Date: 11th-12th June 2011
Time: 19hrs 22mins (including camping…)
Hills: Fiacaill a’Choire Chais (Top, 1,141m), Carn Etchachan (Munro Top, 1120m), Beinn Mheadhoin (Munro, 1,182m), Ben MacDui (Munro, 1,309m)
Weather: Day 1 brought persistent rain and snow showers later clearing on day 2 to bright sunshine with cloud building again towards midday. Sub-zero over night.
Route: Click to view on OS Map
I think I’d probably pulled my hood as tightly around my face as was possible and yet still the snow, flung sideways by a mean north-easterly wind, stung against my left cheek as I struggled onwards, trying my best to follow the path that stuck below the headwall of the Northern Corries.
After a late start from Aberdeen I had set off with my overnight pack from the CairnGorm ski centre at about 4:30pm. Whilst the weather at Cairn Gorm was initially benign - the tops visible and the rain gone - I had driven through a mixture of heavy showers and drizzle all the way from Aberdeen. The rain held off for a good fifteen minutes; just long enough to get far away enough from the car that turning back felt like wimping out. I’d followed the nice signs which led me through the ski area towards the Coire Cas Mountain Trail. It was good to leave behind the ski machinations and after winding my way up a boggy, grassy gully I hit the broad, stoney ridge that climbs up to the head of Coire Raibert. It was a grim plod up through slippery boulders as the rain worsened and the wind rose.
By the time I reached the summit of Fiacaill a’Choire Chais, where a large group were donning waterproofs behind the cairn, I was all for simply turning away from my planned route, heading up Cairn Gorm and then descending back to the car. However, once over the top and sheltered from the worst of the elements, it was actually quite pleasant. I had never been to this part of the Cairngorms (my nearest encounter was the summit of Cairn Gorm last August) and the views were extensive; across the Loch Avon trench to Beinn Mheadhoin, and over to the right the slopes of Ben MacDui. Unfortunately there was still rain and drizzle in the air so the camera remained firmly in its dry bag. Nevertheless, given the better views I decided to push on, now following the clear track that runs along the tops of the Northern Corries.
The snow started just a few minutes down the track and didn’t let up until I had left the track and crossed marshy ground around the headwaters of the Feith Buidhe. This brought me to a spectacular vantage point looking down onto Loch Avon. There was a already a tent there, pitched on a nice flat area of grass, and this really was the only thing preventing me from stopping for the night right there and then, just over an hour into the walk!
The improved visibility in the wake of the snow gave me a good view across the tumbling Garbh Usige Beag to the jagged outline that marked the top of the Shelter Stone crag (extreme right of the above photo). This was a second possible area I had considered pitching on so I decided to make me way across there to check out the lie of the land. All the burns were swollen by rain but the Garbh Uisge Beag, which comes down from just below the summit of Ben MacDui, runs across some wide, flattish areas of red granite which made crossing straightforward.
From the burn crossing it was a gentle five minute pull up to the notch below Carn Etchachan. I dropped the bag and began to hunt around this stoney area for a decent pitch. Level grass was in short supply and I eventually settled on an area of moss and gravel that felt comfy enough and almost level. Most importantly it had an amazing view down to the Loch Avon. Once this was decided I got the tent up just in time for the views to disappear and the cloud to move back in.
Tent up, I got inside to sort out my gear. Despite almost constant rain and latterly soft, heavy snow, all the gear in my drybags was still perfectly dry including all the down stuff which had been in the back of mind all afternoon. Soon though I was relaxed inside my dry, warm sleeping bag, lying back and listening to the rain drumming on the fly. Occasional looks out revealed a world of swirling cloud and mist. I listened to the latest episode of the Infinite Monkey Cage and made a brew, the stove kept sheltered just outside the tent’s porch.
About 8pm the rain finally abated and I opened up the tent to find that the views had been restored. I took a wander about the area, climbing up to Carn Etchachan to get a stunning panorama of the Cairngorms, over Loch Etchachan to the Mounth hills where pockets of cloud drifted lazily between the dark outlines of the mountains. There wasn’t a breath of wind, and barely any sign of habitation apart from a couple of tents going up besides Loch Etchachan. My tent looked marooned on a craggy island, the Feith Buidhe beyond it tumbling down to reach Loch Avon.
Back at the tent I enjoyed a Fuizion Food Chilli Con Carne eaten overlooking the loch and then a lazy post dinner cup of coffeee drank as the clouds slowly started to billow up from Strath Nethy to once again cast a veil over the world.
Darkness was a long time coming, hastened only by the thick cloud which was still swirling around the tent at midnight. However, when I next awoke at about 2am, the sky was clear, a gleam of light in the north which cast colours of deep indigo and darkest blue across the sphere above my tent. There was a faint hint of noctilucent clouds seen above the dark outline of the Northern Corries. The temperature had rapidly dropped with the clearing sky so after a few photos it was back to the warmth of my sleeping bag.
The next time I woke it was the dull, still hour before dawn. The light was strange and flat with some cloud hanging in the east. I set my alarm for sunrise and went back to sleep. The eastern cloud foiled the show early on but as I lay in my bag looking out of the tent door the sun finally broke out from behind the cloud and there was the most spectacular light show.
The warm sun suffused the tent with a glowing light and the temperature rose again sending me into a dosing sleep. Eventually I forced myself to get out to see how the wider world looked and it was beautiful. In the chilly air I had a hot breakfast and more coffee and then slowly packed everything up to make the most of this most promising of starts.
I only had a vague plan at this point, with the main aim of this trip being to bag Beinn Mheadhoin, my last Munro in the central Cairngorms. With Loch Etchachan guarded by crags on two sides I had to take a circuitous route, climbing to Carn Etchachan to enjoy better views than the previous evening.
From here I went along Carn Etchachan’s knobbly ridge, keeping above the crags which surround the loch, to eventually get to a point where I could cut across the high land that separates the burn which feeds into Loch Etchachan from the Garbh Uisge Mor. Once here I was able to pick my way across the shallow burn and join the main track that drops down from Ben MacDui to Loch Etchachan.
I was last on this track on a misty day in May 2009 where I hadn’t really had the best of views. Now though the air was pristine with not a cloud in the sky and I got brilliant views across Etchachan to the high peaks surrounding Loch Avon. The hour was still early so there wasn’t too much action around the tents pitched down by the loch. I passed on by, following the clear track that then climbs up the steep western nose of Beinn Mheadhoin. The path is crumbly but soon gets you above the worst of the terrain and the views back across the loch to MacDui were stunning.
Soon enough I was on the plateau, looking across a number of large and small tors that dot this mountain. The path first heads to the south west top from which I enjoyed views to Cairn Gorm across the mirror-like waters of Loch Avon. I then took the clear track that winds its way between a number of tors to finally reach the biggest one and the one which marks the summit of Beinn Mheadhoin.
A pleasant scramble on the north side takes you up to the lofty summit which has views all around to peaks both near and far. Beyond the long line of the Avon I could Ben Rinnes, a dark shape on the far horizon. Nearer, all the peaks had broken free of any remnants of the earlier low cloud whilst further off different clouds were starting to bubble up in the rapidly heating air.
I took in the views, had a sit down and a sunbathe before returning back to my pack at the foot of the tor. I took a slightly different and more direct return path, enjoying the changing patterns of light and dark as fluffy clouds drifted lazily over the mountains.
There was more action down by Loch Etchachan by this time and I waved a greeting to someone who was enjoying a brew whilst their stuff aired out in the warm air. I had considered dropping down to Loch Avon and then returning either via Coire Raibert or the Saddle but decided to avoid all this re-ascent and take the longer return route via MacDUi and the path which leads above the eastern rim of the Lairig Ghru.
I retraced my steps up the path besides from the loch which then curved round to climb steadily up to the summit of MacDui, my second time on this summit this year.
It was still relatively early and no-one else had yet arrived so I enjoyed the peace and solitude, particularly liking the amazing views over to Cairn Toul, Angel’s Peak and Breariach which were still snow-rimmed and beautifully detailed in the morning sunshine.
I was now on new ground, following the easy track, marked by regular cairns, which leads off MacDui northwards, following a route across the wonderful wildscape of the Cairngorm plateau. The billowing cloud, now rapidly growing to fill the sky, made for some dramatic views with mountains sometimes in bright sunshine and other times in deep shadow. i started to encounter a few people as I passed by the pools above the March Burn.
The path turned around the lower slopes of Cairn Lochan to give some great views up and down the Lairig Ghru becoming better constructed as the line of cliffs of the Northern Corries came into view. I chatted with a few folk who couldn’t believe I was already heading back down to the car park and sympathised that they appeared to be walking into darkening clouds.
The track took me all the way back down to the car park which I reached just as the first few spots of rain arrived - perfect timing! I chilled out with my shoes off, watching more and more people arrive and head off under the ominous clouds, marvelling that I had been out throughout the perfect weather window.
Rain splashed off the windscreen as I started the long drive back around to Aberdeen which I reached in time for the heatwave to hit the coast. The rest of Sunday afternoon was spent chilling in the garden whilst my tent and wet weather gear dried off nicely. From snow to sun, it had turned out good in the end.