Trip report of my Avimore to Blair Atholl walk in September 15th to 19th 2011.
As train journeys go, it was probably the most happy, relaxed journey that I can recall for a long time, on my way to Scotland. I was trying to think why. I kinda thought this. Trips are defined as much by our state of mind as by the terrain and landscape we walk through. This time round, I was reflecting on just how good life is. I’m happily married, I’ve got great kids, I’ve got a wonderful new baby girl, a rewarding job working with great people, making a difference in young people’s lives. Life’s just pretty good right now. And then I find myself pulling into Aviemore. On the way in to Aviemore the views were just getting better and better. The weather was good; looking down Loch Ericht the views opened up to Ben Alder and the excitement of what was to come just built up and up.
This was a bonus walk in a sense. I hadn’t planned to be here, but a friend came to see me a couple of weeks before to talk about his plan to walk from Aviemore to Blair Atholl…it was a bit like waving some drugs in front of an addict. My addiction is the outdoors; I seek no rehab or therapy, I just want to fuel my addiction. So a swift negotiation with my wife and I cashed in my good-boy chips, got some time booked off from work, bought the ticket and took the ride.
Apparently Aviemore is a growing town, but I wasn’t interested in sticking around to find out how much it’s growing. As I walked through the town munching on a sandwich, I took the road to Coylunbridge. The weather was good, and the views to the northern corries of the hills just vast and expansive as the peaks rose above the Rothiemurchus forest.
Just past the mountain rescue post, I picked up a nice forest track that parallels the road (broad track, easy walking) down to CoyluMbridge. Then from there, by the campsite I took the main path to the Cairngorm Club footbridge. Have to admit, I was feeling tired – sleep of late has been limited due to a little baby waking me up a lot, but I just pushed on. Day walkers were coming off the hills, walking back to their cars, the sun was slowly setting as I made my way along through the forest. The midges were well-behaved; things were looking good.
Thing is though, I knew that tomorrow the weather was going to turn. My plan to go over the tops had changed, and the Lairig Ghiu was my alternative route to take me through the hills. Tonight, I intended to head up into it and wild camp on its heights.
As I headed up, I checked my phone signal and phone home. Things were good. Happy and content, I looked back into the sunset. As the golden glow settled over the distant hills I pushed on hard, gaining height and eventually, as the heather tussocks thinned out I found a wild camp spot. It was cold, the wind was blowing. The shelter was soon up and a warm brew on the go. I looked down at the distant lights of Aviemore as the darkness took hold and soon I fell asleep.
Somehow my sleep wasn’t deep enough and I woke up in the early hours of the morning. I got up; the moon was up, and the dark silhouettes of the mountains surrounding me stood out against the night sky. Pretty damn good. In fact, this is what I’d come for. I set my alarm for the dawn and managed to get back to sleep.
As dawns go, it was a good one. Mist clung to the valley floor down towards Aviemore and a glorious colour show was over the summits to the east, between Creag A Chalamain and Creag An Leth-choin, turning from wonderful purples to striking oranges. As I drank my morning coffee (Starbucks ), I looked up into the upper regions of the Lairig Ghiu and the cloud was rolling in over the tops and on to Ben Macdui. The wind was getting stronger; no tops for me today.
I’ve walked sections of the Lairig Ghiu many times. I can’t recall walking the whole length of it; I always seem to use sections of it to link between summits. I have memories of big boots and boulders, and stumbling here and there, tired and knackered at the end of a long day. Part of me just didn’t actually walk the Lairig Ghiu; but I set off, following the path to the highest point. Rain showers occasionally blew in and out, but actually things got pretty good. Trail shoes and nifty footwork meant the boulder fields weren’t so bad this time, and I soon reached the highest point.
I’ve got to admit, the Lairig Ghiu is a good walk . The sheer bulk of the mountains that line it do make it a spectacular setting. I passed the Pools of Dee, dropping down. As I passed near Corrour Bothy, I noticed the new toilet block that’s been built on the side of it. It’s been a few years since I’ve been past that bothy. I decided to call in. The path near it had become all tame and well maintained; as you cross the footbridge, what used to be a boggy mess is now tamed by a well-made path.
Lunch was enjoyed in the company of two Americans who were living in Aberdeen and getting into backpacking. From there I went into Glen Luibeg, heading towards Derry Lodge. I took the lower path, crossing the river as I couldn’t be bothered to walk up to the bridge. The earlier mist and rain had gone as I made my way to Bob Scott’s Bothy.
The forecast was more bad weather coming in overnight; by camping at Bob Scott’s I had a sheltered wild camp for the night to ride out any bad weather. One person was in the bothy, awaiting some more friends to walk in that night. We chatted about the usual hill stuff: routes, bothies, and always there seems to be some guy called Ricky who everyone knows…. Small world, bothies, sometimes. The nice Americans from Corrour bothy arrived, and I was soon to bed.
It had been a wild night, weather wise: rain, wind; but my shelter stood firm. My decision to pitch low was a good one. More people had arrived in the bothy overnight, including Neil, a blogger who writes Cairngorm Wanderer. We had a long chat about outdoor stuff, blogs, and as always, gear.
Today’s route was one that I hadn’t quite planned for. The morning weather was very good; the midges were out, and spots of blood were appearing on my hands as they had their breakfast. I walked down to the Linn of Dee. Day walkers were using mountain bikes to ride up the track to cut short the long walk in, to go and bag a Munro. I had to decide on a plan: there were heavy showers blowing in and out over the distant summits, so I had to choose whether to stay low, or go high. Either way I intended to stay at the Tarf Bothy in the Atholl forest.
I passed White Bridge, and where the Geldie Burn joins the river that flows into the Dee there’s a very large ford. I took one look at it and decided that I needed to change my plan: the river was in spate, and there was no way I was going to ford there. It was a wide river at that point anyway, and today I had no intention of crossing. I took the track up the Geldie, and where there is an old ruined building I could see the silhouette of a figure in the doorway. As I approached I realised it was my friend Mark; we had at one point contemplated doing the walk together, but had decided in the end to go solo; now our paths had crossed. He too didn’t fancy fording the river at that point, so we went up stream together to find a better crossing point.
Further up the track, our plan somehow changed. Mark said that he would come with me to the bothy, and we decided that the weather was good enough that we’d go over An Sgarsoch despite the showers in the glens. We forded the Allt Dhaidh Mor, and then the Geldie, which was wide and deep in places but well-behaved at this point. We had a brew at Geldie Lodge, a wonderful old ruin in the midst of stunning surrounds.
From there we took the really good stalkers’ path along the edge of Sgarsoch Bheag. Where it ends, we crossed the burn and took the north ridge that goes straight to the summit of An Sgarsoch. It was heather bashing, tussocky and off-path all the way to the summit. Hard work, knackering, but you have to earn the views. Rain showers, at times heavy, blew in and out, and we saw rainbows over the Cairngorms. It’s hard to describe just how good that was up there. It turned out to be Mark’s first Munro. I asked him what he thought of it compared to the Lake District; he said that there was no comparison.
Summit conditions were mean. At one point it started to hail as the heavy showers pelted us. From there we went straight south off the ridge to Sron na Macranaich. This was just fantastic walking. I just enjoyed every moment of it: the views were superb at times and the rain clouds just added to the vista. It was big, wild open expanse: Scottish wild walking at its best. We made our way down to the Tarf Water through the bogs, heather and rocks. To get to the bothy we had two river crossings. We had to cross a stream flowing into the Tarf which was deep and in spate; there was no time for posing for river crossing photos. It wasn’t so bad – only mid-thigh deep, and you only ended up three or four feet further down than where you wanted to exit…
From there we followed the Tarf Water along the edge, then we had to cross the Tarf itself to get to the bothy. It was deep, but we managed to exit this time where we wanted to. The conditions had been challenging and had pushed us. As we got our wet kit off in the bothy and a fire on the go, we reckoned it had been one of the best day’s walking we had ever had. It was that good.
I like the odd night in a bothy: warm fire and space to lay out and dry kit. We had room in the Tarf bothy, but little kindling for a fire; the small fire did add a glow and sense of warmth, but it did not last. But a good night’s sleep was had. The cold morning dawned with less dramatic sky than I had hoped for. The best part was that Jetboil stoves do deliver a warm drink and breakfast fast. That is always good for me on a cold morning: get something hot into you and then get going.
We left our home in the wilds and shouldered packs. Mark had two more days to go on his route. I had one to go. We crossed the burn and headed up between Meall Tionail and Braigh Coire na Conlich. We parted company half way up; I veered right to go up to Conlach Bheag and Mark went left to go over the tops heading back to upper Glen Tilt. I enjoyed being back on my own, taking in the expansive views. It was cold and a bit windy and rain showers again threatened to spoil the day. Conlach Bheag’s boulder strewn summit and shattered rocks made for an impressive vantage point from which to enjoy the views. I then went towards Carn a Chlamain; there were some really good wild camp spots marked down for future reference.
Carn a Chlamain’sconical-shaped summit gave sweeping views down into the valley below. I looked behind me and the mist was rolling in over the summits – bad weather was closing in. I snapped some photographs and then took the landrover track, but on my 1:50,000 scale map the route down off the ridge of Faire Clach-ghlais that I took was not marked. I’d worked this route out the night before off my Viewranger app on my smartphone – more up to date maps than the ones I had printed out. The track made for an easy descent in to Glen Tilt, with rain pouring down on me as I came down the ridge.
I chatted to a couple out doing a day walk, using a printed out route from some website – no map, but they had a compass…Glen Tilt, for me, is spectacular, and yet the lodges, the tracks just seem to have detracted from what should be this incredibly wild route through the hills; it’s tamed, and really only gets going at the upper end, where there’s a sense of more wildness. Still, I enjoyed the walk along this track.
The rain had stopped, so I found time along the track to dry out wet gear and to relax as tracks and paths led me down into Blair Atholl, where I arrived to realise that while my original route hadn’t happened, my on-the-hoof route had turned out to be very good. The evening was spent in the Bothy bar in the Atholl Arms hotel, but unlike in May it lacked a certain fellowship that you get on a TGO Challenge.
I am going back to do my original route sometime.