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)

Jessica and Chris’ TGO Challenge Part 2: Drumnadrochit to Aviemore

It dawned on us as we were leaving the Lochness Backpackers lodge at 7am on day four, that we had forgotten, in our planning stage, to factor in just how long the walk to the port to catch our ferry across Loch Ness to Inverfarigaig was. After walking for about an hour across Drumnadrochit, we reached the ferry to find 10 other challengers waiting patiently for the boat man. Gordon Menzies, who incredibly, has been running this service for TGO Challengers for over 20 years,  arrived promptly at 8am and before we knew it we were crossing Loch Ness, watching his entertaining Loch Ness monster presentation and listing to his funny stories.

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Goodbye Drumnadrochit.

The weather was lovely once again which helped make the crossing even more special. One of the aspects of the TGO Challenge that was most appealing to us was that we could plan to go to places that we had never been to before: Loch Ness was one of them.

After a very interesting scramble out of the boat and onto the so-called pier, we had our breakfast of granola and milk (powdered milk and water: you learn to love it) before starting out on what would be a lot of road walking in hot temperatures. We took the feet busting B851 as far as Aberarder house then SE uphill on land rover track to a very well positioned lunching lodge, fully decorated with deer antlers.  Once again, we could see rucksacks lining the entrance, so we sat with other challengers and snacked on some of our homemade trail mix.

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Getting onto the “pier” was a challenge. 

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As we made the final push of the day, over the hill and down into Glen Mazeran, we stopped and turned around to look back at the impressive West coast hills, only to realise that we had walked from there only 4 days ago. This was the first time that we really felt the scale of the challenge we had undertaken.

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Our campsite in Glen Mazeran

The sun woke us up early the next day, making it too hot to stay in the tent, but we took our time to enjoy our breakfast before heading off for the day.  Jessica’s ankle pain had not eased off overnight as much as we had hoped, but as we slowly passed a number of challengers, who had dotted themselves throughout the glen and were still packing up their tents, the views down Glen Mazeran did well to distract us slightly from the worry and in Jessica’s case, the pain. We then headed NE along farm tracks; the fields either side were full of different types of birds including lapwings, oyster catchers and possibly a snipe, then we turned south for a long climb up to the trig point on Carn Dubh Ic an Deoir. Along the way we met up with an American family from Alabama who were also on the challenge. We were all finding the steep ascent, as well as the heat, pretty tough when Steve Jackson, the dad, said “one step at a time, that’s all we can do” simple but true words that would stay with me for the rest of our challenge.

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Air those feet

There was a small matter of an electric fence to navigate as we descended towards the red bothy (aptly named with its red roof). After we crossed the surprisingly dry peat hags, we picked up another land rover track leading to the bothy. The land rover track is usually the annoying hard slog at the end of our mountain days, but we had now fully embraced it as a friend, that was until a steep downhill section became a problem. Jessica’s ankle had finally eased off and was not causing much of a problem now. However, the downhill had caused the pain to move to her knee but fortunately we arrived at the bothy before the pain became worse, and found a rather nice camping spot on a beach close to the River Dulnain just below the bothy.

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Heading down to the Red Bothy

Once the tent was up and dinner had been eaten, we were able to enjoy the rest of the evening being warmed by the gradually lowering sun. One thing we learned on our trip was that TGO life is a simple life, and lying down in the grass watching the clouds go by, all the while being in the mountains and away from any distractions, was a wonderful way to spend our evening.

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Another cracking morning

Aviemore was only 12km away but there were still some obstacles in the way: the so-called Burma Road, a long and intimidating track over a bealach and down to Lynwilg, and the heart-pumping crossing of the A9! The pain in Jessica’s leg made for a steady walk over the hill, stopping occasionally for feet airing and snacks. It was another very hot but clear day so we were treated to some spectacular views of the northern corries and the rest of the northern Cairgorms. As we came into Lynwilg we were very happy to find some cake in a little hut, alongside some pig food and an honesty box for money, with all the proceeds going to the children who made the cake. We had our cake and watched the pigs who were definitely after some. We did not get them any pig food. Sorry piggies.

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The Burma Road stretching into the distance. 

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Looking over to the Northern Cairngorms.

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Some tasty treats inside

 

It was a lovely walk through birch woodland as we descended the glen, and crossing the A9 was not as hair-raising as it could have been. It had been a painful descent though and although we had reached the safety of the Aviemore Backpackers Lodge and had a delicious pint of beer in hand, knowing that there was still a long way to go, I could not help but think that our challenge attempt was in jeopardy.

Day 4: Drumnadrochit to Glen Mazeran –  26km + 3km from hostel to ferry port (12 hours including a 40 minute ferry)

Day 5: Glen Mazeran to Red Bothy – 19km (8 hours)

Day 6: Red Bothy to Aviemore – 12km (7 hours)

 

Knoydart: beautiful and wild

From the moment when I first heard that the Knoydart Penninsula is the most remote area on the UK mainland, I have wanted to visit. At Easter, we finally made the trip.

The Knoydart Penninsula sits between Loch Nevis and Loch Hourn on the west coast of Scotland. It has no road links and can therefore only be accessed by boat or by foot. We decided that several days walking here would represent great training for our TGO Challenge, which is now only a few weeks away!

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The stags were waiting to welcome us into Knoydart

We decided to start our walk from Kinlochourn, which is reached via a long drive down a very bumpy single track road off the A87. We encountered a lot of red deer in the road so drive carefully. There are two car parks at the end of this road: one for day parking and one for overnight with a £1 charge per night. We left the van there on Thursday morning and set off along the path on the south side of Loch Hourn.

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Setting off along Loch Hourn

It is instantly beautiful. The loch was peaceful with just a pair of grebes floating nearby and the surrounding hills dropping steeply to the shores. The path was muddier than we had anticipated and we had to stop after just 10 mins to put our gaiters on: an early sign of what was to come!

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Barrisdale Bay

The path follows the loch shore for about 8 km before it turns south and heads inland as a landrover track to Barisdale. This area is relatively bustling compared to much of the rest of the penninsula, presumably because it can be accessed by boat and there is a path linking it to Inverie. Camping here is restricted to the campsite opposite the bothy; there is a £3 charge per night for both. Also, if your gear is wet, there is no longer a fireplace in the bothy, but there is running water and a toilet.

Once past Ambraigh the route towards Inverie starts to climb. The intermittent showers also became more persistent. By this stage we had seen more deer than I have ever seen and the effect that they have on this environment was clearly illustrated by a large area on the opposite side of the valley from which they have been excluded. The deer fence marked an extraordinarily well-defined line between the short brown grass on our side and the deep heather and young trees or saplings on the other side.

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The first Bridge of Doom in Gleann an Dubh-Lochain

It felt like a long ascent to the bealach (saddle), where the wind caught us. We could now see Loch an Dubh-Lochain ahead where we intended to camp. The descent was simple enough, we just had to avoid the boggy sections: there were many! There were also numerous streams running down, crossing the path and we encountered the first Bridge of Doom (falling apart!). The ground on this part of the valley was unexpectedly and beautifully covered in primroses.

 

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Unexpectedly pretty among the wilderness

We also came across a lone highland calf which Chris announced was dead, before it got up and trotted off.

 

Our camping spot was right beside the lochan and I was very happy to reach it; I felt amazingly light and floaty when I took my rucksack off.

 

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First pitch beside Loch an Dubh-Lochain

Unfortunately it rained on and off constantly while we set up camp and made dinner, so that by bedtime we were soaked again, which didn’t make getting into the tent easier or more comfortable. By the time we were inside we were effectively barricaded in by the piles of wet boots, gloves and waterproofs in the tent porch. We did have a lovely 12 hour sleep though!

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Gleann Meadail

It was nicer in the morning so we set off wearing all our wet outer-layers to dry them out. We turned off the main path to Inverie and headed east up Gleann Meadail. This was a lovely valley and we found a wonderful spot for a camp, where we had our first snack stop, before starting the long climb up to Mam Meadail. Part of the way up, we stopped for lunch and I had just taken my boots and socks off to freshen my feet in the stream, when a big burst of heavy rain hit us. By the time we had scrambled to get our waterproofs on and everything was wet again, it had stopped; this was to be the course of the day.

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A long slow ascent up to Mam Meadail

From the highest point we could see the pointed summit of Sgurr na Ciche shrouded in cloud; we even glimpsed a golden eagle before it disappeared into the mist on the upper slopes. We were slow on the descent down to Carnoch and the marshy land around the River Carnach didn’t look very inviting.

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The mouth of the river Carnach and the BOG

We followed a track up the north side of the river, without crossing it as is shown on the map, but this soon turned into deep mud before disappearing. We weaved our way through the boggy ground, trying to avoid the wettest areas, which was extremely hard going and made for very slow progress. Tracks and paths were occasionally visible but they didn’t help much as we just ended up ankle deep in mud rather than water.

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Down the river Carnach as the valley begins to narrow

Eventually we reached a wooded area that redeemed the afternoon by being absolutely stunning! The valley here narrowed and became steeper, the river also narrowed and ran over rocks, forming waterfalls and cascades, more streams gurgled down through the trees on our left. The bank became steep and we had to climb through trees and rocks but at least it wasn’t so wet.

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Passing  around the foot of Beinn Aodainn

Then, as the river turns east around the foot of Beinn an Aodainn, we came out under a dark cliff that dropped into a gorgeous pool of clear green water. Trees hung over one end and at the other the bank sloped down gently forming a little beach. It would make a perfect campsite and a superb swimming spot in warmer weather. This section was so calm, unexpected and wonderful, I found myself thinking that it could be one of my favourite places in Scotland – on the otherhand, it could just have been the relief of getting out of the endless flat bog!

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Why can’t we camp here?

More waterfalls appeared as we climbed higher and then we were back in the bog again. Here the path on the map disappears; we followed the river, planning to ascend up to reach another path that would take us east to Loch Cuaich, where we intended to camp. However, we came to an apparent dead end when the valley narrowed again and steep crags blocked the route. My feet were tired, absolutely soaked and after such a difficult day I definitely didn’t fancy scrambling about, then walking another hard four km, so I suggested we stopped at the one small patch of dry grass beside the river.

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Waterfalls below Beinn Aodain

 We had dinner – instant custard makes quite a nice dessert – and made it into the tent just a few minutes before torrential rain started to fall. Heavy rain and hail rattled on the tent all night, interspersed with violent gusts of wind that I could hear rushing up the valley before they buffeted us and it was much colder. I didn’t have a good sleep imagining the tent blowing down and the water that was all around us rising up to flood the tent.

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Dinner preparations after a hail shower

However, everything was absolutely fine (I feel bad to have doubted our little tent!) and in the morning the hill tops were all covered in snow. It was dry for breakfast and we set off eastwards to follow the north side of the river to Lochan nam Breac as described in the hill tracks book. Five minutes later and that route was clearly impassable without getting into the river, so we back tracked and scrambled north up the steep slope, aiming to hit the track somewhere above us. This worked and gave us some fantastic views of the whole valley in both directions, before making our way east again. This valley feels seriously wild and committing, it’s a very dramatic, craggy and remote landscape.

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View back down the River Carnach on the last morning

By 11am we were north of Lochan nam Breac and stopped to look at the map; it had taken us nearly 2 hours to walk about 2.5 km. We were astonished! It had felt like we were moving well, but the boggy ground was clearly slowing us down and it was still raining. We had intended to head back to Barisdale along the Abhainn Chosaidh and then through Glen Barrisdale but those valleys were riddled with streams and were not recommended for wet days! Adding that to our slow progress and a big potential river crossing, we decided it was safer to turn back and return via Gleann Unndalain instead.

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Lochan nam Breac

Once we started climbing Mam Unndalain, the bog reduced dramatically and we made much better distance. Glenn Unndalain is a lovely valley but felt much greener and friendlier; the sun even came out for a while, making the numerous streams and waterfalls sparkle.

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Out of the worst of the bog at last and climbing Mam Unndalain

By 3pm our progress had improved so much, we were back at the Barisdale campsite, where we had a hot chocolate before carrying on, intending to camp on the tip of land pointing out to Fraoch Eilean. Howewer, it was only about 4.30pm when we got near and we decided that it would be good training to do a longer day, so we pushed on back to the van. It turned into a beautiful evening as we marched back along Loch Hourn, with the evening sun coming out between showers to light up the moss, dead bracken and granny pines on the shore.

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Granny pines after ANOTHER shower

We got back to the van at about 7pm, sorted out our kit and made an excellent dinner with all our remaining food!

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Evening on the shore of Loch Hourn

Details

Distances: Day 1 – Kinlochourn to via Brisdale Loch an Dubh-Lochain ~ 18km; Day 2 –  via Gleann Meadail and up the River Carnach to the most northerly bend ~ 18km; Day 3 – back to Kinlochourn via Glean Unndalain and Barisdale ~21km

Total: 57km

Comments:

Knoydart is an absolutely incredible place, I would highly recommend going! However, good care and planning is required as the terrain can be difficult, weather forecasts are unreliable and it is very inaccessible and remote: in three days we saw 7 people between Kinlochhourn and Barisdale, and only 1 other person beyond that. Ensure you have plenty of supplies, escape options prepared and enjoy the heart of Scottish wilderness.

Nevis Gorge and Steall Falls

Following our day out with British Mountain Guide Andy Cave, we decided to take a wander up to the Steall Falls in Glen Nevis. It was raining and we had wanted to make the most of the hotel facilities in the morning, so this short walk was ideal. From Fort William, you take the road all the way to the end of Glen Nevis where there is a free car park. A good path leads away into the dramatic gorge, however it is rough and at times the ground drops away steeply, so care and good footwear is needed.

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View up the Water of Nevis from the path

After winding through the forest, with the river rushing over rocks below, you come out into an open valley. The huge Steall Falls are immediately visible pouring down the hillside ahead. The path leads off east down the valley, but you can turn right towards the river to get a bit closer. A wire bridge crosses the river, which is not for the faint-hearted. A hut is situated on the other side and a boggy walk to the base of the falls is possible, but according to Chris wasn’t worth the muddiness, as the views are actually better from the river.

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Steall Falls in the cloud

Harry Potter fans might recognise the landscape from the film Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, when Harry battles the dragon.

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This bridge requires a lot of concentration (it is also right at the end of the walk and it’s therefore not essential to cross it!)

This is a brilliant walk for groups of friends or families wanting quick access to some wilderness and spectacular scenery, the rocky path might add an extra little sense of adventure.

Distance: 3.5 km / 2.25 miles

Ascent: 220 m

Time: 1.5 hours

Snow on Beinn Ghlas!

Winter has well and truly arrived in Scotland!

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By the end of what felt like a long week, I was not impressed at the prospect of getting up at 5.30am on Saturday morning to make our way to the hills known as the Lawers group. All the photos of snow covered mountains we were seeing were very good motivation though, and we were soon extremely happy we made the effort.

Having collected Kirstie at 6.30am, we drove through a dark and frosty morning up to Killin. We arrived with half an hour to spare before meeting another friend Jen, so we shivered and yawned our way to a coffee shop that was just opening for tea, coffee and orange juice. Once Jen and Siula (Jen’s gorgeous dog) arrived, we piled ourselves and all our gear into her Landrover to get up to the Ben Lawers car park. The road doesn’t get gritted, so we thought it might be a bit treacherous in our car.

The hills were completely plastered in snow, much more so than we had anticipated and the weather was beautiful, so we were already very excited. We set off through the snow from the car park towards the nature reserve felling very happy!

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Photo by Chris

Upon entering the reserve, we saw lots of red grouse sitting in the snow, looking very conspicuous with their dark plumage – why don’t they change colour in winter like the mountain hares and ptarmigan?

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Photo by Chris

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Photo by Jen

We made our way slowly up the hillside, with plenty of pauses to admire the view and take pictures. We dug a seat out of a snow drift, so we could admire the spectacular scenery while having lunch.

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We reached the summit of Beinn Ghlas, just after 12 where Jen generously supplied some Port and delicious chocolate as it was her birthday.

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Jen and Siula near the summit (photo by Chris)

As this was our first winter day of the season, we decided not to push on over the steeper slopes to Ben Lawers (which had just disappeared in a big cloud!) and risk descending in the dark, but instead to enjoy our success and head back down with plenty of time for playing in the snow, making snow angles and drinking hot chocolate back in Killin.

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Photo by Chris (on Jen’s phone)

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Jen’s panorama

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A happy birthday girl!

Well-done Jen for excellent driving over steep ice! It was a brilliant day, finished off perfectly with burgers, beer and wine at home.

Details

Distance: 7.5 km (10.5km if you include Ben Lawers)

Duration: 5 hours (due to much dog and snow-induced fun)

Ascent: 858m (968m if you climb Ben Lawers too)

Munro summit: Beinn Ghlas (1103m)

Comments

The hills of the Lawers group are nice munros if you don’t want too much ascent, as the car park is nice and high! Killin is also a very nice village to stop off in on your way to or from the hills, with some really lovely waterfalls.

Note: do not forget your camera when it is beautiful and snowy!

Na Gruagaichean (but not Binnein Mor)

Last weekend we decided to venture slightly further north beyond Glencoe, to investigate the Mamores, a range of hills that I have never been to, and Chris hasn’t explored much. Chris had a route in mind that takes in the summits of Na Gruagaichean and Binnein Mor from Kinlochleven, and looked interesting but not excessively long, which is important now the days  are shorter.

We left Stirling at 6.30am, which was the earliest that didn’t feel too horrendous for a Sunday morning. The route starts at St Paul’s Church in Kinlochleven, which is quite easy to find: take the first turning right after crossing the bridge in Kinlochleven and it is the white building at the end of the road. There is a car park to the right of it and the path passes between the church and the car park. Almost immediately, you reach a t-juntion where you should turn left, then keep right and follow the path marked Loch Eilde Mor. It was very chilly to start with but we soon warmed up as the path steepens through the deciduous woodland, which was very beautiful in its autumn colours. After crossing a stream, there are a few different worn paths but they all seem to go the same way. We soon came out of the wood and onto the moorland, where you must be sure to look behind you as the views of Loch Leven are stunning!

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Looking back to Loch Leven

We followed this path until we came to a landrover track, where we took our first Brunch bar stop. When you reach the track, the path onwards is visible continuing in the same direction, but starting from a bit further left along the track. This takes you along the hillside and around Sgor Eilde Beag, where we passed a couple who weren’t looking too happy and could only mutter “it’s a bit wild up there.” Indeed, it was definitely getting windier, so we found a sheltered spot before turning into Coire an Lochain for a sandwich.

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A good path heading towards Sgor Eilde Beag

Once in Coire an Lochain it was a lot colder: there were the first patches of snow on the ground and ice on the water. After continuing on for a few more minutes, we realised that we had taken a lower path that was leading towards Sgurr Eilde Mor, so had to cut left to the path we needed, which was slightly higher up the hill. The light was very strange, with sunshine behind and below us, but very black clouds in front. Sgurr Eilde Mor rose smooth and cone shaped on our right and we could see the dark shapes of many more hills and valleys in the cloud ahead. At this point we discussed some alternatives for when we reached the ridge, as the weather was looking rather menacing and it was already cold and windy.

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Sgurr Eilde Mor

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Menacing clouds ahead

Before the ground began to drop away we left the path and moved up to the left, soon finding a path which climbed steeply but without difficulty right up to the little bealach (saddle) north-west of Sgor Eilde Beag summit. It was very windy!

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Kirstie on the ridge – it was hard to hold the camera still!

We moved slowly up the ridge to the middle point between the three summits, whilst being buffeted about and having tiny, hard bits of snow driven into our eyes. Crouching down below the mid-point, we decided that we didn’t fancy doing the two summits in this weather, and the quickest way back would be via Na Gruagaichan. The ridge to that summit however is narrower on the map than the ridge to Binnein Mor, so we decided to have a look and see if looked feasible in the wind, and if not we’d re-assess. Following a bearing down, the ridge appeared below and is indeed quite narrow. However, the wind soon dropped and the cloud thinned, making it a really nice ridge walk, with stunning views under the clouds.

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Descending onto the ridge

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If you look back along the ridge as you come towards the far-side, you can see the north side is in places almost a flat vertical wall; this isn’t noticeable as you cross because the path stays slightly to the south, just below the crest.

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On our way up to Na Gruagaichan

We had another sandwich huddled in the shelter of a low, semi-circular rough wall of stones before making our way up Na Gruagaichan. The climb wasn’t too difficult, but it is quite rocky in places. At the summit we were pretty much in cloud again so we headed south down the broad shoulder until we were just under the cloud and the other mountains reappeared, topped with a smattering of snow.

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The route follows this shoulder until it becomes much steeper, then you have to choose your own way down. We took a more westerly line, which was quite easy while there was still snow on the ground but became slower on the steep, slippery grass. Eventually we met the track again and followed it east for a short distance before finding the path off it that leads back west and down to Kinlochleven. This last leg was surprisingly long but we finally came out exactly where we started, and having changed our boots, we made for the Clachaig Inn in Glencoe, to revive ourselves with hot chocolate and chips!

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Sunshine on the Pap of Glencoe

Details

Distance: approx. 12km (would be 14km with the second summit)

Ascent: approx. 1179m

Time: 6.5 hours

Summits: Na Gruagaichan (1056m) with option for Binnein Mor (1130)

 

Comments

A really stunning little ridge walk, with fabulous views, that made me want to go back to the Mamores and brought the Ring of Steall higher up the to-do list. It could be a great route for winter.

Isles of Lewis and Harris: beaches and eagles

Lewis

Having had a fantastic day on Liathach in Torridon on Sunday, our plan was to spend the rest of the week getting a taste of the Isles of Lewis and Harris on our very first trip to the Outer Hebrides.

So, on Monday morning we caught the 9.30am ferry out of Ullapool to Stornoway. The water was incredibly calm and remained so for the entire crossing. We saw gannets for the first time, skimming just above the sea, identifiable by their large pale beaks and black wing tips contrasting strongly with their white bodies. We also caught a glimpse of two small fins side-by-side behind the ferry, but we couldn’t tell whether they were dolphins or porpoise. We spent some time during the crossing with all our guide books, climbing guides and maps (of which we had many!) out, constructing a plan of action for the next few days.

The ferry arrived in Stornoway in the early afternoon; we had read that this was by far the largest settlement on the islands, so we went for a wander around. Unfortunately we were rather underwhelmed and soon headed off for wilder areas.

Our first destination was the beach, Traigh Uige, at Timsgearraidh on the west of the island, which I think we read was the nicest on Lewis. The drive lasted about an hour, mostly through empty low-lying bog, containing very little but short brown grass and lots of lochans. This doesn’t sound very appealing but in the sunshine it was surprisingly attractive, with the golden brown contrasting with the bright blue of the sky and water.

We drove to a spot marked on the OS map with parking and a picnic area, just north of Eader Dah Fhadhail, and found it to be a designated camping area with toilets, showers and a utility room, run by a crofting association. The beach is just behind a small band of sand dunes and is lovely: beautiful white sand and sea so clear and blue, we quickly decided that we had to have a swim!

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Sunny Traigh Uige

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Eventually, feeling invigorated, we headed back to the van for dinner. The following morning, the sun was still shining and we drove up to Aird Uig to look for some sea cliff climbs. We parked at the end of the road opposite a house that is being run as a cafe and craft shop, or “open house” when the cafe is closed: a lovely idea. Aird Uig looked like a very unusual place, full of long low buildings with flat roofs. Some of them were nicely done up as holiday accommodation, others appeared to be in the process of renovation and quite a few were in very poor condition, lacking windows and surrounded by broken cars and engines. Apparently it is an old RAF base and the community are now doing lots of work to bring in visitors and provide jobs and business for locals.

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So where are these cliffs?

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We headed west from the centre of the village along a track and then down towards the north side of a lochan and the cliffs. The views were great but we weren’t very successful at finding the climbs; unfortunately, this seems to be a regular occurrence for us with sea cliffs. In the early afternoon we headed back to the van for the drive down to North Harris.

Harris

As you head south from Stornoway, the landscape changes: it starts to get hilly, and we drove along a really beautiful valley, with Loch Aireasort in the bottom, before reaching much more rocky terrain. We were looking for a shop to stock up on milk but didn’t actually find one until Tarbert the following day, so make sure you plan food shopping carefully!

We turned off the main road just north of Tarbert and drove west along a narrow, single track, windy and humpy road.The next day’s walk was to start from this road and I had spotted a small beach and a parking area at the end of it, which I thought might be somewhere nice to stay for the night. This road gives easy access to the Forest of Harris and part of the way along it we spotted a sign for a Golden Eagle observatory, which was very exciting: Golden Eagles were one of the things I was particularly hoping to see. At the end of the road, we did indeed find a lovely beach, parking, a wild campsite and a toilet, again run by the local crofting association. Be prepared to have to get out and chivvy the Highland cows out of the road though, they really weren’t bothered by the van at all. That evening we were able to have dinner with van doors open looking right down onto the beach.

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Traffic jam

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Dinner with a view at Huisinis

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Breakfast in the sunshine

After a sunny breakfast on the picnic benches above the beach, we headed off to start our walk; this time the cows were lying in the road and wouldn’t move until I went and stood over them. The walk starts at the access road to a power station about 3/4 of the way along the road, just before a little castle (Abhainn Suidhe) if you’re coming from the west. It follows a tarmac track up past the power station, but before we had even walked 1 km, we heard a raven making a lot of noise and realised that it was mobbing something very large indeed: my first Golden Eagle sighting! The eagle dwarfed the raven, which chased it round the valley before we lost sight of them over the hills. I couldn’t believe it and was so excited as I hadn’t really expected to see one. However, the Forest of Harris reportedly has some of the highest nesting density of Golden Eagles in Europe, so it’s a good place to spot them.

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Glen Ulladale

Once past the power station, the track gets steeper and climbs up to a small dam at the end of Loch Chliostair. Here, a path follows the west side of the loch; there is steep hillside on both sides and I spotted another eagle come over the top and slowly circle it’s way around to our left. Then we heard a strange yapping sound and another came into sight near the first and they circled together for a while before splitting up. The one that was yapping made a sudden drop towards the hillside at one point and we could see flashes of white on its underside, suggesting that it was a juvenile.

The path continues to another smaller loch before dropping down into Glen Ulladale (Gleann Uladail). As you descend, Sron Ulladale starts to come into view on the right. This is a massive fist of rock that bursts out of the hillside and towers over the valley as a magnificent overhanging cliff. It has been described as the finest inland precipice in the UK, and if you are a climber, it hosts some famous long hard climbs. Great big boulders litter the grass below, which are quite fun to climb around, and stags were roaring just the other side of the valley.

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Photos just can’t do justice to Sron Ulladale

We returned by the same path, and nearly bumped into three red deer, fortunately without a stag. We also saw two Golden Eagles above Creagan Leathan, soaring close together and occasionally diving towards each other, whereupon one would flip upside down and they would clash talons. It was amazing to watch. Our last sighting of one was a juvenile again, with white patches under its wings flying low over Lag MacCodruim.

Once back at the van we made for Tarbert, which isn’t very big but there was a shop, so we stocked up on milk, bread, and the real essentials: hobnobs, twix and twirls. We also had hot drinks and cheesecake in the hotel next to the ferry port. Then we carried on towards West Harris, making for Luskentyre (Losgaintir). Right at the end of the road, there is parking, more toilets and a beautiful beach (Traigh Rosamol), where we watched the sun set; the calm sea only broken by a cluster of fins crossing the bay. Then we drove back along the road a short way and camped at one of the designated spots.

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Traigh Rosamol

When we woke up in the morning, the tide was out, leaving a vast expanse of sand, upon which we made dams and drew giant penguins as we waited for it to warm up a bit.

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Traigh Losgaintir: where’s the sea?

Then we moved on to explore some of the other beaches, which were all absolutely stunning: probably some of the nicest beaches I have seen.

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Traigh Lar

For lunch, we parked at the end of the road beyond Northton (Taobh Tuath) and ate overlooking another beautiful beach, before taking the track through the gate, which leads to a string of small pretty beaches. The sea looked so gorgeous that we braved the cold again and went for another swim!

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Traigh na Cleabhaig

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We couldn’t resist a final dip

We had to head back to Tarbert that night as our ferry was very early the next morning, so we began to make our way northwards again. The very large beach of Traigh Scarasta looked very inviting for a final walk, but we could not find an obvious way to get onto it from the A859, so we carried on a little further to a parking/camping and picnic area just north of the golf course. From there, if you walk north along the road a little way, there is a gate into a field with information about the standing stone, and from there you can walk down to a more hidden beach behind the dunes. There was no-one else there, so we tucked ourselves into the edge of the dunes and made ourselves hot chocolate, with just a seal and a dolphin/porpoise for company.

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Hot chocolate and hobnobs on the beach….what more could you want?

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Comments

These islands are a wonderful place to explore, with some absolutely stunning beaches and they are ideal for campervan trips. Just make sure that you have plenty of food with you as there aren’t many shops open out of season except in Stornoway and Tarbert.

CalMac Ferries: Ullapool – Stornoway £67.90 ; Tarbert – Uig £42.20 for two people and a 6m-long van.