(The Gear Loop) - Heading out into the Cairngorms on a 65km trek with a group of people you met the night before might sound like the opening scene from a low budget horror film, but that’s exactly what we did on the inaugural Fjällräven Classic UK.
Originating in Sweden, the Classic is an opportunity to trek through a stunning part of the world carrying everything you need for an adventure on your back. It’s a chance to slow down and disconnect from everyday life and share an experience of a lifetime with fellow hikers.
The first Classic in 2005 was organised by the founder of Fjällräven, Åke Nordin, to get more Swedes into the mountains, but the concept has now spread worldwide, with eight events taking place in locations from South Korea to the US. This is the first time the event has been held in the UK having been cancelled and rescheduled due to Covid.
The concept is to provide an accessible entry point into long distance trekking. As a result, you bring a tent, stove, and equipment for three days in the wilderness and Fjällräven will provide freeze dried food, a way-marked route and checkpoints to resupply with the essentials (including whisky).
We woke at Mar Lodge at the foot of the Cairngorms on an uncharacteristically sunny day. There was almost a hint of warmth in the September sun as the other 200 or so trekkers made their final preparations before the pack weigh-in.
Some backpacks weighed in at a svelte 8kg while others weighed a rather portly 24kg, although there were rumours that the rucksack in question contained four steaks and enough beer to stock a small pub.
From this moment, it immediately became clear that the Classic attracted a spectrum of trekkers - some were travelling fast and light whilst others preferred their luxuries.
Our 50-litre Klättermusen Bergelmer pack weighed in at a respectable 15kg, no doubt our carbon poled, expedition-ready MSR Access 2 tent helping to trim excess weight. We also had a host of other top tier kit from the likes of Altberg, Montane, Thermarest and Rab to test, which we’ll take a closer look at in another article.
The rousing sound of the bagpipes signalled the start of our adventure, heading alongside the river Dee as it wound its way through ancient pine forests on the opening kilometres of the route.
Meet the team
This is probably a good time to introduce the hastily cobbled together adventure crew. Anna, an artic explorer and Fjällräven ambassador who had more wardrobe changes than a west end pantomime.
Ian, a Royal Marine Commando turned photographer who is most at home in damp and inhospitable places. Videographer Jamie - who seemed averse to a camera bag, instead opting to carry his camera by hand for three daysand finally Neil, the source of endless Terminator quotes who also happened to be handy with a camera. Not forgetting Bilbo, Anna’s dog who possessed more energy than the entire crew.
The towering pines and lush forest floor dotted with toadstools soon gave way to a more typical Scottish landscape: wide glens with the giant, rounded hills of the Cairngorms looming in the distance.
No sooner than we had started, we came across groups that had stopped for a coffee, taking in the already epic views and basking in the disconcertingly good weather. In no rush whatsoever, we stopped and made a brew too, sharing snacks and getting to know our new companions.
Before getting into the real mountains, we had to visit our first checkpoint to get our trekking passports stamped. The checkpoints served a dual function, primarily they were for safety, so that the team of volunteers, marshals and mountain rescue service personnel knew where all the participants were on the route, and to make sure no one was left behind.
The other purpose was to serve as a point to take a break, make a coffee and chat with other trekkers. Certain checkpoints also offered resupplies of food, so we were never carrying more than a couple of meals to keep our pack weight down.
Climbing gradually for a couple of kilometres, the majestic Lairig Ghru opened in front of us. Some of the tallest mountains in the UK flanked us as we climbed, relieved that the weather was playing ball, as in poor conditions this would have been a very bleak landscape.
The sun was on its downward arc towards the horizon, so the mountains cast colossal shadows across the floor of the glen, the smallest snicks of light casting pools of gold onto the mountains opposite. It was truly a stunning sight and one that reminded us why the mountains are such a special place.
Another checkpoint followed at the Corrour Both, which was still bathed in autumnal light, and our attention turned to finding a spot to pitch the tents and make some dinner.
As the last of the light dipped below the peaks of Cairn Toul and Braeriach and the glen clung onto the dregs of the day’s warmth, we sat and discussed a breadth of topics that even The One Show would struggle to comprehend, while cradling an array of food that was in the throes of rehydrating. This ranged from pasta bolognaise to reindeer stew.
Eventually the icy winds forced a retreat into our respective tents and we attempted to recover from the days exertions before doing it all again tomorrow.
Waking with first light, the idyllic clear skies from the previous day had been replaced with a blanket of steely grey cloud. Scotland had returned to its traditional climate it seemed.
Packing up camp, we continued to climb towards the highest point of the route, the Pools of Dee. At around 850m above sea level, the climate here was very different to what might be found at lower altitudes.
On this occasion, a howling wind was whipping up the glen and we rapidly found ourselves in the clouds and getting soaked in the process. Another checkpoint ticked off and we pressed on, descending rapidly in search of more tranquil weather.
Enormous boulders and loose scree - that could break and ankle in a moment of instability - soon gave way to dense pine forests with tree-lined routes snaking across the trail. The remainder of the day was largely uneventful plodding, as the wide double track meant we covered ground quickly and the relatively flat terrain offered respite for weary legs.
With the next checkpoint a matter of kilometres away, thoughts turned to food once again, which always seemed to offer a welcome distraction from sore feet and heavy packs.
A longer than anticipated stop meant it was mid-afternoon before we skirted the sandy banks of loch Morlich and gradually left the protection of the tree cover behind and headed back out into the bleakness of the Cairngorms.
We had planned to push on and gain a little more elevation before setting up camp, but warnings came from Mountain Rescue that snow and 60mph winds were forecast, and if we wanted to press on that night, we’d have to continue for another 15km to reach an area that was more sheltered.
The thought of a 35km day wasn’t worth thinking about, so we joined what seemed like everyone else on the Classic and pitched our tents on what little ground was left.
The only problem with the area we’d decided to camp was the sheer volume of water underfoot. Yes, we’d managed to pitch our tents in a bog.
Alas, it was comforting to know that even the bona fide explorers and adventurers on the trip had done the same thing. It seemed everyone was walking, eating and sleeping in a bog that night.
Fortunately, the snow and strong winds didn’t make it down to lower elevations, but gazing up then glen was not a particularly appealing image the following morning. With even darker skies overhead, we set out in trepidation of what the Cairngorms could throw at us.
A lot, as it turned out. The ripping winds that we had been sheltered from lower down were now out in full force and the rain was pounding.
Towering mountains either side of the glen funnelled the weather straight across our backs and much of the morning was spent head down, trudging up a path that had since become a river.
However, the foul weather conditions did little to impact sprits of the trekkers we came across. A sense of camaraderie in the face of bleakness emerged and smiles were still visible through the rain.
Finally, the rain and wind relented as we summited the pass and began descending back towards Mar Lodge. Breaks in the cloud allowed fleeting pools of light to dance over the glen and light up patches of ancient pines in the distance. Rainbows arced across the sky, a fitting end to an epic adventure.
Weary legs, lifted spirits
Crossing the finish line, we received the final stamp in our trekking passes along with a sense of achievement, but also sadness that our time in the Cairngorms had nearly come to an end. But not before some questionable dancing at the ceilidh and traditional Scottish scran.
Adventures like this always remind us that the mountains possess special healing properties, they bring people together from all over the world to experience the same sense of simplicity and freedom from daily life. Suddenly, the most important task is finding water, food and shelter rather than chipping away at an endless to-do list.
Some 20 years ago, the founder of Fjällräven established the Classic with a simple goal; to get more people into the great outdoors and experience the freedom of nature and it is testament that after all those years, the concept still stands in an era where the world moves so quickly, we barely have time to breathe.
A date hasn't been set yet for the Fjällräven Classic 2023. But you can sign up to the newsletter to be among the first to know.