Cairngorm 4000ers Walking

Feet may be an anachronistic measure, but 4000 of them is still a figure with a nice ring. Five of Scotland's nine 4000-footers are found in the Cairngorms, and while they are conveniently split into two neat areas by the trench of the Lairig Ghru, a round of the lot is one of the greatest hillwalking challenges in the country. Comprising the second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth highest mountains in Scotland, and huge areas of plateau above 1100m (using more sensible Metric money), this is country on a grand scale - and at over 35 newfangled kilometres, it's a walk to match. While frequently backpacked over two days, the 4000ers are achievable in a day for fit and determined walkers (and of course runners). Summer daylight helps.

Ben Macdui, Sgor an Lochain Uaine and Cairn Toul  © Dan Bailey -
Ben Macdui, Sgor an Lochain Uaine and Cairn Toul

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NH9896906066 From the car park walk around the buildings and head roughly east on a stone-pitched path which zigzags up the steep slope overlooking the ski centre to reach Sron an Aonach, nicknamed Windy Ridge. Follow snow fences to the Ptarmigan station at the top of the funicular. Continue south on the cobbled and roped-off path leading direct to Cairn Gorm's summit.

NJ0051904058 Bear roughly west to descend very eroded gravel and stone slopes, heading towards the saddle at point 1141 - marked by a large cairn. Trend left to skirt just south of this saddle, then follow the well-trodden path south and then west-southwest along the rim of Coire an t-Sneachda, with spectacular views over the crags. At the col at the head of Coire Domhain turn left on a well-graded path that skirts below Cairn Lochan, passing above the meandering stream of Feith Buidhe in its broad basin to reach the lochan of the same name.

NH9830701050 Now on stonier ground the cairned path turns south, soon joining with another trail heading across the open plateau towards the rounded hump of Ben Macdui, the way marked by many cairns. After a short, steep and eroded section on the northwest flank of Macdui's north top, the path makes a rising traverse to a slight saddle at the head of Allt a' Choire Mhóir. Bear right to reach Macdui's summit dome, where there's a trig point, a stone walled windbreak and a panorama plaque. On a clear day you can see summits as far apart as Fife and Sutherland, but your immediate concern might be with the Braeriach - Cairn Toul massif, looking huge but a long way off across the gulf of the Lairig Ghru (sorry, there's no sugar coating it).
Sron na Lairig and Creag an Leth-choin from the Macdui plateau  © Dan Bailey -
Sron na Lairig and Creag an Leth-choin from the Macdui plateau
© Dan Bailey -

NN9889098936 Descent requires attention in poor visibility. Follow a well-used path east-southeast to the shell of an old hut. Here branch right off the main trail, taking a more southeasterly course on a sketchier path that leads over open ground, then past the Allt Clach nan Taillear (may be concealed under snow) to the broad summit of Stob Coire Sputan Dearg (worth heading to the edge for the view east). Cut back west-southwest over bouldery slopes to descend the vague spur south of Coire Clach nan Taillear (occasional traces of path). Bear right to join the Allt Clach nan Taillear, following it steeply down onto the slopes immediately overlooking the Lairig Ghru. Look out on the left for a well-used path cutting south-southwest to meet the main route through the Lairig. Turn left and follow the glen path down to the metal footbridge over the River Dee, leading to Corrour Bothy. This is an obvious place to stay on a two-dayer, but small and busy (bring a backup tent).
Tiny Corrour bothy and the Devil's Dong, on the descent from Ben Macdui into the Lairig Ghru  © Dan Bailey -
Tiny Corrour bothy and the Devil's Dong, on the descent from Ben Macdui into the Lairig Ghru
© Dan Bailey -

NN9811195802 The path continues uphill into Coire Odhar, zigzagging up the steep headwall to boggy ground on the saddle above. Continuing north, climb grassy slopes to Stob Coire an t-Saighdeir, an offshoot of Cairn Toul. Stay with the edge as it curves down to a saddle, before making the very stony climb up to Cairn Toul itself. The high point is the northern peak overlooking An Garbh Choire, the huge corrie complex shared between the three 4000-ers west of the Lairig Ghru (you could almost say this range is defined as much by the space it contains as the matter it's made from).

NN9632597230 A bouldery descent and re-ascent along the ridge brings you to the neighbouring summit of Sgurr an Lochan Uaine, arguably an even better viewpoint than Cairn Toul. Head west-southwest from here, into another col and then uphill around the cliff edge of Garbh Choire Mor. Cornices can often cling on here long after winter, while sheltered beneath the crags is a snow patch that famously survived most years until recently. Once up on the Braeriach plateau the ground is easier underfoot, a gravelly expanse with a uniquely spacious feel. Cross the River Dee in a shallow hollow above its impressive falls, then leave the edge of the escarpment to strike directly for the summit of Braeriach, where the plateau edge is bitten into by the spectacular cliffs of Coire Bhrochain. This stage also needs close navigation if it's misty.

NN9532999932 You've done all the peaks now, but there's still a long way to go. Follow the well-trodden path east along the cliff edge before descending leftwards onto the broad ridge of Sròn na Lairige. Here the path stays initially just east of the high ground, before descending the boulder-strewn lower crest. A steep section at the finish is likely to tax the legs. Once down on more accommodating angles stay right at a fork for the easiest path into the base of the Lairig Ghru, where the trail soon crosses the burn as it bubbles up from a pile of boulders.

NH9589003739 Once an eroded mess, the path from here up to the Chalamain Gap has been nicely re-engineered, a bit of relief on what may at this stage otherwise feel a cruel 100m of ascent. Clamber over the jumble of huge boulders in the Gap to regain a built trail on its far side, running downhill to cross a burn before ascending to follow a moraine ridge some way below the ski centre. At the end of the ridge the path turns north, then zigzags down into the wooded gorge to a footbridge over the Allt Mor. Over the bridge, turn right to follow a path uphill back to the ski centre (at the time of writing the route is officially closed due to landslide; however it remains usable by anyone sure footed enough to have walked the 4000ers).

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Further Routes

by Dan Bailey UKH

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