For a change the winter’s falls of snow have stayed a while. Gazing at the Angus hills from my home town, from one day to the next, alerted me to that fact; The Wirren Hills and Corbett Mount Battock seemed to be retaining their ermine winter coats.
The Ski-ers should be having a good time of it up on The Cairngorms. I went to have a look. Standing at the edge of a substantial cornice, we peered deep into Braeriach’s Coire Bhrochain; even its sunless floor was covered with snow. Down there we saw in the snow the sinuous line of a mountaineer’s footprints, perhaps those of a climber who’d gone there to assess the likelihood of a winter ascent.
The corrie’s beetling crags were all snow and ice choked gullies; the plateau before us looked Arctic. A sobering thought that, already this year, climbers have lost their lives in Scotland’s winter mountains, victims possibly of snow too unreliable yet to offer adequate security.
Braeriach is Britain’s third highest peak, only ‘The Ben’ and nearby Ben Macdui scrape the skies at a loftier altitude. We’d come to climb her from Gleann Einich, the advantage of this approach being the use of cycles from Aviemore, a huge saving of time and energy at either end of the day.
The cycle ride is spectacular in its own right. Once free of the traffic of the metalled road, fine tracks pierce lovely Rothiemurchus Forest, one of the last remaining and finest refuges of Scotland’s ancient Caledonian pine woods. On any day when the Tops say: “Not today, dear walker,” a walk in these woods can more than compensate for the weather’s cheating ways.
Bursting its way through the forest’s southern hem, the track follows the course of Am Beanaidh for some time in a fine wooded ravine. This is Loch Einich’s river that eventually mingles its waters with those of The Spey near Aviemore. With the long ridge of the snow-laced Sgorrans stretching away southwards to our right, and Braeriach’s monstrous, if dull looking slopes, looming ahead on our left, our bikes jostled us along beneath Carn Elrig, ‘the deer trap hill’, as far as the mini confluence of the Beanaidh Burn.
Time to leave the bikes and walk. A path begins here at a small cairn and wends up onto the heather slopes for not much more than a kilometre before giving up the ghost. We made our way over to the trench of the burn and, on somewhat awkward ground, allowed it to lead us upwards for a mile or so.
Under a cold blue sky we climbed higher and higher until we were able to strike directly south, up gentle slopes of iced boulders, to the foot of Coire an Lochan’s east bounding ridge. This ridge separates the dry, scree sprayed Coire Ruadh, to its east, from ‘the Corrie of the little loch’. It was this corrie that held for us our biggest surprise.
The corrie’s back walls plunge down in formidable looking cliffs; those cliffs today were choked with snow and ice and looked spectacular enough. Yet the beauty of the corrie now was undoubtedly the little lochan at their feet. As befits such a high Cairngorm body of water, it had frozen solid; a wee pearl in a black and silver clasp she was, magnificent! It was hard to drag ourselves away from such beauty. Normally another 15 minutes or so would have seen us standing at Braeriach’s summit cairn; it was fully half an hour and many a lingering backward glance that finally saw us at the brindled hill’s pile of stones.
At 1296 metres above sea level, the views all around us spoke eloquently of the altitude. It seemed as if, in every direction, all of Scotland lay spread around our feet. To our north, the dark woods of Rothiemurchus and Abernethy, carpeted vast swathes of Speyside. Loch Morlich glistened like a blue jewel in its setting of green. The Sgorrans stretched themselves languorously in the near west; beyond them the hills of Lochaber faded with the distance. Immediately in the south the huge bulks of Angel’s Peak and Cairn Toul, all corries and snow laced barn like tops, dominated.
In the east, a mere hop across the deep trench of the Lairig Ghru, the normally red Cairngorms, rolled away from us, white and utterly Arctic, bitterly cold looking even beneath today’s blue skies and somewhat watery sun.
Tempting, but probably impractical on such a short winter’s day, was the vast white plateau which spread away both south and west, to Einich Cairn and The wells of Dee, birthplace of Scotland’s most famous and, for Queen Victoria, favourite river.
We crept gingerly towards that cornice overlooking Coire Bhrochain. The name is Gaelic for ‘Kettle of the porridge or gruel’. The corrie was long believed to have gotten its name from a gruesome incident
said to have occurred many years ago. It was told that, in the days when the hardy hillmen of Speyside grazed their cattle high on these Cairngorm tops, one small herd managed to tumble, en masse, over the corrie lip and onto the shattering rocks far below. By the time the carcasses had settled on the corrie floor, they’d apparently been reduced to the consistency of, you guessed it, porridge! Eye witnesses spoke of cattle bones down on the corrie floor as late as the 1930s.
With wondrous views and macabre thoughts to talk about we made our way down to the top of Sron na Lairig, a route onto Braeriach’s summit much more often used than our own ascent of choice today. The snow we walk on now was harder, more slippery, due to the evident number of walkers who’d come this way of late. Not wanting to stop to fit our crampons we took our time and care.
We had to for the sights alone! The Sron is a superb vantage point for views up and down the length of The Lairig Ghru; it is also a very pleasant way down.
Paths from here take the walker all the way back to Aviemore, and by way of all manner of interesting routes, some rough, some easier. We had, of course, to retrieve our bikes, else we may have been tempted to drop down into the depths of the Lairig itself. Instead we slanted down, ever westwards, on gently falling snow covered ground (normally pleasant grass and heather), as far as Carn a Phris Ghubhais, from where, free of the snow at last, we were able to drop down to The Beanaidh, and thence our waiting cycles.
We still had six or seven miles to cycle in light that was beginning to soften with the lowering of what was, after all, a weak mid winter’s sun. By the time we’d passed back into the shelter of the pines of Rothiemurchus, the gloaming was upon us. But so too was the utter tranquillity of a mountain day thoroughly enjoyed, now brought to an end by the welcome from the kinder lands below.