Written December 2012
Buoyed by my success climbing the Cairngorm Munros in early May 2005, the following year I decided to tackle the hills to the south of the Cairngorms in late April 2006. This coincided with the Easter break, and I hoped that snow conditions at this time would be similar to early May. The southern Cairngorms, sometimes called the West and East Mounth, are part of the greater Grampian range.
The railway station at Blair Atholl looked to be a good access point for this range of hills. A friend from work, Will Tompkinson, would be up in Scotland at the same time, vising his girlfriend's parents in Edinburgh. We had done the Tour de Mont Blanc circuit the previous year, and this year we decided to team up again.
Will only had a few days, while I was planning on staying for two weeks, having the 14th to 28th April booked on leave. Will would join me for the first part of my trek, then find his way back to Blair Atholl. I took a flight from Southampton up to Edinburgh on Good Friday, then spent the night with my friends Omair and Mehreen at their flat in Edinburgh. I had helped Omair when he was doing his MSc and PhD, and he'd said that I was always welcome to visit. Mehreen cooked a delicious curry in the evening.
Saturday 15th April 2006
In the morning Mehreen kindly cooked me breakfast. This was a sort of scrambled egg with herbs and vegetables and made a delicious and filling start to the day. I met Will at Edinburgh station and we set off northwads by train to Blair Atholl.
I was carrying two weeks of food and was keen to find some way of lightening my load. I tried at the village Post Office in Blair Atholl, but the grumpy member of staff said that nothing could be left at the post office. This was quite surprising, because it is possible to send a self-addressed parcel to "care of" at any post office in the country.
The only alternative was to walk some distance out of Blair Atholl and bury half of my food in the woods above Old Blair. Luckily Will had brought a trowel, which made this task much easier. After lightening my load, we followed the track gently upwards, initially though woodland, then out onto open moorland. At the Allt Scheicheachan bothy we stopped for some lunch. From here we would leave the track and head steeply uphill. The track continued to Bruar Lodge and over the 833m Minigaig Pass.
The old Minigaig road was an important trade route, well used by travellers and cattle drovers, linking Blair Atholl with Kingussie. There is little information about when the Minigaig was built precisely, but the route was certainly in use towards the end of the 16th century. After the route opened, it quickly became the main thoroughfare between Atholl and Badenoch, linking Blair Atholl with a castle at Ruthven, on the edge of Kingussie.
In the 1720s, Scotland's most famous road builder, General Wade, was despatched north to quell the Jacobite uprising. To enable his soldiers to move around the country relatively quickly, he set about improving the Highland's rather minimal communications infrastructure. In 1728 work began on a 102 mile-long highway from Dunkeld to Inverness and it was this new route that would spell the end of the Minigaig.
My hands had got rather cold while eating lunch in the cold bothy air, and it took some time to bring the feeling back into them. We followed the valley of the Allt Scheicheachan, and near the top the path climbed out the valley and zigzagged up the hillside. We were now on the lower slopes of Beinn Dearg, a large rounded red granite hill in a sea of moorland.
The upper mountain was hidden in cloud, but thankfully the weather was dry. We plodded through the pink granite scree and after a long gentle ascent we arrived at the summit of Beinn Dearg. Beyond the summit on the north side there was quite a bit of snow remaining on the slopes. Will got out his ice axe. The mist restricted visibility so it was not possible to pick out a good route from above.
The snow it turned out was quite soft and patchy, and the slopes were not very steep. My decent was made slightly awkward by one trekking pole coming loose and getting stuck in the snow half way down. Will was also concerned about the possibility of an avalanche, so we didn't linger for long.
Our original intention was walk to the Fèith Uaine Bothy a.k.a. The Tarf Hotel. However it was clear there would not be time to reach there before nightfall. The heather moorland was very rough going and we were unable to negotiate it with any great speed.
With some reluctance we decided to spend the night in my small tent at 700m beside the Caochan Càrn a' Cheiridh. My tent will just about fit two people, assuming all luggage is kept in the porches. The tent can be entered from either side, which made it easier to share between two. I tied the inner tent flaps open to keep the air circulating and prevent condensation. With two people sharing the tent it was quite warm, despite the freezing temperature outside.
Sunday 16th April 2006
In the morning Will produced a pre-shelled egg that was sloshing around in a little Tupperware box. His theory was that this would be easy to prepare and cook. He attempted to cook an omelette over my stove, but it stuck to the pan and he ended up with scrambled egg. I suppose eggs were quite appropriate for Easter Sunday morning!
We packed up the tent and set off cross-country towards Càrn a' Chlamain. The thick heather made it impossible to get up any speed as we descended to the lonely Fèith an Lochain valley and climbed back up the far side. The deep vegetation finally abated around 750m and from here we plodded up to the snow-free summit of Càrn a' Chlamain.
From here is was less than two miles from the Fèith Uaine Bothy, but Will was reluctant to go cross-country, since he had to get back to Edinburgh by the following evening and he wanted a clear route back to Blair Atholl. The only alternative was to descend the steep zigzagging stalkers path into Glen Tilt. The views across the glen to the Beinn a' Ghlò massif were truly awesome. The three Munros of this massif were plastered in snow, making these out of bounds to me on this trip. Will remarked that the scene looked more Alpine than Scottish.
Once down in the long straight trench of Glen Tilt, we could only go north and walk as far as Will wanted to go, while allowing sufficient time for him to walk back down the glen the following day. We reached the Falls of Tarf which is crossed by the Bedford Memorial Bridge. Historically the fording of the Tarf was the most hazardous natural obstacle to those travelling the Glen Tilt Mounth road. The Tarf is a major river draining a vast area of the Atholl bogs and is prone to spates. The bridge was erected in the memory of a student who drowned there in the 19th century.
We cast around for a decent path going up the Tarf Water, but it was clear that the terrain was tough going and if we did go up, Will would not have time to get back the following day. We decided to camp just south of the Falls of Tarf and spent another night crammed into my tiny tent.
Monday 17th April 2006
Will set off at the crack of dawn to hoof it down Glen Tilt to Blair Atholl and back to his girlfriend's parents in Edinburgh. Will offered me loan of his ice axe before he left, but I declined on grounds of extra weight. We said farewell and Will wished me luck.
Today I was heading for the two remote peaks An Sgarsoch and Càrn an Fhidhleir. The shortest approach is from the north from Linn of Dee along a track to the ruin of Geldie Lodge. I was approaching from the south and slowly picked out a route through the heather to the ridge line on the high ground. I had a clear view north to the main group of Cairngorms. These were completely plastered in snow, and were glinting white in the sun.
Near the summits there were some large snow patches, and due to my inexperience I was extremely wary of these. I worked around most of them, rather than have to cross them, and I reached An Sgarsoch without difficulty. To reach the next Munro required a drop to a 700m bealach, then another snow-patch-dodging climb up to Càrn an Fhidhleir.
I followed the long south ridge down to the Tarf Water to the point where the Fèith Uaine Bothy stood on the far side. I picked a place where the river spread out over rocks and began to pick a way across. Unfortunately the further I walked, the deeper the water became and rather than retreat, I stupidly continued on, allowing the water to spill over the top of my boots. This was to prove quite an error, and it was a tough way to learn that it's better to take the boots off when crossing a stream.
At last I was at the Fèith Uaine Bothy, after three attempts on three consecutive days. The bothy has a AA Hotel sign hung on the door, which has been there since 1966. This has earned the bothy the nickname The Tarf Hotel. Inside is cold and bare, with concrete floors and only one room has been made habitable with wood panelling. Given my soggy feet it was hardly worth the effort.
I stuffed my boots with some newspaper from beside the bothy fireplace. It was clear the temperature was not warm enough to dry them out, but at least the paper would draw some water out of them.
In the morning the boots were half-frozen when I put them on, and it took a long time for my feet to warm up. The first few miles were along rough ground following the Tarf Water downstream. Rather than follow it all the way down to the Bedford Bridge, I took an easier option taking a track that cut a corner off and descended to Glen Tilt.
My boots began digging into my toes and it was clear than the soaking had done them no good at all. I inspected the inside of the boots and was shocked to discover the internal construction was of a cardboard-like material. When this got wet the cardboard had split, causing the boots to dig into my toes at the bend. The boots were made by Karrimor, a supposedly reputable manufacturer. I decided to keep going for the moment and head towards the group of Munros to the north-east.
I walked back up Glen Tilt, crossed the Bedford Bridge, then easily forded the Allt Garbh Buidhe river at a fork a little higher up. From here a good path lead along the top of the Allt Fèith Lair. There were good views down to remnants of native deciduous woodland clinging to the steep slopes beside the burn. The path leads to Fealar Lodge, the most remote dwelling in Britain that is continuously occupied throughout the year.
At the lodge I crossed a well-maintained footbridge and continued along the path up the broad corrie between Càrn an Rìgh and Beinn Iutharn Mhòr. My boots were causing my feet some discomfort and I attempted to fix them by hacking off bits of soggy cardboard with my knife. Whatever I did I couldn't improve the boots.
The Munros ahead had some quite sizable snow patches, and there was only one feasible route up Beinn Iutharn Mhòr that avoided snow, and this was by the seldom-visited west ridge. The restrictions placed on choice of route were proving quite difficult since each Munro required some careful decisions before venturing onto it. From the summit I had more excellent views of the snowy Cairngorms further north.
The seam of my map case had come apart and I stopped for a time to try to melt it back together with a lighter. This didn't work so I improvised a repair with a plaster. This was OK provided the weather stayed dry, but the map case would not be much use if the weather turned wet.
The stitching on one of my rucksack straps had also started to come undone, but I was able to relieve the pressure on the stitching by tying the ends of adjustable straps together. The rucksack had been left behind by an unidentified guest at my house when I lived in Cambridge. It was a miracle that it lasted as long as it did.
Given the snow conditions, there was no choice but to retrace steps down the west ridge of Beinn Iutharn Mhòr. I set up camp beside the Crom Allt at around 600m above sea level.
In the night the sky was clear and the temperature plunged to below zero. At the time I was using a 3-season synthetic sleeping bag and was not using thermal underwear. Even after putting on every single piece of clothing, the cold still kept me awake in the night, and I could only keep warm by putting my head inside the sleetping bag to hold in the warm air from my breath. The water in my bottles froze and my still wet boots were like blocks of ice making for an uncomfortable start in the morning.
The uncomfortable boots meant I was no longer enjoying walking, and I worried that if they were to deteriorate further, I would not be able to walk at all. I was only just keeping warm at night and if weather were to get any colder I would not be able to sleep at all. As a result of the cumulative effect of equipment failure, extensive snow cover and inadequate warmth at night, with some reluctance I decided to abort the trip.
My original plan had been to cross to the far side of Glen Shee and even reach Lochnagar. This might have worked as a linear route in better conditions, ending up at Ballater on Deeside. It was disappointing to not have even completed the Munros on the Atholl side of Glen Shee, but from looking up at the snow cover on Beinn a' Ghlò it was clear that this was out of the question.
I retracted steps to Fealar Lodge and followed the path back down to Glen Tilt. I was on familiar ground on the section down to Forest Lodge at the foot of Càrn a' Chlamain. The lower section was new to me and provided some interest as I hobbled along. Further down the glen is lined with beautiful native woodland.
I needed to retrieve the food I'd buried on the way to Beinn Dearg, which meant a one mile diversion from Glen Tilt. Having retrieved the food, I decided to camp in the pinewoods above, rather than attempt to travel home so late in the day.
I awoke early and walked the few miles down to Blair Atholl. I had considered whether it would be worth buying some new equipment from Edinburgh and then heading back out again to do some more walking. However the same snow conditions would remain and in any case I did not want to rush into buying new equipment.
I had a pre-booked return flight booked at the end of the following week. I telephoned the airline and rearranged the flight for this evening. Due to the short notice this came at huge expense, making these the most expensive five Munros that I've climbed. Still I was keen to get home, lick my wounds and start planning for the next trip.
In May I had a holiday booked to do the Cuillin on Skye and I would need to buy new boots, rucksack and map case. The broken map case I sent off to Ortleib in Germany and was amazed to receive a replacement map case free of charge.
I learnt the lesson that good equipment is essential for trips into remote country. Before and after every trip I now review my gear, and identify anything that needs repair or replacement. On certain key items such as boots and rucksack, the quality cannot be compromised.
I had also learnt that careful planning is key to success. For this trip I had not made a plan and consequently my options had become narrower and narrower throughout the trip, Having Will along for the first few days had also narrowed my options, because of considerations of how he was going to get back to Blair Atholl.
I realised that April is really too early to go walking on the Munros without some winter skills and equipment. Even in the Cairngorms in May the previous year had been touch-and-go at times.
Lastly I'd made the assumption that the area around Glen Tilt would have the same network of footpaths and bothies that the Cairngorms do further north. The track along Glen Tilt was really the only thoroughfare in the area, and repeatedly walking back-and-forth along here would have got tedious. Basing a trip on having to go out and back from Blair Atholl twice in one trip was an unrealistic plan, that was never really going to work.
The Munros I'd left behind would have to be tacked in two further trips, Beinn a' Ghlò from Blair Atholl when it was free from snow, and the rest of the Mounth Munros could be reached from Braemar. I was disappointing to have climbed so few Munros on this trip. The real value was the many lessons I'd learnt, which would ensure that the failure would never again be repeated.