FRIDAY: A TRIO OF SUMMITS AWAITS – GEAL CHARN, BEINN UDLAMAIN, A ‘MHARCONICH (10 miles 980m ascent total)
When I say walking, in this case I mean some hillwalking – in fact, climbing Munros: mountains over 914m or 3,000 feet in Scotland.The beauty of this hard graft in Cairngorm NP is the area generally offers you a nice high start – the A9 road rises to 425m so it almost halves the ascent of the mountains , which appeals deeply to my ‘lazy git’ tendencies.
It was an April day of sunshine and showers as we pulled into the small car park beside Balnasporran Cottage just off the busy A9 Inverness road.
Ahead, an excellent stalkers track (built to take the grouse and deer shooters and gamekeepers, easily uphill in landrovers) wound its way up the heather moorland, promising easy access to a cluster of high hills in an area known as Drumochter. Our aim was to climb as many new Munros this weekend as our 60 year old + legs would allow.So instead of heading west which we usually do, we’d made for here, the Eastern Highlands and the big rounded mountains which are a feature of Cairngorm NP.They are beautiful hills, not dramatically pointed and rocky like those of the west, but with a beauty of their own. To walk on their summits and ridges, is to tread on a carpet of Arctic tundra. The slopes are the haunt of red grouse and ptarmigan – that most Arctic of birds – as well as dotterel and golden plover, golden eagle and peregrine falcon.Winter can bring heavy snow and severe temperatures to these hills with winds of up to 140mph on the summits and -30 temperatures or worse. Killing weather and with navigation on the huge often featureless plateaus very difficult in poor conditions, there have been some dreadful fatalities on these otherwise benign looking mountains.
So at 12noon, booted and suited and rucksacks packed, off we set, headed for our first Munro of the day – Geal Charn.The Gaelic name (pronounced Gyall Carn) means the White Cairn, only 3km or less than 2 miles away.Ascent – less than 500m.Not too bad!
Red grouse fluttered up in alarm from the heather moorland disturbed by our footfall. Kek -kek -kek- kek -kek, came their rapid guttering alarm calls as they rose angrily from the undergrowth.They are very vocal and this was prime pre-breeding time, with lots of territorial disputes going on. They are known in Gaelic as the ‘heather hens.’
I love hearing them, though Chris was a bit less romantic. ‘Heck of a lot of them round here, aren’t there? Must have been a lot of bad shots last year.’ His very dry humour couldn’t resist the observation that many of those who paid big money to grouse shoot in Scotland weren’t exactly Olympic standard. The big estates manage the moorland to maximise breeding but then the poor birds are blasted every August, as the grouse beaters rouse them from their cosy heather and blaeberry beds. There is no waste as such.The larders and freezers of the wealthy are well stocked with the spoils of the shoot even if us – the hoi polloi- don’t see much of it. Occasionally, grouse appears in fine dining restaurants but I’ve only tried it once and it was far too gamey for my taste.
It was a lovely route up and very soon the hillside echoed with another familiar cry.It was the sound of golden plover; a melancholy, piping, drawn out ‘peee- eep’ call as the parent birds warned each other of our approach. Beautiful birds and such an evocative call.
In one hour and 20 mins we were at the top, on a wide extensive plateau with a 360 degree view for miles around.
I placed a stone on the summit cairn, a ‘must do’ tradition, like a little homage to the hill, then admired the surroundings before us. Ahead, the Ben Alder massif and Creag Meagaidh were still streaked with snow. The dark waters of Loch Ericht wound their way narrowly below steep mountain walls. On the opposite side of Drumochter, Carn an Cam and a host of other round backed summits with long Gaelic names, were riven with deep gullies.I spied the Munro we hoped to do tomorrow– Meal Cuaig – standing distinctively on its own amidst a sea of rounded summits.
The east wind blew bitterly cold, so we took shelter behind the cairn, shuffling down to sit on flattish stones and find into a mildly comfortable position.Scoffed some coronation chicken sandwiches which I’d made up in the morning – oh they were good – some fizzy water and crisps.I have a bad habit of not eating enough on the hill but we had a full day ahead and I didn’t want to get exhausted.(I have sometimes thought that a hill walk gives me a chance to burn off some calories and attack the middle age spread round my waist, but it just doesn’t work that way.)
Then we were off again, heading downhill before another short ascent to a ridge which gave us access to our next two Munros – A’Mharconich and Beinn Udlamain. It was easy walking on lovely soft terrain. An hour after leaving Geal Charn summit , we had reached the ‘junction’ between the two hills and were delighted to be greeted by two ptarmigan, a male and female, creeping through the crowberry and bearberry undergrowth.
The weather was coming in now, some brief rain showers whipping our faces. Decided to make for B.Udlamain first which meant a short descent then a pull up and round a big dog leg to reach its bare flat summit. It took us 45 mins and was further than we thought.The wind was fierce so we quickly hid inside the semi circle of the cairn for shelter. It was Baltic! The mist had dropped very low now too, so no views.
Barely 15 mins later , despite hoping the mist might lift, it really was too chilly to sit about, so off we set retracing our steps, glad to get moving again and build up a bit of heat. We reached A’ Mharconich at 5pm, our final summit of the day. Big congratulations all round – 3 Munros!
I really like these hills with their mixture of tundra, short cropped grass, heather moorland.It all makes for a very colourful scene, even on a greyish day. The huge plateau of hills opposite were now catching the occasional burst of bright sunshine as the late afternoon skies began to clear. Typically, Udlamein was now clear! Ah well…such is Scottish hillwalking. Actually, the ever changing light effects sweeping across hill and moor and loch have a great beauty of their own.
We decided not to descend by the usual route recommended by the book, but drop down the open hillside.Our worry was, there was a sizeable burn further down and rivers were in full spate now with the extensive snow melt.Instead, we wanted to pick up another stalkers path which the map suggested led to a bridge over the potential difficulty.After an hour or so descent on very rough and wet ground, we finally reached it.
What a great day it had been. As if to say – ‘ well it’s not over yet ‘ – Chris spied two golden eagles sweeping over the ridge of A’Mharconich.Then they dropped down onto the heather and I – just -managed a photo of them, very far away of course but certainly recognisable.Magical.
At 6.30 pm we reached the car again at Balnasporran, the evening now having picked up with blue sky and sunshine being the order of the day as so often happens!
Half an hour later and we were in Pitlochry, the little town looking lovely under bright skies.Picked up a few supplies in the Co-op, then made for our B&B for the night – Torrdarach House – a delightful , privately owned villa sitting in extensive woodland grounds above the town. It was a haven of peace, with charming accommodation and resident red squirrels bounding about amongst the pine trees outside.
We didn’t feel like going out for dinner so after a shower, we settled in to eat our ‘takeaway’ – lots of very good prosciutto ham, cheese, tomatoes, jalapeno and olive bread….delicious. Zonked by 9.30pm and went to sleep hoping my legs would be up for another Munro tomorrow.
Day 2: Saturday: Lovely Meall Craig (myal coo ig) A WEEKEND’S WALKING IN CAIRNGORM NATIONAL PARK (DAY 2)