Unexpected sunburn on Macdui-Braeriach horseshoe

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

Date walked: 22/08/2021

Time taken: 28 hours

Distance: 42km

Ascent: 2680m

I've been planning a trip to the Cairngorms for a long time. I spent many hours daydreaming about being in the mountains, reading the walk reports on this forum and poring over the Ordnance Survey map. I wanted to find a way to work some scrambling into a Macdui-Braeriach traverse. The Fiacaill ridge and NE ridge of Angel's Peak were good contenders, but the latter is somewhat inconvenient if you want to bag all the munros on the route without doubling back. In the end common sense prevailed and we left it off the plan (nipping in and out of Garbh Choire looks much easier on the Ordnance Survey than it does when the heather and clag is in front of you!). We ended up going for a fairly conventional circuit with a vague plan for our first bivvy experience somewhere around Ben Macdui / Carn a' Mhaim.

We set off from Durham straight after Luca's paper round. An accident on the A9 meant we were a couple of hours later than intended and we arrived at Cairngorm base station car park at 1500. The weather was as advertised: claggy, light rain, but no wind. I'd been checking various forecasts over the week and they all agreed that the weather would be poor, but, importantly, dry overnight with little wind. Therefore, we set off with not much hopes of good views, and expecting to be using the map and compass for difficult route finding in the clag.

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First problem: the midge. How do they manage to stay airborne even in the rain? They were relentless right from the off, as soon as we got out of the car. They kept us moving. We hadn't decided yet whether to navigate to the bottom of Fiacaill ridge for a scramble (we kept our packs light to allow for this), but the midges made up our minds for us! Even stopping for a moment to get the map out was enough to be swarmed by the blighters (despite wearing much Smidge). Visibility wasn't good enough to see the bottom of the ridge so we kept on the easy path to the left of Lurcher's Crag.

We passed a few folks descending from Ben Macdui area who looked at us doubtfully, probably wondering why anyone would ascend this late in the day with the clag descending. We would not see any other people until well into the next day.

Up on the plateau things were better. No midges, and the cloud clearing enough to give views of the Fiacaill ridge which will have to wait for another day.

Fiacaill Ridge (left hand side) looks like fun

We passed along the plateau in clag that kept lifting and reforming. It was a great relief to be up here after the midge misery further down. Our attention started shifting to where we would spend the night. Visibility was poor so this made the decision for us - the way to Ben Macdui summit is very easy and marked with numerous cairns. I knew the route beyond to Carn a' Mhaim would not be marked, and not something to improvise in the evening with fog set in! Therefore it was a leisurely amble across the many false summits and plateaus to Ben Macdui summit and we would find a place to bivvy.

We had a strange incident at this point. We'd just been talking about the Big Grey Man (perfect conditions for it) when the fog suddenly lifted and in the distance we saw what we thought was a man waving his walking poles at us. We thought he was trying to warn us of something, or was he calling for help? After a while we realised it was reindeer. They spotted us before we saw them, of course. I knew there were reindeer around here but I'd not expected the antlers to be so big! Still not sure if they were reindeer or some other kind of deer.

A break in the fog on Macdui plateau

Walking on the Moon?

Ben Macdui summit

We reached the summit at 1845. It was not wise to continue so we set up our bivvy (much earlier than I would have liked... leaving a lot of work for the next day!). I'd read a previous report of people bivvying on the summit and there are many little shelters to choose from.

We needed water. We went together with all our gear because it is easy to get lost in the fog! The top of Allt a' Choire Mhoir is ideal for this. We then set up camp in a shelter just back from the summit. I thought I'd give an overview of our bivvy gear (I've found this kind of info very useful in other reports). First off - we used bivvy bags, not a tent. Bivvy bags give great flexibility, are lightweight, you can see the stars etc... but obviously are more exposed. I don't think you would be able to pitch a tent on Ben Macdui summit itself. We wanted to keep our packs small and below 10 kg, so we did not take sleeping mats (we figured it would be uncomfortable whether we had them or not!). We aimed to camp high to avoid midges (very good idea). We took 2x lightweight 3x3m tarps. One to sleep on and one to make a basha with using walking poles and bungee cord. We put a light foil 'space blanket' on top of the tarp we slept on. We used Alpkit Hunka bivvy bags. It did not rain and the wind was light. If the weather was poor we would probably have descended to Loch Etchachan area and pegged the basha much closer to our heads!

The fog lifted when the sun went down and we were fortunate to have a still night. After a couple of hours I realised why it wasn't getting dark - the full moon was right in front of us. We had head torches but didn't need them at all. We could have carried on walking through the night if we wanted. Absolutely beautiful to look across and see the peaks we were to climb the next day lit up by the moon.


Macdui Hilton. Beinn Mheadhoin in the distance.

We woke at 0500; got more water, had a hot chocolate and watched the sunrise over Beinn Mheadhoin. There was a weird optical illusion where the rising sun looked like it was coming through the sea of cloud that had hung about at lower levels. Absolutely stunning.


Getting ready to make a move

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View from Ben Macdui of this afternoon's targets: Cairn Toul, Sgor an Lochain Uaine, Braeriach.

At about 0630 we set off in the direction of Carn a' Mhaim. The weather stayed good for the whole day (cloud/rain was forecast). I'd been prepared to cut Carn a' Mhaim from the itinerary because we had a lot of ground to cover. But conditions were good so we headed straight off.

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This morning's targets: Carn a' Mhaim and The Devil's Point.

Carn a' Mhaim is a lot of work to add into the walk, but worth it for the path along the ridge. We were thoroughly enjoying life at this point.

Carn a' Mhaim ridge



Carn a' Mhaim summit

After Carn a' Mhaim we opted to scramble down the south side and make our way round to the Corrour bothy. This was our second least favourite part of the walk. The improvised descent is ok in good conditions, if you are ok with mild scrambling. The thigh-deep heather bashing lower down is awful. The ground is very boggy and boulder strewn beneath the heather. Reaching the path at the bottom felt like a good achievement.

By this point we had sacrificed all our altitude from Ben Macdui and at the base of Devil's Point tried to psyche ourselves up to climb it all again. Why do we do this?

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The Devil's what?

Still a long long way to go.

At the Corrour bothy we were back in midge land. We did not hang about. Several people camp here (and stay in the bothy of course). I'm curious as to how bad the midges are at night? The route up to the Devil's Point felt like a slog. Our itinerary meant we had to keep up a good pace if we were going to complete the route without a second bivvy. We reached Devil's Point summit at 1030 and looked across at Ben Macdui and the Carn a' Mhaim ridge which we had already covered that morning. The day was only just getting going, however.

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The Devil's Point summit.

Kendal mint cake kept us going up the boulder fields towards Cairn Toul. This part of the traverse along to Braeriach is magnificent. A lot of hard work, but there's something about being up at that altitude that spurs you on.

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Cairn Toul Summit.

A quick lunch on Cairn Toul summit at 1230 and we moved on to Angel's Peak with great views down to Lochain Uaine. I definitely want to return to Garbh Choire at some point and check out some of the 'landmarks' like the Smith-Dey bivvy (not possible to see from this height) and scramble the NE ridge of Angel's Peak. The Sphinx and Pinnacle snow patches were still clinging on as we passed by. I'd be interested to know if Scotland's last 'glacier' manages to hold on until first snowfall this year (October?).

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Lochain Uaine

We reached the summit of Sgor an Lochain Uaine (Angel's Peak) at 1315 then quickly pushed on towards the Braeriach plateau. We stopped and chatted to a few other walkers on the traverse. One guy told us he was going to set up camp on the plateau and his day's walking was therefore nearly at an end. He probably made a good decision, we still had a long way to go and he kindly informed us that the slog down from Braeriach through the Chalamain Gap is a lot longer than you think. He was right.

It was a long time before we had to face those horrors. The Braeriach plateau is a lovely place to walk. Nice and soft underfoot, more reindeer in the distance, and the weird sight of the infant Dee... a well established fast flowing wide stream already, even at 1200 m.


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Braeriach Plateau

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At last, approaching Braeriach summit.

The last heave up the boulder field to Braeriach summit was surprisingly hard going. We were really starting to feel the weight of our packs now, even though they were fairly light. We reached the summit at 1445 and looked across at the route we'd come since waking up on Ben Macdui. It is incredibly wild and beautiful. The weather was supposed to be claggy. We all know how quickly the weather can change in the mountains and how we need to be prepared for it. Well, I was not prepared for unexpected sunshine and by this point had imparted a bright lobster pink colouration onto neck.

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Looking back at the route.

Now for the descent. I had naively thought we could keep the pace up and with a fair wind we could push for the car in 2 hours and go on from there for tea and biscuits in Piperdam (our destination that evening). Our friend on Angel's Peak was right, it takes a log longer than you think. There's a lot of ascending to do along with the descending and the Chalamain Gap is exactly what we didn't want after all ground we'd covered. It's still a fair distance after that, and the added insult of having to walk back up to Cairngorm base station from the Sugar Bowl car park.

We stopped to chat with a guy and his family who had made it part way up Braeriach and were descending the same way as us. He kindly offered to drive me up to the top car park. It was very tempting, but Covid-sense meant I had to decline. I also did not want to insult his car by putting myself (by now stinking) in it. It's actually not too bad to get back up to the top car park. Once there we caught our breath and congratulated ourselves for how far we'd come. A great couple of days.

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Comments: 2

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Activity: Scrambler

Munros: 8
Wainwrights: 3
Hewitts: 6

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