Friday 18 September 2020

On the Cairngorm Plateau


There are many summits on the Cairngorm Plateau, most notably Cairn Gorm itself and Ben Macdui. These summits are high points but not really separate mountains. They may look like it from below but once you are up on the Plateau they are just bumps in the vastness. The mountain is the Plateau. It can be enjoyed, explored and revelled in without visiting any named tops. It is a world in itself. Up here on this huge mountain there are rivers, lochs, glens, corries, grasslands, rocks and more. 

I felt this strongly a few days ago as I wandered the Plateau in sunshine and stillness. I had no clear destination, no summit to reach. Or rather the Plateau was the destination. I went late when I knew it would be quiet and the light warm and golden. I thought it would be cooler too but climbing to the Plateau the heat slowed me down. I met many people descending. One stopped for a chat. “My legs are gone” she said. She’d been down to Loch Avon then up Beinn Mheadhoin and was returning the same way. “A nine-hour day”. There’d been climbers on the cliffs in the Loch Avon basin, but they said the rocks were too wet.

Once I reached the Plateau I was alone and saw no-one else the rest of the day. The heat spoke of high summer, but the fading and reddening grasses spoke of autumn. I looked down on Loch Avon and across at the great cliffs of the Shelter Stone Crag and Carn Etchachan, monumental glacier-carved rock architecture. A distant red spot was a tent not far from the top of the latter. I wondered if this belonged to the climbers I’d heard about. A superb camp site anyway. 

On Hell’s Lum layers of wet overhanging slabs glistened. I ventured as close as I dared to the edge of the narrow gully that splits the cliff and gives its name. Far out beyond the dark slit the silvery waters of the Feith Buidhe crashed down gentler slabs. 

In the shallow valley above the tumble down to Loch Avon the Feith Buidhe was a shining thread stretching out to Lochan Buidhe. Beyond the waters rose Cairn Toul and Sgor an Lochain Uaine, the eastern edge of another great plateau on the far side of the hidden Lairig Ghru pass. 

Clouds drifted by high above, one brushing the top of Cairn Gorm, another making a half-hearted attempt to become a thunderhead. The air was warm. In these conditions the Plateau is benign, friendly and welcoming. Hard to imagine the blizzards raging here but they will be soon.

On the slopes of Cairn Lochan the low sun lit up thin grasses, the seed heads nodding in the gentle breeze. Such delicate plants. Yet they survive up here, survive in the gales and rain, the snows of winter, the frosts and ice. Delicate and tough at the same time. Easily crushed. Storm resistant.

I left the Plateau as the sun approached the horizon. The hills glowed gold. Out towards the sunset they became outlines, layers of dark silhouettes. I reached the car just as the first stars appeared. I’d reached no summits, climbed nothing I could tick off in a book, but I’d had a grand mountain day.


  1. A grand day out indeed,Chris,& great photos as usual! All the best from M&H

  2. Hi Chris, I think it may of been you I saw sitting above the Feith Buidhe up by Hell’s Lum. I was camped on the other side of the Feith Buidhe, up above the slabs. Glorious day and night. All the best TL

    1. Hi Tony, it probably was. That's a great place to camp.