A track speared deep into the wild, an interesting tract of desolation...

The Cairnwell: This week's Hillwalking with Frank
The Cairnwell: This week's Hillwalking with Frank

Often, when journeying up or down the A93, between Braemar and Glen Isla, the long north ridge of Carn Aosda has received but a cursory glance and a mental promise to walk its heights and beyond, one day. Most ‘baggers’ climb the Munro from the Glenshee Ski Centre; it’s certainly quick, but certainly ugly rather than sweet.

The forecast was fine, so we expected rain... We were not to be disappointed; though there was plenty of fitful sunshine, a buffetting gale spat spits and spots at us from the word go.

We joined the grassy ridge at its foot, near the boarded up house of Baddoch. Surprisingly a path appeared almost immediately which took us up to meet a grassy track which in turn soon began to hug the gently rising crest.

Ravens have long had a reputation for evil; it’s a reputation ill deserved. These beautiful black birds seem to be the friendliest of creatures, often the first to welcome us to the hills with their cronking calls. Today three big black birds rose on the wind ahead of us; jinking and diving they went through their entire repertoire of twists and turns and rapid tumbles as each tried to out-manoeuvre his companions on the eddies.

After about a mile green grass gave way to heather; the track bit deeply into the turf to expose a trail of frost shattered quartz. Strone of Baddoch gave us ever widening views east and south, over the rolling Braes of Angus; to our west An Socach’s long dark ridge filled the frame.

Carn Chrionaidh took us up to the 800 metre contour with barely a quickening of the pulse rate; only 117 metres left to attain the summit. As we climbed we saw ptarmigan, grouse and whitening mountain hares.

After nearly two windswept miles we arrived at the head of Dubh Coire, it was time to prepare for a shock! A final short ascent brought us to the twin summits of Carn Aosda (hill of age). Around us was spread the disfiguring paraphernalia of the ski slopes; pylons, sheds and cables; a proliferation of unsightly bulldozed tracks and dilapidated fences, concrete and rust were everywhere.

We tapped the blighted summit’s cairn and, disgusted, fled the scene of the crime. One other walker we spotted through the gloom nearby, the only other person we saw all day. He’d come up from the ski centre and was no doubt about to turn and climb the Cairnwell, probably content with a short day’s utra easy bagging.

Across the col the Cairnwell rose, Such a beautiful hill would she be but for the masts and pylons that desecrate her crown! I’ve been to her summit half a dozen times over the years, today we gave her the widest of berths.

Instead we dropped down a little north of east, skirting by grey Loch Vrotachan, towards the low ridge of Sron nan Fiadh, with its beautifully constructed bee hive cairn. The going, on short grass, wind-clipped heather and moss, was delightful. As we descended her nether slopes a merlin arrowed across the moor below us; like a phantom of speed she was there and gone in the space of a mere second or two.

We followed, where they appeared, what we imagined to be the paths of passing deer. Our last such, no more than a scratch in the grass and heather, led directly to a wooden bridge across the Baddoch Burn. Here we stopped for lunch and to don waterproofs which would stay on for the remainder of the day.

On the other side of the burn a rough track speared deep into the wild and remote quarter, a tract of desolate land we now viewed with interest. Many years ago we’d struggled that way in disorientating fog; it had been a lesson in navigation nervously learned. Today that same wilderness looked benign.

We followed the track for a while before taking to An Socach’s easy slopes. Each year the stalkers burn huge swathes of heather, it encourages the growth of new shoots, a staple of the grouse their shooting guests will later dine on. This Muir Burn, interspersed with stretches of grass and heather, gave us trouble free walking until we picked up a good path which climbed, via a shallow gully, all the way to the summit ridge.

The summit cairn sat a kilometre away to the west, over a flat ridge of shattered quartz. The wind raged and attacked us with face-stinging needles of rain, a shower had waited for us up here and was to plague us for the next half hour!

Showers usually mean fleeting sun and shadows. The resulting light was gorgeous. It played on the surrounding hills, dappling them with evil looking shadows and bright shafts of golden sunshine.

At the toes of the brooding Glas Tulaichean, Loch nan Eun’s waters did a dance between black and silver as the wind chased cloud shadows across its churning surface.

Cairn touched, we turned for the long haul back. Two kilometres more or less north east, along An Socach’s flat weather-beaten back, gave us views into the Cairngorms, amazingly free of capping clouds and massive. The sun was winning the war, the showers becoming less frequent; in spite of the wind the sun began to warm us. At last we could take our waterproof trousers off.

Our final objective was Sgor Mor, an interesting outlier of An Socach’s north eastern spur. We were surprised to see that a good path dropped down from our ridge, to climb to the fine boulder strewn summit of the latter; we covered the intervening kilometre and a half with ease.

We halted high on the grassy hillside, and had a second lunch, this time hidden from the wind and bathed in glorious sunshine. Full in our faces, across Glen Clunie, Creag nan Gabhar (climbed not so many weeks ago), loomed proudly, only partially obscuring an even prouder Lochnagar.

It was a fine path that led us down the final mile or so to another wooden bridge across a considerably broadened Baddoch Burn. The sad house of Baddoch, boarded up and blind to the beautiful hills around it, whispered of the long gone days when people lived in and scratched their existence from those hills.

Even the lonely Garron pony grazing in the nearby meadow, along with all its kin, will soon be a ghost of a past that is irrevocably giving way to our age of modern mechanisation...