Exploring Rothiemurchus

In both January and February I've been able to spend time exploring the Rothiemurchus Forest in the Cairngorms National Park.   This is part of the Rothiemurchus Estate, and is a remnant of the ancient Caledonian Forest that spread across huge areas of Scotland.  Last year part of the Rothiemurchus Estate changed hands for the first time in over 500 years, being sold from the Grant family to Forestry Commission Scotland.

One of my projects for this year is to get to know this area better, and to see how it changes through the seasons.

During the first two visits of the year, I've walked three routes (one of them four times over, as I get familiar with it) in the Rothiemurchus and the adjoining Glenmore Forest (also owned by the Forestry Commission).

Walk One is from the Rothiemurchus Estate car park at Loch an Eilein up into the Lairig Ghru.  Walk Two is also from Loch an Eilein up into Gleann Einich.  Walk Three is from Glenmore up to Ryvoan bothy.

Walk One

This is the oft repeated route, and my intention is to do this as many times as is practical through 2015 to build up a ‘local patch’ level of familiarity with it.  I'm interested to see how far up the Lairig Ghru I'm able to reach as the year goes round.  In the winter on Cairngorm one needs to contend with both the short days and the bleak weather.

On the January iteration of the walk I decided to turn back at the point when the snow became too deep to walk through.  In February, I was turned back, a little higher up the route, when the wind made it too challenging to go any further.  Hopefully in the summer months the weather will be a little better, although I did have the passing thought on the first January walk that it’s quite possible that I was seeing the upper reaches of Rothiemurchus at its most beautiful, with temperatures around -7C and a deep covering of fresh snow.

Rothiemurchus in January - Sunshine and Snow
The route for this walk starts at the little visitor centre car park at Loch an Eilein on the Rothiemurchus estate and follows the circular route through the forest around the northeast shore of the loch.  At the second gate the circular path swings round to the west and my route turns east away from the loch, signed to the Lairig Ghru.

Loch an Eilein in January
The Lairig Ghru is one of the traditional routes through Cairngorm linking Speyside with Deeside and it climbs up from Speyside reaching its summit at 835 metres with 1296m high Braeriach looming to the west, and Ben Macdui at 1309m to the east.

Lochan Deo in January
Lochan Deo in February
From the sign-post the path meanders its way through thinning forest, and across a couple of fords, to a series of junctions at Lochan Deo. This lochan was completely frozen across in January.  From Lochan Deo we again continue east until we reach the Allt Dubhag river where an iron footbridge, built by the Cairngorm Club in 1912, allows us to cross from the east to the west side and then follow the west bank of the Allt Druidh until we reach another signed junction.  This junction, in some of the guides referred to as Piccadilly, is where we break off wide forest tracks and join a much more modest path that climbs up to the tree line and towards the Lairig Ghru. The wide track lets you walk through to Loch Morlich.

Cairngorm Club footbridge in January
In January, with a deep covering of fresh snow, the Lairig Ghru track is pretty much obscured and navigation really needs to be based on climbing up through the trees keeping the Allt Druidh on your right hand side below you. By the time I was doing the February iteration of the walk, the path was much more obvious.

Looking for the paths, Rothiemurchus in January
Finding paths gets easier, Rothiemurchus in February
One of the attractions of the snow-walk is that it reveals just how much wildlife is around. The route I was following in January was criss-crossed by numerous deer and hare tracks.  Rewalking in February gave very few reminders of the local mammals, although there was more bird life around.

As the path climbs up from Piccadilly at 330 metres to the junction with the path from Rothiemurchus Lodge at 480m it really is clear that you are walking through a natural tree line.  This isn't the hard artificial boundary that we so often see around the Scottish mountains, but a softer blurring from relatively dense natural forest through to open moorland with occasional trees.  In January the climb up out of the forest started to become challenging as the route passed through various hollows filled with up to a metre of snow, and in places a surface crust was almost (but not quite) strong enough to take my weight. This seemed like the right point to retreat back down the path.  My reluctance to turn round was compounded by the fact that otherwise the conditions were beautiful, with plenty of sunshine and almost no wind.  When I returned in February, the conditions underfoot were better, but the vicious wind blowing down through the Lairig Ghru made walking problematic. Standing was just about OK, but doing anything else, like lifting one foot to take a pace forward, was pretty high risk.  I’ll be back later in the year to explore this path again in other conditions, and hopefully to get a bit closer to the top of the pass.

Top of Rothiemurchus in January
Top of Rothiemurchus in February
Walk Two

This is also in Rothiemurchus, this time up through Gleann Einich to Loch Einich. I did this walk in February when the temperature was around 5C, although there were patches of snow on the sheltered areas of the path, and it was still cold enough for the showers to be a mix of rain, sleet and hail (in roughly equal measures).  This walk follows the same route as Walk One up to Lochan Deo before heading southeast through a gateway signed towards Loch Einich. Mostly the route is a land-rover-wide track, although in a few places a footpath is provided away from the wide track.  The forest fades away as you walk up alongside Am Beanaidh river, and you are soon walking in a pretty bleak valley. In most places there are footbridges when the main track fords the streams. But not everywhere. In one or two places you need to hop from slippery stone to slippery stone, and I think getting your feet wet might just be pretty close to inevitable.

Gleann Einich in February
Loch Einich (about 500m above sea level) is surrounded by a dramatic horseshoe of cliffs and peaks reaching up to 1200 metres. As you reach the loch they feel like a series of ancient fortifications, particularly when then are covered in snow and shrouded in mists.   It would be good to redo this walk in clearer conditions, but I'm pretty sure that I’ll still end up with wet feet. Perhaps warm wet feet would be preferable to cold wet feet.

Loch Einich in February

Walk Three

This is a short walk that I did on the January visit.  This started from the roadside at the Glenmore Forest visitor centre and went up past Glenmore Lodge towards An Lochan Uaine through the Ryvoan Pass and on to the Ryvoan Bothy.  One the day I was doing this the temperatures has spiked upwards (to just above freezing) and the paths were a mix of snow, ice, slush, gravel and (in a few places) running water.

An Lochan Uaine in January
Ryvoan Bothy in January
One of the aims of my Cairngorm project is to see how the paths and landscapes change as the year goes by.  I'm interested to see the differences.  Even over a few days in winter the temperatures can wander from -7C to +7C, the winds can go from nothing to blow-you-off-your-feet and the sunshine from almost warm to completely absent.  The path conditions can also go from crisp crunchy snow to dry gravel, via the slush, sheet-ice and water phases. And the people on the paths can range from cross-country skiers and hard-core ice climbers to mountain bikers, dog walkers and half-term tourists.

The speed of change was highlighted by the ice on Loch Morlich. In January there was ice much all the ways across from shore to shore. In February as the temperatures (and winds) climbed there were fantastic ice mounds on the northern shore. And 24 hours later there wasn't a sign of any ice at all.

Loch Morlich in January
Loch Morlich in February
Interesting stuff change.

Footprints in January

Images also available as a flickr album.

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