Speyside Life: Adventures in the Cairngorms

This winter, here in Speyside we have enjoyed some of the best skiing in Scotland for ten years. Covid means sadly the ski lifts have been shut, but equipped with ski touring gear, that has not stopped us.

Spare time in January and the first half of February was spent more or less skiing from the house with the family in the woods and nearby fields around Grantown, cumulating with a couple of magical days in the Cromdales.

I have also enjoyed several early morning trips up Meall a’Bhuachaille for my ‘daily exercise in our local area’, a hill which has since become a bit of a celebrity mountain with appearances on Ski Sunday and The Adventure Show.

Now in March the snow has receded, but it’s not time to put the skis away just yet. First I repeated a trip to Coire Gorm via the Lairig Ghru. Eleven and a half miles of walking or skinning for one beautiful run down from 1150m to 650m. Totally worth the long walk in. I had the hills to myself, not seeing anyone else until I was back in the Lairig Ghru.

I’ve heard rumours over the years of a mythical gully on Braeriach that holds the snow well into the summer, euphemistically known as ‘the escalator’ by back country skiers. Skinning up this gully would take one from 500m in Glen Einich up to 1000m on the north western flanks of Braeriach. Time to try this route, but it would involve two new tricks. Firstly the long walk in would be significantly quicker by bike, but how to cycle with all your ski gear? Secondly the chat on-line recommended harscheisen, crampons for skis, for the escalator.

The stars aligned and the day arrived. Parking at Whitewells, near Aviemore, and after some extra faffing, I set off in low cloud, on paper the last thing I needed, but the weather forecast promised a cloud inversion. The cycle in was tougher than I was expecting. My ski kit must be heavier than the 3 year old that normally sits on the back of my bike when delivering bottles to the Post Office. Part way up the glen you are offered a choice of tracks. On impulse I choose the high road, but as it steepened dramatically I immediately regretted my decision. The clouds began to part and I had my first glimpse of Braeriach, still with some snow, so good news. Further on the next challenge, a ford which looked too deep to try and cycle, but my googling had warned me to take spare socks. It was literally freezing, but strangely reinvigorating. From there it was a quick pedal to the base of the escalator, easily identifiable as a thin ribbon of snow stretching down to the base of the glen surrounded by heather.

Glen Einich

The escalator is probably as steep as the steepest pistes on Cairngorm. It was also still rock solid, so I transitioned more or less directly from ‘skis on bike’ mode to ‘skins plus harscheisen’ mode. Slightly odd, seeing as I had done neither before. And so the climb began, tacking up the gully, as to hit the gully straight on was just too steep. My tacks became swallower and swallower as it got steeper, giving the effect of almost side stepping at the steepest points. Finally the skyline opened up to reveal a broad snowfield in the sun. The escalator had taken me into another world.

Onwards and upwards apple in hand I was over taken by the only other person I had seen so far, by chance a former colleague of my wife’s. Greetings exchanged at a social distance, from there to the summit it was comparatively easy. Now I’ve been to the summit of Braeriach twice before, and distinctly remember a large cairn close to the cliff edge, but there was no sign of it today. But on the basis that I couldn’t go any higher, I had to be at the top. The summit is 1296m, so I did wonder given the depth of the snow, if I stretch up, can I touch 1300m?

From the summit looking towards Cairn Toul and the appropriately named Angel's Peak

It was windy, not overly windy, but if I let go of anything, it would disappear over the edge of the cornice, or worse into Aberdeenshire, currently out of my covid bounds. So I decided to postpone coffee and snacks until my next transition. So a lovely gentle ski down to 1200m, and time for coffee, which turned out to be rather disappointing. The coffee was cold, and snacks, it transpired were still in the car. Oh well! A short skin up, then down from 1235m to 500m, which for Scotland is a whooping vertical of a ski run, and the upper sections of the run particularly glorious. Passing seven more people, the escalator was by now heaving.

Time for the final transition, from ‘ski' to 'bike’, or so I thought. As I retrieved the bike from its hiding place in the heather there was a load bang, not a gunshot, but a puncture. I had a spare inner tube with me, but there was also damage to the tyre, a spare of which I did not have. I loaded up aware that a puncture before Whitewells was inevitable. How far would I get?

On the way out I took the low road, or old boggy road. On reflection, in via the high road, out via the old road was the right way to do things. As I got back into the Caledonian forest I speeded up, and then the second puncture. So an additional transition from ‘skis on bike’ to ‘skis on rucksack and push bike’ for the final mile.

Returning home, everything was covered in mud and oil, but once everything was hosed down, it was time for well earned dram of our Angels' Nectar Cairngorms Edition, our speyside single cask bottled in partnership with the Cairngorms Trust, the perfect dram to reflect on a Cairngorms adventure with.


Robert Ransom

Escalator photo finish