Sunday, May 07, 2017

Ben Avon & Beinn a’Bhuird

With the weather forecast cheerily estimating "No Rain" in the Cairngorm National Park, along with "90% chance of cloud free Munros", Saturday had to be a hill day! Ben Avon  and Beinn a’Bhuird are two large Munros which mark the eastern edge of the Cairngorm range, and are accessible from the Braemar/Deeside Road, where the Invercauld Estate has provided a walkers car park, but require £2.50 for a 'pay and display' ticket. These two mountains are not the most popular hills in the Cairngorms, and see only a fraction of the footfall of the likes of Ben Macdui, or Cairngorm; but this is not because they lack interest - far from it! Ben Avon is crowned with a series of idiosyncratic granite tors, which are a landmark for miles around. The summit of Beinn a Bhuird is an unremarkable plateau; but the mountain is graced with a simply breathtaking cliff-line, as its' eastern flank plummits thousands of feet in a massive corrie linking its' 'North' and 'South' tops. The emptiness of these hills is due in fact to their distance from the road; any outing to these two sizeable mountains requires a long, and difficult, walk or cycle in. A round of both of them, pushes the days' total to well over 40k, the length of a marathon - over hard ground with a heavy pack! This obstacle almost entirely explains why these two magnificent hills were still on the 'to-do' list of both Stewart and myself - and why my car headed out from an icy Perth as early as 6AM with two mountain bikes on the roof. An undertaking of this size required plenty of time!

The first obstacle of the day was navigating the paths of the Invercauld Estate, in search of Glen Sluggan, which leads out to these hills. A couple of wrong turns on forestry tracks that were unclear, led to our only resort to GPS of the day - and once the correct track was found, route finding was simple, and mostly pathed.
The Sluggan path

The Sluggan track is mostly cycleable, although the steady ascent and rough surface makes going slow and tiring. The glen runs westwards for several miles before a ruin is reached (allegedly there is a hidden bothy here too - but I didn't spot it!). The journey is an enticing one, as the central Cairngorms are visible and identifiable for the first half; and then the massive cliffs of Beinn a Bhuird loom overhead for the upper part.  The middle section, where the track bifurcates for a mile or so by a ruin, is not cycleable; but better tracks further up make dragging the bikes through this section worth while. Thankfully some climbers we met at the car park told us about this, meaning we were able to get bikes far further up the glen than we would have otherwise have realised. The route up the 'The Sneck' (the col between the two hills), is a long slog, and the sight of the weird crenellated rock formations that decorate the ridge seems to take ages to come into view. It is simply wonderful when it does, and the views explode around the walker in all directions.
The Sneck

While it is probably a better walk to dump bikes further down the glen and make the walk a circuit, by including Beinn a Bhuird's south top - including a magnificent cliff-top walk; we elected to join both summits by the Sneck, and shift the balance in favour of more cycling. This was largely because I was still suffering from a badly blistered heel from Seana Bhraigh on Monday.

The Sneck

The Sneck is worth savouring. From here we turned right (NE), up the steep ridge and onto the Ben Avon plateau. The tors, which look intriguing from adjacent hills, look utterly surreal from the plateau itself. They look as if they have been dropped from the sky, random lumps of rock dumped on the surface. The highest and finest tor, Leabaidh an Daimh Bhuidhe is the summit of Ben Avon, and it presents a nice little scramble over rough, grippy rock to the top. In wet weather when the moss would be slippery, or when it is icy - this could present the walker with an awkward finish to a long ascent. In blazing sunshine however, it is a simple matter of scrambling up and taking photos. It had been -2'C at Invercauld, but by the time we had lunch on Ben Avon, it must have been approaching 15/16'C, it was certainly sun-screen weather. Incidentally, Ben Avon is pronounced 'Ben A'ahn', which according to walkhighlands, is derived from the Gaelic for 'river'.

Ben Avon Summit Tor

Looking from the summit of Ben Avon back to The Sneck

The treck back to The Sneck is beautiful as it provides views not only of The Sneck itself, but also of Beinn a Bhuird's cliffs. The descent is straightforward enough, and we elected to dump our heavy packs there, and climb up Beinn a Bhuird and back without the heavy load. I seem to dehydrate easily, and so carry a lot of water on days predicted to be hot. I dragged 4litres up this walk  - and needed every drop if it. So an hour or so without the full pack, just a few essentials, was bliss!
Ben Avon from Beinn a' Bhuird

The climb up to Beinn a Bhuird from 'The Sneck' is a bit of a slog, but once the top 'Cnap a Chleirich' is reached, the summit is visible. Finding the cairn is not a problem in bright sunshine, but looks as if it could be a challenge in bad visibility, and not falling over the nearby cliffs (which still hold beautiful cornices into Summer) is also a consideration. Although we had elected to return via 'The Sneck', we couldn't resist exploring the cliff top of Beinn a Bhuird, time well spent indeed! Beinn a Bhuird, is pronounced 'Byn a Voorsht', and according to the guide books means 'The Table Hill' - an apt name for such a flat-topped, and vertical sided hill.

Beinn a' Bhuird, cliffs

The long miles back to the car were eased by the bikes, which eased the last half of the descent considerable, once the rough tracks of the upper reaches of the glen had been negotiated. Stewart is a marathon runner, and is both lighter and fitter than me. I hold him back speed wise, and he pushes my performance out of the slow ambling which is my norm! All in all, this was a 9 hour trek for us, which wasn't too bad! 
The Sneck

These are big hills, set a long way back from the road, which require huge efforts to get to. It's undeniably effort well spent however, and it's almost tempting to cover the long miles again just to sit in the magnificent, massive surroundings of 'The Sneck', and soak in the grandeur.

Photos all from phones, mine and Stewart's!


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