A high level north-south traverse through the Cairngorms taking in the Fiacaill Ridge, Loch Avon and Derry Cairngorm.
Date: 8th September 2013
Hills: Derry Cairngorm [Munro]
Weather: A blustery cold wind but improving conditions with sunshine
Route: Click to view on Social Hiking
It was bright and breezy at the Coire Cas car park below Cairn Gorm where our booting up antics provided plenty of entertainment for the tourists waiting to catch the funicular railway. The fine track leading southwestward was followed towards Coire an t-Sneachda providing excellent views across the Rothiemurchas forest, Loch Morlich and a more distant Aviemore. The sky to the north was blue with hazy cloud off in the distance whilst to our south grey clouds sat low over the Northern Corries.
At a branch in the track a few folk continued on to take the more gentle approach to the lip of the northern corries via the Cairn Lochan ridge, whilst the rest of us climbed up towards the lower slopes of the Fiacaill Ridge. The track petered out as we climbed up amongst the boulders but the wide crest of the ridge offered gentle scrambling amongst blocky granite.
The views across to the less developed ridges of Cairn Gorm were good and we started to get a good look deep into Coire an t-Sneachda. The ridge levelled out and a further series of scrambles brought us along to the interesting part of the Faicaill Ridge.
The left hand side was damp with a slight bulge that was enough to put me off. Rather we went around the right hand side, bypassing the crest itself but still finding some entertaining rock work just below it. A steep scrabble bypassed the initial steep front of the ridge and then it was possible to rejoin the ridgeline for the final pull up to the top. It was an exhilarating few minutes and we soon found ourselves slightly breathless, perched on the edge of the Northern Corries looking out at a sunny world as the last of the cloud blew through on a chill wind. To the south and west the plateau spread out, pock marked by corries and glens with the distant peaks dark folds on the horizon.
Whilst the rest of the group headed for Ben Macdui, I chose a different course (after all, I had done much of the plateau route on the TGO Challenge back in May after reaching the top via Lurcher’s Crag) and headed east. A good track traces its way along the lip of the Northern Corries. Before long I was on Stob Coire an t-Sneachda enjoying the expansive views back to the Fiacaill Ridge and onward to Cairn Gorm.
The track dropped down towards the large cairn at Point 1141 but as the Coire Raibert track appeared across the upper drainage I crossed to it and turned south. The track has recently been repaired and upgraded and is a very good surface as it drops towards the tors of Beinn Mheadhoin across the deep trench holding Loch Avon.
Soon the track and its adjacent stream started to fall more rapidly towards Loch Avon whose shimmering blue-green waters appeared far below me. The good quality track continued for some way with stone steps in parts allowing me to lose height quickly.
Eventually the good surface ended and it was a steep and scrabbly descent that sometimes seemed to go directly along the water course. After a couple of slippery sections a rough track was picked up that passed through thick heather on the final descent to the shore.
The path by the loch was excellent and I enjoyed my walk westward, watching as the massive Shelter Stone Crag got closer and closer. This is a big landscape, the clear depths of the water overlooked by dramatic crags and a feeling of being locked away from the rest of the world.
The end of the loch with its sandy beached appeared around the final rise in the land and I found myself staring up at the grand cirque of crags that formed the head of Glen Avon. The Garbh Uisge Beag and the Feith Buidhe were fine white strands cascading down the rocks whilst the Shelter Stone Crag now loomed near at hand. It is a magnificent, humbling spot.
I padded across the first beach and crossed the first of two inflows to the loch easily by way of a line of a stepping stones. On the gravelly beach here between the flowing streams I paused to eat my lunch. A cool breeze was blowing up from Glen Avon but otherwise it was as peaceful and lonely a spot as you could want.
After lunch I briefly deviated from my route to visit the famous Shelter Stone. A huge boulder that has crashed down from the crags above, it has enough space under it for a rudimentary but dry shelter and has been used both deliberately and in an emergency by countless visitors to this wild location. I had a brief explore and took in the views from this inconic spot before returning to the path.
A good path climbs up from the head of Loch Avon towards Coire Etchachan. I ascended quickly, rapidly gaining on a couple of guys some way ahead. The track offered magnificent views back across Loch Avon and around the headwall of the glen. In the distance the Saddle sat between Cairngorm and Bynack More. After a sightly dull period the sun had returned and the afternoon light was particularly striking.
As I climbed the whump-whump-whump sound of a helicopter began and soon a yellow Sea King could be seen flying low down Loch Avon. It did a couple of turns about the loch, dropped a flare near the Shelter Stone, hovered over that for a while and then disappeared back the way it had come. On one circulation it passed close to me and I got a friendly wave from the winchman who was standing at the open door. I figured after all this that it was a training exercise rather than a search and rescue operation.
I enjoyed the final views into Glen Avon before the gradient finally eased and I found myself in a bouldery landscape just below Loch Etchachan.
Boulders and pools were negotiated and then I followed the good track around the edge of Loch Etchachan. There was more whump-whumping and I paused to watch the Sea King fly over in the direction of Ben Macdui.
From the loch it was easy enough to follow the track up towards Coire Sputan Dearg, cutting off part way up to cross the low bealach below Creagan a' Choire Etchachan and make my way towards Derry Cairngorm. Without deep snow (present the last time I had been this way) it was an easy walk up through the boulders to the summit of the Munro.
On the way up the views across to Coire Sputan Dearg, the green lochan and the westerly hills of the Cairngorms opened up nicely and I paused often to watch the changing light as it caught different hills.
The views back towards Beinn Mheadhoin and Glen Avon were spectacular as clouds drifted high above the landscape. I picked my way through the final boulders to reach the second cairn which enjoyed far reaching views south across Deeside and into Perthshire. The Cairn Toul massif was now clearly seen to the west.
After enjoying a final snack on the blustery summit I continued my course southward, following the undulating series of bumps that lie between Derry Cairngorm and Carn Crom perched high above Glens Derry and Luibeg.
From here it was a case of following the excellently constructed path which winds down between the crags and through the pines to Derry Lodge itself. Here I paused to wait for a group of others who had descended from Carn a' Mhaim and were crossing the flats. It was at this time that the stiff breeze died completely and the midgies came out in force.
With a bit of company the Derry Road passed quickly enough and as we crossed the Lui Water and picked our way back to the coach waiting at the Linn of Dee the clouds finally moved in and the sunshine faded.