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Cairngorm Kippers – yes please

In the clouds...

A Cairngorms Weekend Part 3

If you haven’t already you can read part 1 here, The Fantastic Four head to Aviemore? and part 2 here, Am Fear Liath Mor – The Grey Man and remember this how I remember it, not necessarily how that others do.

I slept another great sleep. I think I woke up once due to the wind, I think. I was hunkered down on top of my mat inside my sleeping bag and bivy. Nice, toasty and warm. I could see out the TrailStar and it was looking grey dreich and some what colder than the day before. Making it all that bit harder to break cover and leave my nice warm hole but needs must when the De’il drives. Personal admin to take care off and breakfast to sort. On with insulating layers and out into the cauld it was. Everyone was coming to life getting ready however if it was anything like Saturday morning both Steve and Colin had been awake for a good bit before Phil or I.

After getting stuff sorted the rest of the guys were getting stuck into nice big breakfasts and coffee. I must admit I’m not one for eating first thing in the morning. I had myself a nice little granola bar and some water. I’ve not been a great eater in the morning for along time, save for when I’m staying at a hotel or B&B. I can always be tempted by a full Scottish or kippers and a poached egg. Not like that was going to happen below the shelter stone.

After breakfast we got everything packed up and packed away. Taking care not leave anything behind. We did a walk over all the places we had been. Nothing left but the flat grass where we had slept. Leaving our spot we walked up towards the head of the glen, Hell’s Lum Crag and the path that we had talked about the previous day. We had to cross the Allt Coire Domhaim then follow it up on it’s right hand side and onto plateau. Not marked on the OS map but the track is very visible on the ground.

Stepping stones across another burn. Managing to keep my feet dry only to get one wet by sticking it straight in a yard of saturated moss. Squelch indeed. Thankful for the thick merino wool socks and trainers. Knowing that initial short sharp hit of freezing cold will be gone in a couple of steps. After that the ground started to rise steeply and the path with it. If I thought yesterday’s ascent was steep, this is vertical or so feels according to my legs. Every step massive, my knees are scraping my chin. Not quite but you get the idea but in some crazy perverse way I’m enjoying it. I’m enjoying the effort, the ever changing view. It’s great.

We’re all walking at our own pace now. Well; Phil, Colin, Steve, are walking the same gait. I’m tail-end charlie. Not that I’m bothered, I just hope the others aren’t too. They are like a magnet pulling me on. Struggling to get back up and on to the plateau. Climbing higher and higher. Every step felt like that of a giant. Like the stairs were cut for a Formorian. I was stopping ever more frequently. A combination of checking the view and grabbing a rest. It was a great view down the loch. I wasn’t out of breath just physically tired. My body was running on empty and I hadn’t noticed. At times we were in touching distance of the burn and especially some spectacular small water falls rushing down to Loch A’an. Every now and then I would see Phil’s head pop out from above to make sure I was still there. I’m sure I was still smiling. I was for all the effort, smiling on the inside. It was great to be outside. The tiredness and effort well worth it.

Once at the top the guys were waiting for me. Apparently it was my turn to lead. I’m sure we had tried that yesterday. The first thing I noticed immediately was that there was no views. Colin pointed me in the direction that had been decided. I was feeling pumped, one stop short of burst. The climb had taken more out of me than I had expected. Onwards towards the centre of the plateau we headed. Every now and then I would hear to your left or right from one of the guys behind. The ground was pretty flat and I was stumbling and slowing down again. We stopped for 5, probably by my instigation. At this point Phil sidled up next to me an asked how I was feeling. My answer was, I was still enjoying myself but was feeling a bit knackered. The climb had taken a good bit out of me. Then he asked what I had for breakfast. I don’t think he was too impressed with my answer but he was looking out for me. He told me get something down my throat. My body was needing it. It must have been pretty obvious to them. I chewed a protien bar and some jelly beans washing it down with some water.

It actually took me an age to realise that we were virtually in the same area as we had been yesterday. I usually have a good sense of direction and place. I’m glad that Phil, Colin and Steve were on the ball cause if they were relying on me we would have been in a little bit of trouble. Not really like me but probably had a lot to do with my tired body and mind and me not feeding it properly as well as my general fitness levels. I took a lot out my body the previous day and in the morning, climbing. It’s easy done and I won’t be doing that again. I’ll be forcing down a big breakfast next time. Give myself a chance with having the boiler stoked at the very least. As regardless of your state of fitness, if you don’t have the energy your body can’t do anything. I put myself a little out of my depth and luckily I had good friends with me. I supposed sometimes that you need the obvious pointed out and I’m happy the three of them were experienced enough to give me that nudge. Lesson learned.

Energy stores replenished for a bit we headed off. The sugar rush must have kicked in as I was feeling better after my force feeding. If I thought the wind was strong yesterday it was nothing compared to today. It had definitely climbed a couple of pints on the Stella scale so much so I was having to stop and physically brace myself against it. Walking pole out in front, leaning on it, leaning into the wind. The views up on the plateau had changed, fleeting and far between as the winds whipped low clouds across our fields of vision. Visibility at times was down to just a few feet and at times we were in the clouds. It always makes for such a surreal feeling when it’s like that or it does for me. Distances expanding and contracting like a rubber band. Sometimes you feel like your mind is playing tricks on you. You see things that aren’t there and miss things that are.

We made it to where we had entered the plateau yesterday and we stopped in the wind to discuss what to do next. There was only 2 options really, turn and head up Cairn Gorm in the crazy strong wind or head back to the car. I was happy to follow the majority vote, either or for me. The wind was really bad and I wish I could give you a miles per hour but I can’t, other than to say if you weren’t careful it would knock you over. Both Phil and Colin had been on Cairn Gorm before but not Steve or I. Again I said either way I was happy. Up or Down. Cairn Gorm wasn’t going anywhere we could always go back another day. It was going back and forth. We were all happy to do what the others wanted. However Phil said his recommendation would be to get off the hill. I was happy with that and I think we all were. Looking back it was the right decision and we took it. The weather and my fitness, I’m not sure how I would have done but under the circumstances I’m glad we didn’t have to find out. It was only another couple of clicks and couple of hundred metres of ascent but sometimes that’s all it takes to break the camel’s back and I sure as hell don’t want to be there when that happens.

Decision made we descended the path that we had climbed up on the Saturday. I was much easier going down. I always find climbing down easier so much so I managed to keep up with the rest of them. I sure it must have been a shock. Especially for Colin as I badgered him with questions about his through hike in Colorado and his future plans for other big walks. Next it was Steve’s turn as we neared the boulder field at the bottom. I asked him about Wainwrights and the lakes, again places I had no knowledge and experience of, and of his big Scotland adventure that he had planned but the awful weather had scuppered earlier in the year. Here on the decent we were out the wind and it was good. Good to get a rest from the pounding and the big gusts.

Back down below the Central Gully we headed across the boulder field. Skipping back across the rocks, jumping from one to another. Jumping and skipping might be an exaggeration on my part. Just a bit too athletic for me. Even striding is stretching it a bit, I only have short legs. Stuttering across the rocks is more apt. I followed the others heading for the path and track back to the start. On the path again I was slowing down my energy levels getting sapped and we were spacing out as a group but as was the way of things; Colin, Steve and Phil would wait for me to catch up and we would walk together for a bit before our natural pace set in again and the spacing appeared. Usually with me at the back but not always, we were walking down hill. The slope is in a better direction for me. My short legs don’t have to work so hard.


At times with the shelter growing less and less the wind would catch me unaware. I wasn’t the only one. Gusting out of no where, nearly knocking me flat or catching the pack and turning me through 90 degrees. If I was lucky I could again lean into it, brace myself against my walking pole like I had done up on the plateau. Then it was back to walking a few steps, feet and yards before the next gust. All the time with a steady stream of people heading towards the plateau. Crazy in my point of view but they would soon see for themselves. Maybe they knew something I didn’t.

I’ve seen some sights on the hills and some are not for sore eyes, some make your eyes sore or water at the very least but this was crazy. Obviously off one of the tourist coaches, well you would hope so. A fake looking fur jacket, sun glasses and 6 inch stiletto heels. Not the high fashion you expect to see in the mountains. For those that know the path up from the Ski Centre, it can be hard enough in walking boots never mind heels. Each to your own and I truly hope she made it back without a broken ankle.

The closer we got to the car park the busier it got and with some near hilarious goings on. I saw several member’s of a school/college/university field trip blown on their arses by the wind. The lass in high heels seemed to be coping better with the wind. I think the group must have been looking a biodiversity or something as they had a square metre out and notebooks. However the best one was yet to come, a guy with a come-over, dressed in what appeared to be a suit and a long overcoat, trench-coat type of thing and brogues. He walked round a corner in the path and was completely taken by surprise by a rather strong blow. It spun him nearly 360 degrees lifting his coat tails and making him look like the spinning seeds off a Maple tree. Not that I had been fairing much better.

The Guys were waiting for me just before the little bridge that crosses Allt a’ Choire Chais and takes you up to the Ski Centre. Finishing as we started, all together. Back at the car Steve broke out the giant chocolate cake that Tracy had made. I fine way to end a trip something we could get used to, not sure how Tracy feels about it. I had slice of that and a blueberry muffin washed down with some IRN-BRU. After all I had burned a fair few calories.

That’s twice now that I’ve been on walks with Phil where he’s managed to burst me, not that’s hard and it’s more than likely to happen again. He’s used it now but Steve and Colin aren’t. I just need to get them used to it. I had great fun and thoroughly enjoyed myself and now hopefully looking forward to the next trip and wondering where the fantastic four will end up.

Am Fear Liath Mhor, the grey man

Central Gully

A Cairgorms Weekend Part 2

I had a great sleep probably the combination of good food, great beer, the wonderful outdoors long with some superb company. If you want you can read about that here, The Fantastic Four head to Aviemore? I spent a nice toasting warm night snuggled up in my sleeping bag and bivi under the TrailStar. Everyone was stirring and getting up and pretty sure Steve and Colin had been up for a while compared to Phil and I. We started to get our self sorted. Personal admin and all that it entails. Squaring away the shelters we packed the cars and got ready to leave. Picking up our deposits from the office while signing out.

We got into the cars and formed an orderly convoy with me at the back. I wasn’t sure how to get to the Cairngorms Mountain Railway. We left the site heading east and south along the road towards the Glenmore Lodge where Phil had been a few weeks earlier doing his Mountain Leaders course and Loch Morlich. After the first couple of corners. I noticed that something was hanging from underneath Colin’s car. Steve and Phil were in the lead car followed by Colin then me. Every time Colin hit a bump I expected, whatever it was, to come loose. Luckily it hadn’t. Once rounding the loch the road started to gain some height heading towards the ski lifts and the railway. After a couple of switch back corners we reached our destination, the car park.

We parked in the lower car park. Getting out I mentioned to Colin that I noticed the arse hanging off the back of his car. Colin said that it had happened recently but had obviously gotten worse if I was seeing. The exhausts heat shield was loose. A broken clip most likely the culprit. Having already packed our gear at the campsite it was just a case of grabbing our kit locking the cars up, which we did. This was going to be a busy walk. Plenty of people about looking like serious walkers. However I was a bit disappointed I never noticed any blue with the red piping Ron Hills kicking about. Shame. A few buses with tourist types not equipped for the hills, hopefully they were heading up the railway to the top of Cairn Gorm.

It was a nice well constructed path out from the Ski Centre basically following the Allt Coire an t-Sneachda. We dropped down from the car park and then turned and started gaining height. I did learn on that path though that walking with two poles and a camera slung out front is no good. Kept clanging my hands off the camera. It was really annoying so much so that it was distracting. I collapsed one and attached it to my pack. That was that, problem solved and I could get on with walking. To start with, you are already quiet high up. Well think about it. The car park sits about 650 metres above sea level. The path takes a turn and you start to see the top of Stob Coire an t-Sneachda. I really should get better at my Gaelic. I’m never sure if I’m writing the thing correctly or not. As we followed the path further up I started to see the Central Gully and Aladdins Couloir become bigger and bigger like a great gray slab of impassable stone. A giants ruined dry staine dyke. It is the view and all of the view, save if you turn 180 degrees and look back towards Aviemore.

It probably doesn’t help that your view is channeled by Fiacaill a’ Choire Chais on one side and Fiacaill Coire an t-Sneachda on the other. By now the well constructed path had given way to a boulder field. Not that you could see where you were going. You just have to look for the well worn stones. Walking became more of a hop, skip and a jump. Well it did for me and my short arse legs. It reminded me much of the Lord of The Rings. The men of Rohan defending the burg. Helm’s Deep without the Orcs. Thankfully.

Break time

We stopped for a break at the bottom of Stob Coire an t-Sneachda while we watched a couple of climbers going at it up on the big slabs of the Central Gully. All roped up with safeties clanging and the occasional shout. We all dropped our packs and took on some water and food. Jelly beans & granola bars for me. Fueling the body for what looked to me an almost vertical climb. Steep indeed.

We started the climb up Coire an t-Sneachda switching back and forth on the well worn path. I was at the back slowing down my long legged companions. It was steep going for me. Lots of knee to chest action getting my short leg pistons firing. It was a good easy pace, we stopped often to let me catch up. Then Phil suggested that I go to the front and set the pace. Never a wise idea in my opinion. Reluctantly I made my way to the front and took up the lead. Not that I don’t like to lead I just hate to think I’m holding up people. However we came unstuck almost immediately when I thought I was following the path when in fact it was more likely a deer track. Oops. The trouble with putting me at the front missing a turn. We doubled back and I took more care and did a fair bit of checking that I was going in the correct direction. Which was generally up.

The intricacies of the belay

We stopped about 3/4 of the way up. More than likely for me to catch my breath. The other 3 being fit as butcher’s dug. I was happy for the break and to enjoy the view. While we rested Phil explained some of the training he had been doing in this very area for his ML course. All about rope work and getting people safely off the hill. Even pointing out the rock they had used for an anchor and belay point. Now with my breath back in my lungs we headed up the last part and onto the Cairngorm Plateau.

On the Plateau

Once on the plateau you could really feel the wind. It was blowy but not too bad. When I say not too bad I mean it wasn’t as bad as forecast. However the Tookite nearly to flight crossing over the lip. Nearly back to the car park in double quick time. Also with the wind was specks and spots of rain carried along in air but nothing to worry about. It was just spitting. There was almost a constant stream of people, walking this way and that. As groups or pairs and a few individuals. Left you take to Cairn Gorm itself but that wasn’t where we were going. We were heading into the wind and a generally southerly direction and Ben Macdui, Beinn Macduibh. The second tallest mountain in the UK only Ben Nevis being taller or higher, which ever you prefer. It stands 1309 metres or 4295 feet in old money. It’s a big chunk of mountain.

Cairn Toul

I was amazed at the amount of routes to the top. People appeared to becoming from all directions. I was pretty sure no-one had really passed us on the way up and on to the plateau. I’m even more than sure we passed a couple. Anyway plenty of people were heading in the same direction for the same spot. The light was magical because of wind and the cloud, sweeping across the sky. I was for a while particularly captured by the light hitting the top of Carn Toul. To the extent I stumbled a couple of times. No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t quite get it in my camera.

Ben MacDui summit was the busiest top I’ve been on for a long time. Not quite heaving but pretty close. Reminded me a lot like the Buachaille. Lots of groups milling around in pockets around the top. Most looking for shelter from the wind. Climbing up the cairn I touched the trig point. That’s the highest I’ve stood in Scotland. Yep never done Ben Nevis, yet. Phil graciously took my camera, I struck my best Tam Weir pose and he fired the shutter a couple of times to make sure that the moment was captured for all eternity or until the hosting services die or I hit delete, accidentally.

Me as Tam Weir

Trig point touched and handshakes all round. Another hill complete and if you’re into that sort of thing, another bagged or a tick in the list. We left the summit to the crowds. I left it having was one of those on top of the world feelings that you often get standing on a summit. 360 degree views. A feeling of warm achievement. I was happy to busy pondering that I hadn’t notice the view as we walked off the summit. I was too busy looking around instead of looking. I started to drink it all in as we head down hill slightly. Then we stopped and that’s when it really hit me and it wasn’t just the wind getting stronger.

Just off the summit of Beinn MacDuibh

The view, the view. It is true, a thing of beauty is a joy forever. Keats had it right. It was like a knock out punch; an upper cut from Tyson, my brain exploded. There was so much to take in. The weather wasn’t perfect but it didn’t matter. It was expansive, mountains rippling off on all directions. Disappearing off into the horizon, progressively getting bluer until they merged with the sky or disappeared under duvet of cloud. The Dee a shining silver ribbon snaking it’s way along the glen or like and adder sunning itself, trying to gather in all the rays of heat. The most famous lairig ghru. The mountain pass but sometimes these mountains don’t let you pass.

Lairig Ghru & River Dee from Beinn MacDuibh

We headed east to pick up the path towards Loch Etchachan and Creagan a’ Choire Etchachan along the way we stopped off in a small ruin. Not like a sheiling or anything like that more of an old rescue hut and I’m sure Colin said that it was something like that. It was good to get shelter as the wind on this side of Beinn Macduibh was very strong. Hunkering down behind the ruined walls we all pulled on our insulating layers and got our lunches out. We sat about talking and eating, every now and then popping our heads above the stones to see what was happening. That’s when we noticed someone coming up from the direction of Hutchison Hut. It looked like he was carrying a small person strapped to his back but as he got closer it became apparent that it was just the biggest rucksack known to man. I kid you not when I say it was the size of me. It was rammed solid. I would fancy carrying that. Hat’s off but where is the fun in that and to top it of he was wearing jeans. Yes, denim in the hills. He and his partner were heading in our direction.

Derry Cairngorm

We pack our rubbish away and left the tourists to shelter of the ruin and made our way down to path to Loch Etchachan and the little loch. By this time my lack of any reasonable fitness was starting to show. Even on this downhill section. I was walking even slower. I was starting to feel it. My wee legs were getting tired. The pistons had been pumping hard all day. No matter I was still enjoying myself. The views were expansive, every time I stopped there was always something to take in or a breath taking view. Derry Cairngorm, looking down the Narrow Gully. It was just great. It all put a smile on my face. A rainbow over Loch Etchachan was just stunning,the moody threatening clouds. There was always something to stop and gawp at. Plenty of jaw dropping scenery.

Looking towards the Hutchison Memorial Hut

Reaching the Little Loch Etchacha, Colin, Steve and Phil were waiting. I’m sure it was to see if I was going to get wet crossing the ford, they were already across the stones. I managed with shaky legs only to dip a toe of my trailing foot as I gaily skipped on the steps. Walking up to them Phil pointed down the glen, another great scene. The view down the glen to the Hutchison Memorial Hut, the light reflecting off the Coire Etchachan burn, looking like a silver serpent. Turning our back on glen we headed in the opposite direction along next to the Allt nan Stacan Dubha

Loch A'an

I walked only a short distance to be met by one of the bluest looking lochs I have seen. The cold September sky was reflecting off of Loch A’an or Loch Avon which ever you prefer. I stood for a bit just watching the space at the blue and green and brown the I found filling my eyes. Next for my eyes to take in as I took the steep path down to the Shelter stone was the large cliffs and forms of Pinnacle Gully, Shelter Stone Crag and Castlegates Gully. All famous for their winter climbing. Finally I was catching up with the other 3 and I could see them heading towards the massive boulder.

Give me shelter...

The Shelter Stone. It’s impressive and that’s probably a huge understatement. If I had been thinking at the time I should have put something in front for scale when I was taking photographs. It’s probably the biggest boulder I have ever seen. Even now thinking back, I’m still amazed. Even scrambling up to it over huge rocks is great fun. When I got there. The 3 others were already inside. It’s absolutely massive but there is no way you’d catch me sleeping in there. I sat by the entrance the others had ventured deeper into the black abyss. It certainly lives up to it’s name. You are definitely shelter and if event’s and weather ever unfolded to such at an extent, it would save your life. The stone has an unusual guest book, stowed away in a Tupperware box. Plenty of people writing their experiences, mostly and other stuff. Lot’s of stories of smelly fingers and of kicking in back doors.

Camp life

We decided to pitch the TrailStars on the flat ground, Meur na Banaraich, the fingers of the dairymaid or so the translation goes. Maybe it harks back to a time when cattle grazed. I have no idea. It looked a perfect spot even if it was a bit damp. It was relatively even and level with plenty of room. We got the shelters up pretty quick, Phil’s looking the worst. Probably because I was involved in the pitch but after some help from Colin, it was looking slick and taught. Then Phil and I went about pitching the OookStar inner which went up easier and quicker this time. It was looking very good. Sean his a highly skilled seamstress. A high quality piece of work and an ideal addition for Scotland in the height of the midge season.

After a few photographs and some camp admin, Colin fired up his Backcountry Boiler. He was used bits of sticks and old withered heather but I still managed to create that great outdoors wood burning smell, eventually. It’s an impressive bit of kit also. Doesn’t take long or much fuel to get a full boil going. I think that’s when all our stomachs started to rumble. The other stoves started to fire up and boil water for dinner and some tea or coffee.

1 TrailStar, 2 TrailStar, 3 TrailStar!

Not long after getting dinner sorted. We could here this whump whump whump whump whump. It was a helicopter for sure. No doubt about it. Whump whump whump whump whump. We stood in the middle of the shelters doing the circle dance, trying to pin-point the direction of the chopper. Not as easy as you think. The noise was just bouncing about this end of the glen bouncing off the stone. Then a twin engine Chinook HC take your pick of designation number, I’m not up with what current models that are flying. The cargo mark was Colin pointed out that it was a long way from home as the squadrons are based in England. I’m pretty positive he said Hampshire. Either the Brylcreem boys were out for a fun run or on an exercise.

That is one of the coolest things I have seen out in the hills. I think of it as our own mini fly past. The noise of the that twin turbines helo is something else. You could actually feel the power of those engines thumping off your body and reflected down the glen. They flew round in a big circle, right up to the Hell’s Lum Crag round past Pinnacle Gully, Shelter Stone Crag and Castlegates Gully then towards Loch A’an and over Stacan Dubha before disappearing out of site. whump whump whump whump whump. After that there wasn’t much to do but sit around and chat before climbing into sleeping bags looking forward to our third day