The northern corries of the Cairngorms were laid out before me like a feast but on this shining day I would be dining elsewhere.
The track that runs from the intriguingly named Sugar Bowl car park on the Cairn Gorm ski road to the narrow defile of the Chalamain Gap runs high above a narrow valley that collects the waters which drain from Coire an t-Sneachda, Coire an Lochain and Lurcher’s Gully before uniting the three streams into the fast-flowing Allt Mor, the big burn. Here and there straggles of youthful Scots Pines lift windblown heads from the heather slopes, already well established and promising a future foreground of trees to the snow-wreathed corries beyond, a testimony to the success of removing sheep and deer from these high slopes.
Unusually for this time of year the sun was shining hot from a clear blue sky. Grouse chattered and croaked from the heather slopes, the only sound other than the chuckle of running water. In such glorious conditions I was loathe to hurry and made a mental note that if I didn’t make it to the summit of Braeriach then it didn’t really matter one whit.
Braeriach, at 1296m, is the third highest mountain in the UK and is derived from the original Am Braigh Riabhach. It means ‘the brindled upland’ and it’s an airy place, essentially the joint apex of five corries. Stand by the summit cairn on a clear day and gaze down the long, empty miles of Glen Dee, past the bulk of Beinn Macdui and the long arm of Carn a’ Mhaim on one side and the angular outline of Cairn Toul on the other and you’ll be overwhelmed by a sensation of space and distance, an emotion that wills you to fly. If you have the time and inclination launch yourself instead around the rim of this enormous corrie that fills the space at your feet, this An Garbh Coire, the big, rough corrie - a simple enough name and yet one which manages to evoke all the wildness, barreness and stark wilderness quality that goes with it.
I love this time of year as spring tries to tease out winter. Today the sun shone a brutal assault on the winter remnants but the sun alone can’t usually displace the snow. You need mild winds from the south-west for that and I, for one, was more than happy with the windless conditions. Despite the heat the boulder-filled glacial channel of the Chalamain Gap was like a fridge, sunless and shadowed. The narrow pass is negotiated like a portal into another Cairngorms landscape and once through its narrow chasm the long wall and shapely tops of the Sgurans ridge rises, snow capped, from deep Gleann Einich. More immediately in front the long and gently rising Sron na Lairige runs towards Braeriach’s summit and beyond it, like three great snow filled scoops, lie Coire Beanaidh, Coire Ruadh and Coire an Lochain of Braeriach, three of the five corries that bite deeply into the flanks of this marvellous hill.
A well used path drops down from Chalamain Gap into the Lairig Ghru to where the old Sinclair Memorial Hut used to stand. This old bothy, a concrete box of a place, was removed some years ago and a memorial plaque to Hugh Sinclair, a former member of the Officer’s Training Corps who died on Cairn Gorm on 1954, now takes pride of place on a rock beside the chattering burn.
There’s been a lot of footpath work carried out in this area, and a new path now zig zags its way up onto the rocky ridge that climbs gently to Sron na Lairige. As I climbed higher I crossed more and more snow patches, still frozen hard despite the warmth of the sun. From across the trench of the Lairig Ghru I could hear the screech of peregrine falcon, the sound of it carried far in the still air. Up here on the roof of the Cairngorms all was otherwise silent, the usual background orchestration of running water stilled by the pervading acres of glistening, shining snow.
It was a crampon and ice axe job now to the summit of Braeriach itself, up the narrowing ridge above the steep crags of Coire Brochain to the big summit cairn and the view into An Garbh Coire and down the miles of the Lairig Ghru into Deeside. It was extraordinary to sit there against the cairn with a hat and sunglasses on to protect me from the heat and glare of the sun, surrounded by snow, ice and the glistening, shining accoutrements of deep winter.