Jessica and Chris’ TGO Challenge Part 3: Aviemore to Braemar

After a relaxed afternoon and evening in Aviemore, we set off on our 7th day of walking just after 8am towards Freshiebridge via the B970. My leg was hurting quite badly so we were fairly slow as we made our way along the roads. However, there was little wind and it was very calm and peaceful walking along under the trees. The deciduous woodland was full of birds and the verges were humming with bumblebees. We made several stops and as I warmed up, walking became easier.

At Feshiebridge we turned off the B970 and took a smaller road past the landing strip and gliding club. The birch and beech trees gave way to larch and Scot’s pine. Chris spotted a stoat; a red squirrel watched us from the branches of a roadsid tree and the blaeberry (bilberry) flowers were attracting lots of blueberry bumblebees (Bombus monticola). This is my favourite species: with a bright red bottom and yellow stripe, it’s very beautiful and quite rare in much of the UK.

Eventually, at the end of the road, there is a car park with some information about Glen Feshie and a track that leads down the glen. Beyond a house and a couple of sheds, this track turns into a path taking you towards the river. We passed through a gate, where a sign asked us if we had a tent with us because the bothy is closed for refurbishment, and stopped to cool our feet in the stream just beyond.

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The pine forest in Glen Feshie. Look at all the new baby Scots pine trees; it’s great to see so much regeneration.

The river Feshie is highly braided, winding its way through shallow channels in a wide gravel bed. The outer banks of the meanders are highly eroded and at one point the path is completely cut off by the remains of a large landslide that has ripped away the river bank either side of a stream flowing into the river. The resulting cliffs of gravel require care to descend and once across you can see that the remaining cliff is also being heavily eroded and probably won’t last long.

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Landslide! The path was just to the right of the gorse bush on the far side!

The path then took us into proper Caledonian pine forest where the forest floor was illuminated by an amazingly bright lime green by the thick covering of blaeberry. The Cairngorms are home to some of the largest remaining areas of native Caledonian pine forest: it has been stripped from much of the Scottish hills and only patches remain and overgrazing by sheep and deer prevent regeneration. Here, there are no sheep and deer numbers are tightly controlled; the results are clear with young trees much in evidence: a rare sight on the majority of our walks in Scotland.

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I love these forests. The blaeberry is so beautiful.

We made our way through more beautiful forest before the track disappeared into the river! This river changes its course across the gravelly valley bottom regularly, resulting in the loss of tracks and bridges. A new path has been created that skirts the steep slope above the river before re-joining the track further down the glen.

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The landrover track just falls into the river! The huge tree in the channel demonstrates just how strong this river must be in spate!

The bothy, Ruigh Aiteachain, is situated in a large flat area dotted with large trees and although it is closed at the moment, it is a lovely place to camp: I think it was one of my favourites of the whole trip. Although, I love the mountains, I find there is something very special about these forests. We were spoilt for choice of where to pitch the tent and eventually decided on a spot under a huge beech tree beside an old stone chimney.

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Such a lovely relaxed camping spot

As a wild camping spot it even has a few luxuries: water is piped out of the hill ready to drink and there is a toilet (very basic but functional, although you have to collect your own water to flush it).

We had a leisurely dinner as a few other people arrived and also set up camp; we lay and looked up through the leaves and I watched the bees and loads of voles scuttling through the undergrowth behind the tent: it was a really lovely evening. We went to bed just before it started to rain.

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Setting off in the rain on day eight

In the morning it was still raining so we had breakfast in the tent. Full waterproofs were required for packing up camp and the little “challenge city” of tiny tents gradually disappeared as everyone headed off down the glen. Despite the light rain, the morning walk started beautifully again as we were still in the forest and able to  admire the huge old granny pines. At our first snack stop several challengers caught up with us and stopped for a chat before carrying on, and that pretty much continued for the rest of the day. There were more signs of river erosions and the huge trees lying on the gravel beds between the river channels are evidence of the power that this trickling river must sometimes show.

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Leaving the forest behind us

We emerged into the heart of the Cairngorms: a huge expanse of undulating brown heather and tough grass as far as we could see, with little to measure our progress against and made even bleaker by the unceasing rain. We met up with three challengers (including Ali, one of the Challenge organisers) in a building shown on the map that was actually half a shed with about three quarters of a wooden wall remaining.

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Rain and heather just about sums up our 8th day of walking

The only features that broke up this bleak landscape for the rest of the day were a bridge over a nice waterfall and another collapsing stone building that we sheltered in for a while late in the day. Also lots and lots of slugs. When we turned uphill towards the waterfall we left the river Feshie, before we started to follow Geldie Burn further on.

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A lot of wet, boggy emptiness…..

We had planned to camp at White Bridge but it was still raining when we got there and was quite exposed and unappealing, so we carried on a little further. However, my leg had had enough soon after so we stopped and pitched the tent on a random patch of flattish grass beside the landrover track. Unfortunately as he was laying out his bed, Chris discovered that we had pitched it over a very large rock, hidden in the grass, so we had to undo everything and move it in the rain. This wet day demonstrated just how lucky we had been with the weather and how much tougher the challenge would be if the weather was poor.

By the morning, the rain had reduced to the odd shower, so we managed to pack up in the dry. We found our first ever deer antler in the heather, which was very exciting and Chris carried it to Braemar. We set early at 7.20am to make our slow way (my leg was definitely not improving) towards the Linn of Dee.

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Linn of Dee

There we had a pause and went to look at the amazing gorge, then continued along the road on the northern side of the river towards Mar Lodge. Eventually we saw a very welcome sign directing TGOers to a cup of tea, biscuits and a chat with some other challengers! A board covered in messages and a tally of visitors, showed that 115 challengers had passed through! It was then a fairly short walk into Braemar for our first bacon roll of the trip!

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Woohoo!

Feeling revived, we made our way to the hostel, where we did some kit admin before our friends, Jen and Ade, came to visit us, bearing wonderful gifts of chocolate, a spork for Chris (he left his at the bunkhouse in Aviemore, so we’d been sharing a single spork for 3 days – disaster!) and physio tape. We had a lovely afternoon, with lots of tea, cake and chat followed by a delicious meal at Gordon’s tea room to prepare us for the next day, which was the longest of the trip and had been worrying us for a while.

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On the road into Braemar

Day 7

Aviemore – Ruigh-aiteachan: 22.5 km /14 miles (8 hours)

Day 8

Ruigh-aiteachan – White Bridge: 21.9km / 13.6 miles (8 h 40m) – we actually walked an extra 1km so 22.9km

Day 9 

White Bridge – Braemar: 16.2 km / 10 miles (6 hours)

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Women’s Paramo Velez Light Smock

I do not like waterproofs; but I do like my Paramo!

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My Paramo and I having wintery fun in Glencoe early this year. It kept me snug in the wind and snow on the top of Stob Dearg and comfortable all the way down. Thanks to Isabel Jones for the photo!

I have always disliked waterproofs and have never found them to be very effective. As I started climbing and walking in the Scottish hills, I upgraded from my old Regatta jackets, through two Outdoor Research waterproof jackets, to a Rab Vidda jacket (which was a second-hand emergency buy when I needed a helmet compatible hood for a winter skills course). None of them have kept me dry: not in summer nor winter. So, I would avoid wearing them, often to the point of getting rather wet. I don’t believe that all these jackets can have leaked, which leads me to the conclusion that it is a condensation problem, particularly as I get very warm when on the move. So, finally having had enough of being damp and suffering the awful cold clamminess of wearing a hardshell over a t-shirt in summer, I decided to try something different: I bought a Paramo jacket.

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The peaked hood ensured I was still happy despite driving rain near Loch Lomond in August 2015. Chris is also wearing his Paramo Velez smock (not the light version).

The fabric and comfort

For their waterproof clothing Paramo use Nikwax Analogy waterproof fabric, which works differently to any hardshell fabric: as well as being breathable, Paramo claim the advantage that it isdirectional too. Their waterproofs are made up of two layers: an inner layer, the Nikwax Analogy Pump Liner, which is designed to push water away from your skin and protect your insulation, and an outer layer of directional microfibre that deflects wind and rain. As a wearer, the first obvious difference between this fabric and that of hardshells is the feel: it is very soft. In particular, the Velez light fabric is almost silky to the touch, more so than that of the Velez, which has a slightly tougher material. This means that it is extremely comfortable to wear, even next to my skin.

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It provides great windproofing and insulation in cold dry conditions too! And sheds snow nicely when you fall into a snow drift! Beinn Ghlas in Nov 2016.

Features

The Velez light smock is described as suitable for all outdoor activities; I use mine for walking, munro bagging, back packing, scrambling and winter hill walking and it has been wonderful for them all. The smock has a fully adjustable hood and high collar, which both pull in tight around your face for good protection against driving rain or snow. The large chest pocket is very useful as it isn’t compressed at all by the waist belt of my rucksack, as other pockets usually are. It can fit a lot of items in it, although it isn’t very flattering when full, but that isn’t my priority on the hills! There are two two-way venting zips that run from the bottom of the smock up to the pocket, which also allow access to the two inner zipped pockets; I haven’t used these pockets much as I usually have a pack on, but I use the vents a lot, even when it’s raining. The back of the smock is longer than the front, to keep your bottom warm and dry, without restricting leg movement, and there is a draw cord around the base for adjustment to your preferred fit. Finally, it also has adjustable, reinforced velcro cuffs to keep the weather out: these have a tough bit on them for biting if the need arises!

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Comfortable despite the warmth, drizzle and fog whilst climbing munros near, and including Lochnagar, in the summer of 2015. You can see how short the smock is at the front, the two-way venting zips and the size of the front pocket.

Warmth & Waterproofing

My main worries about buying a Paramo jacket were that it would be too hot for me, and that I heard conflicting reports on how waterproof they are. As mentioned earlier, I get very hot when on the move but I have happily worn this jacket in summer and winter. In warm weather I’ve worn it over a short-sleeved base layer and although I have been warm, I’ve also been much more comfortable than in my previous hardshells. In winter conditions, I wear a base layer, wind-proof gilet and soft-shell jacket underneath it: this keeps me plenty warm enough and the jacket also provides great protection from the wind. In the very coldest conditions (or when stopping for lunch), I can throw a synthetic down jacket over the top or underneath.

It has also been bomb-proof in terms of waterproofing; the only time I feel like it may have let in a little water, was on one side of my neck when we were in torrential rain and wind so strong it was knocking me off my feet in Wales. Otherwise, it has kept out lots of Scottish rain and sleet very reliably!

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Struggling to stand upright in North Wales in October 2015; the only time I’ve felt like it might have let in a little water (at the neck on the windward side)

Size

The sizing is quite generous: I wear a size 10/12 and needed the size small smock and there is still plenty of space for extra layers. It is also not the most flattering fit: my Rab jacket looks a  bit sleeker but it really doesn’t matter.

Durability

I was also a little worried about damaging the apparently delicate outer fabric, but it is now nearly two years old and, despite constant use in the Scottish hills, only has one mark that I have noticed on it, which happened when I caught it in the zip of my primaloft jacket; however it is only tiny and superficial, so I’m surprised and pleased with how durable it seems to be.

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Hours of rain and sleet in the Monadhliath hills after waking up to snow on the tent (spring 2016): only my feet got wet though….

Packing convenience

I also thought it might be bulky and heavy, but it folds up smaller than the Rab Vidda jacket as it is softer and doesn’t feel any heavier: I carry it happily in my rucksack whatever the weather.

Downsides

There are only two very small things that I’m not keen on, which are how cold and wet the cuffs get: the very ends seem to only consist of the outer fabric and it can sometimes get very cold on your wrists if they aren’t covered by something. The other is that when it is very windy, the material of the hood flaps a lot and is very noisy.

Conclusion = Great!

Overall, I absolutely love this jacket and I would recommend it for all the activities I use it for.v In it, I feel like I can take on anything Scotland can throw at me! I will also happily wear it all day even when it isn’t raining, which for me is a revelation: rather than hating my waterproof, it is now one my favourite pieces of kit!

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Still in the Monadhliath…still raining….but also still dry and happy!