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

 

Jessica and Chris’ TGO Challenge Part 4: Braemar to Tarfside 

Our 10th day was the longest we had planned: 30km from Braemar to Ballater. We strapped up my leg, got all our things together and, after saying goodbye and good luck to all the other challengers, left the hostel at 8.10am. The first stage of the walk took us through some lovely forest and past the Lion’s face. There were signposts as we entered the forest and at one point in the forest, but in between the navigation was quite tricky as there were lots of paths.

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The woods around Braemar

We emerged onto the A93 and followed it south-east. We crossed the Invercauld Bridge over the Dee, built as a result of the Battle of Culloden. Then we followed tracks through more forest to the south of the river. There were lots of big mounds of ants nests swarming with great big Wood ants. At one point, we stopped for some food and I quickly found my legs covered in them having paused in the middle of one of their trails! We quickly found a new spot to sit down. As we approached Balmoral Castle, we passed fields of beautiful ponies and immaculate stables and farms.

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The river Dee

We took a path along the river around Balmoral Castle and managed to stomp right past it without really realising or getting a good view, which was a bit of a shame. Instead we stopped at the Balmoral Distillery, where they kindly gave us a taste and topped up our water!

Then it was just road and more road for the rest of the day. It had also become really quite warm which made the walking more difficult  too. By midafternoon, I was getting pretty tired, so we stopped on the verge of the B976 to eat lots of chocolate (thank you Jen and Ade!) And drink the beer Chris had picked up from the free food shelf at the hostel.

Further on we had to refuse a lift from a very nice lady who made sure we knew we still had quite a way to walk to reach Ballater. By the time we reached the town, I was suffering from blisters and walking very slowly, so it was a huge relief to make it to the campsite. Despite the distance it was only 6pm, so we had made surprisingly good time and our longest day was over!

We hardly ever use campsites and when we’ve had to we haven’t enjoyed them much. However the campsite in Ballater is very nice with really good facilities, which we were actually pitched very close to; I don’t appreciate having to pay to stay somewhere where I have to walk miles to go to the loo in the night, rather than pay nothing and be able to just pop outside the tent! There were even bluetits nesting in the cigarette boxes on each end of the toilet block!

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A risky nesting box!

Once we’d showered and set the tent up we went into Ballater to hunt down some food, and by happy coincidence we chose the same hotel as all the other Challengers. We both had steak pie, which isn’t something I’d usually choose but was one of the most satisfying meals ever! The heavy rain storm even waited for us to get back to the campsite before starting.

We were pleased we’d planned for the next day to be a short one. We shared two bacon and a sausage roll for breakfast (there were three whole sausages in one roll!) And stocked up on food in the Co-op. Walking began again at 10.30am when we headed back to Bridge of Muick.

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Can anyone tell us what this is about?

The path towards Mount Keen was well signposted, along landrover track and past a strange little statue. Once up quite high, the signs directed us off the track and across the heather moorland, which was novel for this trip and very pleasant.

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Navigation was very difficult

We had a few nice stops in the warm sunshine, and enjoyed relaxing in the heather. As we descended down into Glen Tanar we found two large antlers, but sadly decided it wasn’t very sensible to take them both with us so we just chose one.

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What a stag!

We had planned to stop in Glen Tanar, leaving Mount Keen for the next day, and our camp sight soon came into view: a perfect flat grassy area above the river and below the munro.

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The path down to our wild camping spot and then up the Mounth Road to Mount Keen

We reached it at 2pm and made ourselves a cup of tea, before having a wander around our camping site, watching the birds, rabbits and hares. It was such a nice spot we were amazed to have it to ourselves. Later in the afternoon we timed erecting the tent perfectly, as it started to drizzle just as we put the bags inside. We had a slightly odd dinner in the tent, of flavoured couscous with beef and broccoli rehydrated stir-fry, and lazed around until bedtime.

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Dinner out of the rain; it was tasty at the time but looks awful now in the pictures!

It was a fairly nice in the morning if a bit grey, but Chris wasn’t feeling 100% (the stir-fry didn’t agree with him! ). We set off up the path to Mount Keen at 8am. We had been wondering whether to bypass it but my leg felt ok and it didn’t look too difficult. However, it actually turned out to get steeper and steeper with what felt like endless false summits !

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A very pleasant pitch all to ourselves

It was very windy at the top but the views were great: we could see across the Cairngorms to Lochnagar and beyond to the west and to the sea in the east. It was too cold to stay at the top for long, so we soon headed down the much nicer path on the other side.

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We made it to the summit of Mount Keen: the only munro on our route and Chris’ 100th munro!

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Summit selfie!

It warmed up fast and we started shedding layers and getting the suncream out. As we reached Glen Mark, it had become really hot and we stopped to paddle in a stream. This glen was lovely at the top but it was a long, sweaty and tiring walk out of it.

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Glen Mark: it was weirdly hot despite the clouds

The road was a little easier thanks to the shade of the trees but we were soon exposed again as we took a track east past Westbank and passed through fields and over the hill to Tarfside. Those fields were absolutely teeming with lapwings though, which were making their crazy calls that can sound like a computer game!

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Last stretch before Tarfside (note the antler!)

We were given an absolutely amazing welcome at Tarfside! After introductions, tea, squash and a bacon roll, we headed off to set up the tent before coming back for a shower and dinner. This revived Chris who had been feeling tired and out of sorts all day. In fact it was a wonderful evening and if we do the challenge again, we’ll definitely make sure we pass through there again!

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Thank you very much to all the volunteers for making us feel so welcome and feeding us so well; we had a brilliant afternoon and evening in Tarfside!

After a very sociable evening with the other challengers and volunteers (all of whom had completed the challenge previously and seemed to know everyone) we headed back to the tent with just two more days of walking remaining.

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Our last wild(ish) camp of the Challenge in a field in Tarfside

Day 10: Braemar to Ballater –  30.1km / 18.7miles (10 hours)

Day 11: Ballater to Shiel of Glentanar – 11km / 6.8 miles (3.5 hours)

Day 12: Glentanar to Tarfside – 16.1km / 10 miles (6 hours)

 

Camping in the Cairngorms

Walk report

Last week I created my “munro map” on the Walkhighlands website, which showed me just how few I have climbed and filled me with motivation to get up some more at the weekend. Chris also had his new MSR Wind Burner stove to try out and our tent hadn’t had an airing for a while, as we’ve been using the van for our trips (eg. Kintyre, Cairngorms and Galloway and Dumfries), so I suggested that we go for a two day walk with a wild camp. On Thursday evening, we got the OS maps out and Chris showed me all the multi-day walks he has done in the Cairngorms, and I proposed a trip that combined two routes from the Munros book (Cameron McNeish) and included five new munros for me and four for Chris, with an obvious area for a camp (the first time I have come up with a route for us!).

We left on Friday night and drove up to Braemar with our usual lunch boxes of pizza for dinner; it such a bright night, the moon was casting shadows on the mountains. We had a fairly laid back start on Saturday, not leaving from the Lin of Dee until about 9.20am. We set off following the signs up the track through Glen Lui, towards Derry Lodge, as we had done a month or so ago. We stopped for snack but our break was cut rather short by the large number of midges, many of which were hiding in Chris’ rucksack. Rather than heading north into Glen Derry, we continued east to the Luibeg Bridge. This whole section is fairly flat with excellent paths and lovely scenery: we spotted lots of male bumblebees on the Devil’s-bit scabious and a red squirrel near to Derry lodge.

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After the bridge, there is a little bit of ascent that gives you good views down Glen Dee and Glen Geusachen, and then as the path curves around the bottom of Carn a’Mhaim, you get the first sight of the Devil’s Point and the Lairig Ghru.

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View from the Luibeg Bridge

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The Devil’s Point

We left the main path up the Lairig Ghru and crossed the river Dee at the bridge, heading up to Corrour Bothy. It was actually the first time that I had been inside a bothy and I honestly think that in summer I’d rather camp, although I can see that it would be much nicer in there if the weather was bad!

I actually found this long flat first stage the most difficult of the day; we left the bothy and attacked our first real ascent at 2pm and I found it much more enjoyable, perhaps due to the effort distracting me from aching feet and shoulders! Once onto the plateau, we nipped up to the Devil’s Point, where I looked up from chatting to sudden and absolutely amazing views that makes it feel really remote. There were also a couple of ptarmigan that waddled along ahead of us for a while: seeing them always makes me happy.

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From the top of the Devil’s Point

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Having taken in the endless landscape as best we could, we retraced our steps back to the top of the path above the bothy and then followed the edge of the plateau over one summit and on to the summit of Cairn Toul.

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Happy summit selfie (Cairn Toul)

Both of these summits are made up mainly of boulder fields, which isn’t too bad for the ascent but makes descending a bit trickier. At the top of Cairn Toul there are two cairns, the more northerly one (the second you reach from this direction) is the highest but the first is worth going to as the views are better, and they are pretty spectacular.

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On the way to Angel’s Peak

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Admiring the view

It didn’t take us long to follow the top of the cliffs down and then climb up to the top of the Angel’s Peak (Sgor an Lochain Uaine), which was our final munro of the day.

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Down into the Lairig Ghru

We then left the views of the coires, the Lairig Ghru and Ben Macdui behind us and descended south east down the ridge. There was no path here and we just picked our way down the patches of grass and boulders aiming to camp somewhere near the bottom of the saddle above Loch nan Stuirteag. As we wanted to be near some water and the flatter areas at the bottom looked boggy, we moved onto the north eastern side of the ridge and found a flattish patch near the streams that become Allt Luineag: it turns out slightly damp grass and moss makes a very nice tent base: easy to put the pegs in and very soft to sleep on.

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A lovely evening

The tent was up in minutes; we love our tent, it’s so sturdy and easy to put up and down. A herd of about 20 red deer watched us as the sun dropped. Dinner was also ready in minutes, which was a vast improvement to our last camping trip when we froze waiting to eat half crunchy, barely-warm noodles. So we were very impressed with the MSR stove performance, although conditions were very benign: there was almost not enough wind to keep the midges at bay.

We both had a lovely sleep: decent camping mats and sleeping bags have made a world of difference to our camping experiences! We woke up in a cloud as usual but the sun was trying to break through as we left camp at about 8.40am.

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Misty morning

Once we were up the steepest section of Monadh Mor, visibility became pretty poor and as the slope flattened off we started navigating properly and I got some great practice walking on bearings and timing distances. There was no obvious path and we walked to a bearing all the way to the saddle between Monadh Mor and Beinn Bhrotain, where the cloud lessened a little and clear path led up to the trig point.

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Chilly on top of Monadh Mor; not much of a view either.

All we needed to do from there was find our way down onto the track beside the river Dee to the White Bridge: easier said than done. We didn’t really want to climb the steep looking Cairn Cloch-mhuilinn and there was a lot of bog between us and it, so we tried a short-cut down beside the Allt Garbh straight to the track. No luck. Once around the shoulder of Cairn Cloch-mhuilinn, it became steep and there were other streams and gullies to cross, so we bashed through the heather all around the shoulder, under some slabby cliffs, back to the flatter ground leading to Carn Fiaclach. Short cuts never work and we had to break out the chocolate raisins! There was still no sign of a path and the ground wasn’t very easy as we made our way towards Carn Fiaclach. Don’t go right up this: it’s steep down the other side! We had to go down the south side and stomp through the heather and lumpy, holey ground right down to the track.

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The Allt Garbh is very pretty

I have to say, these last two munros were not much fun to get off and wouldn’t be much fun to get up either, so this route is a great way to get them done, without making a special trip for them. We had a paddle in the stream and ate our last rolls before marching along the path to the bridge. Here we had a little lie-down in the sun and some more chocolate raisins. From this point there is only the 5km or so to walk back along the track to the Lin of Dee, which didn’t take too long; we were back at the van by 4.30pm and ready for a meal in Blairgowrie on the way home.

A superb weekend!

Details

Distance: ~42 km

Time: 2 days (9 hrs + 7 hrs)

Summits: 5 munros, the Devil’s Point, Cairn Toul, the Angel’s Peak (Sgor an Lochain Uaine), Monadh Mor and Beinn Bhrotain

Comments:

Two good length days with a long flat walk-in and out. Excellent first day! Lots of  good paths but also some sections with no paths, so good navigation required in poor visibility. Good area to camp halfway with access to water. Not too boggy except for some patches on descent on the second day.

 

Most useful piece of kit/advice:

Jessica says: Make sure you know how to use a map and compass and take midge repellent. Chocolate raisins were also essential for this walk.

Chris says: For long distance walks it is important to conserve your energy. Using walking poles is a great way to do this: it saves the knees on the down hill a bit too.