Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Hiking Ben Macdui, Scotland

Most photos by @amirulashrafpj the amazing, as usual.

So what do you do when your Friday lectures got cancelled, and you have an empty weekend ahead of you, and you're in beautiful Scotland.

For my friends and I, we bought train tickets from Edinburgh to Aviemore, camped through a sub-zero night at Cairngorm National Park, witnessed the Aurora, woke up to snow and hiked to the peak of Ben Macdui, the second tallest peak in the UK.

Spontaneity at its best
It was certainly one of the most memorable trip I've ever had so far, despite the severe lack of proper planning. We didn't have any concrete plans on where and how we're going to get to Ben Macdui, so we ended up forking out extra unnecessary spending on a map and compass which costs us more than £30 (The ranger literally flipped when he found out we didn't have a plan, and he forced us to buy these from the shop). Our taxi driver as well, who drove us from the train station to the start point , was rather concerned when she heard about our, uhm, "plans" - she gave us her contact details and urged us to call her if any mishap occurs.
But all in all, it has been a truly great trip. Here are some general information which I wish I'd known before hiking Ben Macdui:
Photos taken seconds apart, from different angles. 

What to Bring:

- Tent
- Sleeping Bag, the ones that can withstand sub-zero temperature!
- Waterproof & warm clothing
- Waterproof shoes
- Food
- Whiskey (good for keeping you warm at night)
- Map (ensure that you laminate it!)
- Compass

Drinking water made up a large proportion of our bag's weight. However, we were told that once we are far enough from the start point, water from the loch (Scottish word for lake) is safe to be consumed, without treating it.

Getting to CairnGorm National Park from Edinburgh

If you have a car then it'll be pretty straightforward - just google map it.

If you're like us, who is out searching for the more economical (because if you're below 25 you have to fork out extra for motor insurance!) and non-car-rental-method, then this might be helpful.

View from the train

 You have to first travel to Aviemore - there are a few train and bus services from Edinburgh daily.
Bus tickets are much cheaper, (Megabus offers the best deals!) especially when booked in advanced . If you're lucky, you can score yourself a free ticket or tickets for £1!

Train tickets will cost a little more, but you get to walk around and stretch your legs, enjoy beautiful scenery on the way. You can opt for open end tickets too, where you travel dates are flexible as long as it is within one month, if I am not mistaken.

Tips: Get a 16-25 Railcard! 16-25 Railcard holder are entitled to a 1/3 discount off the original price of the ticket.

We bought our open-end return tickets for £50.40 (before railcard discount)

You can get much cheaper rates if you book your tickets early. We bought our tickets on the day of departure so it is on the higher end.

Getting from Aviemore to CairnGorm Mountain Range

You can get there by bus or by taxi. Bus would definitely be a cheaper option - Look out for Bus 31, it runs from Aviemore train station to CairnGorm. Take note that the bus service is not frequent on weekdays. The three of us waited for about half an hour at the bus station, only to find out that there wasn't any bus services available for the next two hours. The taxi fare costed about £15, which was shared among the three of us - not too bad on my opinion.

Bus schedule available here.

The Hike

Make sure you get yourself a map before hitting the roads, as there are many paths and it may be confusing, especially when it is misty.
The hike was relatively easy - there wasn't much steep escalation and the route was marked so you wouldn't get lost easily, unless there is a lot of mist you'll loose your sense of direction. It was a little slippery at times as we hiked through the rain, but nothing too challenging.

Do get a pair of waterproof shoes. One of my biggest regret was hiking with a regular pair of trail running shoes - once or twice we walked into streams/puddle of water without realizing it! It was so cold, I couldn't feel my toes at all!

It is possible to hike from the start point to the peak, and return to the start point in one day, but because we arrived at Cairngorm at late afternoon, we figure that it would be safer if we camp a night near the peak, and continue on the next day. We set our tents hastily at a relatively flat surface, close to a loch, before the rain gets too heavy.

There are many trails that leads to the peak of Ben Macdui - the one we took (CairnGorm Ski Center - Ben Macdui) was apparently one of the easier trail.

The Night

Surviving the night was on my opinion, the toughest part of our hike. The temperature fell below zero, my coat was wet, we didn't have a sleeping mat so we could feel the cold from the ground. Our sleeping bag was only suffice to withstand as low as 0 degree Celsius. The whole night I kept dreaming that I walked into Tesco with broken down heater.
The aurora we saw, through the lens of the camera. At around 8ish-pm, a friend unzipped the tent, and claimed that he saw the auroras. At that time we couldn't really tell whether it was the Aurora - we saw some speck of greens but it was hard to tell from our naked eyes. But it wasn't long before we decided to zip up the tent because it was way too cold. Only when we checked the photos the next day we realized it really was the aurora!
Our tent, under a full arch rainbow
We were told by some hikers and also our taxi driver that there are bothies (a building which is left unlock, open for the public to use/spend the night. Usually does not comes with basic necessity - no tap, no sink, no lights) for hikers to spend a night in but we did not come across any during our hike. Again, the lack of planning :P

Here is a map listing out all the bothies for public use in the UK, and some general etiquette for using a bothy .

The Peak

At the peak of Ben Macdui - unfortunately it was really misty so we couldn't really see anything! 
Unlike Rinjani (Read about my experience hiking Rinjani here!), the hike up from our camp was rather anti-climatic. It was a misty morning with flurries, and our visibility was probably less than 5m.

The Duration

.....we definitely completed the return trail + camp in less than 24 hours, but I can't put an exact number or range to it, as we stopped numerous times, and went a little off track at times for photos.
Colour-coordinated as The Powerpuff Girls. Look closely and you an see that it is raining behind us! 
Looking back now, it was still one of the most memorable trip I've ever had. When will my next hike be, I wonder.

More useful info for Ben Macdui,

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