Backpacking In Scotland's Cairngorm Mountains
This article was written by Steven Gilbertson. A lifelong friend and very experienced mountain walker. For his first essay since leaving high school over thirty years ago I asked him to write about hillwalking in the mountains where we both grew up. He not only supplied an eminently enjoyable and informative article, he supplied more and better photographs than I could possibly use here and so I will post them in a separate piece soon. Any editing or proofreading errors are down to me. All pleasure is down to Steve. We both hope you enjoy it. Thanks for reading.
This was written for the website of the County Wicklow outdoor store Charles Camping. (www.charlescamping.ie).
You’re sitting on top of a mountain. The sun is setting but it’s still warm. Your tent is pitched and you've just made a brew. Lochnagar is on your left and the summits of Ben Macdui and Beinn Mheadhoin lie rightwards. Now and again you can hear the croak of a Ptarmigan. You gaze at the rugged spine of Bynack Mor and sip your coffee.
Life is good.
The Cairngorms contain 4 of the 5 highest mountains in the UK and boast vast plateaux, huge coires as well as vegetation and wildlife that can’t be found anywhere else in the UK. There are many reasons to backpack here; sitting on top of a hill watching the sunset when most other folk have left for the day surely ranks high on anyone’s list. In this article I’m going to explore some others.
Backpacking can allow you to take your time over a walk. For example, the Cairngorm 4000s (Cairn Gorm, Ben Macdui, Cairn , Sgor an Lochain Uaine and Braeriach) can be a great walk but with a lot of climbing, rough terrain and a long distance it’s a lengthy day out. Why rush such a rewarding walk when you could savour it and its views over 2 days?
Start at the Cairn Gorm car park, ascend Cairn Gorm then wander over the high plateau to Ben Macdui. After that, pick a route down into Lairig Ghru and continue to Cairn Toul, Sgor an Lochain Uaine and Braeriach. After that it’s back into the Lairig Ghru before making your way back to the Cairngorm ski area car park. It is possible to stay in Corrour Bothy for the night, but this is a busy and popular overnight stop. My personal preference is to camp, and in fine weather (and definitely during midge season) I like to camp high in the hills. Luckily this route offers fantastic views throughout which means that your choice of camp site mainly depends on how far you feel like walking the on the second day.
You might want to explore some of the further flung mountains. Deeside is known for its long walk-ins and that’s no bad thing as it means that many hills here are free of the “flip-flop and shopping bag” brigade that can be numerous on more easily reached mountain areas.
Deeside offers additional routes up mountains that are accessible from the Aviemore side of the Cairngorms and I would recommend any of them. In my experience going by different routes up the same mountain only adds to the enjoyment. However for my Deeside example I’m going to suggest two mountains that are a long way from the Cairngorm car park; Beinn a Bhuird and Ben Avon. The start and finish point is the car park at Allanaquoich, not far from Braemar. The walk starts gently, following Glen Quoich to the foot of Beinn a Bhuird. My preference is to follow the track around until I can ascend Carn Fiaclach. Taking this route lets the walker enjoy the views into Beinn a Bhuird’s huge coires There’s now an easier stretch for the few kilometres to Cnap a Chlerich then it’s onward to Ben Avon. If you stay the night you now have the opportunity to explore Ben Avon’s huge and remarkable granite tors, with the added possibility of enjoying a decent sunset and sunrise from the comfort of your shelter. In the morning you can either take the hills south past Carn Eas or use the track between Beinn a Buird and Ben Avon to take you back to the car park.
Alternatively, you might want to tackle a lower-level route around or through the Cairngorms. My preference is to walk the Lairig Ghru - Glen Derry - Lairig an Laoigh route. This is circular, and can start either at the Aviemore/Glenmore side, or at the Linn of Dee near Braemar. Although I have described this as low-level, it does have a high point of about 835m and in places the terrain can be challenging, but this walk is totally achievable in 2 days. This walk need not be saved as a bad-weather alternative either; on fine days there are excellent views of mountains such as Braeriach, Cairn Toul, Derry Cairngorm, Beinn Mheadhoin and Bynack Mor. An alternative is to walk right around the main Cairngorm group using Glen Feshie, Glen Geldie, Glen Derry and Lairig an Laoigh, but this would probably be more enjoyable over 3 days.
In addition to purely walking reasons for backpacking, you might have other interests that can be combined with it. Nature watching can be particularly rewarding; the Cairngorms are not teeming with wildlife but what they lack in quantity is more than made up for in quality. You have very goods odds on seeing Ptarmigan (and even Snow Bunting on the higher peaks) but getting a look at an elusive Mountain Hare or a soaring Golden Eagle is something special. Lower down can be more fruitful – Crested Tit, Crossbill, Red Squirrel, Woodpecker, a wide variety of ducks and maybe even Osprey (at the right time of the year) can be seen. Backpacking gives you more time for exploration.
Photography also benefits from long days and overnight stays. You get the benefit of early-morning and late-evening light, with the added bonus of little light pollution for starscapes and, if you’re very lucky, the Northern Lights.
I’d like to end on a note of caution. The Cairngorms are a wonderful range of mountains to explore, and while the Cairngorm plateau can be like a meadow in fine summer weather, it is a deadly place to be when the clouds descend and the weather closes in. Winds of more than 170 mph have been recorded here. Anyone venturing into these mountains should be properly equipped and be able to navigate using map and compass.
Inverness and Aberdeen are the closest airports and the area is well served by trains and buses.
For further information on visiting this area contact the Scottish tourist board www.visitscotland.com and for more mountain focused information the winterhighland.info website is great for winter snow and ice conditions and the Mtn weather info service provides very good high level forecasts. www.mwis.org.uk .