It hadn’t been that many weeks since I had been walking around the southern toes of Sgorr Mor, now here I was walking beneath the hill’s northern feet, en route to the bigger hills I’d gazed upon during that former foray.
From the car park by The Linn of Dee, I’d taken the trail through the pine woods and was now walking along the track to Derry Lodge. The sun, rising behind me, was just beginning to light the hills ahead golden, a perfect appetizer for the delights in store in the walking miles ahead.
At Derry Lodge, long since abandoned and boarded up, I left the track for the path into the Lairig Ghru, that famous and sometimes dangerous through route to Speyside. I left the trees and passed below ‘The coire of the tree of gold’, its name an enigmatic reference to a legend of hidden, stolen treasure.
After crossing Luibeg Bridge I began my first ascent. Since gaining National Park status, much work has gone into the renovation of popular and therefore eroded paths. One such path had been laid up the broad spine of Carn a Mhaim; as I marched on the already polished granite walkway, I recalled the workers I’d met here, years ago it seemed, toiling under attack of ferocious midges, to lay the rocks that had been helicoptered onto the hillside in big white bags. Today those carefully laid ‘paving slabs’ made for quick progress upwards.
For a while I climbed steadily, the sun on my back teling me I had on a heavy pack today. Carn a’ Mhaim means ‘large rounded hill’. Although she rises to a proud 1037 metres, she’s still a baby by Cairngorm standards. Its neighbour, my next hill, was Ben Macdui, Britain’s second highest peak. But what Carn a’ Mhaim lacks in stature she gains in elegance, possessing one of the few, and certainly one of the the narrowest and therefore finest ridges, or aretes, in The Cairngorms.
Morning mountain mist had enveloped me as I’d climbed. Sitting among some cliff top rocks I watched as The Devil’s Point, across the massive trench of The Lairig Ghru, played hide and seek behind his own shroud.
With the infant Dee far below me I headed north. As I walked the sun tore the mists to shreds revealing Cairn Toul and Breariach, high above their own immense corries. Down in the col I picked up the path that climbs up beside the Allt Clach nan Taillear. A good path to begin with, it eventually lost its way among the bothersome boulders which slowly raised me onto the heights of Sputan Dearg.
Ben Macdui was now but a mile of gentle walking east. I passed the well known ruined ‘sapper’s bothy’, touched Macdui’s summit cairn in swirling mist, then beat it back to that former howff for lunch.
I had intended to ‘bag’ the Top of Carn Etchechan, but it looked a long way off and the clouds appeared to be re-grouping with some evil purpose. Reluctantly I decided to scurry down into the inviting glen below. It’s a grand downhill plod, by Coire Sputan Dearg with its little Lochan Uaine, down to Loch Etchachan. It seemed a long way, yet so huge is the scale of things in this region that the Loch, at 922 metres above sea level (and that’s Munro height, remember), is the highest body of water its size in Britain.
Since those ominous clouds had actually shredded as I’d descended, I changed my mind and made the short (from here) climb to the top of Carn Etchachan. I say short from here, it was in fact a scruffy ascent through rough bouldery ground; the views were only just beginning to develop as I reached the summit. I didn’t stay there long.
Afterwards, an even easier Top, Beinn Mheadhoin’s Stucan Dubha, was far more rewarding. The views down Loch Avon and across to the cliffs of Cairngorm’s eastern corries, were stupendous! Alas, it wasn’t only the views that grabbed my attention. Westwards the sky was darkening, steadily marching my way was thicker, rain bearing cloud. With this evening’s promised rain seemingly arriving early, it was time at last to turn my footsteps homewards.
So back to Loch Etchachan I dropped to pick up another path I’d watched the volunteers build, it seemed already so many years ago. The Hutchison Memorial hut seemed smaller than I remembered it. Within was a woman who told me that she was spending, not just a few days amongst the hills, but months! I ate the last of my sandwiches and left her to her peaceful self.
It has now been many years since first I walked the tranquil Derry miles. In fact it felt strange to be walking below the flanks of Derry Cairngorm rather than, as normally I would, over its boulder strewn tops. My mind went back to my very first walk up there, it seemed so long ago. With my brother I had walked over Ben Macdui, by way of Sron Riach and Sputan Coire dearg-that had been a long day too!
Today was going to see the mileage record broken once again. I’d already walked many miles and over many hours; it had rarely been strenuous and even now the tiredness wasn’t really biting. With the first smir of rain I quickened my pace to a military trot - there were still many miles and at least two hours of walking before the comfort of the car would be enjoyed.
High on the western flank of Coirean Fhir Bhoga (Corrie of the bowman or archer), a great field of boulder scree resembling porridge flowing down the hillside. It reminded me of one young friend, years ago, gazing up and asking: “Does the council dump all that rubble up there to get rid of it?”
With the rain never really coming to much, I trotted into the pine woods above Derry Lodge. It was here, again many years ago, that I saw my first blackcock. Since then these beautiful birds have increased in numbers hereabouts, thanks largely to conservation efforts of the NTS. This morning I’d seen a good many of these grouse like birds among the drumlins of Glen Luibeg.
With the nearby river singing a somewhat boistrous lullaby, I walked the final pine shadowed miles in a soft gloaming. It was already late and the August evenings are already beginning to draw in, yet no need for a head torch yet. Fully thirteen hours after my breakfast early start, I walked back into the car park where only two or three vehicles remained, probably left by more stalwart over-nighters. I quietly stole away.