Author blog of William A. Young; journeys through the mythology of the northern fringes of Europe
This is mainly a photo piece, covering a long weekend I spent with my brother, John Young (photographer & soldier of limited fortune), climbing the Cairngorm Mountains. We made it up five of the ten highest summits in Scotland; and, since the top 50 highest mountains in this archipelago are all in the Scottish Highlands, that makes five of the ten highest in Britain and Ireland as well. Usefully for us, the mountains in question are all close together and mostly linked by ridges, so the achievement isn’t quite as challenging or as impressive as it initially sounds; the Cairngorms are a nice, compact stretch of mountain country, easy enough to tackle in the space of a few days. They’re still beautiful, though; and our legs were pretty sore by the end of it! We took our camping gear and a bottle of malt whisky along with us, so we could spend a couple of nights up by the summits. Here’s what we saw in the course of the journey…
We got off the train in Aviemore, a small town on the line between Edinburgh and Inverness. The place was heaving; this was the weekend of ‘Thunder in the Glens’, one of Scotland’s largest motorcycle rallies, and the bars were overflowing with bikers. The atmosphere was lively, to say the least; we didn’t have time to join in, however, and headed off into the woods to set up camp.
The woods between Aviemore and the Cairngorms, where we spent the first night, are called Rothiemurchus Forest. They’re one of the largest remaining tracts of the old Caledonian pine forest that once dominated the Scottish highlands. It’s a landscape hugely different from the barren, empty hills you encounter elsewhere; a mosaic of trees and heather, rich in colour and variety.
In the morning the sun rose bright, and we made our way up towards the mountains in weather that felt genuinely like summer. It was August, and so the heather was in full bloom. The land was carpeted with the rich purple hue for which the Highlands are rightly famous. It’s quite a sight, when you catch it in the season.
As we ascended higher, the trees began to thin and the heather became more pronounced. The treeline here is a natural one; the forest fades out gradually, rather than terminating at the neat line of a fence.
The path we’d chosen ascended onto the mountains proper by following a ridge up the western side of the precipitous pass known as the Lairig Ghru. The ascent was pretty tough; our packs at this point still contained the full weekend’s supplies of food and whisky, along with camping gear and layers of insulation to fend off the cold, wet weather of the heights. Our legs had rather a lot of work to do…
We topped first one summit, then ascended higher to another just beyond it. This was Braeriach; the first of the high mountains we’d chosen to tackle, and the third highest in Scotland. As we reached the summit the clouds started to close in, enveloping us in a sea of mist.
Immediately beyond the peak of Braeriach there starts a broad, high altitude plateau. It’s an island of flat land floating up in the clouds, a plain of tundra grass and gritty sand swept clean of any tall vegetation by the wind and the cold. It is, in its way, a strangely peaceful place though, especially when enclosed by the clouds.
The river Dee that flows into the sea in Aberdeen rises up here on this plateau, before tumbling over the mountainside in a waterfall. We set up the tent by the banks of the stream, and used some of the clear, crystalline water to mix with our whisky.
It was good whisky.
The next morning the clouds had lifted slightly – though not a lot. We cooked up some breakfast and coffee, enjoying the view (!)
The impact of the whisky on my brother’s packing skills proved unfortunate…
South of our campsite, the edge of the plateau fell away and we found ourselves once again walking along a ridge. We could now glimpse something of the valleys below through the gaps in the cloud, the world beneath appearing and disappearing as the eye of the mist opened and shut.
The ridge led us to the Angel’s Peak and to Carn Toul – the fifth and fourth highest of Scotland’s mountains, respectively. Approaching them by going downhill from Braeriach is by far the easiest approach, and we’d ‘conquered’ both by mid-morning.
Past Carn Toul we descended once again onto another summit; the Devil’s Peak, a jagged chunk of rock that marks the southern edge of this particular mountain group. The sunlight returned, and we were able to get a good look at the broad panorama visible from here, of the mountains around us and of the deep valley that divides them.
This valley marked the start of our next real challenge. The pass of the Lairig Ghru joins up with the incipient valley of the Dee to carve a cleft through the heart of the Cairngorms. In order to reach our next summit, we had to drop all the way down into that valley, then ascend all the way up the other side again. This was more challenging than any other portion of the journey, because this next peak was the highest of them all, the second highest in the country; Ben MacDui. We looked back on the rocks of the Devil’s Peak, and set off…
The route we adopted is called the ‘Taillear Path’. It’s basically a long, unremitting slog directly up the face of the mountain, following a small stream. It HURTS. When we reached the top, though, it was worth it.
The late afternoon sun running through the clouds painted the bare stones of the mountain a ruddy gold.
We wandered through a landscape of strange old abandoned drystone buildings, relics of mountaineering expeditions of earlier centuries who’d sought to build shelters on the summit.
At the peak, we stopped for a whisky.
The night we spent camped on another little plateau, by a stream just to the north of Ben MacDui where grass once again began to put in an appearance. The last of the whisky was finished; it had survived pretty well, this bottle. Next time we will, however, pack more…
The final day found us wreathed once again in clouds – this time, accompanied by rain. We pushed north through a murk that admitted almost no photography or, in fact, light. We ascended the last of our summits, Cairn Gorm itself, the smallest of the five, before making our way to the nearby Mountain Lodge where there is, handily, a bar. Soggy but satisfied, we toasted our work with another few drams – and set to talking about where to go next…