A whole new world

You don’t have to go far or high to have a wonderful experience.

Ben Venue is popular little local hill in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. November’s snow turned it into a beautiful and spectacular new world. We didn’t even feel the need to get to the summit.

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Don’t overlook your local area! Explore and enjoy it….it will never be the same two days in a row.

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An English road-trip

We had a free 10 days in October and plans to explore, walk and climb in the far north-west of Scotland. Then the weather forecast predicted a week of storms and upland gales.

So what should we do? We visited some friends who gave us maps and climbing guide books for much of England and Wales and convinced us to go south.

After dropping in on my family, we drove the van to Devon, where the weather looked friendliest and there was plenty of climbing to entertain us. Our first experience of Dartmoor was a beautiful, calm evening: we managed two good climbs on Hay Tor as the sun was setting and went to bed full of expectation for a few days of excellent climbing.

Note: there are signs in many Dartmoor car parks stating that byelaws inhibit overnight parking in the National Park.

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Climbing at Hay Tor on Dartmoor

We woke up in a big wet cloud. We couldn’t see Hay Tor, so we drove on to Hound Tor, which turned out to be equally wet. We had a leisurely breakfast confident the fog would lift. Instead, a brisk wind blew the drizzle sideways. Eventually, we decided to go for a soggy climb, but even granite is a lot more difficult when wet. After two climbs, I had had enough and we returned to the shelter of the van for hot chocolate and to make a new plan.

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When you can’t climb, go for a damp windy walk with beer?!

We gave up on Tors and headed for Dewerstone, which looked to have some great low-grade multi-pitch climbs and was lower down so we hoped it might be more sheltered and below the cloud. No luck, it was still drizzling. The woods, however are gorgeous so we went for a walk, a look at the crag and had a beer on the moor at the top (we were on holiday after all).

More rethinking…..these were the two “good” days, the next day was to be the rainy day. We decided to temporarily give up on climbing and went for a walk on the moor to a pub. We walked back into torrential rain all the way.

We spent a very pleasant evening with some of Chris’ family, before leaving Dartmoor and heading for Croyde on the north Devon coast.

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An incredible abseil at Baggy Point

We haven’t got a good track record for sea-cliff climbing but we wanted to give it another try. I find it very intimidating but at Baggy Point, it is at least possible to identify the climbing locations from a distance. I teetered unhappily to the belay point, unconvinced about abseiling into the unknown above the waves. However, the sun came out and when I realised we could actually see down the long, gently sloping route, I cheered up. It was a fabulous 40+m abseil into a sun trap, below towering cliffs, with the sea lapping at the rocks below us. We had great fun, it was a brilliant route. We would’ve liked to do the next climb along, but the tide didn’t seem to have gone out far enough for us to reach it, the sun had gone in and it was already late in the day. We decided to quit while we were ahead and go and make dinner.

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Hanging above the sea at Baggy Point

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A wonderful sunny climb!

I was also keen to try out my new wetsuit, so rather than rush and move on the next morning, we decided to stay an extra night. As this is such a busy area, we parked the van in a campsite for the first time ever and went to the arcades after dinner! In the morning, Chris hired a wetsuit and bodyboard and I brought my old childhood bodyboard out of retirement. It was a huge success: we spent a brilliant few hours in the sea and had the unusual experience of trying a sport that I had done before but Chris hadn’t. Even in October, there were lots of lifeguards on the beach, and flags marking designated surfing and swimming areas. In the afternoon, we wandered up into Croyde and sustained ourselves with more pub chips, beer and cider.

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We loved bodyboarding at Croyde Bay

The following morning we drove back up to spend the day with my family. We then had the choice of moving on to Wales (north or south), the Peak District, Yorkshire or the Lake District. Our choice was driven by the fact that the Peak District was the only place that didn’t have severe warnings for wind!

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Heading out for a windy climb at Stanage North

We arrived late and the following morning were making bacon sandwiches for breakfast when disaster struck…..we ran out of gas! Fortunately the bacon was cooked but Chris’ egg was not. Finding new gas meant we were late starting to climb; we got in a few good routes but by late afternoon the wind had really picked up. Despite the short length of most routes at Stanage North, we couldn’t hear each other and I felt like the gusts were trying to pull me off the crag. By the time we decided that we had better stop, everything we put down was blowing away, including shoes, helmets and pieces of gear: I lost a sock on the last route.

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The wind trying to steal Chris’ rope

We thought our previous night’s parking spot, right on top of the moor, was going to be far too exposed with the storm passing through so we drove a little further on to try to get a bit lower. It was definitely the windiest night we have spent in the van and not the most restful with the violent rocking! We decided that the next day was going to be too windy to climb so we headed home to Scotland.

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The last of the sun at the top of the crag as it got too windy and cold to continue climbing

This was our longest van trip yet and it was great to have the opportunity to explore some new areas of England.

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What are these? There are so many of them at Stanage!

 

Summits aren’t that important anyway…

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A friendly mountain hare just getting its winter coat

Last weekend we walked  for four hours up through deep snow, from Achlean in Glen Feshie, into a big white cloud, decided being in a whiteout on the Cairngorm plateau wasn’t where we wanted to be, and walked back down again!

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Visibility wasn’t great!

On the way up, the sun breaking through the clouds on distant mountains was beautiful , there were lots of interesting animal tracks in the snow and we found a mountain hare that ran towards us rather than away. It was a lovely winter walk, but we’ll have to go back to bag our munros, Mullach Clach a’Bhlair and Sgor Goiath.

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We had fun in the snow though

Drinking water when walking and camping in Scotland

I am a very thirsty person and never go anywhere without a drink (usually my Nalgene bottle of water). Therefore access to water when outdoors is always something I plan carefully.

There seems to be a lot of difference in opinions and behaviours up here in Scotland regarding drinking water when out in the countryside. My first taste of “wild” water was from Glenrosa Water in Glen Rosa on Arran; Chris and I camped in the glen for two days, it was very hot and we couldn’t take enough water to last the whole trip. I was quite nervous as prior to that I had only ever drank clearly marked drinking/ tap water.

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Glenrosa Water, Arran

It turned out to be delicious and did me no harm whatsoever. Indeed, drinking stream water in remote locations seems to be common up here, and indeed essential on multi-day trips. Yet, I remain wary: in summer I carry a 2 litre platypus on single day walks and only drink stream water when absolutely necessary. In contrast, Chris never carries more than a litre of water and tops up on many of our days out.

I’ve discussed this with others and come across very differing opinions. The general rules seem to be that if you are well-away from people, high up and the water is clear and fast-flowing, it is fine to drink, and this rule has been effective so far for us.

However, this time last year, we were planning for our TGO Challenge and I was very preoccupied by our water supply. I trawled the internet and the advice I found was very confusing! I found people who stated that when walking in Scotland they carried nothing but a mug as water is plentiful and clean, and others who always avoided drinking water straight from the source and preferred using tablets or a variety of filters.

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There was lots of water in Knoydart

I looked up the price, weight and ease of use of many suggested options and came up with a plan that worked extremely well for us. We had planned a fairly low-level route from the west coast of Scotland to the east, which meant that we might not have access to clear little mountain streams for much of the time. I also read and heard a few stories of people who had become ill from drinking stream water, so I didn’t fancy relying on it for two weeks.

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Water in the Cairngorms

On the other hand, we are in Scotland and water generally isn’t in short-supply, so we opted for a small (500ml) and inexpensive filter water-bottle each (Water-to-Go ~£13), to use when on the move, and which we kept topped up whenever we came across a suitable water source. We both also carried a 1l water bottle that we filled up and added a water purification tablet to, before stopping to camp each night. We used this for cooking and drinking in the evening and next morning. If water sources looked scarce, it also allowed us to carry more than our 500ml during the day. We used the more expensive purification tablets (Life Systems Chlorine dioxide tablets ~£10.50) that supposedly remove the taste, which they seemed to do; the only problem was that in cold Scottish spring water, they took many hours (and lots and lots of shaking) to dissolve. We would also recommend keeping them in their little box, not your first aid kit as we did, because the foil got damaged and many of them got ruined when they became exposed.

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Glencoe water

Spring 2017 was very dry in Scotland and we actually found that many small streams were sluggish and the water was discoloured or contained algae. Although lochs and lochans were still plentiful, it is not recommended to drink unpurified standing water either, so we were very pleased with our strategy: it wasn’t particularly expensive, we didn’t have to carry any extra filter equipment, spend time filtering water in advance, or carry large quantities of water.

Exploring Mallaig and Arisaig

Two weeks ago we managed to go away for a long weekend. Unusually, we decided on a relaxing trip rather than a challenging one, and our first choice was Arran. Unfortunately, there was no space on the ferry so we quickly made a new plan to go to Arisaig and Mallaig, which is a region of Scotland neither of us had explored at all.

These two small towns/villages are situated on the very western end of the peninsula south of Knoydart, and getting the boat from Mallaig is actually one of the easiest ways to access this remote area; Mallaig is also well-known for the ferry link to Skye.

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Mallaig harbour

We left on the Thursday evening, intending to stop somewhere near Glencoe to spend the night before continuing the drive on the Friday morning. However, we hadn’t checked the traffic news (nor did Chris read the signs!), and discovered that the road (A82) was closed at Lochearnhead; this wouldn’t be too much of an issue in England, an alternative could be easily found, but in Scotland, there are so few roads that if the one you need is blocked, it requires an enormous detour (hours and hours!) to avoid it. We therefore turned around and parked in a layby, behind a lorry, to wait until it opened again in the morning.

As this wasn’t a very lovely spot, we left first thing in the morning in order to have breakfast with the much nicer views of Glencoe. Sadly, despite the sun on Rannoch Moor, it was raining in Glencoe, so we had bacon sandwiches admiring the mist.

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Loch Morar

We then continued to Mallaig, via the obligatory stop in Fort William to buy the things we had forgotten. Mallaig turned out to be nicer than we expected with a busy harbour, where we watched some fishing boats unloading their catches. It also seems to have one extremely busy street, full of tourists and outdoor enthusiasts.

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Ominous clouds before we got soaked

Loch Morar is lovely, it is worth a drive down the little yellow road to have a look. We parked in Morar to go down to the bay, but ended up having a nap before making it out of the van! The tide was out and the beach was massive; wandering along the northern edge, Chris had a paddle and was caught in a torrential rainstorm without his shoes on.

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Cambusdarach beach is about a 10-15 min walk from the car park

On Saturday, the sun was shining, so we headed for the string of beaches that stretch between the villages of Morar and Arisaig. They were all lovely with white sand and stunning clear blue sea. They were also busier than any beaches we have been on in Scotland before! However, by walking further beyond the first beach at Cambusdarach, we found a quiet spot for a swim with the fish.

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The sea was too perfect to resist going for a swim!

We had lunch beside another beach further south before driving down through Arisaig and continuing south west to the end of the road on the little headland. If you were careful of cars, this road would make a wonderful cycle. Having parked up, we walked further southwest along a track to Rhue Cottage, then on a path down to a secluded beach, Port nam Murach. There were even other people here, though many had arrived by boat, and a big group arrived by kayak while we were there. They set up camp on a wonderful grassy spot above the beach; it looked like an amazing place to spend the night!

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The lovely beach Port nam Murach

We had another calm evening watching kayakers and standup-paddle boarders while we ate dinner.

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Views across to the islands Rum and Eigg

On Sunday we had exhausted our tasty breakfast supply, so we sheltered from the drizzle and had a bacon roll and tea in a café in Arisiaig, before drivng back east along the A830 to a layby just east of Polnish. From there we walked down the Ardnish peninsula to the Peanmeanach ruins. This is a good walk, along a clear, if very boggy, track. The route climbs up the hillside above Loch Nan Uamh, crosses moorland, passing Loch Doire a Ghearain on the left, before descending through a wonderful mossy, deciduous woodland. The path then comes out onto flat marshland, where it’s a case of trying to avoid totally wet feet, before coming to the ruined village on a slightly raised area above the beach. I hadn’t read the route description in detail so it was a pleasant surprise to find a very nice bothy here amongst the ruined buildings. In fact, in his book, the Bothy Bible, Geoff Allan lists Peanmeanach bothy as one of the top five bothies for “Coast and beaches”, “Families and beginners”, and “Romantic hideaways”. I haven’t yet stayed in a bothy, but this one would tempt me: it was spacious, bright, cleaner and more inviting than the others I’ve seen.

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Loch nam Uamh

We had lunch outside, then made our way back. If anyone happens to be there and finds a monocular, I haven’t seen mine since we were there and I would really love to get it back!

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The view down to the coast and the bothy

Dinner was cooked and eaten in Glencoe again, sheltering in the van away from the midges and watching the unsuspecting tourists perform the “midge dance”.

It was a lovely weekend and a very novel and pleasant experience to have no time constraints and be able to lie-in and laze around as much as we liked!

Hiking and backpacking food

It has been observed that we mention food a lot in our posts! That’s probably because it’s a very important part of our experience: a tasty treat can be a great reward and in some situations even redeem an otherwise miserable day!

The food we take varies considerably between activities and has evolved over the years. On the first mountain day out I ever went on with Chris, and my first Scottish hill day, we tackled Curved Ridge in Glencoe and took SO MUCH food, including jelly cubes, flapjack and fruity things in tubes: it cost a fortune! In the end we were back down before lunch, had hardly eaten any of it and went for lunch in the Clachaig!

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Everyone enjoying a sandwich in the snow

 

I also used to get very nervous before we went out into the mountains and couldn’t eat any breakfast. I would  sometimes struggle to eat a lot during the day, and this has probably influenced our choices. I would find myself feeling horrible an hour or so after starting but then realised that I felt much better in the afternoon, possibly because I had eaten more by then. Now I often eat a cereal bar soon after setting off or even sometimes as we leave the car! As a result we try to ensure that we take appetising food and snacks, so that there is always something to look forward too.

We do not stop for an official lunch break, but usually have multiple snack and lunch breaks and something to see us through to the end. This allows us a breather, a chance to enjoy the views and top up on energy, and we find it works much better, than one or long pauses.

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Regular breaks allow you to appreciate where you are!

Hill days

For single day trips we take some form of sandwiches: the absolute favourites are bacon sandwiches! Cheese and chilli jam sandwiches probably come second: the chilli is great when it’s cold. We store them in plastic boxes to avoid single use bags, cling film or foil. For snacks, Chris loves granola bars, I like flapjack squares. Hobnobs or oatie biscuits are almost always with us and are great for sharing.

Bananas get squished, apples usually end up staying in the bag. The jelly never got eaten so we don’t take it anymore. Last year we bought a good flask so we can have hot chocolate or hot squash on winter days, which is a nice treat when drinking your water gives you brain freeze and it boosts our moods. Kitkats have made a recent appearance and will stay on the list. Chocolate raisins are a treat saved for the final tired kilometres on really big days.

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It’s especially important to stop for food in bad conditions; our shelter (the red cafe) allows us to take the time to this

This sounds pretty unhealthy, but hiking with large rucksacks uses an incredible amount of energy, so we aren’t too worried, especially as our usual daily diet is fairly healthy. If anyone has any delicious healthier options they would like to suggest though, we would love to hear them!

We have also found that with experience and improved hill fitness, we now take less and don’t need expensive food, and no longer always need an shopping trip before heading out for a hill day. We don’t have official emergency rations either, but I don’t think we’ve ever eaten everything we take.

Multi-day backpacking

Keeping the cost down was something we also thought about when planning what we would eat on our TGO Challenge. In May 2017, we walked across Scotland, carrying all our equipment and wild camping most of the way. This was to take a fortnight, which was much longer than any previous trip; food organisation therefore represented a very important of our preparation! It was also quite a social event and we were complimented a few times on our food (and the quantity we ate!).

Many people used food resupply parcels and there was a lot of talk about, and offers for, specialist dehydrated backpacking meals. Our route took us through small towns approximately every four days, so we decided to buy what we needed at each place. We just sent one parcel to a town where we weren’t sure we’d have time to buy food before catching a ferry. Specialist camping and hiking food is expensive! Having seen this post about food for long distance hiking, we decided we didn’t need it.

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Food for four days of backpacking and wild camping: almost all of it can be found in any small shop

We had a single MSR Windburner stove that is excellent for boiling water quickly but not great at cooking anything else, so our options were quite limited. For breakfast, we decided on granola with powdered milk: the oats keep you full, there’s lots of sugary energy and it wouldn’t need cooking if the weather was bad or we needed an early start. We mixed it up occasionally with bacon rolls when available and some instant porridge.

For lunch, sandwiches weren’t practical, so we started with oat cakes and hummus. When we were tired of these, we tried garlic naan bread and a cup of soup or crackers with squeezy cheese. Best of all was cold pizza, cooked on the few nights we spent in a hostel (it’s awesome, do it!).

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Cold pizza in plastic boxes: a classic in Glen Affric on the 1st day of our TGO Challenge

We practised our dinners before we left, testing out a few options, which I would highly recommend, even if just to gauge the quantities required. All testing was successful and all we needed was boiling water and a plastic lunch box each. Sachets of flavoured couscous (like this) were brilliant: there are different flavours so you don’t get too bored. We chopped smoked sausage or chorizo into the couscous in our boxes and simply poured on hot water, stirred and left it for 5 minutes. When we were tired of couscous, we did the same with fine noodles and chorizo but added a small tub of stir-in sauce, or had smash and smoked sausage. These were all surprisingly delicious, required very little fuel and were extremely light and easy to prepare. We always looked forward to them and they were easily digestible, which is important when doing strenuous exercise; we were given a dehydrated meal on one night but it didn’t re-hydrate well and Chris didn’t feel right after it all the next day….we were very happy with our corner shop options.

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A plastic pot is very useful for allowing hot meals to sit and for keeping your lunch in, thus avoiding creating too much rubbish

Chris often had a cup of soup for a starter which is good for taking in extra water. Pudding usually comprised instant custard (occasionally semolina, when Chris picked it up by accident, which turned out to be also OK) and/or hot chocolate (and possibly hobnobs!).

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Testing out meals on the MSR Windburner in chilly conditions

Snacks included all the regulars, as well as home-made trail mix (raisins, nuts, seeds, chocolate buttons/raisins, etc), which started well but by the end, I just picked the best bits outs and was left with a bag of stale raisins and lots of sunflower seeds that are still in the kitchen cupboard (and will probably stay there for a year or two).

Whenever we were passing through towns or staying in hostels, we made sure to eat plenty of fruit and veg!

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A perfect evening meal on our TGO Challenge

Getting through the tough bits

We had also been given a pile of protein bars and Chris won a box of Cliff bars before we left; we had enough for one each everyday of the Challenge and they actually became a key item, perfect for getting me through the three o’clock slump!

I have also found that Dextro Energy Orange tablets are brilliant when I feel done-in. I have never had more than two a day but on scrambling days when I can’t eat due to nerves or to get me down that last bit of thigh-trembling descent when I’m exhausted and struggling, one of these can be a big help.

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Bacon sandwich with a view!

What do you eat on your adventures?

Eating well is definitely part of the fun!

Braeriach: Testing my limits

We climbed Braeriach in April and I will always remember it!

Braeriach is the third highest mountain in Britain, but also very remote and difficult to reach. It is situated in the Cairngorms, south-east of Aviemore and can be accessed a variety of ways: one is as part of the Cairn Toul – Braeriach traverse, which encompasses those two munros, in addition to The Devil’s Point and Sgor an Locahin Uaine; another is as a circular route from Whitewell. As we have already climbed the other three, we chose the latter route.

The forecast wasn’t too bad although MWIS advised that it might be quite windy (up to 40mph), but we wouldn’t be going over any particularly difficult terrain, so we thought it was worth a try. As a long route it would also be good practice for our TGO Challenge.

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At the Cairgorm Club footbridge in the forest

We parked at Whitewell and set off early through the Rothiemurchus Forest on excellent forest tracks. These Caledonian pine forests are wonderful; they are home to capercaillie, red squirrels and pine martin and definitely worth a visit themselves. We navigated the tracks to the Cairngorm Club Footbridge, then followed the path south-east towards the Lairig-Ghru. We continued gradually climbing upwards through the forest above the Allt Druidh. The forest thinned and we were no longer protected from the wind; Braeriach was hidden in cloud ahead of us.

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The Lairig-Ghru looking ominous ahead

The path eventually drops down to the burn and the path from the Chalamain gap comes in from the left. We crossed the burn and started to climb steeply up the ridge on the west side of the Lairig Ghru, still on a fairly good path. However, we soon hit snow, it was still windy and the visibility deteriorated; we could see down the steep cliffs into the Lairig Ghru but not much else. We pushed on but the wind got stronger and stronger; we decided it was time for a break and lunch in the red cafe (our group shelter). Finding a flat sheltered spot on the steep rocky ridge wasn’t easy, and keeping hold of and getting into the shelter was even less easy!

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At this point I couldn’t raise the camera above my waist….

A group shelter gives tremendous relief from difficult conditions, and this was no exception, except that the material violently battering the back of our heads was a constant reminder of what was waiting outside. We were also sitting in a lot more snow than we had anticipated. We had already come a long way, but we started discussing our options: the strong wind and poor visibility wasn’t a good combination, so did we want to head back or carry on? We decided to continue a little further and see how we felt: we were well-equipped, we had lots of time and we could turn around at any point. So after a short but vigorous battle with the shelter which didn’t want to go back into a rucksack, we headed on up the ridge. The clouds had actually lifted somewhat while we were resting, which gave us more confidence, but as we approached Sron na Lairige, the wind roared down the valley pummeling us relentlessly. We had a further battle to get our waterproof trousers on, which stopped the wind biting our legs, but it was starting to become mentally challenging for me, as well as physically challenging. We began to walk for a few minutes, leaning heavily into the wind, then stop and turn our backs to the wind briefly, while I regained my breath, before continuing in this manner.

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View on the summit of Braeriach

As we got closer to the summit, we changed direction, the ridge narrowed considerably and we moved quite carefully. Suddenly the wind dropped. It was an incredible relief. My hair had been flying about my face, making it difficult to see, so I quickly took my hood and buff off ready to re-tie it in the calm, when a huge gust hit us and knocked us both onto the ground. I was shocked: I had never felt wind like this. Whenever I moved, the wind picked up the snow and shot it in sharp spikes into my face, while my hair whipped my eyes. It was awful, so I crouched on the floor with my eyes closed waiting for it to calm down. It did a little. We moved forward cautiously. Then there were more gusts; we tried to move down north off the ridge slightly but having been driven to the ground again, the wind pushed me across the snow even while I sitting down! This was terrifying, I had never felt so out of control. I rolled onto my side and dug my elbow into the snow to stop myself from sliding, unable to see much due to the snow in my eyes and face. Chris wasn’t struggling so much, possibly because, unlike him, I was wearing my large backpacking rucksack to get get used to it before the Challenge and it was acting like a sail; he came and crouched behind me. We couldn’t stay there, so we crawled forwards: the ridge was broader ahead. By this point I had had enough, I wanted to get down.

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How we’d been feeling a few minutes earlier!

I honestly have no idea how long we were in this wind but it suddenly disappeared again. We walked calmly but warily to the summit, where there was no wind at all and we could take our gloves off and have some food. However, we could hear the wind roaring like a massive waterfall around the corries just over the edge, it was very strange. Once again we discussed the options: earlier in the day, we had decided that we should return by the way we had come, rather than complete the circuit, as we knew the way and could follow our prints if necessary. Now, we looked at the map and decided the fastest way down and out of the wind was to continue east and descend into Gleann Eanaich as planned.

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As we left the summit, the wind hit us again, this time pushing us downhill from behind. It was difficult not to go too fast and to prevent my rucksack from coming round to my front! However, we descended quickly and soon it was just a surreal memory. The slope was steep, and we “skiied” in our boots down some gullies still full of snow. We lost the path and picked our way down the steep hillside to the track clearly visible below us, passing a couple of reindeer on the way. We didn’t even get too wet crossing the bog to get to the track. Then it was simply a trot in calm weather along landrover track all the way back to Whitewell, occasionally looking back and thinking “did that really just happen?!”

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Desending steeply down into Gleann Eanaich

Back at the van, we had tea and hobnobs before driving up to Glenmore Lodge for a delicious dinner to celebrate another successful adventure.

Once home, we checked the reports from the Cairngorm weather station, which had recorded gusts over 80mph at lunchtime and reaching 90mph by mid-afternoon.

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Proof we were actually fine despite a little too much excitement!

I think I tested my limits further than I ever have in the mountains that day. However, I didn’t panic, I didn’t cry, I didn’t freeze: we were fine, I was fine. I’m proud to know we can cope with difficult situations. Chris actually enjoyed himself!

However, when MWIS forecast 40mph winds two weeks ago, I changed our plan from climbing a ridge on Ben Nevis to rock climbing at Dunkeld…..

 

Munro summit: Braeriach (1296m)

Distance: 26km / 16.25 miles

Ascent: 1217m

Duration: 9h 15mins