A Round of the Cairngorms

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Glen Derry
My brother and I had a long planned trip to the Cairngorm Mountains in Scotland to complete a round of the 4000 foot Munros over a three day backpack. Despite a summer of dire weather and a poor forecast we decided to go for it and so met up at Ferrybridge services on the A1/M62 junction at 7.00 am on Monday 9th July. We were away by 7.30 and made good time to Aviemore with a brief stop in Edinburgh to have lunch with my son. Camp was soon set up at the site at Loch Morlich and preparations made for the next day.
Tuesday dawned dry but with a lowering, grey cloud base over the northern corries as we emerged from the tent. Breakfast over and rucksacks packed for three days on the hill, we set off. Our route for the first day took us underneath the northern corries, through the Chalamain Gap and down into the Lairig Ghru. We then headed up the ridge of Sron na Lairige before climbing steeply up the final ridge to the summit of Braeriach. By now we were in thick cloud and driving rain, conditions which were to remain with us all day. The route now took us to the Wells of Dee, the source of the River Dee. Nearby the Falls of Dee plunged into the misty depths of the An Garbh Corie. Becoming more tired now, we pushed on over the rocky summits of The Angels Peak and Cairn Toul before dropping to the head of Corie Odhar and descending to our overnight camp by the Corour Bothy in the Lairig Ghru. We had hoped to spend the night in the bothy but sadly it was already occupied so we had to content ourselves with a less than comfortable night in the tent which we shared with our sodden gear.
The next morning the rain still fell so we remained warm in our sleeping bags until the occupants of the bothy left. We then moved in and spent the morning drying out and regrouping. After a welcome cup of soup and cereal bar for lunch we set off for our second night’s camp in Glen Derry. The route took us out of the Lairig Ghru and through the stunning scenery of Glen Luibeg to Derry Lodge. What a superb spot this is – deep in the fastness of the mountains and surrounded by awe-inspiring ancient Caledonian Pine forest. Here we enjoyed a brief rest for a cereal bar before pushing on up through the magnificent scenery of Glen Derry. We set up our tent in the dry by a wonderful, tiny and crystal clear mountain burn and were soon enjoying the first of two pot noodles followed by angel delight – wonderful; what more could a tired mountain traveller wish for!
The final day took us up through the stunning scenery of Corie Etchachan and past the Hutchinson Memorial Hut. As we pulled up over the lip of the corie we again entered the cloud base and it began raining, conditions that stayed with us for the remainder of the day. In fact the temperature on the high arctic/alpine plateau was 10C – the coldest place in Britain. A surreal occurrence was to suddenly get a phone signal for the first time in three days which meant we could ring home. Presumably the tourists who take the funicular railway up Cairngorm require mobile communication! After a brief pause on Ben Macdui we headed on over the plateau to Cairngorm itself and then completed our journey by descending the quiet ridge of Sron a’ Cha-no.
Although the weather for the three days had been grim and the views few, the satisfaction of completing a journey through the mountains like this was immense. We also enjoyed some wonderful wildlife spectacles. The first to come to our attention were the large numbers of heath spotted orchids which were very common on the lower, boggier slopes of the hills and in the higher reaches of the glens. They are very similar to the common spotted orchids that we see around Lincolnshire, the main difference being in the shape of the lower lip of the flower. We also found beautifully scented fragrant orchids in Glen Derry where there were also mountain pansies. Also common were lousewort and bog asphodel. On the arctic/alpine, tundra-like conditions of the high plateau beautiful cushions of the tiny pink-flowered moss campion were easy to find. Up here we also saw mountain hare, now sporting its brown summer coat. Bird sightings were notable for ptarmigan and snow bunting. Ptarmigan are members of the grouse family that develop pure white plumage during the winter which camouflages them beautifully in the snow conditions that are usual up here. In the summer they moult into their breeding plumage of brown body and white wings. The snow buntings proved to be remarkably tame. I photographed them on the beach at Cleethorpes last winter when they had conspicuous brown markings, but now they are in their breeding colours and the males are a striking black with pure white head and body.
All in all a wet but epic few days covering 42 miles with 9000 feet of ascent.