Friday 11 September started in the dark but soon it was crisp blue skies, perfect for the day I had chosen to head to the summit of Ben MacDhui, highest peak in the Cairngorms and second highest peak in the island we call Great Britain. Unlike my usual walks, this one required a drive to Breamar and onwards to the Linn O'Dee for parking. Once there the walking legs would get warmed up (after a trip to the compost toilet, OK too much info.) as I headed toward Derry Lodge. The walk was soft undulations on a good track and meandered along with a young river. Driving up you get to see into the heart of the Cairngorms, the first rays of morning where lighting up the corrie faces with cracked lines of granite. Out from behind the shoulder of a hill, the first view from two feet into the Gorm's. Derry Cairngorm, smooth feminine top with an aggressive corrie lurking in the background. Even though the hills were miles in the distance I was surprised how small they looked (I felt I was sure to reget that thought later). All my life I have looked across to the Gorms from near my home in Aboyne, Carnferg Hill, the roof of mid Deeside walk or on trips to Morven or Mount Keen. Views to a mass of mountains as a whole, often wearing the white crown of Scotland, now I was in amongst them.
At Derry Lodge (boarded up unfortunately) you cross a wooden bridge and from there on danger was a constant companion. While stopping for second breakfast a fellow walker past by and as we skipped and hopped across bogs, we struck up conversation. A magical morning and enriched by sharing the experiences of times in the hills. But we had different routes planned so with a right turn the first gradients of the day guided me upwards.
The narrow path rose up the valley until a sudden roar filled my ears. I first looked to the sky to see if a jet was passing but in a few more steps a buoyant stream was thundering away. The path fragmented as many walkers before decided where best to cross? There did not seem to be an easy stepping stone combination on offer so a decision had to be made, off with the boots and into the cold (freezing) waters or as I chose, a couple of large strides to get half way across to take stock again. One leap was required but the landing looked slippy and one slip would mean a broken ankle. I untether my rucksack and threw it across. The jump was too marginal so I opted for a human bridge sort of, you know where you fall straight forward and catch yourself on the suspension of your arms. It worked my hands were across, the legs did their best splits and they too were over, just skimming the burn.
Steep slopes were now the order of the day. I got into a brisk rhythm and got stuck into the hill. By now the sun was higher in the sky and well it was hot, real summer hot, frequent outings for the water bottle were in order until it was time for lunch, 10.30am. I needed re fulling and it looked crazy steep ahead and sure enough it was. Very steep and grassy gravel soon became a boulder field acting like a drunken staircase. I couple of descending walkers passed by, happy chappies I thought, blue sky sun, already been at the summit. Employing a zig-zag technique I drove up and up, large chunks of black granite passed by and then to my surprise I was on the platau. With fresh enthusiasm in the legs, skipping through the smoother boulders I was on my way to the Ben MacDhui summit. The summit trig point was not alone, I was greeted with a hand shake from a fellow hiker, a German hiker at that.
The blue sky was now milky and looking north, grey was soon to approach too. It was quiet, the immediate views around felt prehistoric, dangerous and uninviting. I soaked it all in, photos to be taken and the views to all parts of Scotland, you did feel like you were in the middle of the middle of Scotland.
The blue sky was gone now, streaking darker and the atmosphere was less bright too. Time to head for home. I decided to follow the loop walk on the map rather than go back the way I came up, I did not fancy the steep boulders in reverse, but there was to plenty more boulders waiting for me. There are paths worn into the hills, but there was no guiding path waiting for me on the way down initially. You had to trust your map and yourself. A turn right had to be made but too soon the crags for the corrie would call you in, but too far a new corrie awaited. Gingerly I climbed up a smooth sloped hill eager to view over it and bingo, I was in the saddle between the two corries, Derry Caringorm ahead, while conical in shape, no smoothness, just big boulders, and it was steep too. But they were navigated through, not without a couple of wobbles that got the heart fluttering. Back high up the view to the car park could be seen and also the realization that another 2 lower summits had to be reached and it looked like boulders all the way and it was, I kicked about half a dozen of them, my black and blue toes tips collected as souvenirs. I met quite a few walkers in this stretch, mainly older folks, we all had time for a good chat, they were on they way up but as so was their enthusiasm for being out in the hills. I walk a lot and rarely see another person but today I met people all along the way, maybe an hour at most between chats, I enjoyed that.
I kept forgetting how high up I was. A lot of descending had taken place but one more thigh burning section was head before the tree line and valley floor. Before then a 'Lord of the rings' styled ledge had to be passed, it was the closest I had been to the edge of a steep plummet I had been all day, I wasn't enjoying it. I kept thinking - add a bit of snow and ice and death is ready for you. Un-at-ease I completed the ridge.
The softer woodland path brought me to the Derry Lodge bridge, I crossed and sat down on the safe side, danger was now over. I shared a tree trunk with a couple, I was raiding my rucksack for food, still lots to eat but they offered their crisps, nice and salty, hmm. We had a pleasant chat but I still had an hour of walking to complete the trek. While only 2.30, the day now felt long, I was tired, the crisp blue valley on the way up was cool but calm. My first trip to the Ben MacDhui was now over, it was 3.30pm.