When friend Jenny suggested a trip to the Cairngorms, I jumped at the chance.
She had been out with Cairngorm Treks previously and really enjoyed the experience. So she liaised with Simon (Lead Guide and owner) to arrange a trek for a few of us (myself, Jenny, Karl and Taru: challenge walk mates in the guise of ‘Butterley Booters’).
Having read the mesmerising The Living Mountain and more latterly, The Cairngorms – A Secret History, I really wanted to trek in the area. I was in the zone, metaphorically if not yet physically.
So when the suggested trek route came back as essentially ‘across the Balmoral Estate, with a walk up Lochnagar’ I was, admittedly, a bit nonplussed.
“Visits to castle tea rooms? Walks along manicured tracks, up to rolling hills? No Cairngorms range? No wilderness?”
I still wanted to go, though. Time in the Scottish countryside with top-notch friends, why wouldn’t I?
I just wouldn’t see the kind of remote, open landscapes I love.
Or so I thought.
The Balmoral Estate – in all its managed wildness is really captivating. It did indeed feel remote in parts.
And the trek turned out to be no stroll in the (royal) park.
Speaking of royals, we nearly (ish) had lunch (kind of) with The Queen, as we arrived at Gelder Shiel bothy.
The route put together by Simon (with some flexibility built in) was great.
It gave us Caledonian forest, traverses across partly washed away bridges, open moors and the occasional view of the distant Cairngorms peaks (on the Nice Day of the trek).
And it turned out to be the perfect route for me, in that a previously grumbly (understatement) knee, which I thought had been sorted out with some exercises and rock tape, came back with a vengeance.
We went off-piste on Day 2 to navigate around (rather than up to) Lochnagar in driving rain, strong winds and low cloud. And off-piste is no friend to a grumbly knee, what with peat-hole avoidance, glacial rock fields and stepping uphill through grass stacks.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
For fact fans here are the (approximate) route and breakdowns for each day.
Balmoral Estate and Lochnagar area
Day 1 : 7.8 miles. East of Braemar to Gelder Shiel lodge.
On the first day of the trek and en route to Gelder Shiel lodge and bothy, we walked through beautiful birch and Scots pine forest, grazed on bilberries / blaeberries, squished juniper berries for a Gin and Tonic olfactory hit and marvelled at huge wood ant stacks.
The lodge is one of the royal household’s properties. As are all the properties on the Balmoral estate of course. The Queen had been there a couple of hours before we arrived, enjoying lunch on what I think would have been a fairly midge free day (it mostly was with us). We missed her but saw the security guys and chatted to a couple of young soldiers (part of the deer stalking contingent who had been up towards Lochnagar).
We set up camp right next to the lodge to avoid the forecasted strong winds. Which meant we were just a few feet from the bothy where we could get some shelter and have a sociable swig of whisky in the evening. And hide from the occasional midge, of which a few were making themselves known.
Cairngorm Treks provided the tents, mats and sleeping bags, as well as rucksacks and some other bits of equipment.
This was an odd experience for me as I have been out on my own a fair bit with my own gear. And whilst that isn’t as light as that provided, you get used to what you know etc. But the saving of the few kg / grammes was really welcome and all of the equipment provided was top of the range.
And I got to exercise my schoolboy humour in the sharing of a 2-person tent with my friend Taru (who’s husband Bob couldn’t make the trek).
We were in an MSR Hubba Hubba 2-person tent.
It made me laugh anyway. Away from the schoolboy sniggers, the tent was very light, quick to put up and really roomy. I’ve got an eye on one now (single or maybe 2-person).
Day 2 : 6.1 miles. Gelder Shiel to Glas Allt Shiel bothy.
The plan had been to head up the Land Rover track from Gelder Shiel to the loch (of Lochnagar) and then around and up into the ridge / summit (at 1155m).
But the weather had other ideas and it quickly deteriorated to the extent that we couldn’t lift our heads without a face full of rain. And there were no views to be had of the cloud-shrouded Lochnagar Munro or indeed any other part of the Balmoral estate / moorland that lay behind us.
Change of plan time.
We contoured off-piste around the lower slopes of the loch at around 750m until we picked up a grouse butts access track. Then headed for the top end of the Glas Allt Shiel track.
I found the weather exhilarating. But the off-piste yomp painful. (X-ray then MRI booked in as I type this).
But seeing the Glas Allt burn and waterfall crashing down towards the Shiel was impressive. Simon mentioned that it had been a lot more forceful a few months previously, covering the small bridge we crossed near the top of the downfall.
The Glas Allt Shiel bothy, once we had sawn some of the wood available (not foraged – that’s not allowed) was a cosy retreat for the evening. And gave us the chance to dry out (having been soaked to different degrees).
The bothy stay wasn’t planned and wasn’t part of the deal with Cairngorm Treks by the way. We could have camped out – but the lure of a fire and dry interior won out.
The evening cleared enough for us to have an explore and to spot a young golden eagle out patrolling the loch (confirmed the next day at the Ranger / visitors centre at the head of the Loch).
Day 3: 8.74 miles (the others).
(4 or so of those miles – a limping me)
Glas Allt Shiel to Dubh Lock and back then down the side of Loch Muick to the Spittal of Glen Muick.
We awoke to fairly clear weather, clear enough for the rest of the group to head up the side of Lloch Muick to the higher Dubh Loch.
I stayed behind because my knee was telling me to. I tidied up the bothy, had a mooch around the woods that surround it and played at Balmoral Estate Manager for a while.
Then boredom beat common sense (‘rest that knee’) and I headed up along Loch Muick to have look at the cascading burns and waterfalls that were in spate.
I met the guys coming back the other way. They had reached Loch Dubh and decided that the increasing wind speeds and the threat of another downpour would have made a higher trek difficult and Not Much Fun.
After some food back at the bothy, we headed around Loch Muick (a more interesting route than straight down the land rover track) and onto the ranger station at The Spittal of Glenmuick. Along the way we spotted a couple of young stags in the woods by the water below us. From there Simon ferried us back to Ballater where we were staying the night.
Despite the aching knee, I felt that sense of calm and happiness that the outdoors brings. The knee had been a git (medical term) for a straight 36 hours. Which in parts made me feel downhearted and then guilty about giving my compadres cause for concern, when they should have been soaking up nature.
But I finished the trek feeling happy. A bit of a lame adjective, but there you go.
Happy to have been out in ‘the wild’. Accepting – and it’s a heated debate for many, I know – that the nature of managed grouse and deer estates agitates against true wilderness and ‘natural’ nature as such.
It was great to have camped and stayed in the bothy with the guys. And to have seen deer and an eagle. And having the chance to mooch around some interesting history in the shape of the estate lodges. I only know a little of the history of the estate but can empathise with and applaud the desire of Victoria and Albert to have a family place ‘away from it all’. I also applaud the Scottish approach to land access for all.
We all need some outdoors time, to be in the presence of burns in spate, of cloud-shrouded hills, of erratics that appeared from the melting guts of a glacier. Just ask Thoreau, Muir, Strayed, Townsend et al.
And thanks go to:
Firstly – big thanks to Jenny for having the idea and arranging it all!
Thanks to Simon / Cairngorm Treks, he knows his stuff and we had a great trip – everything was thought about, including all the food for the three days.
Thanks also to The Habitat Hostel in Ballater where we stayed, either side of the trek. The guys running it are really friendly and are outdoors enthusiasts themselves. It’s a great place to base yourself if you are in the area. The town is getting back on its feet after recent heavy floods. So spend some time in the local pubs and restaurants (as we did!) and help them out.
We had an encounter at Gelder Shiel lodge with an old german gentleman. Who became a bit of side line thread for us in our trampings across saturated moorland – who was ‘the Man’? He strolled up the track as we were pitching our tents, shopping bag in hand.. He was initially concerned that we were camping without permission (we weren’t) and then wondered if we were Royals (umm .. indeed ). He appeared protective of ‘his’ bothy (it wasn’t – bothies are for all), having apparently stayed there for a number of nights (not really in the spirit of bothies). I think he liked its proximity to the lodge, what with him having – as he implied – a special relationship with ‘the owner’. Who had sometimes waved at him from a passing Land Rover and apparently had once sent someone across from the lodge to the bothy to offer him some food . There’s a bit more I could write but won’t. We gathered (from him and later from the Rangers) that the estate are aware of him. The makings of a short film or play, akin to Alan Bennet and the Lady In The Van, perhaps?