The Magnificent Trees of Glen Feshie, Day 8
The Cairngorms to Shielin of Mark
Looking back on my Challenge crossing this year, the most exciting days for me were the 3 days following my zero day in Kinguissie where I walked down Glen Feshie, past the Linn of Dee, climbing Lochnagar, and walked along Glen Muick. While my first week (read the trip report) was immense fun, this segment of of my trip was sublime and far exceeded my anticipation of it
Day 8: Kinguissie to Allt Eindart – 15.3 miles (595.7m ascent)
I left Kinguissie before 6 am on a fine morning, walking past Ruthven Barracks a final time before making my way to Glen Feshie. This involved another stint of road walking for a few kilometers over Tromie Bridge and through the small hamlet of Drumguish.
From there, I got back on the Scottish right of way that leads to Glen Feshie through the southern end of Inshirach Forest. The forest is crisscrossed by mountain biking trails and I walked due west. When planning my trip, I had been worried about getting lost in the maze of trails in this wood, but it is very well sign-posted and I didn’t have any issues finding my way.
Passing the Ruins at Balleguish, Day 8
After a few more kilometers, the path comes out of the forest and crosses Allt Fhearnasdail over two metal footbridges before cutting across a grassland and re-entering the woods. From here, the mounded hills of the Cairngorms come into view. The path passes an old farm building ruin and a paddock.at Baileguish and Corarnstilmore, before re-entering woods for two another two kilometers.
Last Bridge across River Feshie, Day 8
By 10:30 am, I emerged from the forest track onto the paved single lane road that runs down the eastern side of the Feshie, soon reaching the last bridge across the river.
I was surprised by two things: how wide the Feshie river bed and alluvial plane are and how little water was running through it. It must be impressive in spate or flood. The river reminded me a lot of the Saco River in New Hampshire, which also has a wide and dynamic shifting gravel bed and with dead tree debris scattered on its banks like matchsticks.
Trees of Glen Feshie, Day 8
While I am sure that fording the Feshie can be dangerous for someone who doesn’t know what they are doing, I was a little surprised by all of the route planning and vetter angst targeted at this particular crossing because the river is easily fordable at many places downstream. Not to be flippant, but I think a contributing factor is that people who wear boots hate to get their feet wet and will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid doing a ford, walking miles downstream to find a bridge over a puddle.
Later in the day, I did multiple fords across the Upper Feshie to get a close up look at some land forms on the other side of the river, and only experienced water below my knees. I wouldn’t recommend this to people who don’t know how to ford a river, but crossing the Feshie on foot is not as out of bounds as I’d been led to believe.
Maybe the great revelation here is that wearing trail runners instead of boots has the potential to open up new vistas for walkers. Getting one’s shoes wet becomes a complete non issue, releasing the bounds of many river and stream crossings in route planning and execution.
Glen Feshie, Day 8
Walking along the banks of the Feshie is an easy stroll broken by frequent stream crossings across burns that bring snow melt down from the Cairngorm plateau to the river. The water in these streams is ice cold but provided a welcome relief in the unusually hot weather (later that day I changed into a long sleeved shirt because my arms were getting sunburned.)
Scattered along the banks of the river are large trees, gnarled by time and the weather. As I walked past them, I couldn’t help thinking that I was walking through a bonsai style arboretum for giants. Unfortunately, the long-term damage to this forest by deer may be un-repairable despite a recent cull of the deer population by expert sharpshooters.
After a few kilometers, I arrived at the Ruigh-aiteachair Bothie, located across the river from Glenfeshie Lodge. I came across a man working there named Lindsay who was performing maintenance on the shelter. After we’d introduced ourselves, Lindsay insisted that I sit with him on a stump and pass the time for a while. He is about my age and has been the caretaker of the bothy for some time.
Ruigh-aiteachair Bothy, Day 8
As soon as I open my mouth and speak with an American accent it’s clear that I’m not local, and invariably becomes a great excuse to strike up a conversation if you take the initiative after pleasantries have been shared. I get a lot of meaning out of these one-on-one interactions regardless of where I’m walking and find that they open up new vistas for me that are as rewarding as the walk itself.
Lindsay had a tent pitched nearby and was in for the weekend, because he explained, he didn’t feel right when the bothy wasn’t sorted. I asked whether Ruigh-aiteachair was an MBA bothie and it is, but I don’t think Lindsay cares much for the new politics and rules and regulations which the MBA has imposed on caretakers. For example, he pointed out a gutter that needed to be straightened and explained that before he can do any work on it he has to submit a work order request and perform a safety assessment. I suggested that he just fix it and not tell anyone, and we had a laugh: a kindred spirit.
Slochd Beag, Day 8
After a nice chat about books and hill walking, I took my leave and continued down the Glen, stopping for lunch across the river from an interesting formation of hills at Slochd Beag. As I sat on the sandy river bank staring at the hills and the cleft between them, I was intrigued and decided on taking a detour to get a closer look. This involved fording the Feshie which is fairly shallow at this spot, making for an easy crossing.
At the foot of Slochd Beag, Day 8
When I got to the other side of the river, I headed towards the hills which were much farther away than I had expected, walking past a group of grazing horses. Slochd Beag means “little trench” in Gaellic and as you walk higher up the gap between the two hills they form a narrow ravine. On hindsight, I wish I had kept going up to the waterfall that is farther along here and explored more of the hills between here and Blair Atholl to the south. That’s one thing I will change on my next Challenge – adding more extended detours – around my basic route.
After re-fording the Feshie, I continued along past a series of landslides on the eastern bank and met up with a few other Challengers named John and Ian. Ian had overtaken me when I was off on my walkabout and together came across John who has sitting out the mid-day heat by the river in the shade by a solitary tree.
I remember walking behind Ian past the shale landslides or landslips, as they’re called here, and that he was carrying a fairly high volume Lowe Alpine Appalachian Backpack. I’m pretty sure he said he lived just outside Edinburgh. John said he was on his 6th Challenge hike and hailed from Manchester.
Rapids along the Upper Feshie, Day 8
My plan for the day had been to camp next to a waterfall a little further below a crag named Ruighe nan Leum, but when we passed it, it was just a disappointing trickle of water. By now, we were walking along the Upper Feshie, close to its source. The river is much narrower along this stretch, with alternating rapids and recovery pools, a whitewater kayaker’s dream.
Meanwhile, the track above the river crossed many small burns carrying snow melt from the eastern hills to the river. We met up with another group of Challengers and tromped through this section in a loosely coupled mob. As we came to each burn, everyone else would stop and walk up and down its banks looking for good ways to get across while I just blundered right through each stream without any hesitation. Admittedly, I was showing off in my Terrocs, but I know that my behavior left an impression on some of the other walkers who were incredulous about the benefits of replacing boots with trail runners.
Campsite Water Source, Upper Feshie, Day 8
After walking 24 kilometers, not counting my detours, I was tired and hot, so I plopped down after crossing a beautiful burn and refused to go on anymore. I found a nice pitch for my Duomid and made camp while everyone else continued toward White Bridge and beyond, making for the Saturday gathering in Braemar.
Best Campsite of the Challenge, Upper Feshie, Day 8
Alone finally, I washed out my sweaty shirt and enjoyed a bit of solitude in the hills, listening to the wind and enjoying the early evening. After as short while, I met fellow backpacking bloggers Alan Sloman and Phil Lambert for the first time in person, as they ambled by.
Besides his quick wit, Alan is probably best know for walking the length of the UK from Lands End to John O’ Groats, a route which is abbreviated as LEJOG. Phil runs doodlecat.com, a popular repository of Challenge Journals, that was of great benefit to me when planing my route. We chatted for a while and I gave them a tour of my Duomid which they’d never seen before up close. Then they were off, leaving me by myself for the rest of the evening.
Ramen Rescue, Day 8
After a bit, it started to rain lightly, and then quite heavily. I had already started cooking dinner but moved my kitchen under the Duomid and whipped up a filling load of Ramen noodles. After not having cooking gas the first week of my trip, this was the first hot meal I enjoyed while wild camping and I pigged out. After that I soon fell asleep to the sound of rain on cuben fiber.
Day 9: Upper Feshie to Auchallater Ruin – 19.15 miles (395m ascent)
I woke the next morning at 4:30 am and lay in until 6 am feeling a powerful sense of contentment. It’s an easy feeling to lose track of in daily life. I’d first noticed it while lying in the grass at the top of the Corrieyairick Pass and I’d been in a state of euphoric bliss ever since. I hope I can hold onto it for a while.
The previous night, I had camped just short of the River Eidart, fed by snow melt from the hills to the north. It’s the finest river I saw during my trip. When I came to it the next morning, I sat on its banks reading the rapids and imagined kayaking down them in a creek boat someday. It’s a class 5+ river in US terms, given it’s remoteness and the difficulty of the rapids.
The crossing for the Eidart is a bit further along over a metal bridge that spans a magnificent waterfall. You have a walk quite a way to from Kinguissie or Braemar to see this and I had an exclusive viewing that morning.
After crossing the waterfall, I left the track and headed down to the head of the Feshie, just as it turns southeast in a tight Oxbow. I wanted to stand there and endured a stretch of heather and tussock walking to reach the spot. I mentioned this little adventure to Mike Knipe in the Park Hotel at the end of the Challenge over a pint of Guinness and he said he’d done the same thing.
Head of River Feshie, Day 9
Once there, I set out to rejoin the track angling back to it on a northeasterly bearing, and promptly headed into the peat bog at the end of Geldie Burn. The bogs in Scotland are largely the Sphagnum moss variety which retains vast quantities of water, even over high angle terrain, making hill walking in Scotland extra challenging.
Peat forms when plant material is prevented from decaying by anaerobic or acidic conditions. Under the right conditions, it is the earliest stage of coal formation, which explains it’s use as a fuel in many parts of the world. The top part of peat is mostly moss or sedge grass which becomes more decomposed the deeper you go, until it has the consistency of shoe polish. Step in this layer, and you might find yourself knee deep in a layer of thick mud which refuses to release your shoes or hiking boots.
Peat Bog Anatomy, Day 9
Peat bogs are remarkably prevalent in Scotland, making up 20% of the landmass, ensuring that hill walkers invariably have a peat bog story or two to tell their mates. My first real experience occurred shortly after leaving the bank of the Feshie when I stepped onto a surface that look solid but which quickly sucked me down to the top of my shins. I managed to extract one of my legs rather quickly, but had to wiggle my other leg loose in slowly widening circles to avoid losing my shoe. I was laughing during this, but the situation could have turned serious if I hadn’t freed myself. I wasn’t exactly standing on a well-trod path.
Once free, I hopped from tussock to tussock and carefully analyzed the ground in front of me, eventually reaching the track to White Bridge after another spell of heather tramping.
From here, I picked up the pace down Geldie Burn and started to encounter mountain bikers riding into the hills with walking poles strapped to their backs. Being the weekend, I assumed that they were bicycling down from Braemar to bag Munros. I couldn’t help smiling at the thought of Chris Townsend madly dashing from one Munro to another using the same method of locomotion, in his book The Munros and Tops, where he hikes all of the Munros in Scotland in a single round without using motorized transportation.
Philip at White Bridge on the River Dee, Day 9
After passing an abandoned building, Geldie Burn swings north for a few kilometers before meeting with the River Dee at White Bridge (which is not white.) Back at Ruigh-aiteachair Bothy, Lindsay the caretaker had recommended that I make camp a 10 minute walk north along the Dee at the Pools of Dee. He said there was a wonderful one tent pitch there and pools of water that one could jump into to cool off in. It sounded like a great place to stop, but I still had miles to go still before I’d sleep. I plan to look for it on my next Challenge when I hike the Lairg Ghru through the heart of the Cairngorms.
After crossing White Bridge, the track runs along the Dee, which is decidedly not fordable, for 4 kilometers of hot dusty walking over flat terrain before entering the magical Linn of Dee. This has got to be one of the most beautiful forested glades I’ve ever seen. The centerpiece however is the river, which flows through a narrow 300m gorge, before continuing lazily toward Braemar, Balmoral Castle, and Ballater.
Linn of Dee Gorge, Day 9
I stopped here for lunch, sitting down next to two other Challengers named Graeme and Marion from Montrose. Graeme was easily identifiable wearing his special edition Buff with the TGO Challenge logo printed on it. I introduced myself and we sat and watched a pair of scuba divers emerge from the gorge wearing cold water gear while I mixed up some dehydrated chicken salad from Packit Gourmet.
Fortified, I said my goodbyes, and headed down the road to Braemar, walking past Mar Lodge to Victoria Bridge. Mar Lodge is a 77,000 acre estate that is rented out by the Challenge to house hikers who want an affordable place to stay after emerging from the Cairngorms. I stopped in and had a cup of tea, inquiring about room availability, but there were no singles left. I hadn’t really wanted to stop anyway, but I was feeling the social tug of the Challenge and thought I’d check it out.
I crossed Victoria Bridge (which is only accessible from the Mar Estate) back across the Dee and walked another 5 kilometers of hot tarmac into Braemar, arriving around 5 pm. By then, the party at the Fife Arms Hotel was in full swing, and the hotel bar and the sidewalk outside were full of malodorous Challengers. I saw many faces I knew as I headed to the bar for a pint of cider and then sat down inside for a few minutes while I chugged it down. I was very thirsty.
The Braemar Bomb
However, walking into this big party was unsettling for me. I am a fairly solitary person and big parties are just not my thing. After days of solitude, I felt rather overwhelmed. As a first timer, I felt a tug throughout the Challenge to engage in the social side of the event, but my preference is to get to know people one on one while walking, camping or over a pint.
After quaffing my cider, I called into Challenge Control for my third safety check and beat feet out of town, pausing briefly to have my photo taken by a tourist next to the town bomb at city center opposite the Fife. In the US, a lot of small towns pose a piece of WW II artillery on their town green or in front of their local VFW, and I found it amusing that Braemar had opted to use a bomb instead (in Montrose they use a WW II naval mine.)
By this point, I was pretty tired and wanted to find a pleasant camp site for the evening. This involved walking south through a golf course and on down Glen Clunie toward the bridge over Clunie Water. I stopped just past the 9th hole and pitched my Duomid along the river bank across the river from a farmer who was repairing his fence. It wasn’t the perfect campsite, being next to a road and within earshot of the A93, but I needed a break, feeling the heat of the day and the cider catching up with me.
Hole 9 at the Braemar Golf Club, Day 9
I sat there for about 30 minutes and rested, ultimately deciding to move on and cross the A93. I took down my tarp and continued walking, crossing the bridge over Clunie Water and passing the ruin at Auchallater, before heading up the right of way to Clova. By now the day was waning and I started looking for a good wild camp along Callater Burn.
Wild Camp near Auchallater along Callater Burn, Day 9
I found a decent pitch beyond the sound of the highway, within easy reach of the burn, and settled in for the night. Although the ground was slightly slanted, I was too tired to care, and cooked a fast dinner before crashing for the night.
Day 10: Auchallater Ruin to Sheilin of Mark – 17.1 miles (1,325m ascent)
I broke camp early the next morning and was on my way by 6 am. I hoped to ascend the famous mountain Lochnagar (1156 m) by the end of the day and work my way down to Glen Muick. Technically the mountain is not called Lochnagar, which is a Loch below the cliffs northeast of Cac Carn Mor. Here’s a map, so you can follow my progress during the rest of the day.
Map of Lochnagar and surrounding peaks, Day 10
By 8 am, I arrived at Lochallater Lodge, home of Stan and Bill, whose hospitality is legend on the Challenge. I arrived, just as the Challengers who’d spent the night were waking (very hung over) and bacon butties were being cooked up. On my way to the kitchen, I met Cameron McNeish, editor-in-chief of TGO magazine, who was to finish his first Challenge this year, along with his wife Gina, already an experienced Challenger.
After meeting Cameron and Gina, I made my way to the lodge and introduced myself to Stan and Bill who live in a small cottage (the lodge) that closely resembles a hobbit hole. I had a cup of sweet tea and my first bacon buttie ever, followed by seconds shortly thereafter.
It was a good thing too, because I had discovered that morning that I was a low on food, having failed to resupply properly in my haste to leave Braemar the previous day. What I thought was food was in fact trash! The funny thing was that free food started to appear over the next 2 days without my broadcasting my need, providing me with ample sustenance to make it to Tarfside and a proper resupply. More trail magic.
Loch Callater from Creag an Loch, Day 10
While we were munching on butties, it started to rain, and we all moved our packs into the Lodge’s tack room to stay dry. Eventually, I felt the tug of the walk and said my farewells, hiking up Creag an Loch, overlooking Loch Callater in the pouring rain. Lochnagar was just 6 kilometers distant, but I was hopeful that the weather would clear up before I arrived.
The path continued steeply up a second Munro named Carn an t-Sagairt Mor and I could see another Challenger named Graham Lewis, about 100 yards ahead, climbing the same route. He waited for me to catch up and asked whether he was heading the right way. I thought so, but took out my GPS to get a position fix and found that we had strayed slightly from the track and needed to head southeast around the current peak. We ended up walking together for the next two days and becoming friends.
Graham near the headwaters of Allt an Dubh Loch, Day 10
Graham and I established an immediate rapport as we described our respective efforts to avoid the party the previous night. Like me, he’s a solitary hiker. I can’t explain exactly why we stuck together for the next two days, but I enjoyed his company tremendously and walking with him was easy, if you know what I mean. There were times when we’d talk and times when we’d walk apart with no expectations or pressure.
Like me, Graham had some unusual kit on the hike, at least for a UK hill walker. I was surprised to see that some of his gear, including his pack, a Flash 50, were from REI in the states. He explained sheepishly that he had to spend his dividend! I got a laugh out of that. REI is a 6 million member cooperative in the US that specializes in outdoor recreational equipment. I’m surprised that they haven’t expanded to the UK, where they would fill a huge market void.
We course corrected and continued climbing through wet snow between Carn an t-Sagairt Beag and Carn a’ Choire Bhoidhean. I stopped along the way to slip a pair of Gore-tex socks over my wool liners because we were walking in ankle deep snow melt and my feet were getting cold. The extra vapor barrier provided by the Gore-tex proved sufficient to keep my feet warm and we continued along passing The Stuic to the north and pausing for photos below Cac Carn Beag, at Coire an Daimh Mhoile.
Below Cac Carn Beag, Day 10
By the time we got to the final ascent, the rain had stopped and the sky was clearing. We walked up to the central cairn on Cac Carn Beag, taking a somewhat roundabout route around the remaining snow. From here, we walked east to a larger cairn overlooking The Stuic and the small loch below it. I had been dreaming of this moment for over a year and I was thrilled to finally be here.
The Stuic and Loch an Eun, Day 10
My original route had called for a decent around the plateau above the cliffs overlooking Lochnagar (a loch at the base of the north side), but Graham and I decided to descend via Glas Allt down to Glen Muick. This turned to to be a fabulous route running past magnificent waterfalls before plummeting down to the Loch and the Glas Allt bothy.
Waterfall above Loch Muick, Day 10
After our descent, we stopped for a long lunch break and tea on the shore of Loch Muick next to the Royal Bothy at Glas Allt Shiel. Camping is permitted here (but nowhere else along the loch) and there is even a beach if you are brave enough to brave the frigid waters.
Lock Muick, Day 10
Loch Muick is a fascinating geographical feature, surrounded by 2,000 foot cliffs like some forgotten world. I couldn’t help feeling like I was in New Zealand as I lay in the grass on the shore. Two miles long and 70 meters deep, it was formed as the result of glacial activity.
After lunch, Graham and I walked up to the visitor center at Spittal of Glen Muick, hoping to find some extra food for me to eat but there’s nothing there except vending machines that supply soup and hot cocoa. We did encounter a gaggle of other challengers who unbidden shared their snacks with us, before we all tromped up to Shielin of Mark, a bothy surrounded by a sea of peat bogs.
Hiking up to Shielin of Mark, Day 10
Graham’s vetter had carefully supplied him with a sure-proof route to avoid the peat bogs surrounding the bothy and it felt like we spent extra time trying to suss them out when we could have just walked a direct bearing to the shelter. There were 3 groups of us making our way to the bothy, two that had been supplied with different routes and one that was simply navigating by bearing. I found the whole exercise somewhat humorous because we all converged on the same spot simultaneously, including the group without any directions at all.
The only dry spot at Shielin of Mark, Day 10
Unfortunately, the area around Shielin of Mark is very wet and it took Graham a while for us to find dry pitches for our shelters. Rather than camping here, you’re better off continuing over Muckle Cairn and walking down into Glen Lee.
After a quick survey of the bothy, Graham found two perfectly good cans of Heinz baked beans inside which he gave to me. By this point I had about a 1/2 days food left in my food bag, so this was a welcome gift. After pitching my tarp, I cooked up a satisfying pot of vegetarian beans for dinner, before turning in for the evening. The trail provides.
After this night, we’d have one small hill to climb, the Muckle of Cairn, before descending through Tarfside and Edzell to Montrose and the sea.