Sunday, 12 December 2010

A three day loop through the Cairngorms, April 2010.

Spring in the Cairngorms arrives significantly earlier than the departure of the snow. I arrived in Rothiemurchus Forrest to find the river Druie running high with melt water from the mountains still blanketed with snow. The perfect time to see the changing of the season. I anticipated snow remaining along my route, although I was not heading up high. It is fair to say I underestimated the volume of snow that remained in the Lairig Ghru and Strath Nethy. But the area was beautiful to pass though in that state.

After an evening walk through the Forrest and a night camped by the shore of Loch Gamhna, I set off early through the old growth woodland in the direction of the Lairig Ghru. The Lairig Ghru is a high bealach, or pass, that follows a deep, steep sided glacial groove carved through the cairngorm plateau. The Lairig Ghru, at the summit of the pass, reaches only a little over 800 meters. The mountains immediately surrounding it, however, are among the highest in Scotland. Five of the ten Scottish peaks reaching 1200 meters or above are located within the bounds of the Caringorm National Park, and between their summits lies a high plateau.

I soon reached the Cairngorn Club bridge across the Am Beanaidh river and after crossing it turned south west to follow the Allt Druidh burn as it climbed up through the forest and toward the enclosing crags of the pass.

The aged trees became still more haggard looking as I ascended higher in to the pass. And when I finally came to a point at which the trees began to clear from the path, I found myself looking down in to a steep wooded gorge on my right hand side.

In front of me the pass began to reveal the volume of snow it had retained. Expanding patches of white against rough dark ground created a striking contrast in the scene and the passage through the mountains wove its way out of view, obscured by the folds of land up ahead.

Another 90 minutes of walking, increasingly on compacted snow, brought me to the summit of the Lairig Ghru. I know from subsequent trips that the area is a vast boulder field, that twists at your legs and tempts you to injure yourself right on it's slippery rocks. But I sailed right over it on the hardened snow and on my way, now continuously on snow, down toward Deeside. I was acutely aware of the Pools of Dee coming up ahead, and was careful to restrict my route the opposite side of the pass until I was sure of their location in relation to myself. I was terrified by the thought of plunging straight through and in to an icy pool lurking beneath. They were looking superb, though, and I was glad I could approach close enough to get some pictures.

Water sprang from beneath snow patches on the hill sides around me. Flowing water emerged now and then on the valley floor revealing the exact whereabouts of the still mostly snow covered river, which was otherwise only guessed at by the muffled sound and the blue line on my map.

As I continued, the view ahead opened up and under the crystal clear blue sky a memorable view of Cairn Toul and Sgor an Lochain Uaine revealed itself.

I continued to descend from the higher reaches of the pass, and as I descended the snow thinned and again I was crossing patches of snow followed by patches of soggy ground. My destination for the night was to be Glen Luibeg, a further ten kilometers from the summit of the Lairig Ghru.

Glen Luibeg boasts some fine old Scots Pine as well as the signs of a determined effort to further regenerate the woods in the area. It is a shame that for this purpose large fences are required to keep the deer from consuming the chances of young trees. But these fences are tolerable, and at least in Glen Luibeg they do little to diminish the mountain views all around. From my campsite, just below the River Lui Waterfalls (which were still hung all around with clinging snow and ice) I could see the summit crest of Ben Macdui caked in snow, shining with a reddish glow in the evening light. I made a fire from some scattered deadwood and drank whiskey with the water from the Lui.

Day two of my circuit began with a wind about the tent door and less of the promise of sun than the day before. I wandered amongst the trees and edged as close as I dared to the chilly snow clad river banks.

The morning's walking through the old Pines brought me to Derry Lodge, an abandoned hunting lodge and Mountain Rescue post. There is also a bothy (named 'Bob Scott's' after a former keeper in the area) but it is one I haven't stayed in yet.

From here I turned north, up Glen Derry, in the direction of the Lairig an Laoigh

The Lairig an Laoigh, another pass between Deeside and Speyside, follows an easy course up Glen Derry before climbing through a steep narrow groove much like the Lairig Ghru. From here the way passes down toward the River Avon (A'an) past two small lochs, marked on the map as Dubh Lochan (Black Loch).

I could see the Fords of Avon refuge across the river. The slight stone refuge seemed inviting.

The river Avon was a chilly barrier, but the only way forward was through. I forded up to my knees, and the water was refreshingly cool (to put it mildly).

The river had chilled my toes. I stopped for a brew in the refuge to warm myself, and decided to camp early (there being no particular hurry). The refuge was had an interesting smell, on the wrong side of pleasant, and was also rather damp inside. So I decided to camp, and put mt tent up just beside the River.

Despite the chilly view from my tent doorway, I found a decent enough camp beside the river Avon refuge and slept soundly all night. In the morning my way took me away form the Lairig an Laoigh and in the direction of Loch Avon, the headwater of the River Avon which from there tumbles onward and downward until it meets the Spey.

The frigid cliffs around the loch made a splendid sight, as did the still mostly frozen waters of the loch itself.

At the end of a steep climb away form Loch Avon I found myself on the 'The Saddle', a coll between Cairngorm and Bynack More. From this point I could look back in one direction to the massive corrie I had climbed out of and in the other direction down in to the winding narrow glen of Strath Nethy that was now my path.

As I descended, the landscape gradually thawed around me. The 7km Strath Nethy presented rough, uneven walking, progressively less icy and more boggy with every step.

The walk out toward Glenmore took me within a stone's throw of Ryvoan Bothy. A small bothy I have passed by on a couple of occasions but have yet to visit. I ignored the bothy in favor of a bar and a bar meal. The Glenmore lodge bar, The Lochain Bar, kindly provided me with several pints or beer and a large meal from their grill.

I finished off the night, and the trip, on the shore of Loch Morlich with the dregs from my hip-flask.


  1. Ive only just come across your blog.

    The photos alone mandate a comment.


    I look forward to trawling through this.

    I am totally new to pack rafting. I will have to google it and learn more about the boat and its weight and so on.

    I want to do a similar thing with a paraglider!

  2. So you use an American Built Alpacka Raft?

    I am intrigued.

    Thats seriously light for what it is.

    I live on the Cape York Peninsula in far North Queensland, Australia.

    Its all crocodiles here!


    1. Hi Doug

      Yes it is an Alpacka Yukon Yak with spray deck.

      Packrafting is actually really popular in Australia. There is more of a history of it there than over here. Activists in the 80s used a flotilla of packrafts (rubber duckies I think your compatriots call them) to blockade the Franklin River to stop it being dammed.

      I'd be pretty freaked out by the idea of Crocodiles and such like. But people out your way seem to be pretty tough about it! There is a good four part video on YouTube about a packrafting trip down the Fitzroy River and they saw crocodiles. The didn't even seem to be too freaked out when wading through the shallows with them! The first part is here:

      I'd really recommend Roman Dial's book about packrafting if you're interested. His blog is cool, too. And 'A Long Trek Home' is an awesome book about a 4000 mile packrafting epic up the wild coast of BC and Alaska (by Erin McKitrick).

      Love the Paragliding idea - this guy does that, too.



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Grid North by David Hine is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.