Derry Cairngorm & Beinn Mheadhoinhike

A forecast of low wind, very low temperature and clear skies coincided with the club hut being entirely unbooked and empty (rare), so after work on Friday I bussed out to Braemar then began the march out to Muir Cottage, at a brisk pace as the temperature was already at -10c. With the headtorch on following the road, I could see a lot of sparkling stars and a vaguely shifting bar of grey along the horizon – which a quick snap revealed to be aurora, the camera picking the colours up better.

Plough constellation north and aurora glow

I switched the head torch off for sections and let me eyes adjust, occasionally flicking back on as the odd evening car went past. Watching the skies made the time pass quickly and soon enough was at the cottage, which was already cosy somebody else having made it out earlier.

Arriving at Muir Cottage, aurora now subsided
Thermometer left outside to monitor temp, -13c and falling

With such pristine winter conditions I’d decided to get up early and make the most of the next day, and 2 of us headed off to Linn o’Dee while still dark at 6.30am. By White Bridge light was beginning to appear and we could see the snow-clad mountain tops awaiting. The plan was to hopefully ascend some height before sunrise.

At White Bridge, spotting the first target of the day – Derry Cairngorm to the right
Sunset approaching starting the climb of Carn Crom

We didn’t quite make it as high as we’d planned and pulled off the path half way up Carn Crom to watch the sun rise into the glen below

Glen Luin beginning to gather sunrise tones
Sun’s up, and we turned around and continued the ascent
Moon up too above Carn Crom
Looking across Glen Derry to Beinn a Bhuird
Carn Cloich Mhuilinn

We got sight of other mountains around as the morning brightened. I wondered if we might make it as far as Beinn Mheadhoin – it would make for a very long day and distance – we’d need to see how the snow cover played out and what progress we made.

Zooming into Beinn Mheadhoin beyond Sgurr an Lochan Uaine

The extreme cold made for pin-sharp visibility – the Barns of Bynack on Bynack Mor looked closer than they really were

Barns of Bynack distant

We’d aleady experienced some icey sections of path, so decided to avoid the path on OS maps that creeps around Coire n Saobaidh, there’s a sheer drop and a rocky step that’s often ice-covered, instead heading higher up (path exists on OpenStreetMap based maps) this does however mean you don’t quite get the same view of the winding river below

Heading higher to avoid the coire path
First big snow drift encountered

Rounding Carn Crom the view to the west side of the Lairig Ghru was wow, crystal clear cliffs and coires.

Cairn Toul beyond Sron Riach right, and Carn a Mhaim left

I knew it was going to be a very bright day so had taken my category-4 sunglasses, my companion however had forgotten hers and I was concerned there’d be the possibility of snow-blindness and we thought of concocting some form of contraption to try and block some sun, possibly a buff with some slits or even a strip of emergency foil blanket (which actually has some transparency). Inuits used to make sunglasses out of solid materials that had narrow slits. With us having the sun at our backs we decided to proceed without fashioning something.

A bright day looking back

Heading higher on Derry Cairngorm we saw a small steeper slope with smooth snow, and headed over to practice an arrest, but the powder was too soft to get any speed up. After a snack and a drink we headed on, refind the ‘path’ – a few folk had overtaken us while we were messing about and the broken trail was useful – it’s surprising how much more energy is burned tramping footfall through fresh snow.

Snow too powdery to practice axe arrests
At the 1040m cairn
Above Sron Riach point 1249
looking back

Although the forecast had been for still, once we were above 1000m there was some wind and the combination was pretty chilly. We decided against a lunch break a the top and would head down to Loch Etchachan

Following broken trail up
Final ascent to Derry Cairngorm
Frosty boulder hopping
View from Derry Cairngorm looking west
Tap on the top
Wind gauge showing -16 with wind chill. Fingers went quickly back into gloves!

The kit chosen today had generally been the right choices: I rarely wear leg base layers but had done so for extra warmth this time, with Simond soft-shell trousers, vented occasionally on the sustained ascents lower down. The Mountain Equipment shroud high-loft fleece jacket is a winter favourite perfect for this kind of day.

Heading onwards, the boulder field north of the summit required a bit of care and the pace slowed noticeably working our way through the frost-blanketed rocks.

Frosty boulders
Hare tracks
Looking across to Coire Sputan Dearg
Whispy clouds drifting across
Snowfields and blue skies

The low temperatures had persisted for days, in some areas the snow pack wasn’t a smooth surface but like a micro-forest of hoar-frost. This has significance on sloped terrain with regards to avalanche hazard: if further snow is blown or falls on top of such a layer, it doesn’t bond and can create a weakness which means subsequent layers easily slide off under minimal pressure. This video has an explanation of the formation.

Frost-covered snow-pack
Frost layer close-up

Loch Etchachan came into view, it had frozen over and we could see a few parties in the area likely having come from the Cairn Gorm side.

Frozen Loch Etchachan

We decided to descend and have lunch in the sun on the far bank of the outflow stream – first a teetering crossing of icey rocks was required

Carefully across the outflow: a dunk wouldn’t be good today

The flask of hot chocolate was unleashed and a sandwich and a few snacks which I’d kept in a running belt around my waist to keep warm – the other food in the rucksack had succumbed to the temperature and frozen, but I’d transfer more of that into the belt to thaw for later. We pondered to continue to Beinn Mheadhoin directly above us, knowing it’d mean trekking back long into nightfall. Fortified by the break we went for it, and started zig-zagging up through quite deep snow.

Lovely lunch view

As the ascent levelled off, the view back was stunning, with fronds of low cloud beginning to form below us, pierced by rays of the low sun. One of those ‘high dyamic range’ views difficult to capture accurately on camera.

Levelling off with Creagan a Choire Etchachan behind

Looking elsewhere, more strata of cloud was forming, but also the colours of sunset were beginning to creep in. We turned to head onwards to the tors of Beinn Mheadhoin

The first tor of Mheadhoin..
..provides a great view to Loch Avon
2nd tor
3rd tor

Arriving at the main top we explored around the impressive structures. From a distance looking like tiny pimples, but as big as double decker buses.

main tor of Beinn Mheadhoin
Frost-encrusted gap
Some big drifts

We started back on our homeward journey – with 17km done and another similar distance to go.

Heading towards sunset behind Ben Macdui
Tiny speck of light left

As the sun turned to a pin-prick I got a very rare ‘green flash‘ (brief colour change caused by refraction) then we were into the cool hues of dusk. Time to get a shift on, it was going to be a cold stomp down Glen Derry with headtorches on.

Cloud layer thickening and cloaking hilltops
A lot quicker heading down to the loch than going up, swooshing through the snow
Lochan side again – only the outflow not frozen
Heading down to the ‘hutchy’ with a very linear cloud layer hovering above
Hutchy in sight
We jogged down the track

At the bothy there were 2 ski-tourers and 2 cyclists staying. The cyclists must have dragged their bikes for miles up unrideable trails in these conditions, a stupid thing to do being a lot easier to have left them lower. and have proceeded higher on foot. One was an entirely terrain-unsuited hipster-styled gravel bike, reinforcing my view of gravel cyclists in The Cairngorms as often a breed of obstinate imbecile or fantasist doomed to spend much of their time clunking, clanging and carrying.

Planks and wheels at the Hutchy. Definitely a day better suited to planks

Darkness descended and the head torches were lit at a low level to sustain us through the hours remaining. The paths were solid ice in places, why anybody thought it’d be good to take bikes along here will remain a mystery. We passed two youngsters also on route to the Hutchy with huge rucksacks and possibly a bit out of their depth, but reassured them not far to go. I hope they managed to squeeze in ok, with the thermometer plummeting and a very cold night ahead.

The Glas Allt Mor is often a tricky stream to cross, and so it proved this night with the boulders ice-glazed, a thin margin of ice at the edge, and the water running deep and strong enough that a slip would be awful. We searched for a while for the optimum spot and crept across.

Glas Allt Mor with added ice hazard
Looking back along a sparkling Glen Derry. No aurora tonight

We’d begun to suffer a bit by now, tired but needing to keep a brisk pace to stay warm. Some other streams proved tricky and one required the crampons on to approach as the track was solid ice.

Freezing waterfall on side-stream

Reaching Linn o’Dee a car approached and slowed to a stop – another companion had arrived at Muir in the afternoon and had come to look for us as the hour was late and beyond our predicted end time – we most gratefully tumbled into the car for the short drive to the cottage and then into it’s warmth, boots off and feet up. The next day was going to be similar brilliant conditions, but I’d want to do something easy – a long (over 12 hours and 35km) and spectacular day out, but now to rest.

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