A first outing among the Cairngorms30th April 2009
The trouble with going somewhere for the first time is that you need to decide what to see. That reality is heightened when there are so many options that there is an embarrassment of riches. My Easter visit to Aviemore was a good example of this last point, in every way. The weather could not have been better so it would have been a pity to waste that too. Having only a day available to me for on foot explorations meant that making best use of it was very much in mind.
In the end, I opted for a walk around the Rothiemurchus Estate to savour as many sights as possible. Leafing through Ronald Turnbull’s Cicerone guide, Walking in the Cairngorms, revealed a tempting option in the shape of Creag Dhubh and the Argyll Stone but I ruled out the idea of a quick ascent of a single hill in favour of a deeper incursion that took in more of the surrounding scenery. The prospect of a trot up Gleann Eanaich was also sorely tempting but I, perhaps erroneously now that I look at it again, thought it to be too confining an idea. It might have its difficulties at the time but leaving something for later has its rewards when one idea unleashes many more.
Getting from Aviemore to Inverdruie meant facing progress over tarmac. However, a short off-road crossing over the Spey and the presence of useful roadside footways provided some relief, as did the ambiance of a sunny morning. Inverdruie was where I left tarmac after me for a while to pick up a pleasant footpath through heather-carpeted heath with a good scattering of pines. That took me by Lochan Mor where I lingered a little while I enjoyed the pure idyll that was on offer. It’s the sort of spot where you could stop all day in the right conditions but I was minded to go further.
At Milton Cottage, I met up with tarmac again and watched with some amazement as a truck negotiated a narrow bridge with some difficulty before I continued to Loch an Eilean after it had passed. At the loch, where tarmac was left after me until evening and I could have got to Creag Dhubh from here if that was my plan. The tracks are good and were playing host to cyclists as well as walkers, so a certain state of alertness was very much in order.
Another meeting of tracks was where I might have turned for Loch Eanaich (or Einich if you prefer; the OS uses both spellings) and the crags above it. They certainly look dramatic on OS maps so I suppose that they are yet another addition to the ideas shelf. I stayed my course to pass Lochan Deo and crossed Am Beanaidh using the Cairngorm Club Footbridge. My onward progress was to have me shadow Allt Druidh, as I continued on in the direction of the Lairig Ghru.
After another meeting of paths called Piccadilly, I took the one signposted as being for the said famed mountain pass. It was at this point that I left any gentle strollers and cyclists for quieter terrain. That allowed me a spot of lunch-taking before commencing my ascent. That ascent was steady rather than tiring, but the results of any labours were there to be seen, particularly whenever I looked behind.
However, I wasn’t bound for Lairig Ghru; I was happy with a glimpse of that pass and what surrounds it. Instead, the idea of mounting Creag a’ Chalamain and Castle Hill became a prospect. Sticking with the Chalamain Gap wouldn’t have left me disappointed either. Being mindful of time, I decided against the roundabout route followed by the tracks shown on my map for a more direct and cross-country route. Whatever doubts may have lain in the back of my mind regarding the strength of my legs were dispelled as I made my way up the slopes. It didn’t take so long to reach the track that I would have been following if I had been using the route marked on my map.
My eventual course to the top of a hill was made all too tempting by the sight of a good clear track up the side of Creag a’ Chalamain from the gap. The reward for my energy expenditure was ample views of all that lay about me. The experience laid the seed of an idea for resolving hill identification questions, an occasional bugbear of mine: to work out what hills feature in one of your photos, get on top of one of them to simplify your view of the landscape. Cairngorm and Braeriach lay among the cornucopia that lay about me. Both were holding on to snow with the latter really succeeding in its hoarding of the white stuff. By staying lower down, I was avoiding any such difficulties.
Hopping over to Castle Hill didn’t cost me much in labour or in views either. Loch Morlich and Lochan Dubh a’ Chadha lay beneath me with lower hummocks like Airgiod Meall, Craiggowrie, Creagan Gorm and Meall a’ Bhuachaille being easy to pick out from the map in my possession. I probably should have dropped into Eag a’ Chait to pick up a path to Rothiemurchus Lodge, but my meandering course took me further east around the hillside before I gingerly picked my way down a steep slope to join an alternative track to the same place. This was to be no exact route march and I didn’t mind so long as I knew where I was and remained safe; there are bigger worries in life than whether a route was followed exactly or not.
Given that I was now on more level terrain, I snatched some time for a breather after Rothiemurchus Lodge before scotching any ambitions to visiting the shores of Loch Morlich in favour of a return to base. Ironically, my route back to Aviemore was to take me not far from the said loch before I headed along another track to join the one that I had been using that morning. Somewhere along the way, my brain had jumped a time zone to CET, or double summer time if you like, to reduce the perceived amount of time that I had until the light failed. This silly development would have been worse if it lured me into a false sense of security so I’ll be more careful in future. It might be after so many years with digital watch faces that using one with an analogue style has not become second nature to me just yet and I’ve had it a few years. Still, the last time my brain jumped time zone was on a walk among the Brecon Beacons a few years and the movement was in the same direction and with the same watch too. Maybe, a return to digital displays is in order…
That mental time shift did not deprive me of the ability to enjoy the walk back in the late evening sunlight. If anything, its direction and its warmth of colour suited my surroundings better. Naturally, photographic activity continued as I plied the paths and tracks on my way back to base. That there were less folk about added to the sense of relaxation too as I reached Piccadilly to begin reversing my outward route. From there, it was back over the Cairngorm Club Footbridge, past Lochan Deo to reach Loch an Eilean again. From the latter, I stayed on tarmac for the journey to Inverdruie rather than reprising my earlier off-road route. Traffic was light so I only had to contend with the effects of tarmac bashing on my feet. From Inverdruie, I reversed the way that I had earlier trodden with a stop to give directions to two young ladies in a car wanting the SYHA hostel. It was after they had left that I wondered about having joined them for the sake of giving better directions because that’s where I was staying too. There was another cause for that perhaps aberrant brainwave: the tarmac tramping was taking its toll. There was woodland prior to my crossing of the Spey so I pottered along a softer track there for some respite. In the meantime, my brain had returned to BST and I felt a bit of an idiot but was glad to have had the extra hour anyway. It had been the only real howler on an otherwise stellar and long day of walking in Highland countryside with a different feel from that to which I have been accustomed.
It might be the presence of well-maintained paths and tracks along with the mixture of heather and pine trees that covered the ground but I got the impression that this was a drier part of the Highlands than other areas that I have explored before now. Even the higher slopes seemed to possess none of the boggy stuff. That’s not to say that I met no messy conditions underfoot because the track that I joined after coming off Castle Hill was very rough, but that was the exception to the norm as far as my hike was concerned. Geology and weather might also have their part to play. After all, the Cairngorms do lie in the east, so the rain-bearing westerlies might have to jettison much of their cargo by the time that they get this far. Then, there’s the hand of humankind too. Whatever the causes, my surroundings felt a world apart from the sogginess that I have encountered in the west and that was without the airborne moistness that I have met in parts of Argyll and Lochaber. Yomps from Corrour train station to Spean Bridge and from Loch Awe train station to Taynuilt by way of Glen Kinglass certainly took over sodden terrain but my taste of Badenoch felt very different to this.
From an Easter weekend for which the forecast was none too promising, I managed to extract a decent walk. Having a well-stocked ideas shelf and some spare time meant that a getaway proved possible when things started to look better for the U.K. The rain stayed in Ireland to saturate the countryside and annoy people like my father. I suppose that it sounds perverse to have some gaining from the discomfort of others and it’s not the first time that I remember that happening but I suppose that’s life.
Having possibilities is all very fine but I have found that they can cause indecision and delay too. That’s when I find that having an informal pecking order helps and having not walked in Scotland for a little while pushed the Cairngorms plan higher up the wish list. Saying that, it helped that it was possible to book a place to stay at the Aviemore SYHA too. Having that option open to me meant that unexpected good weather wasn’t left to go to waste and more ideas not populate that walking wish list either. Those may form part of a longer visit yet, but that’s only a pipe dream right now.
Whichever way that you do it, this is a long schlep from Macclesfield. It’s the sort of journey that makes the Caledonian Sleeper an appealing idea were it not for the cost. Still, if you allow the time and avoid engineering works, a return train works out well enough if a little on the expensive side. Travelling at Easter, as I did, meant that engineering works on the West Coast mainline sent me around by York to Edinburgh before continuing to Inverness. Logistically, I needn’t have done it on the way back, but return ticketing was probably best from the cost point of view. Flying is another idea, but times aren’t always in your favour and I’m not certain how they’d cope with walking poles unless a duffel bag came too. Of course, there’s the environmental consequences to be considered too. Sitting back on a train with a music player and something to read isn’t so bad, is it?
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