The twa' cairns

Sun, Jul 8, 2018

Braeriach from Cairn Lochan

A restful night at Glenmore Lodge on Tuesday after my day on Bynack Mòr saw me woken at 7 am on Wednesday morning by a chainsaw in the woods next door, so I popped down for a hearty breakfast consisting of an overflowing bowl of freshly made porridge, washed down with a mug of coffee and an orange juice and I was ready for the hill.

The adventures of my knee are documented in my Bynack Mòr post which explains my B&Bing at Glenmore Lodge instead of camping or bivvying up on the plateau, as is my want. I couldn’t be sure ol’ creaky would agree to carry the gear up and given the things it’s had to put up with over the years, I indulged it and booked it into the lodge for a couple of nights. I can recommend room S28 in the new wing and the view of the Great Slab from the corridor is very inspiring. Needless to say, the breakfasts are superb. So, all porridged up, I drove the 10 mins up to the Coire Cas car park (two quid now) and headed up the Cairn Lochan path.

Ben MacDui, Cairn Toul and Braeriach from the Cairn Lochan plateau

It was another boiling ascent under clear blue skies and little wind and I jumped for joy as I reached the boisterous, cool and clear Allt Coire an t-Sneachda where I refilled the two water bottles and drank and dribbled like a man drunk on the finest wine, loading myself up with crystal clear mountain water. Based on yesterday, I knew what was coming, a hot and sweaty ascent. A couple of runners passed, one smiled, the other ignored, a brightly coloured young family followed at a distance, path workers worked on the path, heaving stones to ease the way. A helicopter thudded overhead, heading north and east. It was much busier on this side of the ‘gorms.

Most people keep to the paths so I found myself alone at the top of the ridge, a hundred metres away from the processionary walkers heading for Ben MacDui or the loop path to Cairngorm. I sat unseen at the cairn looking across to Braeriach, where I’d camped with my oldest pal surrounded by the reindeer. When we woke to a cloud inversion the next morning they were still there, clicking around the tents, doing what they do. It was a very special moment.

There was a nice breeze blowing today and I quickly dried out after the climb from the car park, had a bit of a munch and decided to do something different. I pulled out my copy of Nan Shepherd’s In The Cairngorms (some pennies head this way to contribute to the eBothy upkeep if you buy the book with this link) and read one of her beautiful poems. Aloud.

I read The Hill Burns, which begins:

So without sediment
Run the clear burns of my country

and reading aloud took me back to the days when she wrote it, when she walked these summits and wild open spaces. Reading aloud, I felt a connection I hadn’t experienced from simply reading, as I usually do. Occasionally I stopped to savour the rush of silence as the words stopped and to look over to:

… Muich Dhui’s summit
Rock defiant against frost and the old grinding of ice

It really was a memorable experience reading aloud, contrasting the journey back to another time, another way of seeing, with the sudden jolt back to the present moment but with echoes of a different past reverberating around the silent plateau. I thoroughly recommend reading aloud. Especially if one is alone, otherwise glances may be shot in one’s direction but what is life for, if not for being at least slightly eccentric? One man’s eccentricity is another’s spirituality. I may have been alone but Nan Shepherd was my guide today.

Looking west over Fiacaill a'Choire Chais from Cairngorm

I bimbled across the boggy (in this weather? how wonderful!) bealach and began the steep ascent onto Cairn Lochan, keeping to the cliff edge, peering over at the Great Slab, picking out the route I took twenty odd years ago from Loch Avon to climb on these cliffs. But more of that anon. At the low cairn I sat, munched, thought, photogrpahed, wrote, looked at the cliffs, remembered.

A cheery chap materialised from the shimmering heat, an actively clad Lawrence of Arabia, ecstatic to be back in the Cairngorms after a twenty five year absence. We blethered for a bit and he said his wife set (and still holds) the record for the fastest woman across the 4000 foot peaks, which she set in the 1980s. Kath Butler, the name rang a bell. I pointed to the cliffs and said I’d been climbing there not long after. Memories. We shook hands and he wandered off, a large Cheshire Cat grin across the plateau.

Now to that climb. August ‘95 (that’s 1995, not 1895, thank you very much!) we’d been bivvying at the head of Loch Avon, climbing on the Etchachan cliffs and watching the sunset from the tops and on the last day Cap’n Bob and I had walked across to Coire an Lochan and climbed Savage Slit. It was one of the best mountaineering trips I’ve had, watching the sunrise light turn the circles of fish-rising pink on the loch with the only sound the roar of snowmelt coming down the Hell’s Lum crags. Solitude and silence personified. After popping in to the Shelter Stone howff and signing the book we crossed the stifling heat of the plateau. As we descended Coire an Lochan after the climb, we spotted a bee in distress in the lower lochan and the Cap’n enticed it ashore by throwing pebbles beyond it, the small waves slowly bringing it shorewards. When it came within range of his poles, he scooped it up with the basket and plopped it on the hot granite slabs, where the three of us lazed in the warm afternoon sunshine.

I was sitting on Cairn Lochan looking across to Savage Slit, remembering all this with a chuckle, then looking round the horizon and remembering all the days I’d had on all these peaks. It was like wandering into a dusty old room where every drawer contained a memory that brought a smile to my face. There was Sgorr an Lochain Uaine where Penguin and I descended the slabs to escape a major storm on our way from Cairn Toul to Braeriach. We spent the night in the Garbh Choire refuge, listening to express trains of wind roaring down the coire and crashing into the solid structure, rattling the old wooden door almost off its dilapidated hinges. My abiding memory of that night was seeing by headtorch a semi-naked Penguin tearing after wildly flailing toilet paper into the stormy night! There was Aladdin’s Buttress where I did my first ice climb and the high and remote Monadh Mòr, scene of a memorable winter crossing. Everywhere I looked I saw my adventurous spoor of youth. The more mature lines of my ML criss-crossed the undulating skyline and away on the hazy western horizon around Creag Meagaidh, the memories of my winter ML. It was a nice feeling. It was like having your life in a hanky on a stick over your shoulder.

It was time for some more Nan Shepherd, so out of the rucksack she came and I settled down to read Lux Perpetua with its opening perfect for the moment:

A sweep of sky went round and round the place;
The land ran sloping away to the left and the right,
And the hills looked low across that width of space,
The sea, blue-white

Suitably refreshed with poetry and the remembrance of youthful exploits, I wandered slowly along the edge of the cliffs, stopping to look deep into the crags and coire, feeling the rough granite and cooling wind on my wet skin. I decided on a detour so walked down the slope to the south, in the direction of Ben MacDui and near where it drops off towards Loch Avon I sat down on a flat slab of pink granite and watched the pipits chase each other.

I like to sit with my eyes closed for a while and feel the wind on my face, hear the sounds become more vivid, smell the warm scents of the mountains, run my hand through the grass and over the rocks. I could be almost anywhere but then I’ll open my eyes and the view will burst in upon upon my senses, gather them all together and form an image that will stay with me for a long time. It’s like taking a mental photograph, one I can pull out of my filing cabinet in moments of stress or boredom to remind me what I love to do.

Everywhere I looked was blue sky and mountains. The MacDui slabs were glistening in the sun, sending a silver river of snowmelt into the dark depths of the Loch Avon basin. The air was warm, the breeze was cool, the grass course and dry, the rock hard and rough to the touch. There was no-one to be seen, no man-made intrusions. Just the high plateau ringed with “hills looked low” and MacDui rising into a blindingly clear sky. It was like being on top of the world, touching the sky with my finger and being happy sharing the space with the insects making their way through the sedges, keeping out of the way of the pipits, all of life living in the brief moments of serenity in this wild and inspirational place. I was completely at peace. Only in the Cairngorms have I known this kind of peace.

Fiacaill a'Choire Chais from the east

Just before I moved off I thought I heard something not quite possible. No, that’s just not possible. Once on the White Mounth hills on a solo walk from Glen Shee to Glen Clova I’d sat high on the moors and heard what sounded like an underground train going past. It was a very odd experience. Now, I cocked my ear, trying to listen to that most impossible of sounds that was unmistakable a second ago and yet I couldn’t quite place. Then it hit me. I must have left the phone on in the rucksack and some rogue scrap of signal had sent a rare email my way. It was that dull metallic thud it makes when something lands, unexpectedly, in its inbox. For me? Surely not! That truncated dull thud of a broken dinner gong being whacked with a wooden spoon. Email I ask you! Bloody technology! Pshaw! Needless to say I ignored it but the spell was further broken as I wandered down the slope to find a well worn path with a stream of wide-brimmed processionary walkers heading towards Cairngorm.

Cairngorm from the west

I kept to my own route across the slope and down to Coire Domhain, near where the winter MLs dig their snowholes, then across the boggy ground and up to Stob Coire an t-Sneachda for another laze in the sun. I was getting peckish so I bimbled across to the top of Fiacaill a’ Choire Chais and had a bite to eat, peering over the top of some pink granite boulders at the “Natural Retreats” version of wilderness. Scarring, roads, fences, vehicles, abandoned machinery, dust, filth, noise. I was now in the tourist zone, with a steady stream of walkers coming up the ridge bound for the ever widening scar up the west face of Cairngorm. To be fair, it’s a route I’ve taken many a time, escaping from a meeting in Inverness or on my way to a meeting in Inverness. It’s the perfect evening stroll to catch the last of the light on top of Cairngorm. On one occasion I’d sat within a foot of a snow bunting on the cairn, the pair of us not moving for some time in the still evening air. On another walk up here by the ridge, I’d watched a crane fly crawl up the leg of a snow bunting which looked down, grabbed it and gobbled it up. This route now seems to be getting popular and I wondered whether it was because of the funicular offering walkers an easier alternative to the long descent on foot.

Cairn Toul and Sgorr an Lochain Uaine from Cairngorm

From the bealach I made a slanting line of ascent, more to the south of the scar, treading carefully, going from rock to rock where possible, avoiding the plants and flowers ‘til I came across an interesting patch of ground. Two pellets sat on a rock, which turned out to be mountain hare.

Mountain Hare pellets on Cairngorm

Next to the pellets was a mass of what appeared to be seeds. At first I thought it perhaps had been downy feathers but on closer inspection they looked like tiny dandelion seeds. When I see something I’m not quite sure of, I’ll photograph it and send it to SNH. They really are superb in helping identify natural things. The public can ask questions, provide pictures and the efficient communications team forward the enquiry to the right person, who responds with an in-depth take on what you’ve seen. I really believe SNH is a treasure trove resource that the public should make more use of. Thanks to SNH I discovered that the rounded leaves are dwarf willow (Salix herbacea), Britain’s smallest tree and the white fluff is their seeds, trapped in the longer rigid sedge (Carex bigellowii) and narrower highland rush (Juncus trifidus) to which the small fruits also belong. It really inspired me to get to grips with grasses and sedges.

Downy Willown seeds on Cairngorm

I didn’t stop at the summit as it was heaving. Lots of brightly coloured people, some actively stretching, some lazing, lots eating and two being enthusiastically shown the view by a gesticulating guide, geologic I presume, on a guided walk from the top station. A line of lemmings went up and down the fenced off cobble path to and from the station so I went down the other route, past the Marquis’ Well, the clear mountain water flowing out of the mossy hillside, providing a cooling paddle for a meadow pipit.

Meadow Pipit at Marquis' Well, Cairngorm

As I came round the side of the hill, alpine lady’s mantle grew everywhere, providing a natural alternative to the “Natural Retreats” carbuncle in the background. As I got nearer, a noisy, diesel-fumed, smoke belching vehicle roared past me up the track, its two occupants staring fixedly ahead, eyes behind sunglasses. The roaring stopped round the corner and I heard lots of banging and thumping amid the maze of collapsing fences and starkly rusted metal bones of the ski lifts. A steady stream of walkers was coming down the fenced summit path straight into the top station while a couple sat out on the enclosure that keeps them from getting out. Taking the funicular precludes entering the wilds, thanks to conditions of funding.

Alpine Lady's Mantle on Cairngorm

There were folk on the enclosed terrace and I thought it was good people could experience what’s up here without destroying it any more than it already has been by the ski industry. I’d rather the funicular had never been built but it’s there, it’s not going to go away but at least provides a way for people who wouldn’t be able to see places like this, to experience a bit of what we see in the mountains. Surely that must be a good thing, in some way? John Muir took politicians to the hills to show them what they were destroying. The funicular takes folk up to a special place. If they so wish, they can book a guide to take them to the summit, which could change their lives. Could the next ten year old John or Jane Muir be sat out on the terrace looking over a world new to them? A new life opening?

These contradictory thoughts were with me on the descent into the heat of the glen, through the maze of fences and collections of rusting metal, vehicle tracks going off in every direction, snaking round into Coire Cas festooned with steel cables. How could this ever have been allowed to turn into a “natural retreat”?

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