The Mountain's Silhouette

Hiking and backpacking in the mountains of Scotland

Creag Meagaidh

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Distance: 23.77 km
Ascent: 1318 m
Time: 7hrs 12mins
Munros: Carn Liath (1006m), Stob Poite Coire Ardair (1053m), Creag Meagaidh (1130m)
Weather: Early cloud giving way to sunshine, very strong winds on top
Route: Click to view

Autumn has definitely been making its presence felt in the east of Scotland with wind and rain blowing through constantly during the past week. Meanwhile, over in the west there had been reports of high pressure and clear, though windy, conditions. With a good forecast for Sunday (and after missing my alarm on Saturday) I was up early and speeding across towards the west.

The MWIS forecast suggested there would be a weather split around the line of the A9, so today I chose to do a circuit of Creag Meagaidh which lies to the north of the road between Aviemore and Spean Bridge. There were high winds forecast and so I chose to do the round in an anti-clockwise direction, keeping the easterly wind to my back.

At the large public car park at Aberarder which I arrived at just after 10am, there was definitely a strong wind blowing and it felt cold. This was despite the best efforts of the sun which was starting to break out through the fast moving clouds. Looking at the conditions I decided to take the winter jacket and was later very glad of it.

The jacket wasn’t needed at first though. Once kitted up I set off up the well built track which passes the large house and then winds its way gently up, passing through sparse woodland; the russets and golds on display in the glen here were beautiful.

At a small cairn I took a smaller track which branched off uphill and to the right. This track was reasonably good to begin with as it climbed up through the trees, but rapidly descended into a boggy ribbon as the vegetation thinned.

Luckily the views that were starting to open out, both ahead and behind, were sufficient to take my mind off the undesirable conditions underfoot. Behind me rays of sunlight were bursting out of thinning cloud to touch the waters of Loch Laggan, whilst to my left I could see deeper into Coire Ardair, the great Coire around which the peaks of Creag Meagaidh sit watchfully.

Just below the low summit of Cnap Cnapanan, the bog finally relented and the path became excellent. This relatively low jumble of crags was bypassed around its north side, giving excellent views down Loch Laggan, and then the final push up Carn Liath began. The track continued until the final summit boulder field where it was lost amongst the hard, featureless ground.

Unfortunately, as I had climbed I had entered into the cloud which was stubbornly sitting at around 975m. It was being whipped up by the strong easterly wind that now hit me with its full force as I staggered east, making my way from one cairn to the next until I came to the big cairn marking the summit.

I was very glad of the windbreak in the lee side of the cairn and sat down to have a brew and a snack. Away north, towards Garva bridge and the glen containing the young Spey, there was blue sky beginning to break through.

Over the course of ten minutes the views improved dramatically and by the time I had stopped to have a look at the “gate to nowhere” and then returned past the cairn to pick up the main track west, there was definite signs of an improvement.

Carrying on down from the summit of Carn Liath I was soon bathed in sunshine. Sheltered from the wind by the bulk of Carn Liath it was wonderfully warm, swiftly bringing life back to my cold fingers.

From Carn Liath to the next Munro, Stob Poite Coire Ardair, there is a gentle rolling walk along an undulating ridge that takes in a number of smaller summits. As I advanced along it the views continued to improve, the cloud being teased away from the summits in front of me.

The track led along the crest of the ridge and here I once again encountered the wind which was now thankfully (or else because of my excellent route planning!) behind me. I paused often to peer down into the coire and take photos looking along towards the cliffs. In the distance I could now see the fabled Window, the one weakness in Coire Ardair’s otherwise impenetrable defences.

Finally after crossing a subsidiary top the ridge curves around to the left up to the second Munro of the day, Stob Poite Coire Ardair.

From the approach to the east this is a shapely mountain with riven gulleys in its facing side. Once you are on top though it is a fairly flat plateau which runs some distance towards the west end where the summit cairn is to be found. Luckily, though the terrain lacked interest, the views down into Coire Ardair were spectacular. Each time I went over to have a look the lighting had changed, breaks in the cloud sending rays down to hit the valley floor and push rippling patterns across the hidden lochan.

The views back to Carn Liath were also improving with the increasing sunshine. Eventually I tore myself away to briefly visit the summit cairn. It was so windy though that I barely spent more than a minute there before heading off the west and dropping down on a good path to the shelter of the Window, a wide col above the narrow defile which drops rapidly down into Coire Ardair.

The main plateau of Creag Meagaidh itself had by now cleared almost entirely of cloud and as the final layer was peeled away the summit could be seen, complete with a couple of tiny figures silhouetted against the sun.

At the Window I paused to take advantage of the shelter offered by the close set walls and in the sunshine enjoyed a lunch, looking away across the wild and desolate hills that sit to the east of the Great Glen above the infant waters of the Spey.

As I was sitting contemplating the view, I noticed running up from the far end of the nearby Lochan Uaine, what appeared to be a ridgeline that rose neatly up to almost the summit of Creag Meagaidh. I got the map out and studied the contours and found that it was a ramp-like corrie that should make a good route up. Going this way would avoid me retracing my steps as I had already made my mind up to descend by the Window and visit Coire Ardair itself.

After lunch I packed up and left the baggers path which heads up the slope to the south of the Window. I skirted along slightly bouldery and boggy ground to the north of the Green Lochan. At the far end I found a jumble of boulders that I climbed which brought me along a grass rake to the foot of the corrie itself.

Almost immediately I found a faint track which led upwards. I lost it occasionally amongst crags and rocks but then picked it up again higher up. In almost no time I emerged on the plateau of Creag Meagaidh itself with just the final pull up the summit to complete. I was there in no-time.

The views from the summit were simply sublime. A haze pervaded the view and thick clouds were rolling up against distant peaks. The quality of light was almost surreal, the haze turning the sky grey on the horizon but leaving it a clear and crystalline deep blue above. I moved slightly away from the summit to sit and take in the views.

After this I retreated back to the summit cairn to enjoy a final brew whilst staying sheltered from the wind. Then it was back down the way I’d come, but this time continuing across the plateau to take a look at Mad Meg’s Cairn, a huge structure below which was reportedly buried the body of a young girl who committed suicide but was refused a burial in the local kirkyard.

After this I headed eastwards to peer over the edge of the cliffs into Coire Ardair itself. The view from this end was very dramatic with the late afternoon sunshine lighting the far side of the coire whilst the lochan was lost in shadow.

From here I then followed the clear track back down to the Window. I didn’t stay too long at the col but now took the path that dropped into the Window itself.

From the col the initial descent is very steep down a cascade of boulders which are damp and cold in their sheltered eastern position. After some time of making only slow progress I finally reached a line of grass that descended down the side of the boulders, a faint track zig-zagging its way down.

A final clamber across the bottom of the boulders got me onto a good track that now made its way to the shores of the lochan. The views up onto the cliffs were breathtaking. Slightly further down the coire two stags were bellowing, their cries low and mournful but echoing strangely off the rocks.

I sat for a moment munching on a final bar of chocolate and looking over the quiet waters of the lochan, the dark cliffs standing solemnly behind. This is definitely a place I want to return to.

After this there was no problem with routefinding. An excellent track runs the length of the coire, from the lochan back to Aberader. Once away from the cliffs I was back in the golden afternoon sunshine and got to enjoy a wonderfully peaceful walk back, breathing in the views.

Closer to Loch Laggan you pass through a few stands of beech trees and these were stunning, illuminated by the sun. Unfortunately my SLR battery died at this point so I was left with my phone camera to capture them.

Eventually, around an hour or so after leaving the lochan I arrived back at the car park, the sun starting to sink below the hills and a chill creeping into the air.

After packing up and changing shoes I started the long drive back to Aberdeen, pausing a couple of times initially to photograph the stunning sunset.

It had been a great day with conditions improving all the time and the consistent haze bringing a dramatic aspect to the light.

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