Rock climbing at Craig a Barns

When the sun is shining, there is nothing better to do than to go rock climbing. A couple of weeks ago we headed to one of my favourite climbing venues: Craig a Barns near Dunkeld, more specifically Polney Crag, a classic Central Scotland venue. It is popular for its ease of access and great selection of single and multi-pitch climbs between Very Difficult and E3.

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A sea of green!

You can access the crag by taking an old military road West from Dunkeld for just over a kilometre before reaching a large dirt layby on the right (you will  have to bump your car up onto the curb). You then need to walk over a fallen down fence and follow a well defined path up to the right, where you will step out of the trees at the left hand side of the crag. Alternatively you can get the train (the station is just south of the town) and walk north through Dunkeld to access the military road west, out of the town.

Your main relocation point of the crag is the well defined abseil point; Hairy Gully, found in the middle of the wall. Be aware though that if wet, this gully can be rather slippery, muddy and generally horrible.

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Jess abseiling down Hairy Gully.

Polney Crag is home to a couple of fantastic VS 5a climbs: The Rut*** and The End***. Both are well-protected but will certainly get your heart racing as you pull through the crux moves, however, you will top out with a smile on your face. There are also many climbs to enjoy at V Diff, Severe and Hard Severe but be careful as some of them are poorly protected and would have the potential for a nasty ground fall if a slip were to occur.

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What a place to be!!

I have been to this crag a number of times now and each time I have been able to explore a different section of the place. It is also a super training ground for those wishing to move into the world of multi-pitch climbing. The rock can remain dry from tree cover but is quite vegetated in places meaning that on occasion, a sling around a tree is the obvious bit of pro.

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#belayselfie

So please go and enjoy Craig a Barns, lead your first V Diff, climb your first multi-pitch route or simply enjoy the excitement of The Rut. Watch out for that Hairy Gully though.

Enjoy!

 

Guide books:  Scottish Rock – South, Highland Outcrops and Rock Climbing in Scotland.

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 5: Tarfside to Montrose

We were so close. Just two more days of walking and we would complete the challenge. I tried not to get ahead of myself though, as the walk from Tarfside to the North Water Bridge campsite was 27km. They were a very warm 27 km!

We went back to the church, were the TGO volunteers had based themselves, to fill up on bacon rolls and tea, before we headed off. Because the volunteers were all experienced challengers, they were able to give us some route suggestions for the last two days of our trip. They pointed out to us some new bridges that were not on the map but would take us through a more interesting part of the valley, rather than the long road we had originally planed.

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A beautiful morning in Tarfside

This route took us east on the road from Tarfside to a bridge near Millden Lodge. From there we followed the land rover track on the south of the river to a new bridge just before the Rocks of Solitude. It is not on the map but we were assured it was there. Happily the information was spot on, even if we did have to double back through a herd of cows to find the bridge we were looking for; it was a great walk.

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Land rover track can be beautiful

It had been incredibly hot and there were a number of “let’s get the boots off” stops and also “quick, let’s eat the chocolate raisins because they are melting” stops. Fortunately crossing the bridge meant we would soon be under cover of trees, which was very welcome indeed.

Throughout the day we had been in contact with our friend Steph, who after a few phone signal problems, found us just as we were taking a path marked Rocks of Solitude. She brought with her, her 6 month old son Callum, who is the most chilled out toddler ever, until you take him in a buggy over a rough path that is. This made for a short visit but it was lovely to see them both and share a part of our walk with them. Thanks Steph and Callum!

Walking past the Rocks of Solitude and on to the blue door walk just north of Edzell was really gorgeous, and we have to once again thank the TGO volunteers for the tip. However, despite the shade of the trees the heat was relentless, and when we arrived in Edzell we made a bee-line for an ice cream. It was here that we would do our last bit of food shopping, which included a litre of cider to drink at the camp site a little bit later on. It was apparently my job to carry this.

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Enjoying our last camp site

The last part of our day involved crossing the wobbly bridge out of Edzell and the long and exhausting road to the North Water Bridge campsite. It was a tremendous feeling knowing that we had reached the final campsite of our challenge, and we were able to share it with challengers that we had met at Tarfside, which really reinforced just how much we enjoyed the social aspect of the TGO Challenge. We enjoyed our last camping meal and we certainly enjoyed our cider before getting into our sleeping bags for the last time.

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Our last camping meal, we were joined by Callum (left) and Fred (centre)

We were woken up early by the sunshine on another stunning day. It was hard to believe that in 12 km it would all be over and we would be sitting in Montrose celebrating with the other challengers.

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#Tentlife

We had been given an adventurous route by the volunteers in Tarfside, which involved a lot of rough ground on the west side of the Esk river. However with Jessica’s blisters causing a sharp pain with every step, we decided that, “flat ground” pain was better than “rough and uneven ground” pain, so we opted for more land rover track and road to lead us to the beach at Kinnaber Links, just north of Montrose.

From the North Water Bridge camp site, we headed east to a railway bridge, where we followed a path on the west side of the Esk river to Logie Mill before heading west back to the main road.  A very short walk on the main road lead us back to our challenge friend, a landrover track, which took us to Hillside then east to a huge Maltings factory.

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The flat lands on the east

It’s incredible to think that when we started our challenge the only industry we came across were a couple of hotels, a very small cafe and some sheep. But now there were large towns, a massive factory, big restaurants complete with a children’s play area, but still there were sheep.

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One of the many stops on our last day

It had taken many a snack stop to get us to this point in the day and sadly the chocolate raisins in our home made trail mix were finished and we were left with only a small assortment of seeds. Not to worry though, we were so nearly finished and there was only a couple of kilometres between us and the finish point. “Boof, to the sea!” Jessica yelled (that classic mountaineering phrase) as we broke through the trees and onto the beach but not before checking out one more interesting and pretty flower, obviously.

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There is always time to stop and appreciate nature.

We had made it! We had just walked across Scotland! With our feet in the sea and huge smiles on our faces, it made for an incredible moment and one which we will remember forever. It was only a short walk along the beach and into Montrose to the official signing out point where we would later have a celebratory dinner and drinks with all the other challengers that had also finished on the Friday.

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Boof to the Sea!!!!

It was fantastic to see everyone there, many of whom we had met along the way or had spent the last few days with. The social aspect of the challenge was incredible and a real pleasure to be a part of. Thank you to all of you for your encouragement and friendship. A special thanks to Fred and Callum who we spent the last two nights camping with and met up with us on the beach as we walked into Montrose.

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WE DID IT!!!

Writing this now, its hard to believe that we actually walked across Scotland! It was such a special journey for us both and one that we would love to take on again in the future, and despite leg and blister drama we both had a fantastic time together away from busy everyday life. We thoroughly enjoyed, the simple life of the TGO Challenge.

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Walking down to Montrose

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We will always have great memories from our challenge

Thank you:

A huge thank you to Jen and Ade who came to our rescue in Braemar, and your chat was amazing as always; to Steph and her son Callum for keeping us going towards the end; and finally to my Dad and Cath who drove us to our start point and were there to welcome us into Montrose. The support from both of our families and friends throughout the challenge was fantastic. We are also very proud to have raised £818.11 to split between Bliss and Scottish Mountain Rescue, two charities we are proud to support (you can still donate by clicking the links in the text or here: Jessica & Chris’ Justgiving pages).

Day 13 – Tarfside to North Water Bridge (27km 10 hours)

Day 14 – North water Bridge to Kinnaber links and Montrose (12ish km 5.5 hours)

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)

 

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.