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The Big Routes: Carn an Fhidhleir and An Sgarsoch

© Dan Bailey

In the looks department, not all hills are created equal; but beauty is more than skin deep. Beyond their spectacular Cairngorm heartland, the Grampians are one area in particular that tends to suffer in the scenery stakes. Yet while there are more than enough forgettable heathery lumps, drab peat bogs and grouse-wrecked moors to make even the keenest walker's eyes glaze over, the eastern highlands are also spacious on an inspiring scale. Case in point are the rolling hills at the lonely headwaters of the Tarf, an expansive emptiness forming one of the largest chunks of wild land in Scotland.    

Not the most attention-grabbing scenery maybe, but the scale is inspiring in itself  © Dan Bailey
Not the most attention-grabbing scenery maybe, but the scale is inspiring in itself
© Dan Bailey

Tucked away in the literal middle of nowhere, south of the Cairngorms proper and north of not much of anything at all, the West Mounth duo An Sgarsoch and Carn an Fhidhleir (formerly Carn Ealar) must be among the hardest to get at of all the Munros. On these grassy hills you'll find little topographical drama, yet the scale of the setting has a subtle charm of its own, the attraction of open skies and silence. Lovers of big days out will be drawn by the sheer distance involved in any visit.

The route

An Sgarsoch

Carn an Fhidhleir (Carn Ealar)

There's no short route to these hills, and from the Linn of Dee, the customary and most convenient access point, it's a good 12km of Landrover track even to their base. I'm not a great one for bikes, but it's the first thing I reach for here, where the long gentle miles allow for only two options - a tiresome plod or a speedy glide on two wheels. That's the theory, at least, though on my summer evening pedal up Glen Dee it's soon obvious that my cycling legs are almost as rusty as the chain on my rattling jalopy. The saddle's set too low, and I've forgotten both bike tools and helmet. I'll just have to hope there are no punctures, prangs or mechanical fiddles out in the wilds; it's a long way to push a broken bike, or a broken me.

Two wheels beat two legs on the long approach  © Dan Bailey
Two wheels beat two legs on the long approach
© Dan Bailey

Easy gravel tracks lead quickly to the Red House, a remote cottage currently being renovated as a bothy. Beyond here though, the going gets tougher, at least by my modest standards. Top-heavy with an overnight rucksack, my rudimentary mountain bike skills are stretched towards their wobbly comfort limit among the rubbly chunks and deep ruts, and confidence isn't helped by the growing sense of isolation. I passed the last person miles back. 

Beyond a stony ford over a burn the horizons open, and An Sgarsoch rises into view. There's not a lot to catch the eye in this grass sea, but I can just make out the ruins of Geldie Lodge, a useful landmark at the point where feet take over from bikes, and the obvious place to camp for those who choose the overnight option on these far-flung Munros. Tents are already pitched, so I won't be the only one tonight. 

Feeling pretty smug about my midge-free bivvy  © Dan Bailey
Feeling pretty smug about my midge-free bivvy
© Dan Bailey
   

I drop the bike on the north bank of the Geldie Burn. After weeks of low rainfall the water is easily crossed. In flood there may be times when this approach to the hills is effectively barred. A grassy patch by the bank provides a good flat pitch for the bivvy bag. It's late summer, and I've taken a big risk with the midges. Fortunately the confidence pays off, and I can lounge about eating dinner unmolested in a warm, midge-beating breeze, while the burn burbles by and the sun drops slowly in the west.

Though long past the solstice it's light by 4am, and despite doing my best to delay the inevitable I succumb to the condensation and emerge, blinking, from my cocoon before five. As the stove bubbles into life the midges also seem to remember their job, and I'm left waving my arms around ineffectually while trying to sip coffee through a head net. Goaded into rapid movement, I leave the bivvy gear in-situ and get underway in search of breeze.

Distant Glen Feshie from Carn an Fhidhleir  © Dan Bailey - UKHillwalking.com
Distant Glen Feshie from Carn an Fhidhleir
© Dan Bailey - UKHillwalking.com, Jul 2021

Payback for carrying overnight gear is a head start on the round, and at this rate I'll be finished with the hills and contemplating the cycle out before most day trippers have arrived at Geldie Lodge. Cast in the clear low light of early morning, the huge emptiness around the head of Glen Feshie looks like a desert - which in a sense it is - and despite the inevitable photo faff and some tangled path-free heather, I'm soon up on the summit of An Sgarsoch for a midge-free second breakfast.

There's quite a drop between An Sgarsoch and its neighbour Carn an Fhidhleir, but a nice rising traverse across the steep grassy flank adds interest. By 8:30 the day's second Munro is in the bag. It's already a scorcher, and though I've miles yet to go I'm relieved it'll be downhill almost all the way. The distant swimming pools at the Linn of Dee are calling.

Start/finish Linn of Dee car park (fee) NO062897

Distance 42.4km

Ascent 1099m

Time 10-12 hours on foot; 7-8 hours if a bike is used on approach

Maps OS Landranger (1:50000) 43; Harvey Mountain Map (1:40000) Cairngorms & Lochnagar

Guidebook The Munros (SMC)

Monadh Mor and Braeriach from Carn an Fhidhleir  © Dan Bailey
Monadh Mor and Braeriach from Carn an Fhidhleir
© Dan Bailey

Terrain A long approach on 4WD track. A bike saves a lot of time here (particularly on the return) but less competent mountain bikers might find a couple of sections a bit rough. From Geldie Lodge continue on foot. The initial path is well engineered and easy underfoot, but on the ascent of An Sgarsoch the trail is relatively sketchy, and there's plenty of heather to slow things down. The return from Carn an Fhidhleir requires some tolerance for bogs, and you're unlikely to get away with dry shoes unless it's a drought. Aside form the overall distance, the main challenge of this route is crossing the Allt Dhaidh Mor, the Geldie Burn and the Allt a' Chaorainn, all of which could prove spicy after heavy rain.

Seasonal considerations An extremely long single day in limited winter light, so expect to be doing the approach and return in the dark. Thanks to the open, rolling terrain there's very little shelter in bad weather, and even the lower glens can be wild and exposed. In deep snow, skis may prove more or less essential.

Overnight options Geldie Lodge is the standard place to break the journey. Good camping around the ruins, and down by the Geldie Burn. When it opens the Red House bothy will be a useful base.

Public transport Braemar can be reached by bus from Aberdeen, but after that you'll need to walk, cycle or hitchhike to Linn of Dee    

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