|Day 10: Gelder Shiel to Glen Lee|
A cold evening but I had slept comfortably on my bunk. Ant, Maurice and myself started walking at 8.30. The weather had cleared quite a bit; there was a new sprinkling of snow on Lochnagar. As we set off we could see the sun battling its way through the crowds, back in the direction of Ballater. Perhaps, this would be a good day?
Initially,a small path leads away from the bothy, following the line of a burn. The going was surprisingly tough and very wet. But soon we were back on reasonably good estate tracks. Ant and Maurice were both good company. Their navigation aids left something to be desiredesired though. Originally there were to be three of them; their mate who dropped out was the one who'd created the route. Reluctant to spend money on maps he'd gone to the local library and photocopied them. Maurice reckoned that the maps were, at least, thirty years out of date; the detail on them was significantly different to mine. These photocopies had been blown-up and laminated. The effect was a little like those computer print-outs that people take from computer mapping systems. The main problem with these - and it is a big problem - is that you don't get the detail of the surrounding hills and landscape. If you're planning a first Challenge - don't skimp on the maps. Fortunately, Maurice was carrying a GPS.
We happily climbed upwards. It was a Sunday morning and we gradually began to meet walkers and mountain bikers climbing up the path from the Spittle in order to get onto Lochnagar. Annoyingly we found a fair degree of litter on the hill, much of which had been left by these groups. Ant observed that they were happy to carry them up full, but somehow couldn't carry them down empty; we were all quite annoyed.
By the time we reached the Spittle of Glenmuick the sun was shining. We walked on to the picnic area and found a visitor centre for the Balmoral estate, detailing the local flora and fauna and telling us a little about the natural history of the area. There was a drinks machine that dispensed reasonably good drink. We lazed on benches outside, soaking in the sun. we'd been there about twenty minutes when Julian had appeared. We'd left him, "faffing about" (as he put it) in the bothy. Apparently, he'd swept up behind us; what a nice lad! Despite the size of the pack he'd clearly been moving at some speed! The problem was he couldn't shift at that speed for too long! Julian then treated us to another ritual. Off came the impressive layers of clothing. From a waterproof jacket and balaclava style Julian stripped down to baselayer, very miniscule Ron Hill shorts and two huge knee supports - that looked as if they'd been appropriated from an American Football team. Quite a transition and the cause of laughter all round.
On we walked, four or us now, south east up a short valley towards the Shiel of Mark bothy. Non of us were looking forward to this stretch. To get to the bothy it was necessary to navigate a rather large area of high, featureless peat bog. At the last of the confluence of small streams we took compass bearings, Julian about 128 for the bothy and me about 110 towards Muckle Cairn (from where we would join the footpath leading down to Glen Lee). Julian was keen to explore the bothy. If it had a fireplace he would probably stay the night; but it was too early for us. Julian was concerned; he thought that we should head for the bothy as it was the only landmark for quite a distance. But we headed off away from it with the kind of reckless confidence that a GPS gives you. To cut a long story short this is not the best walking that you will find on the Challenge. Bloody horrible. We strode out through the peat and, at the high point, saw a valley and rushed off towards it. It was the wrong Glen. We re-set our course and followed a small stream down to the larger burn that flowed past the Shiel of Mark. The burn was is full spate and crossing was quite difficult and uncomfortable for Maurice and Ant, who both had to cross bare-footed.
As we climbed up Muckle Cairn we could see the bothy and hoped Julian had found his way inside OK. Perhaps, we'd all been a bit barmy to split-up like that. As we climbed the heather bound, peat bog up to the top the weather really began to deteriorate. The wind drove freezing rain into our faces. Then it began to snow. This was the first time on this trip that I had really felt uncomfortable. Maurice, leading up the hill, found a track leading around the hill in the direction of Glen Lee. We gladly followed the track, checking with the GPS a couple of times to ensure that we were on track.
None of us had enjoyed this very much. There is a trick to finding the bothy which was revealed to me a couple of days later. At the obvious second confluence of streams (where we took our bearings) it is possible to just follow the the right hand stream around. Apparently there is a reasonably well-worn track here. The track passes through an obvious dip between two pieces of high ground and soon you are descending in a North Easterly direction, down to the bothy. Once you know this you can clearly see it on the map - my free tip for the day!
As we descended towards Glen Lee we'd all had enough. The Stables of Lee was a little too high and windy to camp near, and so we pressed-on down the Glen. At the bottom of the climb there is a large flat expanse of grass that looked a perfect camp spot. Here the river had slowed, considerably reducing the background noise levels. Someone I'd met in Braemar had pointed this spot out. Last year his group had camped at the Stables and then found this spot next morning. The grass was, in fact, covering a bed of stones. Getting the tent pegs into the ground was quite hard work. As the tent was put up rain really began to come down heavily. We jumped in our tents never to leave them again that evening. It was cold, windy and only five o'clock!