So the plan is three days back to back with one good distance in the mix. Ten women with complex work and family balances would result in one “woman down” before we even got out of the starting blocks. But rest assured she would be part of this amazing weekend anyway!
Friday dawned and various working logistics would result in an afternoon walk of around 4-5 miles, seven women walking Forres, two in Fochabers descending on Feshiebridge around teatime. I was part of the Forres team, beginning with a wee hike up to Nelson Tower (quick photo stop – Elaine, Clare, Kirsty, Pauline, Susan, Elle and I) and down,via Sanquar, Chapeltown and across to Clovenside – an opportune moment for a “wee” stop and a “trekker sat in a random place” – and coincidentally home of our 10th Tartan Trekker Jennifer – I said she would feature. You may recall her? She was my Dava companion and despite being unable to join us this weekend still ensured we wouldn’t go hungry with a delicious sweet potato chilli for the weekend. Day one done and 10422 miles to kick off the weekend is not so shabby.
Saturday dawns and getting nine women out on time on an average day might seem a challenge in itself. But we were on a mission. Mission “Out by 8:30am, walk 18 miles (at a sensible pace) including a proper lunch stop and home by dark (4:00pm) without breaking” had begun. Okay, I fess up, that was my challenge. But we all shared at least one of those goals and more. So somewhere in the mix we would each achieve our own PB. My PB? Well that was to get to the end, still be able to take my own boots off, and still be able to get into my top bunk!
First selfie done – goodness knows what our fellow lodge mates thought of ine quines in various combinations of tartan, hot pink and a whole of of hats and rucksacks must have thought – and we are off. Round the corner and it’s a quick chat with three sled dog packs (the owners not the dogs of course) and then we are heading off road through some of the most beautiful, peaceful parts of the lower parts of the Cairngorm Mountains. It’s a chatty group who heads off but after the first couple of miles we are single file on single tracks and the group falls quiet. You can almost breathe the peace but for the rhythmic sound of steady boot fall and the swish of walking and waterproof trousers. Then other times the chat was so intense we simply missed the much awaited bothy and intended break stop. See what is noticeable about a group this size is how the dynamic changes with every mile. Some march on, some drop back, some keen to learn more about their companion for the next few months through chat. Some discovering it through knee buckling hysterics from a well placed one liner. Some simply happy to walk quietly between or behind and watch. And some watching it all from behind a tree or a clump of heather while someone acts as lookout – as they practice for that all important “wee” stop.
The route took us along a lovely, mainly forest, route and past Loch an Eilein. Time for a proper loo. Nine women in varying shades of pink, blue bearing “Tartan Trekker” t-shirts, short flippy Highland kilts and a whole lot of hilarity waiting for one loo must have been quite a sight for the poor man who exited the one cubicle – at speed. But that’s nothing compared to what followed as one by one they held their breath for 90 seconds (and some simply opted for a bush) as they announced “am going in”. Oh how I wish I had even an inkling of what the Rothiemurchas ranger in his nearby van must have thought? I am just praying he didn’t get it on You Tube!
Feeling the energy levels dropping we are all thankful the mid way point is in sight. I won’t bore you with the hotel that turned nine hungry women away – really? But eventually we found ourselves at the Cairngorm Hotel in Aviemore and time to get some food and water. Conscious time was already teasing us with a “have you got your head torches?” there was little time to linger before it was time to go. With a promise of a donation to our raffle and with full bellies we headed off.
It’s nine miles down only another nine to go. This next section we all knew from our last weekend at Feshiebridge – though in reverse we would each have very different memories of the worst and best bits. The only shared one being “remember that up and down bit when we said ‘am glad we are doing this at the beginning and not coming back’. Well with that lasting memory hovering in the background, temperature already dropping, we headed off again. Down the road (who’s idea was this?) and onto the new stretch of the Speyside Way.
As we crossed the road I knew something wasn’t right. Cold? Pain? You can just tell when things are not as they should be. Claire was dealing with serious knee pain. Elaine, Susan and I walked with Claire for a wee while and I can only guess what was in each of our minds. I was wondering what I had in my rucksack to warm her knees – don’t ask me why.
Slowly making our way to catch the front group – suddenly they stopped and watched, then turned and came back to meet us. Yes, that’s our second woman down (you need to keep up if you are not counting)! After some discussion and hugs all round Claire accompanied by Elaine set off back towards the road, their walk pretty much done for today. Because you do need a pair of working knees right?
I can’t begin to explain the feeling really. A mix of deep deep sadness for Clare, not just because this was like losing a lovely warm layer of care (which she is) but because I could see how gutted she was. And then top that with the very unselfish thought processes I saw in everyone and which eventually resulted in Elaine saying simply “I am your buddy I will take you back. The rest walk and we will have the lodge warm for you when you return”. I confess I felt an overwhelming feeling of emotion and of pride at that moment. I didn’t want us to lose anyone today nor could I even contemplate anyone being in this much pain.
So on we went, a more subdued group for a while. Next we had Rosie who had been nursing a wrist problem all day. We were all feeling the distance but one way or another we would carry rucksacks if needs be and get each other home. One by one we joked about our next woman down. But cries of “Pauline Pauline give us a song” began to lift the group who all simply wanted to “do it for Claire”. A strenuous section of inclines and descents soon had us all agreeing “those knees” would never have stood this today. We remembered the route from last time – but damn those hills! It took a very hilarious accident with a camelbak (water reservoir) to finally lift everyone. I can’t write it, but I will say is imagine the “little boy weeing” water feature of the 70’s accompanied by a woman crossed legged trying to avoid an accident and you have a group of women in hysterics and nobody quite sure why.
The rest of the journey was really not very interesting but for the “are we there yet” and the extra hills nobody remembered the first time round. The light began to fade and it was time to get the torches out and the high vis on when out of nowhere appeared a very well dressed lady in blue.
Her suggested route would take us off the road safely and across country, though her “only a mile to go” would be called in to question many times as the Fitbit continued to chime otherwise. Perhaps only those with a belief in the supernatural would question her attire for “checking the horses”. And I never really knew where she came from or indeed questioned why she would arrive there at precisely the time we would walk by debating the route. But she did. We eventually arrived back – and while Kirsty refused to come in, circuiting the car park until her Fitbit agreed she had achieved the 18 miles, we were all exhausted but proud to have achieved an amazing distance between us in one day.
So Sunday dawned and the hobbling party set about tidying and vacating the lodge and plotting a short cool down walk to top out the weekend. Nothing too strenuous, just a chance to prove we could still walk after 18 miles. So it was “Coylum” we headed for. A land of pines and heather and blueberry backed by icing sugar dusted mountains and with its feet in beautiful crisp breath misting lochs.
The route was a nice gentle made path, three miles out, three miles back. The waymark simply said “Braemar”. We weren’t heading there of course merely sharing the route for a we while to cross the iron bridge over the Am Beanaidh. An hour done at this point we had a decision to make. We can either return and be back in an hour – or we can do a loop and be back in two. I confess I was feeling remarkable fine at this point (as me again in about two paragraphs). A “sound check” revealed a remarkable drive to go for the loop. I swear I even saw a glint in Kirsty’s eye as she said “we can do this!”.
And so we were off. The pace was noticeably determined – something which would come to hit me once that long three mile stretch alongside what now feels and endless road back to Coylum. Meanwhile we passed through some very beautiful countryside. The only background sound being the gentle chatter of seven women and the double shot of the not so distant Rothiemurchas Clay Pigeon Shoot. A beautiful part blue sky, low sun, freezing temperatures reminding us we were now very much within the grips of the masterful Cairngorm mountain range.
Look up and the trained eye would see the funicular which gets the very keen snow chasers to the top of a mountain range which now feels so close. By the time we were following the road stretch and clouds of breath made you realise the temperatures, not long up, were already heading back down.
The last two miles was harder than I imagined it would be only five miles before. You see I drive this road a lot as part of my venue styling work, dressing weddings for couples who fell in love with the Cairngorm’s charms (today it’s easy to see why). Covering easy 60-70 miles in a day and more in a vehicle it’s easy to forget what 3, 5, 8 and definitely 18 miles feels like on foot.
But rest assured when I get back in my car and drive a route I have walked as part of this challenge – only then do I truly feel proud of what I have done. And indeed what the entire team have walked already.
And so what did happen to Claire? Well, we returned to the Lodge on the Saturday (Day 2) to discover her on the sofa, wrapped in a blanket dosed with painkillers but more interested in our own achievement. It seems Claire’s own challenge didn’t end on the B9152. Elaine and her reached the main road and headed back to Aviemore. Because in these parts you simply don’t stand by a road and flag a taxi so this “thrawn” woman did not give in.
On they went, slowly but determined. We discovered she actually walked another three miles – I say walked but I just don’t get how you do that without a pair of working knees! Yet despite being in enormous pain she entertained us that night with stories of the taxi driver, the Tesco assistant and everyone who helped them get home (and probably thought them beyond crazy). The evening showed us more of her pain but yet also her own dogged determination. And that kind of sums up the personal challenges each of this amazing group will take to cross that 100km line.
Fast forward 12 hours and we are happy to report A&E confirmed Claire’s knee fluid simply had a severe reaction to the low temperatures. Not something she will have to deal with in the desert – though training may now need to be completed in warmer climes. Four days later however and she was back out walking. Testimony to the commitment and quiet determination which sits inside every one of the tartan Trekkers..
This weekend this group of women achieved a round 68852 steps in just about 48 hours! And that, my lovelies, takes me to my own personal target of 731277 boot steps to date.
Distance-wise that’s just under 32 miles. That’s just over a half of our Sahara Trek distance next year in just under half the time we need to walk it. That is really a great milestone for the team and has given everyone a real boost.
If you would like to sponsor me towards my own target or have been inspired by the story of this weekends challenges then head to my virgin money giving for Moray Women’s Aid