COIRE Ruadh, the main northern coire of Braeriach, holds an intrigue like few others in the Cairngorms. From the valley it looks like a large volcanic crater, dominating the mountain panorama with the Lairig Ghru on the eastern side and Gleann Eanaich on the western side.
Flanked by the smaller and less distinctive (although still very beautiful) Coire an Lochain to the west and Coire Gorm to the east, Coire Ruadh stands out as if situated in the perfect picture frame.
Braeriach is 1,296m/4,252ft high – the third highest peak in the UK – and for that reason, and thanks to the fact that the coire faces pretty much due north, it often holds on to its snowpack a lot longer than lower, sunnier slopes. In a normal snow season Coire Ruadh will have cover well into May and sometimes into June.
Last season was not one of the best snow seasons in recent years. The snow came early and then all but disappeared by March, but spring in the glens was deceptive and the lambing storms brought blizzards and heavy snowfalls. By the end of April the mountains were pure white and the local snowheads had been getting some of the best snow they had ever had.
For many years, Euan Baxter, Donald Hall and I had been talking about doing a day mission to ride Coire Ruadh. We had already been up to ride its neighbour, Coire an Lochain, on a number of occasions but had never made it over to the Red Corrie, as it is known in English. With the new snowfall at the end of April and the nights drawing out we decided that it was time to go and have a look.
The easiest way to get to Coire Ruadh is to follow the path up Gleann Eanaich from the gate just below the Whitewells farm in the heart of the Rothiemurchus pine forest. Gleann Eanaich is one of Scotland’s hidden gems and part of the ancient Caledonian Pine Forest. As the path winds its way up the glen, following the Beanaidh Burn (pronounced Bennie Burn in English) you feel as though you have entered the land of dragons and faeries. Indeed, there are many local legends of the sidhe, pronounced “shee” – the local faeries who live in the hollow lumps that dot the landscape around the glen.
The higher up the path you go, the sparser and smaller the hardy ancient pines get, until by the time you reach the footbridge over the Beanaidh there is barely a tree in site.
We had travelled the Eanaich path by mountain bike and it had taken around 45 minutes to get to the crossing of the Beanaidh Burn. We buried our bikes in the heather just up from the crossing and set off on foot towards Coire an Lochain, following another smaller burn called Little Bennie or Beanaidh Bheag for a few hundred metres before finding a suitable set of stepping stones by which to cross. After about half an hour, we reached the snowline and geared up, putting climbing skins on our skis and splitboards – special snowboards that come apart to make two ski-like planks that you can use for climbing uphill.
We were a crew of one skier (Donald) and two splitboarders and took it in turns to make tracks up the steep gully towards Coire an Lochain. It took us around an hour-and-a-half to reach the top of the Coire, having had a wee tea stop at the bottom of the western ridge beside the stunning frozen Loch Coire an Lochain. We were desperate to get a few turns in before heading over to the Red Corrie so we decided to have a quick blast down the eastern side of Coire an Lochain. We were not disappointed and the spring snow was as good as it gets.
A fast 20-minute skin back up the western shoulder of Coire Ruadh and we were on the top looking into the crater. Euan and I decided we wanted to ride right down the steep gully that hugged the small cliff face in the steepest part of the bowl, while Donald headed off to take the slightly less steep but longer line just east of the summit. Donald told us he had been looking at this particular gully from his bedroom window in Aviemore ever since he was a little boy.
Our line was really, really great, one of the best of my season and definitely as good as any of the days I’d had riding in the Alps. It was steep and challenging and the snow was a mixture of wind-packed powder and good spring snow. We got to the bottom of the line and watched as Donald laid some sweet arcs down the gully of his dreams and came to a stop beside us with a huge grin on his face. From the bottom of the bowl we had a cruisey ride down the gentle slopes to the floor of the glen, coming to a stop as the snow ran out right beside a herd of deer and just up from where we had left our bikes. A short walk and a fast downhill bike ride and we were soon back at Whitewells, just in time to crack open a beer with the local gamekeeper and admire the impressive white crater from afar in the beautiful spring light.
We could just make out our tracks through the binoculars and by the time we got back on our bikes to cycle home to Aviemore we were already planning a return visit.
• A three-time Olympian and World Cup halfpipe winner, Lesley McKenna now coaches the British Freestyle Snowboard Team and Roxy’s European Snow Team.