CairnGorms 2013

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(click on any image to enlarge)

If there is any part of Scotland that is what makes me think about the real wilderness it is the CairnGorm Mountain range so it is only natural that I wanted to go there sometime. Always daunted by the scale of the place I was put off for a long time, and when I went I wanted to make it worthwhile by taking in a good amount of it. The plan was then to get gear together and plenty walking to be prepared for 2-3 days in the hills and get the best of the views and the higher grounds. Walking was not too much of an issue as I regularly walked anyway but not with what would eventually amount to a 16kg rucksack (at it’s last weigh before adding more) in carrying mainly a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, spare clothes, and food for up to 3 days. All that with a number of smaller things that add up at an alarming rate.

On early searching I found too that to get the two main summits you had to first climb to one then drop all the way down to almost starting height then back up again! this with any route involving some stage of pretty steep walking. Then again this sort of landscape and scenery was never going to be easy to access. I tested the camping gear with a night in minus temperatures and it all performed well, the sleeping bag was very warm so should cope easy with June temperatures. The wee 2 man tent (very cosy for 2) done well and packed away to a good small size. The rucksack I had was not good enough for a long trek so  got myself a Vango Explorer which had excellent waist and shoulder padding which was to prove very worthwhile! So just logistics to arrange. I decided to go by ferry and buses rather than driving because that meant I would not be tied to times, come and go almost as much as I pleased. Ferry at 7am out, bus to Glasgow, then Perth, then Aviemore. A full day travel either side of my hike, something that most folk dont have to do  but the pleasure of living on an island means that our trips are extended in time and cost…but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I stayed at the Cairngorm Lodge Youth Hostel, and it was a great place, a former hunting lodge I think, that looked out over the mountains that were clear in the low light from the sun by the time I got settled in.

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Staff were great and the breakfast in the morning was brilliant!  The sun was shining and the wind calm as I left and started the walk along the road from Glenmore to the end of the forestry where the path would lead off to the right and the start of my adventure. At a car park just before going off road I met a guy that was staying at the youth hostel the previous night, he said he was going to the same hill as my first target, Braeriach, Britain’s  3rd highest hill, so I asked if he wanted to tag along with me “I don’t want to keep you back” he said. With my rucksack for up to 3 days making his wee day bag look like a pick and mix I said I would be more likely to keep him back but he insisted so I headed off while he prepared for his walk. Now you would think at this point there would be signs to say “Braeriach this way” or something, anything? but no, nothing. A girl was heading toward the start of the track and I asked if that was the main track to Braeriach, “you going through the Chalamain Gap? with that rucksack on?” she asked, “aye” I said with a hint of why about it, “yes this is the best way” she said, and jogged off with 2 dogs at foot. At this point I thought nothing about the rucksack reference and assumed she wondered why I needed something so big just to go to Braeriach. This was it then, the start of my hike/camp.

The weather was still nice and I was in a t-shirt, feeling the weight of my rucksack but that would pass soon enough. It is surprising how quickly something that feels so heavy to start can become part of you after a wee while, I remember thinking a mile into the walk that I might have to turn around due to it’s bulk! After negotiating a gully and over a footbridge I was on a clear track that I could see heading to the Chalamain Gap which was a long way off! This was my first realisation of the scale of the place. The Gap was so far way and yet on the map it seemed quite a small distance to settle me into the walk, nonetheless it was not too bad and a steady climb to get the legs and shoulders broken in. Then at the Gap I was met with a snow bank, the first of a few on this walk. After getting accross that I was entering the Chalamain Gap and I now knew why the girl had asked about going through here with the rucksack, the boulders are huge in places! It is easy to get across but care is needed and with the big pack it is magnified, This also was much longer than I expected, probably about 600 yards compared to what I thought was about 50 yards.

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first wee snow crossing

passed first wee snow crossing

On the other side of the Gap I could now see the Braeriach but it was now starting to cover in cloud, this would worsen throughout the day, and it was still a long way off. I had started at below 400m, gone up to about 700m in the Gap, now dropping through a gull to about 600m and now on my way up the long climb to the top at 1296m. I could see Trevor, the guy from the youth hostel, was still the same distance back so I decided to wait on him as we were obviously going at near enough the same pace. I had a drink and one of my flapjacks while I waited. He soon got to where I was and we set off after he put another layer on, it was getting colder but I still felt ok in the t-shirt. We chatted to some of the path workers on the way up and soon got into the start of the cloud so we stopped again for each of us to put a layer on.

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We took in the two mounds at 1180m and 1184m on Sron na Lairige and onto the summit of Braeriach, still covered in snow and some amazing ridges. We each took pictures for one another before Trevor headed back down the hill and I turned to continue my hike.

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At this point the weather was changing and I was in cloud almost all the time with breaks every now and again to allow me to see the views, even the small breaks were more than enough with stunning scenery all around! Across the Wells of Dee I met two guys going the opposite way, they had stayed in the bothy which was my target for the day. The cloud now had dropped in severely and visibility was reduced to a few meters at times.

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On I went taking in the peaks of Carn na Criche (1265), Angels Peak (1258) and Cairn Toul (1291) before the steep downhill to the Corrour Bothy which sits at about 550m. It was a big drop in a small distance and it resulted in me spraining my knee a little, at this point though it was not too bad, but it would get worse. Coming down the hill I seen a couple setting up tent beside the bothy and another trio coming across the footbridge to the bothy. I arrived just after the trio and cooked up some pasta straight away to get some heat and energy back. I got speaking to the young trio and said they should sleep in the bothy but they had found bedding set up in there so we all set up our tents. The owners of the bedding never showed up so the couple ended up sleeping in there but not until after a few drinks and a really good laugh at the warmth of the fire before I went to my tent. The couple (Steve and Sharron? I am hopeless with names) had the good idea to go collect some wood for the fire, this both passed time (I arrived here a lot earlier that I expected) and provided warmth and light in the bothy.

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Through the night I woke a couple of times to hear strong winds and heavy rain attacking the tent, just as the forecast said it would (they always get it right when it’s bad weather) but the tent was excellent in the bad conditions and I stayed warm and dry inside until I got up at 7am. Quick wash at the burn then up to the bothy where I could see there was movement now from the couple that slept there overnight. I lit up my wee stove and cooked some porridge and a nice cup of coffee and I was ready to go. After saying goodbye to the couple (the young trio typically were still asleep) I headed off for my next day of walking.

I had been contemplating a few options overnight for a few reasons, mainly after seeing the stunning Lairig Grhu glen I was tempted to walk back along that but that would have taken me back to almost where I started so I counted that out (for another time), I had also seen a path up the Allt Clach nan Taillear that would have been a very quick route to the summit of Ben MacDhui but I quickly discounted that too as it was mental steep and I was not here just to reach summits, it was all about the scenery so I stuck with the original plan, south and east around the bottom of Carn na Mhaim to the Luibeg Bridge and follow the Luibeg Burn north along to the slopes of Sron Riach. My knee was starting to give a bit of grief on any downhill parts of the walk and with a lot to go I was worrying about it a bit and I would have to take care on it.

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There was low cloud all around and still a few showers so the waterproof jacket was on but not yet the trousers. This was making me very warm though as I started the climb up the Sron Riach which was a very steep climb at some points! The track was good though and I made steady progress. Getting to a flat area just short of the top there are some amazing rock formations to break the monotony of the steep track, then back to a climb but now getting very rocky then boulder fields near the top. Intermittent broken cloud gave some nice views and Lochan Uaine looked nice from the top of Sron Riach.

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After a few snaps I started heading for the top of Ben MacDhui and as soon as I started the heavens opened! torrential rain and visibility down to a minimum again. Quickly put the rucksack cover on and my waterproof over-trouser before everything was soaked and weighing even more.

Making my way up another wee steep track I heard voices coming toward me and in seconds they were there, 2 Dutch guys just off MacDhui and heading down the route I had just walked. They asked about the track down, moaned about the weather, then headed off again disappearing in just a few seconds into the grey air. I had a couple of snow fields to walk across and the boulder ground was huge. Very awkward walking and care needed not to get a bad injury, I could feel my knee now getting sorer with every downward movement. The Viewranger GPS app on my iphone was proving to be priceless in this conditions, showing me the way confidently across the boulder fields in very little visibility,  it is very easy to see how people get lost in this vast landscape with conditions like this! The size of the boulders reduced and I could start to see more now as the clouds lightened a bit, patches of clear air were appearing now as I neared the top. Never seen any blue sky but only better views around at the same height. When the old Ruin near the top came into view I could put away the GPS and walk on with points of interest to lead me the way, from the ruin along past a number of round stone shelter walls and onto the top where you find a nice circular “compass” showing the direction to all the surrounding peaks. This sits just below the Trig Point set up on a mass of stones to mark the highest point. (1309m)

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I carefully wandered along the boulder covered top toward the edge looking up the Lairig Grhu and got a couple of snaps, went back to the stone piled trig point and sat for a snack. I could see a few groups of people on their way up from the Ski Centre, the distance from here to the bottom looks quite short at first sight but the 3 groups of people put it into perspective as they look tiny in the large rolling hills. I had a big decision to make now…my original plan was to go from here and camp at loch Ethchachan overnight but two things made me think it wiser to just head back now. Firstly it was only 3pm and I had covered ground a lot faster than I’d thought I would so I could make it back in plenty time, not something I expected, and secondly my knee was now really getting  painfull. The steep drop down to the loch could very easily finish off any more walking and I could be stuck! Time to be sensible for a change, I decided to head to the lower Ski Centre, a long way yet but I would just take it easy and make sure I was back on my own feet.

This was the first real stretches of downhill walking I had done all day and I realised very soon that the choice to get off the hills was the right one! By the time I had reached the March Burn and still at 1125m I was having to almost walk sideways downhill to stop the rotation on my knee sending stabbing pains through me.Apart from one small section of easy uphill it was all down from here, and some of it steep too. The steepest part was from the last high point of 1083m down to the Ski centre that sits at 600m. Over a distance of about 4km that obviously involves some steep parts and again the pathwork on those sections are a credit to the guys and girls that work on them all year round. I arrived at the Ski Centre after walking through some nice views again now that I was down and out of the cloud. It is just an endless array of beautiful views, photos can never do it justice.

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At the Ski Centre a bus had just pulled away as I approached, I thought that was possibly the last one as my slow decent meant it was now 5.05pm.  I asked someone in the car park if they knew about the buses and she said there was still one to go at 6pm so that was a relief straight away but then to make things even better she offered me a lift to Aviemore, and very grateful I was too. As I had not planned to be off the hills at this stage I now had to find somewhere to camp or stay. A room with a shower was a definite preference after being in the hills and all that walking so the Aviemore Bunkhouse that she recommended was perfect. A great wee place that it’s website does not do justice either, very helpful staff and the shared bunk rooms also have their own en-suite shower and separate toilet with towel included.

So that was that! Hike complete, showered and into fresh clothes and time to get a nice meal and a few beers and relax! An absolutely brilliant trip that I would recommend to anyone. The mountains are stunning and when you get there you really start to understand why some unfortunate incidents occur here, it has to be given your full respect, without compromise! Do that though and you can have an amazing experience that you will not find anywhere else. I met some great people along the way too and every single one was polite and friendly. One day I will go back and take in a few more sights but with just a day pack which will allow me to hop around in comparison to carrying that rucksack. I had a great day strolling about Aviemore the following day then reversed my journey home the following day.

EPIC!!

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Routes tracked using Viewranger

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3 Peaks Challenge May 2012

3 Peaks Challenge May 2012

Foreword

Three workmates from Islay Gavin Campbell, Allan Campbell and Ally McNeil decide to try the National 3 Peaks Challenge.

Sometime around late July last year the idea of trying the National 3 peaks challenge was raised among our shift group at work. We were doing a bit of hiking around our local hills and the challenge looked like a very interesting target to give us something to aim for. First of all we thought we could maybe manage it that year, but no chance, then April sounded good as we were all off on holiday but again going on info from blogs and websites it recommended May to October as best times to attempt it, as we were no professional walkers we decided then to leave it till a shift break we had at the end of May and that date was set, hotels and ferries booked we were committed.

At that point it was just going to be a fun challenge but we thought while doing it it would be silly not to take advantage of the chance to raise some cash for a charity. Following some research into a good local charity to be beneficiary of our sponsorship we chose Islay & Jura Palliative Care, a charity that supports and cares for terminally ill on the islands. Local people from workmates and friends to strangers we have never met gave generously, as did Islay Diageo group for whom we work and also Cal-Mac who gave us transport support for which we are very grateful.

So with all that new responsibility we intensified our walks and tried to cram in as many miles as possible between work and personal commitments, a good few miles must have been covered! Our highest hill on Islay is Beinn Bheigier which peaks at 491m and at first this was what we considered a good walk……this soon became a walk that we would do just to even get started on much longer and tiring walks, walking up to 18 miles at times over a series of hills on ground much more energy sapping under foot than what we would encounter on the challenge so as to compensate for the lack of height we had available, this turned out to be a great choice.

In April we went out to Ben Nevis and done a walk on it to gauge our speeds and fitness and we were encouraged by out results on the day, some more walks back home between then and the challenge and we felt much more prepared than the 10 months ago when the challenge was first mentioned.

For the challenge itself there are many forms of how the route is perceived with regard to start/stop times etc.’ and we decided that for our first attempt 24 hours was probably too much but we set a target of 30 hours from the bottom of Ben Nevis to the bottom of Mt Snowdon. As you read on you will see that we were right to do this but came very close to what we felt was unachievable and had we wanted we could actually have done faster….but at what cost?

Off we go……….

lovely ferry crossing

With living on an island our challenge throws up more challenges of its own and the first is to even just get to the mainland. We set off from Islay on the 3.30pm ferry after having been at work since 5.30am the same day. Our driver for the trip (which is a must on this challenge) was Neil MacGill and he took us through to Glasgow where we arrived at around 8.30pm in Braehead. A good meal and a couple of beers after a long day then we were off to sleep for as long as possible as we would not be in a bed again for a while, this was now 11pm and I woke at 6.30am unable to sleep any longer having been on early shifts on the build-up to the trip, not ideal.

We started the day by getting a good full Scottish breakfast inside us. A trip to Go Outdoors for some hot weather gear and last minute bits and pieces before heading up to Fort William. A wee stop at The Green Welly at Tyndrum for some more food to get the energy levels up and the purchase of 3 Scottish flags that were to be taken on the 3 peaks tour with us. On arrival at Fort William we went to the supermarket for water and fresh fruit and it was time to get to the starting point of our challenge, the Ben Nevis Visitor Centre, getting there at about 4pm to have a good hour to get our gear sorted and ready to go. A call into the centre told us that conditions were all good with just patchy snow at the summit.

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So that was it! 5pm came fast but we were ready and after the almost compulsory photos we set off, temperatures were in the scorching bracket and a light breeze that would vanish within minutes! We seemed to be alone in starting off but later found that another group had started at the alternative point at the youth hostel, we discounted this start point simply because it is a very steep start to the walk and in this heat we preferred to avoid it and take the more steady incline from the wobbly bridge at the visitor cente.

Passing a lot of folk generously giving us good luck wishes and encouragement we made good pace up the hillside and onward up to the summit, having now seen the other group in front of us due to their shorter route start we at least knew we were making the same speed as them, important to note though that our pace was never going to be influenced by anything other than our aims. We knew the energy and fluids that were being spent in this heat and at this pace and we had a lot more to go so no time for any bravado.

Ally and Allan making way through the snow

Views on the way up were amazing but on a clear day with no cloud on the summit nothing prepares you for the stunning scenery all around you on your arrival! Two patches of snow about 100m long to walk through near the top and on the top itself only added to the beauty. We had the summit of Ben Nevis all to ourselves on a cracking day and we made sure we at least got some good pictures and take it all in. With nobody to take a picture of us at the trig point we set up the camera on a timer, a fast run to get into shot and our first significant photo captured our first target.

The walk back down is still hard on the legs in places too, there’s a lot of jarring down stone steps and rocky walkways that also require a lot of care to avoid silly injuries, having to keep in mind that every single ache and pain will have little chance of recovery with what is still ahead. The snow slowed us slightly but it was only brief so no big deal.

A lovely sunset led us over the last section where we descended via the youth hostel route, midges at their ferocious best greeted us back at the car in 4h 57min. We were very happy with this time in those conditions! The heat though meant that we had sweated so much we were soaked, the normal thing to do at this point is to just immediately into the car and get moving, we chose to get a wash, change then head off, adding 30min to our time here as opposed to being unable to finish the challenge at all due to skin problems was our way of thinking and that decision turned out to be very wise!

Setting off on the journey to the lake District and Scafell Pike we picked up a meal on the way and tried to get some sleep but if any of us got a half hour nap we were lucky. Neil got us there in good time though too covering the 267 miles comfortably and after sorting the gear, topping up the water in our hydration backs we were set for the next hill, still slightly dark some head torches were put on.

Scafell Pike, England 977m start 4am

In comparison to Ben Nevis this was so quiet, both the time of day and the remoteness of this start point meant that apart from another couple of 3 peaking groups which were now spreading out we were alone. The little bit of darkness left was wiped out in the early sun after about 10min so the head torches were packed away.

The walk started off nice and gentle but only for about 500m through trees, over a small footbridge and through some wee gates, this was the only area we would not be gasping for breath and dripping in sweat, depite it being so early in the morning the layer we had put o at the start was off before we even gained 50m in height!

Gavin, Ally and Allan

This hill although the smallest is very steep! Its smaller scale is amplified by the short distance covered to reach the top and it is very tiring now that we were approaching 24 hours of being awake and only 8 hours before starting this hill we were at the top of Britain’s highest hill. We tried to set a steady pace without breaking any records as we knew this hill could end any chance of even starting Snowdon if we were not careful here. As we neared the top the more rocky the ground got, some areas were just pure rock, but we got to the top which was nor covered in a thick mist/fog that cut visibility to about 20m, very easy to see how things can go badly wrong in places like this when this sets in so we praised ourselves for our good preparations.

Allan starting down through the mist

Very cold and with nobody to take a picture for us and no suitable spot to place a camera on a timer we just got a shot of our hands on the trig point and started downhill….this was extremely heavy going on the legs, constant pounding from dropping onto stone-worked pathways and natural rock. We only had to drop about 100m too before it became very hot again and now even going downhill was sapping energy and hammering our legs. After a lot of aching groans and a few close calls of nearly twisting ankles and jarring knees we got back to the car again just minutes under time in 3h 58min very pleased in the circumstances.

Again though we simply had to get a wash and get changed as we were in no state to get into a vehicle and think we would manage another walk without one skin problem or another, a nearby stream done the job, refreshed, clean and free of blisters purely due to our cautious approach we headed off to Wales, probably again about 30min after finishing the hill. Maybe an hour of sleep on the way.

Mt Snowdon, Wales 1085m start 13.25pm

Again Neil got us to our destination in good time, with the need to stop for food along the way, toilet break on arrival and the now regimental gear preparations we got started off on the limit of being able to do the challenge in 24h and at this stage we pretty much decided that we would rather spend some time enjoying the top of our last hill as opposed to racing immediately back down to achieve a goal that was never our ultimate aim anyway. Having decided this prior to leaving we would find that the amount of people on the hill would probably have prevented this anyway. The car park was mobbed, people dressed as cave people arriving on golf trolleys, soldiers and walkers creating a hive of activity, this place is amazing!

Neil decided to do the walk to the causeway at the bottom lochs with us which was good and maybe even gave him a taste for some hiking himself, a beautiful walk along the almost level tracks to the lochs, bright sunshine and roasting hot! Neil wished us well and we left him taking pictures of one of the nicest places I have ever seen.

Around past the old ruins of the miners ruins on the Miners Track and up passed the higher loch things start to get serious. The climb looks almost vertical from the peacefulness of the lochside and it is a climb that after the 2 previous hills and next to no sleep in over 30 hours is always going to be a good achievement. As with the steep slopes of Scafell we tried to pace it and not wreck any chance of getting to the final summit now by doing something silly. Steadily we neared the top, gaining vertical metres just as fast as horizontal it felt like. Having to stop frequently to allow downward travellers to pass in some quite tight places, knowing now what I would know later I know how glad they would have been not to have to stop.

Close to the top we were meeting others doing the 3 peaks but racing to do it in 24h, telling us that we could do it too we just wished them all the best and carried on to the summit where we were greeted with the most amazing views all around, highlighted by the bright sunshine despite a light mist coming in at this level now…we had no intention of chasing the 24h dream at the expense of missing this experience for as long as we could…..so we stayed and took it all in for about 40min or so, watching the mountain trains arriving and leaving, looking around the cafe and centre at the summit which is quite surreal.

Scores of people were still arriving and leaving every minute by foot or by train and no wonder, I am so glad to have stayed and enjoyed this place, one of the nicest places in Britain by a long way. After a few phone calls and pictures we started to make our way down, very happy with reaching the final summit in a total time of 22h 40m from the start at the bottom of Ben Nevis such a short time ago.

The start of the descent was difficult, legs aching again and that now familiar hammering with every steep downward step that went on until we reached the post that marks the junction where the Miners track forks right and the Pyg track goes left, we decided for a different experience to take the Pyg track to finish our adventure. Another few hundred yards of pounding then the track was slightly more forgiving, great views looking down onto the lochs which we had walked alongside on the way up.

As it was level(ish) for so long though it meant that  it had to drop steeply again at some point and it did toward the end, one final assault on our tired limbs seen us arrive back in the car park that was still heaving with even more soldiers but no cavemen or women this time, still a scattering of walkers though all with smiles almost as big as ours!

Total time for all 3 peaks from top to bottom was 24h 55min

Huge thanks to Neil MacGill who I have not mentioned yet also drove us through to Manchester for overnight stay then all the way back home to Islay the following day!, Diageo Islay Group, Cal-Mac Ferries and everyone that sponsored and encouraged us along the way.

And to all that ever do or have done the National 3 Peaks Challenge….well done and I hope you enjoyed it as much as we did!

Gavin Campbell