Sunday 21st September
Apart from one urgent venture out into the thick clag for a pee in the night (bringing along two large plastic bags to use as vapour barriers over my dry bed socks was a great decision! Putting my damp trail shoes on would’ve been a lot less pleasant) I slept like a baby on my first and only night under the TrailStar for this trip; it was also to be my final night under this great but limited shelter. I slept relatively undisturbed by the often frantic flapping of Marcus’ tent and Marcus’ huffing sighs and wheezing as he laboured several times to inflate his malfunctioning sleeping mat… the poor sod! I just have to add here that I love the Exped Synmat UL 7. It may not be the lightest but its damned comfortable and as I’ve since said to Marcus: ‘What price do you place on a good nights sleep?’ Okay so I could’ve paid a higher cash price for the lighter and seemingly superior NeoAir Xlite, so I guess I did place a limit on the price I would pay for a good nights kip but I certainly don’t notice the extra 140g difference.
Our excellent high pitch was still shrouded in thick hill fog when we roused ourselves. Following yet another breakfast of Belgian chocolate granola washed down with a cuppa I quickly loaded up my pack. it never ceases to give me a little buzz of pleasure as I fit the entirety of my ‘home’ for the night into my pack. The routine becomes smoother and more practiced as the days go by so that by the time its time to go home everything has its place and the pack feels ever more comfortable and tidy.
It was damp, breezy and chilly. It felt good to get going. Refreshed after a good nights sleep, getting the blood circulating, we started westward downhill over rough tussocky ground and into the ravine of the Allt a’Chrom-alltain. We would follow this lively little watercourse down to the Stalkers track from Glen Feshie which forded the burn a couple of kilometers and a thousand feet below us. We’d dropped less than a hundred metres and been walking for less than 45mins when the clag lifted and the sun came out. Again we couldn’t believe our luck with the weather. We soon stopped to remove layers and take in the views. It was a beautiful morning, the hazy sunshine lending the day a soft almost mystical air.
There’s a lot to be said for going ‘Off Piste’. Sure there were signs in places that we weren’t the only people to have used this route – no great surprise when you consider that Man has been walking all over these mountains for millenia – but it was clearly infrequently used and was a joyful little challenge to descend. Following a clearly delineated path can become too safe, boring and predictable. Sure they are very welcome at times, particularly in bad conditions or poor terrain but making your own route can be a lot more satisfying and rewarding.
We crisscrossed the burn at least a score of times before reaching the stalkers path, skipping over rocks, negotiating numerous boggy stretches and steep heather tussocked banks. I remember how Marcus and I would quietly mock the seemingly older hikers and backpackers we saw with Walking Poles once upon a time but oh how I love my Black Diamond Trail Compacts now! Particularly when going over terrain such as this. Without them I’d have been down on my arse more than once. My new shoes were also proving their worth, grippy, light and allowing the freedom of natural movement for positioning my feet. My boots will only ever be worn in deep winter conditions from now on.
This was the first descent that I can ever recall not feeling glad to reach level ground. My knees and thighs are usually screaming out for relief on reaching level ground after a steep and long descent. Not this time however, due in the main I think to my footwear. It wouldn’t have made much difference to my knees in this instance anyhow as the ground was a mass of tussocks and required a fair bit of bog-hopping to get to the Stalkers path where it forded the burn. It was just before this that we saw our first folk of the day: a group of day hikers ascending the Stalkers path upon the shoulder of Sgor Gaoith. In fact they were the first fellow humans we’d seen so closely since the Land Rover full of shooters had passed us the morning before. These people had spotted us and whether they’d stopped for a break or simply to stare and wonder at our unorthodox route I couldn’t tell you as they were too far away to see that clearly.
No sooner had we lost them to view behind us than we were tersely greeted by a swiftly striding young couple also heading up the Stalkers path. This place was positively buzzing.
The path was pleasant and welcome despite my just having waxed lyrical about and having fully enjoyed the ‘Off Piste’ route of the morning. We covered the ground at a steady pace, having found our walking legs on our last full day in the hills. Yet the day was far too pleasant and the setting far too peaceful and beautiful to simply speed through, so we stopped at our first proper burn to fill our water bottles, sit for a while and eat our dinner. I hadn’t felt so chilled out and relaxed in a long time.
It could have been High Summer rather than the last days before Autumn with the buzzing of busy bees, other insects and the gloriously warm sunshine.
I could have sat there all day.
It wasn’t the urgency of a timetable that was drawing me on but the desire to see what lie around the next bend in the trail, to find a fine spot to camp for the night. That urgency would come later on in the afternoon when I realized that it truly was our final day and there really was a timetable to keep to.
This next section of the trail led through what would turn out to be my favorite setting of the whole trip.
The remnants of ancient Caledonian pine forest here could have been transported wholesale from the Sierra Nevada in the States. This particular species of tree and the scale may have been all wrong but it was as near as I’ve personally come to it. The path wound around gnarly old roots and trees above steep-sloped, wooded hillsides over a lively burn in the valley a hundred and more feet below. To top it all off the lighting was exceptional and the temperature positively balmy for Scotland at any time of year in my experience. The air was filled with the sounds of birdsong and buzzing insects, the contrast to the airy mountains of the last day and a half a welcome and pleasant evolution of our journey.
The path wound down steadily until we reached a fork at the bottom of the valley. We took the left fork to a bridge over the Allt Ruadh and took a few moments to top up our water. I washed my head in the frigid waters and felt invigorated. The woods here were cooler and denser. Sunlight dappled the grassy glades, the freshly scented forest air a cool respite after the sunbathed hillside. We joined the road that runs along Glen Feshie and followed it back along towards Achlean, passing by Balachroick and Balnascriten, our destination the bridge over the Feshie near Stronetoper.
Road walking is never very exciting and is often positively horrid. It wears on the feet and offers very little break from the monotony. We were both so chilled out and ‘In the Zone’ that we stomped those 4 or 5km with barely a grumble or missed stride. The afternoon continued with beautiful sunshine and barely a cloud in the sky. We passed a family group returning to their cars after a hike down the road and stopped just past Achlean so I could ring the wife whilst I had a signal, as looking at our route and possible campsites for tonight I may not get a signal later on in the evening. This turned out not to be the case but I like to stay in touch.
A nice couple on mountain bikes passed us with friendly greetings as we forded the burn just after the gate through the Deer Fence near Achleum. They didn’t stop, the fella leading the way, sweaty and red-faced he bombed straight into the burn and we heard his curses as he came off his bike. He appeared to be ok so we went on our way and soon came to the bridge over the Feshie.
It was at this point that Marcus suggested a dip in the river. I knew that he meant a dip to get cleaned up as he’s a bit of a clean freak (have I mentioned that already?) At first I was afraid, I was petrified… (Sorry couldn’t resist!)
I don’t think he expected me to agree but I thought: What the hell! I had been wearing the same clothes for 4 days and tomorrow morning we would be back among the masses of Humanity with all their prejudices and sensitivities. A bath and change of undies might be the least service I could do for them.
I certainly dont think Marcus expected me to dive headlong into the river but thats what I did.
Christ was it bloody cold. The day had been warm, in the upper teens if not higher so I though the water would be nice and refreshing. Well, i had just recently spent 10 days in the heat of the Canaries, diving headlong into pools to cool off… I neglected to allow for the fact that the water of the Feshie had been flowing off of mountains above 3000ft and was likely to be a good deal colder than a pool on an Equatorial island with a nighttime temperature of 20+ and daytime highs in the 30’s.
When I hit the water I nearly died. I thought my muscles would seize and my heart stop.
Ignoring my advice to leave the inner of his tent at home was not the least or last good decision Marcus made on this trip.He wisely and gently lowered himself into a shallower and sheltered part of the river.
‘Jesus, Elt! I didnt think you were actually going to dive in!’
Never had I felt so glad to scrape my shins and nails on rock as I clung precariously to the closest available shelf above the water. It took me a few moments to get my breath back and what I said I shall not repeat here. Needless to say I felt VERY refreshed and invigorated. I was also in clean boxers and fully-clothed before Marc had even finished washing his hair such was my need to get warmed up again.
We cracked on soon after, heading up the road past Stronetoper and into the forest, taking the left fork a half-kilometer beyond the empty house. We soon came out of the woods near the ruins of an old sheep pen named Corarnstilmore.
This huge clearing between the stretches of forest was an impressive open space in the hazy afternoon sun. The views back showed the rounded humps of the Cairngorms as dim, shadowy giants, their edges and slopes softened. We slowed up a little to take in this idyllic space and we came close to making our evening’s camp on a lovely flat pitch not far from the footbridge close to Baileguish. Only the fact that it was still quite early and the mosquitoes were out in force drove us on.
Although we both enjoy the woods – both walking through them and camping in them – neither of us was keen to set up camp for the night in the stretch of forest ahead of us. For a start there were hordes of mosquitoes. For another I was feeling decidedly energetic still and felt there were a few more miles left in my legs. Plus Marcus had planted the seed of an idea in my head. He had mentioned the ruins of the Ruthven Barracks. He had even ventured on the first afternoon when we’d passed by the place that he’d like to camp there. It wasn’t the sort of place or illicit spot we’d usually choose to make camp but it had a certain appeal. There were few choice or clearly evident areas between us and Kingussie that would place us in a good position for a short walk-in tomorrow morning. I certainly didn’t fancy having to rush about and stomp at speed into the town to catch the train first thing in the morning. Especially after having had such a relaxed few days on the trail.
So we pushed on along the wide, clear dirt tracks through the forest, stopping as little as possible. We had an almost constant escort platoon of mosquitoes that would bombard us at even the slightest hint of a pause. I didn’t even stop to take any photos – not that there was much more to see than the trees and one huge Red Ants nest. We passed through the tiny, attractive village of Drumguish where we glimpsed only one other person and made Tromie Bridge in an hour. The final stretch of tarmac leading to Ruthven barracks was a bit of a drag but the thoughts of a nice meal and a hopefully decent pitch kept my legs pumping. When Ruthven Barracks finally came into sight it was nearing sundown and the place looked very appealing in the lovely light of the setting sun. Marcus likened it to Camelot.
Of course it certainly wasn’t anywhere near as romantic a setting as that mystical castle. In fact it was quite sinister with its attendant flock of cawing and cackling crows, the gaping empty sockets of its ruined windows and darkened doorways. Luckily the separate stables were a better option for pitching as I don’t think either of us fancied sleeping in the courtyard between the two main buildings of the barracks. We opted to wait until it was fully dark before pitching the ShangriLa just in case there were any late evening tourists attracted to the place. We would get an early start and go into Kingussie for breakfast before catching the train, leaving the ruins before its earliest visitors. There weren’t any midges or mozzies about but I thought for the sake of a quick exit in the morning we’d share the ShangriLa for the night.
It was an odd place to spend out last night in Scotland. It was definitely one of the strangest places we’ve ever camped, particularly when shortly before it was fully dark a number of spotlights came on to illuminate the walls of the building! We had to dodge these lights or else have our giant shadows proclaim our presence to anyone passing or living within sight of the ruins. It didn’t feel to exposed or as though we were trespassing. Nor did the nearby rumbling of traffic along the busy A9 bother or disturb us much.
We were tired and we’d had the best trip we’d shared in a long time, if not the best we’d ever had. It was certainly freer of minor calamities and stress. I’d had less problems with energy levels, tired feet and dehydration. These were due to better preparation, planning and gear choice.
As always we left little other than our footprints and the outlines of our sleeping mats to tell that we’d ever been there.