My asking companion over this weekend, TGO Challenger Alan Callow, is a great believer in mini or micro adventures. We may marvel at the exploits of a Chris Townsend or Colin Ibbotson but many of us simply can’t envisage such long expeditions and we may not really be that way inclined anyway. But a micro adventure can really deliver the full excitement and the other goods of the great outdoors. The trick is to take whatever time you have and to cram as much into it as possible. This was our mindset when me met up at Glenmore campsite on Thursday evening.
Glenmore is a fine site set in the magnificent Rothiemurchus forest and sitting on the shore of the lovely Loch Morlich. It is also handily located near to the Glenmore Lodge activity centre and its fine bar and restaurant. We sank back into the bar’s fine comfy chairs and sofas, sank a pint or two of the splendid Cairngorm Brewery Trade Winds ale and finalised our plans for the big/micro adventure.
Our adventure did not get off to the best of starts. While I was waiting for Alan to arrive I chatted happily to the guy in the next pitch. He and his partner had been touring around the Cairngorms in their car using Glenmore as their base. We agreed that this was a wonderful area that never failed to recharge the batteries. This was his last night and in the morning he and his partner would be setting off home to Aberdeen. By the time Alan and I rolled back in from the bar the campsite was empty and we duly settled in for an early start before the adventure began. And then the noise started. From the Aberdeen tent came the screams and shouts of the most demented woman I have ever come across on a campsite. She was clearly pissed out of her mind and quite possibly dealing with some kind of mental illness. Through the night — for hours and hours — she ranted and raged at her partner and then starting hitting him. I’m surprised she didn’t wake up the Police in Aviemore (if indeed there is still a police station in the town). Despite shouts of complaints she struggled on until drink finally knocked herself out. There’s nothing I like worse than setting off for a long walk without a proper night of sleep. Still, there you go.
We woke to a fine morning, broke camp and started walking early, soon enough to be sure of avoiding any ongoing contact with the mad woman of Glenmore. As we took to the trail and the paths that led up to the hills we were greeted with an absolutely clear sky. At the point where our track met Strath Nethy we stopped to chat with a young guy who had been camping near the little footbridge, his little white terrier yapping around to protect their temporary home. He’d found a wonderful spot in which to spend the night. Strange, but I’ve been this way a lot and have never really spotted the potential of this place. Perhaps, because it has always been raining. And cold. And not a place to stop. Alan and I gazed down the Strath Nethy glen. It was very beautiful. Neither of us had been down there before. I had a vague notion, in the back of my mind, that this was some kind of Foul Weather Alternative Route used by TGO Challengers. But it was time to continue our walk.
First up on our itinerary was Bynack Moor a Munro which has the advantage of being easily reached from Glenmore. I like this hill. As you climb the views our over the foothills to the North East are stunning. Within a few minutes or so of climbing we knew that this was going to be one fine trip. The summit of Bynack Moor is a maze of weird and wonderful shapes cut into the native stone by the driving prevailing winds. We crossed the summit to reveal a long ridge like expanse of ground that simply called us on, and so we did. We trotted past the Barns of Bynack — yet more weird wind formations — of which I had less than fond memories. The last time I was here I sat in the shade of the barns to eat my lunch only to be caught up in a hail storm and then thunder and lightening. I did not feel like hanging about and made my exit on my backside, sailing down the side of Bynack gliding along the heather. For now the wind was beginning to blow but the skies were thankfully free of serious cloud and especially lightening.
From Bynack Moor
Alan crossing the nipple
As we continued South West the winds began to trouble us a little and so we took to the shelter of a steep little valley that cut down the side of the hill in the direction of the main path to the Fords of Avon. Our stream had no name — at least none of the maps that I was carrying. It was though very beautiful, the kind of place which makes lunchtime on the TGO Challenge a wondrous thing indeed. We followed a small track downhill and out onto the open sides of the mountain. Our descent was clearly possible although the map showed it to be steep. Our descent was slow. So I decided to initiate Alan into my tried and tested technique for getting of Bynack More. Onto our backsides we went and off we slid down the weather to the baee of the mountain in a rather impressive time.
At the Fords of Avon refuge we took the chance to shelter from the now raging wind. The shelter is a small stone building with a wooden, framed interior which was refurbished or replaced not that long ago. Alan reminisced about his last visit here on the 2011 TGO Challenge. He and the dapper Peter Molinaar had opened the door to see a young couple shagging on the floor. They seemed surprised to see visitors. After the exchange of such fine stories there was not much more to do than to read the graffiti on the walls and to browse through the bothy book. Regular readers will know that I am not a bothy person. All too often I find them cold, damp and infested with vermin. Worse still they are often infested with drunken Glaswegians. There’s also something very strange about how people use bothies (shagging is a pretty normal thing to get up to). One man had written in the book that he had been driven off Bynack More at 5.00 am one morning one November. Eh? Another told us how he had skied in to spend three days alone at Christmas. I know the telly is nowhere near as good as it used to be, but Christmas at the Avon Shelter? Another described having his tent flattened by gale force winds during the night and having to make his way along the track, to be delighted by discovering an unknown shelter. What? Did he not have a map? The shelter is clearly indicated on OS maps by the word Shelter.
We agreed that we didn’t understand bothy dwellers and off to paddle through the fords we went. I always like walking through the little Lairig that connects the Fords with Glen Derry. On the 2011 this track had been a river and progress long, slow and cold. The winds rattled down this shape gap in the mountains but the ground was pleasantly dry and soon we were descending into Glen Derry itself. I do not have found memories of this path, it has always been one of those that is full of hazardous stones both big and small. But too our delight the path has been re-engineered and for much of the way it was a flat delight. Alan had also walked this way during the atrocious TGO weather of 2011. We stopped to gaze at the climb up to Ben Macdui with the Hutchinson Memorial Hut picked out gains the mountainside by the sharp afternoon sun. Alan was slightly stunned. He’d not seen this at all in 2011 so bad had been the visibility.
Glen Derry is a wonderful place. Walkers (and bikers I suppose) descend the path with their views filled by the most gorgeous and lush of Scottish glens. The local estate is working hard here to re-forest with native Caledonian Pine and in the 1 months since I was last this way I was amazed at how mature these small saplings had become. On every previous trip I had been able to measure progress by the sopped at which I reached the section of new woodland that was fenced off, the path requiring an easy navigation of a sturdy deer fence. The fence must have done its job well as it is now gone altogether, the growth now strong enough to stand up to the little we beasties of the hills.
If Glen Derry is a fine Glen then Derry Lodge is the finest of wild camp spots. My usual spot — yes I do have a usual spot here — was taken up by a cluster of tents full of young people who looked like Duke of Edinburgh students. This was a shame as my usual spot allows me to sit on the bank of the river and to rest my old-codger feet in the cooling water of the river. Still, our pitch in the shade of the pine trees was still fine and but a hop away from fresh water. After our experience at Glenmore we decided to put some space between us and out young neighbours but we needn’t have worried was we heard not a peep out of them all night. Both Alan and I slept for twelve hours solid.
It had been our first day. We had walked for 25 kilometres (15.6 miles) with a total ascent of 930 metres.
We woke to a sunny and windless morning and almost inevitably the midges were out, but these insects are wimps compered to their western cousins and they were easily dealt with.
Day two of our adventure saw us climb up through the forest to take the small path up to Derry Cairngorm. This is one of my favourite Cairngorm Walks. Early on the views back to Derry Lodge and out to the Dee can be stunning in clear weather. As the walk gains height the full expanse of the mountains of the east of the range come into view. And there in the distance were the weird stones of Bynack Moor, or the nipple of the moor as Alan called them. Throughout our whole trip the Moor was never far away.
Looking down to Derry Lodge
Alan on the summit of Derry Cairngorm
Derry Cairngorm sounds like a lovely mountain doesn’t it? The small hills approaching Derry are indeed very pleasant but the Munro itself is not much more than a big pile of stones. A bloody bog pile of stones. It was if the mountain knew we were looking for a big/micro adventure. And to provide even greater value the good folks of the Cairngorms have provided not one but two summit cairns. I imagine that these two cairns could send TGO Editor-at-Large Cameron McNeish into a real spin, for the big cam doesn’t like cairns. But here they do have a purpose. Line yourself up with the two cairns in poor visibility and you are on the right line to descend to a good path which connects with the climb up to Ben Macdui.
We had great visibility but increasingly cold and ravaging winds. And we still had the damn boulders. Progress across this bolder field is slow and on this occasion cold. It was also dry as I’d managed to leave my water bottle at the first summit cairn. If you go this way anytime soon the water bottle at the cairn is not some kind of new form of sacrifice to the mountain, rather a monument to the incompetency of this particular writer.
It was a relief to join the track and to leave the stones behind. The track is not marked on maps but it is a good one that is clearly visible from afar in reasonable visibility. The path skirts the western flanks of Cregan a Choire Etchechan and deposits walkers on high ground just a few feet above the main path to Ben Macdui at around NO 009 997.
A wondrous mountain landscape was laid out in front of us. We took a breather and confirmed our plans. We would camp at Loch Etchechan that night to avoid loosing too much height as our plan was to regain Ben Macdui and spend a day ambling over the Cairn Gorm plateau. But since we were here already we might as well hit the summit of Ben Macdui anyway.
As we climbed the path our tired limbs led us to contemplate other, higher, camp spots. Eventually we settled on what is probably the last and highest possible campsite on the hill, a little spit of land next to a tiny lochan (or pond) at NO 001 991. At this height and in this wind there would be no midges. Perfect.
Chez Ben Macdui
At the summit shelter we decided the wind was damn cold. I don’t now what the wind chill factor was but it certainly had me wearing all of my various layers, waterproofs and wind proofs. We took an extended break. As we broke out pieces of bread roll and pitta with grated cheese were suddenly lined by a small flock of tiny birds who had clearly corrected identified this pile of stones as a place where humans ate! Neither of us could recognise the birds but, now consulting my copy of Hostile Habitats, I reckon they were probably Stonechats. But whatever they were these little chaps provided fine entertainment for fifteen minutes or so.
We descended to our camp spot with the hope of spending an afternoon lolling in the gentle sun. But there was no sun. There was though a lot of wind and a great deal of soggy ground in which to anchor our tents. I had the afternoon of hell as I misplaced important equipment, struggled to find pitch big and dry enough for my tent footprint. I won’t go into details now but probably will in a separate post but I was pretty relieved when I finally made it into my secure tent. I say secure but the winds just gathered and gathered. Alan had a theory that as the heat ran out of the day the winds might drop. They didn’t. But filled with hope I thought I detected a lessening of the gale and announced to Alan that I thought it was letting up. It didn’t.
The only thing I could hear over the sound of my thrashing tent fabric was the sound of Alan’s thrashing tent fabric. To say this was a horrible evening’s camp would be a real understatement. Still, miracles can happen. During one lull in the wind I was amazed to hear the sound of Alan’s snores. How on earth did he do it?
It was the end of our second day. We had walked just over 11 kilometres (7 miles) with a tidal ascent of 1060 metres).
It was a horrible, horrible, night and as dawn began to broke we decided to quickly break camp and descend. I guess we were walking by 6.00 am. As we descended down the path we realised just how strong the winds were as it was a real fight to stay upright. At Loch Etchechan we saw a couple of small tents camped in what seemed to have ben an even more exposed spot that the now we had settled on.
The only thing that was clear was that we were not going to spend our day ambling around the stony top of Cairn Gorm. We settled on the drop down to the west end of Loch Avon and a climb over to Strath Nethy. After all, it had looked lovely from the bottom.
The first part of this walk is lovely, a nice path cutting through tiny lochans and ground which was not only dry but sheltered from the winds. As the track descends it gets steeper and harder to clamber down but in nice weather it would be a greta walk, the views out over Loch Avon being quite wonderful. We took the path on the north shore of the loch and were surprised by the number of decent wild camp spots we found — the western end of the southern shore looks particularly fine and seemed to be pretty sheltered. But we were to walk on, clambering and scrambling over rocks, stones and boulders, dropping down to tiny, isolated beaches, and ever so occasionally stretching our legs to walk a proper stride over a rare patch of flat path. Eventually we started the gentle climb up the Saddle over which we would descend into Strath Nethy.
Descending Strath Nethy
As we have already established neither of us had been here before and neither of us knew anything about this small glen. We walked for about three kilometres through another damn boulder field. This was a long and slow path. Our map showed our path descending on the edge of the boulder field but in reality we just had to clamber through it. The winds were now dangerously high, lifting ourselves and our packs off our feet on occasions. I don’t know where I got the idea from that this might be a Foul Weather route for the TGO as the upper reaches of the Strath — in these winds — seemed more inhospitable than the Lairig Ghru. On my last Challenge I watched two Italian Challengers walk ahead of me out of Glenmore. I saw them stop and consult their map for a long time before descending into Strath Nethy. I bet they had a shock!
This was one of these descents that just went on and on. From a distance it would look as if the path would leave behind the boulders and stones and make its way through heather but then when we arrived at our expected place of joy we found it only full of more boulders.
The lower reaches of the Strath are, indeed, beautiful but by now we were too knackered to really notice or if I’m honest care very much. We took a break at the campsite by the little bridge and set off back down to Glenmore. Alan put it well as well walked. There’s always a long stretch of these walks back that you’ve forgotten!
Still, we reached Glenmore by three in the afternoon and marched straight into the squirrel cafe. We can recommend the apple strudel and ice cream. At the campsite we found ourselves pitching in almost perfect and warm conditions, with just enough of a warm breeze to keep the midges away.
Our third day — we had walked 19.5 kilometres (12 miles) with a total knee crunching descent of 965 metres.
The end of every big/micro adventure involves a long, warm shower, and then a good meal and a few pints. We coaxed our weary limbs back up to Glenmore lodge to be greeted by the friendly barman who had chatted with us a few days before. We described our route. Was their snow he asked? Snow? He told us the weather forecast had suggested there might be snow but that there certainly would have been winds over 50 miles per hour. We confirmed that we thought the winds had been that strong. Alan spotted red warning flags fluttering all around.
Once again we settled into the soft sofas and enjoyed our pints of Trade Winds. The food was wonderful, just what you need after a mini adventure. We both had a real stake and ale pie, yes I mean real. No flaky pastry top but proper home made pastry and a home made red wine gravy — no jus but a proper gravy.
We were satisfied backpackers.
The night was walk and balmy and we awoke to a wonderful day although the tops of the mountains looked pretty horrible. We could hear the ravaging winds whipping over the trees. We had lost a day due to the weather and our adventure had become even more micro but it had still been packed with excitement and incident.
As Alan drove me to Aviemore we started to plan our next micro adventure in the Cairngorms. We said our goodbyes at the Tesco car park. I bought a couple of newspapers and then trotted down to the mountain cafe just in time for its 8.30 opening. I consumed a fine breakfast, read my newspapers and still had time to investigate the gear shop underneath the cafe before it was time to take the train.
We had certainly made the most of our micro adventure.