The night was cold but still as we left the Sugarbowl, crossing the rushing Allt Mor in darkness. Nothing stirred in the landscape, save a few car lights snaking their way up to the ski car park. Climbing steadily up under the stars we reached the boulder-strewn Chalamain Gap, picking our way carefully through the maze by headtorch.
Our aim was to complete the classic Cairngorms traverse of Braeriach to the Devil’s Point for a high camp, returning through the Lairig Ghru. The forecast was for those rare and special winter conditions – sunshine, light wind and the potential for an inversion. As we reached the foot of the Lairig and the sky began to lighten, it was looking promising.
High above us a bank of cloud filled the deep ‘V’ of the pass. The true meaning of the name ‘Ghru’ is lost but Adam Watson’s suggestion of Drudhadh, or pass of oozing, seemed fitting as the mist swirled down the Allt Druidh. Crossing the river we gained Braeriach’s Sron na Lairige ridge. The first dusting of snow crunched underfoot as a pink glow spread across the horizon.
Above the clouds
As the slopes eased a bitter cold cloud enveloped us, broken by tantalising glimpses of sun. I began to lose hope of breaking through but as we approached the summit the mist thinned and we emerged into another world.
A faint Brocken spectre stretched out tall towards Aviemore in the north. To the south and east a sea of cloud lapped at the tops of the high Cairngorms. The coire cliffs were rimed with sparkling ice and along the edge, the wind had created fantastic popcorn-like sculptures from frost, snow and plant. The cloud was dissolving under the warm sun, revealing glimpses of the River Dee glinting in the Lairig far below.
On the summit we met the first other soul of the day. A hill runner intent on a round of the Cairngorm 4,000s, he sped off across the plateau. We followed at a more leisurely pace across the vast expanse of blasted snow and ice, stopping to refill water below the Wells of Dee, where the river plunges over the cliffs to begin its long journey from source to sea.
It was a day for wandering, a rare benign thing in winter, when there is no need to watch the clock. We traversed the rim of the great amphitheatre of An Garbh Coire, home of Scotland’s longest-lasting snow bed, and over Sgor an Lochain Uaine to Cairn Toul. The sun shone, snow sparkled and wisps of cloud drifted lazily around the peaks.
A frost moon rises
Dusk crept up on us on the descent from Cairn Toul. We met a few groups hurrying down to camp at Corrour bothy but our destination was closer at hand. The Devil’s Point is the lowest of the Munro tops that run along the west side of the Lairig but despite its comparatively diminutive stature, it is one of my favourites among the Cairngorms. From below its steep cliffs and graceful shape are reminiscent of the more celebrated Buachaille Etive Mor, while the summit view over the confluence of Dee and Geusachan is among the finest in the area. The last glow of sunset was brushing the higher peaks as we approached the summit.
Reaching the cairn the moon emerged suddenly, huge and bright in a pastel sky above Derry Cairngorm. In Native American culture the November full moon is the beaver moon, for the beavers busy building their winter dams. An alternative name is the frost moon, and as we set up camp in the waning light, the frost was already weaving its delicate patterns across the canvas.
Later the plough hung bright and low above the tents. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted movement. A lone mountain hare loping up through the snow to the moonlit summit. A rescue helicopter buzzed about the eastern tops – a training mission we hoped. I could have sat for hours under the stars, but even on the most beautiful of nights the cold will win out. It wasn’t long before we retreated to the sleeping bags for warmth. Camping through the long winter nights might seem crazy to some but with the right gear and attitude it can be a special and enjoyable experience. If you’re tempted to give it a go here are a few top tips on what to bring and how to stay warm.
The wind picked up in the night, forcing me outside in the cold at 3am to repeg my lazily pitched tent, but otherwise I slept solidly in the warmth of my orange cocoon. Dawn came and with it that moment of great camping suspense – what awaits on unzipping the tent door to the world outside?
The answer was one of the finest sunrises I have experienced in the mountains. The air was still again and the hills glowed pink as the early sun caught the dusting of snow. We wandered up to the summit to drink coffee and watch the warm light spill across the frosted landscape. A microlight flew in from the east. Spotting us it looped low above as we waved, sharing a sense of elevation and elation with the unseen pilot.
As we tore ourselves away from the summit the cloud was already beginning to roll in from the west, spilling over the shoulder of Monadh Mor. With the prospect of a deteriorating forecast and the long road home, it was time to pack up and go. Descending to the busy Corrour bothy felt like a return to civilisation after the space and emptiness of the plateau.
We set our sights north back through the Lairig Ghru, Scotland’s most famous hill pass, but a journey I had never made despite growing up in the shadow of the Cairngorms. The views back up into the great corries were spectacular, but rapidly disappearing under cloud. The weather was on the turn.
On those long and icy miles I reflected that the more I rediscover of these hills of home, shunned for many years for the more obvious drama of the west coast, the more I begin to understand what Sir Henry Alexander meant when he wrote:
“The first fleeting impressions made by these mountains may be one of disappointment, for their appeal is not of the picturesque or obvious kind; but as one explores them and wanders among them, the magnitude of everything begins to reveal itself, and one realises the immensity of the scale upon which the scene is set, and the greatness and dignity and calm of the Cairngorms cast their spell over the spirit.”