From the summit of Ben Macdhui I was not content to trudge back just the way I had come. However the first step is back down the last path to the summit. Somehow it seemed more rugged and ankle-churning on the way down (again, thank goodness for good boots with inflexible soles). I followed the mini-cairns back down to just above Lochan Buidhe, where paths diverge, and this time to the higher, left-hand path, heading north.
This looks to be a less frequented path. It runs just the west side of the ridge of the bealach on which I had seen the reindeer, and to the west of it there are fearsome scree slopes dropping away down into a deep, capacious, precipitous valley, called Lairig Ghru, which is a main north-south mountain pass through the Cairngorms: a path runs all through the pass that can be followed all the way from Aviemore to Braemar. The River Dee rises in the Pools of Dee in Lairig Ghru just below where I turned off from the lochan, though unseen.
The valley is a wonder, but completely unphotographable (though I tried). There are postcards in the shops of Aviemore showing Lairig Ghru under snow, which must be a spectacle.
The path leads above the valley for a couple of miles, and passes west of Stob Coire an t-Sneachda, and then begins to descend as the Ski Centre comes distantly into sight. It is a well defined path, along the face of the slope and with some quick declivities. The National Park authorities have been helpful in paving the path, that would otherwise be washed away by the burns running down the slopes, and bridging the main streams.
From here it is just a question of bashing on until I emerged in the car park (just as my family pulled into it). A good day all in all.
It is the final summit plateau alone in the air, and distant view of the mighty fells beyond which will stay with me.
Ben Macdhui, otherwise written ‘Ben Macdui’, is the second highest mountain in the British Isles, exceeded only by Ben Nevis, and the highest of the Cairngorm Mountains. In the first part I described the first part of the climb, to the summit of Cairn Gorm. The two peaks are joined by a high ridge, but a fair bit of climbing lied ahead and several miles to reach Ben Macdhui.
To the west of Cairngorm is a plunging cliff in the tight horseshoe of the Coire an t-Sneachda. To the south the land soon drops into the long, deep corrie around Loch Avon. The route toward Ben Macdhui heads west to the cliff-edge. The clifftop, incidentally, marks the border of Inverness-shire with Banffshire.
The path looks precarious from a distance, as it follows the edge of the sheer cliff. In a strong wind or hail it could be very hazardous (and the first time I climbed Cairn Gorm I was battered by pea-sized hailstones in a fifty-knot wind), but this time it was a fine walk, climbing higher, and alternately dipping, in just light wind and rain, which frequently lifted, and the path is far enough from the cliff-edge to be comfortable.
However, when there is snow, it is another matter. Snow can build up on the cliff, and form cornices, which is to say snow ridges overhanging the void, and with the path invisible a walker can easily step trustingly on the snow cornice; effectively stepping out onto thin air.
I went in August, so that danger was not there; there was still snow though, in a sheltered spot above Loch Avon. Within the snow patch, animals were gathered, of a type I had never expected to meeting in these slopes. Turning then from the corrie (Coire an t-Sneachda), the path leads south, along a broad ridge below which the land drops down increasingly steeply to Loch Avon.
Here was the enduring snow patch in the distance and within it many moving shapes. Binoculars showed me a distinctive shape I had not seen since a holiday in Norway many years ago – reindeer. The over a rise the rest of the herd appeared, unbothered by me nor by other walkers on the path. Reindeer have not been native to the Highlands since the Ice Age, but they were reintroduced in places in the 1950s, and now there is a thriving herd, unbothered by man, and not hunted.
Soon then as the other walkers gave up or disappeared, I came to my lunch spot: the azure water of Lochan Buidhe.
Lochan Buidhe is a broad, shallow lake and an important landmark on the path. From its foot runs a little stream, Fèith Buidhe, which plunges down the corrie to the east into Loch Avon: it may be considered the source of the River Avon.
From Lochan Buidhe, the path turns south again and climbs relentlessly over rocky ground: thank goodness for sturdy boots with solid soles. There is eventually a line of tiny cairns to mark the way. I thought at the time that to find the top I would just have to look for the highest mountain going and walk to it, but the landscape is very misleading – gorgeous, frightful, but misleading, as all around there are other famous peaks of the Cairngorms, and in this the mountain top just a mile and a half away may be lost. At this point though another walker appeared heading for the summit and reassured me of the way and spurred me on notwithstanding the ground.
Then, eventually, there was the summit, marked with a crafted cairn and a toposcope. Ranged all around it in the distance to the south were other mountains with whose names I was very familiar, even if I had not trodden their slopes, yet: Braeriach, Carn Toul, Carn a’ Mhaim, Derry Cairngorm, and far off somewhere The Fiddler. Then the cloud lifted and far in the distance to the south-west appeared a familiar shape: Ben Nevis. Here the two highest mountains in the kingdom can salute each other.
There I stood in the midst of the Cairngorms, higher than any man in civilisation, unless they stood on the summit glimpsed for a moment in the distance. My companion of the last climb had disappeared as suddenly as he had appeared, leaving the mountain to me alone. It just remained then to find a way back.
Cairn Gorm is a worthwhile climb in itself, as well as the first step to Ben Macdhui, the second-highest mountain in the British Isles. The best starting and finishing point is the car park of the Ski Centre at the foot of Cairngorm: from Aviemore there is a long, sinuous road eastwards through the forest (which is of great interest in itself) and which climbs to the Ski Centre and no further, at 2,030 feet above sea level. The Ski Centre is manned in the walking season as well as the skiing season, and a helpful mountain ranger hut can guide newcomers on such useful points as where to find the start of the path (up past the toilet block and turn left at the arrow), points to be careful, and not to do it in flip-flops (I know, I know, but some people…)
One thing is out: the ski lift is not available to walkers. Although it operates throughout the year, passengers are not permitted to ride it to the highest station and walk from there, as this could mean too much wear on the upper slopes of the mountain by the lazy: to reach the summit you have to be a serious walker and start from the bottom of the hill.
The path starts as a long haul straight up the flank of Cairn Gorm until the path reaches the top ski-lift station, where it flattens somewhat and the views are spectacular down over the forest and Loch Morlich, and over to Aviemore in Strathspey.
From this point the top of Cairn Gorm rises apparently as cone above you, with a clear, straight path upwards, marked with cairns. It is another, inviting hike upwards. In clear weather the path is plain if precipitous path. In a hailstorm (as when I first climbed the mountain) the cairns are a guide which are much needed.
It is not the top you see though: that is further on as the slope curves away. The first haul up the summit dome is a rewarding, steep push, which later calms down and the line of cairns leads eventually to the massive cairn at the summit of Cairn Gorm.
The summit areas is broad, and away from the summit cairn stands a weather station (abandoned? I could not tell). When the weather clears a fine view extends over the north, to the green forest of Rothiemurchus and The Queen’s Forest, and to Loch Morlich, and to the west over the threatening ridge of Stob Coire an t-Sneachda (which you soon realise with trembling is your next destination), and to the south rise the unearthly, trackless peaks of the inner parts of the Cairngorm Mountains.
The climb is worthwhile on its own. Next though, we will follow to Ben Macdhui itself.
Ben Macdhui in the Cairngorm Mountains stands at 4,295 feet: the second-highest peak in the British Isles. As its summit marks the border between Aberdeenshire and Banffshire, it is also the county top of both of those counties. BenMacdhui is one of just nine mountains in the British Isles exceeding 4,000 feet.
While there are plenty of guides to climbing the highest mountain, Ben Nevis, standing prominently above Fort William, and the paths to its summit are ground deep with countless boots, there are fewer visitors to the second highest, though it is just 114 feet short of its rival and it was once believed (until more accurate measurements were available) that Ben Macdhui was the higher.
Cairn Gorm (or Cairngorm) to the north climbs to 4,081 feet (its summit marking the border of Banffshire with Inverness-shire) and is better known as it gives its name to the whole Cairngorm range and is far more accessible: there is long established skiing centre here and a ski-lift running up the mountain to well short of its top and facilities at the foot of the mountain. It also stands between Ben Macdhui and civilisation and so most climbs of Ben Macdhui pass over Cairngorm first.
The starting base for a climb of Cairn Gorm is Aviemore, but the village is a long way from the foot of the mountain. The best starting and finishing point is the car park of the Ski Centre at the foot of Cairngorm: from Aviemore there is a long, sinuous road eastwards through the forest (which is of great interest in itself) and which climbs to the Ski Centre and no further. Other, more challenging starting points are available from stops along the road, but with limited parking (and without the helpful mountain guides).