It’s going to be difficult to describe the experience on the Cairngorms traverse but to sum it up in a word… Brutal.
I didn’t make it to the end of the traverse, having decided to head to the road at Braemar in light of a couple of severe weather warnings and having the waterproofing of my main expedition jacket fail. I covered more than 68km in 4 days and I am chuffed with what I’ve achieved.
I covered the day one 14km hike from Tomnavoulin to Tomintoul in the previous post.
The morning when we left the cottage, we were packing our kit into our rucksacks and into the sleds and Stuart realised that it wasn’t all going to fit. He had surprised us just before the expedition to say that we weren’t now going to be able to leave anything in the minibus, we would have to carry everything with us, but when he saw how much extra stuff would be coming, he realised he’d have to change the plan. Only catch was that we had 2 minutes to strip out anything we weren’t going to need, but I would have needed about 15-20 minutes to pull out all of my gear to figure out what I could leave behind, so I ended up transfering most of the stuff I had in my duffel bag into Sarah’s to bring with us on the sled, and storing my duffel in the minibus.
We then loaded up the sleds with all the group kit and various duffel bags, stacked them in the minibus with our backpacks and then piled in. Stuart dropped us off outside the pub in Tomintoul and we hiked (without the sleds) down a track to meet Stuart and grab the three sleds.
We had been hoping for snow but it was immediately obvious that the recent snowfall had totally melted, leaving us dragging the sleds off road to avoid dragging them over the gravel. The terrain wasn’t too bad, with some reasonably large ascents required to avoid the track but in certain areas it wasn’t possible to avoid the rocks and gravel. Giancarlo, our Italian team member was an absolute beast, dragging the sled so quickly. He doesn’t seem to feel the cold and he even ended up stripping right down to bare chest in the earlier part of the day.
We stopped for lunch in a nice valley and Stuart made some really tasty wraps with hummus and spinach. Then I took my first turn dragging the sled on a grassy area alongside a gravel track. It was hard work even dragging the sled over relatively flat terrain and the hillier areas were tough.
After about 5km the sleds had already begun to seriously deteriorate, just as we hit an area where the trail was steep and gravelly. To save the sleds we took a lower trail straight across the heather. The bank was steep and rocky so we mostly had to carry the sleds. The path was treacherous and when carrying the rear of the sled, it was impossible to see where I was putting my feet so it was nerve-wracking and it seemed like a dangerous place to stumble. Eventually Ben suggested that we offload stuff from the sleds to carry it separately and lighten the load. The going was really slow but we made it to the end of the valley and rejoined the track and found a few small patches of snow to ease the sled dragging slightly.
We had still weren’t able to drag the sleds on the track itself (because of the lack of snow) and so whenever there was heather growing in the middle of the track, it was possible to pair up with two people clipping onto the sled to try and guide the sled along the central ridge of heather. Failing that, it was necessary to leave the path and drag the sled over the uneven heather to one side of the track. There were also lots of areas where we had to carry the sleds to avoid particularly rocky areas.
Despite us being careful and having to walk over uneven terrain to avoid the rocks, all three sleds were still deteriorating badly, and were starting to fill up with gravel and become heavier.
Pairing up to drag the sled was much easier and it was also pretty much the only way to have a conversation at times because of us needing to push hard to make up lots of distance in the first few days.
Stuart offered to help me drag the sled for a while as I think the pace of the group wasn’t high enough for us to reach the destination he had in mind. It was nice to chat with him about how he ended up running this company.
Katie and I made a good team and we had been dragging the sled for about 1.5km when the light started fading and we still had another 5-6km to go before reaching a bothy where we would stay the night. We got our head torches out and smashed out more than 5km of mostly uphill including loads of carrying of the sled. With less than a kilometre to go, Stuart grabbed one of the sleds with Giancarlo and they practically ran the rest of the way to get everything set up for our arrival. I hadn’t really mentioned the weather but it had been raining on and off for most of the day, destroying the little snow that we had been seeing and getting us all damp. We knew we would be staying in a bothy and we had some firewood so there would be an opportunity to take the edge off the cold. Even so, it was one hell of a slog in the dark and rain to reach the bothy for about 8:30pm. We thought we had been expecting to hike 18km that day but Stuart had actually pushed it to 26km to try and beat the worsening weather later in the week.
We boiled some water to add to our dehydrated rations and enjoyed a fire in the hut. We were understandably exhausted after pushing out 26km across such crazy terrain having to drag the sleds across surfaces that they weren’t designed for and carrying the sleds frequently as well as our expedition backpacks.
I didn’t sleep particularly well in the bothy but I felt like I was relaxing nonetheless.
We didn’t have a hugely early start the next morning as we had quite a bit of admin to do – one of the sleds was damaged so badly that we had to double it up, so we dropped down to two sleds and had to carry extra gear in our packs, pushing mine to an uncomfortable weight that I was not really able to deal with long distance.
It was sleeting when we set off, Katie and I leading the way with heavy packs and a heavy sled while also having to avoid the track and drag the pulk over the rough, often above knee height heather, swerving to avoid rocks which risked damaging the sled still further. Some of the time we managed to find grass to drag the pulks across and that was much easier.
It was much colder today as well as raining so it was difficult to balance the heat from exercising with the ambient temperature. I was on the cold side for too much of the day and wasn’t easily able to fish out a mid layer. I was already feeling the cold and I realized that my jacket really wasn’t waterproof. It was another long day of hiking and we had another huge section towards the end of the day when we had to carry the pulks and drag them through deep heather over undulating, boggy and rocky ground. Even following the pulk and holding a rein at the back to keep it on track was a huge challenge and I fell over a few times.
We had to carry the sleds for at least 5 river crossings including two huge crossings at the Fords of Avon, stopping for a lunch break at the TINY Fords of Avon Refuge. Everyone was soaking wet by that point and most of us had gone into one or more of the rivers above boot height so we had wet feet to top things off. Stuart had a monumental effort to get us over those two huge fords and it was just hard to see how we were going to keep moving, but he did it. We had hours more hiking to do in the wind and rain over really deep heather and again, it got dark so we had to hike over the rough terrain, dragging sleds by torchlight. The moon looked really nice but it’s not the kind of trip where you get much time looking up from your feet ..
At the very end of that day’s hike we had to cross a river over a footbridge that had been closed off, so we had to pass our backpacks, ourselves and the sleds over and around a gate and then the same on the far side of the narrow before pitching camp for the night. It was much later than I realized, and we only got there at about 8:30pm.
There’s no campfire or anywhere to sit so I enjoyed a rehydrated meal for dinner and washed it down with a mug of red wine. It does seem strange to have a luxury like wine out here and it’s heavy to carry but it’s a signature of City Mountaineering trips.
I slept better with the noise from the river even though I spent quite a lot of time laying awake relaxing.
It snowed overnight and it was still snowing when we got up and the wind picked up a few times making it a bit exciting packing up the tents.
We had a decent dusting of snow as we set off up and then downhill. I was steering the sled while Katie and Ben dragged it and it was slippery work as I fell constantly through the snow into the heather as we still had to avoid the rocky trail because the snow cover wasn’t thick enough. We had some small streams to cross and there was a decent footbridge as we approached an area with different buildings spread out across a fairly wide valley. Presumably a mixture of bothies and hunting lodges. I guess that was where we had been aiming to reach the previous night.
The snow had pretty much run out by this point so we were back to heather and bogs. The pace was high again today with very little rest. Peter and I took a turn dragging the sled and we ended up carrying the sled for quite a long way along a main path then dragging it along a tributary of the River Dee. It was relentless and my bag was really heavy after taking weight from the sled which I hadn’t expected to carry. The weather was ok though, which was a relief and my jacket mostly dried out.
We had raced to reach a bridge and we sat down for a short break and Stuart started talking about a plan to retrieve more food, wine and firewood from a cache that afternoon.
Three of us, for various reasons, decided that we weren’t going to continue with the traverse. The weather warnings that had led to us covering 50% of the traverse in 3 days had spread out as two named storms (Dudley and Eunice) hit the UK, meaning that the river crossings could become even more treacherous, with high winds, snow and rain expected. Stuart seemed surprised, though we knew that half of his previous traverse team members had withdrawn part way through the trek.
We had some miles left to cover that day. We had to carry the sled up a rocky path and because we had removed lots of gear to carry separately (we all looked like pack ponies by now), the sled was light enough for me and Sarah to carry it between us. But soon enough we were diverting off the path onto deep heather and heading steeply uphill on a stretch which seemed to last forever. The guys dragging the other sled vanished off into the distance and for what seemed like 40 minutes, Sarah and I were heading ever upwards towards a woodblock. We found the rest of the team camped out near a deer fence and when we arrived, we passed both sleds under the fence.
Stuart then said that he had changed the plan for the rest of the day so there was only a 700m hike downhill to the river and then we would set camp. So we had some time to relax in the sun on that hill before starting off again. Sarah and I continued our long slog and found that the downhill was pretty treacherous over particularly deep heather. We actually both fell down the same hole – my right leg and Sarah’s left, all the way up to our hips. I was on the downhill side and as we crashed into each other, I ended up rolling down the hill, arrested because I was attached to Sarah. We ended up having a giggling fit because that was so ridiculous.
At the bottom of the hill we met a wide path that follows the River Dee. We crossed over and went down a steep hill all the way to the river bank, in a secluded woodland with a huge fallen tree. We set up camp and had some time to decompress, even having a little afternoon sun (with a strong breeze) to air out some of our wet gear. It was pleasant!
There was some admin to do to dish out the replenishments and then there was time to relax. We had a small snowstorm and then the weather stayed really cold but it was nice enough to hang out by the river until an early dinner.
We were getting up at 0530 to pack up and leave really early so that the guys carrying on could make the most of the forecast overnight snow. Just before getting into my sleeping bag I did some hill reps with Ben and Dean to warm up my legs. It helped slightly but my thighs were still noticeably cold (as with every other night).
I got a reasonable amount of sleep but I found myself awake for quite a lot of the night, listening to the snow landing on the tent.
A couple of inches of much-needed snow fell overnight and it was still snowing when we were packing up at 0530 but it had stopped in time to pack away the tents.
Sarah, Bach and I made our way along the track and met the road. We hiked along the snowy road under lovely trees for 5km until Paul, a taxi driver that Bach had contacted, met us.
Paul was absolutely lovely, and he gave us a really wonderful tour of the area on our way to Aberdeen. The snow gates were all closed up into the Cairngorms on account of the weather and so we were nervous about how the rest of the team would fare through Storm Dudley which was all around us. We drove through Braemar and then along the River Dee, getting a good look at the Balmoral Castle estate. Paul then took us to Ballater, a gorgeous Victorian village. We had a chance to grab a coffee for the road and stumbled across the bakery that serves the royal household when they’re at Balmoral. The church square was just beautiful!
We didn’t have long to get to Aberdeen to catch the train to Inverness before all of the services shut down for the storm. To cut a long story short, we made it to Inverness that evening without any issues.