Round 2 in the Cairngorms: finishing the Cairngorms 4000ers

After last year’s fantastic trip in the Cairngorms completing 4 Munros, my dad and I were very keen to revisit this area and explore a different part of this wild and rugged landscape. We opted for a circuit from the Cairngorm ski centre taking in 3 Munros with a wild camp at Loch Etchachan, the highest loch of its size in Scotland.

[July 2017]

As we were already on a family holiday in Aviemore, it would have been rude not to sneak off for a couple of days to enjoy the spectacular landscape and scenery of the Cairngorms. Last year’s trip taking in the Devil’s Point to Braeriach was extremely enjoyable, so we decided to bag a few more Munros this time around. We would start at the Ski Centre and begin with an ascent of Cairn Gorm, then after dropping down to Loch Avon and ascending Beinn Mheadhoin, before retreating back to Loch Etchachan where we would spend the night. The next day we would walk back to the Ski Centre via Ben Macdui, Scotland’s 2nd highest mountain.

Our trip started again from the Ski Centre car park on the slopes of Cairn Gorm. This gave us the adavantage of being almost half the height of Cairngorm – our first Munro of the day – making it feel as though we were cheating the hill by being able to drive up much of it!

Still, we weren’t complaining about the lack of ascent needed to reach the 6th highest Munro and just before 1230, we set off from the Ski Centre, following the “windy ridge” path towards Ptarmigan restaurant, zigzagging between the maze of fences that had been constructed for the many ski runs on the mountain. The path was well constructed however, and gave easy going for the first stage of our walk.

Looking back to the Ski Centre car park and Loch Morlich
The well constructed path
Looking back to Loch Morlich and Meall a’Bhuachaille

Thanks to the good path and the decent weather, we reached the Ptarmigan restaurant a little under an hour after setting off from the car park. Pleased with the progress so far, we pressed on behind the restaurant building to follow the “staircase” to the summit of Cairn Gorm, our first Munro of the day. The extensive works near the summit definitely take away any feeling of remoteness or wilderness, but it certainly gives walkers an easier time of it to reach the summit of this rather large mountain!

Definitely the UK’s highest information board!
The “staircase”
Looking back to the Ptarmigan restaurant, Loch Morlich and Meall a’Bhuachaille

Another 25 minutes passed after we reached the Ptarmigan restaurant and we had reached the summit of Cairn Gorm. At 1245m, this is the 6th Highest Munro.

My dad at the summit of Cairn Gorm

Despite a rather positive start weather-wise (and a good forecast for the next couple of days), the cloud began to close in slightly and we were greeted with a smattering of hailstones. Thankfully, this only lasted a few minutes – essentially just enough time to put our waterproofs on – so we left the safety of the leeward side of the weather station on Cairn Gorm’s summit and began our descent to Loch Avon via Coire Raibeirt. Again, the path here was very good and allowed us to make excellent progress to the edge of the corrie, where the sudden and very steep descent was quite a challenge after a fairly relaxing walk so far. Still, the spectacular views towards Shelter Stone Crag were phenomenal and made the gruelling descent worthwhile.

The path through Coire Raibeirt
Descending from Coire Raibeirt
Loch Avon and Shelter Stone Crag

Once we reached Loch Avon, we stopped for a few minutes to rehydrate and get rid of the waterproofs we had kept on since leaving Cairn Gorm. It was now just after 1530, just under 3 hours after setting off. We had covered around 3.6 miles, but the tough descent had taken a fair amount of time due to a couple of burn crossings and some big steps on slippy rocks.

We set off again from Loch Avon towards Loch Etchachan and Beinn Mheadhoin our second Munro of the day. By now we were pretty tired after much ascent and descent, so we decided to pitch the tents at the loch and have a bite to eat before tackling Beinn Mheadhoin.

Cairn Gorm and Loch Avon

After an hour or so of fairly slow going, we reached Loch Etchachan, our camp spot for the night. We spent around half an hour searching for a pitch around the northern shore of the loch with no luck, so settled for the southern shore near Little Loch Etchachan, but by this point we already had company in the form of 3 tents and a handful of people. We found a relatively good pitch and got our tents up before having a small bite to eat.

A decent pitch for the night
Tent pitched – room with a view!

After refilling our water bottles and feeling slightly more refreshed, we set off for Beinn Mheadhoin, feeling rather spritely without the weight of a pack. Again, the path up Beinn Mheadhoin was fairly good and not too steep, so we reached the summit of our second Munro of the day a little over 50 minutes after leaving Loch Etchachan. By now the cloud had lifted significantly from our dusting of hail on Cairn Gorm and the sun was trying to poke through the clouds, so we took advantage of the extensive and breathtaking views as well as the decent weather to take plenty of photos before starting back along the summit plateau and down towards our camp.

The summit of Beinn Mheadhoin
Ben Macdui and Loch Etchachan

On our descent, I noticed some of the famous Cairngorm reindeer had decided to pay the Loch a visit, so decided to ditch my dad and skip down the hill to the loch to try and grab some photos before the herd moved on. There were now around a dozen tents scattered around the shores of the loch and the herd seemed quite happy to graze in front of people without getting startled, so they happily posed for a few photos.

Cairngorm Reindeer

After the reindeer headed away from the loch towards Loch Avon and the excitement was over, I headed back to my tent to prepare dinner and wait for my dad to join me (although due to his bright red jacket it was easy to pick him out on the hillside on his descent back to the tents). I had opted for the usual Adventure Food mince beef hotpot for this evening’s meal and quickly devoured it before heading to the loch for another refill of my water bottles to see me through the night and to ensure I had enough for breakfast in the morning. It was now just after 2100 and with a fairly short but tough walk out tomorrow, we decided to head to bed and get some well earned rest.

We woke at around 0700 on day 2 of our trip in a cloud, which, considering Loch Etchachan is over 920m above sea level, isn’t very surprising. We had breakfast and slowly began to pack up as there was no point in hanging around the loch to enjoy the views – there weren’t any! We were packed and ready to go again at 0815 so decided to set off towards Ben Macdui, our 3rd and final Munro of our Cairngorms trip.

Remember – leave no trace

The path from Loch Etchachan towards Ben Macdui was again very well constructed and visible for a good distance despite the cloud, so navigation was no trouble at all. We trudged uphill, stopping a few times for water and to have a wash near a small burn – running water seemed more appealing than the loch – before reaching a small lochan just over a kilometre from Ben Macdui’s summit, where we stopped to put our waterproofs on as the cloud we were in was significantly wetter than at Loch Etchachan.

Lochan in the clouds

We pushed on again and after another couple of steeper pulls combined with some bouldery sections, we reached the summit of Ben Macdui, Britain’s 2nd highest peak. This took just over 90 minutes from Loch Etchachan, which for early morning and a small breakfast was fairly decent going we thought. After some photos in the cloud of the trig point and the very unusual ruined building a short distance from the summit, we set off north on the return leg of our journey towards the Ski Centre car park.

Ben Macdui

We had opted to follow the path to the west of Coire an Lochain as this seemed the easiest way back to the car park. The path was again very well marked with cairns that were exactly the right distance apart to be seen through the cloud, again making navigation off the hill fairly simple. We followed these cairns and soon reached the branch in the path where walkers can either continue to the car park or head towards Cairn Gorm. Perhaps if the clouds had lifted, we might have opted to skirt around some of the northern corries and head almost to the summit of Cairn Gorm again before descending to the car, but there was little point in detouring on a day where visibility was so low, so we pressed on, slowly but surely descending towards the car park.

Annoyingly, the cloud did begin to lift ever so slightly at one point as we were above the Lairig Ghru, but not enough to see any tops or down into the valley below.

Above the Lairig Ghru

As it was now late morning, we were passed by a large number of walkers heading for Ben Macdui, some of whom seemed quite surprised to see us coming the other way so early in the day.

After a couple of kilometeres of fairly gentle descent, the path became slightly steeper in order to drop some of the height needed to reach the car park again. We stopped often in the hope that the cloud would lift slightly and give us a view across the Lairig Ghru and around the northern corries, but we had no such luck. We did, however, catch a few glimpses of the spectacular Coire an Lochain as we descended below the clouds again.

After the path levelled off again, we stopped for a short food and water break and once again ditched the waterproofs. Although it wasn’t exactly summer weather, it was still slightly too warm for waterproofs and a wooly hat. I tucked into a BBQ noodle mug shot (which definitely hit the spot!) and we pushed on once more on our final stretch back to the car.

Car park coming into view

We reached the car shortly before 1300, where we let the ranger station at the car park know that we had returned safely (we had left our details here before departing). Once again, our adventure in the Cairngorms was extremely enjoyable and has left us hungry for more adventures in this fantastic, wild and amazing landscape!

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