As part of the preperation for a bash at the TGO Challenge next year, the Three Musketeers (me, Pete & Chris) had planned to spend a few days in the Cairngorms during the period of this year's event. Unfortunately, due to work commitments, Pete had to drop out at short notice. That meant Chris had more space to stretch out on the way up, and I didn't have to share a tent with Pete, so everyone was a winner.
I realise that there will be a deluge (that seemed like the appropriate word given the conditions) of blogs and accounts from 2011 Challengers, so this is simply my observations of our three days in the Cairngorms, with thoughts and comments on the kit I took and used, and also some of the questions raised by our experiences.
First Up, What We Did
It was an early start for us on Thursday. Our plan was to camp at Derry Lodge, so to get to Braemar (from Cheltenham) with sufficient time to then hike on up in to the hills meant leaving the house at ten to six in the morning. With just a couple of stops en route to fill up (and empty out) we made really good time, rolling in to Braemar at about half two. After a quick peruse in Braemar Mountain Sports, and an all importantt refresher in the Fife Arms, my other half dropped us off at Victoria Bridge, by Mar Lodge. She was going to spend a pleasant few days exploring the area and recovering in the bar at the Fife Arms. Clever!
Chris and I shouldered (with some difficulty) our loads and set off. Across the Dee and then onwards toward Glen Lui via Doire Bhraghad. We made steady progress, periodically stopping to "ooh" and "aah" at the vista as we climber higher. After a couple of hours the bothy at Derry Lodge hoved in to view. We pressed on a little further towards the Lodge where we intended to pitch the Trailstar for the night. After dithering about trying to find a spot out of the wind (good luck with that), we eventually settled on a spot on the southern side of the wood, close to Lui Water. Once we settled we had a little stroll around the area, which by now had become a pretty well populated bit of the wild. I counted ten tents/bivys/tarps, ranging from Argos specials to a Henry Shires Scarp1, and everything in between. After taking care of necessary business, it was time to hit the hay (or air, as I was using my shiny new POE Elite AC).
After a blustery, showery night, it was soon time to load up and get on our way. Fighting the wind and the squally rain, we breakfasted, stowed our gear and set off up Glen Derry. All the high slopes around had a light frosting of fresh snow, and menacing grey clouds kept boiling up to the west. Within thirty minutes however we were peeling of our waterproof layers.
The sun was breaking through, the rain had gone and suddenly we were walking under blue skies. And what a fantastic place to be walking! The open woodland soon gave way to the magnificent upper Glen Derry.
Passing one brave camper, who commented on the wild night we soon had the place to ourselves.
We squelched upwards towards Lairig an Laoigh. Which we thought was awesome.
The sub-Alpine feel was very different from any of our usual walking areas. Dubh Lochan looked stunning, dark blue against the drab browns of the surrounding heather.
Feeling a little weary after the up and over, and then the plod through what at one point was path and then became stream before becoming path again, we headed for the Fords of Avon Refuge.
After refuelling out of the wind we had a decision to make. Our plan was to head down Glen Avon but we were aware that this was quite committing. There was no shortcut back to Braemar if we found things too tough, it was all the way along to Linn of Avon before we could head south. Were we men or mice (eep!)? MEN! So off we went.
The first four or five kilometres were pretty unpleasant, the path was wet, boggy, meandering, and in places almost invisible. Finally the track improved just before Faindouran Lodge where we gratefully took the weight off our feet, and had another break out of the unrelenting wind.
The next section of the track was good underfoot, and the scenery was stunning. It was very easy to put your head down and get the ks under your belt and actually forget where you were, and why you were there.
Looking south we could see the north western slopes of Ben Avon, which was awe-inspiring. Anywho, we pressed on, finally reaching Linn of Avon.
We decided to head south alongside Glen Builg for a couple of kilometres before pitching camp. Finally, we gratefully shrugged off our sacks and flopped to the grass.
Again the wind made setting up the Trailstar tricky but finally we had somewhere to lay our heads. After a very quick and invigorating wash in the burn, it was again time to crawl in to my sleeping bag. It must have been all of 8 o'clock. Rock and Roll! The wind howled for most of the night, roaring over the tops of the surrounding ridges. At times it sounded like a plane flying overhead, before fading away to nothing, and then roaring back in again. Tiredness soon won, and some sleep was snatched...
After this high, we then had a bit of a low. We headed south west alongside the River Gairn, and it was hard work. We were walking in to the wind, the cloud was closing in and we tried to follow a track that seemed not to exist on the ground to avoid the climb on to the western flank of Culardoch. After a lot of heather stomping and bog trotting (enlivened only by Chris' encounter with a nest of grouslings) we emerged on to the track above Bealach Dearg, where we also ran in to all the wind. My life, what a struggle to keep balanced when you're carrying a big pack in 40m.p.h. winds. Taking shelter in a grouse butt (that sounds wrong, and awkward) at the top, we took a deep breath, girded our loins and set off in to the wind. Gradually losing height, and dropping down in to the forest above Invercauld House, meant the walking became much easier, and a whole load more pleasant.
Now came the lowest point. At Invercauld House, Braemar is no more than a couple of kilometres west, but there's no bridge. So we had to walk east for two clicks before crossing the Dee and then walking back along the A93. At this point our feet, which had coped with the last 50 kilometres with no worries, really started playing up. After a stop for a quick Compeed, we headed on, reduced to thumbing for a lift that never came! Eventually Braemar Castle came in to view, followed shortly after by the outliers of Braemar. Before we knew it we were slumped in the Fife Arms with a beer and a packet of crisps. Bev turned up shortly afterwards, and we regaled her with the tales of our epic adventure.
Our original plan had been to camp in Braemar on the Saturday night, but in light of our weariness and the weather, we decided to seek more pleasant lodgings. No rooms in the Fife Arms (full of challengers, apparently) saw our hearts sink, but not for long, as we scored a twin room in Craiglea. I can thoroughly recommend this establishment, friendly proprietors, clean and comfortable rooms, decent shower, and a great breakfast. Oh yeah and for only £33 a head. After showering and then watching Moonraker we returned to Bev in the Fife Arms where we had further beer and more food. Another earlyish night saw us stumble wearily back up to Craiglea.
After a hearty cooked breakfast the following morning, we were on our way home by 9:15, and after a couple of stops back home by half five that evening. Tired, but happy.
What I Used, and What I Thought Of It
A lot of the gear I took was new to me and this was the first time it had been used in anger, so here's how it did.
GoLite Pinnacle: Loved this, light, spacious, plenty of auxillary storage. The one thing I struggled with was the infinite amount of adjustment with the straps etc. I jigged it around for a while and then got it comfy, I would say that it would be nice if it came with some more comprehensive fitting instructions.
Alpkit Pipedream 400: Great. Small pack size, warm, happy me!
Alpkit Hunka bivy: Simple, effective, not bad for £35!
Pacific Outdoor Equipment Peak Elite AC sleeping mat: Brilliant! I think that of all the gear I was using, this was the best. It packs down really small, it's super-comfy and kept me warm too. I don't think it's possible to praise this enough!
Mountain Laurel Design Trailstar: Another great thing. Light, simple to set up, tonnes of room. I would say that we did struggle on the second night where the wind was quite swirly. It seemed to catch under the opening during the night. With two of us, there was ample room, for one there would be almost too much space!
Inov-8 Terroc 330s: These rival the Peak Elite AC as my favourite bit of kit. I wore Icebreaker Merino socks with them. On the long day from Derry Lodge to Glen Buigh my feet got pretty wet (soaked) yet were comfortable and never got cold. I felt that I walked much more easily, in my Scarpa boots I feel a bit detached from the terrain. I am a convert to these shoes, brilliant! The only time they started to chafe was the 7 or 8 km road walk in to Braemar.
This little foray has raised some questions which i think may be the makings of another blog post, so stay tuned...