Hiking Cairn Gorm, Ben Macdui & an overnight stay in Hutchison Memorial bothy

Hiking adventure overview

Location – Cairngorms National Park, Scotland

Day 1 – Ascend Cairn Gorm & stay in Hutchison Memorial bothy

Cairn Gorm meaning – Blue cairn

Cairn Gorm height = 1244.8m (4083ft)

Day 1 hiking distance= 9.6 km (6 miles)

Day 1 hiking time = 4 – 5.5 hours

Day 2 – Ascend Ben Macdui

Ben Macdui meaning – Macduff’s mountain

Ben Macdui height = 1309m (4294ft)

Day 2 hiking distance = 12.4 km (7.7 miles)

Day 2 hiking time = 4.5 – 6 hours

I’d been looking forward to this hiking adventure all week

Sitting in my office at work — feeling mentally exhausted — I pictured myself camped alone by the loch; watching the sun go down, with not another soul in site.

Fast forward a week, having hiked to my camp site by the loch — heaven turned to hell.

Here’s my story…

Getting outside my comfort zone

I’ve always wanted to spend more time in the mountains; lured by the challenge, beauty, simplicity, and silence. I completely forget the stress of work; the noise in my mind quickly dissipates, the tension disappears, and I feel at peace. But I didn’t have anyone in my circle that was interested in joining me; too scared to go alone — and too introverted to join a group — I never stepped outside my comfort zone.

But, this time was different; I made a decision to go it alone! This would be my first solo hike, and my first time sleeping alone in a tent. I was far from comfortable; but there comes a time where the only way to get over a fear is to face it.

This adventure started in the Cairngorm Mountain car park; the easiest and most accessible point into the Cairngorms National Park.

I won’t wear cotton whilst hiking again

There are a number of ways to hike Cairn Gorm; I took the well trodden tourist path via Windy Ridge. From a navigational perspective, this route is straightforward; however, it’s a near constant climb, with few flat sections for recovery as you walk.

As any Scot will tell you, a sunny day is a rare occasion! This was one of those rare days — admittedly I was struggling with the heat as I carried my bulging backpack up the mountain (as you can see from the photo below).

And I’d also made a rookie error in my choice of clothing — opting for a cotton t-shirt! So it wasn’t long before I felt like I was wearing a sponge that hadn’t been wrung out.

Taking a much needed break from hiking up Cairn Gorm

About half way up the mountain lies the Ptarmigan Restaurant (see below photo) that’s — unfortunately — permanently closed. The restaurant is a good tick off feature, allowing you to confirm you’re heading in the right direction. I recall wishing it was still open, allowing me to purchase an ice-cold Coca-Cola – a real thirst quencher.

Ptarmigan Restaurant, after hiking half way up Cairn Gorm

A reward for hard work

After around an hour and a half — lugging my heavy backpack up under the hot sun — I made it to the top. Before taking in any scenery, the backpack was quickly dropped to the floor — it felt like the weight of the world had been lifted from my shoulders.

One thing I love about mountain tops — though there are many —is the incredible views. It feels like I’m on top of the world — my reward for hard work and perseverance. But I should note that in Scotland such views aren’t always guaranteed; not because the scenery doesn’t exist, but because the weather can quickly change, shrouding the mountain top in cloud or fog.

But, if you do get good views, would they make us feel as good if we didn’t have to earn them? I often think it’s the things we’ve had to earn that make us feel the most fulfilled.

“On the other side of hard work and perseverance, is great reward.”

The peak of Cairn Gorm — the 6th highest mountain in the UK — stands at 1244.8m (4083ft). Interestingly, the highest wind speed ever recorded in the UK (173 mph), was on the summit of Cairn Gorm.

View from the top of Cairn Gorm

Feeling at peace in the Scottish hills

Then, from the summit I headed South West before coming across a path that heads down to Loch Avon (my campsite) via Coire Raibert. You’ll see this on the trail I’ve linked to; it’s around a 20-minute walk along a clear path from the peak of Cairn Gorm. In the below photo I’m standing at the beginning of the path that heads down to Loch Avon.

As you’ll experience when you head into the Scottish hills, they have a way of silencing the mind, and bringing a broad smile to your face. I recall feeling completely at peace as I stared in awe at the beauty before my eyes. Nobody else in sight; complete silence.

Looking down on Loch Avon from Coire Raibert

The beauty of the Scottish hills

As I descended, the below view of Loch Avon and Beinn Mheadhoin emerged. A quick heads up, there are some fairly steep sections as you approach the loch, so attention needs to be paid to good footing.

Beinn Mheadhoin — the munro behind Loch Avon — is distinguishable by the large granite tors scattered on the mountain plateau (you can see a couple in the below photo). Personally, I love the contrast between the tranquil sandy beaches and the rugged cliffs that dwarf the shore.

Little did I know that my feeling of peace and tranquility was soon going to be replaced by frustration and anger.

Hiking down the slopes of Cairn Gorm towards Loch Avon

The terror begins – attacked by black mist

Once at the shore of Loch Avon, I made the short walk to the North East side of the loch where I planned to set-up camp for the night. But midges had different plans for me. As I dumped my backpack to begin setting up my tent, I was surrounded by black mist —a thick fog of midges were now eating me alive!

Hiking along Loch Avon with my camp site on the beach in the distance

Knowing my stay would be far from peaceful, I decided to head for higher ground in the hope that there’d be no midges at the higher altitude. This was a tough decision! I’d be looking forward to spending the night on the beach all week, and now I’d have to leave it behind. But nature doesn’t care about our feelings.

Leaving the beach of Loch Avon behind as I hike for higher ground

Hiking alone can be lonely

Off I hiked to Loch Etchachan; sitting around 200 m higher. This section of the hike is relatively steep, and there’s no flat sections. At this point I recall my legs feeling heavy, and I was sweating profusely with the heat. I struggled to ascend at a quick pace, making me easy prey for the midges. I wanted to cover my exposed skin, but that meant putting on waterproof trousers. I’ve never went into a sauna wrapped up in a bin liner, but I can imagine it would be a similar experience to wearing waterproofs on a hot day. Hot, sweaty, and wet. It would also mean stopping — a dream scenario for these blood thirsty insects.

When times get tough, hiking can be lonely. All I wanted was someone to share my pain and frustration with; I just wanted someone to get through this with. It’s the little things like turning round to your friend and saying “this is fu*king awful isn’t it?” followed by an equally aggressive response.

However, this is also why hiking alone is so good for you. Getting through difficult situations on our own helps build self-confidence and mental toughness. It’s that place we can go to when we’re in a tough place, where we say to ourselves “I can fu*king DO THIS! I remember that time when — alone — I got through something challenging! LET’S GO!”

Loch Etchachan at dusk

A dire situation by Loch Etchachan

After a strenuous climb, I made it to Loch Etchachan — the highest body of water of its size in the UK.

Unfortunately the situation by Loch Etchachan was no better.

I thought there would be more wind at this higher altitude; I was wrong! With not a breath of wind in the air, the midges were out in full force.

By this point I was exhausted physically and mentally – and worryingly, the sun was setting. Additionally, I wasn’t familiar with the surrounding area, my navigational skills were basic, and it was my first time camping solo. So I decided to suck it up and pitch by the loch.

“Sometimes the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.”

Whilst setting up my tent, I was surrounded by a black mist of midges, but then something incredible happened.

Silenced by nature

A large herd of reindeer passed within a few meters of my campsite (you can see this for yourself in the short video above). I’ve never been so close to wildlife of this size; I went from frantically moving around to avoid the midges to standing completely still — with awe and fascination. The swarm of midges no longer bothered me; I was completely focused on the beauty before my eyes. I stood still as the large herd passed me by — I was living in the moment.

But with the reindeer now out of sight, my focus turned back to the midges. I knew that they’d find there way inside my tent as I was getting in and out, and I’d be facing the same problem in the morning. It was time to look for another solution — there’s always a solution.

I discovered an alternative shelter for the night on the map — one that would offer me much more protection from the midges.

For an additional 30 minutes of walking, I could stay in a mountain bothy (if you don’t know what a bothy is, click here). These free, no-frills shelters are dotted across the Scottish wilderness — offering emergency shelter for those in need.

I packed up my half-built tent and headed for Hutchison Memorial bothy!

Hutchison Memorial Bothy

A creaky door and irrational fears

In terms of navigation, there’s a clear path from Loch Etchachan down to the bothy. After following this path, I reached the lonely bothy. I slowly creaked open the door — ensuring I didn’t alarm any weary traveller who may have already taken shelter. But nobody was there — I’d be alone for the night far.

Relieved to have found shelter, I settled down to enjoy dinner — a highlight of any hiking trip. Admittedly I was slightly nervous about the night ahead of me. My mind is a busy one, with irrational fears coming and going. Throughout the night I was awoken by the creak of the door. Was that someone coming in? Who is it? Why are they here?

Fear has a single purpose — keep us alive. But this comes at a cost; the fear can be completely irrational resulting in unnecessary anxiety. I think solo camping is something people fear to the point where it prevents them doing it. I completely get it, I was in that same place. But solo camping is very safe and after a few trips, the fear dissipates. Although, I’m not quite ready to face my fear of Grizzly Bears — Yellowstone National Park is on hold for now.

Unsurprisingly I made it through the night.

A new day

A new day, and hopefully a break from the midges.

Unfortunately not!

As soon as I opened the bothy door, I was pounced on by blood thirsty midges.

No time to hang around.

With my water bottle filled, breakfast in my belly, and my rucksack on my back — I headed back up the hill I’d come down the night before.

“If there’s one thing that keeps you moving quickly in the Scottish hills, it’s swarms of midges.”

Sitting looking across Loch Etchachan at Cairn Gorm on my hike up Ben Macdui

Fortunately, now higher up, there was a small breeze keeping the midges at bay. This allowed me to make a brief stop to take in the views by Loch Etchachan. In the distance you can see Cairn Gorm — the peak I’d ascended the night before.

At this moment I felt at complete peace.

With not another soul in sight, the loch completely still, and views for miles; I felt completely content.

This is a stark contrast to the daily life in the modern world; many are surrounded by the same four walls every day, stressful deadlines, distractions vying for attention, and very little exposure to fresh air. I can’t put into words how much better I feel when I’m hiking in the wilderness; I hope everyone gets the opportunity to feel the same way.

Looking over Grey Man’s Crag with Derry Cairngorm off to my left

An island in a sea of cloud

It wasn’t long before I was stopped in my tracks again by the beauty of the Scottish hills. As you can see from the photo above, something called a cloud inversion (here’s how to catch one) was happening — I felt like I was standing on an island in a sea of cloud. I was mesmerised; when you spend your days working in an office, you want to hold onto these moments for as long as possible.

In terms of navigation, from Hutchison Memorial bothy there’s a well established path almost all the way to the summit of Ben Macdui. But just before reaching the summit, the path disappears slightly and navigational skills may be required in poor visibility.

My reward — the summit of Ben Macdui

After continuing my hike, I was now standing on the summit of the UK’s second highest mountain — Ben Macdui.

This majestic Munro stands at 1309m (4294ft) and — with the right levels of visibility — one can see for miles and miles, with natural beauty in every direction.

With clear skies for as far as the eye could see, — and the sun beaming down — I couldn’t have asked for better conditions. But as many Munro baggers will attest to, this isn’t always the case. So when it comes — enjoy every moment.

Here’s some photos from the summit:

The walk off the summit is generally featureless and may become difficult to navigate in challenging conditions. Again, make sure you come prepared with a map, compass, and the ability to navigate (electrical devices can’t always be trusted).

There are a few ways to get back to Cairngorm Mountain car park from the summit of Ben Macdui. I decided to take the path that runs along the steep sides of the Lairig Ghru as this path provides views of the famous mountain pass — and the sprawling mountains beyond. This part of the hike is so beautiful that you may struggle to keep your eyes looking forward on the path.

Looking across the Lairig Ghru towards Braeriach after hiking Ben Macdui

This path — a very clear one — continues all the way back to Cairngorm Mountain car park. After a few hours following this path, I was back at my car; I couldn’t wait to slip off my hiking boots.

Another adventure comes to a close — but the lessons and stories will live on.

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