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).

The Nature of… Jim Crumley

Jim Crumley is a nature writer whose books I’ve referenced before in blog posts, as indeed have others on their blogs. Among Jim’s books a longtime favourite of mine has been his timeless classic A high and lonely place – a eulogy to The Cairngorms and one which prompted this post back in 2014. Both celebratory and unafraid to confront the issues – many of which endure to this day – it is both a good read and a work of reference.

Most recently I’ve read the two connected works in the series The Nature of… and am hopeful that there will be two others to follow. Both books are written with an intimacy and perspective which can only derive from patience and exposure – the latter possibly in more than one sense of the word. Most of all there is that most scarce and precious of commodities – original thought; something which, in these soundbite days, seems as elusive as the native wildcat which he and I would love to know were out there, moving secretively through the forests of Rothiemurchus and Inshriach.

Here’s an example: it’s taken from The Nature of Autumn

“And the first day of autumn is the beginning of everything, the first stirrings of rebirth. The forest fall thickens the land with limitless tons of bits and pieces of trees. The earth is hungry for food: all spring, all summer, it has been thrusting life upwards and outwards, and by the last day of summer, it is tired. Autumn is the earth’s reviver and replenisher… ”

On first reading, this runs counter-intuitive to my programming: unquestioningly I’d accepted that the natural order of the seasons was spring, summer, autumn, winter – emergence, abundance, slow-down, shutdown. Having your perceptions challenged is never a bad thing and, with the benefit of a different perspective, it makes sense to see autumn as very much the opening step in a new cycle – one which incubates during the winter months; dormant but already primed. From the perspective of our most northerly latitudes it makes absolute sense.

Original thinking challenges us and, who knows, perhaps might encourage us to develop it as a skill of our own. How could that ever be a bad thing?

 

The Nature of Autumn and The Nature of Winter, are both written by Jim Crumley and published by Saraband.

 

 

Ambivalence on Cairn Gorm

Preamble:

This has taken an absolute age to write and I’m really not sure if I shouldn’t have just paid heed to that and abandoned it. For a while I’ve been toying with the idea of taking the blog in a different direction, without ever really being clear about where that direction should be. Brilliant, eh? An outdoor blogger who can’t even navigate a way through his own thought processes. 

Thing is, there are only so many times it’s possible to write about the final approach to the summit of Worcestershire Beacon, or the tricky descent of Light Spout Hollow. Ironic really, considering there is probably no limit to the number of times I would happily descend Light Spout and never tire of doing so. And it can be tricky…

Anyway…

I’m not a great lover of Cairn Gorm; at least not on its northern side. Actually, that’s not an entirely fair resumé: it would be more precise to say that I’m not a great lover of what’s been done to that part of the mountain, not least the rebranding – and why? – of the mountain’s name, which somehow grates more than it should when I see it on facilities, information boards, or even one of the funicular vehicles and its completely innocent cargo of passengers.

I’ve touched on this before [here] and Chris Townsend recently posted about the rather slipshod manner in which redundant infrastructure was being removed – albeit only partially – from parts of Coire na Ciste. As someone who isn’t, and never has been, a downhill skier, I don’t feel qualified to argue the merits, or otherwise, of the pastime; hence this, from the earlier post…

“It’s true that Cairngorm itself is an untidy clutter on its northern side: mostly the consequences of ski development. I know there are arguments in favour of skiing as a leisure pursuit; not least the economic benefits in the winter months and, equally importantly, the fact that, for some, it’s an enjoyable activity. There’s no denying though that skiing is greedy for land and creates an awful mess on the hillside when there’s no camouflaging blanket of snow…”

I did also – in the interests of intended balance – concede that “there are equally instances of spots (Snowdon summit, Ben Nevis as examples) where the accumulated effects of tens of thousands of walkers can leave the place looking far from attractive…”

With all of that said, and nothing really resolved, I just think that the development – if it had to be done at all – it could have been carried out with a little more subtlety, a lot less intrusion, and with a view to a generally more sympathetic outcome. There’s an obvious question hanging here: if that’s how I feel, why go there? Well, it is a very accessible summit on those days when the weather looks like it might run through its entire repertoire in the space of an afternoon, and – the other side of that coin – a relatively straightforward place from which to retreat. And, once you begin to cross the summit plateau and the buildings and equipment, the tows and fencing, fall behind and dip out of sight, then it really becomes a different place.

I find my gaze is usually drawn first to the lochs Avon and Etchachan, rather than to the neighbouring summits; then, as I adjust my eyeline upwards, there’s often the compulsion to look back down again and confirm that I have secure footing, despite standing on a solid rocky base and a long way from any precipice; a feeling of exposure, where none actually exists – it’s almost become a mannerism. Then the details begin to reveal themselves: the high summits of neighbouring mountains; steep crags falling away into deep-cut valleys; watercourses threading their way down until they meet, combine, create bigger watercourses, spill into the lochs and, in some cases, feed rivers which will make their journey all the way to the coast, gathering power as they go.

And then I realise that I actually love it up here…

I might have liked it more in former, wilder days; I might have liked it more in the future, when the wolves have returned and land management lower down has been reclaimed by lynx and beaver. But for now, and as long as I’m able, I’ll continue to climb past the ugly bits and enjoy the views from the top. To some extent, traversing the summit plateau from north to south is like crossing a watershed, a frontier where national park status is broadly observed to the south, and has been selectively set aside to the north.

(Context: it has been more than nine weeks since I last wandered past the summit cairn to take in the views to the south)

Ski tow equipment – Coire Cas

 

Just walking clear of the last of the development

Not pretty, maybe, but natural and as its intended to be

No comment needed (other than that this is taken inside a national park)

 

 

Carn Ban Mor and Sgòr Gaoith: 10/08/17

About this time last year I was ruminating, in that way that curmudgeonly old gits do, about the vagaries of Scottish hill classifications. It was to do with Carn Ban Mor (3,451 feet) not being a munro, on account of having, in close proximity, a parent hill, Sgòr Gaoith (3,668 feet).

Being neither a committed bagger nor cairn-toucher I didn’t much care, and still don’t. Which is just as well, because it doesn’t end there: turns out – if Wikipedia is to be believed – that Sgòr Gaoith itself also has a parent peak (Braeriach – 4,252 feet). Well, seeing as it’s Braeriach, we’ll say no more about it; you wouldn’t want to get into a dispute with Braeriach,

We followed the path – well walked and well engineered, winding up out of Glen Feshie from near the croft at Achlean. The first part is through woodland, always climbing but never too severe, until eventually the trees begin to thin out.

Encouragingly, well beyond the end of the established tree line, there are signs of regeneration and a gradual recolonising of the slopes by native pines. This could well be a consequence of Glenfeshie Estate’s policy of controlling deer numbers; if so it’s a welcome one, although personally I’d rather see implementation of the programme handed over to a few lynx.

Gaining height across the open hillside is, in the main, progressive rather than strenuous, and the views back towards Glen Feshie and beyond begin to open out. The path does steepen a little as it climbs to its high point, which is just about where you need to look for a small cairn marking the junction for the final short, easy stroll up to the summit cairn/shelter of Carn Ban Mor. It’s worth paying a bit of attention to directions and landmarks at this point because, by the time you reach the top of Carn Ban Mor and look back, this way-marker cairn will just have dipped out of sight.

Summit cairn/shelter – Carn Ban Mor

On a previous outing we’d decided against pushing on to Sgòr Gaoith; this was partly down to a later start, but also because a couple of trip reports I’d read had suggested that the walk across was deceptive in terms of both distance and re-ascent from the hollow between the two summits. In the event it proved somewhat easier than we’d expected, although the wind was beginning to pick up and the temperature was dropping as we climbed towards the distinctive outline of number 5 buttress (visible from the platform of Kingussie Station if conditions allow). The drifting clouds also meant that the top was disappearing and reappearing every couple of minutes.

The wind was sufficiently strong to keep us away from the very edge of the precipice, but we did venture close enough to get some shots looking down into Glen Einich and across to Braeriach. Loch Einich was a much more attractive colour than it had been when viewed from the shoreline a few days previously…

Braeriach – not quite prepared to reveal everything

This one – not one of mine, by the way – made it onto the Visit Scotland site

The edge of Sgòr Gaoith dissolving into the low cloud

With the wind coming hard from the west, the only viable shelter would have been one of the grassy hollows just above the 2,000 foot drop down into Glen Einich; maybe worth bearing in mind for a calmer day, or one where the wind is blowing away from the edge. We chose a more cautious option and walked back to the shelter on Carn Ban Mor , which had the dual advantages of being perfectly aligned for the wind direction, and a long way from the precipice. It was an easy decision, and a unanimous one.

Having said above that I’m not particularly fussed about touching summit cairns (or trig points), I do have a fondness for sitting inside them when they double up as a shelter. The one on Carn Ban Mor is particularly helpful, as it’s an exposed top, whichever direction the wind is from, and there isn’t much in the way of natural cover. We took an extended food stop while Braerich, Sgòr an Lochain Uaine and Cairn Toul played a game of cat and mouse with us – the object being to get a picture with all three summits clear of cloud. Inevitably the mountains outlasted us; they are better equipped for a long game.

Just a final word about Braeriach: what a staggering piece of mountain architecture that is! From a distance, or close proximity, it just seems to keep revealing one more new facet, then another… We haven’t yet viewed it from the Cairn Toul approach, so there’s still more to discover. The Highlands – there’s always a reason to go back.

 

Glen Einich (and its Loch): 06/08/17

The imposing crags of Sgoran Dubh Mor and Sgor Gaioth

How to describe Glen Einich? If it’s picturesque then it’s in a pretty uncompromising sort of way; speaking personally, I think that – for almost its entire length – there is a ‘presence’ about the place which is totally compelling. I can understand though that it wouldn’t be to everyone’s tastes.

There was no definite plan: the weather forecast was changeable and likely to remain so; some cloud; possibility of showers, but interspersed with clear spells. Okay, so waterproofs and anti-midge cream accessible at all times. We parked up alongside the road leading to Whitewell; this has become probably our favourite start point over the last couple of years and allows a last look at the conditions across the hills before setting off. Some cloud; the possibility of showers; maybe clear spells, looked about right; in fact – in an arc from Cairn Gorm to Braeriach – all of that was already happening.

Braeriach in cloud; the path into Glen Einich just visible

The early part of the walk is probably best described in a single word – Rothiemurchus; that should convey more than any amount of waffle from me. It’s all here in this amiable walk in – shifting cloudscapes; views of hills, near and distant; mixed woodlands, including welcome indications of regeneration in places; the sounds of water moving through the landscape, sometimes unseen.

Lochan Deo had an unruffled air about it, although there have been times when we’ve seen it looking a little more blue. It’s a useful reference point, being immediately adjacent to a junction of paths leading to/from Aviemore; Coylumbridge; Glen Einich; The Cairngorm Club Footbridge and the Lairig Ghru. We frequently see wild campers who’ve pitched up close to the lochan; even when there are midges about. There are certainly some lovely spots around there; easily accessible but still discreet without needing to travel too far from the path.

Lochan Deo

Foot and cycle bridge over the Allt Beanaidh

Once you’ve picked up the Allt Beanaidh, flowing north from Loch Einich towards its confluence with the Rivers Druie and Luineag at Coylumbridge, it remains pretty much a constant companion all the way to the loch. It needs to be crossed a couple of times: once by means of a handy bridge (which also seems to act as a repository for a mysterious assortment of single gloves).

And once with some improvisation…

It’s okay, I’ll carry everybody’s kit…

We’d been barefoot in the river on a previous outing, so it didn’t come as a total shock. If anything, it wasn’t quite as cold as I’d remembered it, but the current felt strong, even though it wasn’t particularly deep. Every few minutes the skies seemed to change and, with the variations in light, those changes were reflected in the landscape. Those buttresses along the face of Sgor Gaioth can look pretty intimidating, even from the safety of the path.

Sgor Gaioth’s mood not quite reflecting the blue skies and fluffy clouds

Eventually we began to get teasing glimpses of the grey, then blue, then grey again sheet of water which was Loch Einich; disappearing and reappearing as the path twisted and dipped…

By the time we reached the gravelly shoreline, alongside the outflow into the Allt Beanaidh, a spell of squally wind and rain was arriving just in time to greet us; there was barely time to take a handful of photos before the visibility was all but gone. From this aspect and in these conditions, the loch itself looked quite unprepossessing, although the same couldn’t be said about its setting. Fortunately, a few days later, we would see it from an altogether different vantage point – the path along the rim of Sgor Gaioth – and come away with better pictures and an altered point of view.

On the walk out we’d turn now and again to look back at the view; the rolling low cloud and rain hung around the semi-circle of hills surrounding Loch Einich for a long time and it would have been a mistake to stick around there waiting for the weather to clear. However, as we headed back towards Rothiemurchus, the skies were gradually lightening, although the cloud cover had eliminated most of the blue gaps by then.

Routebuddy made the out and return distance 21.6 kms (13.4 miles). Total ascent, out and back, was a surprising 568 metres (1,864 feet); a far higher number than I would have guessed on a route which never seems more than undulating. I suppose spread over thirteen plus miles it’s actually not that much.

All photos should enlarge with a click.

 

 

 

08/08/17: Meall a’ Bhuachaille, Creagan Gorm, and…

… and a navigational cock-up.

The plan was to walk a circuit taking in the three summits of Meall a’ Bhuachaille, Creagan Gorm and Craiggowrie, then make our way back to Loch Morlich and Glenmore, by paths passing close to the Badaguish Outdoor Centre. What could possibly go wrong?

We’d climbed Meall a’ Bhuachaille a number of times before – out past An Lochan Uaine and pick up the track just behind Ryvoan bothy. That bit passed uneventfully…

Ryvoan bothy

As did the next – the climb up to the summit cairn/shelter on top of Meall a’ Bhuachaille; a place where it is traditional for us to partake of food and drink. My kind of place…

Summit shelter – Meall a’ Bhuachaille

That was the high point already taken care of and, with good visibility ahead, what could – at the risk of repeating myself – possibly go wrong? The plan was to drop down from the top of Meall a’ Bhuachaille and continue across to Creagan Gorm and then the third summit (Craiggowrie) before picking up the path down towards Badaguish and Loch Morlich. However, in the planning process, a member of the party – and I won’t say who (okay, it was me!) – had failed to notice that although Craiggowrie is the third named summit on the route, there is an unnamed top between it and Creagan Gorm. In my defence – and, as defences go, this is about as thin as they get – the intermediate top is one of those anomalies where the ridge leading to the summit is named (Creag a’ Chaillich), rather than the top itself; I didn’t notice this on the map I’d printed out.

Just for confirmation – and because I like to plan my cock-ups properly – I’d read a couple of trip reports on Walkhighlands.co.uk and was sure that the descent route would be on the left, immediately after the cairns (plural). And so, arriving at the cairns on what I thought to be the summit we were heading for; and, by the way, why would an unnamed top have four cairns? Yes four! Isn’t life difficult enough? I began to look for the downward path, in the relaxed manner of someone about to enter a very large doghouse.

We looked, didn’t find; pushed on a little; looked again, still didn’t find; saw a group below us who had decided to just yomp through the heather and bilberry and wondered if the path we were looking for had become overgrown (it’s called clutching at excuses) and eventually decided to retrace our steps because we seemed to be heading for Boat of Garten by the pretty route. This meant we had to negotiate, for the second time, some very boggy ground and reascend the unnamed top – replete with its four bloody cairns! – then Creagan Gorm again, before picking up a path which at least we knew was there, having used it before and crossed it earlier in the day.

Later, looking at the printed Routebuddy sheet while we had a coffee and bite to eat, it was clear where we had gone wrong: allowing me to be the one with the map was the critical flaw in the plan. I probably chose the wrong time to suggest that days like this are character building.

Oops…

Heading off Meall a’ Bhuachaille and towards Creagan Gorm

Summit cairn – Creagan Gorm

There was no shortage of cairns – Lochs Garten and Mallachie beyond

A boulder which we passed (twice)…

Badaguish (below) – exactly where it was supposed to be

A rainbow which our original plan might well have missed

The route reacquired

Almost time for coffee and recriminations…