The last time I had seen Andy Bateman of Scot Mountain Holidays he’d navigated a group of us off the high Cairngorm plateau by following a set of handwritten hints, in thick mountain mist and sub-zero temperatures, after a not-entirely-restful night spent in a self-dug snowhole in midwinter.
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A fantastic feat, I’d thought at the time, but to a mountain expert like Andy, just another day at the office.
It was great to see him again, as trim and enthusiastic as ever. We set off from the Cairngorm ski area’s car park – a bright summer’s morning, this time – for a circuit of the unjustly neglected ‘lesser peaks’ that stand a little away from the classic Cairngorm corries and high tops. ‘Terminal moraine,’ said Andy as we followed a long rubbly ridge, ‘pushed up by a glacier on its way into these mountains.’ The moraine led to a rocky little gorge, Eag a’ Chait, the ‘notch of the wildcat’, a jumble of rough granite and sparkly mica schist where a meadow pipit fluttered and piped to lead us away from the nest.
Now came sightings of mountain hare, roe deer and a tiny grouse chick as we climbed a succession of three peaks, each steeper and higher than the last – Castle Hill, Creag a’ Chalamain and then the long stony back of Lurcher’s Crag. Up among the weather-sculpted rocks of its summit we sat to have our sandwiches and stare round at the view – south-west to the dark wall of buttresses under Sgòr Gaoith; east to the corrie scoops below Cairn Lochan and Stob Coire an t-Sneachda, the ‘corrie of the snows’; south through the extraordinarily steep and deep cleft of Lairig Ghru.
Beyond the jaws of Lairig Ghru jutted a great black crag. ‘John Brown told Queen Victoria it was called the Devil’s Point,’ Andy said. ‘He knew she’d ask him, and he couldn’t very well give her the proper translation from the Gaelic – the Devil’s Dick!’
We turned back through alpine meadows spattered with tiny pink flowers of dwarf azalea, paused for a drink of icy cold, peat-flavoured snowmelt water, and crunched back down the long track home.
Start & finish: Cairngorm Mountain car park above Glenmore Lodge, Aviemore PH22 1RB (OS ref NN 989061)
Getting there: Bus – Service 31 from Aviemore. Road – A9 to Aviemore; B970 to Coylumbridge; signs to Glenmore; continue up to road end.
Walk (8½ miles, strenuous , OS Explorer 403):
At top of car park, right down steel steps. Along lower car park to stone pillar (‘Parking Donations’ notice) and post (‘Allt Mhor Trail’). Path between them to bottom of gorge. Cross Allt a’ Choire Chais by footbridge (984071); up stone-pitched path. In 200m, just before lone Scots pine on right, turn left (984072) up pitched path. Follow crest of moraine ridge west for 1 mile before descending to Caochan Dubh a’ Chadha stream. Just before reaching it, turn right (974063) on peaty path through narrow Eag a’ Chait gully for ¾ mile. Where view ahead opens out, just before gate in fence on right (963066), turn left opposite last crag on left, up faint path through heather. Keep bank with rock outcrops on left, and ascend south to the ridge, then SW to summit of Castle Hill (958058). Now head SSE to craggy top of Creag a’ Chalamain (962053).
Path descends and heads right along Chalamain Gap towards Lairig Ghru cleft. In ½ mile, where path begins to descend and bear left into Lairig Ghru, look for small cairn on left (960046). Follow obvious path SE for 1 mile, at first at edge of Lairig Ghru, then steeply up over stony hillside to rocky summit of Lurcher’s Crag (969033). Leaving summit, continue south along left rim of Lairig Ghru to edge of plateau and sensational view (970028). Bear left along edge, then further left to contour the opposite hillside. Keep same contour for ½ mile to meet broad, well-maintained track on ridge of Miadan Creag an Leth-choin (977035). Left along it for 1¾ miles back to car park.
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Conditions: steep, boggy and rough in places. For experienced, well-equipped hill walkers with stamina. Allow 5-6 hours.
Scot Mountain Holidays: 01479-831331; scotmountainholidays.com
Weather and other info: Cairngorm Mountain (01489-861261; cairngormmountain.org)