So, a first post, after years of drooling over this forum. You know, people writing "I was off at 6 and by 8 I was heading up the hill", that kind of stuff, and there you are in one of Europe's most densely populated areas with hardly a patch of open country in reach. The short story: from Belgium, me and the missus have been to Scotland several times, although the last time was way back in 2005. Now, 7 1/2 years, a fresh daughter and 3 years in Cologne later, I landed a job in Aberdeen starting January 2013, which means that suddenly all this stuff that I've been drooling over comes within reach. Been to the NW Highlands, Skye, Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland (I'll try and put some the old stuff up here once I have the time), but the Cairngorms are a complete blind spot.
I don't care about rain, which is, in the end, just water. I don't care about cold, in fact I can hardly stand walking when temperatures hit over 15°. I don't care about bog, in fact I love bog. I love being outdoors. Or so I kept telling myself, because apart from the occasional active holiday, in all fairness we had devolved more and more into city dwellers. So when I booked a week in Aberdeen to arrange for a house and other admin I decided that if November permitted, I would do a walk, preferably to a munro, and, more importantly, preferably pathless. I love pathless because it gives you the feeling of boldly going where no man has gone before - which is, especially in Scotland, an illusion, but a very powerful one. There's much to be said for descriptions like "go to the eastern slope and walk up towards the ridge". When doing the Skye Trek in 2002, I wrote:
When trudging across the moors, one gradually learns to recognise the wet from the dry spots – thick moss is wet, but when not in a gully, might be suitable for quickly walking on (not for hopping, for that'll break its fibrous structure that keeps you from sinking); avoid shallow gullies at any time; if you must cross, do so at a point where the burns they contain form one flow, for, though it might be broader to cross here, more "upstream" are only more numerous tiny burns waiting; if the gully through which the burn drips is steep or on rocky ground, do the exact opposite; spots with cotton grass are generally wetter than a litre of water that has been especially wetted for the occasion; sturdy long grass is good for walking and if you're able to flatten it with your boots can even help you across very wet spots; never think the same of soft long grass; outcrops of heather are always dry, and thus good – aim for heather; the same goes for higher outcrops of turf (caused by peat cuttings); never immediately step down of such a turf outcrop, since an abyss of sludge awaits you; never trust pure earth: it can be hard, but it can go all the way to China just as well; when suddenly it turns out that you're in wet area, never run back without looking where you go – and even then, the solid ground you just walked on will probably prove to have disappeared altogether; never just run on either, in the vain hope that some dry ground is bound to pop up sooner or later – it's always later – if you're lucky; when you find that your boots are at last thoroughly soaked, walk faster, but take just as much care, since you can almost always get wetter than you think you can, and always wetter than you are. And lastly: think of yourself as a life form that is completely dry above the knees, and stick to that thought.
But that was bloody 10 (!) years ago. Would I still have this love-hate relationship with the moors? The contract for both job and house were signed, so I definitely hoped I would. And I also reasoned, if I could do a pathless one without too much preparation, then I might be able to do a path walk with my daughter on my back.
Anyway, time to cut to the chase: plenty of good stuff on this site, but I wanted to try something from the Cairngorms pocket mountains booklet. Sun was up for about 8 hours and I only had a car (eggplant colour!) and no bike, so long drive-ins were out, which left me with 2 main options: Lochnagar or something further down past Braemar. Lochnagar would be a memorable first munro, and the weather forecast looked good. But the evening before I got talking to an Austrian guy in the youth hostel. He was heading up Glen Lui for a multi-day hike, and I offered to give him a ride, not fully realising that by doing so I had actually made my decision. Something inside wanted to drive way past Braemar as well. Plus... the lesser munro was to be reached... pathless!
At 6 we set off and quarter past 8 I dropped him off at the Linn of Dee car park under clear blue skies (or as close as it gets in Scotland), and drove on to Inverey — as driving up to Lock Muick for Lochnagar wouldn't allow me to start walking before 10 or 10.30. And anyway I had to get out of this car. Frost was all around and I decided to have a bit of breakfast and wait for the first sun to hit the tops.
I had decided on a route ("The Battery Top" in the book) that went up Glen Ey, then up the second ridge you meet, making a big U over Carn an Lochain (883m), Carn Creagach (894m), Carn Bhac (946m + a small subsidiary top of 920m), and then back over the Top of the Battery (Carn Dambhaireach, 784m). I didn't know whether it was a good idea to go for 20k mainly pathless, as I had hardly walked more than 10km at any point in the past years, but the book said 6h40', so including a break, starting at 9 would have me back at 16h. I tucked OS LR 43 and a compass with my food and started off, first on a track.
Carn Creagach and Carn Bhac
(a full set of photos can be found here: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/mr6919i5ba0bian/H5xNveq4b6)
I had wings. I felt myself dissolving into the landscape, gradually ceasing to exist as a continuously brooding thinking being that I usually am, and simply becoming a transparent sheet of pure perception, I was but a thin film through which a landscape flowed, as by osmosis, leaving only what it looked smelled and felt like, no thought on top of that. I don't know about you, but I find this to be probably the best feeling there is, not feeling big or small, but becoming air. Glen Ey is pretty lovely in the morning light:
Becoming air soon was replaced by becoming fire and water as I headed up the first hill. I thought, with pathless walking, going up hill is fairly simple: take the route of maximum hurt, that'll be the uphillest one. Anyway, it was brief and soon I was up on the rounded ridge, dry rocky underfoot, sun in my face and not too much wind. I saw the route before me:
Really, it was a stroll in the park. Lovely sunlit views around, even some deer sooting away over the hill...
By Carn Creagach, cloud had come in from SSW and the top of Carn Bhac was in the clouds, only becoming visible as I drew nearer. I also met with my first small stretch of bog on the bealach between them. But some good views from the flanks nonetheless...
I hit the top at 13h, precisely after 4hrs as it said in the book. This was easy!
The Top of the Battery (Carn Dambhaireach)
But then I got to know about Cairngorm windchill, as the humid cold air blew over the top. Even sitting behind the small shelter, after a mere 15' worth of lunch time I had to move one because I was getting so cold I couldn't hold my sandwich. The cloud started sticking to my glove. Downhill with wind in your back is bliss though, and I had counted on being back at 16h indeed, just a quick hop over the Top of the Battery.
Well, no. In between the subsidiary top of Carn Bhac and the Battery lies a particularly nasty stretch of bog, where walking anything beyond 1m in one direction without sinking is, by all means, impossible. I lost over half an hour just on that stretch. I've seen some bog on earlier visits, and this one was bloody annoying. But, dare I say it, even while cursing, it started to dawn on me that part of me also liked this (well, and I had seen the bit of dry, relatively recently burnt heather further up the Battery ).
Anyway, as I took a break on the Top of the Battery just after 15h I realised that daylight was fading somewhat and that I had been so dumb not to bring a torch light , so time to get down. The descent proved to be a slippery but rather dry business and at 16h I was down by the bridge across All Cristie Mòr, with only a good half hour of track before me to Inverey.
While dusk was on me, it struck me that I hadn't seen a single human being for the entire day. At 16:45 I was by the car in the dark, changed, drove to Ballater for dinner, drove on to Aberdeen, and basically crashed in my bunk.
But, to the main question of this enquiry, do the Highlands still do it for me, yes I said yes they do Yes.