The hedgehog’s spiny back

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I seem to have neglected the Cairngorms this past year or more. So much so that I began to miss them to the extent that I simply had to get up onto the great plateaux whilst there was still up there.

I slept all the way to Aviemore! A dig in the ribs roused me. The gritters had been busy making sure that the bottom station car park was serviceable. I stepped from the warm car into a frost that bit my ears and nose with a savageness that told me to don my warm coat quickly. The cloudless sky bode well for a good day on the snowy tops. We’d come early enough to avoid the inevitable crowds; as we started off even the sun hadn’t shown his face, the air tingled and our boots crunched on icy gravel.

Our intention was for another ascent of the Fiacaill Ridge, that great conglomeration of blocky granite that gives an easy scramble and an always interesting route up onto the Cairngorm plateau.

The car park sits at 640 metres above sea level, knocking off a considerable plod at the start of the day. But I can thoroughly recommend the ascent into these hills from much lower down. If you only ever enter Rothiemurchus Forest once, or spend time down by Loch Morlich, just the once, keep it for a day of fine weather; savour it!

Very soon we would be looking back over these stunningly beautiful Speyside features; meantime we had to get onto the broad base of our ridge. Well maintained paths criss-cross the lower slopes, various branches snaking off to favourite locations. The frosts of many nights had made the stonework treacherously slippery; even the little bridge below the restaurant was caked. Not even on the flatter sections did we rush.

After a few minutes we turned a corner and found ourselves in the emptiness, the car park and obtrusive buildings already hidden by the contours behind us. Peace!

Quickly a short hop and a skip, had us across the Allt Coire an t-Sneachda and gently climbing onto the barren base of the ridge’s sprawling base. The ridge, higher up, on its eastern flank, throws down some of Cairngorm’s most fearsome crags, attractive each winter to ice climbers; our day’s highlight would be the icy scamper along the hedgehog’s spiny back.

The path that scratches the ridge’s spine is scruffy, gritty like all granite that suffers beneath too many boots. At first it rose through a roughness of boulders and straggly heather. Higher up the rounded boulders, often huge and awkwardly shaped, congregated defensively, forcing numerous branches in the path. Higher still it became more practical to ignore even these and boulder hop.

A halt for backward glancing revealed the smoky green pines of Rothiemurchus, Glenmore and Abernethy, a vast carpet! Sat like a jewel amid the forestry below, Loch Morlich, with its narrow golden strands, seemed out of place. Beyond all this, forming a jagged white horizon, far off mountains looked alpine. Closer at hand, a mere glen away in the west, Braeriach cast up his silver head.

At last we arrived at the Fiacaill’s business end; time to don the crampons. The main ridge, snow plastered on its easier western flank, soared above us in an unlikely mass of piled granite blocks. But on the crest we found very little snow. There was plenty of unnerving frost, for sure, but nothing which called for anything technical! Beneath a beautiful blue sky, steam fairly shooting from our nostrils, we clambered on.

There are but one or two awkward places higher up, each uncharacteristically choked with accumulated snow as hard as the rock itself. These instances were the only places where our ice axes came in, well, a little more than handy.

By sticking faithfully to the crest there are a couple of places where, especially given the icy nature of the day, the exposure can be relished; unfortunately these moments come and go too quickly. It was with a twinge of regret that we found ourselves stepping through the final boulders and onto the level plateau, the day’s excitement over.

But by no means our walk. A day of sunshine on the sub arctic plateau that is Ben Macdui and Cairngorm is always a delight, and today the snow was hard and perfect to walk on. We followed the corrie rim west until we spied the cairns that herald the bald summit of Cairn Lochan, a Top, yet 1215 metres above sea level. Before we made that short distance across the frozen waste we gazed down into the frozen white eyes of the corrie’s little lochans, far below. From our feet fell some of Britain’s premier ice climbing walls, pearly white and pristine.

From the cairns we dropped down gently south to where the only indications of the regular path for Macdui were lines of footprints in the blanketing snow. We followed these to a frozen Lochan Buidhe. The ground rises from here, never steeply, but the closer to Britain’s second highest summit, ever more bouldery, until at last you stand amid the detritus of old sapper’s huts. There’s a trig pillar atop a cairn and nearby an indicator pillar naming mountains around the clock to all horizons.

We arrived to find the summit teeming with other walkers. Some we’d already met on their own ways up; others arrived from the Etchahan side; on our way back down we met still others coming up. A busy mountain, Ben Macdui, at 1309 metres above sea level.

From here we looked across the true roof of Scotland. The entire Cairngorm range rolled away in all directions, every high mountain Christmas pudding white, save the black tors of nearby Beinn Mheadhoin and far out west Ben Avon.

We had before us a four mile trek back to the Coire Cas car park. We dropped back down to Lochan Buidhe, one of Britain’s highest little lochans, then gratefully followed the highway of boot prints back onto Cairngorm.

We took the higher route along the corrie lips; that way we were treated constantly to varying views into the rocky depths below, all hard ice and frozen lochans. We passed the top of the Fiacaill Ridge and ascended the boulder ridden labyrinth of Cairngorm’s lower slopes, the summit dome rising crystalline against the cloudless blue sky.

We looked back at the Fiacaill Ridge itself, seen from this angle in all its fierce, dragon backed glory. It seemed already an age ago since we’d been panting our way carefully up that spiny back.

At length we arrived at top of yet another Fiacaill ridge, this one the Fiacaill Choire Chas, itself the much gentler western bounding wall of a sublimely snow filled Coire Cas. We sat by the big cairn drinking the last of our tea and staring at the gentler lands below; already the light was dulling down for evening, the hills casting giant shadows over the woodlands far below.

We didn’t climb Cairngorm. Instead we cramponed our way easily down the ridge before us. As we descended so the snow thinned until, way, way down, we were able to remove our spikes and make a bee line down the wide and ugly service tracks. We passed below the Funicular rails and followed the contraption down to its tourist luring station. Today, as the evening closed in and the air grew chillier, we were not averse to joining those ski-ing folk for a pint or two in the warmth and comfort of the bar.