Air shimmering with heat above the pale, stony, desert-like terrain below a deep blue cloudless sky. Intense sunshine. Rocks warm to the touch. Not the usual image of the Cairngorm Plateau but the reality for a few days this August.
I’d climbed up onto the Plateau late one afternoon, winding my way up the steep Goat Track that breaches the great back wall of Coire an t-Sneachda. The air was still hot and the ascent tiring. On reaching the top I looked out on pale gold mountains stretching into the distance. Rarely do the Cairngorms look like this.
Wandering down the boggy upland valley of Coire Domhain I changed my plans. I had intended descending steeply into the deep cleft holding Loch Avon them climbing equally steeply up the far side. In this heat I didn’t feel like another climb. I could see too that the Loch Avon basin was already in shadow. And that would mean midges. Staying high and seeking a camp site somewhere breezy seemed a better idea.
A favourite place lay not far away too – the broad rocky shelf above the steep slabs falling down towards Loch Avon. Split by the rushing waters of the Feith Buidhe, Garbh Uisge Beag and Garbh Uisge Mor the terrain here is wonderfully complex, a tangle of boulders, slabs, pools, and grassy hollows, and has tremendous views of the cliffs round the head of Loch Avon. Much of the ground is too stony for tent pegs but there are good camp sites if you’re prepared to explore. I find a different spot each time I visit. On this occasion I found a breezy site just above the Garbh Uisge Beag with splendid views of the last big snow drifts on steeper slopes not far away and beyond them the crags of Hell’s Lum and Stag Rocks.
A red sky after sunset gave way to the cool light of the rising moon. The sky darkened, stars appeared. The scene was peaceful and magical and I spent hours watching the sky and the mountains.
Dawn came harshly with no colour in the sky, just the sudden heat of a bright sun. The tent was instantly too hot and I was soon outside, breakfasting in the sunshine.
Reluctant to leave I then wandered over to the snow drifts and explored the gaps between them and the rocks. Here it was cool and damp and dark though I didn’t venture far, being alone and without any gear – shorts and sandals not really being adequate! The snow was deep, well above my head, and the drifts extensive. Some will last into the next winter unless there is much more hot weather.
Finally packing up I followed the Garbh Uisge Beag up onto the open slopes of the Plateau. Despite many previous visits I’d never followed this stream before and I was interested to find it runs for a while in a narrow rocky ravine that’s almost invisible until you’re in it.
Next came Ben Macdui and then the walk back across the Plateau to Cairn Gorm. The sparse vegetation, gravelly ground and splintered rocks made me think of desert terrain, not a thought I’ve had before up here. Arctic tundra is what usually comes to mind.