Thursday 30 March 2017

Spring Perfection on the Cairngorm Plateau

Early morning cloud inversion

Glasgow isn’t noted for its fine weather but whenever I visit it the sun comes out. So it was last weekend when I was there to give a talk at Mountain Aid’s excellent Skills for the Hills event and talk to people on The Great Outdoors stand.  A hot sunny Saturday was spent indoors in a city. It was an enjoyable event though and I had many interesting conversations. As someone whose work is mostly solitary, sitting at a desk looking at a screen, it’s always good to meet real people – especially ones who like my writing!

Checking the forecast it looked as though the good weather should last a few more days in the Eastern Highlands so once I was back home I made plans for a quick overnight trip onto the Cairngorm Plateau. What I found were perfect spring conditions. The sun was hot  - on both days I walked in a thin base layer with the neck unzipped and the sleeves rolled up – but there was still much snow, some of it so hard and icy that I wore crampons for the first time this snow season. There was no wind and whenever I paused all I could hear was the vast silence.

Sunset over Braeriach

The highlight of the trip was the camp. Having spent time meandering about on the Plateau looking at the views and the snow patterns the sun was setting as I approached Ben Macdui. Guessing that the rocky summit wouldn’t have enough snow to pitch my tent – as it turned out when I reached it the next day – I wandered over to the edge of the deep cleft of the Lairig Ghru pass where I found a fairly level patch of snow-free stony ground into which I could just hammer the tent pegs

A perfect camp
I was pitched not far from the snow-covered Allt a’Choire Mhoir. With my headlight on I followed the stream downwards hoping to find running water so I didn’t need to melt snow. Soon I could hear but not see water. I kicked at the snow. It was hard and I didn’t make much impression. However I had a snow shovel back at camp and once I’d fetched this I soon broke through the foot or so of snow to cold fresh water rattling over granite slabs.

A gusty wind rattled the tent in the early part of the night and I wondered if the weather was changing sooner than forecast. The sky was clear and bright with stars however. Given this I was surprised that the temperature only dropped to -1°C, just low enough for a skim of ice to form on my water bottle. 

View over the Lairig Ghru

Dawn came with a spectacular surprise. The Lairig Ghru was filled with grey undulating mist above which the great snow-streaked peaks of Cairn Toul, Sgor an Lochain Uaine and Braeriach shone in the sun. I sat and stared. This was tremendous. A perfect start to the day. Breakfast was outside in the sunshine watching the mist rise and fall. The night wind had gone and the air was still. The harsh rasping cry of a ptarmigan rang across the rocks. From somewhere far below in the mist I heard a rumble and crashing – rocks released from the snow as it melted. Otherwise all was quiet. A pretty little snow bunting fluttered over the ground, pecking at the sparse grass and waiting, I suspect, for me to leave so it could scavenge for any scraps.

View south-west from Ben Macdui
Eventually I managed to pack up and leave this wonderful camp and head up to the summit of Ben Macdui. The views remained superb though from the higher vantage point I could see that south and west the farther peaks were mostly hidden in cloud. From Macdui I crossed the Plateau watching the shining mountains. A last view down into the Lairig Ghru and out south to hazy hills and I began my descent feeling very, very satisfied.

The Lairig Ghru


  1. Inspiring images of magnificence. Thank you for a real morale booster.

  2. Great photos chris; sounds to nave been a nice outing!; from mark & helen xxx.