We stop on the steep slope to wolf down hastily constructed cheese wraps. Below, our tracks in the snow recede towards the Chalamain Gap. Above, the mountain disappears into the clouds. It’s decision time. Should we continue towards the Cairn Toul Braeriach traverse as planned? It’s mid-afternoon and visibility is poor. We decide to take the valley route. The Cairngorms National Park can be an unforgiving place. Especially in March. Two friends and I have come for a two night, three day circuit of Scotland’s most rugged range. Sleeping in bothies makes a wonderful change for those used to camping. At Corrour Bothy that night we swap stories and share whisky laced coffee with three mountain veterans.
On day two the thick, low cloud persists. Only the feet of the towering mountains are visible. We trudge through soft snow around the Forest of Mar. The path towards Derry Lodge is below the snowline and easier going. Then north, up Glen Derry, where gushing burns pose fording challenges. We wake the next morning at Hutchinson Memorial Hut to slivers of cyan sky and our spirits lift. Over the ridge of Stob Coire Etchachan and down towards the magnificently located Ford of Avon Refuge hut. Our ice axes finally come in handy on the scramble up next to the Allt Dearg, a tributary of the River Avon.
The reward is a soul soaring view from the top of Bynack More (1,090m). The final leg to Glenmore Lodge is a slog. Weary of boot and heavy of pack. But aches and pains are soon forgotten over beers in Aviemore. We tumble onto the sleeper and creak away into the night. Before I know it it’s Monday morning and I’m standing on Euston Station. Tides of commuters break around me. I’m an island of tired, smelly elation.
TRANSPORT AND MAPS – You can get to the Cairngorms by Mega bus, plane (fly to Inverness then catch a train or hire a car) or car However, we chose the Caledonian Sleeper rail service from London Euston to Aviemore. The best map for this walk is the OS Explorer OL57.
WINTER WALKING – We rented mountaineering boots, ice axes and crampons from Ellis Brigham in Aviemore. Hiking in the Cairngorms is not recommended for the inexperienced, especially in winter. Pack all the food and equipment you need for several days in severe conditions, and be competent in navigation, ice axe and crampon use and avalanche awareness. If you don’t have these skills, look at taking a winter skills course (which always involves plenty of fun sliding around on snow).
STAY THERE – Camping is available in a field adjacent to Llanthony Priory, at Llanthony Campsite with pitches available from £3 per person per night. It is a beautiful place to spend the night, with the priory looming over you. If you’d rather the comfort of a bed, Llanthony Priory Hotel offers rooms from £4-0 per person per night.