A Day of Two Halves: Crossing the Cairngorms (June 2016)

Route: Linn of Dee – Derry Lodge – Derry Cairngorm (1155m) –Ben Macdui (1309m) – Cairngorm (1245m) – Ski Car Park; Distance: approx. 22km; Height gained: approx. 1400m

There always comes that thrilling (and sometimes chilling) point on an ‘A to B’ challenge when you realise that there’s no turning back: going beyond that half way point that means that you are committed, you must continue. Our ‘day of two halves’ was mirrored by the rapid change in weather at around this critical point. Even in the height of summer it is important not to underestimate how extreme conditions can become in the high mountains.


Wall-to-wall sunshine: the false summit (1041m) hides Derry Cairngorm

The day began with beautiful summer weather – and that strange feeling when you leave your vehicle and know that you will not be returning to it. Plenty of sunshine, warm with stunning blue skies. In fact, it was just a bit too warm as we embarked on the climb up Derry Cairngorm (having spent the walk-in to Derry Lodge debating whether to go via Glen Derry or to get ourselves up high for views as soon as possible). So we toiled up the path in the rapidly escalating heat, making sure that we were not overcooking the pace.

Weather front approaching from the west: Sron Riach and Lochan Uaine (foreground) and Cairn Toul (1291m)

Gradually the views began to open up and as we approached the summit (1155m) we took in panoramas stretching all directions. To the east, over Beinn a’ Bhuird and Ben Avon, bright conditions still prevailed but to the west, an ominous line of uniform grey hovered.

We proceeded on our way, negotiating the boulder field, swooping down to 1014m and then starting the climb towards Ben Macdui, keeping a wary eye on the approaching blanket of cloud.

As we got higher, residual snow patches appeared amazingly bright against the encroaching gloom.dscf3050


Within the space of around twenty minutes, the weather had changed completely: the temperature had dropped by a good eight degrees or so, the wind was picking up and we lost our views. Our final approach to the summit of Macdui (1309m) was undertaken in limited visibility. Time for my client to put his recently learned navigation techniques to the test, which he did without being fazed (it can be pretty daunting when faced with navigating in poor visibility for the very first time) and, using all the necessary strategies, competently took us on our way towards the March Burn and Lochan Buidhe area, where we had another route choice to make – either to descend via Coire an Lochan or to continue on over Cairngorm. My client decided on the latter (after all, the idea of a third Cairngorm summit in one day was all too tempting). We continued onwards, navigating to the rim of Coire an-t-Sneachda, over Stob Coire an t-Sneachda (1176m) and then up to Cairngorm. On the summit of Cairngorm (1245m), the wind speed was increasing, becoming strong enough to destabilise us, while the temperature was now really plummeting.

At the wind-blasted summit of Cairngorm

After a very short break (hunkered down behind the summit weather station which has recorded some of the highest wind speeds ever in the UK) we picked up the path down to the Ptarmigan and from there onwards, down, down, down the Sròn an Aoniach, dropping out of the shifting, swirling cloud, until we sighted the ski car park. Not surprisingly, given the weather conditions, it was pretty deserted, and we were very grateful to spot the car that had been left for us for our return journey home.  Now all we needed to do was navigate our way to the nearest chippie…

[Note: I am grateful to my ‘support crew’ for agreeing to cross the Cairngorms in the opposite direction that day, which solved the logistical issue of transport.]