With all the fitness training over the past few months, time really did seem to fly by to the end of April when we eventually started the journey across the icecap. So long in the waiting, but still always training as much as possible to be in the best possible shape for the journey; trying to squeeze in as much as possible but not to overdo it. More mountains climbed in Scotland, plenty more tire-pulling and lots of strange looks from people. Braeriach, the third highest in the country, is always an amazing mountain to climb and is quite accessible for me from Carrbridge, and it becomes even more stunning with the snow. Also, an opportunity to climb Ben Nevis in winter could definitely not be missed and it was nice climbing the UK’s highest mountain in cool and lovely conditions.
Before we knew it, the time had come. 25 April: Inverness to London, to Copenhagen. 26 April: Copenhagen to Kangerlussuaq. Always that anxiety about whether the bags would come through–imagine that! One flight to Kangerlussuaq every couple of days… no, it was too terrible to think about…! Fortunately they all came through and no problems. It was great in Copenhagen with the hotel being next to the airport – could take the trolley from the airport all the way into the hotel room; not seen that before! Quite a change from Oslo when there are barely any trolleys at the main railway station!
We had one night in Kangerlussuaq to organise all of our supplies for the next four weeks, splitting everything into weekly bags and sorting out the pulks. Had a bit of a scare when realised that I didn’t have my mountaineering harness, which we need for going through crevassed areas. Almost a disaster, though fortunately we we were able to find one from a local guide – such a relief! Then that was it… just a bus ride to the bottom of the glacier on a gloomy and overcast early afternoon of 27 April, and we were off…
It was sad saying goodbye to The Angel’s Ridge, and it didn’t take too much time to pass by The Devil’s Point and leave the southern jaws of the Lairig Ghru behind. I had plenty of food and supplies, to wander around the different summits, though for some reason I decided to head pretty much directly south, along the river Dee on the valley floor.
Heading this direction and I knew it wouldn’t take too many days to get towards Blair Atholl and it would be pretty flat. I figured that I would be able to make diversions up the different mountains along the way as and when I felt like it. At the same time, I was constantly feeling the rucksack on my back, which I probably wasn’t in the shape I should have been to be carrying such heavy baggage, and still feeling the first day’s climb up Braeriach. The idea of more climbing wasn’t really too appealing. It was just nice walking at a nice and steady pace and taking in the splendid views with the dramatically cloudy sky without feeling too much pain in my legs!
Just a quick note about the path down from the Angel’s Ridge to the Corrour Bothy. Very steep – definitely glad that I was walking in decent conditions; if it had been wet, it might have been a bit more treacherous. On the map, you can see the tight contours and the way the path winds down, but I was always curious about how it would be to be on it. It crossed over a stream/light waterfall near the top, and I guess the longer steps down meant that my knees felt it a little bit more, but ultimately it was okay. I can imagine it would have been quite a tiring climb up – exhausting with a fully loaded rucksack. While I was there for a challenge, I am glad I didn’t opt to go that way–going up Braeriach the “easy way” was tiring enough and as I say, I still wasn’t at 100% fitness!
Getting to the bottom and you can just about make out the top section of the path before it’s obscured by the lower hills, but as well as the welcome site of the bothy, the dramatic view of The Devil’s Point proudly towering up and looking down on everything was worth it. Really would love to have done the hike in winter–more preparation for the future polar journeys, and they say the Lairig Ghru is great for Arctic training given the tundra-like conditions in winter. But the lockdowns now have made that impossible this year at least. Will go back in spring/summer when the restrictions have eased and see where I am next winter considering training will be ramped up for the Greenland expedition, but for now I have to content myself with looking at the photos and dreaming myself there.
One of the very many reasons why extreme altitude mountaineers love the Highlands–aside from the spectacularly beautiful landscape, which goes without saying–is the way the conditions can change so quickly. One moment you have beautiful weather, then the next, the cloud has come down and the wind has picked up. It’s challenging. One of the aspects of the chapter I had come up to research for my novel touches on this and I was overjoyed in the way this happened to me on Braeriach. The day of my ascent started off perfectly–as I say, just beautiful. By the end of it, the wind had picked up, making it pretty tough to pitch the tent, and there were gales over night. It was my sister’s 3-season tent (my 4-season tent is in Canada – long story behind that), so I got a bit nervous about whether it would survive. Fortunately, it performed admirably.
The morning presented a completely different view. While visibility had been incredible on the climb up, in the morning, the entire summit was shrouded in dense cloud (though am sure it can get much thicker!). I thought about just staying there for the day, though there were weather warnings as well about stronger winds (I had an InReach satellite comms device so could stay in touch with people – really could not recommend more highly for any camping journey when out of mobile range). My sister was also worried about whether her tent could take it, so I decided to break camp and head lower, wearing a nice bright rain/wind jacket–keeping in mind that a little to the east there were rather steep cliffs that bordered the An Garbh Choire corrie (can see more of this and other amazing corries again on the Walk Highlands site!). The idea of falling down into that was not particularly attractive, so I headed down on the more gentle south-western slopes to find a more sheltered camping spot, by a small stream well below the cloud cover.
Not the longest of walks in the world, but in the conditions (amazing how easy it was to start wondering away from your desired heading in the cloud when took eyes off of the compass), weight of the rucksack, and the tough hike up on the previous day, it was fine.
One of the more productive things that I managed to do when I was stuck in the isolation of the lockdown in New Delhi was actually, over the period of five months, write a first draft of a novel I had been thinking about for sometime. Was pretty pleased with myself – you know when you have lots of ideas but they don’t connect? Well, I managed to work out how to bring them together within a nice structure and the writing just kept on flowing. The reason I mention this is that one of the chapters is based up in the Highlands, and specifically the Angels Ridge and the second highest mountain in Scotland, Braeriach. One of the reasons I wanted to train in the Cairngorms, and more specifically, start from Aviemore, was that Braeriach is less than a day’s hike from the town, and I wanted to see how accurate my descriptions were considering I had never been there and had been relying on the photographs of others and Google Maps to try and gauge what it might be like.
It didn’t disappoint and was a tremendous start to the next few days of hiking. My rucksack was ridiculously heavy, laden with plenty of supplies, though part of the whole challenge was also to cope with the weight on my back! The first 10km were pretty flat, easy and again in perfect clear conditions. Walking along a forested path that gradually opened out to just heather and to reveal the mountains of the Lairig Ghru, including Braeriach, before me. Even had more chance to mess around with the drone. But once the ascent started… wow! The next 5km up from 600m to almost 1,300m. Tiring and, on the steeper parts, painful! Plenty of other hikers passed me on the trail as I just slowly made my way up, and there were so many false summits before finally making it.
I had originally aimed to go around 25km to get to the bottom of the Angel’s Ridge, near Devil’s Point, but by the time I got to the summit, after around 16-17km, I was getting a bit tired and it was getting a little late so decided to pitch the tent just a little further along next to the Wells of Dee – the source of the River Dee, which flows through to the sea at Aberdeen, where I was born. Thought there was some nice poetry there! Nice to finally be out in the tent as well, and it definitely was worth it just for the chapter.
I flew back to the UK from New Delhi at the beginning of September 2020, and after months of being stuck inside, it was nice to be able to get back to breathe fresher air–at least, after the mandatory 10-day quarantine period at that time came to an end. To celebrate the end of quarantine, I decided to head up to Scotland to climb a few of the mountains in the Highlands, first with my sister Lesley who is an avid hiker and who lives up in Glasgow. Was a tiring couple of days – Les and her boyfriend were so much fitter than me (and I suspect they still are as the mountains are so much more accessible to them in current situation!) and would go at breakneck speed and leave me trailing in their wake.
After a day in Glasgow getting supplies for my own planned camping trip, we went towards Perth and the Beinn Ghlas ridge: despite having been born and raised in northern Scotland, these would be my first Munros! S. A good 21km or so… first time out hiking properly (as opposed to just gym-work) for… wow! ten months? Seemed like forever! So good to be out, about and active again. Oh and the weather was absolutely fantastic – breezy but perfect conditions. I confess, though, that by the end of the hike, I was definitely hobbling a little and needing a rest by the time we reached Aviemore in the evening!
A good review of the overall hike with some great pics (much better than the ones I took!) is on the Walk Highlands site (which also provides brilliant details of the very many hikes you can do up there).