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“Rules are for the obedience of fools and the guidance of wise men”.
I’ve got a rule (of sorts) that I avoid the Scottish Highlands from the beginning of June to early September. The reason? Culicoides impunctatus, otherwise known as the Highland Midge. It’s a flying insect with a bite that can make summer in the Highlands miserable. If that sounds a bit OTT, it’s worth pointing out that the Scottish timber industry can lose 20% of productivity over the summer, and lumberjacks are not usually regarded as big softies.
It’s not as if we are talking about huge creatures here – midges are tiny, but they swarm in their thousands in the summer months, and in a bad year they can ruin a trip. Hence the rule that I avoid the highlands in July and August. Except in 2021. We had a lot going on over the summer, and a planned six week trip from September into October was looking less likely. It was a case of go in August or miss out on three weeks. However, like Baldrick, I had ‘a cunning plan’.
The cunning plan was simple – head for the Southern Highlands and the Cairngorms, as these are the areas that are usually the least affected by the flying pests. The online Midge Forecast would also assist with day-to-day planning. Sure enough, our first hill day on Ben Ledi (see post #306) had been midge free, but I was keen on visiting bigger hills, so the Cairngorms seemed like a good plan.
The Cairngorms National Park is home to some of the highest mountains in the UK. Although seemingly tame by alpine standards, these are challenging hills, especially in winter, when the weather is arctic. In fact, the main summit plateau, including Cairngorm summit, is as near to arctic tundra as you will find outside of Scandinavia. Chris had walked some of the corries and valleys but had never visited the plateau – that would make a good start then, especially with an unexpected hot spell.
It’s not often you would walk these wild mountains in just a t-shirt top, but the weather gods were smiling. Chris and I, plus Border Collie ‘Mist’ of course, set out from the Coire Cas ski centre on as warm a day as you could wish for. Most hikers seemed happy enough to stay near to the car park, and our path up to the Ptarmigan upper ski station was quiet, apart from the helicopter shuttling concrete as part of the project to repair the ill-fated Cairngorm funicular railway. Out of action since September 2018 due to structural problems, the final bill for Scottish taxpayers is likely to be around £50Million.
The Windy Ridge path wasn’t on this trip (windy that is). The tundra-like landscape can appear bleak being treeless and stony, though outcropping granite tors had more of a look of Dartmoor about them. We had great views across to the Northern Corries of the Cairngorm Plateau, which was where we were heading after Cairngorm summit, but before that we had to pass the Ptarmigan ski lift station.
A ski lift station without snow can be a sorry sight, but the development is small and we soon left the ski lifts and buildings behind. Passing by more granite tors, the summit soon came into view, first of all with the weather station that sits near the top then the summit itself. At an altitude of 1245 metres (4084 ft), Cairn Gorm is the sixth-highest mountain in the British Isles with a summit cairn worthy of the mountain. And when you get such a good cairn, everyone just has to get in the photo – even I was persuaded.
The photos of the plateau on this trip show a benign but impressive mountain panorama, and it’s hard to convey how wild and dangerous this place can be in bad weather. Suffice it to say that this area was the scene of the worse mountain disaster in the UK in November 1971, when a party of children with two young instructors were benighted in a blizzard and forced to bivouac in the open (see post #253). Six of the group of eight died before help arrived.
Our second summit of the day after Cairngorm itself was Stob Coire an t’ Sneachda, and in quick time we were over on to the third and final summit of Cairn Lochan. Both corries are venues for serious snow and ice climbing in winter, but on this trip, everyone was enjoying the warm summer conditions. On the descent from Cairn Lochan I employed a bit more cunning by swinging southwest instead of following the rough stony path by the corrie rim, taking us down easily to the return route to Coire Cas – it was time to head for home.
Text and images © Paul Shorrock