From thrilling ridges to long distance endurance fests, we all like to push the envelope sometimes. Every mountain hit list has its essential big ticks, and for this instalment in our series on the UK's most famous gnarly routes we make a classic, not-so-low-level circuit of the Cairngorms.
Bulldozed by glaciers through the heart of the high Cairngorms, the Lairig Ghru and Lairig an Laoigh are two of Britain's grandest and best-known mountain passes. Historic through-routes joining Speyside with Deeside in the days before roads, they nowadays form the basis of a stunning circular walk, a unique wild journey that offers all the challenge of a big hill round, yet without (necessarily) visiting a single summit.
For years I'd wanted to link both the Lairigs in a one-er, so when a perfect spring forecast and a flexible midweek diary finally aligned it seemed too good a chance to miss. Fit runners could treat this as a single - albeit testing - day; but guesstimating a steadier walking speed, it looked like I'd need at least 14 hours. Push yourself with a punishing pace, or take time to soak up the surroundings? Both approaches have their merits, but since nothing beats a wild camp in a Caledonian pine wood, and I was in no particular hurry, a two-day round would suit nicely.
By the time work and the long drive north had eaten into my window, only half of day one reamined. But with usable light stretching long into evening, a mid afternoon start was no great disaster. I shouldered a bearably heavy pack at Glen More's Sugarbowl car park, and set off through sun-dappled woods alive with spring birdsong. Snow still shone on the distant cliffs of Coire and t'Sneachda and Coire an Lochain, but down here in the trees a new season had begun. Linking the pine woods of the lower glens in Deeside and Glen More, via the open expanse of the high hills, a great attraction of this round is the way that it takes you on a journey through the diversity of the Cairngorm landscape.
Distance 47km (standard route, starting from Glen More: it's further if started from Linn of Dee)
Ascent 1385m standard route; 2175m including Carn a' Mhaim and Bynack More
Time Competent hill runners might treat it as a single day, but for walkers two days are realistic: total time min.14 hours
Start/End Sugarbowl car park, Glen More (NH985073); also possible to start from Linn of Dee in the south
Maps OS Landranger (1:50,000) 36; Harvey British Mountain Map (1:40,000) Cairngorms and Lochnagar
Guidebook Walking in the Cairngorms by Ronald Turnbull (Cicerone)
Terrain On the standard glen route, paths are largely easy to follow and generally offer a well-drained surface with good going underfoot. Rough rocky sections are found in the Chalamain Gap and at the high point of the Lairig Ghru. Burn crossings can be tricky in spate, most notably in upper Glen Avon where the outflow from the Dubh Lochan and more still the Fords of Avon itself can become major obstacles in wet weather (see escapes, below).
Extra hills The addition of Carn a' Mhaim and Bynack More to the round brings in some steep, pathless ground and of course a lot of extra ascent; however neither hill presents any particular difficulty.
Winter or bad weather The central Cairngorms in winter are as close to Arctic as Scotland gets, and even if you're sticking to the glens this route should not be underestimated. Deep snow can make progress very arduous, while the general sense of seriousness and remoteness are hugely magnified. Remember that the high points of the Lairig Ghru and Lairig an Laoigh are at a higher altitude than many British mountain summits; both passes act as wind tunnels; and shelter even in the lower glens can be severely lacking. Battling down the Lairig Ghru into a headwind can be tortuous at best.
Overnight options For campers on a two-day round the obvious spot roughly mid-way is near Derry Lodge, where excellent pitches are found among the trees by the Derry Burn. If you didn't fancy carrying a tent, the nearby Bob Scott's bothy offers a different experience - take your chances on drunken revelry. Other bothies on or near the route are: Corrour (NO981958), Huchison Hut (NO023998) the Fords of Avon refuge (NJ041032) and Ryvoan (NJ006115)
Short cuts and escape routes Once committed to either the Lairig Ghru or the Lairig an Laoigh, escape options are limited - either return the way you came or press on to the end of the stage.
If the River Avon is unfordable, and you're on the far side of the water from the Fords of Avon Refuge, options are either to retreat south to the Linn of Dee, or to make a very long detour around Loch Avon and out down Strath Nethy; either would take several hours. The former option can be complicated if the Glas Allt Mor in Glen Derry is running high (it can become impassable); in that situation cross the footbridge over the Derry Burn as per the Hutchison Hut approach, then carry on down the west side of the glen - this is pathless and arduous for several kilometres, according to our Cairngorms expert.
If doing the circuit from Glen More the approximate mid-way point at Derry Lodge is only 4km walk from the car park at Linn of Dee, which gives access to civilisation at Braemar. For those using Linn of Dee as the starting point for the round, the halfway mark at Glen More permits an escape to Aviemore (by bus, even). Either way, if you abort the round mid-way it's possible to get home on public transport, or to hire a taxi to drive you back round to your starting point.
A gentle climb brought me to the first landmark, the Chalamain Gap. A boulder-choked ravine formed by a flood of glacial meltwater, it serves as a gateway to the Lairig Ghru beyond. Descending the far side I passed a handful of walkers, already making their way back towards the glen. The benefit of a late start is getting the hills to yourself; I met no one else until near the end of the circuit around 24 hours later.
It's a long, steady pull up into the Lairig Ghru, with the rambling rocks of Sron na Lairig and Lurcher's Crag on either side to give a sense of scale to the surroundings and make you feel suitably small. Carving a huge slice into the uplands to divide Ben Macdui from the Cairn Toul-Braeriach massif, there's no questioning the Ghru's reputation as the greatest through-route in Scotland. Its flanking peaks are the giants of the Cairngorms - second, third, fourth and fifth highest mountains in the British Isles; and with a high point at well over 800m even the pass itself overtops most summit heights. This is landscape writ large, with a wild quasi-arctic feel to match. Today a stiff headwind gave me something to work against, and the warm sunshine was cut with an edge. Acting as a vast wind funnel, this trench through the hills is deadly serious in a winter storm, and worth treating with respect at any time of year. If you were expecting a casual low-level ramble through the glens, then think again.
Tumbled with moraines and scree, the high point of the pass gives rough going, and passing the tiny glass-clear lochans of the Pools of Dee, one of the sources of Aberdeen's river, I soon lost the thread of the path and found myself on the wrong side of the infant stream. Though tinder-dry underfoot after weeks of low rainfall, melting snow was keeping the burns in healthy flow, and getting across with completely dry shoes proved beyond me. On the descent into Glen Dee, the bulk of Cairn Toul and Braeriach's cavernous corries began to assert themselves over on the right. I may be trying to sell this as a summit-free hillwalk, yet on an evening this benign the call of the heights was becoming irresistible. The peak of Carn a'Mhaim seemed the obvious candidate. With the sands of time steadily running down through the hourglass of opportunity, I'd have to look lively.
It may be a tiddler compared to its bulky neighbours, but a central stand-alone position makes this wee Munro quite some viewpoint. There's a narrow rocky crest to climb too, almost 2km of it - a cracking bit of ridge walking that's pretty much unique in an otherwise rolling landscape. As entirely gratuitous detours costing plenty of arbitrary extra ascent go, this one felt well worth the effort. The surrounding peaks were cast in low-slung evening light, throwing long shadows into the glen. Bar the icy wind, the world was silent.
Sunset was well underway as I dropped off the hill on a path that proved first to be more easily misplaced than expected, and then steeper. Back on the main Lairigs route in Glen Luibeg however it was easy going once again - at least until I reached the Luibeg Burn, foaming through its rocky bed. The water was running high and cold, and though I could have detoured a few hundred metres to a bridge the desire to add extra distance to my day had mysteriously fled me at the 11th hour. Crossing dry shod looked unlikely, and not wishing to pass a frosty night with wet socks I went barefoot instead. It all added to the faff, and by now the stars were beginning to show. As the path wound on through stands of scots pine I scanned the gloom for likely camping spots. Nothing appealed until I reached the grassy glades around Derry Lodge a mile or two later, my original intended stop for the night. I was glad I'd persevered. These are the archetypal Cairngorm pine woods, and idyllic doesn't quite do them justice. As I pitched the tent under a pine by the light of the moon and got the stove roaring for dinner, owls set up a hooting competition across the glen.
Despite the lulling burble of the Lui Water it wasn't an entirely restful night, with a frost that rendered my weight saving summer sleeping bag something of a false economy. At first light I emerged stiffly to attempt some photos, but soon retreated back into the bag with all my clothes on to await the arrival of direct sunlight, feeling like a grisly woken too early from hibernation. Still, I was off by 8am, already down to just a T-shirt and buoyed by the prospect of another fine day.
I needed that spring in my step - it's a fair old way up Glen Derry, passing from full woodland and then scatterings of lone trees, to open heathery ground more typical of the high hills. A gradual climb of about 8km with the wind at my back brought me to the high point of the Lairig an Laoigh. This other great pass of the Cairngorms may lack the immediate scenic grandeur of the Ghru, but it's a place of stirring wildness all the same, if anything more remote than its bigger cousin. The path continued down through lumpy moraines and scattered rocks, past the lonely pools of the Dubh Lochan and into the upper reaches of Glen Avon. A broad boggy expanse stretched out between rounded hillsides, this is arguably the least accessible part of the round, a serious place to find yourself in bad weather or in need of help.
The burn flowing out of the Dubh Lochan gave me my second shoes-off wade of the walk, but the big one was yet to come, the nearby Fords of Avon. This crossing of the River Avon has a bit of a reputation, and can prove completely impassable in high water. Coming from the south, in poor weather, the famous Fords of Avon refuge would be tantalisingly out of reach on the far side of the torrent, and in that situation none of your options would be appealing. Today though the icy meltwater flow barely reached my knees. I stopped in at the refuge out of idle curiosity rather than necessity. External appearances suggesting a mere pile of stones are deceptive. Rebuilt in 2011, this insulated wooden box would provide weathertight comfort for several people, in extremis. There are no creature comforts - there's not even headroom - but if you'd worn yourself ragged in a Cairngorm winter storm, this glorified garden shed would feel like five star life saving accommodation.
The end of the round now felt achievable - albeit still 15km distant. You have to operate on different scales out here in the big country, I reminded myself. In the northward continuation of the Lairig an Laoigh things can get a bit desolate, with featureless barenness all around and nowhere to hide from the angry elements. Not today though. With the sun streaming down, dehydration or running out of flapjacks seemed more a concern than exposure. On climbing, finally, out of the Lairig, the trail makes a long indirect mid-height loop around the flanks of Bynack More. Just 300 metres ascent would get you to the top, and again I found it impossible to pass up the chance of a summit. There's no path on this steep eastern flank of the mountain, but with dry heath crackling underfoot the going couldn't have been easier.
Bynack More stands apart from the mass of the higher Cairngorms, a position that gives it spacious views, particularly north and east into the wide lowlands of Speyside. It's a characterful wee peak in its own right too, with plentiful outcroppings of granite, and a ridge of sorts. This carried me down north to rejoin the main trail once again on the broad empty moorland below the peak. The scenic little pass of Ryvoan now beckoned far below, my passage back through to the woods of Glen More. I got into my stride on the home straight and ate the miles steadily. Let's not dwell on the very final uphill leg through the pines back to the Sugarbowl - except to say that it went on longer than expected, my feet had begun to blister in the warmth, and I almost didn't notice the idyllic scenery for dreaming about chips.
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