worse the forecast rain arrived, it started to rain just as I was approaching the summit. Or so I thought - I was still "just approaching" the summit an hour later - it had taken me an hour to cover less than a mile. And to make things more interesting the rain made the lichen covered boulders slippery.

The ascent was not without interest - on the way up I had flushed a family of red grouse, the chicks were only half their mother's size but much to my surprise they were able to fly. The mother gave me the same suspicious look that the ptarmigan had earlier. I also spotted an unusual alpine plant that I had never seen before - enquiries identified this as Alpine Saw Wort, an interesting find.

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The red grouse mother watching me suspiciously after I had flushed out her three chicks

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Alpine Saw Wort with visitor

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Rough going in the Lairig Ghru

A cairn marked what might have been the highest point, but I still had some tough going as the pass stays high for some time before descending towards the Pools of Dee. I was tiring, so I decided to stop for lunch by one of the pools - it had stopped raining so I could savour my Orkney Oatcakes and Black Bomber cheese.

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North from the summit of the Lairig Ghru

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South from the summit - downhill at last, but yet more boulders to negotiate!

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I stopped for lunch at the Pools of Dee

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The largest of the Pools of Dee

After crossing yet more boulders the path started to descend in earnest, losing height slowly but steadily. I noticed that there was a lot more surface water on the southern side of the Lairig Ghru, and I saw several large frogs beside the path.

On I proceeded, the path skirting the boulder strewn slopes of Ben Macdui, still rough going at times, and it seemed to take ages to reach Corrour Bothy, which is completely dominated by the massive overhanging cliffs of The Devil's Point. On the way I passed Clach nan Taillear, a collection of unusual pockmarked granite boulders - it was around this point that I noticed that the going underfoot had improved somewhat, and I made better time past the bothy, which is on the opposite bank of the infant River Dee.

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The south side of the pass seemed to be a lot wetter, and I spotted several large frogs on my way down

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Carn a Mhaim and The Devil's Point guard the southern approaches of the Lairig Ghru

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Looking back towards Braeriach

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Corrour Bothy is completely dominated by the massive cliffs of The Devil's Point

I had now completed my crossing of the Lairig Ghru, and I had choice of routes - I could have continued on down the austere Dee valley, following the river down to the Linn of Dee, but I continued on around the shoulder of Carn a Mhaim, lured by the thought of a pitch amongst the pine trees of Gleann Laoigh Bheag. I had missed the junction in any case!

The path climbed gently as it worked its way around Carn a Mhaim, but it was easy going and I was feeling surprisingly fit after my arduous day under a heavy pack - I was tiring, certainly, but I was still in good shape, and I enjoyed this part of the walk.

The path started to descend into the glen, and trees made a welcome reappearance, young pines spreading out of the wooded glen below, some willow too. In my eagerness to reach the woodland below, I missed the turn for the footbridge over the Luibeg Burn, which lies several hundred metres upstream, and found myself faced with a short but steep descent down a stone staircase to a 'ford', which in reality was a boulder strewn stream bed, quite intimidating at the end of a long day. I spotted a likely line and went for it, teetering on the slippery water covered rocks under my heavy pack. At one point I ended up sprawled across a larger boulder half way across, but somehow I made it across with dry feet!

The difficulties were over now, and it was time to look for somewhere to spend the night. The Luibeg Burn was lovely, but unfortunately I couldn't see any likely pitches amongst the deep heather and young trees, so I continued onwards towards Derry Lodge, where I knew there were some good pitches. It was a pleasant walk though, along an easy track that had been made for 4x4s, and after maybe a mile I spotted a likely pitch on some short grass under a majestic pine tree, an ideal spot. There was even a shallow swimming hole in the nearby river, which I quickly made use of!

It had been a long day - it had taken me almost 13 hours to cover the 18 miles, and the going at times had been arduous and painstakingly slow. I was soon asleep!

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Descending towards Gleann Laoigh Bheag

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The so called 'ford' over the Luibeg Burn

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Luibeg Burn. It felt good to be amongst the trees after the desolation of the Lairig Ghru

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My home amongst the pines


Day 3 - Gleann Laoigh Bheag to Lui Bridge - 4.5 miles

All that remained now was an easy walk out down past Derry Lodge, where I regained my outbound route. I took my time, savouring the sights, sounds and smells of the lovely pinewoods, a pleasure after the exertions of yesterday.

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This particularly beautiful pine growing on the banks of the burn caught my eye

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Approaching the bridge over the Derry Burn

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Wisps of cloud drifting over lower Glen Lui

And so I came to the end of my adventure in the magnificent Cairngorms. I had covered 30 miles in total, two short days and one very long one, but numbers become a bit meaningless in such wonderful country - the ascent of Ben Macdui via Loch Etchachan and the crossing of the Lairig Ghru was one of the best days of mountain walking that I have ever experienced, would make it into my Top Ten days on the hill if I had such a thing.

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WildAboutWalking


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Statistics

2023

Trips: 1
Distance: 48.3 km
Ascent: 1300m
Munros: 1


Joined: Dec 20, 2022
Last visited: Apr 14, 2024
Total posts: 388 | Search posts