I have had very few days in the hills this year – due mainly to work commitments and to the appalling Scottish summer throwing a spanner in the works whenever I have had spare time. Nevertheless , some months ago I pencilled in last weekend as a good time to get into the hills. My diminutive chum, Mike Wilson, had asked me to walk through the Lairig Ghru with him so the plan came together to Walk from Derry Lodge, through the Lairig Ghru and Chalamain Gap to Glenmore on Saturday and return to Derry Lodge on Sunday via the Fords of Avon and the Lairig an Laoigh. Mike had never walked these 2 wonderful Cairngorm passes before and I had not been through the Chalamain Gap so our plan would give us both a new experience.
We arranged to meet at the Linn of Dee car park at 0800 on Saturday 23 July. Mike had, sensibly suggested that we should cycle to Derry Lodge where we could dump the bikes before carrying on on foot. This was a damned good suggestion as we probably saved ourselves at least 45 mins at the start and finish of the weekend. More importantly at the end of a long second day getting back to the car park whilst seated would be a fine relief for sore feet. My MTB is an old Raleigh circa 1993 that weighs something north of 30 pounds, and given that I never take it off road (until now) is fitted with slick road tyres; in future I shall think about cycling into the longer walks as this experiment was certainly successful.
After locking the 2 bikes to a log, we set off on the path to the Lairig Ghru. Initially it was cool and seemed to become cooler as we got higher –in line with the forecast which foretold (inaccurately as it turned out) of rain with cloud on the tops. As we entered the Lairig Ghru however, the wind stilled, the cloud cleared and the sun came out. Conditions were perfect. As we walked on Mike grumbled that I had persuaded him to leave his flask of coffee behind whilst I reminded him that he had plenty of water and the flask would simply have added to the weight of his pack. He seemed unconvinced of my argument. Passing the Corrour bothy we noted a couple of tents close by and continued to climb to the summit of the pass. I pointed out the pools of Dee and we chatted to a few walkers heading in the opposite direction to us – most planning to stay in or around Corrour bothy for the night, though it was still early afternoon even as we exited the Lairig Ghru and climbed up towards the Chalamain Gap. As the path split towards the Gap we met a German man and his son who asked us where the Lairig Ghru went and could they get back to Glenmore that way by a circular route. I pointed out they could if they had a couple of days! These guys had no map and little idea of the terrain. Its easy to see how people could get lost; at least they had the good sense to ask for the best way back!
The Ghalamain gap is a short V sided valley with a boulder field along its floor and sides. A number of people we had met on the way up gave us the impression that it was treacherous underfoot but neither of us found it difficult, although I wouldn’t run through it – just pick your route carefully and it’s a doddle. From the Gap it was about an hour to Glenmore Lodge where we had a room booked for the night. I did promise Mike an apple strudel and Ice Cream 1st at the Glenmore Shop / Café (nothing to do with Glenmore Lodge) where I promised he could watch the red squirrels and siskins on the feeders at the rear of the Café. We were both a little distressed to find that although the shop was still open the Café had closed at 4 – just 15 minutes before we had arrived. Never mind, the bar section was open so we could get a couple of beers and as we could see the cakes in the café just behind the bar surely we could at least get a piece of sponge! Not a bit of it! The bar lady was happy to sell us a pint and some crisps but that was it despite me laying it on thick as to just how much we had been looking forward to Strudel and Ice Cream and after all we were only 15 minutes after 4 and the sign outside said the café was open until 4:30. So we had a pack of Cheese and onion crisps and queried where the famed Highland hospitality was that day.
The beer however, combined with the warm sunshine, cheered us up and after a couple we dragged ourselves along to the National Outdoor Activity Centre at Glenmore Lodge (http://www.glenmorelodge.org.uk/ ) where we had booked a room for the night. The trick to get a room here is to leave it more or less until the last minute as the excellent accommodation is pre-allocated to the wide range of courses that are run from here. Last minute rooms do however come available if courses are not filled. I was a little perplexed when booking the twin room when the email confirmation said there was 1 towel. I bagsied that and told Mike he would have to bring his own towel which he did but then he also asked for another towel at the Lodge reception on arrival. Of course when we got to the room it was clear that the email had meant 1 towel each not 1 for the room – so by now Mike had 3 towels – what a plonker!
Even if you can’t get a room here, if you are passing you are always welcome in the dog-friendly bar where proper Ales such as Cairngorm’s ‘Tradewinds’ are always on tap. The food here is excellent, and as I warned Mike it comes in very large portions – designed for people who have been on the hill all day. Tonight I had a starter of Baked Camembert followed by the Pork and Apple Burger. Following Mike’s lead I added a fried egg and bacon to the burger. This was a mistake, though a tasty one, as the Burger already comes with cheese, black pudding and onion rings plus fries. After all this we were stuffed so sat on the balcony savouring a pint (me) and whisky (Mike). After 30 minutes Mike decided he was going to eat even more and ordered Sticky Toffee Pudding, though I at least had the good sense not to follow this lead. Suitably replete we retired at 2200.
Sunday dawned cloudy and drizzly. After a healthy Breakfast in the canteen, where Mike eyed up the packed lunches made up for those on courses (I did manage to restrain him) we were ready to go at 0900. For the 1st 2.5hours of the day Mike’s old boss and his wife (Willy and Sandra) would walk with us. We quickly passed the beautiful Lochan Uaine and stopped momentarily for a look at its turquoise water and sunken pines. Willy and Sandra had retired to Inverness and both have a wealth of hill experience and knowledge (Willy is in training for a trip to the Alps in a couple of weeks) so it was a pleasure to chat and to walk to the high point of the pass the shoulder of Bynack More (just short of 800m) with them. Even more pleasurable was sharing the Earl Grey that Willy had in his flask when we rested at the point they would turn back, just by Bynack More, just after we had crossed cross the Uisge Dubh Poll a' Choin. For a moment the Sun even came out and the summit of Bynack More cleared momentarily.
As we left Willy and Sandra and headed towards the Fords of Avon the clouds returned and the rain started to become heavier. Waterproofs went on as we trudged downhill across bleak terrain past the small Lochan a'Bhainne and on to the small refuge at the Fords where we finally caught up with a group of walkers (old university chums) whom we had met in the bar last night. They were well ensconced in the hut and enjoying proper lunches (we had a chocolate bar each). After a brief stop for a chat and for Mike to put on gaiters (bending over far enough to but his bald head into a bed of nettles in the process) before crossing the Fords. By now it was peeing down and I realised I had left it too late to put on my waterproof trousers so plodded on anyway – at least my trousers dry very quickly when its not raining. Once past the Fords of Avon you are in the Lairig an Laoigh proper and then descend for around 10km into Glen Derry and on to Derry Lodge. Today our views were not great given the weather but we did get a good view of Glen Derry from above and of the Hutchinson memorial hut with the path behind leading up to Loch Etchachan. On the way down as the Lairig gives way to Glen Derry we stayed to the East side of the Glen. As the Derry pinewoods are reached there are 2 possible routes back to Derry Lodge. I persuaded Mike that the best path was the high one that forks off to the left and climbs above the trees and as the rain had now stopped it gave us some great views down to the woods and river below. Mike enjoyed this path though was somewhat annoyed that it was considerably further to the Lodge than the ‘just 1km’ I had promised.
On arrival at Derry Lodge we quickly recovered the Bikes and 15 minutes later, having gone far too quickly and uncontrollably, we were back at the car park at the Linn of Dee. Bikes were thrown in the back of the cars and we were on our way to Braemar, which even at 5pm on a Sunday was buzzing with Activity and open coffee shops, for a well-deserved Coffee and Scone. A great couple of days in the hills and almost 50km of walking with even some cycling thrown in.