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)

 

Whiteout on Beinn Tulaichean

We hadn’t had a proper day in the hills since Helvellyn in the Lake District at the start of the year, so we were determined to go out last weekend. The weather forecast didn’t look too bad but we couldn’t take the van, meaning that we needed somewhere not too far from Stirling (I get grumpy at horrendously early weekend starts!). We settled on Beinn Tulaichean and Cruach Ardrain near Crianlarich in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park. These hills can be climbed either from the north or from the south; we decided on the latter (because that was the first route we saw!).

The route starts at Inverlochlarig, which is at the end of a very windy but pretty road off the A84, past Balquidder, and along the banks of Loch Voil. There is a good car park (free) with a shelter and a bench inside, providing an ideal spot for getting ready when it is pouring with rain – this was not the weather that was forecast!

We set off fully waterproofed, along the road, over a bridge, to a stile on the right, signposted for our hills. This slightly boggy path leads up onto a landrover track that runs up Inverlochlarig Glen. We followed this for less than 1 km then started thinking about heading up the slope on our left. There was no obvious path, it was sleeting and the cloud was pretty low so we couldn’t see far anyway. We left the landrover track just before coming to a gate and picked our way up via the easiest looking route.

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It was a bit murky and warm as we left the landrover track

The sleet soon turned to proper snow with big, fat, soggy flakes and started to settle, despite the ground not being frozen at all and therefore really wet. The visibility also dropped considerably. Our aim for the day quickly shifted from climbing two munros, to seeing how far we got and cooking lunch on Chris’ stove.

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It started snowing properly

Having climbed a fence, we were struggling to find a way up and around a steeper section. The wet snow was just compacting under our boots and sliding down the grass, making walking up very difficult and resulting in me lying on my stomach in the snow a few times. It was also incredibly warm: there was no wind and despite only wearing our base layers and waterproofs, we still had to take our gloves off to try to stay cool. At this point we met a father and daughter who were coming down, having sensibly backed off higher up as they didn’t have crampons and the visibility had gotten really poor. We followed their tracks up until they stopped, at which point it did get steeper, so we got our ice axes out and carried on carefully. We made it to a flat area that we had seen on the map and stopped for first lunch.

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Lunchtime. Total whiteout conditions by this stage.

I gave Chris a MSR windburner stove for his birthday in September but he has only used it a few times, so rather than take sandwiches as we usually do, we had decided to try out two meals that we might want to use whilst on our TGO Challenge. The first was  sun-dried tomato and garlic flavoured couscous with Matheson’s smoked sausage. The water took about 2 mins to boil and was poured onto the couscous and sausage and left for three minutes. The result: deliciousness! Tasty, super fast and definitely one to use again.

We packed up and carried on into the whiteness; up some even steeper ground that was quite fun and onto a narrower ridge. Here the ground was very confusing and not at all what it appeared to be on the map, which made for some challenging navigation for Chris, as by now we couldn’t see further than 10-15m, although it had stopped snowing. Eventually, having almost bypassed it, we climbed up some rocks and onto the summit; we dug around at some lumps of snow and uncovered a cairn so it must have been the summit right?

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Where’s the view? Are you sure this the summit?

Having eaten some chocolate, drunk some hot squash and laughed at the fact we could be absolutely anywhere, we decided that rather than struggle navigating down to the saddle between the two munros and making our way down to the landrover track from there, it would be easier and much quicker to follow our tracks back the way we came.

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Following our tracks back down

Once back at our flat area again, we had a second lunch of smash and smoked sausage, which was also a huge success and the first time I have eaten smash (besides the spoonful I was given to taste a fortnight ago when Chris bought it). So we now have two very fast, light and filling meals that we can use on our trip making this a very successful day!

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The first break in the cloud

The temperature had dropped a bit as we made our way down, but eventually the clouds started to break and we got a few glimpses of the hills around us. Once under the cloud,  where there was less snow, the descent was pretty difficult as it was still extremely slippery and not much fun, but it was nice to get a bit of a look at our surroundings, which turned out to be pretty nice, as we made our way down the last section and back out to the car.

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Inverlochlarig Burn

Details

Distance: ~9km

Ascent: 809m

Duration: 6h

Munro summit: Beinn Tulaichean (946m)

Comments

As we didn’t see anything, we can’t really comment on the views, but from what we could tell at the bottom there wasn’t much of a path, so in poor weather good navigation is necessary.

Always bring the appropriate equipment: despite how mild it was when we set off, we still carried our ice-axes and crampons. Also, always be prepared to adjust your plans: we very quickly chose not to bother with the second summit and decided our aim was not to gain a summit at all but to test our stove meals instead, something we could do at any altitude and in any weather. The pair we met had also changed their plans, backing off because they didn’t have the necessary equipment. The hills will be there another day!