The Chalamain Gap

A place that seems to divide opinion, the Chalamain Gap; the complete spectrum from “ankle snapping nightmare” to “just a few rocks, nae bother”. The natural pessimist in me would invariably incline towards believing the former and dismissing the latter; but the truth was I’d only ever seen the gap from a distance, or in other peoples’ pictures; so we decided to take a look. And that really was all we decided to do…

What we were supposed to be doing was reconnaissance, and trying to establish whether the better option for climbing Braeriach (my most coveted, unclimbed mountain) would be from Whitewell or The Sugar Bowl. Whitewell is a preferred starting point for any number of walks but would be the longer option; The Sugar Bowl route is reckoned to be the more direct, but does incorporate the gap which, as mentioned previously, gets mixed reviews.

By this point the nature of the gap was absolutely clear

By the time we were within a couple of hundred yards of the base of the gap it was pretty obvious what we would be dealing with – a chute filled with boulders of assorted shapes and sizes, interspersed with a similarly diverse variety of holes. There was really no need to walk right up to the base of the gap, but obviously the compulsion to do so was irresistible. Somehow I just knew we would then be climbing up through it but studiously avoided being the one to suggest doing so; not least because one of the party is susceptible to calf strains when over-stretching. I pointed out that we’d done what we’d set out to do, taken a look – a close one at that – and that there was an alternative route down into the Lairig Ghru, by means of a track which passes close to Rothiemurchus Lodge. I felt I had done my best to counsel restraint.

There was really no need or justification for the “closer look”

Or the detailed, boulder by boulder, inspection which followed

We were slow, inelegant, probably comical at times, but in the end we made it up and out and immediately agreed that the views across to Sgoran Dubh Mor had already justified the effort; Lurcher’s Crag looming to our left was a bonus.

Then the views quickly began to more than reward the effort

And then a runner appeared, having climbed out of the Lairig Ghru (which we found to be a steep enough proposition in the descent!) and proceeded to pick a way down through the boulders with all the surefooted poise of one of Tolkien’s elves. Our next move was somewhat less vigorous – working out an improvised circular route which would take us back to the Sugar Bowl via Rothiemurchus and the south side of Loch Morlich.

And the rewards continued…

Time to drop the packs and open out the food…

Walking north from the Lairig Ghru there comes a point in the path where the forest is just beginning to thicken a little (or just beginning to thin out if you’re heading south) with some of the best food stop options to be found anywhere: sheltered; not quite buried in the forest; not quite out of sight of the hills and – if you sit for long enough – the birds will become accustomed to your presence and emboldened by the familiarity.

As for the Chalamain Gap? The consensus seemed to be somewhere between the two extremes: not quite the ordeal some of the reports might suggest – but certainly not to be dismissed as “nae bother” either. None of us expressed any inclination to attempt running through it.

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A hill and some weather…

For a few years now we’ve used the Mountain Weather Information Service (MWIS), particularly when in the highlands. Although the reports are geared towards weather expectations on the summits, they generally give a useful indication of what might also be expected in the valleys and in a much more specific way than, for instance, the generalised BBC summation. To a point we’ve learned to trust them as the best planning guide for a couple of days ahead (and we rarely look further than that). The MWIS website can be found here.

With a 90% prediction that summits east of the A9/Spey valley would be clear of cloud by late morning, we set off for the top of Ben Macdui – climbing into cloud, but trusting the MWIS forecast. I won’t include a route description here – it was a familiar, well-walked one; and one detailed on a number of online sites such as Walkhighlands.co.uk. Just as an aside here, our preferred route-finding combination to have to hand (but still with a full-sheet map in the bag) is a Walkhighlands narrative in combination with our own printed route plan from Routebuddy. We particularly like the feeling of reassurance when the two documents actually seem to correspond.

Mist and optimism came and went as we climbed steadily past Coire an Lochain and onto the level ridge above the Lairig Ghru. Throughout the walk the higher tops – Cairn Gorm, Braeriach, Macdui itself – came into view then disappeared again in a random sequence resembling a high level dance of the veils. Not long after setting off we checked the summit of Cairn Gorm; it was clear of cloud, then, within a minute or so, everything down past the Ptarmigan restaurant was obscured, and shortly afterwards clear again. And that was typical of how the morning progressed.

This wasn’t a summit bagging exercise: the idea of heading for the high point of the immediate area was simply to take in the views – hence the fixation with cloud conditions. Crossing the first boulder field I was beginning to harbour a few doubts about the possibility of unobstructed views, but I kept them to myself; even on the final walk up to the cairn/trig point those doubts persisted.

There are few certainties in life, but one is that if you climb to the top of the highest mountain in the locality you will be exposed to the wind – whichever direction it’s coming from. Temperatures at the summit felt a good few degrees lower than those we’d walked through during the morning’s climb and we soon decided to add a layer before hunkering into one of the improvised stone shelters for a hot drink and some food. It turned out to be a good decision: as we sat there the clouds parted for the final time and patches of blue sky began to appear. As did a female snow bunting, complete with a chick already well-versed in the arts of begging the odd bit of food. We’d also passed a pair of dotterel on the way up – barely noticeable among the boulders.

One consequence of this rather untypical summer was the number of dry watercourses: I doubt we’ve ever seen so many in that part of the highlands; even some substantial lochans were considerably altered from their familiar size and shape – smaller pools dried out completely in some instances. That said, there’s no doubt that there were sections where conditions underfoot were somewhat easier than would usually be the case.

With the tops completely freed of cloud (and the temperature suddenly more agreeable) we were able to take in the views from the summit, wander around the immediate area, and take a few photographs. Most things can be enhanced by a bit of sunshine – even Cairn Toul, Sgòr an Lochain Uaine and particularly Braeriach (which would struggle to look unattractive on the greyest of days); so the sun on our backs and the surrounding hills made for a pleasant, unhurried return to the waiting car.

Not long into our walk down we were all startled by a loud roar from behind us: a Eurofighter (Typhoon) came across the tops to the south, dropped into the Lairig Ghru before executing a full 180º turn and heading back in the direction it had come from. I’m sure it was nowhere near as effortless a manoeuvre as the pilot made it look.

Pictures: Rather than fill the screen with images there is a short slideshow which attempts to show how the day developed. The link can be found below:

Slideshow

Slideshow soundtrack: The music is the instrumental backing track from The Dream Academy’s cover of The Smiths song Please, please, please let me get what I want. If it sounds familiar, that may be because at some time you have seen the film Ferris Bueller’s day off (gallery scene – near the end).