Day 11 – 26 kilometres with 860 metres ascent
I think that one of the reasons I’m veggie is because I crave disappointment. This is certainly always the case at breakfast time in a Scottish b&b. You watch the other guests being plied with piles of food to set them up for the day, you then receive a very lonely looking egg which constitutes the veggie option.
I had stocked up the night before in the local co-op, which involved mindlessly stuffing anything I fancied into a basket. This became a problem that morning as I struggled to get everything into my pack. In the end a large packet of bagels had to be sacrificed and left behind. With my pack heavier than it had been since the west coast I set off in search of the path that would take me to a spot marked the Lions Face on my map.
I have to admit that I got a bit confused upon entering the woods as there appeared to be two routes to the Lions Face. I found myself on a path that circles below Creag Choinnich instead of climbing directly upwards. This is because I ended up following a couple of Challengers whose names I don’t know but will refer to as the ‘yellow rucksack cover couple’. Nearly everyday I would see their yellow rucksack covers somewhere in the distance.
Luckily the path continued above the busy A93 for a while before it disappeared back up hill. A march along the road led to Invercauld bridge, a relief as I get nervous of vehicles speeding past me at 60+mph with only inches to spare. It was whilst having a break after the bridge that I realised I had taken something from the b&b with me. My room key was still in my pocket! There was no way that I was going back to return it.
It was a pleasant amble through the woods to Connachat cottage. Although never far from the main road it was quiet and peaceful with hardly a soul around. At Connachat I made a bit of a silly navigation error, taking a path on the wrong side of the stream. I had climbed a while before noticing and rather than turn back I decided to make a beeline cross-country to the path I was meant to be on. This went well until I was faced with a large area of bog. Thankfully there was a plank of wood over one section that I really should have tested before committing my weight. It broke in two plunging one leg into the slimy depths up to the knee, jarring my bad foot in the process. I pulled myself out, cursing my stupidity. Surely I had properly buggered up my foot now, time to admit defeat and go home? No, for some reason that little tumble had done the trick, I had no more foot problems for the rest of the crossing!
Back on track I slowly climbed, the forest thinning out to give some great views.
As the last of the trees were left behind, the track turned ninety degrees and the satellite peaks of Lochnagar started to reveal themselves. It was good to be among the mountains again, although I wished that I was walking the summits. However now my focus was reaching the east coast by Thursday. The summits could wait for another time.
The ‘yellow rucksack cover couple’ were having lunch on the bench outside Gelder Shiel bothy. I joined them, getting my stove out to cook some couscous and make some coffee. They were soon off and I took the opportunity to remove my shoes and socks to air my feet. I think that it is important on a long walk to let air get to your feet as often as possible, especially if wearing trail shoes. It’s a good way to avoid prune feet which can eventually lead to blisters.
My original plan had been to stop at Gelder Shiel for the night as it was recommended by my vetters. After poking my head in the bothy I decided that it was not a place I wanted to stay. It was dark and dingy with little natural light, it also did not have a fireplace and had a damp feeling to it. Not a place I will be heading to in the future.
The map shows a path heading upstream to connect with the track over the watershed. I found the beginnings of it near a plantation but this quickly petered out leaving me floundering in bog. The plantation fence had been torn down and many of the young trees ripped apart. It looked like a tornado had torn though it which I hope is the case rather than vandalism.
A trackless bit of heather bashing led me to the track which gave a pleasant and well graded amble up to the 700 metre contour. Although getting increasingly murky the views were still good, especially Lochnagar before it vanished under a blanket of cloud.
I was getting tired but I was spurred on by the promise of soup and coffee at the Spittal of Glenmuick visitor centre. As I reached the small building there were several Challengers resting before their final pull up to the Shielin of Mark bothy. My luck was out with regards to soup but a hot coffee went down a treat whilst I asked the warden on suitable pitches below the bothy. She was super helpful and knowledgeable and pointed out a spot on my map. The other Challengers set off before me and I followed them up the Allt Darrarie which runs though a deep and narrow glen.
The identified spot did indeed provide some good camping and I wasted no time in pitching the Scarp. The weather was closing in, the mist enveloping the higher slopes. There was a good procession of people passing as I set up camp, all heading in the direction of the Shielin of Mark. One chap who I think is called Pete appeared not to be in the best of health, possibly suffering from a chest infection. His walking partner had passed about ten minutes before and disappeared into the murk. I hoped that Pete would be ok as he slowly headed higher up the glen.
I was soon cosy in my tent, enjoying the simple pleasures of brewing up and reading my kindle. I heard familiar voices and stuck my head out to be greeted by Alan, Andy and Phil. They appeared to have had a good day up on Lochnagar and were heading a bit further before looking for a place to pitch. They pointed out I had company as a couple of tents had appeared nearby.
Left to my own devices once more I had another enjoyable wild camp.
Day 12 – 21 kilometres with 480 metres ascent
As I was cooking breakfast my next door neighbours passed by. It turned out that one of them was Willem who has popped by a few times to say hello on this blog. We were certain that our paths would cross on the Challenge.
By the time I had packed up the mist and low cloud was finally lifting, leaving the promise of a nice day. The climb to the head of the glen was a pleasant one, a narrow path leading me through the heather.
As the glen widened out and joined the plateau the immediate landscape reminded me of the wilder parts of Bleaklow in the Peak District. However the distant bulk of Lochnagar gave the game away.
Towards the top of the glen I passed the remains of the biggest bank of snow that I have ever seen. It was glacier like in its proportions, with no one to stand in front of it to give scale there was little point in photographing it. It was mightily impressive though.
I followed the meandering stream for a while before plunging straight up through rough slopes of bog and heather in the general direction of the Shielin of Mark bothy. I was pleased to see the bothy below after a spot of bog hopping, my casual approach to navigation had worked this time.
From the outside it’s a lovely little building in a vast sea of high moorland, Mount Keen a gentle swell on the eastern horizon. Unfortunately the inside was exceptionally damp, the bothy book little more than paper mache. It seriously needs someone to spend a few days with half a ton of coal to dry it out.
My next destination was Muckle cairn on the nearby horizon and I managed to pick a route to the summit by following the lighter patches of dry grass. The view back towards Lochnagar and across to Mount Keen gave an impression of vast open spaces. Rough, bleak places, I love them.
A rough track was picked up near the summit which made progress quick and easy towards the east. Here the open plateau was broken by smaller, rounded hills with a patchwork of burnt heather. It was clear that I was heading into grouse shooting country.
Down in Glen Lee I found a comfy spot to sit for a while and got my stove on and my shoes and socks off. The last couple of days weather had given me the opportunity to have leisurely lunches, which is what backpacking should be all about. The sun finally broke out and the skies turned blue. Spirits were already good but I felt them lift even higher. One day I will do a Challenge when everyday will be like that. I had discussions with people on the crossing where they felt it would be boring if the weather was nice all the time. I don’t think that I could be bored with sunshine and dry socks.
Further down the glen I could hear the roar of water, the Falls of Unich looked a magnificent sight even from a distance. If I came this way again I think the area around there would make a fine campsite.
For once I was finding myself too warm rather than wet and cold, a novel experience on this crossing. I stopped for a rest and was caught up by a local chap who knew all about the Challenge. He said that he was looking forward to heading to the Masons Arms later that afternoon to join in with the drinking.
I passed Loch Lee, the track finally joining the head of the public road. A short distance later and a hill track signed for Tarfside led me through pleasant grassy pastures and over the shoulder of the Hill of Rowen with its massive cairn shaped monument. Upper Glen Esk is a rather picturesque place.
Although not a particularly long day I was pleased to finally arrive in Tarfside. Just outside the Masons Arms I was greeted with a hug by David Pickles. David is the Dartmoor policeman that I walked with for a couple of days on the 2011 Challenge. He is a thoroughly decent chap and I reckon that if Hamish Macbeth had been filmed in Devon he would have been well cast.
I was going to go and pitch my tent on the sports field but Alan Sloman would not allow me to do that until he had got me a drink. Well it would be rude to refuse!
After a drink on an empty stomach I wobbled off and popped the tent up on the soft green mowed grass, a welcome change from the usual ticks and tussocks of the last couple of weeks. I enjoyed lazing for a while, eating and watching the general hustle and bustle of a field full of Challengers. There was even a delivery of fish and chips but I was keen to eat the food I had lugged all the way from Braemar.
Soon most people were heading for the Masons Arms where I spent one of the best evenings of my Challenge. The atmosphere was warm and convivial and the company good. The following day I would be leaving the mountains behind and heading into rural Angus.