The Cairngorm 4000ers in Winter - a two day hiking adventure
Ever since Chris and I completed a winter skills course at Glenmore Lodge in the Cairngorms, this wild, mountainous region of north eastern Scotland has held a special place in our hearts. Encompassing some of the highest mountains and upland areas in Scotland, the Cairngorms is also the largest national park in the UK, with a wild character that sets it apart from other places we’ve visited.
It is also home to one of the UK’s most challenging adventure hikes; the Cairngorm 4000s. This epic hiking challenge involves climbing all five munros over 4000ft high in the Cairngorms within 24 hours. This group of five mountains includes four of the highest peaks in the UK, consisting of Cairn Gorm (4,085 ft), Ben Macdui (4,295 ft), Carn Toul (4,236 ft), Sgòr an Lochain Uaine (4,127 ft) and Braeriach (4,252 ft). We would also take in the smaller munros of Carn a’Mhaim and the Devil’s Point. However, rather than cramming all seven munros into a single day, we decided to tackle the route over two days in winter, with an overnight stay in Corrour Bothy.
So, with plans laid and a long weekend ahead of us, in December 2018 we headed north to take on the Cairngorm 4000s…
With large packs on our packs, containing all of our winter gear and overnight kit, we set out from the Cairngorm Mountain Ski Centre car park at first light (having stayed the night at Aviemore Youth Hostel) - excited for the challenge ahead and invigorated by the thought of two full days in the mountains!
Winter arrives early in the Cairngorms, so we were straight on to snow from the get-go, the muffled crunch of it under our boots being the only sound at this early hour of the morning. Following the ski lifts, we put our heads down and made our way fairly quickly up to the first summit of the day, Cairn Gorm, passing the frozen weather station with it's thick coating of rime ice.
Leaving the ski area behind us, we made our way across the high, artic-like Cairngorm plateaux to the broad summit of Ben Macdui, the UK’s second highest mountain. Visibility was pretty poor on this leg of the route, with sustained periods of ‘white-out’, but we kept our bearings and made it to Ben Macdui without having to use Chris' GPS unit. Navigation can be very challenging on the largely featureless Cairngorm plateau, particularly in winter, so it certainly pays to be confident using a map and compass before venturing out here at this time of year. It’s also probably advisable to have a dedicated outdoor GPS device with you in this environment, as smart phone batteries don’t last long in the sub zero conditions!
Having reached the summit of Ben Macdui by early afternoon, we had time to stick to our plan of bagging the smaller munro of Carn a’Mhaim, which is normally excluded from the traditional Cairngorm 4000s route. Having climbed this third and final peak of the day we dropped down off the mountains into the great trench of the Lairig Ghru, which cuts through the Cairngorm plateau.
As dusk fell we headed north up the Lairig Ghru towards the shelter of Corrour Bothy, where we were to stay for the night. By the time we reached Corrour it was dark, but the glow in the windows and welcoming smell of smoke indicated we would have company for the night – and great company it turned out to be too! With a warm fire crackling in the hearth, whiskey in plentiful supply and a guitar that other party had brought with them, we enjoyed a truly memorable evening of music, mountains and malt!
Waking up the next morning and stepping outside the bothy we were greeted by stunning views of the surrounding mountains, resplendent in their winter plumage and framed by a blue sky overhead. What a way to start the day! After a boil in the bag breakfast and cup of hot coffee, we headed out into the crisp morning air and straight up the Devil’s Point, which looms high over Corrour and provides stunning views across the Lairig Ghru. We lingered on the summit, taking in the scenery, before striking north to follow the rim of the corries around to Carn Toul, and ultimately on to Sgòr an Lochain Uaine and Braeriach. With such good weather conditions and clear visibility, navigation was easy and we enjoyed the simple exercise of plodding from one peak to the next; chatting, stopping to take pictures and just enjoying the serenity of a calm winter’s days in the mountains.
Descending the final munro, Braeriach, as the light waned, the last challenge of the day was crossing the Chalamain Gap in the dark – our head torches helping us pick a path through the boulder-strewn floor of this narrow pass. The Chalamain Gap can be a real avalanche blackspot in winter, but the conditions did not present a hazard on this occasion and we were soon through it and on the well-trodden path back to the ski centre.
Finally, we reached the car at around 7.30pm, hungry and tired, but with smiles on our faces and that feeling of achievement and well-being that comes from adventures in the mountains.
Here is a short video we made of our Cairngorm 4000ers adventure: