irst things first, if you are looking for a route for the Cairngorm 4000s than you have come to the correct place. However, if you are hoping this route is optimal from a distance and elevation point of view then unfortunately you will be disappointed. This route, in addition to climbing all the Munro’s and Munro Tops over 4000 feet also takes in two additional Munro Tops I had not yet climbed; Cnap Coire na Spreidhe and Sron Riach. This means that the route I chose was not the shortest and getting around in the fastest time possible was not a consideration. As the Lakeland 100 is fast approaching, my main goal for this trip was a long day out with a decent amount of elevation and distance.
It was a pleasant drive up to Aviemore. Although it is a good hundred miles from Dunfermline, the traffic was light and by 12.30pm I was parking up at the car park up from the Sugar Bowl. This would give me great access to my first peak, a Munro Top called Cnap Coire na Spreidhe. Located north-east of Cairn Gorm it is 1150 metres in height and from my parking location I could attack this via a path that headed up Creagan Dubh just to the east of the chair lift and Coiore na Ciste. Upon setting off, I was to get a taste of things to come when the wind blew my hat clean off my head and sent it flying down the hill. Fortunately, it got lodged behind a rock so at least it was not lost although I reverted to wearing a buff from that point onwards. It was a 4km to the summit and I took my time to climb the 600 metres of elevation. The summit peak offered a great view of Bynack More to the east and whilst the skies had been blue and cloud free on the ascent, by the time I reached the top there was ominous signs that this was about to change.
The summit of Carin Gorm was only a kilometre away but already the cloud was swirling around the top and by the time I ascended onto the plateau it was totally engulfed. Of more concern was the wind. It was brutal and I was getting battered on the summit. I took refuge behind the radio station and consulted the map. To get from Ben Macdui from here I would normally have followed the path over Stob Coire an t-Sneachda, dropped down the other side to the col and then take the path that would lead south past Lochan Buidhe and up to the summit. To avoid the wind, I decided to drop into the Coire Raibert then head west across the Allt Coire Domhain and pick up the Ben Macdui path just above the lochan. With no visibility it was a case of using the map and compass to take bearings and although progress was slow it was good to get out of the wind. Once I crossed the All Coire Domhain I knew it was just a case of heading west and I should hit the path. Fortunately there was only snow in patches now and the path was so wide it was difficult to miss it.
Is there a colder place on the earth than the Cairngorm Plateau when the wind is blowing a gale?
It was still a good 3 kilometres to the summit but once I was on the path I was able to run the majority of the route with a hike for the final push to the summit. If the wind was bad on the summit of Cairn Gorm, it was nothing compared to what was in store on Ben Macdui. It was brutal and froze me to the bone. Definitely no place to hang about. I did not stop but continued down the eastern path to the col at 1232 metres. From here you have three choices. By heading north east a path would take you down towards Derry Cairngorm and Loch Etchachan. A south west bearing would take you into Coire Clach nan Taillear and down towards the Lairig Ghru. Or lastly, a south east bearing would take you above the cliffs overlooking Lochan Uaine towards Sron Riach the second Munro Top I wanted to climb.
With poor visibility and high winds, I decided to avoid the direct route via the top of the cliff and instead drop into the coire losing about a hundred metres of elevation and then take a bearing to the summit. It was a gentle slope and I was able to run easily down using my altimeter on my watch to ensure I did not drop down too low. At this point there was a little bit of luck on my side and the clouds lifted momentarily enabling me to see my destination clearly. I was a little lower than I wanted but I took a quick bearing on my compass and climbed the 150 metres or so up to the summit. Sron Riach, my forth peak of the day bagged!
My next peak was Devil’s Point located to the west of the Lairig Ghru. Not a 4000 peak but if you are heading up onto the ridge you may as well take it in at the same time. The quickest approach would be to head back west into the Coire Clach nan Taillear and down into the glen. Of course there was always the option of taking in the Munro, Carn a’ Mhaim and then dropping into the Lairig Ghru from there. Maybe if the weather had been good then Carn a’ Mhaim may have been tempting but it was mince and after getting trashed by the wind for the last couple of hours I wanted to loose height asap. There was a great looking path heading south down from the summit of Sron Riach. If I followed this then I would end up in Glen Luibeg where I could pick up the path that leads from Derry Lodge into the Lairig Ghru. A quick estimation was about eight or nine kilometres this way compared to about three if I took the quick route via Coire Clach nan Taillear.
I decided on the longer option which would drop me quicker. I picked up the path and headed down. The cloud was clearing and I wondered if maybe it was going to shift? By the time I was in the glen it was baking hot and I was stripped down to just a running top and shorts. It just goes to show that you can never underestimate what the weather will be like once you are up on the plateau and always ensure you have full body cover. At ground level it would be easy to assume that it was pleasant up there! I ran slowly along the path, across the Luibeg Bridge and onto the path that skirts Carn a’ Mhaim and drops you into the Lairig Ghru.
All hopes of a cloud free traverse of Devil’s Point and the remaining 4000s were brought to a quick halt as I dropped into the Lairig Ghru. The tops were shrouded with thick dark clouds. The kind that look like they have no intention of budging all day. Hmmmm, it was decision time. Do I head up onto the tops and take in the peaks or should I just follow the Lairig Ghru up past the Pools of Dee and pick up the path through the Chalamain gap to the car park? I looked at my watch. I had put a decent effort in and it was still a good run out but I really wanted to knock off at least two thousand metres of ascent. Ok, how about up to the top of Devil’s Point and take it from there? If the wind is still tortuous then head back down and run up the Lairig Ghru.
I ran past Corrour bothy and headed up the path towards The Devil’s Point. It was only 400 metres to the col between The Devil’s Point and Stob Coire an t-Saighdeir and the good news was that I was feeling strong on the climb. The bad news was that as soon as I gained some elevation I was back have 12 rounds with my good friend, the wind! I arrived at the col and looked south to The Devil’s Point. Nothing, just clag. I looked north towards Stob Coire an t-Saighdeir. Nothing, just clag. I made an impulse decision. Ditch The Devil’s Point and nail the remaining 4000 peaks. I had already done The Devil’s Point on a glorious day a few years back so it was no big deal and at the end of the day doing the remaining 4000s would be extra miles and elevation in my legs.
One things for sure though, I would have to focus. The visibility was awful as was the wind and I knew the path passes close to the cliff edge in many places. Taking bearings would be difficult as the path curved around the tops of coire’s so it would not be possible to travel as the crow flies. For the next couple of hours I trudged slowly and took in Stob Coire an t-Saighdeir, Cairn Toul and Sgor an Lochain Uaine slowly but without incident. I had assumed that I had climbed all the Tops in addition to the Munro’s on my previous trip but I realised that I had not actually taken in Carn na Criche. It is some way off the path and back then when I was not interested in the Munro Tops, it is highly unlikely that I would have diverted to take this in. So it was good to find the small cairn on the plateau and tick it off.
From Carn na Criche the plateau widens out so I decided to get the compass out and use one of the summit plateau lochan’s as an ‘Attack Point’ for Braeriach. I could actually use a burn that ran out of the lochan as a handrail to the lochan. I had really worked hard with the navigation all day in really poor conditions and some of these techniques I had not used since my mountain leader assessment seven years ago. It was good to know that I could pull on these techniques when needed. I reached the lochan and took another bearing just south of the summit of Braeriach. I figured that the path that skirts the cliff edge would be distinct enough to pick out and I could just follow it to the summit. As I started walking I had the feeling that the cloud was clearing slightly. I could pick out things about 50 metres in front of me where as before I could hardly see anything and there was no issue locating the summit cairn, it was now visible from a distance back.
I hit the summit of Braeriach, my last 4000 foot summit but I still had the Munro Top, Sron na Lairige to knock off and a decent enough run out so I just pushed on past the cairn and headed along the Cliffside ensuring that I was a decent distance from the edge. The wind was funnelling up the East Gully and it stopped me in my tracks. It was like a brick wall. I tried to move forward, stumbled on a rock and next there was gust of wind and my feet were lifted from under me and I was flat on my back. If it had not so comical I would have screamed. Fortunately, I had landed flat on my back so my running vest had taken the impact. No harm done. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and opened them. Directly above me there was a patch of blue sky. I stumbled to my knees and looked around. The cloud was lifting. Holy smokes! For a second the whole of the Lairig Ghru opened up in front of me. Then the cloud swirled around and it disappeared. Then the cloud lifted again. It was stunning.
I grabbed my iPhone and put it in camera mode. I went to press the shutter button and the screen went black. WTF? I pressed the power button and the empty battery sign appeared on the screen. I just do not believe this. The phone was like a block of ice and I knew from previous experience that in cold conditions the battery can flatten really quick. Maybe if I could warm the phone up then there may be enough battery power to snap off a few shots? But where could I put the bloody thing to warm it up? There was only one place for it, down the front of my shorts! I cannot say it was a pleasurable experience placing a freezing cold chunk of metal down near the ‘meat and two veg’ but needs must and bit like jumping under a cold shower once the initial shock was over it was not that bad. After five minutes I pulled it out (the phone that is!) and hit the power button. Hey Presto, it cranked into life. Battery 2%. I managed to knock off two shots before it shut down again. There was no way it was going down my shorts again and even if it did then I doubt it would power up. The battery was totally flat, it was game over.
Nothing left but to carry on so I headed off down the path that takes you above the Coire Ruadh and then up towards Sron na Lairige. By the time I had descended to the col and headed back up, the cloud had pretty much cleared away. Bright blue skies, the sun dropping to the west and I did not have a camera. I looked back to Braeriach now totally cloud free. What a stunning mountain. I was gutted I could not take any photographs but at least I got to see some views before I descended. Thirty minutes earlier I would have descended in the clag only to see it clear up as I reached the bottom. That would have been a proper kick in the teeth!
With the clouds gone and the sun warming my bones, I had a fresh spring in my step and enjoyed the run off Sron na Lairige and into the Lairig Ghru. By the time I was heading up to the Chalamain Gap, it was baking hot and I was back to wearing shorts and a running vest. Only in Scotland could you get such bizarre weather. It was an enjoyable last few kilometres along the track to the car. Considering I had done 47km and close to 2500 metres of ascent, I was happy with how I felt. Great training for the Lakeland 100!