The giant’s playground

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In the Cairngorms, “one does not look upward to spectacular peaks but downward from peaks to spectacular chasms”.

I could start every blog post I write with a quote from Nan Shepherd, but on this occasion it feels particularly apt. Today, I ran where she walked some 70 years ago.

It was these words I was reminded keenly of as I stood at the edge of a world; a world I wanted to throw myself into, to become part of – the rocks, the white water, the thrum of the place.

In the Cairngorms, one can be 10 feet from an edge and think these hills are naught but a rolling plateau. Come closer, and they plunge down, tingling the spine and snatching breath. It is a dramatic place, a powerful place, a dangerously beautiful place – but a fun one.

I like to think of it as a giant’s playground, we who are more inclined to the earth and simply allowed under the fence to peek inside – a jumble of granite for a wanderer to clamber into.

The world upon which I stood at the edge of was located halfway down the descent from a minor summit of A’Chaoinneach. It was like a city of stone appearing before me, the blue-emerald glinting of Loch A’an dancing upon the spires.

Loch A’an, Loch A’an, hoo deep ye lie!
Tell nane yer depth and nane shall I.

Having just ascended Bynack More, I took the south-west route down to the cross-roads between Cairn Gorm, Fords of Avon and Strath Nethy. My fears of the A’an being full-bodied were washed aside having come across a distinctly dry flow on the way off Bynack More – an area that would usually be much wetter.

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Beinn Mheadhoin from Bynack More.

I skipped over the river, beginning the hard rake up Beinn Mheadhoin. On Shetland, you might call it a skruid – steep, slippery, much of the granite acting like sand under my weight.

I crested its humped back, laverocks dive-bombing one another in the air as three ptarmigans rushed like hurried old women, only bothering to raise a wing slightly as if to show it might consider flying at some point.

Beinn Mheadhoin is pimpled with lumpy tors, lying haphazardly across the hill like discarded giants’ furniture. It’s as if the goat being had vacated this seating spot at some point – leaving a sofa here, armchair there – leaving for a nicer spot, perhaps on neighbouring Ben A’an.

From here, the ballooning height of Ben MacDhui arose from the sweeping banks of Loch A’an, its peak shrouded in dark clouds. From this privileged vantage, one can really see what Shepherd meant when she wrote of Loch A’an: “Cairn Gorm and Ben MacDhui may be said to be its banks”, so blended are they. Around me, in the glens and nearby hills, veils of rain passed across aimlessly, drifting east before stopping to reconsider and heading north, eventually stopping altogether.

My eyes were “in my feet” as Shepherd would say, drifting over plump stones and munched granite sand, hardly putting a foot wrong. At Loch Etchachan, I headed north, clunking down into the outer boundary of the giant’s cricket pitch, so mighty were the tossed stones here.

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The giant’s furniture.

The crags above soared up and over, their peaks seeming surprisingly close for their height. I found the Shelter Stone, which looks incredibly – well, sheltered! The ground around Loch A’an is testing, twisting and jarring, breaking rhythm wherever it can and presenting rocks just discreet enough for you to stub a toe off a dozen times.

Finally, the “Wall of Death” back to the plateau. Height is lost easily in the Cairngorms – pleasantly; it is gained, however, with much labour and heavy breathing. No matter, the blooming bell heather and the ice-white water that tastes so clear and sweet was enough to take away the effort.

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As it plateaus, the final climb to the summit of Cairn Gorm appears easy, but is not. I took a shortcut, making a direct line for the summit. To my left, the Fiacaill Ridge grinned at me; I grimaced back.

I jogged over the crest of the hill and was met with two dozen people taking photographs of one another at the top.

“Gosh!” one woman in a yawning American accent cried. “Did you run all the way up this mountain?”

I confirmed I had, sparing the bits in-between my start and current position. Running down the initial descent from Cairn Gorm is like the Royal Mile nowadays: busy but, most of all, cobbled as hell.

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Fiacaill Ridge grinning toothily.

After a stuttering initial descent, the Windy Ridge turns into a bit of a motorway, swooping its way down to the Cairngorm car park. I still had to go on, though. A quick check to see the ski centre bathrooms were indeed closed, I hunkered on, flowing gently down into Glenmore forest.

The Cairngorms may be scooped with spectacular chasms, but as I looked up from the comfort of my car I thought how spectacular are the peaks to look up to.

Strava trace here.

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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