I had a great outing in The Cairngorms last weekend, deciding last minute to take the sleeper train up to Aviemore and have a go at a fast-packing a bunch of Munros as part of my training for UTMB. The Cairngorms are famous for forming the highest continuous mountain plateaux in the British Isles with five of the six highest mountains in Scotland. It’s an area of Scotland I’ve spent very little time exploring, particularly from the western side, so I thought it would provide an ideal location for a weekend challenge. I then stumbled across the Rigby Round, a continuous circuit of all the Munros in the Cairngorms – 18 in total – devised by Mark Rigby in the late 80’s. There are a number famous ‘rounds’ in the UK, and many more less so. This is definitely on the less-well-known end of the scale, so appealed in that sense, but also appeared to offer a suitable degree of challenge.
After a busy week at work I caught the Friday night sleeper train from London Euston to Aviemore which got me right on location very efficiently despite a rather miserable night’s sleep due to the air conditioning being defective on the train. It was a humid 31°C in London, and Garmin told me the temperature was exactly the same in the sleeping berth! My protestations to train staff fell on deaf ears, the response effectively being like it or lump it. I certainly wasn’t about to do an about turn for a reason like that - there would be far more significant challenges to overcome over the course of the weekend.
Arriving in Aviemore at 7.40am Saturday morning I grabbed a taxi to the start point for the round at Loch Morlich Youth Hostel in Glenmore. It’s only about 6 miles to the east of Aviemore – I know, what a wimp – but with the relatively late start it would be tight getting anywhere near half way round on day one as it was.
The route is quoted as being around 75miles with 6,000 metres of ascent/ descent, but it obviously depends on your precise route choice and method of recording the stats. I aimed to complete the round in two days, with an overnight camp between. Previous completions – and there really aren’t that many – have gone continuously targeting sub 24 hours. I was adopting the route, not any time goal, and given the hefty load I was carrying, you will appreciate my aim was building strength for UTMB as opposed to flying round to set a record. I was travelling ‘tortoise style’, carrying everything I needed to be self sufficient for a 36 hour period, including; sleeping system, stove, food, clothing and all the usual navigation and safety paraphernalia for long solo days accross remote terrain.
Whilst I did feel a little weigh-laid by the amount of kit I was carrying, I also drew comfort from the fact that if the weather really did get bad – the forecast wasn’t that great at all – I could just get the tent set up and wait for it to pass through. In the end it was fairly consistent all day; a stiff wind on the tops, plenty of clag (mist) on the tops above 800 metres (that would be for the majority of the day then) and persistent misty rain.
|Lairig Ghru; clag ahead!|
I went anti-clockwise, heading in to my first summit via Rothiermurchus Lodge and the Lairig Ghru. Braeriach was the first summit and, once into the main part of the ascent, I could see barely 50 metres in any direction. The compass and GPS became a lifeline when picking a line around the head of Loch Enich to Sgor Gaoith and negotiating some rather disorientating ground around the Wells of Dee (I assume the source of the River Dee). The 2nd and 3rd summits formed a triangle, so at Loch nan Cnapan I dumped my pack to move quicker.
There was a brief spell of around an hour when the visibility was better enabling some glimpsing views from the top of Sgor Gaoith and then to pick a direct line across to Mullach Clach a’Bhlair, a rather insignificant hill which you would probably ignore unless you were box ticking like I was. A rather unsightly land rover track then allowed a fast traverse to collect my pack again, and then a return to the trudging with a long and rough contour around the western flanks of Monadh Moor to reach the col before Beinn Bhrotain. Again, I could ditch my pack for a quicker out and back, before following the ridge-line north and over the summit of Monadh Moor. With a lot of the lines connecting groups of hills in this round, the route was often rough and slow and there were few trods to latch on to. I lost count of the number of ptarmigan and arctic hares I spotted, or nearly tripped over. It was amazing to be sharing this claggy wilderness with them, which in the winter would be as close to arctic as you can get in the UK.
With visibility so poor, and my pack avoiding any sort of dexterity in my movement, it was a testing day for sure, and the climb to the next group of summits including Angel’s Peak, Cairn Toul and Devil’s Point felt like a real grind. Once on the ridge it wasn’t bad at all, with some enjoyable boulder hopping on the tops of the summits.
I was hopeful of getting closer to Ben Macdui before succumbing to the lure of a hot meal, dry sleeping bag and comforting tent, but with the misty rain prevalent for most of the day now getting stronger, I decided to call it a day after 8 Munros, seeking out a camp spot at the foot of Carn a’Mhaim. It was also fair to say that the steep and rough flanks of this hill were not particularly enticing in the fading light and on tired legs.
|Corrour Bothy at the end of Day 1. Not great conditions. Camera stayed in pocket for most of the day!|
It wasn’t all that easy finding a suitable camping spot out of the wind and avoiding the bogs but I got there in the end. It was a delight to get my wet clothes off and feet dry, as well as to get a hot meal and brew on the go. The New Zealand sourced freeze-dried meals by Expedition Foods really hit the spot.
|Not a bad overnight camp location despite the gloomy conditions|
It was late by the time I had myself sorted – gone 11pm. Sleeping time would now be a little compromised with 10 Munros and more than half the total distance still to cover on day two. I settled on a 4.30am alarm, aiming to be packed up and on the go within an hour. With a slightly fitful night’s sleep, it wasn’t too hard getting up when the alarm went, although it was raining heavily, and my heart immediately sank with the thought of another wet trudge on the hills.
Packing was slowed down somewhat by the presence of midgies, but I was on the climb up Carn a’Mhaim by 5.45, and on the summit by 6.30. The timing was perfect because no sooner had I started moving, the rain cleared and breaks in the cloud started to appear. The climb itself wasn’t half as bad as it looked the evening before, perhaps just the rest gave me a new lease of life. Ben Macdui was next offering the biggest climb of the day, and somewhat teasing glimpses of the incredible scenery around me, now right in the heart of The Cairngorms. The summit usually provides some of the best views in the area, but the clag was still hanging around up high, so it wasn’t to be.
|Novelty - I can see something!|
A bag drop facilitated an efficient out and back to Derry Cairngorm before a quick descent to the outlet to Lock Etchachan and a north-easterly ascent of Beinn Mheadhoin. By this time the views were really opening up, and I was even rewarded with a little sunshine. Heaven. I took a poor line off Beinn Mheadhoin following the wrong gully too far to the north, but it did the job and got me down to the head of Glen Derry before re-ascending to the plateau between Beinn Bhreac, Beinn a Bhuird and Beinn a Chaorainn. Again I dropped my bag to climb two of these hills, reclaiming it for the latter, from which I would head north across to Fords of Avon and then Bynack More. It was around this time that I had to make decisions on timings, because the day was now getting on, and I was conscious of my 21.15 train departure from Aviemore. With great disappointment I had to leave the most easterly summit, Leabaidh an Daimh Bhuidhe, which would have added over an hour with a long out and back. It was too risky - the timings simply didn’t stack up.
|Ford of Avon - in the river - and very refreshing|
|The summit of Beinn a Chaorainn|
I had some finely tuned timings worked out in my head for the last couple of summits which would have me finished by 8.30pm, and I seemed to hit all those one by one. From Bynack More, the penultimate summit, there was a really imposing view of Cairn Gorm which was the final summit, involving a significant descent to The Saddle near Loch Avon before a steep ascent of the south east side of Cairn Gorm. From afar it seemed unachievable so gave me some anxiety late on, but on closer inspection there was a good diagonal trod which got me up there efficiently.
I was at the top of Cairn Gorm at 7.20pm and from there I called a taxi to pick me up from Glenmore at 8.30pm. It was the same driver that had picked me up the day before, so I was hopeful he wouldn’t let me down. I just needed to run the lengthy descent via the ski centre to get there in time. That was all fine, there’s nothing like a deadline to focus the mind.