Braeriach – Chalamain Gap or Coylumbridge?

15 06 2014

I’ve had to do the massive Cairngorm peak of Braeriach twice so far, the first time with Richard and the second time alone, this May, to bag the Munro top of Carn na Criche (4150 feet) which we couldn’t find in the mist on the first visit! I’d fully intended going back anyway as, despite a glorious start to our last visit to this fantastic peak, the weather clouded in by the start of the ascent and we saw nothing 😦

Unfortunately, I was also supposed to take Richard with me on my second attempt but I was in the Aviemore area and decided I wasn’t fit enough for my original objective of the Tomintoul approach to pick off the northern tops of Beinn a’ Bhuird and Ben Avon. I felt very guilty when I rang him that evening to give my status report of being okay and he asked what I’d been up! Sadly for him, I don’t feel I could manage a third attempt any time soon – it’s a tough day!

Anyway, as I’ve done two different approaches to the hill, I thought it might be nice to use this post to highlight the route differences…

Braeriach from near Chalamain Gap

Lot of photos for this one – click on for full size/resolution
The first time we parked near Coylumbridge at the start of a long, straight track through the forest (by a caravan park if I remember rightly). After we’d walked for a few minutes, we found there was actually a carpark partway up the track so I went back for the car. I’m not sure the car was particularly grateful as the track was fairly rough.

This track goes in a very straight line for quite a few miles heading for the Lairig Ghru and is very pleasant indeed. It would be cyclable for quite a few miles but we were planning to come back via Coire Dhondail and Glen Einich when we set off (we couldn’t find that descent in the mist either unfortunately).

The Rothiemurchus

Rothiemurchus Forest Path

We ambled on through the extremely pleasant scenery of the Rothiemurchus Forest in the sunshine until we met a T-junction of paths. Here we took a brief left and the path started to head gently uphill through the forest. The path wound round again to the right until it was heading for the Lairig again – it was now starting up the left bank of the river with spectacular views down into the gorge.

Through the Rothiemurchus trees

Lairig Ghru to Rothiemurchus

Stark Tree, Rothiemurchus

Soon the trees started to thin and the dramatic entrance to the Lairig Ghru appeared – what a spectacular place it is.

Lairig Ghru fm Rothiemurchus edge

Carn Elrig fm Lairig Ghru exit
Looking back

Just about where the path crosses the stream, the cloud descended and our hill disappeared – well, all apart from the steep start of the ascent of the Sron na Lairige.

There is a very steep ascent of the far side of the Lairig onto the nose but with a great path. Interestingly, you cross the burn just where it is issuing out from underground – great place to get a drink!

Lairig Ghru path
Lairig Ghru Path after the burn crossing

Carn Elrig fm Sron na Lairige
Carn Elrig just before we went into the mist

It can’t really be described as anything but a slog up the Sron (nose) but you gain height quickly – this is good as there is a lot of height to attain! At this point, I’ll change tack and talk about my walk in early May this year instead – the route through the infamous Chalamain Gap…

Although I’d been staying overnight at Aviemore Youth Hostel (and got a much better night’s sleep after checking they had no school parties in attendance this time), I decided not to do the Coylumbridge approach and to see what all the fuss about the Chalamain Gap was. The route was quite a bit shorter on the map – about 2 miles less each way. As you drive to quite a high carpark (the Sugarbowl), there would surely be less ascent? (wrong!)

I parked the car up in quite lovely sunny weather but didn’t get my hopes up as I remembered that’s what we started out in last time. The car parking was Β£2 for all day – Lake District National Park take note! The path heads out of the top of the carpark and, after crossing the road, you descend slightly to the river valley to cross over the river bridge. Hardly any height was lost and a superbly-graded path ascended the far bank. So far, so good…

The path then rose gently for a mile or so until it dropped to a another burn crossing. This was much more of a drop down so I hoped I wasn’t feeling too tired on the way back – I noticed my altimeter said I’d descended back to my starting height. The Chalamain Gap was already in sight and not looking far off though…

Lurchers Crag & Chalamain

It was a further easy ascent to the start of the gap and there were some nice burns to drink out of on the way up.

Chalamain Gap Start

The route through the gap hove into view and I could see people doing a lot of handwork to stay on their feet coming towards me. It didn’t look that bad – perhaps they were not used to boulders or had big packs?

I crossed a few long snowy sections of path which were so hard-packed they probably won’t thaw this year and followed a couple in front of me towards the boulders. To be honest, on the way out and in ascent, I really didn’t find the boulders that side of the pass ‘summit’ bad at all and managed to happily balance my way along them without any use of hands. I did realise it might not be the same with tired leg muscles later in the day though.

Chalamain Gap-to Sugarbowl from summit
Looking back to Sugarbowl from Chalamain Gap Summit – if you click on the photo and peer at it, there are a couple of people on it giving boulder scale!

Chalamain Gap Summit

After the summit of the gap the boulders did get far worse. On the way out I picked a line near the bottom of the gully but on the way back came along much higher up the side – I think the return route was better. It was pretty tricky keeping balance along this second section and I had to use my hands sometimes too. I still flew past the other couple though so I think there must be an element of how used to rough walking you are – I seem to do a lot of it!

Safely through the gap I checked my altimeter as I could see I had quite a descent. I was around the 750 ‘metre’ mark I think – when I checked my altimeter again in the bottom of the Lairig Ghru (after a very steep final descent down the wall of the gully), I was a bit upset to see I was once again at my day’s starting height 😦 That would make a hard end to my day on the return!

Sron na Lairige from Chalamain
The Sron na Lairige route to Braeriach appears – with a bit of descent first!

Einich Munros from Chalamain Gap
The Glen Einich Munros

I started to wonder how long the walk would take and whether I would make the last bus if I dodged off back down the Coylumbridge path on the way back. If I missed it though, I’d have a hell of an uphill walk back to my car and wouldn’t really want to leave it up the road for the night.

Oh well, I had a quick slurp out of the burn where it re-issues from the mountainside and set off up the the very steep ascent of the opposite bank. Another good path eased the climb again… I noticed a guy ahead but he looked much faster than me so I didn’t bother timing how far ahead he was.

He crossed a steep-looking patch of snow ahead but looked to have no difficulties – I had my microspikes anyway in case of any problems. I was soon crossing the same snow and then starting on the arduous ascent up the nose. The path is superb all the way though so that helps…

I found, to my surprise, that I was doing much better during my ascent than I had on my previous two day’s walks – I’d been absolutely knackered all the way round on those. Maybe fitness was starting to come?

Lairig Ghru from Sron na Lairige
Lairig Ghru from Ascent

I plodded steadily upwards, pleased to have scenery this time and happy I was still vaguely keeping the guy ahead in sight. After the initial climb up the nose there is another middle peak which has a few boulder patches on its ascent. I remember how dispiriting this middle peak had seemed in the mist for me and Richard – wasn’t too bad with views though.

Near the top of the middle peak, the path diverts around the side of the peak which was a relief as I had no real ambition to bag the summit of it! The guy ahead was nowhere in sight by now…

After quite a long traverse, the path finally finished rounding the peak and there was another short descent – not back to my starting height this time though! I could see the guy ahead again now – he wasn’t too far away and was tackling one of the several steep patches of snow up the final climb to Braeriach.

Braeriach-Ben MacDui to Carn a' Mhaim
Ben MacDui and the lovely sweep to Carn a’ Mhaim from the traverse

Braeriach-Carn Toul & Devils Point
Carn Toul and Devils Point

The rest of the climb to Braeriach is actually pretty easy and none of the snow patches caused any problems, being firm but soft enough to stomp into.

Summit snows
Approaching the summit snows

Soon the spectacular corrie burst into view with superb views across to first Carn Toul and then the lovely Angels Peak with Lochan Uaine below it. My camera was out and I was clicking away – I don’t really think any of my photos have done the views justice however.

Braeriach Eastern Corries

Braeriach - Across the Eastern Corries

Braeriach to Carn Toul & Angels Peak

Braeriach - nearing summit

Braeriach Summit Crags
Summit Crags

I was surprised to arrive at the summit very soon after the guy ahead and we had a quick chat. I told him I was headed across to the very distant-looking and quite nondescript top around the plateau – he wished me a pleasant walk – I wasn’t sure that was the right description for it. This was the kind of point I would have met with a very definite revolt from Richard who would have gone on strike at, or near, Braeriach’s cairn (wherever it was warmest) and I’d have been doing the top alone anyway.

Distant Carn na Criche
Carn na Criche is the most distant swelling centre photo

It did look a bit like a ‘top too far’. Still, I knew that often these peaks went quite quickly so I set off at a good pace down the gentle descent to the ‘Wells of Dee’ – various pools and a little river which are the source of the Dee on the plateau. There were further good views of the various corries biting into the plateau…

Ben MacDui Across Braeriach Summit Crags
Ben MacDui again

Lairig Ghru from Braeriach Summit
Lairig Ghru far below now

Braeriach Plateau to Lochan Uaine

Braeriach Summit Crags (portrait)

Carn na Criche
Carn na Criche again

Braeriach to Carn Toul

I was soon crossing the soggy area where the pools drain down towards the Lairig Ghru and, at one point, found a brief path. That headed into a huge patch of snow across the col and never resurfaced the other side. This snow was again firm – luckily as it crossed a surprisingly substantial river.

The Infant Dee
The Infant Dee

The onward route was another gentle rate of ascent and the surface had changed from quite firm and rocky to sort of soft shingle. I’d say the distance between Braeriach and the top of Carn na Criche will be about two miles and this bit went on a bit. To pass the time, I decided to sing an extremely ribald song from my Army days – Barnacle Bill – as it has many verses and I thought I might just finish it by the summit cairn. I have to say I’d had to sing half of it again before I reached the two cairns (not sure which is the highest so visited both). Good job I was completely alone up there πŸ˜‰

Barnacle Bill Hill!
Barnacle Bill Hill πŸ˜‰

There wasn’t much of a new view from the top so I soon left to speed my way back to Braeriach again.

Long Way Back to Braeriach!
Distant-looking Braeriach Summit

The return went well and I was soon back – 40 minutes each way so that pretty much confirms my guess of 2 miles. I looked at my watch and, by now, I’d already missed the half four bus so at least I knew it was the Chalamain Gap again for me! I was still feeling okay at this point though.

Distant Beinn Mheadhoin
Beinn Mheadoin from the descent

As I started my descent, I noticed a couple descending ahead and wondered whether it was the couple I’d passed in the Chalamain. I caught them up on my descent of the bouldery section of the middle peak however and didn’t think I recognised them. When I said hello I gathered they were foreigners – she wasn’t enjoying the boulders at all and was taking them very cautiously indeed.

Descent to Sron na Lairige
The far couple were, astonishingly, coming UP the hill!

I was still going very well but did find the descent of Sron na Lairige quite hard work on my shins – steep pounding down a hard path takes them a while to get used to until the muscles build up properly.

Across the Lairig Ghru fm Sron na Lairige
Lurchers Crag across the Lairig Ghru

I was soon having another slurp of the lovely, cool water issuing from the rocks in the bottom of the Lairig Ghru.

Creag a' Chalamain
Back up to the Chalamain Gap – my return path was the one keeping its height well to the right of the more worn one

At this point I was absolutely dreading the ascent out of the Lairig and the long plod back up to Chalamain Gap. Still, it had to be done so I set off straight away and, at the top of the very steep initial climb, took the other path to the right of the one I’d come down. You can’t really see this one when descending from the gap but it is a much better path. It is softer underfoot without being slippery and takes a more steady ascent – pretty enjoyable really – I was soon back at the gap – now to see how my muscles were for the route back through the boulders.

Chalamain - How's Your Balance
How’s your balance now?

I have to admit that I did have to use my hands more as both my muscles and possibly my mind were tired and I was prone to make the odd mistake and nearly fall down some of the huge gaps between the boulders. I know many people nowadays walk with poles but I certainly wouldn’t recommend it through this passage – you need to really watch where you’re putting your feet!

Chalamain Gap Return

Once through the gap it was an easy plod back to the car – I was going a bit slower by now but it didn’t really matter. I happily gazed up at the main Cairngorms and all the routes I’ve done in the past while I wandered along the easy track. There was a superb dead bog-tree which would have made an absolutely fantastic photo but I’d used both my 36-shot films up by now. Oh well, I’ll probably bob up and do Creag a’ Chalamain another time so I can get it then…

By now I was starving, having only eaten two biscuits, but couldn’t see the point in eating any more of the food in my pack when I had a car-full of it so continued resolutely back to the car. I have to say I was pretty tired when I got there and absolutely ravenous! I wolfed down a couple of cheese slices and drank my hitherto-ignored flask of black coffee which I’d carted all the way round with me (I think I save it in case I get benighted!) while I changed my boots.

Just as I got in the car, it started to throw it down with rain for the rest of the evening – very unusual for it to stay dry until I get back off a walk!

To answer the question in the post title anyway – I would go for the Coylumbridge approach any time over the Chalamain one. Much less ascent and far easier – especially at the end of the day as there’s absolutely no re-ascent on your return. A bike would also save you a few miles walking too…

Stats: 4280 feet of ascent, 16 miles, 8 hours exactly!

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16 responses

4 09 2015
tessapark1969

Just found this – useful as I am contemplating Braeriach for the ton up (weather dependent)

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7 09 2015
mountaincoward

It’s a superb peak – I’d say about the best in the area. It also has the advantage of much better weather around Aviemore than most of Scotland. I’d say you could do it summer or winter without much difficulty (keeping in mind the avalanche forecasts obviously).

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20 06 2014
bob

Great photographs Carol. Full marks for grit and effort. I cant believe the man made paths up there now though… and you have to pay in the car parks!!! Changed days indeed. Have you invested in a new camera recently or a new development firm? The colours in the photos look very clear and natural.

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20 06 2014
mountaincoward

Nope, no new camera – just decent weather for a change! I have noticed that Kodak, which I’m having to buy now, has suddenly gone green-biased instead of the blues and reds they used to do (so more like the Agfa I used years ago).

I thought Β£2 for the day’s parking was well worth the price…
Carol.

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19 06 2014
McEff

Well, that was an epic trip. And Barnacle Bill. I’ve got a version of that on a jazz CD somewhere but I can’t remember who sings it. Probably just as well.
I’d never heard of the Chalamain Gap until I read this post, Carol. I’ve not climbed Braeriach yet either, so I shall have to do some research.
You’ve got some great pictures there. I love that shot of the Lairig Ghru. What a fantastic valley that is.
All the best, Alen

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19 06 2014
mountaincoward

Must be a cleaned-up version of Barnacle Bill surely?

If you do it, I’d either do the Rothiemurchus route from Coylumbridge or the Glen Einich/Coire Dhondail route is supposed to be really nice too – I still want to do that route myself. Chalamain Gap is probably good fun on the way out if you can get a lift back to your car from Coylumbridge and descend that way at the end of the day.

I’m dying to do the Lairig Ghru sometime πŸ™‚
Carol.

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19 06 2014
McEff

Thanks for that. By the way: Barnacle Bill the Sailor, Hoagy Carmichael, 1930. YouTube video:

Now you should video your version Carol and upload it to YouTube.

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20 06 2014
mountaincoward

I’d best play that when I’m not at work! πŸ˜‰

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16 06 2014
Mark

You’re rattling through the Munro Tops.
Nice photos of Rothiemurchus Forest.
The Chalamain Gap is even worst with a thin covering of snow.

Re the northern tops of Beinn a’ Bhuird. I did them on a long solo day from Linn of Quoich one Autumn. The cloud closed in early doors and the entire day was an exercise in not getting hopelessly lost on the plateau.

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16 06 2014
mountaincoward

I definitely don’t fancy the northern tops of BaB from the south – I’ll definitely be going from Tomintoul – I also have the northern ones on Ben Avon to do so it will make a good round from Inchrory Lodge πŸ™‚ It is quite featureless and confusing up there isn’t it? We got lost at one point on BaB when a blizzard came in and I was looking for Cnap a’ Chleirich. We found ourselves nearly down to the Northern tops when it cleared!

I can imagine the Chalamain Gap is horrendous in anything slippery!
Carol.

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15 06 2014
Ian

Have you ever walked up through the Gap then turn right and up over Castle hill, and back out through eag a’ chait returning to your start at the Sugarbowl. A great half day with some really unusual viewpoints and a good place to see the local wildlife as it’s not visited that much

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15 06 2014
mountaincoward

Nope not yet – but I’ll bear it in mind when I’ve finished the tops as I’ll definitely be looking for easier walks then – I’m not getting any younger! πŸ˜‰
Carol.

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15 06 2014
chrissiedixie

Not done that top, even though I have done a few in the Cairngorms. I’ve long fancied the idea of a backpack through the Lairig Ghru though, spending a night out somewhere along route πŸ™‚

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15 06 2014
mountaincoward

I’m definitely going to do the Lairig Ghru one day. I think I’ll stay the night at Bob Scott’s bothy near Derry Lodge and call it a day there though. Probably walk back out via the Lairig Laoigh after that.
Carol.

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15 06 2014
fedup

Some great pics there Carol πŸ™‚

The paths look like they get a lot of traffic?

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15 06 2014
mountaincoward

I think everything in the Cairngorms does but Braeriach is one of the most popular – it is a superb walk and a stunning part of the Cairngorms massif with all those corries bitten out of it. Gives good views into the Lairig Ghru too…
Carol.

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