Wintry surprises in the Cairngorms

Whatever your views of Munro bagging, it’s a fact that anyone who climbs all 282 will have got to know Scotland in a way that wouldn’t be possible otherwise.

This was brought home to me earlier this month when, from our base in Braemar, I made my way into the Cairngorms for the first time from the Linn of Dee.

A friend and I were on a mission to climb Carn a’ Mhaim. It was the last day of a week’s holiday and my third day walking in the Cairngorms National Park. It was possibly the best of the three and had followed a circuit of Glas Maol and Creag Leacach on one day and Carn an Tuirc, Cairn of Claise, Tolmount and Tom Buidhe on another. 

We were walking in the first week of May and I hadn’t expected to find winter conditions up on the hills in early May. However, there could be no denying the winter conditions, which had caused us to rethink our plan to do the six hills near Glen Shee in one go and climb them over two days instead.

On the ascent of Glas Maol. We’ve paused to turn and admire the view.

There was a surprising depth of snow on the higher ground – I fell thigh-deep at one point – and there were some icy patches to contend with, which just goes to show that you can’t be sure what you’re going to find up there and it’s always wise to have packed the crampons.

I’m usually a fairer weather walker but there is an particular beauty to the hills in winter. A covering of snow elevates them all, and it can be quite a good time to walk the less impressive ones. 

Head into the more dramatic areas, though, and you’re onto something really special – which is what we did when we headed into the Cairngorms Mountains proper, to Carn a’ Mhaim. 

Walking in from Linn of Dee

It’s a long walk in to anywhere from Linn of Dee and most folk we saw were cycling in to Derry Lodge and leaving their bikes there, before heading up the hills. On another walk earlier in the week, the friends I was holidaying with had bumped into a group of mountain rescue volunteers, and one had remarked that he would not take his wife into the Cairngorms via Derry Lodge.

“That walk out’s a relationship killer…” he’d said.

Derry Lodge – a big waypoint
Luibeg Bridge plus my walking pal for the day, Andy Savage

To get started for Carn a’ Mhaim, we parked in the National Trust car park at the Linn of Dee and paid the £3 charge. Having done another Cairngorms route previously, via Derry Lodge, my friend Andy had advised parking “right at the back of the car park”, as close to the path as possible – as we’d be glad of it at the other end of the day.

It was just after 9am and we were setting out with the best of the day. Blue skies and base layers.

We took the footpath north from the car park, through the forest, and went through a gate to join a landrover track heading up Glen Lui. We turned left on this track, crossed the Lui Water and came out of the forest and headed up the glen. 

After a couple of kilometres we came into woods again and found ourselves at Derry Lodge – a big waypoint for so many routes around these parts. This is the main drop-off point for bikes but it’s not a big problem as a walk. It took us about an hour from the car park to Derry Lodge.

Continuing past the lodge, take the right fork after the rescue hut and take the footbridge over Derry Burn. On the far side, turn left, into Glen Luibeg. This takes you into a wide clearing which is pretty boggy in places without a clear path. Roughly in line with the burn on your left, cross the clearing till you pick up the path again.

(From here, this path can be followed pretty much to the summit of Carn a’ Mhaim, which is linked to Ben Macdui and is notable for having an unusually narrow ridge for a Cairngorm.)

At a fork in the path, go left, and carry on until you can either ford the burn by boulder hopping – look out for the steps leading up the river bank on the other side – or cross via the bridge about 400m upstream, looping back down to rejoin the path.

Feeling the burn…
A wee breather…

Carry on from here for a few hundred metres before branching off to the right for the main ascent up the south-east ridge of Carn a’ Mhaim, following a good path.

The going is steadily steep – it’s hands-on-thighs stuff – and it’s a relief when the ground levels off, with the top ridge in sight. The route bears slightly left and then up to Carn a’ Mhaim. There are two tops. Pass the first summit, heading northwest over a shallow col to the true summit.

Because of the conditions, I found this section of walk pretty stressful. There was a lot of snow in the col and I didn’t like having to cross it. This wasn’t a crampons situation but we had to be careful with feet placement – kick your toes in, on the up, and your heels in, on the down – and keep a cool head.

The final approach
Obligatory summit cairn picture

It also meant that, because I knew I had to cross it again on the way back down, I couldn’t enjoy sitting at the summit. The darkening skies added to the apprehension and, after a few moments to take in the view and snatch some pics on the phone, we headed back down, the way we came.

We were on the summit for less than five minutes. But the experience of being there, in that place and time, was something else. The clouds were heading fast towards us and I wish I could adequately describe how dramatic it was, particularly looking over to Devil’s Point, counterpointed by the deep defiles of the passes around it. 

I realised, then, why people rave about the Cairngorms. Previously, I’d have always said I preferred areas such as Glencoe. 

The Devil’s Point from the Carn a’ Mhaim summit
Looking towards Ben Macdui from Carn a’ Mhaim

These are big, strong, exhilarating landscapes and it’s a part of the world I will certainly be back to, sooner rather than later.

Even a drookit walk out didn’t dampen the spirits. 

We had taken just under seven hours in all, walked about 15 miles and done 648m of ascent.

A very wet bog crossing on the way home
Looking back to our hill

There is a display board in the car park featuring information on the Cairngorms National Park. Four of the five highest mountains in the UK, 29,000 hectares and 5,500 species recorded – and counting. Also, a quote from the great John Muir.

“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.”

Amen to that.

And there was one more treat that the day had in store – the drive over The Lecht, the first leg of my journey home to the Hebrides.

I no longer consider myself a Munro bagger – I’m making a note but I’m not on a mission – but the drive over the A939, through the heart of the Cairngorms National Park? Now that is a tick.

Still smiling – despite a wet walk out from Derry Lodge

Comments 2

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.