The Mountain's Silhouette

Hiking and backpacking in the mountains of Scotland

Winter in the Eastern Cairngorms

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Distance: 29.27 km
Ascent: 846 m
Time: 7hrs 34mins (including stops)
Hills: Beinn a’ Chaorainn (1082m) and Beinn Bhreac (931m)
Weather: Cloud sitting at around 950m most of the day. Very little wind. Later sun breaking through to give clear tops as afternoon ended.
Route: Click to view on OS Map

Before the sun had risen I was driving down the South Deeside Road under less than promising skies. Refueling in Banchory I was intially confused by the football supporters loading up on energy drinks and junk food until I remembered that Aberdeen were playing Celtic in the Cup. I was pleased to be heading away from all this, gradually encountering quieter roads and a temperature that dropped down to 0C as I passed Mar Lodge on the Linn of Dee road.

The car park at the Linn of Dee was eerily quiet. There were only a few cars huddled together at the far side nearest the track leading off to Glen Lui. As I was booting up a few folk passed through on mountain bikes. These were to be the last people I would see until returning to Derry Lodge later in the day. WIth crampons and ice axe safely stowed in my pack I was away, heading up the familiar slope away from the car park.

The world was cold and grey, colour sapped out of the ground and the sky by a low flat light. There was no wind and the quiet soon became peaceful rather than eerie. The still woods gave out to the wide glen containing the Lui water. I hit my stride quickly, soon warming up and enjoying the crunch of gravel beneath my boots, dodging around ribbons of treacherously polished ice. Ahead of me the mountains above Derry Lodge were capped by thick cloud. Nevertheless I held onto the idea that MWIS would be right, and that by midday those clouds would be in tatters, blown away on a brisk northerly wind.

The Derry Road is familiar ground, having walked it on four previous occasions. I covered the distance quickly and was soon at the Lodge where I caught a distant sight of the dismounted cyclists making their way across the flats towards Glen Luibeg. I followed their route initially but after crossing the Derry by the footbridge turned right onto new ground, a track that wound its way across marshy tussocks to then follow the course of the Derry north into the heart of the mountains.

After a few minutes of wending through the woods, the track came back to the waterside and I stopped for a drink and some food. A watery sun was now visible through the hazy clouds and its light bounced sharply off the chattering stream, still encased in ice in many places.

After this pleasant break I pushed on, following the track as it slowly climbed the glen. A shower passed overhead as I crossed the Derry to join the main track which runs up to the pass of the Lairig an Laoigh. The mountains, high and wild looking, began to climb on either side now, the snow line getting closer and closer. The glen was utterly deserted, neither animal or human stirred in the landscape.

Eventually I reached the Glas Allt Mor, tumbling down from the col below Beinn a’ Chaorainn. This is a serious stream and it was only through careful use of my pole that I got across with dry feet. Shortly after this a track forked off to the left, climbing up towards Loch Etchachan. I carried on though as the path turned to climb the slopes below Beinn a’ Chaorainn, up to the pass of the Laoigh. I briefly caught sight of the Murchison Hut below Etchachan and the track winding its way up to that high loch.

Climbing the pass had taken me closer to the cloud base and now the world was increasingly white, visibility reduced to just a short distance ahead. It made the climb above me look very dramatic and intimidating, the steep slope disappearing off to an unguessed point above me. At first progress was good, but I soon hit compacted neve, slightly blue in colour, scored into shallow ripples by the wind, and hard as steel. Kicking my boot in made barely any impression and so it was on with the crampons and out with the axe. After this progress was much better and I was able to cleanly front point up a steep snow slope until I reached the ridge line where the contours flattened out. I now took a quick bearing to the summit and made my way up. The cloud occasionally thinned to give a fleeting view back down into the glen.

I avoided the craggy edge above the Lairig and so traversed a slight depression before hitting the southwest ridge. Up this I went, watching the horizon for a sign. Within just a few minutes the terrain again levelled off and now my crampons were catching on protruding rocks that had had much of their snow blasted away. The cairn came into view and I gladly touched it, my first Munro of 2011 and number 101.

After a quick check to confirm there wasn’t a view in any direction I sat down on the sheltered side of the cairn to have some lunch.

As I sat there conditions improved slightly, the sun peering warily through the clouds and the occasional scraps of blue sky appearing above. It sadly wasn’t the great clearing that MWIS had promised, at least not yet, so after a short break I continued on my way.

After removing my crampons I made excellent progress along what must surely be one of the easiest traverses between two Munros. The wide south ridge runs out into the vast expanse of the Moine Bheadlaidh, an undulating tract of frozen, snow-covered marsh that stretches between Glen Derry and the vast bulk of Beinn a’ Bhuird to the east. There wasn’t much of a view, but the feeling of space, isolation and wilderness were intense and beguiling. Coming across the occasional pool of dark water was a strange moment for the eyes, dazed by the brightness. Later they were caught by a fleeting sun dog which appeared in the sky to the west of the hazy sun.

Eventually, as the clouds thickened and steady, powdery snow began to fall, the great mass of Beinn Bhreac appeared with both the eastern and western tops visible. Initially the slopes looked steep and snow covered but as I got closer it became apparent that it was just a gentle rise up towards the broad summit plateau. For the first time since the Lairig road I came across footprints just below the cairn but the place was entirely deserted.

Luckily though, as the day drew towards its close, the views were improving. As the sun dropped further down it found chinks in the cloud and now lit up Glen Lui and the hills of Sgor Dubh and Sgor Mor. After another brew and a final bite to eat (or was it a pot of jelly?) I reluctantly left my perch amongst the clouds and started the descent.

The slopes here are fairly gentle so I made good progress, glissading down a couple of steeper sections until I finally picked up a track which curved down below Meall and Ludan, aiming roughly for the trees in Glen Derry. I had half thought to continue over the hill and miss out the trip back to Derry Lodge but with light beginning to feel I felt safer heading for a known track, than for trying to get across a hillside as darkness fell. As I dropped down towards the trees the light snow turned thicker and wetter.

I was soon amongst the trees and then scrambling along a boggy track to emerge on the main track up from Derry Lodge. It was of course now that I looked up and saw that all the surrounding peaks, from Derry Cairngorm, past Beinn Mheadhoin to Beinn Bhreac were now sailing cleanly in a clear blue sky! Beinn Mheadhoin was the most impressive, it’s great southern flank just catching the bright sunlight. The snow now finally stopped and I was able to shed a layer to enjoy the still, fresh air.

I turned my back on the mountains and made my way down the enjoyable track to Derry Lodge and then back along the Derry Road. The clear evening’s presence was noticeable by the sudden drop in temperature and the subtle shifting of light. The return journey was uneventful, steadily racking up the miles until I returned through the woods, held deep in the gloaming, to reach the car as the light finally failed.

Orion kept me company on the long journey back to Aberdeen.

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