Sunday 16 March 2014

Linking the Lairigs: A Walk In The Cairngorms

Camp in the Lairig Ghru

Finally. High pressure. After a winter of storm following storm the air stilled and the sun shone. The storms have been both positive and negative for mountain lovers. Positive in that masses of snow has been dumped on the Scottish mountains, far more than in other winters, but negative in that high winds and low cloud have made it both difficult and hazardous to actually enjoy the snow. Now that seemed possible so I decided on the first real backpacking trip of the year - by which I mean a trip on which I moved on each day rather than setting up a base camp for a few nights.

Not having been right through the Lairig Ghru pass that splits the heart of the Cairngorms for some time and knowing that it is particularly magnificent when under snow I decided to go that way and then curve round the high mountains and return via the more easterly pass of the Lairig an Laoigh. I set out one afternoon, in good spirits after a fruitful morning meeting, to cross below the great snow-covered Northern Corries of Cairn Gorm, which shone in the bright sunshine, and cut through the rocky snow-stuffed notch of the Chalamain Gap to the Lairig Ghru. The air was hot and still. Sunscreen was important and I rolled up the sleeves of my thin shirt and wore a sunhat.

Stob Coire an t-Sneachda & Cairn Lochain in the Northern Corries

As I climbed slowly into the long heart of the Lairig Ghru the sun dropped behind a ridge and I was in shadow. The effort of the ascent kept me warm. Snow patches appeared, soft and treacherous, collapsing under my boots. Gradually the snow grew more extensive and harder and soon I was walking on a firm, crunchy surface that filled the cleft of the pass. To the east the walls were rocky with only a few snow patches. Here the sun had done its work. Indeed, the rocks still glowed with its light. To the east there was much more snow and the shadowed rocks were grey and cold. Several avalanches had crashed down from the cornices high above, some almost reaching the bottom of the pass. Around them dozens of dark rocks lay embedded in the snow, missiles hurled down from above. I kept well to the eastern side. Who knew where the next avalanche would stop?

Avalanche in the Lairig Ghru

Two skiers climbed towards me, their skis over their shoulders. On reaching flat snow they changed from awkward lumbering walkers to graceful skiers and sped away over the pass. They were the second skiers I'd seen. The first were also carrying their skis. I'd considered bringing mine. I was glad I hadn't. I'd have spent too much time carrying them. And the snow was mostly fine for walking.

Skier in the Lairig Ghru

Once through the highest part of pass I could see the peaks to the south, their summits still catching the sun. I descended until below the snowline then found a dryish, reasonably flat pitch for the tent. A bright nearly-full moon rose over the shoulder of Ben Macdui, its pale radiance sweeping the ground and making the snow high above glow with a faint and eerie light. A frost quickly coated the tent. Stars appeared. There was not a breath of wind. A perfect night in the mountains.

Orion hangs above Bod an Deamhain (The Devil's Point)

It was not to last. I fell asleep with the doors open, still staring at the sky and the snow and the mountains. The temperature was -2ºC. A cool wind on my face woke me. The tent was flapping lightly. I looked at my watch. 2 a.m. I zipped the tent shut. An hour later I woke again, feeling hot. The temperature was +6ºC. I looked out. The frost was gone. So were the stars and the tops of the mountains. Grey cloud covered the sky.

A Starry Sky above the Lairig Ghru

The following day the clouds remained, mostly. Occasionally the sun almost broke through. Occasionally the clouds faded and scattered, revealing patches of blue sky. But the greyness always swept back in. This meant a day for other joys than mountain watching and revelling in big landscapes. The air was warm and the lower snow thawing which made for many attractive streams and rivulets speeding down rocky chasms and spilling over onto the grass. In Glen Luibeg and Glen Derry I admired the ancient and magnificent Caledonian Pines and was heartened by the extent of regeneration with young little trees everywhere. As I neared the end of the trees in Glen Derry a blackcock with its distinctive black and white plumage sailed in front of me and perched right on the top of one of the bigger pines, the tip of the tree swaying under its weight. Then it was off again, flying low and fast down the glen. 

At times the clouds almost cleared

Later in the day as I was passing the still mostly-frozen Dubh Lochan pools a large dark bird flew towards me. A golden eagle! It flapped past, seemingly ponderous as it made its way low along the hillside against the wind. Then it reached a broad snowfield that stretched from the glen right to the top of the hill. Here the eagle began to spiral upwards, slow and graceful. Each turn seemed to gain little height yet gradually it rose, soon reaching the edge of the mountain. On into continued high into the sky, way above the snow, still turning and turning, with barely a flap of its wings. I felt as though I could still see the track of its flight stretching out below it. Then when it was as high above the mountain as the mountain was above the glen it made a final turn and flew fast and straight into the dark clouds away to the west. Eventually I could see it no more and it was time to move again and continue what seemed my even more slow and clumsy progress through the bogs and snowfields. What must it be like to soar like that, in control of the wind and the sky, to cover in minutes what would take me hours and seemingly without effort.

Despite the snow, the sodden muddy ground and various stream fords I'd managed to keep my feet dry until I came to the Glas Allt Mor, a raging snow-melt torrent. This time I could see no boulders to use as stepping stones, not even ones just below the water. Finding a wide section that didn't look too fierce I waded. The water was knee-deep and cold. Striding uphill afterwards soon warmed up my feet. I hadn't even thought about this stream. My concern was with the River Avon, which I wanted to ford but which I knew might be in spate and too dangerous to cross. That would mean a long walk upstream and along Loch Avon and then fords of the feeder streams of the latter. However when I reached the Fords of Avon the river was still mostly snow-covered, though there were several holes where the river rushed into caverns under the snow and the snowfields were cracked and sagging. I picked a spot in the middle of a long snow bridge and crossed gingerly, trying to put as little weight on each step as possible whilst still moving fast. The snow held. Unless there is a freeze soon the river will become impassable for a while though.

The River Avon, My Tracks on the Left

A few kilometres beyond the Avon I stopped to camp as it was dusk and a climb came next. The top of a low knoll provided a dry spot. There was no wind. I was asleep early, which was good as again the weather changed abruptly overnight. Rain spattering on the tent woke me at 2 a.m. Then at 4 a.m. great rushing gusts of wind shook the tent. I soon realised I would get no more sleep so I dressed, managed to carefully make a hot drink, ate an energy bar and packed up. Often when exiting a tent the weather outside doesn't seem quite so bad. Not this time. I climbed out into a big storm with lashing rain and a wind that nearly knocked me over. The wind continued all day. (An 111mph gust was recorded by the Cairngorm Weather Station). I set off in the dark, my headlamp picking out the rough path. Crossing the shoulder of Bynack More at 800 metres I was twice blown uphill whilst traversing snowfields. Without my trekking poles I'd have been blown over several times. Starting the descent was a relief, as was reaching the first trees and the shelter of Glenmore Forest, though even here the wind was strong and raucous. The walk finished at 9 a.m., a little earlier than intended, by which time I'd walked 10 miles. My car, in a wooded car park, was rocking in the wind. The change in the weather had made the trip more strenuous and more of an adventure than I'd expected. But it had been deeply enjoyable and there is much I'll remember for a long, long time.

Camp in the Lairig Ghru


  1. Lovely article Chris. Stunningly beautiful photography, I especially love the last, Camp in the Lairig Ghru. Thanks for sharing. ~Don

  2. Beautiful! Look at the snow on the Avon. Its like another world up there! Lovely write up.
    Was it experience / intuition or just luck you left your skis behind?
    As Don said, excellent night photography. I'm too comfy to get out again.... But you make it well worth while.
    Do you ever fall / slip / get blown over?
    We want more of these trips Chris :-)

  3. Thanks everyone. Tony, I slip occasionally! Trekking poles have been essential for keeping my feet this winter as it's been exceptionally windy. I left my skis behind because I thought I'd end up carrying them too much of the time, as would have been the case. My ski boots aren't that comfortable for walking either.

  4. Great route and lovely photography. Glad you got 2 good weather days to enjoy.

  5. Wild and exciting at times Chris. Bailing out early was a wise move, and a good head torch needed then. Ace photos by the way.

    1. Thanks Martin. There didn't seem much point waiting in the tent while the storm raged. I actually had two headlamps (they do fail occasionally so I carry two in winter) - a Petzl Tikka R+ was the one I used. Two were also useful for lighting the tent for the night shots.

  6. Beautifully worded Chris and some stunning pics. I'm hoping to get to Bynack More this summer. Easier walking then.

  7. Great stuff, that must have been last Tuesday/Wednesday? I was up on Thursday onwards for the high winds and was surprised too by the amount of snow also. I managed to pay my respects to Culra Bothy which perversely was very tidy and ordered inside.

    What tent were you using there? An Akto?

    1. Thanks Mark. I was out Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. The tent was a Nordisk Telemark 2, which I'm testing for The Great Outdoors. And it was a severe test!

  8. You take some excellent photos of that night sky without all the light pollution us city dwellers have to put up with. Thankfully its just about that time of year for a bit of wild camping myself :)