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The Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal
Across Braeriach and Cairn Toul on New Year's Day 1891

Author of "Ben Mulch Dhui and his Neighbours: A Guide to the Cairngorm Mountains;" and "Bennathie."

THERE is no close season in Scotland to the mountaineer, —spring, summer, autumn, and winter alike having their peculiar charms for the ardent climber. A winter without a day or two on our highest mountains would indeed now be a dreary one—such is the force of habit! Accordingly, on the afternoon of 31st December last, a little party of four—Ruxton, Glover, Brown, and the writer, all of the Cairngorm Club—left Aberdeen for Boat of Garten, with the view of crossing the Cairngorms the following day to Braemar. Of the whole expedition the railway journey between Aberdeen and Boat of Garten may safely be said to have been the most tedious; for had the terminus been Edinburgh or Glasgow, either of these places would have been sooner reached though it had been at the worst period of the recent railway strike!

However, even the dreariest railway journey has an end, and so about 8.30 we found ourselves on the platform at Boat of Garten. Close by there is a most excellent hostel, well known to Cairngormers, but we prudently eschewed it, for Mrs Grant's welcome, always hearty, would at such a time have assuredly made us tarry by the way. Accordingly we literally turned our backs on temptation and made for the "Boat" direct, as our programme for the evening fell to be finished only at Coylum Bridge, in the Forest of Rothiemurchus, some two miles up the Druie from Aviemore station. The bank of the Spey reached, an attempt was made to attract the attention of the ferryman on the other side, but he was obdurate, probably because it was the season of good fellowship and revelry. At the end of twenty minutes we had all but resolved to take the road on the left bank of the river and cross at Aviemore bridge, when a dog, clearer headed than his masters, at last howled in response to our lamentations, and thus set the machinery in motion. Not before time either; for although a glorious evening, the temperature was not inviting for kicking one's heels at a river-side, and we could even hear the iron horse being stabled for the night.

The six-mile walk up the Spey was very pleasant The night was frosty, no moon (of course), but plenty of starlight, and the road hard, and frequently slippery. Not once nor twice was the fire-water of the expedition in danger from falls, but happily it always escaped. Past the birthplace of the famous Gaelic soldier and poet, Colonel Roy Stewart, past the church of Kincardine, past the road on our left leading to Glenmore Lodge, past Loch Phitiulais, and we are into the ancient parish of Rothiemurchus and its well-known forest. At 10.30 we reach Coylum Bridge, some fifteen minutes late, which must be credited to the railway and ferry authorities. Here we had expected great things—little short of a banquet, as well as comfortable lodgings; but, alas! some one had blundered. The time of year, and the circumstances, fairly warranted our expectations; but the reality seriously threatened us with the want both of supper and bed, and a combination of tact, patience, and a little ingenuity alone prevented a total collapse, and secured for us the scant measure of food and rest absolutely indispensable on a mountain excursion. How convenient to the mountain fraternity a nice little hotel at Coylum Bridge! Better even than at Aviemorewhere, peradventure, when the direct Inverness branch is at last completed by the Highland Railway, an inn may spring up—for here we are at the parting of the ways for each of the giants of the Cairngorm range, as well as for the famed route to Braemar via the Learg Ghruamach.

We started at seven A.M., with a sharp frost, moonlight, and a promise of a glorious day, which was not altogether realised. It was only at the bridge, as we started, that our route was for various reasons finally determined on, and with one consent Braeriach, with perhaps Cairn Toul added, was selected. The route accordingly was by Glen Eunach, which is best entered here at the gate of the carriage road, a few yards east of the entrance of the Learg Ghruamach—here marked by a direction-post of the Rights of Way Society. We kept the glen road for some six miles, till the bothy on the Little Bennie (marked on the O.S. map "Alit na Beinne Bige ") was reached. The walk was, as might be expected, exceedingly pleasant, and braced us for the more arduous part of the day's work. Conical Cam Eirick, dimly seen the previous evening, was duly passed on the left (east) the Bennie (" Alit na Beinne Moire" in the map), even in this neighbourhood, being fully two-thirds covered with ice. Then gloomy Sgoran Dubh came in sight, their rocky peaks and scarred loch-front magnificently dressed in snow. A halt was made at the bothy and our further progress discussed, for the appearance of Braeriach was much more wintry than we had anticipated, and necessitated another deliberation. We had counted on only a few inches of snow—of which we practically had none as yet—on the mountains, but it was already evident that we had made a miscalculation. It was now reasoned that the zigzag path, originally contemplated, which makes for the plateau above Loch Coire an Lochain, would be blotted out, and, from its steepness, might be dangerous in snow; that there were also objections to the track by the east side of Loch Eunach; and that, therefore, the only practicable route was by the well- known narrow ridge between the two westerly corries, Coire Ruadh and Coire an Lochain, of the three great northern corries of Braeriach that are so well seen from Aviemore station and neighbourhood. This morning, however, they were quite invisible, for the fine day seemed entirely confined to lower Strathspey; mountainwards, our prospect was shrouded and very confined. And Sgoran Dubh, in keeping with their name, as well as the head of Loch Eunach—which latter was never visible to us—were crowned with murky clouds, which churned and churned, ever threatening to come down on us. It was a grand sight, which we could have well spared in the circumstances.

Our further route agreed on, we now left the glen road, keeping for some time by the Little Bennie. We had not advanced a mile before we found ourselves completely in the region of snow, which was very soft, and therefore troublesome; and as we ascended, the prospect, instead of widening, narrowed rapidly, till soon we were in a little circle with a radius of but fifty yards, and even less at times. There being nothing to guide us in these circumstances, for of course all the burns that generally enable one to check the way were dormant and invisible, the expected happened—we held a little too far, say a quarter of a mile, to the left. This, however, mattered little—the one route being in the circumstances as good as the other— and so we continued on. On our left we now had Coire Bennie, the most easterly of the northern corries already referred to; on our right, Coire Ruadh. [Marked, but not named (at least correctly), in the O.S. six-inch map. In that map these two corries have the name "Coire Odhar an Lochain Duibh" printed across them, but that corrie is more to the north-eastward.] The aneroid kept us well advised of our position, otherwise we should certainly have been in more of a fog than we were. The high table-land of Braeriach being at last reached, our little difficulties of ascent were over, or almost so. Briefly these had been at first a mixture of soft snow and fairly long heather, which was followed by stones and snow, and then a steep snow climb, with the frequent danger, no slight one it may be mentioned, of involuntary descent. On the table-land the snow was apparently on an average from four to six feet deep, and soft. Walking was thus by no means so easy as it generally is on the summit, and our progress was necessarily slow. At times we were fain to walk in each other's foot-tracks. The lower cairn was barely recognisable, and when we reached the cairn at 12.15 (4,248 feet), we actually passed it a few steps before we realised that we had been on the highest point of Braeriach. The cairn is not worthy of such a mountain; then it was scarcely discernible, being almost obliterated, and thoroughly enveloped in snow.

The fog was now at its densest; we could not see even six yards ahead at times. The question of descent—a much more serious one than the ascent—had again to be discussed, and it called into requisition all our intimate knowledge of the mountain. It was soon decided that the only safe way out of our position, short of returning to Speyside, was to make for Cairn Toul, round the top of the tremendous precipices of the great corrie between Braeriach and Cairn Tout, which is known by different names at different parts—Coire Bhrochain, below the principal cairn of Braeriach; Fuar Garbh-choire, down which the "infant Dee" topples; and An Garbh-choire (par excellence), on the east and west sides of Lochan Uaine of Cairn Tout. Thus we had to feel towards our left for more than two hours, scarcely ever losing sight of the edge of the precipice. More than once we unexpectedly found ourselves within three steps of the edge—our Scylla, for we dared not wander to the right for fear of a descent on Loch Eunach--our Charybdis. We did once hold somewhat too far to the right, induced by what temporarily appeared sufficient considerations, but we quickly realised the folly of that course. I do not hesitate to say that but for the precipices—well as the intervening ground was known to us—there was small chance of our reaching Cairn Toul that day. A single circumstance will give even the general reader a thorough understanding of the complete change on the surface of the summit Owing to the great depth of snow, which, with a dense fog that would have been marked by the Ben Nevis observers at "10" previous knowledge of the locality almost valueless, we crossed, unconsciously, the Alit a' Gharbhchoire, or Garchory Burn—the "infant Dee"—and that though we were all on the outlook for it and were perfectly familiar with its appearance. Occasionally we got a peep down the precipice, but we were never so much favoured as to see the bottom of the corrie; yet even that drawback had its compensation, for the depth appeared but more profound. There was a cornice of snow all along the edges of the precipices that forbade too close investigation. More than once we had hopes that the sun was about to conquer the fog, and allow Cairn Toul to stand out clear and distinct, but alas! old Sol failed to burst the foggy curtain.

When we found ourselves at Sgor an Lochain Uaine, better known perhaps as the Angel's Peak, we seriously considered the propriety of our descending to the Lochan and so making for Glen Dee, but again prudence restrained us, and we held on for the summit of Cairn Toul. A short halt, the longest of the day, was made among the snow- clad stones—how beautifully they here glistened with a fantastic-like crust of crystallised snow!—and a little lunch discussed. One circumstance did not favour long sederunts; while quite comfortable otherwise, the feet soon got extremely cold. During our lunch the sun broke out for a few minutes, but still our prospect was limited, say about a hundred yards; and, somewhat to our surprise, for we scarcely thought it was so very near, we saw the cairn of Cairn Toul, which we reached at three o'clock. How strangely the cairn was transformed! It was swollen out with snow almost beyond recognition, the slender stick in it appeared from the same cause to be about four feet in circumference, and there was a symmetrically formed trench-like space clear of snow round about it. A gentle breeze was now blowing—we had at no time after a height of 2,000 feet was reached any trouble from wind, and fortunately no snow fell—which shook the snow hanging round the cairn-stick, but prospect there was none. The aneroid stood at 25.825, the thermometer at 28, [Curiously enough the same temperature as we had on the top of Ben Muich Dhui on 3rd January 1890.] a degree less than what we found on Braeriach.

Circumstances, as can easily be imagined, were against a prolonged stay on Cairn Toul ; but the cairn was left with an easier mind, though we could not count on more than an hour and a half of daylight, than we had had since we had last seen the Little Bennie. The descent was made by Glen Geusachan,—for no 6ther route dared be attempted— the burn of that name being made for a little above the junction of the stream that issues from Lochan Suarach. The depth of snow on the south-west side of Cairn Toul appeared even greater than that on the north side of Braeriach, and it was therefore slow work, as at every step one sunk about a foot, and even often to the knee. At 3.45 we reached the highest part of the Geusachan burn which was clear of snow, and had our first water since leaving the Little Bennie bothy. We had started from Coylum Bridge with considerably less than a pint of aqua for the four of us, and this was deemed to be a suitable time for discussing with water the little "drop" which we had thus far preserved. Lower down the glen, ice began to be troublesome, and slips and stumbles were not unfrequent. By the time we reached the broader part of the glen darkness was upon us, and as the depth of snow decreased ice had more and more to he reckoned with. We were all glad when we had the Devil's Point behind our left shoulder, with the gurgling of the Dee in our ears. We crossed it at 5.15, on ice, at the island 'without difficulty, and made at once for the track that winds round Cam a' Mhaim from Glen Lui Beg to Glen Dee. This was, as we anticipated, a very bad bit of the journey, for the path was, alike from snow and darkness, invisible. Half-way to Glen Lui Beg, however, we stumbled on it, and kept it not without difficulty till the upper bridge of Lui Beg was reached. Thence our walk along that burn to Derry Lodge was easy and without incident, save that "Will o' the Wisp" frequently (over a dozen times) showed an anxiety to lure us on to ways where no path was.

The keepers gave us a gentlemanly reception—would that there were more such, in the interest of deer-shooters and mountaineers alike—though our little expedition was more wondered at than admired; for it seemed we were not unexpected, and it may have been deemed necessary to ascertain that we had not a hind concealed about our persons! Speaking of deer, we saw but two herds, one by the Little Bennie, the other (which we could smell at a distance) near where we crossed the Dee. Only two or three ptarmigan were observed, and a fox welcomed us on Cairn Toul; otherwise we came across nothing of life.

We walked down Glen Lui to the Black Bridge, where we left the glen and took the road marked "private," leading first upwards and then downwards to the public road from the Linn of Dee on the left bank of the river; thence we made for the Victoria Bridge (over the Dee), passing Old Mar Lodge on the left. Then we passed Mar Lodge and the Falls of Corriemulzie—the route we took cutting off, of course, the Linn of Dee—and Braemar was only an hour's walk. We were advised for eight o'clock, and knowing our punctuality, even in such excursions, and somewhat alarmed at our non appearance, ["On the 4th of January 1805 five privates of the Inverness-shire Militia (viz., John Tulloch, John Forsyth, Donald Cameron, Donald Ross, and Duncan Mackenzie), while travelling westwards from Edinburgh upon furlough, were unfortunately lost in a severe storm of drifted snow in attempting to pass the hills betwixt Braemar and Abernethy."—Scots Magazine, vol. lxv., P. 70. They had gone by the Lang an Laoigh.] the gudewife of Deebank sent out John to meet us! Which he duly did, we arriving, thanks to the unexpected depth and softness of the snow, two hours and a half late. The welcome and the fare contrasted with that on the other side of the hill; but let that pass. You may be sure we did ample justice to dinner, late though it was, and we felt we had fairly earned the tumbler (or two) of toddy which we discussed with our old friend John.

Next morning we were astir by nine o'clock, and the appearance we made at breakfast certainly showed that we were in good form, the proverb "no breakfast no man" not applying to us. Braemarians do little but curl when the ice bears, and visitors are even more heartily welcome then than in summer. They thought they had us for a friendly match, but we slipped away, doubtful of our ability to make a decent score, our good friend John Lamont driving us down to Ballater. There the railway company took us in hand, and completed their contract by landing us safely at Aberdeen; the "circular tour" finished in about fifty hours from the start.

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