Days 7-13 (goto Part 1)
Although our stay in Aviemore was brief – just the one night – it was good to get a hot shower, dry out my gear, and refuel at the Indian Restaurant next to the Youth Hostel. Aviemore has a well-stocked Tesco supermarket in town, making it an excellent spot for food resupply, although we only needed two days of food to make it to our next town stop in Braemar.
Jon Hanock ate dinner with us that night, although he was staying in the town bunkhouse instead of the hostel. We were also joined by Alistair Pooler, who was not on the Challenge this year, but had been out doing some solo hill walking that week. Much beer and nan were devoured and we had some good craic.
We met Jon at the reasonable hour the next morning and headed into The Rotheimurchus Forest toward the Lairig Ghru, a famous mountain pass that cuts through the western half of Cairngorm Mountains. The Rotheimurchus is heralded as a remnant of Scotland’s ancient Caledonian Forest and reminded me a lot of the Middlesex Fells near my house in Boston.
However, the approach hike into the Lairig Ghru was far more exciting for me, especially since I’d heard such stories about how dreadful this route can be in bad weather. Hiking through it was a change in plan for us because we’d heard from one of Martin’s local contacts that there was still deep snow on Ben MacDui, our original destination for the day. We weren’t prepared for snowshoeing or really cold weather conditions, so we opted for the Lairig Ghru with its scree and boulder field. I’m not even sure that anyone owns snowshoes in Scotland or how they manage to hike in deep snow.
All things considered, we had pretty good weather for our Lairig Ghru traverse. It wasn’t raining although the wind was blowing briskly, the snow in the pass had mostly melted, and the peaks that run alongside the pass were free of cloud.
I can see how hiking this pass could be quite dangerous in the wrong conditions. The slopes are steep enough that winter avalanches and high wind would be terribly dangerous. There’s no good cover to be found.
But the Lairig Ghru mellows once you get through its narrowest point and enter the Dee’s watershed. It’s still a wind tunnel but there’s more cover and less avalanche risk as the valley gets wider. The views don’t stop though and it’s spectacular to walk past Cairn Toul and Braeriach with their graceful ridges, high level lochs, huge waterfalls and fearsome crags. These are some of the highest mountains in Scotland.
Not to be outdone, the Devil’s Point (also called the Devil’s Penis depending on your Gaelic translation) is perhaps the most famous peak is the Lairig Ghru. I would have liked to stop and climb it but we had a party too get to Braemar. However, Isaac insisted on having his portrait taken with the Devil’s Point in the frame – he’s the only moose in the world who’s gotten this close to the summit (Basil only came as close as White Bridge on my Challenge hike in 2010.)
After passing the Devil’s Point, we turned off the Lairig Ghru and headed east through Glen Luibeg. There’s a big boggy section before the boarded up Derry Lodge and I think I scared Jon when I leapt across a small stream and landed on my face on the other side. That hurt!
Martin had gotten a bit ahead of us and had disappeared from sight which was a little vexing, but we finally spied him through the trees at Bob Scott’s bothy. He’d raced ahead to secure us a nice camp site with actual grass instead of tussocks, so all was quickly forgiven. The wind had gotten up again so we all disappeared into our shelters to cook dinner and go to sleep. We hadn’t seen any other Challengers all day.
The next morning was very cold and we could see fresh snow on the Cairngorm tops that were visible from our campsite. It was so cold that my trail runners had frozen solid overnight although they quickly thawed when I put them on. I’d slept quite warm in my Western Mountaineering Ultralight 20 down bag which proved to be perfect on this trip, but Martin and Jon had been chilled, and not for the first time on our journey.
Although we were fairly close the Braemar, Martin wanted to take a detour and show me Glen Quoich before heading into town. Jon had been suffering from a bad blister on his foot the past few days and decided to take the short(er) road to Braemar and meet us at the (paid) town campsite later in the day. I was sad to see him go, but we did hook up in Braemar for two more days and then again in Montrose where I hung out with him at the Park Hotel and at the Montrose campsite.
While we could have stayed out a bit longer that day, I think we were both ready to get to Braemar, have a hot meal, and get settled at the campsite. After a leisurely stroll past the old trees in Glen Quoich,we came out of the hills and crossed the River Dee at Victoria Bridge, followed by a short road walk into Braemar.
When we got to town, washing my clothes was at the top of my list because they’d become really stinky over the previous week. I ran into Jon in the laundry room at the campsite shortly after pitching my Duomid next to his SpinnShelter. Then I took a shower, drying myself off with the bathroom hair dryer because I didn’t have a towel.
We were scheduled to spend two rest days in Braemar in order to attend the very informal annual Saturday night party at the Fife Arms Hotel and to meet up with a slew of friends who had put Braemar in their routes to seek refreshment here. I was especially keen on seeing Alan Sloman again, who walked his 18th Challenge this year, with his hiking partners Phil Lambert and Andy Walker.
Alan has been seriously ill over past year and is due for a kidney transplant in June. It’s pretty amazing that he was able to hike across Scotland in his current condition (thanks to EPO as he says often), but he was in very good cheer and we are all rooting for his speedy recovery.
In addition to the Fife Arms party, I spent the next two days sleeping, reading, socializing, eating, and relaxing without a care in the world. Two back-to-back zero days were a real luxury, but it paid off when he hiked out of town because we had fresh legs for climbing the munros between Braemar and the sea.
I had really been looking forward to this segment of our route because I had done a lot of the planning for it. My goal was to ‘stay high’ as long as possible. Once you drop out of the hills, some road walking is inevitable in order to reach the coast. I did too much of it in 2010 and hoped to reduce it this time around – but with mixed results.
Leaving Braemar, we headed down the track towards Loch Callater, popping in at Callater Lodge for a cup of tea. There’s a second smaller party at Callater Lodge the night after the Fife Arms bash and some of the attendees were rising (as in zombies) when we arrived. If you’re less interested in partying, Loch Callater is a lovely site for a wild camp and I was told that it has excellent fishing as well.
After our tea, we headed back up into the hills to climb a few munros and make our way south along the top of Glen Clova on high moor. We didn’t know that it was moorland when we planned this section of the walk because “swampy ground” is not indicated on Ordnance Survey maps, but I still enjoyed walking it because I was able to put to use the bog walking skills I’d picked up from Martin in The Mondaliath.
Leaving the lodge, we had a long and gradual climb up Crag an t-Saigart Mor, meeting up with an “experienced” Challenger who goes by the moniker Croyden at a small stream just below the summit. With 19 hours of daylight per day, we weren’t in a terrible rush so we sat and had a chat with him while I filtered a liter of water. Martin really likes talking to the more experienced Challengers who’ve done 10 or more crossings and I’d had to drag him out of Callater Lodge earlier or we’d have been there all day!
After our chat, it was a short walk to the summit of the peak and its cairn, although the mist came down on us just as we got to the top. It cleared off quickly, but we still went through the excercise of plotting a bearing to the next munro on our route, Cairn Bannoch. This was prudent because all of the peaks we planned to visit are on a broad plateau with very little prominence between them. It’d be easy to walk past them without realizing they were munros.
Working south, our next munro was Board Cairn which has an obvious boulder field below its summit. While Martin headed directly to the top, I took a small detour to look down into Dubh Loch below Broad Cairn’s northwest face. Chris Townsend had recommended a wild camp site for me here in 2010 and I wanted to see if I could locate it. It’s in a sublime spot, below the crags and waterfalls cascading over Eagle Rock.
Although these were new peaks for me, I’m not entirely unfamiliar with this area having passed nearby in 2010 on my way to climb Lochnagar on my first Challenge hike. Rather than taking the same route, I wanted to explore the munros and glens to the east of Lochnagar that I hadn’t visited and then head south along the top of Glen Clova rather than dropping into Tarfside and Glen Esk on the wayto Montrose.
This proved to be a pleasant meander because we were treated to excellent views of the high peaks on the opposite side of Glen Clova. It would have been a different story if the mist was down, but the cloud cover was high enough to see the Glen Clova in its full glory from the ridge above it.
We carried on headed in the direction of Loch Brandy, stopping for the night near Dog Hillock and a high level wild camp at about 700 meters. This was somewhat further south than we’d intended but water had been scarce since that first rest stop above Loch Callater.
The pitches weren’t exceptional, what with tussocks, but we had some protection from the wind and retired after dinnner as the mist closed in.
The next morning we continued south above Glen Clova over more boggy ground toward a corbett called The Goet, where we sheltered behind the summit cairn and a trigpoint pylon. We were met there by another Challenger (who else) – sorry can’t remember your name – who was headed for Tarfside, another social gathering where Challengers mingle before walking down Glen Esk and to the sea. He was quite interested in the Gossamer Gear Mariposa Packs that Martin and I carried on this Challenge which were significantly lighter and larger than the Crux backpack he had adapted with bungie cords for his hike.
From the Goet, we headed cross country again to Glen Lethold for our final wild camp of the Challenge. The area here is part of a well managed shooting estate with electric deer fences and growse butts galore, but the level of access is still pretty good with plenty of gates and styles.
Our route had been relatively free of electric deer fences up until the last day of our walk although they’ve become a real scourge elsewhere in the hills. I don’t know how much of a shock they administer a person or whether it’s even dangerous, but hikers now reroute their walks in order to avoid having to cross them and while the hunting estates are required to provide gates and styles to bypass them, the fences are inconvenient to avoid.
Down in Glen Lethod, we pottered around looking for the perfect pitch for our last night, but it was more tussocks and mole hills, enough to make me long for the pine needle covered forest floor of New England. I did enjoy a special dinner that night though consisting of oat cakes and a small wheel of Camembert cheese that I’d carried for two days from Braemar. It has started to stink the high heaven after one day, but it was still good to eat that night and was most satisfying! The only thing missing was some wine.
The next morning we set out for Brechin where we hoped to find a B&B for the night before making our way to our intended end point at Lunan Bay, south of Montrose. But things didn’t quite work out as planned.
Martin wanted to go back up into the hills for a few more hours before we walked down the farm roads into Brechin, so we climbed out of Glen Lethold onto the gently rolling hills of the estate. It was a pleastant morning, with scattered clouds, and the sea was just visible on the distant horizon.
Hour by hour, step by step, our surroundings became less wild, more and more agricultural, suburban and then downright urban. We passed herds of sheep, fields of cows, horses, and newly sewn fields; the tracks turned into country roads, and then A-routes, until we came into Brechin itself, a bustling town with winding streets, litter, and traffic. This is the part of the TGO Challenge I dread the most – road walking on the way to the coast.
We tried to find a B&B at Brechin, but there was a big trade fair north in Aberdeen and all the rooms in town were booked up. We also heard that the campsite was closed. It’s ironic. In the morning we could have camped anywhere we wanted but by late afternoon, we were unable to find a decent place to sleep in “civilization.”
After 2 hours of looking, Martin and I decided that it would be easier to walk 9 more miles to Montrose and camp at the Montrose campsite by the shore rather than spend any more time pissing around looking for room in Brechin. We loaded up with snacks and headed down the road, walking along the edge of a busy 2 lane highway and darting out of the way when semis passed us. I kept my eye on the fields next to the road trying to hold on to some sense of beauty as we walked facing into the oncoming traffic.
We covered those 9 miles in under 3 hours, making it to the Park Hotel in Montrose where Challenge Control is headquartered, a bit footsore and weary, but happy to arrive. We were fed tea and biscuits upstairs, signed out (finished), had a pint and then walked down to the town campground near the beach to pitch our shelters for the night. The end of my Challenge hike had arrived, a bit too swiftly for me to process.
But there was still the Thursday night banquet to look forward to and I used my extra half-day to track down a missing package that I’d sent myself to from Glasgow with clean clothes in it.
After that, the banquet and the hours leading up to it are a rowdy good time and a final chance to talk to visit old friends and meet new ones. It always amazes me to see how many Challengers do this trip every year, year after year, regardless of their age. It’s amazing to see hikers in their 70’s, 80’s and 90’s who can still hike successfully coast-to-coast across Scotland. They are an inspiration for us all.
Taking a long walk is always a refreshing experience for me because I get to take stock things in the absence of worldly distractions and family obligations. This Challenge had been another great adventure in terms of it’s length and varied terrain and I realized that I want to do more hikes like it. Walking a long distance trail in the US is a far more homogenous experience in comparison, even when you factor in town resupply stops. I’m not sure when I’ll be able to return to Scotland to walk another Challenge, but I can plan backpacking trips in New England that are longer, more challenging and varied than the trail-bound hikes I do today. I’ve had a desire to do this for a while, but the time has come to make it so.
My thanks go out to Martin Rye for his enthusiasm and companionship on our trip together and to all the new and old friends I got to meet again this year. You will never walk alone when you’ve walked on The Challenge.