The Mountain's Silhouette

Hiking and backpacking in the mountains of Scotland

Down and out on Gael Charn

Date: 13th November 2011
Distance: 20.74km
Ascent: 628m
Time: 6hrs 24mins
Hills: Gael Charn (Corbett, 821m)
Weather: Mild with light winds, later sunshine after cloudy start
Route: View on OS Maps

Outside it was dark and drizzly, Aberdeen shrouded in a clinging fog. The pavements were slick with rain and the traffic lights danced eagerly through their cycle despite the lack of an audience. The coach was thankfully warm and I got the back seat where with my iPod on I could catch up on some much needed sleep on the long crossing to Tomintoul. When I woke some time later it was light outside and the skies were looking much better. We had left the Aberdeen mist behind and bands of blue sky appeared as we rolled through the foothills of the Cairngorms, turning off the Nethy Bridge road and pulling up at the turning area near Dorback Lodge.

Gael Charn

Once off we took a slightly meandering route to get onto the main track which leads to Gael Charn, a long humpback of a Corbett just north of the main Cairngorm range. If you want to do a better job of reaching the track then do the following: from the turning area take the grassy track which runs up alongside the fence, ford the stream and then pick up the distinct vehicle track between the buildings at Upper Dell. Rather than doing this, we headed past Dorback Lodge and its yappy dogs, followed the track across to Upper Dell (fording the river) and then turned left onto a track which was at first distinct but gradually petered out as it followed the south bank of the Allt Mor. Spotting the track we should have been on away across a bog we crossed the tussocky marshland to eventually join the proper route!

Remembrance Sunday

Sunlight on the Monadh Liath

We carried on, following the track, passing more estate buildings, and crossing another smaller burn which had gouged a wide, deep channel out of the side of the glen. At 11am we paused to observe the two minutes of silence, remembering those who had given their lives in global conflicts. The quiet, windswept glen with panoramic views towards the Monadh Liath, their upper reaches illuminated by a pale alpenglow, was a good spot for this.

The Allt Mor bog and Cromdale Hills

Cloud over the Cromdale Hills

Further up we left the track, crossed another burn and then slogged up the steep north-west ridge of Gael Charn. The ridge further to the south would probably have been preferable but never mind, today was a day for going slightly wrong and ploughing on regardless. Once up the steepest part a track of sorts emerged and this was followed up to the misty plateau. Although there had been sunshine in the glen below us, a thick cloud had blown in from the south and the cairn was barely visible through the gloom. We sat here waiting for people to regroup, putting on every layer of insulation in our packs and munching our way through sandwiches and drinks.

Ascent of Gael Charn

Towards the Braes of Abernethy

The track up Gael Charn

Summit of Gael Charn

Once regrouped we followed the plateau southeast towards Gael Charn Beag. As we dropped the twenty metres or so of height from the summit we came out of the cloud again and enjoyed sweeping views across the rough and marshy land north of the Avon, to the long dark march of the northern Cairngorms, all of which were draped in thick clouds.

Gael Charn plateau

The Eastern Cairngorms

On Gael Charn

Bynack More under cloud

We made good progress along to Gael Charn Beag and then started to descend towards the Water of Ailnack and the infamous Castle. The views of the cloud swirling about the summits of the Cairngorms, and filling in the passes were quite superb. In the lee of the hill, under bright skies and sat amongst the heather, we enjoyed another brew and a late lunch whilst everyone once again regrouped. We then tentatively walked to the edge to have a look down into the dramatic gorge that contains the Water of Ailnack. The Castle is visible only from below so we didn’t see it on this occasion but this area looks excellent for a prolonged wander and I quite fancy trying to camp down where the various waters meet just upstream of the Castle.

The Eastern Cairngorms from Gael Charn

Beinn Mheadhoin

The gorge of the Water of Ailnack

After admiring the rugged scenery we turned north, following the line of the river but keeping up and away from the crumbling chasm. The going was pathless and sometimes boggy with side streams causing lots of up and downs. The going was fairly slow but in the late sunshine and with just the bare hint of a breeze it was very pleasant. Ahead Ben Rinnes broke out of cloud whilst to the east the Ladder Hills failed to shake off their own covering. Behind us the tors on Ben Avon gradually silhouetted against the fading sunlight and then with a final bright autumnal glow, it set behind the hill.

Ben Avon above the Water of Ailnack

Ben Rinnes

Distant structure

Ben Rinnes above the Water of Ailnack


The last tree

Cloud over the Ladder Hills

Down in the gorge

Above the water

Cloudy skies


Autumn hillside

The Water of Ailnack

Setting sun

Following the sunset

The lights of Tomintoul winked at us as we made the final gentle descent through the gloomy pine trees to another group of yappy dogs at Delnabo Lodge. It was then past the Highland coos, across the Avon and along quiet country lanes until we reached the village itself. The coach hadn’t shown up at the appointed hour but without too much concern we headed for the Glen Avon Hotel where bottles of Cairngorm Brewery’s finest ales were ordered (only Best on tap, sadly) and we sat down to await the stragglers.

Scoured river valley

November sunset

Tomintoul in the distance

Wooded River Valley

Delnabo Driveway

Highland Coos

By the time everyone had arrived, there was still no sign of the coach. A few telephone calls were made and it transpired that on the way round from Dorback to Tomintoul the coach had broken down, leaving the driver stranded at the Bridge of Brown. He soon turned up, given a lift by a passing car, and once our bags were rescued everyone was able to order dinner and another pint whilst we waited for a second coach to come through from Aberdeen. This unexpected Sunday evening in the pub was very pleasant and in the end only added a few hours onto our day.

River Avon

Sunset over Gael Charn

Hills of Cromdale from outside Tomintoul