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Central Cairngorms #2 / 5 days / 26 miles (42km)

OS Route Map → Map GPX Route file →

Date: 10 Sep 2009
Start / Finish: Cairngorms Base Station. Large free car park & toilets. The parking area has two tiers, the lower tier is signed for 'long stay' parking.
The Mountain Ranger Centre has a log book containing forms to record various details when leaving a car for a few days.
Maps: Explorer 403 Cairn Gorm & Aviemore or Harvey Cairn Gorm and Lochnagar.

Day 1Chalamain Gap & Lochan Odhar4.5 miles / 1460 feet (7.3km / 445m)
Day 2Braeriach, Sgor an Lochain Uaine & Cairn Toul8.3 miles / 3590 feet (13.4km / 1094m)
Day 3Lairig Ghru & Ben Macdui5.8 miles / 2510 feet (9.3km / 765m)
Day 4Loch Etchachan & Loch Avon3.3 miles / 570 feet (5.3km / 173m)
Day 5Cairn Gorm4.1 miles / 1490 feet (6.6km / 454m)
Pitch near Lochan Odhar

A return visit to the Central Cairngorms as a joint trip after my phenomenal solo circuit in May earlier this year. This is a shorter route covering some of the same ground, traversing the Braeriach and Cairn Toul corries on the outward leg and ascending Ben Macdui directly from the Lairig Ghru, and following the shore of Loch Avon to the Saddle to climb Cairn Gorm for the return.

Four of the days were clear throughout and two of them had almost unbroken sunshine and excellent clarity giving superb views. Only one day - the fourth - was misted out, but offered much detail in the immediate landscape to maintain plenty of interest. A panoramic crystal clear view over a grand inversion from a deserted Cairn Gorm summit rounded off a highly memorable mountain backpack.

Day 1 - Chalamain Gap & Lochan Odhar

Our route began at the mid point of the lower tier car park, a high level start at over 2000':- very few backpacks start with a significant descent but the good path NW loses over 400' to reach the substantial footbridge over the Allt Mor where we joined the path signed 'Chalamain Gap'. This first half-day was cloudy and dull but the gentle ascent was a highly enjoyable one to get the muscles and joints moving after the long drive up. The large chaotic boulders of the Chalamain Gap were easily traversed head-on, easier, better and more satisfying than trying to find a way around them on the slopes as some people try to do. Progress was hastened as we clambered into a small local cloud of midges in the temporary shelter of the enclosed walls until we regained the gentle breeze on the far side.

En route to the Chalamain Gap
En route to the Chalamain Gap (10 Sep 2009__13:49:38)
The Chalamain Gap
The Chalamain Gap (10 Sep 2009__15:41:45)

A peaty path continues around to descend into the enclosed confines of the Lairig Ghru where a party of young girls were sitting with their heads clad in midge nets, which made me wonder why we haven't obtained such a simple defense for a trip to Scotland in September. They asked us if we were heading along the Lairig Ghru, and while trying in vain to waft away the beasts I replied that we were heading up onto higher ground where there would hopefully be enough breeze to keep the worst of the menace at bay for the pitch. A short climb gained the hummocky environs of Lochan Odhar where we found a very good pitch, not the same one as I used on my solo trip (which I failed to find) but a better and firmer spot with a gentle breeze. As we turned in for the night the mist was engulfing Braeriach, not a good omen but we remained optimistic.

Day 2 - Braeriach, Sgor an Lochain Uaine & Cairn Toul

At dawn the scene was a repeat of my earlier solo pitch: beautifully clear and cool with a pleasing inversion to the north and the early rays of the sun on the mountains. We took the path around the flank of the ridge that follows the Allt a' Choire Ghuirm into Coire Gorm and swings up onto Sron na Lairige, giving a grand view of Creag an Leth-choin across the Lairig Ghru and the mountains to the West with the inversion beyond.

The Sron na Lairige ridge is a gentle and delightful approach to Braeriach as Coire an Lochain Uaine comes into view and the cliffs and buttresses of the mountain plunge into Coire Bhrocain below.

Pitch near Lochan Odhar
Pitch near Lochan Odhar (11 Sep 2009__07:25:20)
Inversion beyond Lochan Odhar
Inversion beyond Lochan Odhar (11 Sep 2009__07:53:23)
Sgor Gaiogh from Sron na Lairige
Sgor Gaiogh from Sron na Lairige (11 Sep 2009__08:54:09)
Creag an Leth-choin and inversion beyond
Creag an Leth-choin and inversion beyond (11 Sep 2009__08:55:58)
Coire an Lochain Uaine
Coire an Lochain Uaine (11 Sep 2009__10:24:31)
Cliffs of Braeriach
Cliffs of Braeriach (11 Sep 2009__10:29:55)

Ahead lies the vast shallow bowl encircling the Wells of Dee, usually a very bleak and windswept landscape of low tundra vegetation and weathered rock but a magical stroll in the sunshine today. There are intermittent traces of trodden lines here among the low rocks, but the terrain is easy to walk on and we just aimed directly for the head of the Falls of Dee where the stream plunges over the edge of the plateau. In the distance we saw what must have been a group of deer grazing, and although we have not heard of albino deer one was pure white.

We roughly followed the plateau rim around to Carn na Criche where the edge becomes more defined and affords great views into the corries below, Garbh Choire Mor still retaining a small patch of snow. The breeze had almost died by now and the midges were becoming a nuisance whenever we stopped on the ascents of Sgor an Lochain Uaine and Cairn Toul.

The Falls of Dee
The Falls of Dee (11 Sep 2009__12:01:49)
Approaching Sgor an Lochain Uaine
Approaching Sgor an Lochain Uaine (11 Sep 2009__12:39:31)
Garbh Choire Mor
Garbh Choire Mor (11 Sep 2009__13:13:33)
Lochan Uaine
Lochan Uaine (11 Sep 2009__14:08:49)

The mighty cone of Cairn Toul is basically a boulder pile and the descent is necessarily slow, not the place to be constantly distracted by midges with no chance of outrunning them and hurried into poor judgements. The traverse of Stob Coire an t-Saighdeir was an easier and quicker walk that brought welcome relief and we took the path that bypasses the corrie edge for a more rapid descent to the wide bealach below Devil's Point.

This is a splendid location and we pitched the tent in the comfort of a very slight breeze, but it was not enough to keep the midges at bay: as the last peg was pushed home they were massing around us and we threw everything in, dived in ourselves and closed the mesh door. The mountain bealachs often funnel the wind, an effect we were hoping for, but within minutes the tent porch was thick with the blighters and we were imprisoned for the evening.

Cairn Toul
Cairn Toul (11 Sep 2009__15:52:22)
Pitch below Devil's Point
Pitch below Devil's Point (11 Sep 2009__17:12:06)

Day 3 - Lairig Ghru & Ben Macdui

Another clear sunny morning, and a good refreshing breeze had developed in the night. A good path descends the headwall by the stream into Coire Odhar where we met the first walkers coming up from the superbly situated Corrour bothy with a couple of tents pitched outside. There is something truly magical about this spot by the River Dee: surrounded by Cairngorm giants with the impressive cone of Devil's Point next door, it really evokes the feeling of the remote heart of the mountains and the Lairig Ghru pass is a deservedly popular low-level walk.

Dawn sky from pitch below Devil's Point
Dawn sky from pitch below Devil's Point (12 Sep 2009__06:57:59)
Early light on Ben Macdui
Early light on Ben Macdui (12 Sep 2009__07:54:01)
River Dee in the Lairig Ghru
River Dee in the Lairig Ghru (12 Sep 2009__09:19:53)
River Dee and Beinn Bhrotain
River Dee and Beinn Bhrotain (12 Sep 2009__09:22:37)
River Dee and Devil's Point
River Dee and Devil's Point (12 Sep 2009__09:25:23)

Next objective: Ben Macdui via the steep SE face. Walking northwards on the Lairig Ghru main path, an inconspicuous side path branches off through the heather and slants up towards the Allt Clach nan Taillear (the Harvey map shows it but not the OS map). On reaching the stream it peters out, leaving a steep but otherwise easy ascent to join the path coming in from the Carn a'Mhaim bealach. Even this path is short lived though, we soon reached the steep boulder field that covers the upper SE face. By this time a strong and quite chilly wind was blasting across the mountainside and we put on our windshells.

A steady trickle of walkers were approaching from this direction and seemed to be part of one strung out group, including a slip of a girl who ran past us up the rocks as we were grunting and inching upwards: very bad form, they should know that flaunting ones youth and vigour is bad for our morale!. The boulders continue steeply upwards forever: any notion that this mountain actually has a top must be a product of an optimistically deranged mind, but eventually we did emerge from the boulders and crossed the head of the stream for an easy ascent at a civilised angle to the cairn and topograph in the centre of the broad stony windswept summit plateau.

View from Ben Macdui
View from Ben Macdui (12 Sep 2009__14:05:16)
View from Ben Macdui
View from Ben Macdui (12 Sep 2009__14:05:27)

The descent eastwards past a ruined stone hut brought us to the Loch Etcachan path and every inch of it is a joy to walk in splendid scenery. The wind was still strong enough to seek out a relatively sheltered spot but we wanted to avoid the environs of the loch itself - a magnet for campers especially at weekend. We found a spot well above the loch with a grand aerial view of the blue waters with Cairn Gorm and Beinn Mheadhoin as a backdrop. Some high greyish cloud was moving in from the north as we settled for a relaxing evening to admire the view.

Descent path from Ben Macdui
Descent path from Ben Macdui (12 Sep 2009__15:26:17)
Cliffs above Coire Sputan Dearg
Cliffs above Coire Sputan Dearg (12 Sep 2009__15:27:24)
Loch Etchachan
Loch Etchachan (12 Sep 2009__15:54:20)
Pitch above Loch Etchachan
Pitch above Loch Etchachan (12 Sep 2009__16:25:14)

Day 4 - Loch Etchachan & Loch Avon

Our luck with the crystal clear weather ran out overnight: we opened the door to thick windblown mist. We decided to sit tight for a while in the hope that it might clear for a close up photo of the loch, but by 10:30 it seemed to be worse if anything, and thick enough to precipitate as drizzly rain. We set off in our waterproofs and crossed the outflow of Little Loch Etchachan to join the path across the bealach to Loch Avon.

The absence of clear views shifts the focus of the mind: there was plenty of local interest in this excellent walk via the rocks and pools at the head of the Allt nan Stacan Dubha with the intermittently visible cliffs and mountainsides above, and descending the badly eroded path to the top of the loch there was an atmospheric scene of a misty Shelter Stone Crag and a muted view along the waters. There are clear paths at the head of the loch but the terrain seems primordial: a jumble of glacial moraines and huge boulders enclosing miniature dripping gardens of mosses, liverworts and tenacious mountain plants.

Mist at the head of Loch Avon
Mist at the head of Loch Avon (13 Sep 2009__13:40:52)
Misty view along Loch Avon
Misty view along Loch Avon (13 Sep 2009__14:04:49)

We followed the path which, according to the map, leads to a footbridge over the inflow, but it's gone. Nevertheless we crossed the stream easily and dryshod at that spot to the north side where a whole group of campers were unloading their monster packs and setting up their large heavy-looking tents on the shore.

The mapped path along the north shore is perfectly clear, but the boulders and heathery vegetation generally extend right down to the shoreline and the path picks its way through them and over them, making it quite time consuming. Not that there was any hurry today, nor should there be, this is a fine area to savour even in these dull misty conditions. The path slants upwards to the Saddle where we made our last pitch nearby, a very good one except that the wind had died again: once more we dived into the tent and closed the mesh door as the marauding midge menace gathered to fill the porch. Later the drizzle intensified to rain, and after a whole day with no improvement it seemed that the weather had broken.

Day 5 - Cairn Gorm

One can never predict local conditions in mountains, especially the Cairngorms, and against the odds the morning was crystal clear and cool with a pronounced inversion visible down Strath Nethy as a bonus. From The Saddle the early sun wasn't high enough to catch the water but there was a gorgeous view of Beinn Mheadhoin reflected in the calm water and a warming orange glow on the near hillside.

Pitch near The Saddle
Pitch near The Saddle (14 Sep 2009__06:49:01)
Dawn light and reflection in Loch Avon
Dawn light and reflection in Loch Avon (14 Sep 2009__07:16:22)

Climbing the slanting path up the flanks of Cairn Gorm, the extent of the inversion became clear: it was not a localised phenomenon but a vast ocean of mist stretching far beyond these mountains. This time I traced the path through the small rockfield as it ascended into a shallow corrie at the head of the stream, a lovely spot, and we saw a group of ptarmigans posed on a boulder.

Climbing Cairn Gorm with inversion below
Climbing Cairn Gorm with inversion below (14 Sep 2009__07:57:46)
Ptarmigans on the climb of Cairn Gorm
Ptarmigans on the climb of Cairn Gorm (14 Sep 2009__08:23:06)
Inversion east of Cairn Gorm
Inversion east of Cairn Gorm (14 Sep 2009__08:55:42)

A short and easy ascent past the top of the funicular machinery and we arrived at a deserted Cairn Gorm summit in warm sunshine and a cooling breeze - and what a view!. The clarity was superb, and westwards the skyline was serrated with tiny distant peaks. What more can one say...

View from Cairn Gorm
View from Cairn Gorm (14 Sep 2009__09:23:00)
View from Cairn Gorm
View from Cairn Gorm (14 Sep 2009__09:23:34)
View from Cairn Gorm
View from Cairn Gorm (14 Sep 2009__09:23:53)
View from Cairn Gorm
View from Cairn Gorm (14 Sep 2009__09:24:59)
View from Cairn Gorm
View from Cairn Gorm (14 Sep 2009__09:30:38)

We lingered a while and could have sat there all morning, but a long drive south awaited us and we set off down the access track past the funicular stations for the quickest route back to the car park, meeting the first of the day walkers toiling upwards. The first job on arrival at Base Station was to sign off the log book to confirm our safe return for the Mountain Ranger service.