Zouff’s first Cairngorms

Munro since diagnosis #166

17:00 – Cairngorm (M006), 4081ft, 1244m

My oldest and dearest Dutch friend Karen is on holiday in Scotland with her friend Lot and their splendid canine companion Zouff. It is always a pleasure to make the acquaintance of a new dog, and it is good for my head to talk in Dutch again, to catch up with the gossip … erm … back home … en … goh … alsof ik plots in m’n eigen land een expat ben … to reconnect with my old life.

The first days of their trip coincided with a long-standing booking at our favourite secret place to stay in Speyside. Climbing Cairngorm on a Sunday afternoon seemed like a perfect warm up for their planned expeditions into Assynt and Knoydart, and a chance for Zouff to stretch his legs and sniff the air after a long night on a boat and a whole day stuck in a hire car.

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I climbed my first Cairngorms in the summer of 1978 when I was working at a caravan site near Aviemore. I think Ben Macdhui was the first, on a day off, under a cloudless sky, hitching to Coylumbridge and walking to the summit of the Lairig Ghru, then ascending the grassy banks of the March Burn to a snow tunnel and the high plateau, where I found the path to the summit. I returned via the top of Cairn Lochan, where I watched blocks of snow sliding imperceptibly over the Great Slab into the lochan below, then traversed the crest of the Lurcher’s Crag to find the Chalamain Gap and a path back to the road. Wearing Doc Martens and Levi’s, carrying what I thought I would need in a gas mask case. Then Cairngorm, with my workmates after the pub closed, because we didn’t want to return to the grotty static where we were housed. Five of us piled into a Mini Moke, drove to the ski centre and raced to the top in the shimmering half light. I still remember vividly the strange mix of rising moonlight, setting sunlight and layers of cloud, creating such an array of colour I did not know existed, offering a perspective I had never imagined.

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Since then, I have climbed to both summits several times, from many directions, but never since the improvements to the network of manicured paths that lead away from the ski centre, through corries and along ridges to the plateau, each defining a sensible route to the major summits. I have shied away from this side of the mountain, preferring to approach its northern interior from Strathnethy, Gleann Einich or Glen Feshie. Despite my distaste for the scars created by ski infrastructure, the developments are tasteful enough and have been well contained, and there are many signs and information boards encouraging visitors to respect the natural severity of the place and to recognise the precarious vulnerability of the life that finds home here. The appearance of infant Caledonian forest above two thousand feet is also welcome, and a clear demonstration that keeping off the deer is almost enough in itself for forests to regenerate.

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We left the ski centre at about two and headed instinctively away from the buildings and ski infrastructure, along the path to Coire an t-Sneachda. We dawdled and chatted, gradually rising towards the depth of the mountain. Zouff trotted along on happy legs, hopping over culverts, stopping to sniff the air and to admire the view, and from time to time dribble musk against a rock. As we entered the boulder field of the upper corrie, the ground became more difficult, but he was not deterred.

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From the distance of Speyside, the Cairngorm massif appears as a long scarp, the intricacies of which are only partially visible at sunset. On the ground, the complex barren enormity of this place becomes quickly apparent.

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We stopped for a late lunch half way up the steep slanting path out of the corrie, looking down onto parched pools and bare boulders piled randomly over the bowl below. Ringed by crags and pinnacles, our backs to a slab with a view, under the peak of Stob Coire an t-Sneachda, to the summit of Cairngorm. A good place to feed my guests in preparation for what was to come.

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The final scramble is straightforward in good summer weather, but might be a death trap in winter with wind blasting snow from the plateau over the lip of the bealach into the corrie. It is nevertheless one of the quickest routes to and from the interior of the mountain.

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Climbing onto the plateau is walking into a different world. Suddenly the regular topography of Scottish high peaks, the mix of boulders, cliffs and crags, common to most summits and high places, is replaced by landscape more akin to the high Artic. A broad panorama of rounded shoulders and shallow bowls, stretching towards distant higher peaks, riven by dark clefts of unseen depth.

At first sight this seems a lifeless place, the ground is hard and gravelly, studded with roughly weathered rocks and slabs of random size, garnished with meagre tufts of grass. But it is here that the life of the mountain begins, as snow melts through stones into the ground to be filtered pure in the heart of the summits, and seep out in springs and braided burns gathering in shallow corries, flowing brightly through meadows of squishy moss, before plunging over the edge of the plateau, to begin its journey into one of the country’s great river systems, nourishing the land in its perpetual cycle.

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In the distance, the heights of Bheinn Mheadhoin, Derry Cairngorm, Carn Etchachan and Ben Macdui, with Braeriach and Cairn Toul peering over from the west. Loch Etchachan a sliver of reflected light under the skyline.

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Cloud skimmed the highest tops as we walked to the summit of Stob Coire a t-Sneachda and along the path to the bealach where the path to the end of Loch Avon crosses, buffeted by the wind. We reached the weather station on the summit of Cairngorm at about five, took the obligatory selfies, then followed the cairns to the tourist path, past the restaurant and down the service track to the ski centre where the midges were out in force. A round trip of about four hours.

Zouff was very happy with his first Cairngorms and slept well in the car back to the cottage. I was happy to have ticked off my last since the diagnosis with a dear friend in such good company. This final Cairngorm Munro was also the last four thousand footer and the last in the Eastern Highlands (apart from a cluster round Drumochter and Dalwhinnie). So now I can get back to coming here, not in order to reach a few prominent summits, but to explore the hidden recesses and wander through the high passes, dodging capricious weather, and experiencing The Living Mountain.

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My map of unclimbed peaks is filling in nicely. On this side of the Great Glen, apart from the aforementioned cluster round Dalwhinnie and Drumochter, there is only a bunch round Glen Etive, the Mamores and Grey Corries, and of course the Weegie Hills. Which feels like a manageable task, something I will be able to come back to at any time, meanwhile planning new bagging expeditions into the far north and west.

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Wherever I go though, my heart will always be here, among the elements on the high plateau. In my last post I confessed an unwillingness to experience what these mountains mean for me. It felt like too much; now I have a word for whatever it is. Home.

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Author: duncanspence

Philosopher and almost retired cycle messenger.

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