I had to cut short my last backpacking trip due to my ankle and knee, now they're a bit more healed I went back to finish my route. Last time I'd walked from the bus stop in Aviemore all the way up to Cairngorm summit. I felt it would be more than a little pedantic to repeat this, so this time I caught the bus up to the ski centre and started from there. It seems Cairngorm Mountain, or what ever they're calling themselves this week, have hired a “meet and greet man” all dressed up in green tweeds. Everyone was ignoring him, I felt sorry for him, he must have been desperate for work, but I also just walked on by. The wind was howling and it was drizzling on and off, it was past 15.00 and I wanted to find somewhere to camp. I'd originally thought of the top of Lurcher's Gully, but that would be very exposed in this wind. I wandered into Coire an Lochan and found a spot tucked under the ridge that was both level-ish and flat-ish but most importantly dry.
Like most people, I'd imagine, I have my little routines and rituals, places where things go and orders of doing things. Put the tent up, fetch water, pull out stuff you need and put it into the tent. Everything else stays in the rucksack which goes in one vestibule under the fly. In the other one goes the kitchen etc. I pull off my boots and dive in and start to get organized, something is missing? My kindle. I'd even downloaded half a dozen books to read. “Oh Bugger”. I use the phone to message my brother and sister via the inReach, then turn off the inReach. Then I notice I have an internet signal. I surf the net for a bit, a friend is cycling from Roscoff to Constanta on the Black Sea. He's publishing video blogs as he goes so I watch a few. He did ask me if I wanted to go with him, after watching his videos I'm beginning to wish I'd gone.
Wind and rain buffeting the tent all night didn't make for a restful time, sometime early morning I thought I heard voices. Once awake I couldn't get back to sleep so I got up and ready. Up the ridge that makes the western side of the coire, and over a shoulder of Cairn Lochan to Lochan Buidhe. I found a black fleece jacket laying on the ground. I look at it but decide it's too heavy to carry and anyway I don't want another fleece. Further along I meet a man who asks me, in Spanish, if I'd seen his jacket. When I answered, in Spanish, that I had and told him where, he seemed amazed. It just struck me as a very bazaar conversation. There were a few folk around on the summit, a young lad who'd spent the night by Loch Etchachan and three lasses in fell running kit ran up and then ran off again. Last time I'd descended from here by the Sron Riach ridge down to the south, then walked all the way around to the Lairig Ghru. I'd realized that there was another shorter way, via the Tailors Burn (Allt Clach nan Taillear). I'd never walked this path but knew it as an exciting off piste ski run. The path sticks closely to the burn, it's a good if steep way down, I wouldn't like to walk up it mind.
Once in the Lairig Ghru I crossed the Dee by the bridge at Corrour and stopped at the bothy. There's a bloke putting up a tent in front of the bothy and a girl putting one up at the side. There's also two girls dressed in running kit sitting on the door steep one appears to be strapping up the other girls feet. I put down my pack and get out a biscuit and in a nanosecond we're all mobbed by midgies. All five of us dive into the bothy and slam the door shut. Once we'd wafted the midgies away we all settle down to eat. The single girl is French, about twenty with long blonde dreadlocks, nose rings and very tanned. The other two girls are from Banchory and have come to “do” the ridge above, they are going far too slow though. The guy is like me an old grey beard, he's fussing around the French girl trying to impress her, quite funny really. After eating I prepare myself for going out. Head and hands smothered in smidge, wind shirt done up to the neck. Wide brimmed hat and head net on. Outside not a single midge.
I plod up the track into Coire Odhar, first the two girl runners pass me, I hear them talking as they come by their bitching about the French girl. Then the old guy and the French girl, he tells me their going to the Devil's Point (Bod an Deamhain – it actually translates as the Devil's penis but don't tell Queen Victoria). I plod on, they having just light day packs soon leave me behind. Eventually, I get to the col, the Devil's Point being on my left, I look but can't see anyone, I head on to Cairn Toul, to me right. Near the top I meet the old man.
“I just remembered I need to do the Devil's Point” he says.
“Oh, where's the girl?”
“Oh she's gone on, bloody hell, she's fit”.
I did have a chuckle to myself.
“So, she's gone on to Braeriach, and then back to the bothy?” I ask.
As it was already late afternoon and that's a long way I was quite impressed.
After Cairn Toul I dropped down to the start of the Allt clais an t-Sabhail stream and search out a leave, flat and dry spot to pitch up for the night. This is where I'd broken off my walk back in April and now I felt I was really back on track. As the wind had once again picked up I put out all the guys on the tent. I'm glad I did as it went from windy to howling gale very quickly after that. Around midnight the rain came, with the wind and rain hammering away on the tent I didn't get much sleep again. I put off getting up in the hope of an improvement but it never came. Eventually, I packed everything and wriggled into full body armour before crawling out. All I had to do was drop the tent and roll it up before getting going.
First I went uphill again to the main ridge and followed it over Angle's Peak (Sgor an Lochain Uaine) to Carn na Criche. From here I just followed the slope downhill to the south-west until I could see Loch nan Cnapan sitting in the middle of the Moine Mhor, the huge expanse of peat moor that lays to the west of the main Cairngorm mountains. I pass the Loch and just beyond it crossed a stream, the Allt Sgairnich – this flows away to the south and becomes the River Eidart itself a fantastic walk, but today I'm heading west. On the far bank is a jeep turning circle and a track that goes all the way down to Glen Feshie. I don't like estate roads, they shouldn't be there and their a horrible surface to walk on. But they are the quickest way across boggy moor and today it means I can just pull my hood a bit tighter, switch off my brain and plod on without having to think too much about navigation. The route the track takes down off the Moine Mhor is down a ridge between the Allt Garbhlach which flow out of a very steep sided coire and the Allt Coire Chaoil to the south. It goes straight down the hill and it's uncompromising and brutal, by the time I'd gotten down to the valley my thighs were burning. Over on the other side of the Feshie I could see my route out of the Glen, again another estate road and again just as brutal. With that knowledge and the weather it was an easy decision to stop at the Ruigh Aitechain bothy on the banks of the River Feshie.
There was an old dishevelled looking guy outside the bothy chopping wood as I approached. I asked “How many people were staying at the bothy”?
“You should have been here last night, there mush have at least twenty of um”.
“Yes but how many are here now”?
“DofE group running wild they were”.
“Are they still here”?
“Oh no, they've gone”.
“So, how many are here then”
“Oh, just me and a lass”
The “lass” Jacky, it turns out is also walking from Aviemore to Fort William only she's going via as many bothies as she could, or so it seemed. She was taking eight weeks to do the walk, I had eight days. She was trying to dry off her boots and other kit by a rather small and inadequate log burner. She said she'd tried to wade across the Feshie in her flip-flops but had lost her nerve and turned back. This was worrying news as I also needed to cross the river. Up to a few years ago there was a footbridge nearby but it was washed away in a flood. The Dutch owner of the Feshie Estate had a new one made. This one was made so as to be higher – so it didn't get washed away again, and it was also wider so he could drive over in his Landrover. The Cairngorm National Park didn't like this and refused planning permission, so now it sits useless on the far bank.
Next morning Jacky and I set off to find a way over the river. About a kilometer south of the bothy where the river is spread out into several braids we waded across, none of the braids were anymore than knee deep, a bit of an anti-climax. Once across it was just a question of following the steep uphill track. At the top as it levels out onto the plateau we past a Lochan and were surprised to find a lorry trailer and a large digger. I'd seen quite a few other digger dotted around the hills the day before and more were to follow. At the moment land owners don't need planning permission for building hill tracks. Several major conservation groups are lobbying hard to have this changed. It would seem that there is something of a bonanza to get as many hill tracks built before the change in the law comes. At this point the track enters a spruce plantation, it's marked on the map as a footpath but it's now a brand new very wide gravel road. A few hundred meters further in to the wood it came to an abrupt end. They'd been harvesting the trees, the machines had churned up the ground into a hellish quagmire. Tree stumps and piles of brash lay all over the place. Maybe we should have gone back and walked around the wood but nobody likes backtracking. So we fight our way through. Climbing over, under and around. Slipping sliding and falling all over the place. It takes us well over an hour to cover just two kilometers.
Still at least the weather was nice, the rain and wind had stopped in the night sometime and now the clouds were beginning to break up and the sun was beginning to shine. At the far side of the wood we finally find some semblance of calm. Now we have the opposite problem - no track. There was no sign of the footpath marked on the map but as it lead down slope to the burn it wasn't much of a problem. Gradually as we followed the Allt Bhrun a path began to emerge from the bog. We crossed over to the western bank by a weir and picked up an estate road which made the going quicker if less enjoyable. Further downstream still, another stream flows into the Bhrun, the outflow from Loch an t-Seilich and another track follows the stream. This one leads to Gaick Lodge at the far end of the Loch. There's a bothy at the lodge and this is where Jacky is heading. We say our goodbyes and she goes off south while I continue north.
At Bhrun cottage there's a bridge marked as being up stream of the cottage. I didn't find a bridge here only a ford, it wasn't until I walked downstream past the cottage that that I saw the bridge, downstream of it. It wasn't as though my boots were dry anyway. There's one track marked on the map, there are three new ones on the ground. I pick the old one going west. It's now sunny and getting hot, I'm walking along in a T-shirt. As I climb the wind slowly but surely begins to pick up once again. On top of Clach-mheall Beag (558m) I try to put on my windshirt but it's whipping around in the wind so much I have trouble getting it over my head. By the time I get to Clach-mheall Dubh (619m) I can hardly stand. These two hills are really just a shoulder of Meall Chuaich (951m) one of the Drumochter Munro's. On it's north-west side is Loch Cuaich where I'd planned to camp for the night. From the top of Ciach-mheall Dubh I can see a line on the hillside below me, at first I don't twig exactly what it is, it's a fence, a deer fence about eight feet high. I look for a style but there isn't one. I could climb it but doubt it will take my weight. On the other side is a dry foot path, this side is all bog and sphagnum moss. I follow the fence for about three kilometers before I eventually find a gate down by the shore of the Loch. Loch Cuaich is less than one and a half kilometers long it lays south-west to north-east in line with the wind. At the down wind end there are waves lapping on the shore a couple of feet high, there's nowhere to shelter from this wind. Below the Loch is a mini-hydro scheme, by the generator shed is a side stream which looks promising but turns out to be all waterlogged. From there a concrete aqueduct take water down to Dalwhinnie, I follow it but the ground is all boggy and sloping and in sight of the busy A9.
Feeling quite dehydrated I stopped at the petrol station for a large bottle of pop, some sandwiches and cake. I sat outside on some benches and was quickly surrounded by about a dozen ducks. “What to do now?” I asked. “There's no campsite at Dalwhinnie, and it would be pushing it to pitch up in someone's back garden. It was 17.30 already, the next place I suspected I could find anywhere to camp would be around Loch Pattack, if it wasn't too windy there, and that would be a good fifteen kilometers further”. “On the other hand the Dalwhinnie Motal was offering rooms for £35 for the night”. The duck's just looked at me like I was quackers. Motal rooms are not really my style so I shouldered my pack and set off.
Signs all around the train station warn anyone even thinking of parking that the estate is harvesting timber and needs access twenty-four, seven. Not sure that's strictly legal on a public road. Beyond the level-crossing it is definitely private land, here the tarmac ends and gravel takes over. The road runs for miles down the length of Loch Ericht, about a kilometre from the start of the Loch is a fairytale Disney-esque gatehouse complete with towers, spires and battlements. The peasantry are directed around by a side gate. To the left of the track the ground slopes down steeply to the Loch, to the right it rises up steeply and is covered in a dense spruce plantation. Thirty years ago there was government subsidy for planting spruce trees, these trees are now ready for harvesting. This is why there's so much forestry activity in the Highlands at the moment. It's late so all the workers have gone home but their machines are parked up at intervals all the way along the Loch. At a small bay half way down the Loch is another Disney-esque gatehouse . Beyond along the shore are yet more buildings in the same style, a chapel, a third gatehouse and out of sight further along is the main “house”. It's a mock French château complete with giant boathouse and heliport. No accounting for taste is there?
Some pretty impressive electronic security surround this part of the estate, the main road goes off left still following the shore. The hoi-polloi are again directed around the back. On one side of the track are some lovely old Caledonia Pines but their on a very steep slope. The other side is flatter, here the trees are spruce in regimented tightly packed rows. I tried at half a dozen places to find a suitable camping site but the ground is all chewed up humps and hollows left by the forestry plough. Finally I find somewhere, with a bit of clearing, just big enough to fit in my tent. The only stream nearby is manky so I have to wait twenty minutes longer while it filters. Twenty minutes is a loooong time when you're gagging. Before I've finished cooking it's dark – dark! What's that all about, I haven't seen dark for months. Where's my headtorch? Luckily I had remembered it. Sometime in the night it rained heavily but it stopped around dawn. The wind however hasn't stopped, it still bends and distorts the tent, shaking it violently even though I'm surrounded by trees. A flash of orange catches my eye, a lady mountain biker on the track outside the wood. “She's up early, time to get going”. A good stalkers path follows the Allt á Chaoil-reide, the river that drains the east side of Ben Alder. It take me past the old Culra bothy, five years ago when I was last up this way there was a sign on the door that said that plans were under way to demolish and replace the bothy. Since then it's had a coat of paint, it's still closed due to the presence of asbestos, it hasn't been replaced.
Two short ridges descend from the high plateau that makes the summit of Ben Alder, the short and the long Lethchois ridges. I've done the short ridge, a fairly easy if steep scramble. I had it in mind to do the long ridge this time. The path leaves the river and begins to climb straight up hill by this time I'm getting very aware just how strong the wind is. Suddenly a stronger gust picks me up and drops me face down. I pick myself up and carry on, a few minutes later the same thing happens. I pick myself up again, sit down and have a little think. Maybe going on to the summit today wasn't such a good idea, fortunately I had a plan B. I retraced my steeps back to the stream and crossed it. On the other side another well made stalkers path followed the river up through a small gorge to the Bealach Dubh (the Black Pass). This lays between Ben Alder to the south and Geal-Charn to the north. On the other side a long wide valley lead away to the distant Loch Ossian. The path stays high and contours around the side of Ben Alder – the left side as I was looking. It crosses another Bealach this time between Ben Alder and Ben Cumhainn, it then follows the Alder Burn down to the haunted Ben Alder Cottage on the shore of Loch Ericht. That wasn't where I was heading this time. Unfortunately between the path I was stood on and the one I wanted there was several kilometers of very wet squelchy peat bog.
There was nothing for it except to plod on. I dropped down to the valley floor, crossed yet another river before beginning an endless succession of climbing up one peat hag only to immediately jump down into the next grough and then climbing up again. Trying to determine whether a piece of ground is wet or saturated, firm or a bottomless quagmire by the subtle changes in shades of green or type of plant. A couple of kilometers into this bog a figure appears coming the other way. He informs me that two large groups of DofE students along with their handlers were following on behind him. He also said the YHA on Loch Ossian was open and most likely to have space as he and the other DofE staff had just vacated it. The nearer to the loch I got the better the path became until it morphed into yet another gravel road by a micro hydro scheme just above the loch. The road lead around the big house on the end of the loch, Corrour Lodge. This seems to have a large stone tower like something off the “Fortress Europe” defences. I take the road around the south shore past some old chalets and through a dark plantation. Somewhere off in the woods the sound of sporadic shotguns but I didn't see the shooters. A woman popped out of the hostel as I approach, and “Yes she has spaces for the night”. The old wooden building feels more like a Scandinavian hut than a traditional YHA establishment. It also has hot showers thanks to solar power.
I'm up early to a beautiful day, no wind and the clouds quickly dissolving in the sun. There's no need to rush, as I don't have far to go, but it's far too nice a day to spend it indoors. I pass the turn for Corrour Station, the old station building are gone as has Morgan's old house. In it's place a new building, it was an independent hostel for a while but it's now a pub come restaurant. Apparently it's quite the thing to come up on the train from Fort William for a meal before getting the train back. Who'd have thought a pub in the middle of Rannoch Moor would have worked. I made my way down to Loch Treig, they must have been drawing power as the “tide” is out. By the shuttered Creagquaineach Lodge the gravel road finally runs out and the path returns. The Lairig Leacach path follow a river up stream first through a beautiful mini gorge then across open moors with Rowen trees in berry and Dippers dipping. By mid-day I'm at the bothy, I could have gone on but it's the obvious place to stop and for starting the next leg of my walk. I chat to a passing walker and a couple retrieveing their mountain bike parked behind the bothy. The next time I look out it's poring with rain, “Oh No, will this stop play prematurely”? I got up in the night to starry sky's.
The main Grey Corries ridge, Ben Nevis on the horizon behind Aonach Beag.
I'm up at dawn and quickly away. I follow a stream up behind the bothy up into a coire. On one side the main ridge, on the other sitting out on a limb Stob Ban, a round dome of a peak. At the col between the two I drop my pack and sprint up to it's top. I'm back at my pack in just thirty minutes. At 977m Stob Ban is a Munro but compared to it's neighbours it's a mire pimple on the end of the giant ridge. I pick up my pack and an hour later I'm on top of the first of the Grey Corries peaks Stob Choire Claurigh and looking down into the huge coire on it's north side. The floor of the coire is covered in scree and as the rock is Quartzite it gives the hills around here a grey colour, hence the Grey Corries. Away seven miles to the west Aonach Mor and Beag with the dark brooding bulk of Ben Nevis behind. Between us is the sensuous snaking knife edge ridge. Never once dropping below 900m in all that length. To the north wide open views across the Great Glen to the sea beyond. To the south the vast expanse of Glen Nevis and the Mamores. There's three Munro's and five other summits in all. Although the north side is steep the south is more gentle and the crest is always wide enough to walk along. On Sgurr Choinnich I meet a young chap and him small daughter, she informs me that she's “already done twenty-eight Munro's”. I chat to her dad about the off piste skiing in the area when we notice she's gone running off along the ridge. “Look at her” he says, “Seven years old and already I'm struggling to keep up”. Below Aonach Beag the path runs out strangely there doesn't seem to be a connection but a scree gully takes me up onto the upper slopes. It's 18.00 before I make the top of Aonach Beag and I still need to find a way down. In none of the guidebooks that I'd looked in could I find any reference to any connection between the Aonach's and Ben Nevis, which seemed strange as they're so close. From the col between Mor and Beag I make my way diagonally down and straight away I'm onto steep unstable scree and vertical Sphagnum moss. All of a sudden this was beginning to feel serious. Very slowly I inch my way down, I make it eventually. The only flat ground is at the col between the Aonach's and Carn Mor Dearg. The wind which had been building all afternoon was whistling through the gap with such force there was no way I could pitch the tent. I had to drop down two kilometers to the north before the wind had abated enough to camp.
The silence next morning is strangely reassuring, I rolled out to a white world. The mist clears as I climb, I'm soon back at the col and a short dry stone wall marks the way up. I stash the poles and start scrambling, in what seemed no time at all I'm four hundred metres higher on the summit of Carn Mor Dearg. All that seperates me from the Ben is a kilometer of knife edge ridge the Carn Mor Dearg Arete. If you're used to scrambling it's not hard, you need to use your hands in places but not all the time. The ground below is sloping scree rather than steep crags so the exposure isn't too bad and there is a by-pass path on the south-east side if you need it. But why by-pass all the fun of balancing along the crest of the arete, even with a big pack on I had a ball. As I started the arete there had been another party just finishing. As I finished it yet another party were starting out. As I climb the scree slope up to the summit of Ben Nevis a guide and two punters came down. Up to that point seven people was all I'd seen that day, that was about to change dramatically.
The North face of Ben Nevis with Fort William in the background.
One minute I was all on my own quietly walking along in the mist the next I was surrounded by literally hundreds of people. Everywhere you looked there were large groups of people all crowding around a flag or banner or T-shire all posing for photo's, whooping and shouting. Everyone was in high sprites and happy, there was an almost carnival atmosphere. The mist was trying to lift but I didn't wait for it, if I was quick I could get the 15.00 bus and get home that night. I started on the trudge down the yellow brick road that is the tourist route on Britain highest peak. Coming up was a seeming endless procession of folk, folk from Germany, France, Spain, Poland, Africa, the middle east and the Orient, Americans and even a few Scots. There were people in running kit, people in suits, girls in miniskirts and heels. Perhaps the most surprising sight was middle aged men – and they were all were men, dressed head to toe in the latest most expensive outdoor kit that money could buy. It was all shiny brand new, still spotless fresh out of the bag. They had the biggest warmest Alpine boots available La Sportiva Nepal's and the like. The best heavy Gore-Tex jackets and salopettes I'm sure one even had a down jacket on under his cag. By this time it was getting hot, most of the walker around them were like me in T-shirts. But not them, they'd spent all that money on the best and they were determined to wear it. There were about seven or eight gentleman so attired and non of them look as if physical fitness and outdoor activities was their thing.
Once Achintee farm had been just that a tumbledown old farm house and a lay-by, now there's a visitor's centre, a pub and a huge car park. Still a larger shandy went down well. I mist the bus by fifteen minutes but still made it home that night.