Here's a review of the bits that stood out and how it went on a day-by-day basis:
As we hauled our heavy packs and not-quite-as-fit-as-we-would-like bodies up into the snow and cloud on Ben Fhada, I doubted both our sanity and whether our navigation skills were up to the job. Sitting on the summit in a lull in the wind with big fat flakes of snow gently falling down almost made it worthwhile, but the icing on the cake was when the cloud lifted as we got towards the end of the ridge. Stunning views almost made me forget the effort of getting up there.
With the distraction of good visibility, the climb up to Mam Sodhail didn't seem as hard as the previous day's effort - and we got to play with our spikes in nice firm snow. As much as it was a shame to be under a kilometre from the next summit, with only 100m of descent and re-ascent between them, and not be able to get there in the windy conditions, I was happy to have made the effort to get up high, however briefly. The closing in of the weather, with passing snow showers, didn't last more than an hour, so if we'd been an hour earlier or later we likely would have made it to the second top - but we weren't, so we didn't. Even so, getting to the top of Mam Sodhail was one of the highlights of the trip. Surely our fitness was improving too?
True to forecast it dawned wet, but it was light rain and the wind wasn't bad. Having re-routed and walked further on Day 2, in preparation for the horrible forecast for Day 3, we only had 10 miles to walk. Even with a long sojourn in the Tomich Hotel, we were at our planned night-stop by 1pm, which happened to be when the weather started getting really bad. That we found ourselves a bothy, so close to our intended camping spot, and that it was so well stocked (I'll never get over the coincidence of finding the vacuum packed single serving of pasta there, when it was the very item I'd accidentally forgotten to put in my foodbag) was incredible luck. The rain had still been light, albeit the wind was getting strong, as we found the building, but ten minutes later when Mick went to the river to get water, he came back soaking. That heavy rain continued without cease for hours, until the river became a raging torrent which burst its banks. We simply couldn't believe how jammy we had been to find such good shelter just in the nick of time, and exactly where we were meant to be ending the day too!
It wasn't about the walking on Day 4, as we didn't take our planned route, but succumbed to our FWA. The walk was okay, but the two things which made the day so good were meeting people on our way to, and in, Drumnadrochit, and then spending the night at Ault na Goire. Splendid hospitality, and the first time that we caught up with Louise (gemini-challenge.blogspot.com), Andy Howell (andyhowell.info/trek-blog), and JJ (JJ why don't you have a blog?!), as well as meeting lots of new people.
Day 5 & 6
I love the Monadhliath! If I had to choose between this year's route and last then I think that last year's pipped this year's - but I would be picking between two very nice things! Even with the regular snow showers passing through there was enough sun for Mick to badly burn his lips (he is such a delicate little flower when it comes to sunshine, though; it doesn't take much for him to need the factor 50). After enjoying the delights of the Monadhliath, we joined in a mass tea-break at the Red Shed before we made the final approach to Aviemore where we got clean for the first time in 6 days (ooh, the hat hair was outrageous!)
I was absolutely wrong to think that we shouldn't go through the Lairig Ghru two years in a row, as in the snow it was a completely different place. There wasn't a boulder field to be seen, although with the snow being soft we were certainly aware, at times, of crossing them (particularly when I lost my left foot between two boulders, pitched forward and had my pack go over my head; visions of a broken leg flashed before my eyes, but I got away with just a painful bruise on my shin). I'm so pleased that Roger Smith encouraged us to go that way when we phoned in to Challenge Control - another very memorable highlight of the trip.
Hardly any walking, but what better way to spend a day off than in front of the fire at Mar Lodge, catching up with everyone who passed through? Stories were exchanged, tea was drunk and a good time was had. Top marks to Jane the Housekeeper for her hospitality.
A surprisingly pleasant walk through the woods into Braemar, in the company of Colin, followed by another sociable afternoon. With 9 miles walked in 2 days, we were raring to go again!
The only slightly disappointing day of the trip, as I'd expected our surroundings to be a bit more interesting than they were. But, I loved having second breakfast on the Queen's lawn and having the place briefly to ourselves, before the coach parties arrived, and there were a few miles of interesting walking (plus we had our first ice-cream of the trip and saw fighting snakes!). I'm glad we went that way, because the highlights did make it worthwhile to do it once, but for the future there are better ways out of Braemar.
Once the first 7 miles (on the old railway line) were out of the way this was an excellent day's walk with such good views that before the day was out I had a plan forming for our next walk in this direction. I just hadn't pictured an area so close to the east coast being so heathery, lumpy and remote-feeling. Admittedly the heather bashing was hard work in places (particularly the uphill heather bashing, with over 21 miles already walked, whilst carrying 3.5 litres of water apiece so we could camp on the ridge!), but as 23.5 mile lumpy days go, the legs didn't complain (at the time!).
Ooh, the legs were tired! But I was delighted both with Clachnaben and with the descent from it and what stunning conditions we enjoyed on its summit so early in the day. We had thought that the trip would be all downhill (metaphorically) from there, but even the forest walking was good, and we saw a wildcat!
Having camped right on the summit of our final hill of the trip (little hill though it was), with a view of the sea, was strangely pleasing. And, it was so hot that we hadn't put the fly-sheet on the tent until bedtime (needn't really have bothered even then, but better safe than sorry). Someone had obviously turned off the 'winter' switch, skipped 'spring' and flicked the 'summer' switch instead! A pleasant breeze cooled us on our final walk in and we reached Stonehaven beach smiling like loons after a stunning trip. As something of a departure from the rest of the trip and our previous finishes, we didn't see another Challenger from 8.30 on Monday morning until we reached Challenge Control on Wednesday lunchtime.
Definitely a trip to remember!
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