Our team is essentially four friends that decided to spend four days letting Scotland’s highlands test our sense of humour and endurance.
I’m Jamie Dakota, or JD to most. I run Howl Bushcraft as a wilderness skills school, for which Max Barnes is an instructor with me. We specialise in teaching the elements of Bushcraft that are particularly relevant to making journeys. As we’re all about providing journeys for our clients we run wild camping canoe trips with Robin Heath, who as a fully qualified Mountain Leader and senior instructor for YHA Edale. Robin is our point man on this adventure. We’re also working with our good friend Peter Forrester, an aspirant adventure film maker, to document the trek. Peter has long standing reputation for his Youtube channel which has been documenting his journey and skills into the outdoors.
I’d seen an article released by the Ordnance Survey last year which showed a single straight line drawn across the Cairngorms follow about a 70 degree bearing, which they’d plotted as the longest straight line in the UK that didn’t intersect a road. The team at OS made a point of saying they didn’t recommend the route as a serious option for hike as it involved river crossings and abseils, and I thought: I fancy having a go at that!
I sent a link to Robin, and after a good laugh at each other we looked at each obstacle on the route and steadily realised we could confidently tackle them all, the fact that it would be a real stretch of our endurance and technical skills spurred us on all the more. At the time of writing I haven’t yet found any evidence that anyone else has completed the route, so we may well be the first.
The route crosses the Cairngorms along about a 70 degree bearing in a straight line for 71km, it’s significant as it’s the longest straight line you can make in the UK without crossing a paved road.
We’re starting on the western side and walking east towards Corgarff, and hope to cover the journey in four days. During the hike we’ll be wild-camping on the hills and hopefully staying in the Corrour Bothie on the second night. The trek involves a total ascent of 5646m, we may even strike out from the line and back to bag a Munro or two on the way; but we’ll always rejoin the line where we left it. There are 5 major river crossings to undertake, and if the weather is wet then a few of the streams may also be larger obstacles too! And then there are at least 3 abseils which we’ll need to improvise along the way, with perhaps a couple more depending on the crags but we’ll make the decision on the ground when we’re up close to the terrain.
Originally we optioned this trek as it is truly a journey unlike any we’ve done before, moving through the landscape on a straight bearing instead of with the contours and trails has a strangely attractive simplicity on paper, juxtaposed with a very technical challenge in reality. To simply complete the crossing on the bearing is all the achievement we’re hoping for, but if in doing so we can bring some attention to the Cairngorms as a destination for adventure then we’ll feel like it’s worth it. Alongside drawing in some donations for the SMR, BMC, and the Mountain Bothie Association.
We’ve always explored in the great outdoors, and our motivation in all our careers is to help introduce people to wild spaces as well. Knowing that there are volunteers out there with Scottish Mountain Rescue who’ll look out for people while they enjoy and become familiar with the outdoors means there’s more chance that people will feel encouraged to get outside and see these places. We chose this particular expedition to raise money for SMR because we’re employing skills and techniques that are commonplace for your volunteers when helping lost or injured people on the hill, if we can use our trek to highlight the conditions your volunteers encounter, and the technical difficulties their able to safely manage they hopefully our audience will gain a greater understanding of the epic work the SMR does to help people.
This tale is embellished with the thoughts of my teammates in part. We embarked on this endeavour with the support of the Ordnance Survey, Rab, Keela, Summiteer, and Dark Peak.
We were using the trek to highlight the important work done by the Scottish Mountain Rescue, The Mountain Bothy Association, and the BMC fundraising through www.howlbushcraft.com/endevours
We’d set out with four days to complete the 71km route across the cairngorms: The Longest Line. A theoretical line plotted by the Ordnance Survey, the longest straight line in the UK that doesn’t intersect a road.
Robin: I’d set off from Sheffield the afternoon before we were due to start our expedition with the intention of stopping in Kendal on the way to pick up our Summiteer backpacks, which were due to be completed by 4pm. Our plan was to meet that night at around 8pm in Aviemore to discuss and pack equipment, head to the shop to buy some last minute provisions, shuttle a vehicle to the end of the line and then get some early rest ready to be on the mountain by 8am the next morning.
However, upon arriving at the Summiteer headquarters at 4pm it turned out that there had been some unavoidable setbacks resulting in the packs not being ready until 9pm! I was still in very high spirits however and fully appreciated the packs and tents being provided, so I threw the kit in the car, let the others know I was going to be late and set off on the long drive up to the Cairngorms. I arrived at Aviemore Youth Hostel at 2.30am, and woke up a very tired looking Max to let me in (he and JD had just spent the last 4 days canoeing and wild camping around Loch Awe) and got some well needed sleep.
We were due to be on the hill for 7am however Robin’s delay and the subsequent last minute shuffling of gear into packs made for a 3 hour false start. Not the worst thing, but on a tight schedule we would need to make up the time: we looked at our 27km route for the day, our longest by far and by design, as we’d figured in planning that we’d be in the best position on the first day to cover the most ground. Despite the rain and gale-force winds forecast for the duration of the expedition the team were still in remarkably high spirits.
We left the A9 just south of Dalwhinnie at 10am on our 69 degree bearing into strong north-westerly winds and torrential rain, the sort of rain that makes you feel like you’ve gone for a swim in your waterproofs.
Robin: The wind was constant and strong, not to mention the rain. After only a few hundred metres I noticed that our cameraman Peter was lagging behind and Max was slightly out in front, setting a somewhat ambitious pace. My main roles/focus in the team (as the only mountain leader) were safety and navigation, with that in mind I subtly spoke to Max and advised him to slow his pace and allow Peter to catch up. I then called the team together and we had a quick discussion about teamwork, the importance of sticking together and communication. With the weather and terrain, it wouldn’t take long for us to get exhausted both mentally and physically, so it was crucial that we stuck together so that we could not only watch out for each other more effectively, but also have conversations to keep our spirits high.
It was hard work, sweaty despite the cold, our waterproofs began to fail in places and our packs forced water through to our backs. The layers underneath were important here, merino base layers and our awesome Rab softshells helped keep us warm despite the rain but even so it became apparent to me at this point that Peter, our photographer, was suffering more than I would have expected. I know Peter to be a strong and capable outdoorsman, so his demeanor stood out as unusual. We next had a tight valley and a river to attempt.
Robin: “We deemed the river too dangerous to cross and opted to deviate slightly from the line to find a safer place further upstream. Whilst walking above a cliff Peter slipped on a rock and started to stumble down-slope towards the cliff edge. He came to a stop a few metres from the edge. Peter appeared visibly shaken and white as a sheet. I had already been thinking for over an hour that the conditions might have proved a little too much for him but this had cemented in my mind that he had a decision to make about whether he was able to continue.”
The maelstrom we were working in had taken its toll. Outdoorsman-ship in my experience has always been a compassionate exercise, we go out as a team to undertake challenges together and the skill of operating as a unit instead of a collection of individuals is one that we adopt strongly when working in these environments.
This early situation posed a risk to our entire endeavour, and we had to find a solution. There was the weight of expectation as we were here in part to produce various filmed elements and photographs to document the trek, which was Peter’s sole function as part of the team. To lose him would mean we’d have almost nothing to show to sponsors for our efforts, we’d have no content for our social media platforms, and nothing for our portfolios for future expedition promotion.
You can easily appreciate where individuals whose sole prerogative for being outdoors is to generate content for the ever hungry social media machine get into trouble, faced with this decision the temptation to press on regardless would be high.
Fortunately we’d not put ourselves in that position, for us the question wasn’t muddied with concerns over content. We simply had, as a team, to consider how we could best serve our primary directives: our safety, The Line, and our charitable causes.
Through that lens we can look at the situation cleary. We can safely return Peter to a car all together and abandon the trip; we can also safely do this by splitting the team in half allowing myself and Robin to attend to The Line, and therefore increase our effectiveness for the causes. By having this framework we make life simple for ourselves, and that is what we do.
So we rearranged a few pieces of equipment so that each pair had everything they could need to be independent, notably we split the Summiteer tents and the camp-stoves so that if either pair had to overnight or protect themselves until rescue they could. Notably, we don’t distribute Peter’s photography gear between Robin and I at this point. We have a clear understanding of how this trek, in these conditions is going to be extremely challenging without the added weight of camera gear; besides, the weather at this point is keeping the cameras stowed in their drybags.
We were now a full 5 hours behind where we thought we would be that day, it was no longer sensible to attempt to complete the 27km distance so we planned to cut the day in half and bolt the extra distance into day two (which was planned to be a shorter day anyway). We arranged with Max that he could rendezvous with us at Gaick Forest, marking an easily found spot on the maps, to camp for the night and from where we’d continue the next day.
Peter: Eventually Max and I made it back to the car, Max had walked off the mountain with me to ensure I returned safely and we made the decision to drive him back in. Thanks to a chance meeting with a local deerstalker I was able to transport Max very close to where Jamie and Robin would be stopping to camp for the first night meaning that they could rendezvous there.
I made my way back to the Youth Hostel in Aviemore, it was here that I discovered that as a result of my waterproof trousers failing and the trousers beneath them getting soaked that my inner thighs had rubbed so severely that they were bleeding. By now the emotional rollercoaster of a day had caught up with me and I’d begun to feel pretty low about the whole adventure, I’d been so hyped for a month leading up to this trip and now I was out because of something as simple as a stomach bug.
Robin: We still had around 10km to do before dark though and only 4 hours to do it. Usually, on footpaths, in good weather and without taking a ridiculous route, this would be easy. But we still had several large valleys, scree slopes, mountains and rivers to cross, so we set off at a very fast pace. We quickly made it to a high flat plateau where we were met by a herd of deer and 5 ptarmigans all of which looked confused as to why we were there.
Our next 6-7km turned out to be deep peat bogs and even more difficult going that the steep valley sides. Every step sank into the peat and used up twice the energy as normal but eventually we made it to the other side to find yet another swollen stream. This time sticking to the line meant walking across a large waterfall so we wandered up stream to find a better crossing.
As we drop from Meallan Buidhe we entered the steep valley above the waterfall, Robin first then I take careful steps to cross this hazard. Our crossing place had a large pool below it, to hopefully stall us had we fallen in but as we walk out round the head of this valley we fully appreciate the risk had we fallen: There’s a smooth slope forming a water slide 15m long before a 6m drop into a rocky series of rapids, without enough water to float us if we’d fallen in there we’d have been finished.
We made our way down a scree slope above Loch Bhrodainn, finally reaching the valley floor as darkness sets in. There’s no sign of Max, but we made for the far side of the woods knowing he’d see our tent at the very least, should he still be walking along the path from the lodge. The Lochan a’ Ghaorra was flowing full, but we decided to cross then in the growing dark as tackling first thing in the morning seemed like a harsh way to start the second day.
Max: After driving for an hour down a fire road we eventually came to a dead end, so I said so long to Peter and promised to meet back up with him the next night at the bothy as he’d decided to attempt to walk in from Braemar the next day. 5 kilometres in and with the weather holding off I began to settle back into my surroundings.
Peter: Not being one to wallow in self pity, back at the Hostel I got some food and began a plan to walk back into the Cairngorms and reconvene with the team. I had two options, one was to walk the Lairig Ghru, a walk I’ve done before, and not one to be taken lightly when walking solo, or to head towards Breamar and hike in a shorter, easier route from there. This was the obvious choice, only 12 kilometers over fairly easy terrain.
Max: Time was getting on now and the evening was growing, as I looked up at the steep sided peak in front of me I could just make out two tiny dots on the mountain side, one was yellow and the other red…. I could see them! Making their way down with no knowledge that I was watching them from the valley below, or of the river they had to cross.
Robin: The river was big, and deep. After almost an hour of trying to find a good place to camp without having to cross, and ignoring the obvious and perfect spot on the other side. By this stage I just wanted to pitch my tent, get in to my sleeping bag, stick my Dark Peak Jacket on and eat, so I just thought ‘sod it’, and waded fully clothed through the river. JD on the other hand made the sensible decision to find the shallowest part of the river and strip naked from the waist down to keep his clothes dry. A decision I wish I had taken when pulling my wet trousers and boots back on the next day.
Robin being the giant he is leaped across, leaving me to wade thigh deep across an 8m wide ford. I’d elected at this point in the day to remove my boots, socks, and trousers to cross as I knew I’d be in the tent soon anyway and I’d actually dried off quite a bit from the foul weather earlier in the day. The water was like ice though, powerful and beyond cold it cut deeply into my flesh and by the time I made the far bank I was shivering furiously. I then got stuck in helping Max and Robin erect the tents and climbed inside, into the sleeping bag and got the stove on for dinner.
Max at this point informed us that Peter was attempting to reach the bothy tomorrow to meet us. A decision I wouldn’t have supported had I’d been there as it risked Peter being alone in the mountains, and the last time I saw him he looked extremely unwell. It also tied our hands at that point, we now had to reach the bothy the next day without fail. I knew that Peter had completed the route before, and was sensible in looking after himself, but I couldn’t help feeling nervous for him.
Robin: We finally got into bed, ate and fell asleep to the sounds of stags rutting and roaring outside.
The weather, terrain, and distance to make up all factored into our progress, along with the tight schedule not allowing for an extra day on the hill. We needed to get to that bothy today to stand any chance of completing the trek to the end, so any available short cut would be used. The irony is of course that the straight line is the shortest, so every opportunity we could to contour around a valley top rather than dropping into and up out of it again added to our mileage for the day, although substantially easing the burden on our legs.
We took the zigzag track from Gaick Lodge up past Lord Selkirk’s Well onto the tops, climbing to 900m by Leathad an Taobhain by 11am.
Day two as it transpired was full of the worst peat bogs we’ve collectively ever had to navigate, and we spend many of our days on Kinder Scout and Bleaklow! Going was painfully slow, as we had to weave back and forth from the The Line to dodge the bogs. We decided at some point during the morning to start contouring around the valleys to maintain a faster pace and hopefully save energy too.
We stopped above Glen Feshie, and having a good idea of the water levels a this point we elected to get to the River Feshie at the closest point to increase our chance as we walked along the bank of finding a suitable crossing place. So we made our way across what turned into a particularly bad section of boggy ground, a slow and precise passage beside unknowably deep pools covered in moss. During this descent, either in the bogs or scrambling down the valley side to the river, I tweaked my left knee. I don’t remember a point of injury among the many turns and knocks we took getting down from the bog, but by the time we got to the riverside and stopped for lunch I knew my leg was giving me more than just an ache.
The quest for a place to cross the River Feshie turned out to be far more difficult than we could have imagined, the side we were on steeply dropped from the 800m hills to the river in heather covered slopes, navigable only by following deer trails past waterfalls and moss pits. There is no bridge to be found, and as we see three ramblers following a well trod path on the other side we look for somewhere to ford; our side of the river is battering us, we’d taken 90 minutes to cover 3km in that terrain.
We cross the waist deep river safely, led by Robin, and pause to reassess our plan given all that has happened up until here.
We had to make it to the bothy that night to meet Peter as we had no way to contact him to let him know we wouldn’t make it. The last thing we wanted was for him to think we were lost/injured and call mountain rescue to look for us. We had a quick discussion and decided that the best and safest plan from here was not to attempt the next 13 km on the line in the current conditions. Instead we chose an alternative route around, which although safer, was significantly longer, 25km from where we stood to the bothy.
Peter: Upon arriving at Corrour bothy it was immediately apparent that this tiny stone building nestled into the southern end of the Lairig Ghru was going to be pretty crowded. When I arrived there were 2 mountain bikers with a dog, 3 Young walkers from Germany, a Young man from Latvia, and a guy from Stoke, soon to be joined by another walker, myself and the 3 guys still on the longest line! Thankfully though the guys who were already there showed me incredible kindness and stuck me near the fire and even cooked my food for me as I was struggling to do almost anything in the state I was in! For the rest of that evening we chatted and talked (in several languages) whilst I anxiously waited for the rest of the team to arrive at the bothy.
In preparing for this trip we’d brought maps not just of our route, but also of potential escapes to the nearby villages and towns. We open the maps and find a path, well marked and well used that will take us up Glen Feshie almost to Braemar, as it picks up Peter’s route up Glen Dee to Corrour bothy at the gates of the Lairig Ghru. It’s a 25km route, but it’ll keep us safe on well used tracks as we walk in the dark, and it will allow us to follow Peter’s route in so that we should find him en-route if he’d been forced to pitch camp before the bothy. We reason this is our best option in maintaining our own safety, and finding Peter without having to call mountain rescue to assist. If we get to the bothy and don’t find him? We have a spot device to ping a message to a couple of colleagues at home, that will try and contact each of us several times before calling mountain rescue. They may well contact Peter and find him safe at the youth hostel, and therefore negate the need for mountain rescue. That would be our last resort. It doesn’t come to that though, after a slog up Glen Dee we find Peter safe and well in Corrour bothy.
Robin: On the final kilometre we were broken men. The weather had been relentless, our muscles were dying, we were so dehydrated we were licking the rain drops from our leaking waterproofs and our feet were cut to ribbons. It had been a nightmare taking the 25km detour but we didn’t even want to think what might have happened if we had stuck to the line instead. JD’s knee had become agony, with every step I could see a pained expression cross his face, it took extraordinary strength for him to keep going. Me and Max had taken it in turns to lend him our second walking pole but at this stage the damage had already been done. We all knew that this was the end of the trip for him, but talking about it now would only make our already fragile mental states worse. Finally, we made it to the bothy, praying that it wasn’t full. It felt like we sprinted up to the door (really we hobbled slowly) and tentatively opened it to find almost every inch of space taken up by other hill walkers, one of which was a very relieved looking Peter.
Robin: I awoke to the sound of a mouse scratching at the floorboards beneath me. Looking around the room I saw 9 people crammed in like sardines. Max was spooning a total stranger on a ledge and Peter must have given up trying to avoid being kicked in the head and just turned his whole body around instead. I looked over at the half full bottle of brown water I had finally given in and started drinking out of desperation the night before and really hoped it wasn’t going to repeat on me. Eventually, one by one the others began to wake up too and get ready to leave. Peter had arrived in the late afternoon the day before and got to know the others in the sardine can. Two German girls who had seemingly brought all of their possessions (including a guitar and a bag of coal…) a Latvian man who had wandered up in his jeans and 2 other men who left before we had chance to talk to them. It turned out there were also 2 tents outside containing walkers who decided it was already too crowded in there, before JD, Max and I arrived.
The rain outside had finally (although temporarily) subsided and it was actually a beautiful and sunny morning. JD looked like a broken man. His knee was still agony and for a while he wasn’t sure if he could even stand, let alone walk. Max too had very little left in the tank and I felt like I had the worst hangover I’d ever experienced. I looked down at my feet which were now a bruised and bloody mess. Peter had checked the weather before heading to the bothy the day before and informed us more severe weather was on the way.
Once again we looked at what was possible with the lens of our primary directives, it wasn’t safe for us to continue into the most remote part of the trek knowing any one of us may need evacuating due to injury. We had already departed from The Line substantially, and therefore the notion of our endeavour was compromised. And in the conditions, with the lack of photography and all our efforts being to simply endure, we were no longer giving any energy to highlighting the causes we were there to showcase.
We walked out together, as a team, to Braemar that day. Steadily, as my knee had given up, covering 15km to the pub and raised a pint to having given it our best having done so without calling in the rescue service!
Thank you for reading, a full unabridged version of this article is available in issue 28 of The Bushcaft Journal from December 2019.