For anyone with a little knowledge of the outdoor landscape of the Cairngorms, the distinctive gap between Braeriach and Ben MacDui that forms the Lairig Ghru is a dramatic feature of the Cairngorms’ skyline. This particular landmark has been a source of intrigue to me since childhood, and every time we drove south along the A9 it would be something to look out for – and every time it would look different dependent on the weather and the time of year.
As I was unable to complete a personal challenge during the official ‘Bothy Challenge’ event last year, I wanted to do something this year, and so I decided that walking the Lairig Ghru would be my focus.
I managed to persuade a handful of friends to join me, and so after a few months of planning and practice routes, Audrey, Carol, Sian and myself set out on Sunday the 22nd July from Rothiemurchus to complete the 20-mile walk to Linn of Dee, 5 miles west of Braemar.
The weather was perfect, light cloud, some sun and enough of a breeze to keep the midgies away. We set off just after 8am, and our first stop was scheduled for 10am. Having consulted the map and our trusty ‘WalkHighlands’ route guide, we had predicted that this should take us roughly to the start of the pass itself. Although a little nervous we were all in good spirits, ready for the challenge ahead. The walk started through the Rothiemurchus Forest, and once we had crossed the Cairngorm Club Footbridge, built by climbers from this group in 1912, we soon began to climb.
The route became less of a track and more of a path, and we were all still quietly confident that we would be able to manage the distance without too much difficulty. We reached the junction with the climbers path up to Braeriach at about the 6 mile point and a decision was made that this would be a good first stop. The views were amazing in both directions, and Aviemore seemed a very long way away!
What came next caught us a little off guard. Re-fuelled and legs rested, the next stage was into the pass itself. ‘A couple of hours to the bothy on the other side before stopping for lunch?’ We thought… Stage 4 of the WalkHighlands route guide told us that, ‘The route now climbs through the great trench of the pass itself, with mountain walls on either side…… The path disappears several times and the going is rough for a kilometre or so.’
What we actually encountered was over a mile of rocky terrain, caused by glacial deposits and erosion from the steep mountains on either side, and not only that, we were still going uphill! This meant that things slowed down quite considerably as we negotiated our way across the boulder field. The actual summit is not known, but eventually we passed a cairn marking the ‘top’ and the route tentatively started to descend.
We passed the Pools of Dee, which as a result of the dry summer were very low, and finally re-joined the path, and a definite descent. Unfortunately we soon realised that the bothy was still a good way off and we all felt the need for lunch. A good spot was identified, with amazing views looking down Glen Dee and across to Cairn Toul.
It’s safe to say our lunch was devoured in record time! We also had the obligatory toast to each other as encouragement, but also to remember my brother Neil. His death in January 2015 inspired me to get outdoors and make the most of our surroundings, much as he did. I will never be a climber, like he was, but I have definitely re-discovered my love of hillwalking, and choosing this walk was very much done with him in mind!
We checked our maps and route details, and re-evaluated our timing – as things stood we were OK to reach our destination in plenty of time, assuming there were no more boulder fields! So we set off again, assured by the fact that we were back on a good path and it was down-hill, for the time being anyway! An hour or so after we set off again, we passed the track off to the Corrour Bothy and Devil’s Peak behind – no time for a visit on this trip, but maybe next time!
Shortly after we passed the bothy, the path went off to the left, and seemed to keep going in this direction for quite a while, in fact so much so that we started to wonder if we had somehow taken a wrong turn! After a quick check of the map and an opportunity to take in some sugar, we confirmed that we were in the right place. Sure enough, very soon after our quick breather we began to descend again towards Glen Luibeg and the Luibeg Burn. The terrain was definitely improving, and it was good to see trees again! Our next focus was reaching Derry Lodge, an old, abandoned shooting lodge. From there we were expecting a relatively easy walking along a good Landrover track to the car park at Linn of Dee.
By the time we reached Derry Lodge, energy levels were considerably lower, legs and ankles were aching, and our pace had slowed dramatically. Unfortunately we had lost time along the way and so we had no choice but to keep walking – after all, there was only 4 miles left and we were nearly there, or so we thought. Although the terrain was easy, this part definitely felt the longest – but lack of energy and tired legs and feet probably contributed to that! Those last 4 miles turned into 5 and a half, and I think I speak for all of us when I say we were so glad to reach the car park, and our lift back to Braemar!
Although exhausted, we are all filled with a great sense of achievement. It had been an amazing day in a fantastic corner of the world. The weather had held for us, and although we had encountered a few hardy midgies at our first stop, they had pretty much kept away too. Although the walk was primarily a personal challenge for all of us, we had hoped to use it to raise a little bit of money for The Neil Mackenzie Trust at the same time. Thank you to everyone who sponsored us, our final total was a fantastic £500!
The biggest thanks have to go to Carol, Audrey and Sian for agreeing to do the walk with me! There was definitely blood and sweat, but no tears thankfully – just lots of fantastic memories, and hopefully our newly fledged walking group will have plenty more adventures to come!