Sugary gales to Loch A’an – Cairn Gorm Loop

Three runners running into the sun in mountains

The wind on the morning of Hogmanay made the world smaller. It was a strange thing: on a clear day, you look up and see the cirrus clouds being stretched by the winds up high.

However, in our sheltered pocket in the Sugarbowl car park on the road up to the Cairngorm Mountain, we watched as the trees bent sideways as the fierce winds just above our heads roared through the Spey Valley.

2018 was being well and truly blown out of town, but before the fireworks, we had mountains to climb. Our route would take us from the Sugarbowl car park, up Fiacaill a’ Choire Chais and over the forehead of Cairn Gorm before making a return descent around Loch A’an and back via Strath Nethy.

The night before had been a restless one; I don’t remember falling asleep, but at no point did I recall that I was awake. I was in this strange limbo wherein I was aware of everything around me but had no sense of being awake.

Because of this, I crawled out of the sheltered tent groggy and dry-mouthed after a beery evening in a van. I love looking back on pre-run banter after an uncomfortable night’s sleep – everyone looks just a bit rag-tag and repeatedly shake out their legs to fire some life into them.

At the time, though, you feel – in a word – crap. To be sure, the first third of the run was rough. We set off after 0900 and made our way up a disused trail to the ski centre. Four multi-coloured dots on the purplish-brown and grey typical of the Cairngorms.

Despite breathing out my backside, I did have to admit that I was running with two Bob Graham finishers and Commonwealth Games medallist Marc Austin, so I cut myself some slack. The guys were great in hanging back when I dropped off the pace, and it was quite nice to just shuffle along at my own speed at times.

We followed the out of action funicular railway line until we passed underneath it and made our way up a stretch towards the coire. Stick Fiacaill a’ Choire Chais into Google Translate and you get the hilarious translation of Dentist Kettle. It’s close, but it likely translates to mean the Cauldron of Teeth, given the jagged and sharp-edged teeth that make up Fiacaill Ridge.

Clouds flowing over mountains with blue skies above and bright foreground of rocks
Break in the clouds.

From this shoulder of Cairngorm that views over to the ridge were breathtaking – literally. The wind was now gusting something ridiculous, and at times we had to grip onto rocks as we were buffeted by what felt like 80 to 90mph gusts. However, through watery eyes we could glimpse an incredible view of the famous fangs.

Stopping for a brief moment to shelter from the gale at the summit, we dashed off into the crook between Cairngorm and Fiacaill a’ Choire Chais.  We vanished into the clag that swam about the heads of the plateau and began our ascent up Cairn Gorm.

Had there been a Strava segment up there, we would surely have taken the record – the wind practically acted as a conveyer belt, sending us straight to the weather tower in jig time. What with the swirling gale, uncontrollable laughter and effort from running it was hard to get breath! We stopped – again for very little time – before charging into the wall of air that forced itself against us.

It was at that moment that a degree of temperature change and a lift of the air cracked the barrier of cloud. Below and beyond us, sun poured across the plateau and the Fiacaill Ridge like foaming waves crashing against the granite.

The path which descends into Loch A’an is well trod, appearing like much of the trail in that area – sandy, tan and soft. Suddenly, the gods’ great trough appears below, surrounded by towering peaks. Beyond, the boils of Beinn Mheadhoin stood black against the clearing sky; to the west, the crags of Carn Etchachan concealed its like-named loch from view. It was truly a fantastic view, and the sight of the clouds slowly lifting added to their ferocious beauty.

What was also incredible was the descent to the loch’s shores – it was straight down from where we stood, explaining how we had such a window seat view from where we stood.

Nan Shepherd wrote of Loch A’an:

Loch A’an, Loch A’an, hoo deep ye lie!
Tell nane yer depth and nane shall I.
Bricht though yer deepmaist pit may be,
Ye’ll haunt me till the day I dee.
Bricht, an’ bricht, an’ bricht as air,
Ye’ll haunt me noo for evermair.

The nearby Loch Etchachan put a similar fear into Shepherd as she stared into “the depth of the pit”, a moment she describes as “one of the most defenceless moments of my life”. Rightly, although unassuming, the very remoteness of Loch A’an makes it appear to be a slumbering giant left to grow in the sanctuary in the mountains.

Lochside photo looking up to cragged mountain.
Goodness cragcious me.

We ran over the chossy ground that sits on the south bank of the loch, which slowly rose back up to a meeting point between several paths – one from Cairn Gorm, another to A’ Choinneach and another to the Fords of Avon refuge.

It was from this latter direction a fellow trio of runners appeared. I did not know at the time that was where they might have come from, being (once again) a little further behind the other three and missing the first bit of the conversation.

What was actually holding me back now was not anything bodily, but just an obsession with sticking my hands into rivers and heather. There’s a delight in tasting the water from the mountain, especially because it is the source of the rivers in the glens below. There you are, getting that first taste of all the water which follows – talk about a premium offering!

We left our compadres and made the winding descent into Strath Nethy. The ground didn’t allow for any rhythm to be maintained, constantly chopping and tossing you about, making foot placement tricky but keeping you on your toes. It really is top quality to have to be on the ball constantly with each footfall.

The mouth of Strath Nethy spreads wide from Meall a’Bhuachaille to Carn Bheadhair, a vast expanse of nothing spreading over 7km wide between the two hills before the rolling ground, wherein lies the River Nethy.

Peaty and heathery ground sauntered its way down the strath. It was tough going terrain, and soon it turned to shuffle mode as we headed around the Green Lochan.

The return trip is fairly straightforward: run straight past An Lochan Uaine towards Glenmore Lodge but bear left just before the bridge. This took us on, through the Scots Pines, to run parallel with the road to the Cairngorm Mountain.

As soon as we started to climb again, my legs seized up. Usually, I can easily handle 22km with over 1000m of climbing, but that day I think the combination of a rubbish start and tricky, short stride terrain meant they didn’t have that many beans left to give.

When we left the Sugarbowl in the morning, not a soul was to be found. Now, three-and-a-half hours later, we returned to something like a hero’s welcome! At least, that’s how I imagined it; it’s sometimes fun to pretend you’re at the end of some epic challenge like the Bob Graham or UTMB (Ramsay’s Round tends to be a quiet affair) when crowds gather.

Although there was no fanfare or champagne, there was a bowl of chips and a sandwich waiting at Mambo’s in Aviemore with my name on it, and a Hogmanay like no other in the evening.

Here’s to 2019 and to many more adventures!

Here’s the route!

Published by Ross Brannigan

“It is worth ascending unexiting heights if for nothing else than to see the big ones from nearer their own level.” - Nan Shepherd

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