Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Cairngorm 4000ers, June'14

This is one of my favourite trips in our calendar, so when it comes up, first dibs, it's mine :)

There were 3 people booked onto the weekend - Andy, Christina and Diane. I picked up Andy from the Old Bridge Inn Bunkhouse and we met the others at the Cairngorm Ski car-park. The mist was right down and rain drizzling - so we sorted gear under the shelter of a canopy, then started up the 'Windy Ridge' path. Yes, we could have taken the funicular up, but we all agreed that would be cheating !

Mist on the way to Ben Macdui
The route to the Ptarmigan Restaurant is obvious - time for a pit-stop - the path thereafter is roped for much of the way to Cairngorm summit. Upon getting there, we huddled behind the weather station out of the wind - the forcasts didn't say anything about that !

Food in, we started our descent down the western slopes to the top of Coire Cas. In thick mist, we could hear the voices of some chatty foreigners and they appeared, two tall guys wearing waterproofs, but no rucksacks or other gear ! On we merrily continued, over Stob Coire an t-Sneachda, peering down the deep northern coires topped with the remains of last winter's snow. Beyond this, we turned south and left the cliffs behind to cross the vast plain north of Ben Macdui. In thick mist, this proved quite navigationally challenging, but further on and in patches of boulderfield, cairns began to appear marking the route uphill. Occasional snow flurries passed through - we recorded a temperature of 2.9°C ! Ben Macdui's summit suprised us - there were two guys hiding behind the large cairn out of the wind and rain. A quick blether and off they went. We had the summit to ourselves and imagined what the views would be like on clearer days.

On Carn a'Mhaim
Downhill next and more testing navigation in the thick mist. We reached the top of the boulderfield, started down, passing a group of five folk and their adventurous labrador hiking uphill. And then the cloud magically lifted, as did our spirits ! And then sunshine too ! We had toyed with the idea of doing Carn a'Mhaim (not over 4000ft, but a Munro nonetheless) and deliberated in the mist. With the clear warm(ish) conditions, there was now no debate ! Down at the bealach below, we sat, ate and chatted, then headed uphill. We opted not to take our heavy rucksacks to the top of Carn a'Mhaim (as we were going to have to retrace our steps) - with the load of our backs, in Christina's words, it was like "walking on air". Some beautiful views on the way, we hi-fived on the summit.

A view point on the way down Carn a'Mhaim

Our camp by Corrour Bothy
Back to the bealach, packs back on our backs, we bounded downhill through the heather to the path below and to Corrour Bothy. Some guys had beaten us there, attempting to dry their gear - dampness steaming from their hung sleeping bags - this was not the place for the faint-hearted. We were all well equipped for a camp and tents promptly went up, followed by the sound of gas stoves heating dinners. A wee glass of wine ensured a cosy night ahead.

Day 2 and the plan was for an early start. It had rained on and off for most of the night, but we were delighted to find rain had stopped when we started to crawl out of our cocoons. Breakfast in, tents packed, we started up the fine path behind the bothy. Clearish weather was to the south, dark weather was to the north - we hoped the south would triumph and stay with us. Up to the col between the Devil's Point and Stob Coire an t-Saighdeir, again we could leave our sacks for the short detour to the Devil's Point's summit. We were getting some views, however, weather was now deteriorating.
Heading to Cairn Toul

Back to the col, rucksacks back on, next was an easy hike up a grassy path onto Stob Coire an t-Saighdeir - not a Munro, but a fine high point. Cairn Toul could be seen ahead, cloud and mist blowing in, teasing us. The boulderfield up this is normally a doddle, with heavy packs however, care was needed as we balanced our way across and up. The first cairn on the summit was reached. Fresh snow was making a cover all around - we recorded 1.3°C on the way up ! We sheltered in a hollow to eat and take in the brief views exposed by the cloud occasionally lifting.

Some more boulderfield, then the short hike up the next 4000er, Sgor an Lochain Uaine, was on a fine path. A hi-five at the summit, we continued on (ie no views).

On Cairn Toul
A last section of boulderfield had to be contended with - we were now taking them in our stride. We were now aiming for our last summit of the trip, Braeraich. This is a vast plateau mountain encircling impressive cliffs - reading between the lines - "navigationally testing" ! The terrain is much easier underfoot than what we'd been hiking over so far today and we progressed at a fine pace. Over the burn rumbling down from the 'Wells of Dee', a direct bearing was made for the summit and we reached it quite quickly, gawping down the impressive cliffs on the way. Although we hoped for a clear summit to stop and linger for a while at, the weather had other ideas, and we decided it would be best to find somewhere further down.

So far we hadn't met a soul, just some families of ptarmigan - mothers trying to avert our attention from their cute chicks. On the descent into the Lairg Ghru we started meeting folk - one person, then a couple who we chatted with and then more - it was going to be a busy summit - one group of around 20 boys, probably around ages 14-16, were being briskly marched uphill by 3 teachers ! At around 900m we descended out of the cloud and hands at last began to warm. We stopped at a point where the path turns north and got some food out - Andy got his stove out and heated water for some tea and a posh Pot Noodle thingy with tuna and couscous. Sun warmed us up and brough a smile back to our weather beaten faces. Ahead and below, we could see the Lairig Ghru race in full swing - runners in vest and shorts bounding down the track, stopping at the stream to take on more water. If only they knew the conditions above them !
Cairngorms on the walk back out

We were enjoying the heat and watching the race, so it was with reluctance we decided to head downhill. Into the Lairig Ghru, the midgies were waiting for us, the race-marshals were well prepared for them. We reached the point where the path splits, I suggested I would go ahead and pick up the Land Rover to save the group the extra walk back up to the ski centre - yupp, no debate there ! Everyone back, we really enjoyed the trip, well sort of - it was a challenge in the conditions (just above freezing on the summits in late June shouldn't be allowed), but everyone was chuffed with what they'd achieved !

More photos are on our Flickr website.

You can see the route we took on Strava - Day 1 here and Day 2 here.