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Central Cairngorms / 5 days / 44 miles (70km)

OS Route Map → Map GPX Route file →

Date: 29 May 2009
Start / Finish: Glenmore campsite.
Maps: Explorer 403 Cairn Gorm & Aviemore.

Day 1Ryvoan Pass & Bynack More7.8 miles / 2640 feet (12.6km / 805m)
Day 2Cairn Gorm, Ben Macdui & Loch Etchachan9.5 miles / 2720 feet (15.3km / 829m)
Day 3Derry Cairngorm & Carn a' Mhaim8.1 miles / 2890 feet (13.1km / 880m)
Day 4Devil's Point, Cairn Toul, Sgor an Lochain Uaine & Braeriach12.2 miles / 4710 feet (19.7km / 1435m)
Day 5Chalamain Gap & the Allt Mor5.6 miles / 630 feet (9.0km / 192m)
Stob Coire an t-Saighdeir from Cairn Toul

A magnificent solo 4½-day backpack of the Central Cairngorms, a circuit that boasts some of the finest mountain scenery in NE Scotland. The route takes in nine Munros, including five of the elite 4000+ feet peaks.

The weather conditions were perfect throughout with almost constant sunshine and good clarity, while the patchy lingering snowfields added a touch of winter spice to the landscape, accentuating the sinuous curves of the corrie rims. They don't come much better than this.

Day 1 - Ryvoan Pass & Bynack More

I headed east past the reindeer centre towards Glenmore Lodge where a good track shadows the road for walkers. Beyond the lodge the route is part of a signed circular walk that passes through an attractive area with gnarled Scots pines and has information posts giving interesting details of various aspects of the area. The shore of the picturesque and popular An Lochan Uaine (Green Loch) is accessed via a flight of steps and the water really does have a strong bluey-green hue.

An Lochan Uaine
An Lochan Uaine (29 May 2009__14:06:23)

Leaving the day trippers and continuing up the Ryvoan Pass, I took the R fork of the track towards the heathery Strath Nethy and the open hillside with the first clear view of the mountain ahead. It had been very warm indeed in the glen, but a stiff breeze was blowing here and I still had over 2000 feet to climb: some shelter would be a priority for the pitch today.

The head of Strath Nethy
The head of Strath Nethy (29 May 2009__14:51:21)

Beyond the footbridge over the River Nethy the L fork of the path heads uphill to make a long and gradual approach towards the north ridge of Bynack More, the first Munro of the trip. This route is the ancient pass trail of Lairig an Laoigh, the less celebrated sibling of the more famous Lairig Ghru, and where the ground levels out on a windswept stony plateau I left it to head for the final steep climb to Bynack More. The hard work of the day completed, I soon began to feel chilled in the gusting wind and despite the strong sunshine I put on my fleece.

I descended a little east of the natural line to visit the Little Barns of Bynack, a line of prominent stone tors. Easy slopes then lead down to the Allt Dearg, now flowing beneath a receding snowfield, and a little above this I found a good level pitch sheltered from the main force of the wind, although it was still really gusty at times. The LaserComp handled it very well as expected, and once inside it felt great to be pitched in the spectacular scenery of the Cairngorms for the first time.

Bynack More summit
Bynack More summit (29 May 2009__17:29:00)
Little Barns of Bynack
Little Barns of Bynack (29 May 2009__17:44:08)
Pitch near the Allt Dearg
Pitch near the Allt Dearg (29 May 2009__18:54:12)

Day 2 - Cairn Gorm, Ben Macdui & Loch Etchachan

Some early mist cleared away very rapidly to leave a blue sky and I set off over the shoulder of A' Choinneach, first following the infant stream and then continuing over the pathless dome towards Glen Avon. I reached the top of the southern slopes to behold a splendid aerial vista of Loch Avon and the surrounding mountains, certainly one of the finest I've seen. I traversed the slopes westwards to pick up the path leading down to The Saddle, a fine walk in itself that threads through an area of rocky knolls and pools, while Loch Avon presents an ever changing aspect.

Beinn Mheadhion & Loch Avon from A' Choinneach
Beinn Mheadhion & Loch Avon from A' Choinneach (30 May 2009__09:47:34)
Loch Avon from A' Choinneach
Loch Avon from A' Choinneach (30 May 2009__10:17:35)
Loch Avon from A' Choinneach
Loch Avon from A' Choinneach (30 May 2009__10:25:32)

The path slanting up the steep eastern slopes of Cairn Gorm was easy to follow at first but became vague higher up and I lost it. It didn't matter a jot today, the terrain was easy and I continued the line towards Cnap Coire na Spreidhe, easily crossing two major streams and enjoying the fine views. Nearing the highest ground I looked back and saw a clear path disappearing beneath a quite large snowfield on the far side of the last stream: my freelancing had made life easier, I just contoured around to join the emerging path and avoided the steep snow.

A short climb further and the uppermost paraphernalia of the funicular came into view and I joined the popular track to the summit plateau. My visit to the cairn was brief in the gusting wind and I walked quickly over to the walls of the relay station for some shelter and a bite to eat. It's strange sitting at over 4000' with the whirring noise of the automatic weather instruments that pop out at intervals to take readings from what looks like a black dustbin. A snow bunting was sitting nearby on the rocks but didn't approach.

View from Cairn Gorm
View from Cairn Gorm (30 May 2009__12:02:47)

I descended the rock strewn slopes westwards and climbed around the rim of Aladdins Couloir to the subsidiary top of Stob Coire an t-Schneada with great views of the corrie and the small lochans below. At the next bealach I took the easy path SW directly towards Lochan Buidhe, a most attractive line overlooking the watery wilderness of Feith Buidhe and retaining artistic snowfields that continue feeding the streamlets well into the summer.

It was on this path approaching Lochan Buidhe that I lost my mobile phone and later returned to retrieve it.

Aladdins Couloir
Aladdins Couloir (30 May 2009__13:00:18)
Snowfields above Feith Buidhe
Snowfields above Feith Buidhe (30 May 2009__13:43:06)

After Lochan Buidhe the path swings around to the final slopes of Ben Macdui, the highest mountain of the Cairngorms and Scotland's number two, an inevitable magnet for this region. A familiar yellow helicopter flew by and hovered over the summit but there was no emergency, presumably a training flight. The views from the flat stony plateau were very extensive.

The stony summit area of Ben Macdui
The stony summit area of Ben Macdui (30 May 2009__15:19:51)

Then came the incident with the mobile phone. I descended beyond Lochan Buidhe and retrieved it, returning here a couple of hours later: so much for my plan to do an out-and-back to climb Beinn Mheadhoin, but having successfully recovered the phone I didn't feel disappointed at all. The path eastwards down to Loch Etchachan is delightful, first reaching a small upper lochan and then descending by the main stream with its countless tributary streamlets fed from the snowfields above.

As Loch Etchachan came into view I was mindful that it would probably be a magnet for wild campers, especially on a fine Saturday night, and kept my eyes peeled for a spot higher up. I spied several grassy-looking candidates but on inspection none of them were reasonably pitchable. What has really surprised us in our very limited experience of Scotland is the difficulty of finding a good pitch: almost everywhere the ground is either sloping, rocky, grossly uneven or some combination of them, and any spot passing all three criteria is usually a bog!. In England and Wales, in any area that looks halfway reasonable on the map, we can almost always find a good pitch within minutes.

Approaching the loch I saw the first of the backpackers arriving below on the shore and they unloaded their packs. Just as I had resigned myself to a discreetly distant pitch somewhere on the shore I spotted an area of grass right beside the path: it was level and just big enough for the tent save for one slightly elevated tussocky corner. It turned out to be a good pitch, very comfortable and with a grand view of the loch below. The best pitch photo was taken early the next morning.

Descending from Ben Macdui to Loch Etchachan
Descending from Ben Macdui to Loch Etchachan (30 May 2009__18:00:16)
Approaching Loch Etchachan
Approaching Loch Etchachan (30 May 2009__18:20:54)

Day 3 - Derry Cairngorm & Carn a' Mhaim

Another fine and sunny morning: I took a pitch photo and went down to the shore of Loch Etchachan for a more intimate shot of the loch, and returned to retrace my steps along the path a short way where I left it to aim for the saddle on the western side of Creagan a' Choire Etchachan. As it turned out this was generally a more promising area for a pitch, mentally noted for possible future use, and is another fragment of fine easy walking with grand views of the eastern cliffs of Ben Macdui and patches of marsh marigolds thriving in the sparse wet ground between the slabby rock.

A path develops giving a gentle stroll to the foot of the bouldery elongated spine of Derry Cairngorm, an easy ascent over the rocks to a pair of cairns. Lochan Uaine - one of three I saw on this route - can be seen across the glen in the south eastern corrie of Ben Macdui.

Pitch above Loch Etchachan
Pitch above Loch Etchachan (31 May 2009__07:19:07)
Loch Etchachan
Loch Etchachan (31 May 2009__08:01:47)
Beinn Mheadhoin from ascent of Derry Cairngorm
Beinn Mheadhoin from ascent of Derry Cairngorm (31 May 2009__09:08:51)
Lochan Uaine from Derry Cairngorm
Lochan Uaine from Derry Cairngorm (31 May 2009__09:45:37)

I descended SSE and crossed a minor cairned top at NO 020972 to join a path in the direction of Carn Crom, and left it to head westwards towards the stream that drops to join Luibeg Burn. This crossing was the only rough terrain I encountered on the route, in hindsight I'm sure it would have been easier to veer R after the first cairned top to another obvious top at NO 019965 and descend southwards. The final descent beside the stream is not difficult and I joined the good valley path down to Luibeg Bridge (there is an access gate in the deer fence a little south of the bridge).

On the far side I joined the main Lairig Ghru highway and left it for the pitched path that zigzags up the very steep south ridge of Carn a' Mhaim, a hot climb in the middle of the day but at least it doesn't mess about: I gained height quickly and earned the breeze and the fine views as the ground levelled out at a gently angled mid section. The final push to the summit is at a far more civilised angle and the views of the surrounding mountains are fantastic.

Glen Geusachan from Carn a'Mhaim
Glen Geusachan from Carn a'Mhaim (31 May 2009__14:02:00)
The Cairn Toul ridge from Carn a'Mhaim
The Cairn Toul ridge from Carn a'Mhaim (31 May 2009__14:23:10)
Ben Macdui from Carn a'Mhaim
Ben Macdui from Carn a'Mhaim (31 May 2009__15:35:06)

The itinerary for today was quite short and I sat for some time at the summit soaking up the views before walking at a leisurely pace down the long spine of the north ridge. The bealach area seems a lot bigger than the map suggests and here for once there are clear opportunities for a good pitch: I chose a spot above and to the north of the small pools to catch the gentle breeze.

Pitch on Carn a'Mhaim
Pitch on Carn a'Mhaim (31 May 2009__17:20:54)

Day 4 - Devil's Point, Cairn Toul, Sgor an Lochain Uaine & Braeriach

In the morning I was surprised to hear the honking of a flock of Canada geese near the tent, huddled together on the ground as if having an early group meeting. Time to lose height again, I made my way to the Allt Clach nan Taillear where a bit of a path follows the stream and becomes more distinct lower down, curving leftwards to join the Lairig Ghru path. What a delightful stroll it was along the valley towards the spectacularly located Corrour bothy, superb scenery and a gentle cooling breeze before the rigours of the toughest day of the route. Devil's Point dominated the local scene as I crossed the bridge to the bothy.

The River Dee & Devil's Point
The River Dee & Devil's Point (01 Jun 2009__08:15:35)
The River Dee & Lairig Ghru
The River Dee & Lairig Ghru (01 Jun 2009__08:18:55)

The breeze deserted me as I began the hot sweaty climb to Devil's Point but soon returned as I reached the steep zigzag path up the headwall, which was now free of snow and presented no difficulty. A short ascent left and I was at the summit cairn, where the breeze again disappeared and I encountered the only noticeable midges of the trip. A walk around to admire the views and a few quick photos and I retreated to the comforting breeze at the bealach for a snack.

Beinn Bhrotain from Devil's Point
Beinn Bhrotain from Devil's Point (01 Jun 2009__09:37:39)
Ben Macdui & Lairig Ghru from Devil's Point
Ben Macdui & Lairig Ghru from Devil's Point (01 Jun 2009__09:39:16)

A typical mountain path of grit and rock begins the ascent of the intermediate top of Stob Coire an t-Saighdeir, then the upper region is a basically a boulder pile. Most people apparently try to find the relatively flat bits between the rocks but I find it much easier and quicker to hop directly up the large boulders. On reaching the edge of the corrie, still sporting extensive snow just below the rim, the spectacle was breathtaking. Words can never do justice to scenes like these, photos are the best we can achieve to help us preserve the memories - and this is just the first of a series of corries.

Cairn Toul
Cairn Toul (01 Jun 2009__10:56:47)
Climbing Stob Coire an t-Saighdeir
Climbing Stob Coire an t-Saighdeir (01 Jun 2009__11:01:25)
Corrie rim leading to Cairn Toul
Corrie rim leading to Cairn Toul (01 Jun 2009__11:21:19)
Sgor an Lochan Uaine from Cairn Toul
Sgor an Lochan Uaine from Cairn Toul (01 Jun 2009__12:13:25)

Here's a first:- an open challenge to my wisdom in walking the Cairngorms in lightweight Pro Rush Mids!. Easily boulder-hopping down the rock pile from Cairn Toul, a walker was coming up the other way wearing big heavy boots which sounded like he had been personally tasked by the gods with grinding the mountain into dust. Looking disdainfully at my feet (as quite a few others have done in mountainous areas), he said something like "you find those alright up here on this stuff?... you'll get a broken ankle...etc. ". I wasn't going to argue, and even such unmitigated tripe couldn't take the shine off a gorgeous day like this, and I quickly said " They are superb for any terrain. Ankles don't need support, they have evolved to flex" and hopped on my way.

The spectacle continues unbroken around the serpentine corrie rims with superlative views and scenery throughout, I'll let the pictures do the talking. Approaching the edge below the rise of Carn na Criche, the last corrie has a distant view of the Falls of Dee tumbling down from the plateau through the snowy rim.

Looking back to Cairn Toul
Looking back to Cairn Toul (01 Jun 2009__12:58:00)
Corrie between Sgor an Lochan Uaine & Carn na Criche
Corrie between Sgor an Lochan Uaine & Carn na Criche (01 Jun 2009__13:22:38)
Looking back along the corrie rim to Sgor an Lochan Uaine
Looking back along the corrie rim to Sgor an Lochan Uaine (01 Jun 2009__13:45:51)
The Falls of Dee and corrie
The Falls of Dee and corrie (01 Jun 2009__14:03:39)

The flattish plateau between Carn na Criche and Braeriach doesn't look all that big on the map, but on the ground it seems simply vast. The illusion is enhanced by the curious desert-like landscape, a mixture of abundant low protruding rock, ground-hugging tundra-like flora, lichens and dark mosses, all in a bed of sugary sand. On the horizon I could see the wide arc of cairns that curves around the Wells of Dee, one of the possible onward routes to Braeriach, but I continued along the corrie rim. I can see now why so many writers warn about difficult navigation in mist here.

Approaching the Falls of Dee I could see that the cleft in the corrie rim above the falls was covered by a snowfield, and I turned to follow its edge upstream a short way to make a crossing. Here at almost 4000' the many little rivulets from the extensive plateau were gathering to assume the proportions of a surprisingly large stream, but it was easy to cross via a central boulder. From here I picked up a discernible trodden line across the pink rocks directly towards Braeriach until it petered out, but any line will do - it's all easy to walk on. The appearance of the dramatic cliffs of Coire Brochain by the summit cairn comes as a sudden contrast to the plateau and there is a grand view back towards Cairn Toul.

Approaching the summit of Braeriarch
Approaching the summit of Braeriarch (01 Jun 2009__14:59:05)
View back from Braeriarch towards Cairn Toul
View back from Braeriarch towards Cairn Toul (01 Jun 2009__15:13:58)

I followed the good path eastwards along the corrie rim, crossing the last small patch of snow clinging to the rocky ridge, and swung around northwards to cross the shoulder of Sron na Lairige on the ridge path, a grand and easy finale to an excellent day. Further on I took the side path that drops down into Coire Gorm to follow the heathery banks of the Allt a' Choire Ghuirm which would give me more scope for spying out a pitch.

I was aiming ultimately for somewhere around Lochan Odhar, an area that looks an obvious choice on the map, but I spent quite a long time plodding around this landscape of liberally sprinkled embedded rocks, tussocky grass and heather before finding one reasonable patch. Against the odds it was a good comfortable pitch with a pleasing view back to the mountains and I took the best photo of it the next morning. Despite the nearby bogs and very light breeze I had no problem at all with midges.

Day 5 - Chalamain Gap & the Allt Mor

Opening the tent door to the warmth of the rising sun I was surprised to see a pronounced inversion to the north, and the early light on the mountains produced a much better picture than the one taken the previous evening.

Pitch below the Sron na Lairige ridge
Pitch below the Sron na Lairige ridge (02 Jun 2009__06:05:01)
Morning inversion
Morning inversion (02 Jun 2009__06:52:47)

I rejoined the path that now recombines with the direct path down the nose of the ridge and descends into the Lairig Ghru: the path forks to give two lines of descent to the same spot on the valley floor, I took the more obvious pitched path to the R. The stream crossing point and the path up the opposite side are also easy pitched paths now.

My route was through the popular Chalamain Gap, a boulder filled gully that adds plenty of interest and makes an enjoyable easy clamber through the jumbled rocks. A clear and easy path takes over on the far side and leads down to the valley streams, where a short pitched path climbs a little to follow the edge of the high ground before descending to a large footbridge.

Approaching the Chalamain Gap
Approaching the Chalamain Gap (02 Jun 2009__07:57:30)
View back to Creag an Leth-coin & the Chalamain Gap
View back to Creag an Leth-coin & the Chalamain Gap (02 Jun 2009__08:42:14)

From the footbridge I followed the paths marked on the map northwards, some of which comprise part of the Allt Mor Trail: even this last section is surprisingly good in parts, I was expecting just plain forest roads but the variety of flora near the river makes an attractive woodland walk. The trail emerges on the road a short walk SE of the campsite.