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.


  1. Terrifying and exciting! You're doing so well, Stefan!

  2. Thanks Anna. That's as exciting as I hope it gets!