t is unlikely that the Cairnwell Munros (The Cairnwell and Carn Aosda and Carn a’Gheoidh) would feature on many a person’s ‘top-rated’ lists. Instead, I suspect they are demoted somewhere in depths, relegated to obscurity alongside Ben Chonzie. I was no different and just could not get excited about these peaks.. The usual route starts at the Glenshee ski centre and threads its way up through the ski tows to the summit ridge where the peaks are easily attained. Having driven past them on numerous occasions, the thought of weaving my way up through the metal carnage that has scarred the hillside just did not motivate me at all. Maybe, it would just be a case of getting these two out of the way. A couple of ticks in the logbook, two more Munro’s down.
But then an opportunity opened. A night time hike to a summit of a Munro, an approach from the west, a huge loop that takes in five Munro’s and four tops and amazing conditions. It started with an amazing weather forecast on MWIS. I really fancied the idea of a summit wild camp so that I would ideally positioned for an early morning sunrise the following day. With short days, the idea of pitching up mid-afternoon then spending a good fifteen hours or so in my tent did not exactly ‘float my boat’ so I hatched another plan.
How about a midnight hike up to the summit and that way by the time I got set up, I would not be imprisoned in my tent for more than just a few hours. Sounded a good idea but what mountain? Something nearby, nothing hard-core, just something that offered potential. After a little deliberation, I struck upon An Socach. The walk-in looked decent and the summit ridge was wide so there should be plenty of opportunities to camp. Additionally, there was some good looking peaks nearby that I could combine into the trip.
Carn lutharn Mhor was a definite. I really liked the look of this peak and with a decent walk in, this was a good opportunity to get this under the belt. My eye was drawn eastwards across the map to Carn a’Gheoidh, The Cairnwell and Carn Aosda. Would it be possible to tag these three in and do a huge loop? In the summer with no snow on the ground, yes. Definitely, if I travelled light and ran. But this was not summer and I was not running. I considered this for a moment then pushed it to the back of my mind. Maybe but let’s see what the day brings.
I was in no rush to set off from home. I had estimated a walk of two or three hours from the parking location to where I would camp and I wanted to be pitching up at about midnight. So I took my time getting ready and set off north at 8pm. The journey was uneventful and I made great progress travelling through Blairgowrie and up the Cairnwell pass towards my start location at a plantation near Baddoch.
It was no surprise that there were no other cars at this popular starting location. I swiftly kitted up and set off. My rucksack was packed to bursting. In addition to my tent, winter sleeping bag, therm-a-rest, cooking equipment and food. I had additional clothing and crampons and ice axe. Although heavy, I did not feel encumbered and made good pace along the track towards the farmhouse. As I approached, the owner was stood outside. Maybe he had seen my headtorch. I was expecting some sort inquisition but he just acknowledged me as I passed.
I crossed the burn and followed the path towards the Allt Coire Fhearneasg. From here I headed up the slopes towards the east top of An Socach. Although initially steep, the terrain was good and I made good progress uphill. I managed to pick up an eroded path for a while and got to about 800 metres before the ice forced me to stop and don crampons. With decent traction now underfoot, I made steady progress to the summit plateau, just as the cloud drew in and the wind picked up. Great! It was pretty cold now and the ground was really rocky. I hit the eastern summit top and continued along the ridge. By this time I was totally engulfed in cloud and noticing a flat, rock free piece of ground decided to pitch up for the night.
Usually, I can get my tent up within a couple of minutes, but for some reason I really struggled. But after a bit of huffing and puffing and hands that were like blocks of ice, it was up and I was inside, getting a brew on. By this time it was well past midnight and with an early start, I would only have a few hours’ sleep. I had brought my winter sleeping bag and although it was significantly heavier than my summer RAB bag it afforded a cosy night’s sleep. I woke up at about 7am and the inside of the fly sheet had frozen solid. Fortunately, I had the foresight the previous evening to pour some water from my bottle into the pan because the bottle had frozen solid. I stuck my head out and the sky was clear once again. Additionally, the wind that had battered me on the eastern summit had ceased. Great stuff!
I decided to hang around at my camping location for the sunrise and then head off towards the main summit once I had grabbed some photos. I had some porridge, grabbed a brew, put on every item of clothing I had and stood outside. Watching the sun come up was a truly magnificent experience. There was one around, just me and the mountains. Prefect! I knocked off some photographs and set off west along the ridge. Although wide, the ridge was rocky and there was limited places I could have pitched my tent if I had pushed further along on the previous night.
By 8.30am I was on the main summit of An Socach. By this time, the sunrise was a crimson red. Truly awesome. In the distance I could see the Cairnwell ridge and specifically the ‘knobbly’ summit of Carn Bhinnein. That looked a long distance away. Maybe it would be a little bit too much to do these today?. I pushed the idea to the back of my mind. First things first, I had some business to attend to with Beinn lutharn Mhor.
Beinn lutharn Mhor has two subsidiary tops and it was my intention to ‘tick’ these off as well. I considered my options. The usual approach to the mountain is via Glen Ey and ascends the north-eastern summit ridge. I could drop into the Glen and then perform an anti-clockwise loop, heading over the summit top then the two subsidiary tops, Mam nan Carn and Beinn lutharn Bheag. The other option was to head towards Beinn lutharn Bheag first then Mam nan Carn and finally Beinn lutharn Mhor. There was not much in it but there a stubborn chunk of cloud hiding the summit of Beinn lutharn Mhor so I decided to leave this until the end, in the hope it will have moved by the time I ascended to the summit.
I dropped down from the summit of An Socach and took a direct line to Loch nan Eun. I was expecting the terrain to be rough and it was, but it was also frozen solid which enabled me to make good progress. In fact, according to my Garmin watch, I was averaging just under four kilometres an hour which was really decent going. The loch was frozen solid and I could see the tracks where deer had been crossing. Rather them than me!
It was only about 170 metres to the summit of Beinn lutharn Bheag and I took a direct line straight to the summit top, stopping occasionally to look back across the loch to Glas Tulaichean. I reached the summit and paused to take in the amazing views. There is no doubt some of the ‘Munro Tops’ are better than their parent peaks and I am glad I have made the decision to climb every top in addition to the main peaks. It was only 9.41am and I had already ticked off a Munro and a Top. I headed south-west, dropped down to the bealach and up to the summit Mam nan Carn. By this time, the cloud that was stubbornly refusing to shift from the summit of Beinn lutharn Mhor had now covered the top of Mam nan Carn. I took a compass bearing to the summit of Beinn lutharn Mhor and headed off.
At the bealach, there was a line of footprints leading upwards so the compass remained in my pocket. The ascent was reasonably steep at first then levelled out as it reached the summit cairn. You know you are having a good day when you approach the summit cairn and the cloud lifts. The views to Cran Bhac to the north were amazing and I could just make out the ruined Altanour Lodge down the glen. I heard voices in the distance and decided it was time to set off down. I retraced my steps and passed two guys. They were combining Beinn lutharn Mhor with Carn an Righ and as I dropped down I considered this option. Maybe I could do Carn an Righ and Glas Tulaichean? It certainly would be a decent outing. I looked over to the Cairnwell Ridge again, it looked so far away. A quick look at the map confirmed this. As the crow flies, The Cairnwell was nearly 9km away.
It was decision time. It was not midday yet and I had been making excellent progress. If I attempted the Cairnwell ridge, then the only tricky part would be actually getting onto the ridge and that would be tackled in the daylight, so no issues there. If I had to descend in the dark then that would be no big deal so let’s go for it! Decision made, I skirted around the side of Mam nan Carn and back to the bealach and acknowledged a cross-country skier who was making great progress to the summit. I dropped down to Loch nan Eun and stopped for lunch and planned my route onto the ridge. A some point I would have to cross the Allt Elrig and ascend up onto the ridge. I wanted to take a direct route if possible but that would mean ascending over Carn a’ Chlarsaich and Creag Easgaidh. There was more than enough ascent without adding more so I decided to just contour around the side, ensuring I did not lose any height.
Fortunately, I was able to pick up the tracks the cross-country skier I had met earlier had made and followed these for a kilometre before heading south then south east towards the Allt Elrig. There was a tricky little section where I had to traverse a steep bank of frozen solid snow but at 1pm I was sat at the Allt taking on some food and having a breather before I ascended up. It was only a 300 metre climb to the summit of Carn Bhinnein but it was a steep slog compounded by a heavy rucksack. As usual, in these situations I pushed hard, ascending 50 metres then rested for 20 seconds and so on. To be fair, it was not that bad and I was able to make decent progress onto the ridge. From here it was just the simple matter of ‘topping’ out on the summit of Carn Bhinnein.
It was icy on the final approach and for the first time that day I considered using my crampons. It was borderline and I managed to pick a path avoiding the worst of the ice so decided against them. Descending would be easier. I would just slide down on my backside! The summit was amazing, with great views into Gleann Taitneach and over to Glas Tulaichean. The parent peak of Cran Bhinnein was about 2 kilometres to the east and I wondered how many people do not bother to continue to this ‘top’ once they had reached that and instead turn back towards the ski centre? Not that I am complaining, the less people on the hills the better!
I headed down off the summit or should I say, slid down on my backside and picked up the main path towards Carn a’ Gheoidh. In total contrast to Carn Bhinnein, its parent is nothing more than a hump with a pile of stones to signify the summit. My next peak was The Cairnwell which involved skirting around the edge of Creag a’ Choire Dhirich. I decided to take in the summit of non-categorised peak, Carn nan Sac where I could get a good view of The Cairnwell across the choire.
I left Carn nan Sac and followed the trail of footprints around the Choire. By this time I had walked over 25 kilometres and was beginning to feel tired. The thought of two more peaks and then a decent walk out no longer had the same appeal it did six hours ago. I trudged up towards the summit of The Cairnwell. Maybe I should call it a day after this summit and just head down the ski slopes to the centre and hitch back to car? Or even phone Emma and get her to pick me up?
The sun was beginning to dip in the sky now and the last few skiers were making their way down the slopes. I passed a guy who was on the way down and chatted for a while before pushing to the summit. With a hut of some sort and communication towers, The Cairnwell comes a close second to Snowdon for the worse summit peak in the country. It was deserted though, which was hardly surprising as it was twilight but I was treated to an awesome sunset to the west. This gave my an immediate lift and I abandoned the idea of giving up. One more peak to go then just a walk out.
I was reluctant to leave the summit and the sunset but I wanted to try and get to the top of Carn Aosda before total darkness. The Cairngorms looked amazing in the distance and as I dropped down to the ski tows the whole place was deserted. It was kind of eerie with all the machinery now grounded to a halt. I followed the wide path to the summit just before darkness. What an amazing day. Five Munro’s and four Munro Tops and it was all downhill now!
I grabbed a chocolate bar and for the first time that day donned my crampons. With my head torch illuminating the way ahead I dropped down into the Dubh-Choire towards the Allt that runs parallel to the A93. I was a fair old trudge back to the car but the terrain was good and I was able to pick up an indistinct path once I hit the Allt. Just after 6pm I was in my car and heading back up the pass. What a day!!! 🙂