Saturday, 31 May 2014

Stage 2: The Cairnwell to Dalwhinnie

Stumbling and sliding down a track off the plateau, sunburned and parched, I cringed under massive pylons to reach the A9 and the world of noise and speed. After seven tough, unforgettable days I had made it to Dalwhinnie. Seven days of no cars, roads or buildings, the only sounds those of wildlife and weather. I'd been forced to cut corners on the watershed route - therein lies a tale that I'll get to - but I got there all the way on foot via several major summits, and I'm happy enough with that.

I left Braemar a day early to tidy up Glas Maol, but mainly to escape the snoring, farting hell of the youth hostel dormitory.

I hitched a lift up Glen Clunie and climbed up to the plateau to rejoin it where I'd left in a hurry two days before. After Glas Maol I dropped to the A93. I paused before the steep climb to the Cairnwell: no roads or houses now until Drumochter.

The first camp by Loch Vrotachan was a peach. I arrived as two anglers were leaving. They'd only caught a couple of small trout but were happy with a day out in a lovely, lonely spot. I cooked and watched a smoky, fiery sunset.

Next day was a tiresome struggle over Carn a'Gheoidh in some heavy showers and cold wind. I felt lethargic and stopped early at Loch nan Eun.

Next morning the cloud was so dense I could see nothing beyond the tarp door. It lifted eventually, the loch looking Arthurian as mist curled and wisped off the water. There was rain and hail as I toiled over Beinn Iutharn Mor. Careering down loose scree to the bealach, twenty minutes of warm sun was enough for lunch.

I summited Carn Bhac as the weather improved. A long moorland ridge snaked west. I was finally leaving behind the tangle of mountains around the Cairnwell. Ahead the landscape opened up around the wild head of the Tilt. North lay the Cairngorms, the glistening rock of the Devil's Point. West was the black bulk of An Sgarsoch marking the start of the west Mounth wilderness, the dark heart of my route.

So far, so good. Next day was sunny but humid. I crossed An Sgarsoch, meeting a lone walker near the top. Clouds seemed to mass overhead, but as I reached the col under Carn an Fhidleir the sun shone hotly. I pulled off boots and socks and ate lunch.

Thirty minutes later and halfway up Carn an Fhidleir I heard the first thunderclap just the other side of An Sgarsoch. I froze: too late to run, nowhere to hide anyway. A flash and another bang, closer now. I threw away my trekking poles and dropped to a crouch. Minutes passed. I started to look up. Everything went white and a gunshot bang sounded, everywhere at once, almost inside my head too. I sprawled, and from depths of memory the Hail Mary came to mind. I recited what I could remember as a mantra to control my fear and stop myself from running.

The thunder moved on leaving cold, torrential rain. Eventually, soaked and shivering, I retrieved my poles and stumbled north down a burn until I found a suitable campsite. I pitched quickly, pulled on extra dry layers, and made a brew.

Next morning I was still shaken. It was also raining heavily. I dozed until late morning. I'd now lost a day and knew I'd need to compromise on the route to reach Dalwhinnie. I didn't have enough food or fuel to take an extra day.

The rain stopped at lunchtime. I summited Carn an Fhidleir and dropped down to Glen Feshie for a restorative camp under Scots pines. I decided not to let defeat turn into a rout, and set a new objective to reach Dalwhinnie on foot and climb a hill or two on the way.

The final two days of walking were wonderful. I saw golden eagles on Leathad an Taobhain and Carn na Caim, descended a magical tree-lined ravine following a burn from moor to valley floor, marvelled at the awesome Gaick Pass, and fell asleep to the sound of peewits and oystercatchers. The weather grew sunny and warm. The longer I spent alone outdoors the more I noticed. The rhythm of the journey was sinking into me as I sank into the landscape.

It has been a tough, emotional, spellbinding seven days. There's much for me to mull over about how I planned and executed this section which I plan to revisit in a future post.

Tomorrow I'm off again. The tablelands of the Mounth are behind and something more rugged lies ahead. I can't wait.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Stage 1: Monifieth Sands to the Cairnwell Pass (almost!)

What began as a sunny stroll through glorious Angus countryside ended fighting wind chill and freezing rain on the Mounth and bailing out on the slopes of Glas Maol. Inbetween I've camped deep in the woods under huge ancient beeches, crawled under an electric fence, got sunburned, climbed infinite gates and fences, waded through a marsh through reed beds over head height, and pulled out a tick or two.

Perhaps what has surprised me most is just how much I enjoyed walking through lowland Angus. Not just the wildlife, lush woods, and many wild corners, but the people too. Even in the deepest countryside I frequently met people on the road or in the woods, dog walkers, farmers, people who don't drive and get from A to B the old-fashioned way. Reaching the solitude and bareness of the Mounth was almost an anticlimax, though my first hill camp a few miles north of Cat Law was a cracker, as darkness fell, moorland birds called and a mantle of mist settled over the round hills. Later in the night, rain hammered the tarp but I was snug, smug and warm.

I can't finish this post however without mentioning hill tracks and wind farms. There is some appalling vandalism taking place high on the plateau west of Mayar, where I saw a JCB digger gouging a track out of the peat. And on the ridge north of Cat Law, an ominous-looking mast.

After some R&R in Braemar I'll be off again on Sunday, to deal with unfinished business on Glas Maol then head west from the Cairnwell. The next stage to Dalwhinnie is very remote and exposed. Whilst I'll try to keep to the watershed as much as possible, I've got a low level alternative worked out in case of foul weather. The fact it's late May means nothing round here, and yesterday's walk over the plateau, straight into a tearing north wind, rain mixed with sleet, was... unnerving!

AND FINALLY... a reminder this walk is for two fine charities. Please visit the fundraising page on the blog and give what you can!

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Gear list for the Tay catchment walk

Two days until I start walking. I've had a sense of ground rush this week. A million jobs to do and suddenly so little time to do them. Add in trying to spend as much time as possible with my girls, and finishing a work assignment (although I'm officially on sabbatical now), and the week has flown away from me.

At least now the kit list is finalised and my bag is packed. I haven't weighed it - I probably should but don't have the means to do it and frankly it's not a priority. I think I've honed it down to what I really need without compromising safety and a modicum of comfort. It's heavy but bearable, and would have been a lot heavier if I hadn't changed my thoughts on a few things - that is, got real about weight.

The two big purchases have been a PHD Minim 300 down bag in their recent spring sale, and a Gossamer Gear Mariposa pack from Backpacking Light UK. The overall weight saving, compared with the old synthetic bag and Berghaus Vulcan pack I was originally planning to use, is about 2.5kgs. That's hard to ignore. The Mariposa pack is a masterpiece of design in my opinion. Yes it's spare, light and minimal, but it's the pockets that make it as well. The long side pocket can take a shelter and the big mesh pocket on the bag can be stuffed with rain gear, making it easy to keep your dry things and wet things separate. It's remarkably waterproof as well. The Dyneema material doesn't soak up water and get heavy and soggy like others do.

I may not have made my own gear, but my Mum has: a woollen jumper, which I'm taking instead of a down jacket, and a pair of wool socks.

Anyway, here's the full and (almost certainly) final kit list, now packed along with a couple of days' worth of food and fuel to get me to Kirriemuir:


Waterproof jacket (Rab Myriad)

Waterproof overtrousers (Berghaus Gore-tex Paclite)

Trekmates Gore-tex gaiters

Windbreaker (Montane Lite-speed)

Hand-knitted woollen jumper

Berghaus pullover fleece Half-length zip
Merino wool base layer long-sleeve T (Quechua)

Merino wool base layer short-sleeve T (Quechua)

Shorts (Trespass)

Trousers (Quechua Forclaz 900)

Merino wool socks (Smartwool lite)

Merino wool socks (Icebreaker mid)

Hand-knitted woollen socks For sleeping
Merino wool briefs

Merino wool briefs (spare)

Merino wool leggings (Quechua)

Light fleece gloves (Berghaus Polartec)

Rain mitts (Mountain Laurel Designs)

Liner gloves (Quechua)

Trekmates Gore-tex mountain cap

Sun hat



Plimsolls For indoors wear on rest days.
Alt-Berg Tethera boots


MLD Trailstar

Peg & stake set

Bathtub groundsheet (Oookworks) Multi-shelter groundsheet, second hand
MLD ultralight bivi bag

Sleeping bag (PHD Minim 300)

Silk sleeping bag liner

Neo-air Xlite thermarest Full length

Trail Designs Sidewinder Ti-Tri stove system With inferno wood-burning insert
Evernew 900ml pot Meths burner in ziploc tub and fire grate inside
Pot grab Tiny rubber thingy from ULOG, weighs next to nothing
Pot cosy Home made from BPLUK kit
Esbit (x6)

Meths Carry 500mls meths at a time
Waterproof / windproof matches


2 x Lighters

Plastic caddy for stove, esbit, lighters, matches (doubles as mug and bowl)

Pure Hydration 3-litre bladder

Pure Hydration in-line filter

Titanium folding spork

Swiss army knife

Half a sponge/scourer

Lifeventure soap in dispenser



Plastic toilet trowel

Biodegradable loo roll

A few plastic bags for rubbish

Lifeventure trekking towel (small)


Insect repellent

Sunscreen (50+ SPF) Probably optimistic


Dental floss

Cotton wool balls Smear with Vaseline for firelighters

Hand sanitiser gel in dispenser

Gewohl foot cream


Dioralyte sachets

Regular plasters

Blister plasters

Antiseptic wipes


Allergy / hay fever tablets

Daktarin In case of athlete's foot


Bungee cord

Duct tape Wound around trekking poles
Trailstar repair (small tube seam grip + silnylon patch)

Elastic bands

Therm-a-rest repair kit


Rite-in-the-Rain notebook


Plastic travelcard holder with bank card, SYHA card & cash

e-reader Could manage without charger? Very long battery life.
Phone + charger

Camera and bag, Gorilla joby tripod


Camera battery charger

Spare camera battery

USB cable for camera

Zoom HD1 recorder, soft case and windshield

Spare AA battery

Head torch


Gossamer Gear Mariposa Includes hip belt
1 x 70 litre dry bag Clothes stuffsack, sleeping bag + silk liner
Large Vango stuffsack Clothes
2 x 10 litre dry bags Food and camera gear
2 x 5 litre dry bags Bivi bag and thermarest; hats, gloves, windshirt
2 x 1 litre dry bags Tech stuff (Kindle, phone), and 1st aid/repairs stuff
Rainproof rucksack cover (Lifeventure) 50-70ltrs
Trekking poles (Black Diamond Trail flicklock, pair)

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Peak performance

I thought it would be a good idea to find out now whether or not I'm up to a full day's hillwalking again, following on from my tendon injury, and also to try out a new pair of boots kindly donated by Alt-Berg for the Tay watershed walk. Not easy to do from London, but I worked out that the Peak District was just possible in a day by train. Raw-eyed and nauseous from a 4.30am alarm call, I slumped onto the train at St Pancras.

Back in 2001 I lived in Sheffield for a year and got quite familiar with the Dark Peak and the hills around Hope and Edale. Last time I was here was a few years ago with my other half on a blistering August bank holiday weekend. We did a round of Edale, along the edges of Kinder Scout and Edale Moor round to Mam Tor, Hollins Cross and back down to the valley. We got seriously sunburned and ran out of water. No chance of that today. There was water in abundance, falling from the sky and flowing down the hills.

The train dropped me at quiet weekday Edale and I was off up to the moors via the path to Ringing Roger.

The streams flowing off the misty moor were peat-stained and full to the brim. After weeks holed up in London, fretting and brooding over my injury, preparations on hold and unable to do anything, it was wonderful to be out again amongst the sights, sounds and smells of the mountain.

The famous granite tors along the edges get fairly out-there. Best experienced alone in the mist for maximum strangeness.

Round the head of the Vale of Edale and onto the peaty morass of Brown Knoll. The trig pillar is unapproachable, surrounded by a wide circle of knee-deep mud. Heavy showers are rolling across from the west. Duke of Edinburgh kids are out in force.

I make it to Mam Tor as the weather is clearing.

Mam Tor - the Mother Hill - was an ancient Celtic hill fort from pre-Roman times. The slanting afternoon sun picked out the old ramparts and earthworks in relief (unfortunately not captured in the picture below).

Lush greenery and strong sun on the walk down into the vale from Hollins Cross. I dawdled down to the station and had a half-hour wait for the train.

So, the anterior tibial tendon held up. I was glad of the boots as well. They were incredibly comfortable and in combination with full-length gaiters kept my feet warm (not hot) and dry all day.

I suspect that a factor in my tendon injury was doing too much, too soon in trail shoes. They've worked well for me on training walks on the Thames path and on days out walking trails in the south-east. However backpacking in the Luss Hills was a different proposition, and I underestimated this. The terrain is as tough as anything in the southern Highlands - very steep slopes, tussocks, and some mean bogs. I should've been wearing boots.

So, my footwear plan for the Tay watershed walk is to play it safe and old-school: Alt-berg Tethera leather boots, with full-on gaiters for the wet boggy stuff. I'll carry my Inov-8 Terroc trail shoes for rest days and road walking.

I'm walking the Tay catchment boundary for two great charities, Scottish Wild Land Group and Venture Trust.
You can sponsor me by making a donation to Scottish Wild Land Group here:

Saturday, 3 May 2014

A call for your help

In two weeks' time I'll be setting off to walk the boundary of the River Tay catchment. It's a 300 mile route through some of the best and most varied of Scottish landscapes.

I've never walked this far before. I've nearly recovered from a tendon injury a few weeks ago, so whilst I'm optimistic I'll be up to it physically, it's the psychological challenge that may be most interesting.

But it's not just all about me. I'm using the walk to raise money for two great charities whose work should be appreciated and supported by everyone who values wild land: Venture Trust and Scottish Wild Land Group. You can read more about these charities and why I've chosen to support them here.

So, this is a call for donations. Anything you can spare will be much appreciated. Times are hard, for many young people and for our wild land, and the work of these two organisations is needed more than ever. Please consider splitting your donation: you can donate to Scottish Wild Land Group here, and to Venture Trust here. I hope you feel moved to contribute! Remember, every penny goes to the two charities. My expenses in preparing for this escapade are entirely my own business!