A Trip to The Highlands – Part 1

Senior Assistant Callum Hilder has started training for the Mountain Leader Award and shares his recent experience with us during a solo trip to the Cairngorm National Park:

Wilderness travel, exploration and its enjoyment are some of the principles that Woodlore was founded upon.  Being a part of Woodlore has enabled me to begin making solo journeys and I have recently come back from five days in the Cairngorm National Park in Scotland, putting into practice many of the skills we teach and that I continue to learn.

But let me take you back to February of this year and to training week for the Woodlore Staff. This year consisted of many elements but particularly focussed on First aid and Navigation, two of the most important skills for the wild – looking after yourself and finding your way in, and of course, back out! We received fantastic tuition on both which spurred me on to get out and do something different but in particular practise and learn navigation – something I have never applied myself to properly.

Soon after training week, I climbed Scafell Pike in Cumbria on a beautiful day at the end of March. Snow still topped the mountains above 600 meters but my friend and I reached the summit from Borrowdale Valley by lunchtime. The views were fantastic and I felt a great sense of achievement – something I want to experience again and again, both the rigour of the climbing and the reward at the top. I caught the mountain bug and wanted to learn everything I could to get up more of them!

Following on from this I had a conversation with our Quartermaster, David Southey, who suggested signing up for the Mountain Leader award – something he is also undertaking, which I immediately did. Part of the training requires the applicant to achieve 20 quality mountain days (in a mountainous area and longer than 8 hours) before a week-long training course is taken, then another 20 QMD’s and then an assessment. There are of course many factors to this qualification aside from this.

So, I had done one day in the mountains – where could I go next? Naturally, the Cairngorms came to mind – rugged, untouched and one of the last true ‘wild’ areas in the UK.

From the moment I decided I was going I began researching kit – outfit, boots, tents, rucksacks, stoves and all the equipment I thought I might need, whilst trying to get the lightest but the best kit I could afford. This in itself took 2 or 3 months to hone my specific kit and test it out! I packed it all in my Leafcutter rucksack, repacked it, took items out, put them in again, put them in different dry bags and moved them to different places in the rucksack. This would be the first trip I had done with this new rucksack so getting my packing system right took a little time, but the simple design of the main compartment coupled with the two side pockets ensured I got everything comfortably in for a week.

Next, I needed to plan my route – an element that must never be left to the last minute. Take time to familiarise yourself with your maps and the terrain, matching expectation with reality in terms of distance and above all not attempting to do more than you are capable of both in terms of navigational ability and stamina. This last element is something I found difficult – how can I know if I’m planning to do too much if I haven’t been in this terrain before? Well the advice I was given was to have an exit plan – but I will come onto that in next week’s article.

So, after three months of research, buying and trying new kit and with my route planned, the day arrived wet and windy at my home in West Sussex. After a short flight from Gatwick to Inverness, I was greeted with a warm sunny day in the Highlands of Scotland. An hour and a half later I arrived in Aviemore – an excellent town catering for all that enjoy the outdoors. After a stop at the store to buy methylated spirit for my Esbit stove, I finally walked out into the Rothiemurcus forest some 2 miles from Aviemore train station.

What a place! Although the route I took was on well-maintained paths, the forest that brushed the edges of it was untouched true Caledonian pine forest. The Scots pine invites you in with a carpeted floor of heather, mosses, soft grass, juniper and bilberry to name but a few. I ventured East to the Allt Na Beinne Moire river to pitch my first camp next to its babbling waters at around 7pm.

The silence was absolute that night. As I made my dinner, washed the grime of travel away and filled my water bottles from the stream I went to bed with the anticipation of getting out into the mountains proper…

Next week I’ll guide you through the Lairig Ghru pass and on to Braemar – where a surprise was in store!

– Callum Hilder

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