The Cairngorms are reknowned for their long aproach walks. Start at Aviemore, Tomintoul, or Braemar - Linn of Dee if you insist - and several hours of walking are required just to reach the base of the hill. Of course you can also approach from the ski-tow car park in Coire Cas, 600m above sea level, but this is anathema to the true lover of the Cairngorms. I, of course, have never approached the Cairngorms from Coire Cas (ahem)... I wanted one big hill day recently, and driving to Orkney I was struck by the great gleaming mass of the Cairngorms, visible all the way up the A9 from Kingussie to Mid Clyth in Caithness.
Cairngorms across the Moray Firth:
If I wanted a big day on the hills, it had to be the 'gorms. Ben Macdhui gave an excellent expedition a year and a half ago. Now it was Braeriach's turn. And not from Coire Cas - that would be cheating - but from Loch an Eilein.
Loch an Eilein, 8am:
I set off from home early, arriving at Loch an Eilein three hours later, snow from the previous fortnight largely gone, sun out on a glorious morning, the day already fulfilling its promise. One of the glories of the Cairngorms is their skirts of native forestry. The summit has its legend of Am Fear Liath Mor, the Big Grey Man, but the forests also buzz with mythical activity. Lamh Dearg (bloody hand) is my favourite. A terrifying bogle, he stalks the paths of the Rothiemurchus forest, taking the form of a hot-blooded and fully armed clansman. If you see him, he will challenge you to a fight. Accept! For he kills those who refuse or flee. But those who boldy face up to his challenge, he allows to pass as a friend.
Approaching Glen Einich:
It is a long walk from Loch an Eilein to Loch Einich. I counted 11km on the map, but a pair of German cyclists who overtook me on the way out stopped to chat on the way back. It was 13km from the track end to the Eileinsee, they informed me. The walk up Glen Einich, though fairly long, didn't feel like a slog. The river brawls through a gap below Carn Eilrig before the upper glen opens out, Sgurr Gaoith above, dippers and small fish in the river and happiness in my heart. A runner overtook me as I photographed the surroundings and aired my feet, passing me again on his way back down before I reached Loch Einich. He and the cyclists were the only people I met all day.
The track finally ends at Loch Einich and a footpath winds its way up into Coire Dhondail. Despite snow patches across the path, gaining height was the easiest part of the day. The walk-in is long, but Loch Einich lies at 500m, making for a Corbett-sized 800m of ascent to the Braeriach plateau.
Headwall of Glen Einich:
The head of Coire Dhondail provides a natural breather looking over the Moine Mhor, a high-level moss at 3000ft leading over Sgurr Gaoith to Glen Feshie. The summit plateau of Braeriach lies an easy 300m higher at 4000ft.
The first impression of the plateau was not of flatness but verticality, as the great peak of Cairn Toul and the snow-rimmed gouge of the Garbh Coire came into view. East across the Lairig Ghru, Ben Macdhui. Beinn a' Ghlo appeared to the south, Lawers, Alder, Nevis, Creag Megaidh west, an arc of unidentified peaks beyond the Great Glen and Ben Wyvis, the Moray Firth and Caithness hills north.
Now I was up here in this special, elevated place, I wanted to spend a bit of time experiencing it. First I followed the corrie edge to the Falls of Dee, but it wasn't possible to get too close because of the remains of cornices. The Dee is a surprisingly large river up here, and I followed it all the way upstream to the spring at its source. This was choked with snow, but marked by a few white stones. Where does all the water come from, so high up?
Infant River Dee:
There was something wonderful in the knowledge I was at the source of the River Dee. I sat and listened and felt the wind on my face, fresh mountain air in my lungs. A small brown bird cheeped in the distance. The only other sound the icy waters of the infant river. I was moved, I'm afraid, to poetry.
They come as fluffy lambsBraeriach summit verticalities:
great white galleons
bumping on the shore
Burst cloudy dams
Spilling over ridges
Thick soups of clouds
Tastes of moss and mineral
Great blank greynesses of clouds
Dark black rainclouds
Swallowing horizons whole
Terrible tumultuous clouds
Tearing needles of killing clouds:
Clearing clouds reveal
A searing white mountain
Not far to the eventual summit, across saturated gravelbeds and blasted boulderfields. The summit cairn is perched dramatically on the edge of Garbh Coire. After two hours dotting about the plateau, steeping myself in its terroir, I was struck again by the defending verticalities. A couple of distant figures, descending to the Chalamain Gap, gave scale to the tundra landscape. A bleak and brilliant spot.
It was time to head down. The shortest return lay across ankle-breaking slopes of boulders and heather above the Beanaidh Bheag, passing the high loch in Coire an Lochain, ice floes floating on its surface.
Loch Coire an Lochain:
The day had given and given, and yet held one final surprise - a herd of reindeer!
I was glad to have come to Glen Einich for my walk today, and walked all the way from Loch an Eilein to the source of the Dee. You wouldn't see reindeer or compose poetry in, say, Glencoe.