Day 8 – 16.1 miles with 910 metres ascent
I slept well in the comfy double bed. It is only when you have been in the wilds for a few days that you truly appreciate the luxury of a quality mattress and cotton sheets. I lay in bed for a while after waking, listening to the steady rain. I opened the curtains and peered out into a grey and wet world, mist covering even the lowest hills. It did not look like a good day to be heading into one of the remotest and least visited part of the Cairngorms!
Going for breakfast the owner of the b&b delighted in telling me that it was not the best weather to be heading into the hills. Large flakes of snow had been accompanying the rain earlier on that morning in the village. He showed me the live webcam taken from the car park on Cairngorm mountain, it presented to me a white misty world. My heart began to sink as later in the afternoon I planned to climb over a 720 metre ridge and then cross a river I had been worrying about during the past couple of days. I had posted a question on the TGO Challenge forum during the planning stages about the feasibility of getting across the water of Caiplich. The general consensus was that after rain it can become a bit of a ‘challenge’, my route vetter emphasised this as well in their feedback. They said that I should make a decision before setting off that morning whether to use my foul weather route. This detours to the north, avoiding the river altogether.
I had not made my mind up by the time I walked out of the b&b. Thankfully by 9.00am the skies had cleared and I set off under blue skies. I was soon out of the village and crossing the River Spey, the Cairngorms as a backdrop. Indeed I could see that they had a covering of snow down to a fairly low-level.
The Speyside way took me off the road through pine forest until I reached a junction and had to make a decision. Do I follow my main route and risk the river or head to Nethy Bridge and then towards Glen Brown? I really could not make my mind up, for some reason being racked by indecision. Instead I decided I would continue on my main route until I got to the River Nethy. If it looked wadeable I deducted that the Water of Caiplich also would be. Although a decision had been made I was still racked with doubt as I continued on towards Loch Garten.
The visitor centre car park was busy so I decided not to view the ospreys and headed straight to the loch. It seemed bigger than the map suggests and waves lapped the shore whilst curtains of rain swept its length.
Shorty afterwards I made an unwise decision. My map showed a path running south through the forest just past the loch. Indeed I located a narrow trail and set off through the wonderful trees, a remnant of the ancient Caledonian pine forest. This really is an atmospheric place, somewhere I highly recommend people visit.
I was soon totally disoriented as I followed the ever narrowing path as it twisted its way further and further away from the road. I should have turned back when doubt crept in and my compass disagreed with the map. Experience had taught me to always trust the map and compass, our sense of direction being much inferior! Forest gave way to deep bog, the path teasing me from the other side. I cursed as my shoes filled with stinking muddy water and my trousers from the knee down were caked in the stuff. I eventually emerged on the road a few hundred metres from my intended spot, quickly passing the dry firm track I should have taken!
The skies soon darkened behind me and I hurried to get on my waterproofs, the shower that passed being prolonged and heavy. The weather was set for the rest of the day, warm sun interspersed with some pretty brutal showers.
Forest Lodge was passed and it was decision time once again, I was a little nervous as I approached the River Nethy to make my assessment for later that day. As I crossed the bridge I was relieved to see that although a wade was necessary it could easily be crossed without any risk. Happy I continued deeper into the magical forest.
Climbing the shoulder of Carn a Chnuic I got a good glimpse of the Cairngorms rising from the extensive forest, unfortunately the contrast in the sky was too much for my camera to handle. Still, it was a lovely spot.
The track continued, open country beginning to dominate, sunshine making Loch a Chnuic look inviting.
Meanwhile to the north flat moorland extended to the horizon, I would not fancy walking across that lot without a path!
My feet were hot and aching by the time I reached the start of the track which ascends Bile Buidhe. I perched for a while on a boulder, feet airing in the fresh air. My mind was on the fact I was about to walk solo into some pretty wild and remote terrain, a feeling of excitement mixed with a healthy dose of apprehension. It is a place I have wanted to visit for years, my eyes always wandering from the tight contours of the main Cairngorm massif to a land that simply cried out to me ’empty’. A short climb later with Strathspey laid out in front of me I phoned my partner to say I would be out of contact for a couple of days. It was then head down to climb into wild country.
The main track terminated as marked on the map but thankfully a good path led me directly to the summit of Bile Buidhe through some rough terrain. The vista to the south was breathtaking with Ben Avon dominating the horizon, between it and myself were miles and miles of high rough moorland. Wild country at its best.
To my right the high cairngorms rose majestically and I stood and watched for a while as snow showers drifted across their lofty summits.
I then aligned myself to the middle of nowhere and started the long slow descent towards the high valley hidden in a fold within the hills.
I was immediately transported back to the Monadhliath, the landscape, altitude and terrain underfoot being very similar. It was slow going with a mix of tussocks, deep peat and pools of water. Within minutes I was tired and my camp spot would be an age away if I continued at this pace. I then remembered the secret of walking the Monadhliath, follow the watercourses. I changed direction and aimed for the head of the Allt Preas a Choin and was greeted with a swath of green lining the infant stream.
A niggle in the back of my mind started its nagging about the impending river crossing and as I heard it on my approach I started to worry that I would not get across. I was met by a sizable river which is impressive considering that I was at nearly 600 metres, but thankfully it was low and I got across without water going above my knees.
It truly was a lovely spot and I could sense its remoteness, I slowly walked the grassy riverbank taking in its intangible atmosphere. I think that you will have to visit for yourself to see what I mean (although I have no doubt that many would find the place on the whole a bit dull!).
Approaching where I had planned to camp I spotted a small tent a few hundred metres away, would that be Colin? A message via the Challenge forum said that he was also planning to camp somewhere alongside the Caiplich that night. I got my tent up and went over to say hi, making Colin jump as he was cooking his dinner whilst listening to the radio on his headphones. I left him to his dinner and went and cooked mine, Colin later popping by for a chat. Soon however the cold wind had him retiring to his tent, it did not feel like mid May. Wind and rain were forecast to return overnight. In the meantime I revelled in such a perfect wild camp spot.
Day 9 – 14.4 miles with 530 metres ascent
Thankfully the weather forecast was wrong and I awoke to a bright sunny morning, although clouds were beginning to amass on the horizon. I poked my head out of the tent to see Colin shouldering his pack and set off down the valley. I had a short day planned, I was just going to head to Loch Builg and camp by the ruined lodge. Therefore I did my usual morning festering, taking far too long to get packed up and away.
I had chosen a good spot to camp as the valley soon narrowed and progress was through rough heather and the odd clamber over boulders near the river. I enjoyed the company of the river though as it became narrower on its approach to The Castle.
I decided that too much effort would be involved exploring The Castle properly so instead headed directly for the bleak watershed between the Caiplich and Glen Loin.
At the start of the landrover track I sat down and examined my hands and arms which were really beginning to bother me. An itch had started a couple of days previously and it was beginning to get worse. From the elbows down I was covered in what looked like a nettle rash and it itched like crazy. I have to admit that I started to feel a little bit lonely and miserable.
Unfortunately Glen Loin is not the most inspiring glen in the highlands and it is a quick but fairly dull tramp down the track that descends towards Glen Avon. Just before where the two rivers meet I decided to fill up by water bottle and had probably the most disgusting experience of the whole Challenge! I had done my usual ‘tick test’ before dropping my rucksack and walking down to the river to fill my platypus. I returned and sat down to wait whilst the purification did its trick. I then noticed a couple of tiny ticks making their slow progress up my trouser leg. I brushed them off and my left gaiter caught my eye. It looked all shiny and I initially thought that I had splashed through some boggy water. A closer inspection horrified me. One side was covered in literally hundred of tiny ticks probably at the nymph stage. There was pretty much a solid mass of them. I was soon standing knee-deep in the river washing them off and then spent a while examining myself from the waist down to make sure none remained. I shuddered at what the outcome of camping at the spot I picked them up would have been. The tent would probably need to be fumigated!
Glen Avon soon lifted my spirits, although the wide landrover track was an intrusion into this wild and remote glen. It was a relatively busy place being a weekend and I passed groups of cyclists and backpackers heading into the hills.
The Linn of Avon is picture post card Highland Scotland, stuff of glossy adverts and brochures. I lingered for a while listening to the river thunder through a narrowing of its rocky bed.
Turning south into Glen Builg I realised that I had been sheltered from the wind for most of the day. It was being funnelled directly down the valley making progress a bit of an effort. As I walked up the glen a fine rain started which was blown straight into my face, it was going to be one of those ‘head down stare at your feet’ kind of afternoons. Stopping for a rest on the first climb I was passed by three Challengers who had spent a very windy night in a hut high on the moors. Another couple of Challengers were also passing through and it was good to chat with different people as we all made progress through the wind and rain towards Loch Builg.
The wind, rain and low cloud made Loch Builg a place I did not want to linger. Although I had planned to camp there it was also far too early, better to get some of the following days miles in. I would see how far I could get down Glen Gairn before tiredness set in. The area outside the closed bothy next to Corndavon lodge had some lovely grassy pitches, but someone was in residence, a vehicle parked outside. More Challengers were met and we all continued further on down the glen. The bridge near Daldownie was a virtual city of Challengers tents, most firmly zipped up against the elements. I had a quick chat with Stuart who I had met briefly at Cougie before moving on. I am fussy about my wild camp pitches and was also feeling a little anti-social, I also did not fancy using water from the now substantial River Gairn.
Two minutes round the corner and I found a secluded pitch next to a small stream, a bank giving shelter from the wind. I got my first mobile reception for a couple of days and checked the weather forecast. It was not looking good for the Monday, in fact it was looking shockingly bad. There were warnings of winds in excess of 130 mph on the tops and 90 mph in the valleys. My heart sank as I had planned a crossing to Tarfside via Mount Keen, even my foul weather route would cross the 750 metre contour. A text and message from Martin Rye confirmed this. It was not looking good and my route was looking impossible.
I sat in my tent listening to the rain patter the flysheet and started to formulate a plan. Luckily my brain has an encyclopedic capacity to remember maps and my hill geography is unerringly geeky. I would head for Aboyne on the Monday. I called my partner to ask her to research b&b’s in the village. When I reached Ballater the following day I would buy new maps and plan a new route if the forecast still looked bad.
I am at my happiest when I have a plan, so I retired that night a bit more relaxed and happy.
Day 10 – 11.9 miles with 380 metres ascent
Thankfully the rain had stopped in the morning although the wind was still making its presence felt. I packed up and gave Martin Rye and call and we chatted routes and the impending storm. I then made the long journey down the Glen, the landscape becoming softer and the hills lower as I approached the road.
Unfortunately the sun did not last long and the rest of the day was spent being blasted by increasingly violent showers, pushed quickly along by a wind that was gaining strength by the hour. During one of the heaviest downpours I passed some poor soul who had laid out a picnic rug and a good spread of food on a grassy verge. He was stoical though and said, “Well its Scotland what can you expect?”.
Tracks and a minor road took me down the lower part of the glen away from the traffic on the main road. I could sense Ballater getting closer so I just got on with the physical aspects of putting on foot in front of the other. My enthusiasm for the Challenge had diminished during the day.
One of the first shops I passed in town was a well stocked book shop. I stood for a while and examined maps, finally settling on the Deeside way as a foul weather alternative to my foul weather route. Who would have thought that even foul weather routes may not be possible due to the weather?
As I pitched at the campsite surrounded by other Challengers tents, the skies cleared of all cloud whilst the wind got steadily stronger. I showered and aired all my damp gear before dashing off to fill my belly with fish and chips.
I should have gone to the pub to socialise with all the other Challengers staying in town. However I was in agony and feeling very sorry for myself. The rash on my arms and hands had got worse and the itching was accompanied by an intense burning. Even my base layer touching the skin caused intense pain. The rash was now blistering, the skin underneath turning an angry red. The chemist was closed so there was nothing I could do but try to get some sleep and seek medical attention in the morning. With the discomfort I was in (I could not even put my arms in my sleeping bag) and the weather forecast the following day I was close to giving up and jumping on a bus home. I even started hoping that when a doctor saw my rash I would be ordered to go home, I was looking for a get out clause. Anything really that would excuse me for ‘giving up’.
I would make a decision in the morning.