Carn a' Mhaim - 1037m
Ben Macdui - 1309m
Derry Cairngorm - 1155m
& Tops

Saturday 5th January 2019

Weather/Conditions: Calm, cool conditions. A grey start, that broke up into brilliant sun on Ben Macdui. Cloud sunk to inversions,so by the time I was on Derry Cairngorm, the Cairngorms were sticking out a carpet of cloud. Just a brilliant day.
Distance/Ascent/Time: 35.4km / 1700m / 8h
Accompanying: Alone

James and I were at Bob Scott's - James' plan was to head out to the road and go to Inverness, I was to stay for more hills! First priority on the list: Carn a' Mhaim, which was the only Munro of the day on my third round. Second were the Munro Tops, and there were plenty: Sron Riach, Macdui N Top (deleted), Carn Etchachan, Creagan a' Choire Etchachan and Sgurr an Lochain Uaine. Last of all, time and luck permitting I would be able to take a Derry Cairngorm summit panorama.

The day was grey and the body was a bit tired: I was delayed getting started. I'm starting to wake up to the fact that I don't really care about getting out early, as long as I feel good when I do go. It’s not good for headspace to drag me out early-doors. I wait a little and head out when I feel good. In winter this usually means racing the clock, but that gives an edge of urgency and I can clock off the last summits in last light. I still manage to go 20 or 30kms in these conditions.

Carn a' Mhaim

So it was only after a lot of breakfast, flasks of tea, chat with Kate and her pal, and repacking bags that I got away. I was bound for Gleann Laoigh Bheag: cross the footbridge, turn left and go! There's no great path for the first bit, so thank god all that bog was frozen - cycling would have been a lot harder otherwise. I've never been to Gleann Laoigh Bheag. With stands of pinewood and a winding river, Carn a' Mhaim framed the scene above.

I dropped the bike just before Luibeg Bridge and took some recuperation time here: I drank a pile of water, ate a bit and generally sorted myself out. Then I headed straight up the flank of Carn a' Mhaim, only meeting the proper path at mid-height. It was a good stomp up: a classic case of busy path, easy terrain and just getting the heart rate up a bit without worrying about getting around terrain or having anything slowing you down. The mist peeled back for the last bit to the top, where a couple folk were at the cairn, Ruaridh and partner (whose name I forget ). It was nice to chat, I was glad they’d seen my 2013 Munro film.

To Ben Macdui & Carn Etchachan

Cairn Toul and Braeriach looked amazing with warm sun breaking out. I continued on Carn a' Mhaim. Ben Macdui got bigger and bigger, and then I cut off across to Sron Riach in gentle sunshine. Breaking out over the summit after a good slog, Lochan Uaine came into view. It was a shock! I hadn't expected to see this, with a wintry coire and ice floes in the loch.

Another plod brought me across to Ben Macdui and an acute sense that this mountain was indeed a lot bigger than the rest. But I had a weak sun, white snowfields and occasional sheet ice. It was busy around here. The Cairngorms are bloody busy! They are a serious environment but the feel is offset by the amount of people. And again, as I got to the summit I bumped into Mike and Fiona.

I took some time on Macdui - sun out, inversions in the south. It all looked spectacular. I had my work cut out for me, too. I was about to leave all the people and go on a bit of an odyssey: first to the N top of Macdui, which is almost as high as the main hill. Then I headed down into Garbh Uisge Mor, putting crampons on and following snowbanks almost all the way to Carn Etchachan. You could sense the seriousness of the place. But the day was calm, friendly, and the uisge was just gentle colours of pale rock, sand banks, snow and water: very beautiful, and it was a pleasure to have found my way here. I was glad I’d waited to climb Carn Etchachan this way; nice to come down the length of Garbh Uisge Mor.

Back on rock and crampons off, it was a short boulder-hop out to the edge of Carn Etchachan. There is a cairn and a hooorin’ big drop to Loch Avon (What a view!) but it's not the main top either. God knows which boulder further back is the Munro Top - I went over them all.

Above Loch Etchachan to Derry Cairngorm

What followed was some of the most involved route-finding of the day, staying broadly on the same contour but connecting a route-of-least-resistance around to Creagan a' Choire Etchachan. The route was subtle, clever and crossed relentlessly changing ground. Big boulders led to snowfields, onto an sheet ice, onto slabs, back to boulders, up a slope, a blind traverse - I settled into a million unconscious little decisions to ease the way. You can see how people would get frustrated by this ground. But intuition guided my way, and brought me out by the Creagan and the main path to Derry Cairngorm. I blasted up this little top, passing a father and son, and with low cloud bubbling all around, dropped into the mists for the Sgurr - an outlying top of Derry Cairngorm. It's not a natural circuit to get out to it, but it had to be done! I enjoyed the route finding through the mist anyway, and chatted with Steve on the phone here.

Times like these I just love the hills: when you are near enough the end, to just enjoy the place without pressure, but the conditions are calm enough to be enjoyed. I plodded up the side of Derry Cairngorm to the cairn. I just stood on top enjoying the late afternoon, the dropping sun, mists circling the hills and the snow-streaked high coireachan of Macdui.

Descent and Out

It makes such a difference having great conditions, but also feeling fit and in tune. I headed off south down the boulderfields. It might not have been the best idea taking the bike up the glen in the morning, as a good path goes direct down to Bob Scott’s and would have been easier than the boulderfields I was now following! One for the future.

Losing altitude, cloud set in a bit and I wandered down the Luibeg Burn to the bike. High cloud had filtered out direct light, but the coires were clear to give a stonking view up to Coire Sputan Dearg.

Back by the bike, there were other people filtering out of the hills, too. I cycled back to the bothy, looking forward to ratcheting up the miles to the car. At the bothy, I also felt a bit hollowed out (reserves depleted), so had great chat with some folk while I cooked up my last curry. I got my things, racked up the bike and pedalled back out the road by head torch. The panniers worked this time and I was back at the car in no time. Out to Ballater for an Indian, a hostel night, and up early for Lochnagar in the morning.

360° Panoramas

Carn a' Mhaim

Ben Macdui

Ben Macdui - Detail, 180° West

Derry Cairngorm

Times (Time relative to 0.00)
(0.00) 9.40am Bob Scott's
(0.25) 10.05am Bike drop, near Luibeg Bridge
(1.34) 11.14am Carn a' Mhaim
(2.30) 12.10pm Sron Riach
(2.53) 12.33pm Ben Macdui
(3.41) 1.21pm Carn Etchachan
(4.22) 2.02pm Creagan a' Choire Etchachan
(4.43) 2.23pm Sgurr an Lochan Uaine
(5.07) 2.47pm Derry Cairngorm
(6.27) 4.07pm Bike pick up
(6.48) 4.28pm Bob Scott's
(7.34) 5.14pm Bob Scott's (left)
(8.00) 5.40pm Linn of Dee
Written: 2019-01-15