IT WAS NEIL'S IDEA
It was Neil’s idea. I’d moved down to South from Scotland to the Suffolk Mountains in 1999, leaving Neil without a local walking companion. His nephew, Scott lives in Newcastle. Anyhow, the idea boiled: a three-day walk covering the Cairngorm 4000 footers in June 2000: Neil, me, Scott. Yes.
I flew up to Edinburgh and was picked up by the Geordie pair in Scott’s Caddy-type white van with the racking taken out, then North over the Forth and up the A9. We paused briefly at Aviemore to pick up supplies, including a replacement gas cannister to replace the one confiscated at Stansted Airport. Oops.
The day 1 plan was to park up at the car park on the road to the Cairngorm ski tows and then head for Braeriach, Cairn Toul and ending at Corrour Bothy. No chance. We arrived about 3-ish, a bit lat in the day but we’d planned it to be as near as possible to the longest day so who cared. The weather was OK, but began getting pretty dreich as we headed through the Chalamain Gap towards the Sinclair Memorial Hut. We saw one or two folks as we dropped into the Lairig Ghru and crossed a fair crocodile of walkers coming the other way. “Hi””Alright””Lo”Smile. That kind of thing, and them probably relieved at getting off the hill and wondering what we were doing at that time heading thataway. Little did they know. By now the weather was becoming distinctly claggy; not only that, but there was a noticeable wind. So, we began the ascent out of the Lairig Ghru up the shoulder towards Braeriach. “Conversation” petered out. It always amazes me what you talk about on these walks. Carol, my better half, will often ask what we talk about: I never can remember. It’s usually inanities mixed with navigational speculation sprinkled with mispronounced strings of Gaelic place names. I guess you needed to be there. We retreated into ourselves, hoods up, trying not to be the one that was slow.
I’d done worse climbs, and in worse conditions, but there was a frustration that the weather wasn’t being kinder. It became pretty obvious that we would need to go to plan B, the Bivvy. The plateau and the clag made navigation difficult but we hit the top of Braeriach. Neil, the keenest bagger, had his photo taken (just another rock pile according to “wor lass”, Neil’s Mo), and we moved off looking for a bivvy site. There isn’t one, or at least we didn’t see one. By this time we were fairly exposed and there was an uncomfortable wind blowing. We plodded on desperately looking for some kind of shelter. I eventually found it.
“There,” I said
“Where?” they said
Above the Crown Buttress to the west of the Angel’s Peak you’ll find the bivvy site. If you happen to be there, you’ll find a small ridge and depression, about a foot deep. That was it. The three of us hit the bivvy bags, disappeared as far as possible into sleeping bags, clothes etc and tried to get to sleep. I discovered that a rucksack is not necessarily the best windbreak you can find and that bivvy bags can be very noisy. I also lost the battle of the bladder at some point, but did notice that the sky was clearer as I took the air.
04:00 hrs: telepathy and noises meant that we all stirred at the same time. Bliss. The wind had dropped, and we had a sunrise with some cloud and a brilliant view. Not least was waking up to see the shortest climb up a Munro you could wish for, with the rocky edge leading to the Angel’s Peak summit some 150 metres above our bivvy site. We did the breakfast business, porridge of course, and started a fine day’s walking.
Sometimes the need overwhelms the fear of exposure. Early morning ablutions. Thanks guys.
What a contrast. The scenery was superb, with classic views across the tops and just a real sense of wilderness. Scott talked about his and his girlfriend’s walking and hostelling, the "Geordies" reminisced about South Shields, fishing, spot welding and, would you believe, the wonders of having your ears syringed. Dead mellow it was. The descent to the bealach above Corrour Bothy was sublime: a rear-end slide across a field of icy snow. As someone who hates coming down, bliss. Magic. The only iffy bit was the fell runner who jogged by, having started that morning where we had started the day before. Had nobody told him that it was supposed to be difficult and challenging…
And then on to Devil’s point and of course discussion of Queen Vic’s cleaned up version of the Gaelic name. We looked out over an expanse of hill and moor, on top of the world. Literally and metaphorically.
Did I mention that I don’t like down? I especially don’t like eroded paths with loose rocks and soil. Coire Odhar. From the top you can see the bothy, but that really doesn’t help. I hate the jarring and hate the teetering. The only thing I liked that morning was the weather which was gloriously sunny as we descended. Neil is half-mountain goat crossed with whippet, wiry and tough. Scott and I aren’t but we get there. We had a second breakfast at the bothy: we’d have struggled to get in, with a bunch of lads staying there the previous night. The plan was to strike for Ben Macdui after the bothy. Scott and I have both walked with Neil enough to know the danger signs.
“See that? That’s Carn a’ Mhaim.”
“If you go up there (Neil points) you’d have a flat ridge walk, no problem.”
“Only take an hour, hour and a half”
Scott looks at me, I look at Scott.
“You want to go, you go. We’ll meet you over there.”
“OK, but it’s…”
“See you in an hour and a half,”
Scott and I still talk about the half an hour kip in the sun outside Corrour Bothy. Total relaxation with the sun beating down. A real high point. Unlike the climb up the corrie to Macdui.
We met Neil as agreed, managing to annoy a pile if deer as we ascended. As we climbed, we lost the sun and it became overcast. There are some fairly large boulder fields on that ascent: Neil found little problem, I struggled and Scott struggled more (he’s a down hiller). That was a long hard climb. I’d done Macdui a few summers before, and the weather on the top was similar: windy and claggy. It’s the prairie plateau. The cairn is huge, and necessarily so, the only shelter apart from the odd ruin. Of course on Macdui you talk the Grey Man talk. I’d also been told someone had read, or heard, or whatever that there were P.O.W’s on the top in the second world war. It’s a little difficult to believe but at the time it seemed insanely reasonable, maybe because it’s the sort of place that needs legends.
We actually generated our own legend. There is more than one path to Macdui, so there were a few people around. We’d planned to overnight at the shelter stone, so dropped off across the plateau towards Loch Etchachan. The path runs past a ruin, and we followed another party about two hundred metres ahead. As they passed the ruin they stopped to talk to three guys (two older men and a youth) standing in the ruin. It comes up to your waist, so it was like talking to someone over a garden wall. The party moved on. We came up to the ruin.
“Where are we guys? Those fellas said we’re on Macdui.”
We looked at each other. We looked at them,
“This is Derry Cairngorm right?”
We looked at each other. We looked at them.
“See that hill over there?” We pointed.
“That’s Derry Cairngorm”
“This isn’t Derry Cairngorm?”
“That’s Derry Cairngorm. This is Macdui”
Of course the stock phrase in what has become an annual event is “Is this Derry Cairngorm”. (It never is).
The long walk down was pleasant: the weather cleared, and although we were tired, we knew the end (without any “up”s) was in sight. Neil is the hill book reader. No trashy novels, just mountain books, so he had come across the shelter stone. It seems unlikely that the books he had read had photos.
The descent to the boulder field where the shelter stone is is dramatic, The whole place is like a fantasy secret place, with dramatic cliffs, steep sides and the Loch heading out in the distance. It also had wind, but we were grateful to find the huge boulder with space beneath and running water nearby. I always find rock impressive. It’s just so solid. Despite the fresh wind, we did things with feet, we ateand made ourselves comfortable. The three of us fitted neatly in one of the compartments beneath the rock. Very cosy.
I admit it. I got claustrophobic. Not seriously, but enough to be first up I had a wander around. A while later I returned.
“Do you want the good news or the bad news?”
Muttering from Neil and Scott in their burrow.
“It’s not raining and the wind has dropped.”
“This isn’t the shelter stone.”
For anyone wanting to avoid this mistake, the shelter stone is not just big, but very big. It stands on its own, is the size and shape of a small house and has a cairn on top. It is also shown on the masp. When we looked, it seemed a mite damper than our version, and who cares anyhow. Sad that the visitors book was so damp.
To get to where we wanted, Cairn Gorm, requires the fording of a rather substantial stream. If you can’t find the shelter stone, you’re not going to find the fords. This was the coldest piece of water ever. We all picked oure own places: we all separately, loudly and obscenely commented on the cold as we got in. “Oh dear,” we said.
Walking out was fine walking despite the drizzle that came down. Loch Avon is quite impressive in its way. With an amazing sandy bottom seen from the hill above We headed toward Feith Buidhe, the burn that cascades down from the Cairngorm plateau. This was a steep scramble and I have to say really enjoyable We’d had a great couple of days, a good night’s sleep, had enjoyed each other's easy company and had been privileged to have been in the wilderness.
As we climbed the weather improved, and as we hit the plateau, the sun was shining. We then established another tradition called the reading of the map. Neil is an excellent navigator and has a certain assurance with it. We rarely disagree, although my role and Scott’s role is generally to corroborate, which we do. Now, from the way we came on it, Cairn Gorm looked nothing. It is basically worthy of Suffolk. I’d worked out however which hillock was Cairn Gorm. Neil was not impressed, and continued to head north west expecting to see a great mountain. I went due north. Scott looked both ways, reckoned that I could be right and sort of followed me.
“OK, so you were right,” said Neil. A little later
He’s never been allowed to forget it. A great walk, if you forget the walk through the funny colour railway construction site. And it turned into 12 years of annual walks.