The Four Tops (Glen Derry)

18 10 2015

Tue 29 Sep 2015
Knowing I was in for a very long and hard day and that daylight hours are much reduced at this time of the year, I thought I’d best prise myself out of bed a bit earlier than normal. Ten past eight saw me setting off in the car for Linn O’ Dee…

Stacan Dubha to E Top (cropped)
Beinn Mheadhoin (click on photos for full size/resolution)

Richard had been so uncertain of my ambitious plans, he’d made me write out a full route plan the night before – something I probably should but rarely do while walking alone in the hills.

I was setting off on the bike for the 4 mile cycle to Derry Lodge by 0845 and arrived there at 0915. After quite a faff and a couple of false starts, I set out on my long, long walk up Glen Derry. It was a beautiful morning and, although I rarely stop on the way out on a walk to take photos, I felt I must. The native pines and the backdrop of the spectacular mountain scenery behind them in the beautiful morning sun and clear air was something not to be missed.

Glen Derry & Luibeg Junctions

Glen Derry Trees Early Morning

Glen Derry-Claires trees

Derry Cairngorm across Derry Burn

Dramatic Glen Derry

Glen Derry-twin trees

Carn Coire Etchachan, Evening
My First Top

Bridge under Carn Coire Etchachan
Bridge to side glen

I reached the Hutchison Hut after entering the side glen about one and a half hours later, had a quick peep in and then set off up the good path climbing to the col to start on my first mountain. The hut, which I’ve always liked, has now been further improved and had been sat in full sun so was nice and warm. It must be a great spot to spend the night, although the sun goes off it by early evening.

Crags above Hutchison Hut
You can just see the Hutchison Hut looking small below the crags

On my way up the steep path to the col, I was eyeing one of the Munro Tops I had to do on my left – the East Top of Derry Cairngorm. I noticed that, not only was it a long way out to the top (a mile and a half), it also had a big dip in between that and the parent peak. I’d originally planned to do this top third but now decided that wasn’t a good plan and that I’d be better to do it last. This new plan was backed up by me noticing a couple of places on the steep mountain wall which I thought I could probably descend. The first was a very steep grass bank down where the burn tumbled off the hill, the second looked more my sort of thing – a grassy rake cutting across just to the right of the burn and descending below the climbers’ crags.

My first two tops were both on Beinn Mheadhoin (unbelievably pronounced Ben Vane) and I was now passing under the first one on my right – the spectacularly craggy Stob Coire Etchachan. As I ascended to the col, I kept thinking I could see little paths cutting across under Beinn Mheadhoin’s steep south face to the Top. After reaching the col and turning right to ascend the loose path up Beinn Mheadhoin, I kept an eye out for any such path but couldn’t see anything. In the end, I continued up until I reached the main ridge and then cut back down across a wide col for the short and gentle reascent to my first top. I’d said I might send Richard a text for each of the tops if I had a signal but, on turning on the phone and sending the first text, I noticed my battery suddenly said it only had half left so turned off the phone for the rest of the day – I’d just text him again if I was going to be late back.

The view from Stob Coire Etchachan is exceedingly spectacular – straight down for a very long way! The floor of Glen Derry lay beneath my toes and the river was glittering in the sun. I took a couple of photos, had a quick coffee and set off back up to the ridge – my next top was right down the far side of the peak. Due to time restraints, I had no time to re-visit the main Munro summit.

Glen Derry Way Below
Views from the summit
Loch Etchachan from Mheadhoin E Top

I was lucky in that the place I hit the ridgeline had a view down to Stacan Dubha, my second Top – I hadn’t been able to see it on the way up and was hoping it wouldn’t be hard to find.

Carn Etchachan & Stacan Dubha
Stacan Dubha is the very small peak in the foreground

It was a very cute little rocky peak just above the route up from The Shelter Stone and Loch Avon and ended up being very easy and my favourite of the day. That was two out of my four Tops out of the way and it was only midday – I had visions of arriving back really early and surprising Richard with my speed!

Loch Avon from Stacan Dubha
Loch Avon from Stacan Dubha

I could see my third Top of Carn Etchachan across Loch Etchachan, however, although it was a short distance away, the nearer wall of the peak is craggy for a long way. There looked like there might be ways up through the crags on grassy rakes but I wasn’t sure how steep they would be and decided against them – that ended up probably being a bad decision as, when I viewed them later from the side, some looked possible, especially one near the very end of the ridge… There is also a potential route up a burn on steep grass further left along the ridge but I thought that also looked too steep. It’s hard to tell how steep something is when you’re looking straight at it due to the foreshortening effect.

Carn Etchachan from Stacan Dubha
Carn Etchachan (my next Top) from Stacan Dubha – I later thought the right-hand gully would have been fine

Loch Etchachan & My Ascent Ridge (left)
Loch Etchachan with my rejected burnside route across the loch – I crossed over the end of the craggy peak on the left

In the end, I crossed the neck of land between the two halves of Loch Etchachan and ploutered up the inside of the corrie. I’d wondered about using the Derry Cairngorm path but thought it went too far away from the ridge I had my eye on. The ridge I was heading for had lots of crags all over it but it was obvious there were many easy ways through them – it’s the ridge immediately to the left of the steep burn ascent I’d discounted. I could see there would be a descent and reascent before regaining the correct ridge and just hoped it wasn’t too severe.

Loch Etchachan to Cairngorm

The walk up the inside of the corrie was quite arduous and full of invisible holes so I started to feel pretty tired. I aimed for a high, level grass rake just below the crags at the top of the ridge – it seemed to take ages to get there. Eventually, I arrived to find that the rake wasn’t all that apparent on the ground. I was soon getting mixed up with more craggy sections and kept ascending further. Soon, I rounded the corner and saw a little valley with an old snow patch and a small lochan… and quite a descent down steep boulders to get into it.

Carn Etchachan - Little Valley Lochan

I carefully clawed my way down the steep and sometimes loose boulders and reached the lochan. There were some nice springs here where I got a good drink – the sun was quite warm by now but I was being blasted by a strong southerly wind most of the day. With a bit of a groan, as I was now feeling very tired after the pathless corrie ascent, I clambered up the next short, steep slope mainly on boulders. When I reached the top of this, I could see in the distance, a rounded peak with a huge beehive cairn on it – that must be my Top. I set off determinedly and soon reached it – the going was pretty bouldery but it was often possible to find grassy ways through so it wasn’t too bad.

When I reached the huge cairn, I could see the peak at the top of the large crag down to the Shelter Stone’s environs and thought I’d best go over to that in case that was actually my Top. After seeing it had been the original cairn after all I hurried back past it and set off, by now pretty much into a gale, as fast as I could back along the ridge.

This time, instead of descending to the lochan in the little valley, I decided to follow the ridge until it met a grassy rake going horizontally around my previous rocky spur – a bit further to walk but less up and down. Just after passing another small lochan on the ridge, I found a bank which sheltered me from the blasting wind and put me in full sun. As I was by now getting quite hungry, I sat briefly for a Tunnocks caramel wafer and another coffee.

Carn Etchachan from Teabreak Lochan
Carn Etchachan (rounded middle lump) from teabreak lochan

This time my grassy rake was quite a good one and, just as it deteriorated into boulders, I could see another grassy rake going straight up over the ridge with not much ascent. I followed the grass up and was pleased to see I could descend the far side of the ridge without any crags at all past another old snow patch. I was soon re-crossing the corrie and, this time, headed straight for the Derry Cairngorm path which was easily reached and would have been a much better route choice on the outward route.

Cheered by being back on a path at last, I romped off down towards Loch Etchachan, passing a couple ascending – only the second people I’d seen all day.

Carn Etchachan crags across Loch

Loch Etchachan

Just as I started to pass the northern edge of Derry Cairngorm’s North Top, I saw a little path contouring around the peak and set off up to join it. I noted that it was now 1530 and I had to have done the next top by 1630 or I’d be doing some of my return journey in the dark.

As I contoured around the hill my path ended – it wasn’t really possible to see whether the grassy shelf I was just above continued around the peak or not – it was right above the huge climbing crags. Thinking it probably didn’t, I traversed more difficult, bouldery ground until I could see a clear descent to the col before my final top – the East top of Derry Cairngorm. As I descended, I joined the grassy shelf – it had been continuous after all and would have been easier than my route.

Descending to Derry Cairngorm NE Top
Descending to my final top (with the dark crag on the left)

As I made the very large descent to the depression before my top, I kept looking down to see if I could see my grassy rake descent which I’d been looking at in the morning – I thought I could and it looked okay. I’m always a bit wary of off-piste and unknown descents when I’m on my own though – especially beside large crags and late in the day!

The route to the final top went quite quickly and without difficulty and I was pleased to note I was on the summit by 1600 hours.

Carn Coire Etchachan & Mheadhoin
My first top from my last
Mheadhoin E Top from Derry Cairngorm NE Top

Now it was decision time… was I to descend my unknown grassy rake or go the long, sensible way back across the back of Derry Cairngorm between its main and north peaks to rejoin the path – basically three sides of a square to take me to the same point as the direct descent via the rake? I set off back down the descent while I mulled it over.

In the end, I didn’t fancy any more ascent back over the ridge of the hill and didn’t really think I had time to go all the way around on the path – it was the grassy rake then – I hoped it would be okay…

Derry Cairngorm N Top from East
Reascent of North Top (my shelf on right) or descent from col?

On reaching the lowest point on the col and crossing the burn, I had a quick look over where the burn spilled down towards the Hutchison Hut. Although I’d thought it looked possible in the morning, it looked too steep for comfort and I continued on briefly to inspect my rake. When I reached it I could see I’d have to be careful where I descended below it down the mountainside as there were places where there was a lip and then steep slabs for parts of the descent. It looked like there were other grassy routes either side though.

As I started to descend, I found that what I’d thought were slabby areas in the morning were actually boulders. They were quite steep and loose but I could see people had zig-zagged down through them – probably climbers descending from climbs. I clambered down and was soon descending on very steep and holey grass down the steep wall. I picked my way down carefully finding there was always a route down on grass – it was just very slow going. In the end, it took me 20 minutes to descend to the corrie floor and the Hutchison Hut – it would have taken the best part of an hour to go round though.

I now had five miles of glen walking and four miles of cycling before it got dark at around 1900 so thought I’d best not hang around. I surprised myself how fast I marched off back down the glen path after such a long and hard day – I was probably going faster than in the morning and my legs were much better than they had been. On the way out, both my hip and my right knee were grumbly – now they were fine. The only problem I was having was with my now very hot feet and the hard path all the way down the glen. The balls of my feet felt like they were on fire! Must have been my scorching pace!

I arrived back at my waiting bike just after 1800 and went to uncable it and put my pack on it. It was here at Derry Lodge that I was absolutely assailed by clouds of biting midges. There had been some in the forested parts of the glen but, by rolling my sleeves down and keeping walking fast, I didn’t get bitten. At the lodge I was eaten alive however and couldn’t get my bike and bags sorted quickly enough. I was scraping masses of them off my face and they were in my hair and going in my eyes. Not a place I’d like to camp but there were two tents there.

Cursing loudly, I mounted the bike and sped off down the track as fast as I could. I was again surprised how well I cycled back – I still seemed full of energy. Half an hour later I was back at the Linn O’ Dee carpark where the midges were almost as bad as at the Lodge. I hurriedly folded the bike and threw it on the back seat, threw my camera and bag into the boot and drove off quickly still wearing my hiking boots. I had neither locked the bike in nor cabled it up so knew I’d best not corner too quickly or do any emergency stops!

As I neared Braemar and saw the size of the huge drop down to the River Dee, I thought I’d best lock the rear door by the bike and reached over to lock it – luckily I have very long arms and could reach while driving. I arrived back at our log cabin bang on 1900 – with it being such good weather it was nothing like dark so I’d probably have been fine for another half hour at least.

It was now the supreme and expected exhaustion really hit me. I managed to shower and get my tea and started to drink as much as I could but I was totally out of it. My feet, although left bare after my shower, were still on fire and I complained that there was no bowl in the log cabin for me to soak my feet in cool water to soothe them. Richard had a solution – he went over to the pan cupboard and ran me some cold water… in the frying pan! I felt a bit strange soaking my feet in a frying pan but it helped. After keeping them out of the bed all night, both feet were as right as rain the next day.

I’ve always said Tops are much harder than Munros but I’m sure this was definitely my hardest day to date doing either – I hope nothing turns out harder!

Stats: 27 miles (8 cycled), 4795 feet of ascent, 10 hours

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29 responses

29 10 2015
3 Trips Thursday #54 - walkwithtookie

[…] The Four Tops (Glen Derry). […]

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27 10 2015
Paul Shorrock

What a monster of a day Carol – well done!!

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1 11 2015
mountaincoward

Thanks Paul – it didn’t seem too hard apart from the route I chose to Carn Etchachan which could definitely have been better. The exhaustion that evening and the next day was pretty bad though.

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20 10 2015
fedup

Fab photos – love the tree shots πŸ™‚ Finally summer has arrived πŸ˜€

Cheers Simon

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20 10 2015
mountaincoward

I love those trees down there πŸ™‚ Yeah, summer is a bit late isn’t it!

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19 10 2015
underswansea

Hi Carol. Sounds like a wonderful day. The weather looked great for such a trip. Good to hear you leaving a route plan when you head out on your own. Your photos and the scenery is spectacular. Take care. Bob

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20 10 2015
mountaincoward

I suppose I should always leave a route plan but normally, I just tell someone which hill/s I’m heading for and then just go off on my own… The scenery is spectacular in the Cairngorms, especially that particular glen and its surrounding hills.

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21 10 2015
underswansea

Hi Carol, the scenery looks wonderful. You have really shown me a part of the world I did not know existed. Also, can tell why you like film so much. It really does have a greater dynamic range. Always been a rule of mine that someone knows clearly my route. No sense dying of a broken ankle. Bob

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22 10 2015
mountaincoward

I do at least ensure someone knows which hill I’ve gone to. Mind you, in the easier Lake District, I often change my mind en route to it! But there are a lot more people around in the Lakes – in Scotland you can easily go undiscovered for weeks or months!

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19 10 2015
chrissiedixie

Looked like a long, hard day Carol, but super photos and weather!

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19 10 2015
mountaincoward

It was quite hard – really just the Carn Etchachan bit – that and it is a loooong way along the glen and back.

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19 10 2015
tessapark1969

That’s a long day! You got some cracking photos though. I liked Glen Derry, just as well since we have several hills still to do from there..

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19 10 2015
mountaincoward

Yeah, I never mind going down there again – think I might just go and do Beinn Mheadhoin along with both it’s tops again some time…

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19 10 2015
Rowena

What a day you had – looks like you got the weather for it too, despite the wind at the top. I love this area – it feels so comforting and beautiful to me.

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19 10 2015
mountaincoward

It’s just about my favourite area of Scotland and one I’ll keep visiting as long as my legs keep working πŸ™‚

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19 10 2015
Blue Sky Scotland

Great set of photos and an epic solo day. Still think you are completely bonkers :o) It’s dark in the house here by 6:30 pm indoors which always comes as a bit of a shock when I’m cooking my dinner and I have to put the lights on to see what I’m eating. Roll on next spring!

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19 10 2015
mountaincoward

It didn’t get dark until at least half seven that night as it was such good weather πŸ™‚

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19 10 2015
McEff

What a brilliant day, Carol. That part of the Cairngorms is sooooo beautiful, with the pines and steep valleys, and you had brilliant weather too.
And I love the title – The Four Tops.
Alen

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19 10 2015
mountaincoward

Well the landscape is sort of brown πŸ˜‰

I love the Cairngorms with a vengeance and will continue to walk those hills and glens long after I’ve given up with the wet west of Scotland etc.

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19 10 2015
smackedpentax

Stunning photos Carol – looks a superb hike. Your limbs must be a lot better now in order to do this one? I didn’t know you cycled – I have just bought the grandson a mountain bike and have mine fixed, so we are off biking soon on the moors. Supposed to be good for the knees πŸ™‚

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19 10 2015
mountaincoward

Cycling is supposed to be easier on the joints – mainly because they’re not supporting your weight. I always think that the amount of pressure you sometimes have to put on the pedals must simulate a lot of weight on your joints though!

My legs are better for being very active – I think I’m due to have problems every spring now as I can’t get enough exercise in winter to keep them going properly.

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19 10 2015
smackedpentax

I can walk about 4 or 5 miles now, got to take it steady but they are getting better – at long last πŸ™‚

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19 10 2015
mountaincoward

that’s great news. At least you can get somewhere meaningful and enjoyable in 5 miles

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19 10 2015
smackedpentax

Yes..I thought I would need a new knee but it is holding off for now, and I am not as much pain…so generally on the mend. Three Peaks on Saturday then… πŸ˜‰

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19 10 2015
mountaincoward

Richard had some kind of keyhole surgery on his knee a few years back and it’s been fine since. They scraped a lot of loose bone fragments out of the joint or something grim like that

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19 10 2015
smackedpentax

That is more or less what I had done on both knees…the surgeon say it could be 6 months or 10 years before I need a new knee…it has just taken nearly 5 months to heal – I thought it would be much quicker…but it is getting better πŸ™‚

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19 10 2015
mountaincoward

Yeah, I thought that op would have been quicker to heal – I don’t think Richard’s was that long. His probably hadn’t got very bad though…

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19 10 2015
bowlandclimber

Great photos. What a day!

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19 10 2015
mountaincoward

It was quite a day – if I’d missed Carn Etchachan out, I’d have thoroughly enjoyed it – if I’d chosen a slightly better route to Carn Etchachan, I probably would have too. The weather was pretty good all that week for a change – but then Braemar does get good weather.

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