Our route around the Upper Deeside Watershed June 14-15th 2014

The challenge

Anyone studying the OS 1:50000 maps of Deeside can’t miss the long dash-dot line which defines the county boundaries in upper Deeside and marks the watershed between the Dee and other river catchments.

In the North the Dee/Don watershed is well defined at Hill of Fare and westwards, but coincides with the county boundary at the tops Ben Avon, and along a series of Munros and tops into the heart of the Cairngorms.  At Braeriach and the Pools of Dee, the line turns south with the LairigGhru to the East and the high plateaus above Glen Feshie to the West. 

The southern watershed runs eastwards from the remote Munro of Carn an Fhidhleir, linking a series of further Munros, ridges and tops, to Glenshee, Broad Cairn, Mount Keen, finally becoming less obvious south east of Mount Battock.

In the 100 miles from Morvern to Mount Battock, the watershed line only crosses the road twice: the A939 just west of Morven, and at the top of Glenshee.

And so, the running challenge! Many hours spent pondering what that might be, and many days spent in the hills checking the conditions underfoot. Over the last 20 years I have spent many a day walking, running or biking miles into the hills to spend a few hours on the watershed line, and wondered what a determined effort round the whole lot might be like. 

Much of the high ground in the Cairngorms proved to be fine running territory, grassy or rocky with only short peat bog or heather sections. The lower altitudes east of Broad Cairn in particular are however less attractive. It seems that the western half in the higher mountains offers the best running.

Invercaud car park 7am

And so Colin and I found ourselves at Invercaud car park one damp early Saturday morning, another car parked strategically at Glenshee, and 100km of what we hoped would be runnable watershed ahead of us. After 2 1/2 hours of gentle jog and walk, we were on top of the 1172m summit tor of Ben Avon in blustery drizzle, our first top.

Part of the plan was to see if a complete ’round’ back to Invercaud might be a candidate for a 24 hour challenge. This would involve another 20km between Glenshee and InvercaudBridge via GlasMaol, mostly runnable except for a few km of heather in the middle. The ‘Upper Deeside watershed’ round.

As we were uncertain of our speed over the ground, we decided to take bivi gear and enough food for two days. Kit was carefully selected, all excess weight rejected, and we were down to a base weight of 3kg each. This proved to be comfortable to run with, but marginal in the wet weather!

Progress was good through Saturday, mostly good conditions underfoot across the Munros and tops. Apart from a couple of DofE campers early on, we met no-one until Ben Macdui. The watershed is not for everyone! The first tricky section was the March Burn descent into the LairigGhru: steep, wet and loose. After Braeriach the country noticeably opens up – instead of looking a few 100m ahead for changes in the run, distances seemed to be in km.

The bivi
By early evening we were beginning to tire, and reached the 5km section of peat bog on the flatter ground of the watershed between the Geldie burn and the Feshie. This proved hard going, and in worsening weather we started looking for a place to stop. Instead of the idyllic grassy ledge with superb vista, it ended up as an anonymous piece of rain soaked heathery ground in the mist! Day 1:  13.5 hours, 62km, 3500m ascent. Dinner: Soup, pasta, one brownie and a cup of tea.

The next few hours highlighted the downsides of ‘going light’. We were using 500gm sleeping bags and fully dressed to keep warm.The bivi bags and lightweight mats were just enough, so the night was not completely sleepless. However I would recommend a bag with a hood for a biviin the rain! It did not need much motivation to get up early in the thick mist and drizzle all we could do was take a bearing on the next summit, and start Day 2.

Day 2

The country on the southern half of the watershed proved less runnable with long sections of peat bog and deeper heather on the tops in between the Munro tops of An Sgarsoch and BeinnLutharnMhor. We weaved our way through the worst sections, trying to find grass but not stray too far from the true watershed line. This had the feeling of ‘big country’, with long views and only the occasional hill walker.

Approaching the summit of remote BeinnLutharnMhor

By mid-afternoon we were wearily approaching the end at Glenshee, the sun was out and people started to appear. The watershed ridge line could be seen beyond, eastwards towards GlasMoal, Broad Cairn and Mount Keen, but we had completed our mission. Day 2: 9.5 hours, 39km, 2400m.

So what did we think afterwards?

Well it’s a fine line and a possible 24 hour challenge, but some of the going is wet and slow. There are many sections with no paths, but navigation was mostly straightforward, as the basic line is well defined on the map. It has a great feeling of remoteness, and indeed there are few opportunities for support or quick exits.

Any takers?

Nearing Glenshee at the end of Day 2