Date walked: 18/05/2013
Time taken: 52 hours
A couple of months ago with the winter wearing on, I had started to make my plans for those longer, warmer summer days. I wanted something that would push me, but that would be enjoyable at the same time.
Maps were studied and plans made and my cross Cairngorms adventure was born. The plan would be for me and the dog to cross the Cairngorm National Park from south to north - from Blair Atholl, home to Grantown on Spey - crossing through the heart of the mountains. I would head through Glen Tilt on the first day, on the second day I would pass over the Cairn Toul ridge or through the Lairig Ghru and on the third and final day I would pass through Ryvoan and onto the Speyside way to reach home.
I had spent a considerable amount of hours poring over maps, coming up with Plans A through to D and getting my gear together, but the day finally arrived for the trip and of course the one thing you can’t plan for – the weather – wasn’t going to play ball. Heavy rain was forecast for my first day, to be followed by very low cloud over the next two days.
As I left Grantown at 6am on Saturday and headed down a very driech A9 the voice of my Granny rang through my head – “whatever the weather, we’ll weather the weather, whether we like it or not!”
DAY 1 Old Bridge of Tilt to Corrour Bothy
10 hours, 40km walking
I parked the car at Old Bridge of Tilt, shouldered the pack (18.5kg) and me and Flynn were on the long road home by 7.30am. The weather here was better than at home – the cloud must have been at about 700m, no rain, but a very strong head wind to contend with.
Glen Tilt was absolutely stunning with water cascading over rocks and minor falls, there were abundant red squirrels leaping through the trees. In a short time we made it to the bridge past Marble Lodge and sat for a minute to get that much needed 2nd breakfast! We continued up the Tilt, making really good time on the landrover tracks (despite that headwind!), there were plenty of red deer on either side of the glen and lots of menacing blackie sheep with young lambs at foot. We were at Forest Lodge for around 10am - the last homely house and from here on there would be no civilisation to speak of for 25 miles as the crow flies.
The way soon ran out of landrover tracks, but the going was still good, we passed more blackies and the odd mountain hare before stopping at Bedford Bridge and the falls of tarf for a bite to eat and drink. This is a gorgeous wee spot and was well worth spending 15 mins just soaking it all in.
Over the next two hours the path slowly deteriorated as we left the Tilt and headed into the Cairngorms proper. For much of the way I kept Flynn at heel and not crashing through the heather as he usually does – it was always at the back of my mind that he would never let me know when he’s tired and might burn out at any point later in the day. Heading into the ‘gorms the black cloud loomed ahead of us and the gentle baa-ing of sheep turned into more exotic bird song. Flynn, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore!
Around 1 o’clock that black cloud broke and the heavens opened, the rain was heavy and wouldn’t be stopping any time soon. I continued along the broken track when suddenly, cornering a hill, Devils Point and the southern mouth of the Lairig sprung into view. Without realising it a wry smile had crept across my face and the hairs on the back of my neck were standing on end. The mountains are calling!
I got a late lunch at the ruins of Bynack Lodge and met a man who had come up from Glen Feshie that morning. Amongst other things we discussed the crossings of the Bynack and Geldie burns. These were to be my first major obstacles and had been slightly concerned about them. He told me that they were no bother, but did involve a boots-off wade. As he departed I considered my plan for the afternoon. I had anticipated setting up camp in the ruins of Ruigh Nan Clach, just 2km further up the Glen, but I had had an earlier start than I had expected and had made very good time up the Tilt. In addition, things were getting wet, really wet, and the prospect of a night in a bothy rather than the tent was all too tempting. I knew it would be hard work, but I made the decision to push for Corrour at the foot of Devils Point.
I shouldered the pack and was shortly at the Bynack burn. It looked to be readily crossable but sure enough would require a boots-off wade. I was about ¾ of the way across when I placed my foot on a wide, smooth boulder. I slipped. F*CK F*CK F*CK I cursed, I was in and scrambling to get out. I had full waterproofs on but much of my right hand side was now cold and wet. ****! I cursed the Bynack and then myself for allowing that to happen. Luckily, my phone and my camera which were in my pockets were relatively dry and unscathed.
I carried on, my mood somewhat lowered, to the Geldie. The Geldie was wider and deeper – maybe a foot and a half high in places – but I took my time and got across ok. Socks and boots back on – they had got pretty wet too in the fall. It must be noted that during these crossings whilst I was concentrating and cursing, Flynn was swimming back and forth across them – just for fun!
The going was pretty good and I was at White Bridge for about 3.30 (A bridge! Thank God!!). The path then splits and I followed in up the Dee. I use the word ‘path’ loosely as for large sections it was scarred bog and peat, you would get to a section of decent path that would get your hopes up, only for it to disappear again. The rain was really coming down and the wind was driving it through any tiny holes in your clothing it could find. I could feel my feet soaking and burning at the same time and I still had at least 8km to go. This was getting grim and was real hard work – it was just a case of head down and plough on. I really should have stopped to get a quick drink and something to eat but I could bring myself to stop – I just had to get to the bothy. Despite all this, Flynn was still loving it – hopping through the heather and wading through the mud. Because of him my mood never dipped too low and he still managed to put a smile on my face. After what felt like an age Devils point and Cairn Toul now showed themselves again – looking so magnificent, possibly even more than usual in the foul weather – if mountains could feel then this would surely be the kind of weather they relish. Not far to go now – just keep on going I told myself.
Another 20 minutes and Corrour Bothy was now in view through the sheets of rain- mercifully close and a final wade through pathless bog saw me to the bridge over the Dee. It was then up the bank and I was at the door! 10 hours and 40km done – half of that in atrocious conditions – Corrour is not much more than a damp, small, 4 walled room with one tiny window but to me it looked like a veritable palace!
Opening the door it took a minute for my eyes to adjust to the dark inside – all I could make out were hunched figures over stoves and copious, dripping waterproofs hanging from the ceiling. My eyes adjusted and I made my way to a spare chair in the corner of the room. I introduced myself to my new companions for the night – a Dutch father and son – making their way from west to east as part of the TGO challenge, two guys from Aberdeen who had come up from Bedford bridge and a young guy who had just got back trying to climb devils point in the storm (madness!). Flynn was initially very excited to meet everyone and I struggled to keep him contained on his lead, but after I’d hung up my waterproofs I got out his bowl and fed him – tiredness soon caught up with him and he fell asleep under chair on the towels I had brought for him.
With Flynn seen to I set about getting off my wet tops and replaced them with dry ones – my fleece never felt so comfy! The chat in the bothy was generally about the atrocious conditions, where people had come from and where they were going. Whilst talking I prepared my dinner – boil in the bag chicken curry followed by plenty of Kendal mint cake – Michelin star dining as far as I was concerned. With warm food in me and the company of strangers my mood very soon revived and I could smile about the ordeal of being caught in a cairngorm storm. Everyone in the bothy was equally shattered so once food was eaten and a little whisky shared, we all settled in for the night at around 9pm. As I fell asleep the sound of the wind whipping over the chimney and the rain pounding the window continued, but I was warm, comfortable and relatively dry. I slept a stilted sleep with deep snoring now adding to the tumult outside and Flynn waking me two or three times, but by morning I was well refreshed and ready for day 2!
DAY 2 Corrour Bothy to Ryvoan Bothy
8 hours, 15km walking, 11km cycling
We woke up to the Lairig in dense fog – visibility was down to 10-20 metres and the behemoth of Devils Point was coming and going before finally giving in to the mist and disappearing for good. I fed Flynn and then myself (a surprisingly good boil-in-the-bag all day breakfast) and packed my sac – most of yesterday’s gear was still damp but at least it wasn’t dripping wet! I was extremely thankful for having packed a spare pair of socks and my feet were comfortable, despite my boots still being pretty wet.
On this second day I had hoped to do the 4 Munros from Devils Point to Braeriach but with visibility so poor and unknown snow quantities on the tops I went for Plan B – to head over the Lairig Ghru. Whilst this was Plan B, it was to prove to be by no means the easy option. One guy in the bothy had attempted it the previous day but turned back due to the amount of water and snow on it and the weather conditions.
We set out from the bothy at about 9am. In dense, warm and humid fog, bird and insect songs filling the air and thousands of small spider’s webs covering the heather it was incredibly atmospheric and felt strangely more like being in the tropics than in the Cairngorms.
For a start progress along the path was good and as height was gained the fog began to break and views opened up to the south to reveal the great hulk of Cairn Toul and Garbh Choire.
I was feeling good and pretty fit still as we made progress up to 750m, but soon the roar of water filled the air and I looked up to my right to see a mighty waterfall coming off Ben MacDui, as I made it over a knoll I could see the “burn” infront of me and the path disappearing into white water. ****. As it was there was no way to cross at this point safely. I made my way upstream and steeply uphill to look for an alternative point to cross. All of yesterdays rain and the rising temperatures had turned a usually innocent burn into a raging torrent. I could see nowhere to cross. There were a few patches of snow that still bridged the burn and looked pretty sturdy, they sure looked temping to hop across but I had no way of saying how stable they were so felt they were best avoided. I made my way back down hill re-checking the river as I went. Nothing. I then went down stream and found a point where it narrowed enough to look just about jump-able. I stood for a while measuring it up. I took off my pack and threw it across and took steps back to give me a run up. All the while Flynn was jumping back and forth as if to say “Come on Dad, it’s easy!”. With Flynn’s encouragement I made my jump and got safely across. As I put my pack back on I checked the map – there was at least one more burn that would require crossing.
We made our way for another kilometre or so – the path now largely under an inch or so of running water, when the roar of water again entered my hearing… As soon as I saw the burn I felt sick – it was significantly wider and more ferocious than the previous one. Again, I went up and down stream looking for alternative places to cross but none could be found. Turning back was now a very real consideration. I returned to where the path entered the water and summed it up. I made the decision to go for it. I undid the straps on my pack but left my boots on – a slip here would have serious consequences as tonnes of water flooded into the Dee and I needed all the grip I could get. I entered the water slowly and surely using my poles for support. Flynn swam on ahead and was thankfully across quickly. Each step I took I made 100% sure I was stable before taking the next one. In the middle the water was cascading well above my knees with considerable force. Shortly I was across and breathed a huge sigh of relief as I rung out my socks that were so comfortable and dry just a few hours ago!
We continued on up to the summit with blue sky now breaking through, with all the water on the paths I was almost thankful that my feet were soaked through and I didn’t need to think to carefully about where I was walking. The Pools of Dee as we passed them looked stunning – the water looked as pure and clear as was possible and were rimmed in snow, breaking off to form bergs floating on the edges.
We stopped for a break at the top – a strange cloud loomed at the top that I wrongly assumed I would pass through quickly – I was to be in thick fog again all the way to Loch Morlich!
On the way down the fog was amazingly disorientating and despite being on a good path and in a glen I found myself checking my GPS several times to ensure I hadn’t gone wrong somewhere along the way. Descending into Rothiemurcus was again very atmospheric with shadows of Scots pines just showing through the mist, despite it being a place and I path I have travelled on many times I must admit I felt quite lost!
I soon made it to Rothiemurcus Lodge and the woods below it, where a female capercaillie got up ahead of us. We made our way along a small track through the woods where we found a heart-warming sight – my bike that I had stashed the earlier in the week! (If I had been really smart I would have stashed a couple beers with it too!).
I pretty much freewheeled it down to Loch Morlich with Flynn gently trotting alongside me – I was really enjoying this now. As we shouldered the Loch to the sounds of people enjoying the watersports and cars on the road I had very conflicted feelings – it was sad to be leaving the raw wild beauty behind, but comforting to know the real hard work was behind me.
On my way to Ryvoan I stopped at the green lochan – a favourite spot of mine, but sadly also of many other people – today it was quite busy so I didn’t stay long. I was at Ryvoan bothy for around 4pm. I could have made it home that night for about 8pm, but it was turning into a beautiful evening so I pitched my tent and hung out my wet gear to dry.
I spent the next couple hours just soaking in the atmosphere, reading my book, talking to passers by, watching the birdlife – in particular 7 or so black grouse made their way through the pass. With the warm sun starting to dip below Meall a Bhuchaille, the summits of the mountains showing above low, thin cloud and the birds singing in native woodland – this is was what it was all about, this was the Cairngorms on a living, breathing picture postcard. Simply stunning.
Later that evening two guys about my age turned up on bikes to stay in the bothy. Turns out they lived just across the road from me in Glasgow a few years ago – small world! We quickly made friends (they particularly loved Flynn!) and we spent the evening in front of a fire in the bothy, sharing flapjacks, jelly babies and plenty whisky. We talked until it got dark when I retreated to the tent. I fell asleep quickly, with Flynn cosied up to me, the burn bubbling and grouse chuckling in the heather. Absolute bliss, the hard work was paying off.
DAY 3 Ryvoan to Home!
3.5 hours, 22km Cycling
My 6am alarm clock was a rather incessant cuckoo, he was still going when I emerged from the tent at 7.15! The mist had come in again overnight so I made breakfast in the bothy before packing up and hitting the road for 8.30. The guys I had met the night before were heading out on a rather epic 60k day on their bikes, heading over to the Fords of Avon, Derry Lodge and eventually into Glen Feshie. I wished them the best of luck and got on my way.
I carefully navigated my way through the warren like Abernethy forest, it was a similar story to much of the previous journey – not much by way of views but buckets of atmosphere. After an hour or so I made it to Nethy Bridge – and across onto the Speyside Way. It was now a simple cycle home and felt really rather quaint after the previous two days. I cycled through farms I work on and passed homes I recognised and found myself looking forward to all the things I’d been escaping 3 days ago – a shower, good food and drink, the sofa… and being dry!
As I pulled up to my front door for around lunch time I found myself getting emotional – what an epic adventure it had been through the most raw and beautiful area this country has to offer. It had been hard work but worth every effort to the last. I had fought rivers and rain, fog and granite but had met new people, seen new places and deep down loved every second of it.
The next day I got the bus and then the train to Blair Atholl to retrieve the car. As I walked up the swollen Tilt I was reflecting on the previous days and already planning the next adventure. I shortly got to the car park - left would take me to the car, straight ahead would carry on up the Tilt. I could so easily have just carried on and done it all again – if it wasn’t for two things – I was only wearing my converses, and I didn’t have my Flynn!
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Càrn a' Mhàim
Date walked: 27/04/2013
Beinn Mhor (Grantown)
Date walked: 13/01/2013
Mullach Clach a' Bhlàir, Sgòr Gaoith
Date walked: 26/08/2012
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