Packsledging – Aviemore to Braemar part 1

The old bunk house was as comfortable as we remembered and we had a great meal at the pub next door. We were a day ahead of schedule here so decided to spend the next day looking into whether we would be crossing the Lairig Ghru or whether we were going to need another plan.

After breakfast the tourist information office was our first stop and they were less than encouraging, suggesting that we would be mad to try and get through the hills. This wasn’t the answer we were looking for so we needed someone else to ask. We wandered round outdoor shops as I looked for some more serious upgrades over the Yaktrax I had taken for icy walking

"Perfect for dog walkers" - maybe not for winter in the Cairngorms
“Perfect for dog walkers” – maybe not for winter in the Cairngorms

To be fair I had used them in the Brecon Beacons and they made a big difference, but Rob and Quiller were carrying much more aggressive looking crampons and I didn’t want to be the one who stopped the group getting through. Ultimately I didn’t get anything, mainly because I couldn’t face the extra 700g of crampons to carry.

So the Tourist Information guys told us not to go, staff in the various outdoor shops had been pretty noncommittal so I decided to go straight to the top and managed to get the head ranger for the Cairngorm area on the phone. Just as we were thinking about what our other options were, he came through that we should be fine so long as we have winter boots and gaiters and don’t mind breaking a trail. Also it was forecast to be very sunny so we should take sunscreen with us. This was the best possible news, we were on for the Lairig Ghru. It’s possible that we should have paid more attention to the second part of his advice though, rather than getting so excited about getting the go message.

We put together a picnic and headed out to visit Loch an Eilein. It was great walking with light packs and the weather was good. Loch an Eilein has a small castle in the middle of it, normally inaccessible unless you want to swim or you have a boat. Well of course we had boats so this was perfect.

I wish I had some way to get out and visit that ruined castle...
I wish I had some way to get out and visit that ruined castle…

After having a look round the castle we walked over to cross onto the River Spey and floated back up to the bunkhouse.

Rob showing an alternative portage technique, the rafts are so robust
Rob showing an alternative portage technique, the rafts are so robust

This was some of the most pleasant rafting of the trip, the weather was good, the water just kept taking us where we needed to go and the countryside was great. An ideal packrafting day trip.

Floating down the river
Floating down the river

That evening we gorged on pizzas, I went to pick up some firelighters that we’d forgotten and we then headed back over to the pub to listen to Dan Korn and his band, who were excellent. A very early start was planned and we were all nervous again like on the train, but excited.

I think we left the hostel around 5.30 or 6 in the morning after a massive calorie loaded breakfast. Then it was time to get moving, although the packs seemed to have got heavier again.

We hadn't even started going uphill yet but I was feeling it
We hadn’t even started going uphill yet but I was feeling it

The first bit of the route, walking alongside the road, was the worst and then going through the forest was great, very quiet and peaceful. Slowly though we were climbing out of the trees and into the snow…

Out of the forest, but that was a tough climb
Out of the forest, but that was a tough climb

The lemon sherbets were really coming into their own by this point, but the snow was getting thicker and I was certainly glad that we’d got going so early. The walking was pretty straightforward until we got to a point where we couldn’t actually tell where the path went. On the map the path was next to a stream and it was impossible to tell just how deep the snow was and what was at the bottom of it. Nothing was particularly difficult, but it would have been a big issue to get someone out who had been injured so we were being cautious. The packs didn’t help with agility either but my yaktrax were surprisingly non-useless

Definitely no river under this bit of snow
Definitely no river under this bit of snow

At about lunchtime we got to the highest point of the pass and a great snow-covered bowl area which was perfect for sledging. We weren’t carrying sledges, but snow is basically water so the boats should work shouldn’t they? Quiller inflated his and invented the new sport of pack-sledging while Rob and I got lunch together. This earned us some very funny looks from a group of runners who came through, although running through that snow seemed like a pretty stupid idea as well to me…

Packsledging!
Packsledging!

During the afternoon the sun came out and we remembered the other piece of advice the head ranger had given us and laughed about how much we had ignored it. This period of walking was quite tiring, just because finding the path was very difficult and with every step you weren’t sure how deep you were going. We took turns at the front and Quiller did his best to keep morale up by falling over in increasingly comedic ways.

getting there
getting there

We finally made it to the bothy at about 4.30, all pretty well sunburnt, tired, but excited and glad to have made it. Quiller cooked up a fantastic meal of cheesy mushroom pasta and we drank whisky and enjoyed the view and the quiet.

Quite sunburnt
Quite sunburnt

On of the things about staying in a bothy is you’re never sure if you’re going to be there alone, or who else you’ll be sharing the place with. At about 1800 we spotted another walker coming in after us, making for the bothy. I didn’t manage to catch his name but he was doing again a walk he’d done 20 years previously. I think he’d been a bit surprised by how difficult it was and I certainly didn’t envy his dinner of a tesco chicken sandwich. You don’t want to appear patronising in those situations but I was glad that we’d broken a path for him to follow and he’d got into the bothy ok.

The plan for the next day was to walk down to the Dee, past the Linn of Dee and see where we could get the rafts in before floating down the river and finding a spot to camp, but we could be happy with what we’d achieved so far.

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