Day 10 can only mean one thing – Braemar. I’ve been through there on all 3 of my previous Challenges, and the prospect of the annual visit typically fills me with a heady mix of feelings: anticipation; concern I might not be able to resupply everything I want; concern for the existence of the parcel that I already know has been delivered and waiting for me; excitement at possibly seeing some other Challengers.
But not so much today. I already know that the social possibilities will be much diminished – we started on the 4th day of the stagger, and typically take one more day to get to Braemar than the main wave even when there’s no stagger. We pack up and aim for Braemar expecting it to be a bit more of a ghost town than usual.
I am looking forward to the Co-op, which I know from past experience is well-stocked. I’m looking forward to at least one meal in Gordon’s. And we have a pod at the campsite, and it’s probably time I had a shower.
We stride out along the familiar path down the Dee. No maps are needed today, except before we set off to remind ourselves how far the last bit is, to aid in counting it down as we walk it.
We walk the same paths as before, take the same photos as before, and have the same discussions as before – how long the walk is from Linn of Dee to Mar Lodge, and from there onto Braemar. We both recount previous experiences in the metropolis – largely centering on the preference for the “quiet pint” sort of experience rather than the “beer festival” type vibe I found on my first visit.
Linn of Dee arrives. While Darren scoots off to exploit one of the tall blue cuboids, I find myself chatting to Andrew, one of the rangers. In which I principally express the importance of the maintenance of biscuit levels at Mar Lodge.
The couple of miles from Linn of Dee to Mar Lodge feels like 20 as usual. We duck inside and instantly double our tally of Challengers met – we’re now on 12. One of them is the elusive zpacks shelter owner that we keep seeing. As usual, it’s a fairly languid stop. And Andrew makes an appearance to top the biscuits up – he got the message!
Back on the trail, it’s the usual 6 but feels like 16km road walk into Braemar itself. We dither about a bit and eventually dive into Gordon’s to be confronted with a much slimmed down menu. We haven’t realised Gordon’s has recently changed hands. Worse is to come, as because of this they’re keeping it simple and not opening for evening meals or breakfast yet.
We pop into Braemar Mountain Sports and I emerge with a new layer aimed at curing my temperature woes. And a new pair of rubber ferrules for my poles – one of them is completely worn down by the road walk the other day. Then it’s time to head for our pod, and we learn from the staff at reception that around 70 have pulled out so far – a huge number. Rumours abound, too, of expulsions. But we do at least have our parcels.
We do the usual camp things – first collapse with a brew, then gradually stir ourselves to put devices on to charge, then set about washing bodies and vestments. Then it’s time to hit town.
The chip shop shut at 4pm, just after we passed by, but we were at least aware of this. Everywhere else is rammed, but the streets themselves have an almost post-apocalyptic silence. We can’t get in anywhere, and it doesn’t help that not all of the places are even open. There’s nothing for it but the emergency option of the Co-op. We do our re-provision and buy some dinner too. Then back to the pod for a sad night in.
I think I’m done with Braemar. I always feel a bit disappointed – on the walk to get there I build it up as some sort of paradise, and am inevitably let down. This year it’s even worse – our torrid start to the Challenge only increased the yearning for Braemar. Yet the reality was an overpriced, rammed ghost town and a distinct feeling of merely being tolerated rather than welcomed. It seems the village want our money, and that’s it. The Co-op really is the highlight.
We cheer ourselves up with a spot of planning. The forecast for tomorrow for Lochnagar is a bit fruity and once again it doesn’t look like it’ll be worth the effort to climb. We’d already told ourselves that we’d only bother with it if conditions were perfect anyway. And they won’t be.
Thoughts now are of making sure we finish – not in a desperate lunge to get to the coast as soon as possible, but a steady and certain advance on the North Sea. Darren is still nursing his feet. The contrived route from Ballater over to Glen Tanar and on to Glen Dye, holds little excitement for us at the moment.
We decide to head down the Deeside Way and see how we go – if we’re struggling we can continue all the way to Aberdeen, but we also have the option of cutting down to the Feterresso for our original planned finish too. I like a plan that gives options.
For now though, it’s time for sleep and to let the night wash away the disappointments of Braemar.