Ben Avon, Beinn a’Bhuird, and the Secret Howff

Disclaimer:  Ian has requested that I mention the fact that he has very successfully navigated to the summits of several munros in his life.  In fact, every one we have climbed together, bar Ben Avon, which is obviously ‘cursed’.

Just the thought of attempting to reach the summit of Ben Avon made me grumpy.  You see, previously Ian and I had two failed attempts to our credit.  The first time, a companion’s babysitting duties (and Ian’s shocking navigation) caused us to turn back early on a beautiful day.  You can re-live everything going wrong here.  The second attempt I didn’t even feel warranted a mention on this site, because it basically consisted of the following:

  1. Ian and I arrive at the car park with out mountain bikes, sometime in March.
  2. Ian and I look around at other walkers who are wearing a gajillion layers, and are equipped with such extravagances as walking sticks and gloves.
  3. Ian and I (in lycra running shorts and a long sleeved top) both agree that these people are amateurs and that we are far superior (and badass) hill walkers, and smugly set off on our way.
  4. After an arduous 5 mile cycle, an enormous snow drift blocks our path before we even begin our main ascent on foot.  We scramble to higher ground only to realize the entire munro is hidden under snow.  It is very windy.  I am very cold.
  5. We meet some walkers who inform us that they checked the mountain weather forecast before they chose their outfits, and they did not seem surprised when we told them we did not do the same.
  6. Ian gets annoyed that I am unwilling to risk hypothermia/death by continuing, I cry and shiver.
  7. We turn back, stopping only to locate the Secret Howff that we didn’t manage to find last time.

Unwilling to face failure a third time, and determined to get this over and done with, Ian checked the forecast and took a day off work when the weather looked like it would be on our side.  We left early, arriving at the car park at about 10, and setting off for the first 5 miles on the gradual ascent on our mountain bikes.

We both commented on how much less efficient they felt than our road bikes, which have been getting a lot of use this summer thanks to an atypically glorious Scottish summer (featuring special guests, Sun and Warmth).  In fact, the mountain bike section was a lot less crappy than I remembered it to be.  Hopefully this is a reflection of my quad strength.  Once it became a bit too life-threatening to continue by bike (at least for me), we locked them together near a burn (American translation: stream), and continued on foot.

We followed the path that I had wanted to follow the first time we tried (and failed) to reach the summit.  Ian, however, had decided to abandon the path and climb the steep edge of the mountain as his map reading skills led him to believe that the path would be the wrong course to take.  In case you missed what happened previously, the path would have absolutely been the correct course to take, an opinion I strongly voiced at the time, and for several weeks afterwards, when we checked my Garmin details to confirm where we were.

I am smug that I was right about the path.

I am smug that I was right about the path.

Eventually, we came to a T-junction in the path as we reached some very steep cliffs.  To the right, a steep ascent close to the cliff face.  To the left, a steep ascent close to the cliff face.  At this point, we realized that we must have had the wind to our backs the whole time, because once we had stopped it felt like we were in a wind tunnel.

“Left or right?” I asked Ian.
“Left.” he replied.
“You sure?  The summit definitely isn’t to the right?” I asked, because, you know, I wanted confirmation.
“Yes.  We’re definitely going left.”  I sensed a little hostility from Ian after questioning his judgement.

Left we went, climbing the very steep section where the path kind of disappeared, eventually making it onto the flatter section leading up to a summit.  I looked behind us, mainly to marvel at how steep the ascent was, and told Ian that I was glad we were doing a loop, because I didn’t think I’d be able to go back down because I’m such a wimp with heights and descending steep bits.  Especially next to cliffs with very, very, very high drops.

Quite steep

Quite steep


Steeper – to the right, sheer drops


Entering ‘all fours’ territory.

I then looked across to where the path to the right would have led, and noticed a very high summit.

“You’re absolutely sure that’s not the top of Ben Avon, right?” I cautiously inquired.  This was met by a frustrated confirmation that we were indeed on the right path.  About 10 minutes of steady climbing later, we were at the top, where we took a couple of photos and shared a pack of fig rolls (American translation: Fig Newtons).

Ian at the incorrect summit.

Ian at the incorrect summit (with the real summit off in the distance to the left)

Me at the false summit.

Me at the false summit (with the ridge leading to the second munro behind me, to the left)

Despite Ian’s certainty, I couldn’t help noticing that the summit across the valley we’d just come up from looked noticeably higher than we were.  I asked for Ian to point out where we were on the map, which he did, but looking at the gradient around where we were supposed to be, and looking at our surroundings, my heart sank as I became certain that we had taken a wrong turn, and that I would have to go back down the steep path.  To prove that I was being paranoid, Ian took out his Garmin edge and switched it on.  I sat back and enjoyed the view while it was loading up, and then Ian said, “Oh, shit.”

As if you couldn’t see this coming, we were not at the summit of this shitting mountain.  And yes, in order to reach the summit, we’d have to double back.  Before that, however, we decided to bag another summit which was a few kilometers away along a ridge, with very little extra climbing, so off we set for Beinn a’Bhuird (I have no idea how to pronounce that, so if you want to find out, go here).  I was obviously super happy that instead of a gentle downhill walk back to the bikes like we had planned, we were only halfway through the scary cliff part of the day.

At the summit of Beinn a'Bhuird

At the summit of Beinn a’Bhuird, with the summit of Ben Avon (the highest one in the distance) behind me.

At least now Ian knew which way we were going:

That way.  I promise.

That way. I promise.

After a couple of photos, we retraced our steps and headed towards the summit of Ben Avon.  Again.  Going down the steep bit was terrifying, and I made Ian walk in front of me in case I lost my footing – a human shield, if you will.  Finally, we were back at the junction, and then we started a long, steady ascent.  Again.  This side wasn’t quite as steep, but it went on for longer, before flattening out a bit with a clear path to the tors at the top.

After the steep bit, approaching the summit of Ben Avon.

After the steep bit, approaching the summit of Ben Avon.

Finally, several hours after beginning our journey, we made it to the summit, where Ian forced me to climb on top of the tors for the official ‘summit photo’.  I am not standing because there was a very real risk of being blown off the mountain (you may think I’m exaggerating, but I’ve witnessed a kid blown off his feet before, and yes, it was hilarious).

Summit of Ben Avon

Summit of Ben Avon

Someone is feeling accomplished.

Someone is feeling accomplished.

We shared our second packet of fig rolls, and started our descent, running into a few ptarmigans on our way.


Heading back, with the false summit just to my right.



Despite being behind schedule, we had decided to go a little bit out of our way to go to the Secret Howff again.  Ian’s late father and one of his friends had helped to repair it many years ago, and Ian’s brother had told us recently that he had carved his name into one of the wooden beams in the 60’s.  Obviously, since we had missed this the first time we went, Ian wanted to go back and see if he could find the name.

Ian outside the Secret Howff

Ian outside the Secret Howff

Sure enough, his dad’s vandalism from nearly 50 years ago was there!  Although it’s kind of hard to see from a camera phone photo:

Inside the Secret Howff

Inside the Secret Howff

We signed the guestbook again, and then hopped back onto our bikes for the luxuriously (mostly) downhill section to the parking lot.

After a hearty dinner, we both slept well that night, and enjoyed a bit of a long lie the next morning.  Ah, to be back on my summer holidays…

Today, my first day back at school, was a bit of a shock to the system.

How not to attempt to reach the summit of Ben Avon.

The weather forecast for Saturday was amazing.  Warmth, sunshine, no rain, no cloud, no snow, no hail (we’re in Scotland, so you need to check ALL of these things).  And what better way to get some exercise than a delightful trip into the Cairngorm mountain range for some mountain biking and cycling to break up the monotony of running.  Am I right?

Ian, Dylan, and myself set off early Saturday morning with big plans.  We were going to park just before Braemar at the Keiloch car park, cycle 7-ish miles, ditch our bikes, and then hike to the summit of two munros (Scottish for mountain with a height of over 3,000 feet), then cycle 7 miles back, making it back to Aberdeen with plenty of time to drop Dylan off at 6:30pm to babysit his nephews, and even more time for Ian and I to shower and make it to dinner at a friends.  We estimated that all of this (cycling and hiking) could be done in about 5 hours, seemingly a reserved estimate.

We arrived, a bit late, just after 9:30 am.  The sun was blazing, the skies were blue, and spirits were high.  We indulged in a light snack while we took the bikes off the bike rack, checked the map, and estimated that the cycle portion of the journey would take roughly 45 minutes, possibly an hour.  We were expecting good trails, beautiful views, and happiness.  This was our first miscalculation.

When we set off, we were cycling on paved roads.  Lovely.  Our laughter echoed through the trees, mingling with birdsong and delight.  The road turned into a dirt road.  How quaint/pleasant/charming/blah.  The dirt road turned into dirt tracks.  What a bunch of adventurers we were!  Although the pace had slowed (the entire cycle there was slightly uphill), we knew we’d be flying on our way back.  At this point there was little concern.  Then the dirt track turned into a dirt track cloaked by miniature boulders.  A tad on the bumpy side, and holy shitI nearly went face first into the ground but my ninja-esque reflexes meant I somehow remained on my bike.  Bastard rocks and the instability they cause.  Then…. what the hell is this?!  A steep incline on a narrow, bumpy path which forces us to push our bikes uphill through heather, rocks, and whatever else grows in hell.  This went on for, oh, say, 30 minutes.  It was unpleasant.  But FINALLY, we reached the place that the internet had assured us became ‘really good to cycle on’.

The internet is a douchebag liar.

While the path COULD have been pleasant, and time-saving, to cycle on, there were approximately 17 trillion drainage ditches that did not feel safe to try and jump/cycle over.  Some were shallow, some were deep.  All sucked.  We soldiered on until I heard a ‘Woooooah!’ from behind.  Dylan had a puncture.  Ian had to turn back as he was the one carrying the ‘bike emergency kit’.  Turns out there were two punctures on Dylan’s inner tube.  Here are the boys fixing this problem:

Ian demonstrating tire repair skills whilst showing off our group uniform of profuse back sweat.

It was a bonding experience for the two boys:

Proof here.

As you can see in the video, at this point, we were all still relatively chipper, though I had voiced one or two (thousand) opinions regarding being unhappy with the cycle path.  All ignored by Ian.

Proof that I am still smiling.

Once the puncture was hastily repaired, we set off again.  No more than 5 minutes later, however, we hit another delay when I tried to cycle over one of the drainage ditches, hit one of the rocks hard, and went flying over my handlebars in a spectacular fashion.  I had sense enough in mid-air to hold up my arms to save my face, and also to make sure that the face of my (not cheap) Garmin was facing away from the ground!  Unfortunately, this did not bode well for every other part of my body, as I hit the ground with force, and my bike landed on top of me.  Dylan kindly untangled it from my legs and I inspected the damage while Ian, who was ahead, came back to see what was taking so long.  I landed hard on my knee, and knew that I would be sporting a kick ass bruise for a while:

Bruise on the outside of my left knee, as pictured on Sunday night. Please ignore ridiculous tan line.

I also grazed my right forearm and my left hand, and parts of my leg.  It stung quite a bit.

Blurry photo of forearm

I also managed to fall in such a way that my vagina padding (I don’t really know how else to describe that particular area) landed hard on a stray rock.  It was sore, and remains tender.  No photo attached.

After brushing myself off, and being grateful that I had put long sleeves on during the puncture repairs, we continued for a while, but we were slowed down as Dylan and I decided to dismount every time we came across one of those pesky drainage ditches.  This meant that having a bike at this point was more of a burden than anything, and we convinced Ian that this is where we should ditch them.  Reluctantly (but wisely) he agreed, and changed into his hiking gear.

It was at this point we had our first time check.  What we thought would take us just under an hour had taken us just over two and a half.  Even with the cycle portion being mainly downhill on the way back, the treacherous terrain meant we wouldn’t be much faster.  If we were to get Dylan back in time for his babysitting duties, we had only two hours to hike.  Despite this, we decided to set off and see how far we managed in an hour, and then decide what to do.

I led the way along a path with a slow but steady incline.  I was already tired by this point, especially after a 10 mile trail run on Friday evening after work, but we were making decent progress, so we kept going.  Until we didn’t.  Mr. Map Man (Ian, who had delegated himself as the trek leader because he is just soooooooooooo amazing at map reading and all that) said that we weren’t on the right path, even though I pointed out that we were still heading in the right direction.  He pointed to a spot on the map where we “definitely were”, and said that the path would soon go back down the mountain before going up again, meaning we would lose all the height we had just gained.  Dylan and I looked at the path ahead which clearly climbed steadily before breaking into two paths, BOTH of which only went up.  I said I wanted to continue on the path because it was obvious that the path did not “go down” any time soon.  I was overruled by Map Man.

We went off the path and headed up a steep incline on the side of a mountain.  I was moody, and complained that as it was nearly 2:00 pm and I hadn’t really eaten since breakfast at 8:00 am, I needed food.  Immediately.  The Mapped Master said we could “reward our efforts” by eating at the top of the ascent.  I reminded him that food = fuel, and I was lacking energy, so if he wanted to see the summit, I needed to eat.  The compromise was that we would eat halfway up.  The beginning of this extra shitty experience is indicated by the red arrow on the elevation profile of our ‘adventure’ below.

Attempt to reach the summit of Ben Avon

We had lunch, continued to the top, and then tried to work out where the official ‘top’ was (the highest point – it doesn’t count if you don’t make it there).

Now, surely from atop a freaking mountain, you could see where said freaking mountain looked highest.  I located what I believed to be the top, and point it out to Map Man, adding that the path we were on looked as though it led straight there. He, after carefully assessing his precious map, dismissed my crazy ideas and pointed in the opposite direction.  We walked onwards, heading towards a summit that Map Man believed would yield a view of the official top once we were over it.  What it actually yielded was a sheer drop and about 15 miles of wilderness below.  Another careful study of the increasingly useful map seemed to indicate that the summit I pointed out, that we had actively been distancing ourselves from, was in fact the official top.  However, at this point, we only had enough time to turn back, as we had officially run out of time.  Ian was grumpy about this.

“The most masterful map reader on the planet” – Nobody

Masterful map reader, Ian, told us the ‘path’ (no path existed) he intended to use for the ascent was “this way”, and we would be taking it back down to the bikes.  We passed some cliffs and stuff, which for some reason, were not on the map in the place where Ian said we were.  He brushed many things off saying it was “an old map”.  My confidence in his navigation skills were plummeting, but we had some nice views to keep us sweet.

Loch in the mountains

We got back to the bikes (eventually) and Dylan realized his tire was flat.  We pumped it up, hoping that the speedy job we did earlier would hold up for 8 or so miles.  As we were running so far behind schedule, Dylan and I went ahead while Ian changed back into his cycling stuff.  You could really notice the downhill advantage (in between the crappy drainage ditches), and we were doing relatively well.  I stopped at the drainage ditch I had my fall at to take a ‘survivor’s photo’:

That round rock is the main culprit.  Ian in the distance.

And Ian approaching.

Just as we were about to get going again, Dylan heard a hissing sound from his rear tire (again).  Punctures number 3 and 4 had reared their ugly heads.

Puncture repairs, part 2

We were pretty much not having fun by this point.  The first attempt at repairing the new punctures was unsuccessful, and set us back even longer.  We were overtaken by a pair of cyclists we had overtaken earlier (they had a puncture) and we would overtake them again later (they had another puncture).  We were overtaken by walkers….  The clouds started to roll in.

Clouds. And mountain.

Knowing that we would be late, we tried to get a bit speedier once we got going again.  The OK-but-riddled-with-drainage-ditches section ended, and the spattered-with-miniature-boulders-and-scarily-downhill section began.  After my tumble, I became very friendly with my brakes, and refused to just let go and ‘enjoy’ myself.  Just as the rocky path turned into the dirt track section, Dylan’s tire went flat again.  It was decided that he would run, pushing his bike along, and Ian and I would cycle ahead and get the bikes onto the rack, and get the car ready to go.

When the track turned into country road, and then into paved road (downhill), I began smiling again.  We got back to the car and waited for Dylan, who showed up about 15 minutes later.  We got the bikes onto/into the car, and set off.

To cut a long story short, we didn’t manage to get to either of the tops we had planned to, Dylan was one hour late for babysitting, I am in a significant amount of pain today, and Ian has the navigational skills of a blind, dying goldfish (I may be exaggerating as yesterday is still fresh, but Ian has successfully navigated many times before).  It turns out, if we stuck to the path, it would have taken us directly to the top of Ben Avon.  It also turns out that where he THOUGHT we were for the entire journey was not where we actually were.  He was totally off.  He also, reluctantly, agreed that we should have maybe ditched the bikes earlier.

Ian, reading this: “Rachel!  That’s not fair!  I was only slightly off, and I got us almost to the top!”

Either way, we spent a sunny Saturday cycling and hiking through nearly 22 miles of nature, so it wasn’t a complete failure, unlike my ‘long run’ today.  I had planned 16 miles, but my body vigorously protested to that thought when I woke up this morning.  In the end, I managed 6 slow miles and called it a day.  At this point, finishing the marathon in 3 weeks will be enough.

And since this is a running blog, essentially, and features medals, here is a photo of the medal Ronnie got today at the Braemar half marathon (the colourful one), and the medal he got for the Moray half marathon last weekend (in the middle) along with the BRG Coastal Challenge medal we both got back in August for the 17.5 mile run along the coast:

L-R: BRG Coastal Challenge, Moray Half Marathon, Braemar Half Marathon

+200 points to anyone who actually read that entire post (redeemable in favours (non-sexual) by me upon earning 7,000).  Until next time!