For the best viewing experience, left-click the images and maps to zoom in to a new window, then exit that window to go back – go on, it really does work!
Our first Cairngorm hill-day of August 2021 (see post #307) had included Cairngorm summit and the Northern Corries, a great introduction to the Cairngorm Plateau for Chris – it had also been a great day out in the sun for Chris, me and Border Collie ‘Mist’. Our next trip covered a bit of the same ground, but also ventured into more remote territory – we were heading for Loch A’an (Loch Avon).
Loch A’an is a fair-sized loch that the tourists never see, as it’s one that you have to work for. Both routes (shown in blue and red in the map above) were the same distance to walk at about 12 kms, but the Northern Corries route had a total height gain of 810 metres (2656 ft) against 970 metres (3182 ft) for Loch A’ an. This is due to a significant height loss to reach the loch, height that has to be regained to get back again!
Looking at the map beforehand, the descent of Ciste Mhearad to the loch seemed steady enough but the return via Corrie Raibeirt looked as if it might be ‘interesting’, with an initial 230 metre height gain over 560 metres of horizontal travel. That’s an average gradient of 1-in-3 – now that’s steep! Beyond the initial steep section, the upper section of the path looked to be at a much easier gradient, and we had been able to see most of that on our Northern Corries trip, a few days earlier.
We set out on another sunny Cairngorm day – this was getting to be a habit! The Windy Ridge path up to the Ptarmigan lift station seemed to go a bit more quickly this time. Beyond the Ptarmigan, there was a path marked on the map, but nothing materialised, even using GPS for more accurate location. The tried and tested method of ‘just head in the general direction’ brought us to the hollow of Ciste Mhearad, which apparently translates as ‘Margaret’s coffin’. Once there, a path of sorts did turn up.
There were a couple of snow patches right at the head of the corrie, remnants of the previous winter. Not too long ago, patches of snow would survive here all year round, but this has been almost unheard of over recent years. The now visible path ran next to the small stream, fed by the snow patches and soggy marshy ground above, but the map indicated the path turning away from the stream after about 300 metres, to take a less steep line down to the valley bottom. Once again, locating the path wasn’t easy.
Once found, the faint path towards ‘The Saddle’ wasn’t easy to follow, and we soon found ourselves in lumpy, bumpy ground. We had drifted off the path by about 20 metres, but we were below it by now, not a good place to recognise the error. We finally picked up the correct line when we spotted a solo hiker just above us, going the opposite way, and we were soon back on the correct course. ‘The Saddle’ gives the only realistic exit to safety from Loch A’an in blizzard conditions, when the Plateau might be too hazardous, but it’s a long trudge of over 12 kms round to Ryvoan Pass and Glenmore Lodge to the north.
We weren’t going to Ryvoan though – instead, we turned southwest to follow the lochside round to Coire Raibeirt. The original plan had been to visit the Shelter Stone, a bivouac site famous in Scottish mountaineering history, but that would have added an extra 2 kms to the trip, and the day was starting to slip away, so we headed straight for Coire Raibeirt instead. I had never been in this corrie before, but the contours on the map told a tale. The ground ahead told the same tale – it was going to be steep.
We had barely started when we heard the unexpected sound of an aircraft – below us! I had just enough time to get the camera out to catch the shot of a floatplane that had just taken off from the loch – someone would be home before we would. That excitement being over, we turned our attention back to getting up Corrie Raibeirt. The route followed the stream running down to the loch, and in the lower sections, the two ran together. It would be rather more than exciting if the stream was in spate, but conditions for us were good.
The route was a mixture of engineered path (thank you those who built it) and natural rock steps, some of which required a bit of a scramble in places. No obstacle to the humans but ‘Mist’ is getting older now and starting to show it – she sometimes needs a bit of help on steps she would have leapt up as a young dog, but I had fitted her ‘Ruffwear Web Master’ harness and a long tether, and gave the collie a tug from above on a couple of sections. It also helped me to slow her down from behind on the easier sections, to stop her pushing on into difficult ground.
Progress wasn’t exactly swift, justifying the decision to drop the Shelter Stone option, but ‘steady away’ eventually brought us on to less steep ground. The deep cleft of the Allt Coire Raibeirt became shallower and the path became an easy stroll, despite still heading uphill, and before long ‘Mist’ was back in her preferred position of being out front.
Our last bit of ascent was to a location known to the Cairngorm Mountain Rescue Team as ‘Point 1141’ for the simple reason it is marked on the map as a spot height at 1141 metres. From there it was downhill all the way into Coire Cas, in winter the main ski area for Cairngorm. The day had been a long one and humans and dog were getting that dinnertime feeling – it was time to head for home.
Text and images © Paul Shorrock