Expedition Scotland – An Adventure
I tend to overthink and prepare for every eventuality no matter how slim the occurrence of the event happening; I do this regardless of the adventure. Initially, I was looking into a survival course. After all, if you can survive by building your own shelter, making fire and sourcing food, you need to pack very little; less overthinking perhaps.
This adventure, therefore, was to learn how to plan and focus on the necessities. Undertaking this course filled me with excitement and dread in equal measure. After a conversation with Neal, owner of Back Country Survival, an expedition course appeared to be more suited to the outcomes I desired. The excitement quota rose a little and dread subsided, a little! I paid my money and committed.
This expedition course would be a three day, wild camping adventure in the Cairn Gorm National Park and take in the '4000s', four of the highest peaks in the UK including Ben Macdui; second only to Ben Nevis.
Kit list downloaded, and the fun began. What did I already have and what could I reuse? Researching required items that would see me through the weekend and last for years to come. I'm of the opinion that if you buy cheap, you buy twice. There is a price point that makes both practical and financial sense and where I would get reuse in my Personal Training. Having booked the course before my trip to Switzerland, I knew many items would have two uses by the time the expedition course was finished.
Day 1 – Arrival at Alvie Estate
I get nervous, not sure why but I do, and was nervous pulling up to the car park. Neal was already stood waiting and had seen me drive hither and thither around the estate, a great first impression, couldn't even navigate to the meeting point! Introductions done, we talked about my car, and my mind started to settle. I grabbed my kit out and joined the other two gentlemen, Bart – a very tall Dutchman and Trevor – a fell runner from Sheffield. That was it, Neal and the three of us. Five other people had withdrawn (and I was nervous!) so we cracked on.
The first part was to review kit, rucksack packing essentials and optimum order for ease on the trail: map and compass navigation basics next and Naismith's Rule on route planning and timings. Finally, weather forecasts and synoptic charts. Then, most importantly, kettle on and a brew. No adventure should start without one.
Then a quick tent pitching test, I took both a tent and a bivvy bag. The latter because I wanted to experience the true outdoors and the former because, well, I panicked!
As luck would have it, Trevor didn't have a tent, so we agreed to use my tent and split the sheets and poles between us. My panic was, therefore, fantastic foresight!
Once we were all checked and prepared and fed on our first experience of dehydrated food, we loaded up the truck and headed off to the Cairn Gorm Ski Lodge car park.
The adventure begins
Orientation and map and compass work to understand and put into practice the briefing items. A lot of what I had learned in scouts a short thirty years earlier was clawed from distant memory. The practical teaching made perfect sense and made it easier to understand than I ever remember. Maybe I'm older and pay more attention than I did in scouts!
Once oriented, we started on the tourist trail to the top of Cairn Gorm checking our position and bearing on the map, reading physical contours and landmarks, every one hundred metres or so. This practice and frequency in the initial stages would pay dividends over the next couple of days.
After a quick stop at the Ptarmigan café, the last piece of real civilization we would see, we forged on up to the Cairn marking our first summit. This felt good, even being passed by tourists wearing t-shirts and trainers. Tourists went back down the way they came up, we headed over the top; quick bearing check and onward.
Stopover one - the real adventure
So much for sunny weather predicted by Mountain Weather information! Our descent over the other side of Cairn Gorm continued into mist and rain. The weather persisted as we made our way to the first overnight campsite. It endured while we pitched tents.
As the rain relented, we explored our surroundings, a plateau on the back of Cairn Gorm at Coire Domhain. We were visited by a herd of reindeer who were particularly, and surprisingly, tame; the survival course, I imagine, may have eyed them up for dinner.
Not us rehydrated rations the dish for this evening in the rain. The adventure was on.
When the rain relented again, I made my move to the bivvy bag. My sleep 'system' included an airbed, sleeping bag all enveloped in my Alpkit Hunka XL. My head adorned by my midge net I asked myself 'how bad can this be'. The answer was provided by another swift downpour. My response was to pull all drawcords and envelop myself entirely inside. A situation which only resulted in minor claustrophobia and, when I released myself, rewarded me with a starlit sky between showers. I'm pretty convinced the reindeer had grazed through the site during the night; either that or some pretty uncanny snoring and grunting resembling them, not mine I hasten to add.
My sleep only interrupted by rain on the face and resealing and releasing process through the night. At 6:45, I woke naturally feeling relatively cosy to the bright yet misty grey morning. It was only then I realised I had left my boots outside the tent 'porch' during my quick bedtime transition; they were quite damp.
Stoves on, water boiled, dehydrated granola and strawberry. Yum. It was hot and welcome.
Day 2 – A big day ahead
Camp struck and packed back into our mobile homes. The order of the day was more intensive navigation, pacing and timing, and individual challenges. The repetitive checking and re-checking on day one had bedded in the basics.
Neal set us each a point on the map to navigate to. Our task was to work out the time it would take and, if less than 500 metres, count our pacing, identify the relief of the land to arrive within a few meters. Once we had arrived at the checkpoint, the others would then pinpoint on the map, based on the bearing, time taken or metres covered, contours, features where the other was aiming for.
We repeated this process as we made our way to Ben Macdui, the second-highest peak in the UK. The navigation was even more challenging as the mist reduced visibility to no more than fifty metres or so. This made the practice of understanding the contours, checking timings, and the near distance features ever important.
First big one
Our breaks were relatively short and enthusiasm high to keep our adventure on track. As a result, we continued our descent down the rippling south side of Ben Macdui toward the foot of Carn a Mhaim. As we descended, the weather started to break, patches of blue appearing and the wind dropping. In a sheltered spot above the valley floor, we took a rest, checked feet, soothed and patched blisters. Water was collected and boiled to make lunch, a beautiful rehydrated chicken tikka for me and a cup of tea, more nuts and flapjack.
We left our packs to make the quick return trip along a knife-edge ridge to the top of Carn a Mhaim. Standing at 1037m this peak provided a view to the west of our next four 4000's; the challenge, the beauty and the awe within which one stands absorbing that the land under our feet has been sculpted over millions of years.
Day 2 - Post Lunch
Swinging the pack on my back felt so heavy after the unloaded walk yet somewhat welcome. We retraced our steps to Allt Clach nan Taillear, a steep tributary creek flowing fast from Ben Macdui. The ground was wet, mossy, heather-covered with no distinguishable path. Our steps zig-zagging over the slippery ground in order to reach the base of the valley where the Taillear feeds the River Dee.
Neal had warned us of the magnitude of midges at our next checkpoint, Corrour Bothy, a frequent stopping point for hikers, climbers and adventurers. He had also said we wouldn't be stopping long due to their voracity. To this point, we had not been too bothered by these mini munching machines; that would all change.
Frankly, I have never seen so many. Clouds moved in unison seeking out their prey. In contrast to those pitching camp for the night, our stop was, maybe, three to five minutes. Favouring to move to our overnight stop on the shoulder between The Devil's Point and Cairn Toul where the breeze would keep the midges at bay. This section was a steep climb aside another tributary; when the wind dropped the clouds of carnivorous winged beasties emerged. My energy kept up by the desire to not get eaten alive. All part of the adventure, I guess!
Finally, the plateau emerged, and we looked for a suitable site. It was incredibly still, little to no wind, humid, and the return of swarming clouds. Clothes zipped up, midge nets on and a good dose of deet on exposed parts as we attempted to put our tents up. This was a stop-start affair, hands blackening as the bloodsuckers landed and died in the sticky defence barrier. The wind would pick up a little, and they would quickly disappear.
A decision was made to pause the perfecting of guy ropes and camp aesthetics and walk up The Devil's Point. As we started the ascent, the wind increased, and the removal of midge protection provided a clear view, fresh air and respite from being their dinner. Taking fifteen minutes at the top to soak up the surroundings we supposed it was time to return. We had to at some point and hoped the breeze was more constant at camp.
Thankfully the wind picked up and prevailed for the evening so we could eat rather than being eaten. I decided to share my tent for the night, more concerned with being eaten than getting wet. There was still one more day to go, and it would have been unfair for the others to have to carry my kit and midge stripped skeleton the rest of the way!
We stood and chatted after dinner, global politics, local politics, work, plans. The only missing bit a good pint. Though we had the great idea to create dehydrated beer… I'm surprised no one has yet!!!
Day 3 – Final day 4 x 4000 to go
Everything felt good in the world.
Breakfast, porridge. I have to say the dehydrated expedition food I had was really quite nice. Tasty, high calories and hot.
We set off, early again but fresh, rested and refuelled. Today we take in Cairn Toul, The Angels Peak, Carn na Criche and Braeriach. To lock in navigation skils Neal set us a few additional challenges. This would serve to identify any outstanding questions or misunderstandings.
The weather was misty, windy but dry. The climb boulder-strewn and the drop to our right significant. The latter a useful tool, however, enabling us to 'handrail' the edge while following our set bearing and check our timings.
Energy, while plenty expended, was high. Our pace was quick, and we were flowing.
The climb to Cairn Toul tricky over large boulders we hand railed around the top to The Angels Peak and Carn na Criche then dropped down to the Wells of Dee. The Wells indistinguishable from the distinct pools on the map highlighting the importance of centring yourself in the landscape, features and physical contours and then identifying accurately where you are on the map. Completing Braeriach done before lunch was a significant milestone. The weather showed promise of breaking, and it would provide a 180-degree view of our adventure so far and yesterdays peaks.
We could then find shelter for food.
Day 3 – the final push
A long hike on well-trod paths to the adventures end. A relaxation of map reading notwithstanding curiosity and personal interest in where we were.
We headed further down, paths enhanced with steps by the local volunteers; presumably to make access easier, though I thought it made the going more difficult. Pace, step, pace, step, no rhythm, no flow.
The path winding us down into Lairig Ghru, steep sides and more steps though unnavigable without them. Deep into the dense green valley where the water ran freely and provided a fast-flowing refill point. Steps up the other side to a path that was almost pavement like in construction. Barren landscape with the odd pine trying to take hold and absorb any nutrients it could from the ground.
a reminder of the dangers
With the flow returning we made good speed until the path ended and we entered the jaws of Creag a Chalamain. High cliffs on either side, overhanging in places. The deposits of many years of rockfall in the valley, climbing obstacles and scrambling.
A Coast Guard helicopter landed above us, training drills with mountain rescue underway. It made a couple of loops, a slow hover and descent. You're glad the service exists and equally never want to see them up close because that means something terrible has happened.
Exiting Chalamain placed us back on the path, an easy walk to the finish. We made good time, ahead of schedule, so gave ourselves a few minutes rather than waiting in the midge infested car park. Better to sit atop the last ridge with a view back to the ski centre car park at the beginning of our journey. Soaking up the sunshine and reflecting for a moment.
A short walk found us at the rendezvous. There was a little banter, some awe of our collective and individual achievements and relative quiet as we loaded the truck and drove back to the estate.
Physical versus mental
Inability to complete the adventure does not create my nerves and dread. After all, I train regularly and have done many long events. My nerves and dread come from my inner voice casting doubt, telling me that I might have forgotten something, telling me that I might not be as good as I expected. The latter the biggest challenge, the level of expectation I put on myself versus those defined by corporate or social constructs. I want things to be right, perfect. I tell myself that failure is not an option yet know that we learn from failure. Instantly, I could find dozens of quotes and memes on the subject; I won't, really not my style!
People talk about comfort zones. I am not sure they exist. The very definition of adventure is to undertake an unusual and exciting or daring experience. Adventures can be big or small, minutes to months. Our adventures through life define us as human beings; they shape us, create learning opportunities and shared experiences, new acquaintances and sometimes lifelong friends. They help us grow, and all of that is true of my Scottish Adventure.