Originally published 1/2/2012
It’s not easy to feel remote outoors in the UK; such is the latticework of tarmac that to be more than a few km or hours from a road is actually quite a hard task to accomplish. The Cairngorms are one of the few exceptions, a series of huge rounded mountains sculpted by great coires and deep valleys. No public roads penetrate the interior just a few estate tracks which fizzle out into the wilderness. Spending any time in the Cairngorms is an adventure, and in winter especially so; the season clings strongly to these mountains, harder and harsher than anywhere else in the UK, defending them against intrusion in the short hours of daylight; it also turns them into one of the most beautiful landscapes we have.
My friend Laurence had suggested we take a big day walk into the middle of the gorms, taking advantage of a good weather window promising clear skies and little wind. We were to be joined by Sarah and Nick the latter on his first visit to these mighty mountains.
The route we had picked out was to take us through some of the most spectacular and wild terrain Scotland has to offer. Starting from the sugar bowel parking we would wind our way below the great northern coires of Cairn Gorm, through the Chalamain Gap, and into the huge valley of the Liarig Ghru; we would then climb the southern ridge of the huge bulk of Braeriach; Britains third highest mountain and a vast upland plateau of sub-arctic tundra.
To return we would drop into huge An Garbh Coire which takes a great bite out of the eastern side of Braeriach before returning to the car by traversing the watershead of the River Dee up out through the Liarig Ghru.
The morning is cold and clear with a light dusting of snow covering the heather as we follow a good path gently rising across the mountainside towards the Chalamain Gap. The coires of Sneachda and Lochain, winter playground of countless climbers appear stark against the southern skyline, buttresses black and stark against the white snow filling the gullies.
As the sun rises the sky become tinged with pink as whisps of cloud catch the first rays of the day. The light feels cold though the icy crunch of the gravel underfoot and the streams of breath condensing in the air hints at the conditions outside our thermals and warm winter boots.
The Chalamain gap is a chaotic jumble of boulders cast haphazardly against each other choking the deep narrow notch between Lurchers Crag and Creag Chalamain. Moving through them is a constant full body experiance weaving left and right climbing up and down, a hand hold here a knee used there. The powder decorating the boulders hides some of the gaps creating a trap for the poorly placed foot.
The gap end suddenly the hilside opening out looking down on the edge of the forest of Rothiemurchus as it fizzles out climbing the mountainside. Dropping down from the gap into the head of the Liarig Ghru it becomes very boggy underfoot as the ground tries to decide if it wants to be a stream or a path. Slowly to the left the great U-shaped valley of the Liarig Ghru propper opens out starkly symetrical curving slowly round into the middle distance.
In the foot of the valley we breifly follow the stream uphill allong the floor of the ravine until it disappears underground bubbling out of a jumble of boulders. Soon after this a path breaks of right and begins the long climb onto the mountain whilst offering spectacular view over towards Glen Eanaich and a snow draped Sgor Gaoaith. By the time we reach the shoulder of Sron na Lairige the forcast has gone well out the window; cloud rolling in from the south envelopes us and the wind picks up whipping the warmth from any exposed skin.
Shortly before the summit I get my first experience of a full complete whiteout; snow and sky blend seamlessly together cloaking us in all directions with not a single speck of black or colour to indicate up from down, or north from south. Thoughts of the of the great cliffs and possible monster cornices off somewhere to our left stir uneasily in my mind but after a short bit of compass work we see boulders agin poking up through the snow and later the summit cairn itself.
Here we meet two other walkers who are planing to traverse on towards the Devils Point before dropping down to spend the night at Corrour bothy. We snatch a few words over the wind which blast in our faces and the turn in the hope of descending quickly to find some shelter. Initial plans to locate the top of West Gully a simple grade one snow slope and decend into Choire Bhrochain are abandoned as suicidal because even in these low snow coditions the cornice overhanging the gully is huge and were not carrying a rope to protect the unfortunate “volenteer with the ice axe” required to smash a way through. A much more sensible route off the plateau is down the broad slope between Coire Bhrochain and Garbh Choire Dhaidh.
This proves to be a gloriously easy decent first down good neve then down softer but still good snow which extends down and down toward the floor of the coire far below. Sarah and I who both have skis back at our cottage think of what might have been a truly great decent off the mountain. We take a baring from the top of the slope aiming off slightly above An Garbh bothy a tiny shelter far below where we hope to stop for lunch
An Garbh Coire is renown for collecting vast quantities of snow blown in off the high plateau to the west. Here many snow patches will last well into summer and in some of the sheltered corners high up in the coire the snow has only melted five times in the last hundred years. The wind blown snow also creates cornices of stupendous size. It also contains Coire na Lochain Uaine hanging above the main coire seemingly almost inaccessible from below protected by incredibly steep slopes.
Down in the coire however snow appears to be in short supply with plenty of tufts of heather poking through, and the ground relatively unfrozen such as been the uncharacteristically warm and dry weather the past few months. The bothy, which is actually just a small shelter constructed from boulders over a metal frame is easily visible in the light covering and we stop to brew up a hot chocolate and catch a bite to eat. Sat outside the bothy Reactor pan bubbling away I realise this is probably the most remote place I have ever been in my life, its an exciting feeling to be here isolated yet inspired.
We traverse the side of the coire out toward the Liarig Ghru the huge wall of Ben Mcdui directly ahead of us until crossing the infant River Dee here little more than a burn we turn north and towards the summit of the pass and the Pools of Dee. The path rises to a gentle summit where the burn emerges from a snow bank just blow a couple of small pools which are still free of ice. From here the valley curves out of sight to the north almost perfectly uniform slopes rising both left and right.
An abiding memory of the next few miles is rocks, rocks, rocks, a succession of scrambling through a mass of snow covered boulders slipping this way and that and then disappearing up to my knees in a snow drift. Despite this it’s my first time in the Liarig Ghru and its an awe-inspiring place both in scale and in it’s desolate beauty. The walls tower above us some times broken by crags or split by tasty looking gully’s full of snow and ice, adventures for another day.
We still have the gap before us but half a pack of Haribo provides a sugar fuelled spurt of power to see me up and through. Retracing ours steps from the gap and with the dying of the light around us and our legs tired from the days efforts our thought turn to an evening of pie and beer, proper food after a propper days work.