Round of the 18 Cairngorms: Day 1

Tuesday 24th July 2012

Weather/Conditions: Quite grey all in. Totally dry, bit cold on the plateau, and a great sunset. Moine Mhor was desolate.
Distance/Ascent/Time: 14.9km / 1100m / 4h 45m
Accompanying: Struan

Of all places for my trip to begin, it was on the Isle of Bute off the west coast. I was staying with my family here and had stayed the night. My journey ahead was long and would only end once I was camped above 3000 feet on the Moine Mhor. Some shift.

I got on the boat at Rothesay alone as the sun pierced morning cloud. Banks of fog rolled around. I hadn't brought my camera and a part of me now wished I had. It was a quiet crossing to Wemyss Bay, where I walked up the hill behind the terminal and picked up the car.

Less than an hour later, I was home. It was still morning and I only had to pack my stuff. I'd arranged to meet Struan mid-afternoon in Aviemore, so I got my stuff together and spent a few quiet hours at home. I felt the silence of the journey home and felt isolated, but that would disappear as soon as I met Struan. So I got back in the car and headed to Aviemore.

Meanwhile, Struan had just finished a three-and-a-half day solo trip around Loch Quoich. Today was meant to be his rest day (discounting the walk over Braeriach in the evening), but it seemed he couldn't sit still during the sunny day and walked for his fifth consecutive day by climbing the Monadhliath Geal Charn! And of course the Cairngorms would pile another four days on top of that schedule. Some guy.

We met in Aviemore and I was glad to finally be there. (it's not such a short drive). After a trawl through the shops, we got on our way. I left my car by the first non-pay and display we came across - which ended up being Loch Morlich. I unloaded all my gear into Struan's car and we continued up to the Sugar Bowl.

We packed kit for the last time and set off. Braeriach is a long walk from the road, but we had nothing to rush for. All we had to do was climb Braeriach and make headway onto the Moine Mhor where we'd set up camp. Some folk were coming back off the hills after a long day. As we crossed the Lairig Ghru, we met a Norwegian guy who was here on his own. He said he was thinking about heading down toward Corrour. We never saw him after this on our trip, although our paths may have just missed the following day.

Up the long arm of Sron na Lairige; the rucksacks felt heavy now. Braeriach is a great mountain once you are high, but the price you pay for that is a long walk in (Even if the car park is at 2000 feet. Imagine starting at Coylumbridge as you used to have to!). The top of Sron na Lairige was reached, we had a quick break and set off for Braeriach itself. The erosion between these two tops is some of the worst I've seen, but the subsequent view down the Lairig Ghru and Cairn Toul is one of the best.

Braeriach's summit was in the mist, which subtly lifted and closed up. We didn't have so far to go (and most of it was downhill anyway), but it was after 9pm now. We headed off in shifting mist to the Falls of Dee. And then from dull evening mist the cloud broke a little and the sun appeared. It revealed itself without location or context, and taking us by complete surprise, illuminating our world in the colours of fire. Oranges deepened into red and black. Wind blown mist made the scene dance. Cloud lifted off and above and beyond the gloom, towering cumulus glowed pink in the last light of day.

The disc was consumed by the bite of a far horizon and we settled back into the gloom. The air at the Falls of Dee became bitterly cold and we stopped for a moment. I don't think you will find another allt so large at 1200m. We initially struggled to cross it. The Pools of Dee are a spring, and I've heard it's possible to feel the residual warmth in the water as it rises from the ground. The plateau was not a place for living on, I felt it's lifelessness; even plant life struggled to exist here. The walk to Carn na Criche was all gravel. A lot like walking up a driveway.

I can say that for all the places I've been, the mountains I've climbed summer or in the depths of winter, not a lot compares with the mood on the plateau. It was one of the most alien places I've ever experienced. The atmosphere was inhuman, but it wasn't the peace of Ben Macdui in January. It was void of life and we weren't welcome.

The cairn at Carn na Criche gave us a solid reference to take a bearing from. So we went directly south-west into gathering gloom. I was keen to drop as much altitude as possible - we would drop 300 vertical metres before setting up camp - a considerable height loss.

Darkness overtook us and we dropped out the base of the cloud. A vast, dark world opened up. It was completely disorientating at first. We could see vague, dark cliffs to the right and speckles of slightly lighter lochans peppering the darkness. At first, I thought to myself where the hell are we? It took a look at the map for features to slowly snap into place. It was some introduction to the Moine Mhor. We passed one possible campsite while still quite high but wanted to get lower first. Everything was sloping or lumpy all the way down to the plateau. We realised the ground wouldn't improve and by torchlight, we pitched the tent on a lumpy patch of ground beside a stream. We settled in for the night and sleep came easily.

Quite an introduction to our trip, for sure.

Times (Time relative to 0.00)
(0.00) 5.55pm Sugar Bowl
(2.50) 8.45pm Sron na Lairige
(3.20) 9.15pm Braeriach
(4.10) 10.05pm Carn na Criche
(4.45) c. 10.40pm Campsite

Written: 2012-11-start...