Scotland Walks – A Midsummer Walk Up Carn Ban Mor In The Cairngorms
Carn Ban Mor is a treeless, scree-covered summit in the Cairngorms. It rises to over 3,400 feet, which in theory qualifies it as a Munro, but because of the closeness of its neighbour, Sgor Gaoith, it is now considered a ‘Munro Top’ or a subsidiary of a Munro.
I’m not sure if this makes any real difference to the experience of climbing Carn Ban Mor at all; it certainly doesn’t make it any less of an effort!
It was a couple of days after midsummer, and the weather forecast looked good. Colin and I headed north up the A9, turning off just before Aviemore on the B-road to Feshiebridge. We followed a winding track to a car park surrounded by woodland, where we kitted ourselves up and set out on foot.
The path up Carn Ban Mor leads firstly through heather and bracken, past a couple of farms, and then up through stands of forestry before emerging onto the open hillside. We could see our way ahead plainly enough – the track snaked away in front of us, following the contours of the mountain right up to the summit, where the remnants of snowfields were lying in the lee of the hill.
The track was dry and dusty, the result of a prolonged dry spring, and it was intersected at intervals by tumbling streams. Heather moorland stretched away on either side, and we stopped regularly to photograph wild flowers: chickweed wintergreen, tormentil and heath-spotted orchid. We even discovered a tiny frog hiding in the shade of some boulders!
As the glen dropped away below us, the spectacular views started to unfold. We could see the River Spey winding like a ribbon along the valley floor, while above it rose a magnificent panorama of mountains in a thousand shades of hazy blue.
The summer heat started to take its toll; we hadn’t reckoned on it being so hot at this altitude, and we were glad of all the water we’d brought. Colin was labouring under a panoply of camera equipment, which he refuses to leave at home. He is a keen photographer as well as a wildlife artist, and he wasn’t going to miss any opportunities.
We allowed ourselves frequent rests to admire the scenery and soak up the perfect tranquillity of the mountains. Nowhere is the path difficult or steep, although sometimes our boots skidded on the dusty surface. Two hill runners, wiry and rugged, passed us on their way down, never breaking their rhythm as they breathed a quick greeting. I felt ashamed at my lack of fitness!
As we approached the snowfield, a wind started to blow that could have come straight from Siberia. We realised that the air was being cooled by the lying snow, and the fleeces that we’d discarded went back on. Standing by a field of compacted snow with the midsummer sun scorching my face and a bitter wind chilling my bones was an incredible experience.
Above the snow, the landscape turned softer, greener and more boggy. A spring was bubbling up, feeding emerald beds of sphagnum moss as it flowed over rocks and away out of sight. Another few minutes of concentrated effort took us up to the silent, open terrain of the summit. Walking here presented a different challenge, because the low-growing grass was littered with lichen-covered boulders. Flowering among the scree were a number of alpine plants, among them the bright pink cushions of Silene acaulis or moss campion.
One of our hopes in climbing Carn Ban Mor was for a sighting of one of Britain’s most elusive birds – a dotterel. We’d been told by a number of wildlife experts that this was the best time to visit, but when we surveyed the vast landscape we began to doubt our chances. Dotterel are well camouflaged, and from an early age they know how to run and hide among the scree; what hope did we have?
After wandering around for less than ten minutes, our despair turned to amazement when we came across an adult dotterel, with a couple of fluffy chicks in tow. The little youngsters were barely hatched, but they were skittering nimbly across the stones on very sturdy legs after their parent. We really couldn’t believe our luck.
Resting at the summit cairn, we admired the views in all directions: seeing Scotland’s breathtaking landscape laid out at your feet is an amazing feeling. To the north-east lay the peak of Sgor Gaoith, and the scale of the mountains was so deceptive that it almost looked as if we could hop there… but we knew it would take a good couple of hours, and the afternoon was wearing on.
We set off back down the long track, still marvelling at the aridity of the soil; whenever we made a detour, our feet crunched on the dry vegetation. As we reached the lower slopes we were glad to feel the coolness of the forest, and the soft water of the burns made a balm for our aching feet! The walk back to the car along the valley bottom was perhaps the most arduous of all.
Some good, simple food was called for: an excellent fish supper from Happy Days in Kingussie fitted the bill perfectly. A great day’s walking – and some experiences that will stay with us forever.
Jo is a freelance writer and editor with a lifelong interest in the natural world.