Hannah MitchellBASE Digital Writer Hannah is a Lake District-based journalist and all-round outdoor lass with a particular fondness for rock faces.
Last year, BASE writer Hannah Mitchell took to the trail for the first ever UK Fjällräven Classic, finding community, companionship and a change of pace in the Highlands of Scotland.
When it comes to walking, I often lean towards solitude. There’s something about stomping entirely alone, or in the quiet company of a dog – the lack of accountability, the freedom to find my own pace and to pause to observe mushrooms or birds of prey or eat snacks in silence and at my leisure – that suits me. So, the idea of walking a 65km circular route in the bustling company of 200 strangers was a bit of a daunting prospect, I’ll admit.
Arriving at the old hunting lodge in Braemar – that would first mark our starting point and later our finish line – felt more like stumbling upon a music festival than the hiking I was used to: rows of vans and clusters of tents, animated faces immersed in chatter and hands clutching camping mugs.
Ducking into the registration tent, my hiking companion Kat and I found ourselves met by deep belly laughs and Danish accents cracking jokes whilst standing in the queue. I’d missed the set-up altogether but received a welcoming pat on the back as the punchline landed. We were furnished with a map, trail passport, armfuls of dehydrated food and – my favourite – a Fjällräven trash bag for collecting litter along the way. Briefed in trail etiquette and now acquainted with a number of new hiking companions, we headed to bed already filled with a warm sense of camaraderie. Was it possible to have been converted to group hiking before even setting foot on the trail?
The first Fjällräven Classic took place in the wilds of northern Sweden in 2005, with 152 people taking on the 110 kilometre route from Nikkaluokta to Abisko, above the Arctic Circle. The concept was a ‘gateway hike’ of sorts. A route that presented challenge and opportunity in equal measure to hikers with a thirst for adventure who perhaps weren’t quite ready to go it alone.
Guided in part by back country experts but at the mercy of the elements, participants would carry everything they needed for the duration of the trek, camping along the way. The format proved a success, and interpretations of the trek now take place across multiple different countries including Germany and Denmark, and as far afield as the US and Korea. This year, the first UK inception of the Classic followed that exact same format, trading the glacial peaks and Nordic vistas for the glens, corries and lochs of the Cairngorms Massif.
The morning of our departure, as we tramped across the dewy grass to the start line, I was surprised to hear a cacophonous orchestra of different languages and accents accompanying the bagpiper who was heralding the start of the hike. A sea of backpacks from all over the world, festooned with bright orange trail tags were gathered. First-timers and die-hard Classic hikers, sporting patches on their jackets and bags from other events around the world, were wolfing down egg butties and necking coffee in the morning sun.
We set off en masse along forest tracks lined by the most dense population of vivid-red fly agaric toadstools I had ever seen. I wasn’t alone in stopping to admire them either. It wasn’t long before the crowds thinned out, the vast expanse of Scottish wilderness saw to that. Over those three days, we found a pace that placed us somewhere in the middle of the procession, snatching brief moments of cheerful chatter with those we passed and those that passed us. Conversation ebbed and flowed, perfectly balanced.
During the moments of silence when the wind and ‘smirr’ (light but persistent form of precipitation these parts are known for) prompted us to tighten our hoods, get our heads down and trudge, I was reminded of the words of Nan Shepherd. In The Living Mountain, an ode to the Cairngorms itself, Shepherd describes the equilibrium of silence and speech amongst walkers:
‘The presence of another person does not detract from, but enhances, the silence, if the other is the right sort of hill companion. The perfect hill companion is the one whose identity is for the time being merged in that of the mountains, as you feel your own to be.’
There was a common sense of awe, perhaps even more tangible because it was shared amongst those many hill companions. If not expressed out loud in acknowledgement of our spectacular surroundings, you could see it in the faces encircled by hoods, squinting into the sun or gently grimacing against the rain. Together we made our way through Caledonian pine forests, fragrant after the day’s downpour, and fields of glimmering, shattered rock surrounding the Pools of Dee.We paused on the sand next to the ethereal waters of An Lochan Uaine (the Green Loch), and negotiated a skin-tingling barefoot crossing at Luibeg Burn.
Privy to glorious late-summer sun, ominous grey skies and a liberal lashing of sideways rain, we made our way through the Lairig Ghru – the dividing valley in the Cairngorms
The emphasis on simplicity, slow-living and almost total absence of phone service for the duration of the trek was a relief for a chronically busy person like me
Privy to glorious late-summer sun, ominous grey skies and a liberal lashing of sideways rain, we made our way through the Lairig Ghru – the dividing valley in the Cairngorms. As night fell, we gathered, pitching our tents and warming our hands on sachets of gradually rehydrating camp food.
Coffee breaks and conversation are prized above personal bests on the Classic, it certainly isn’t a race. Each day on the trail was punctuated by checkpoints manned byFjällrävenfolk who (whatever the weather) cheerfully stamped our trek passports and sometimes furnished us with a cup of tea and a tattie scone. On one particularly fortuitous evening when the weather had quite dramatically turned, we were met with a much needed and well received wee dram.
That night, I picked my way by headtorch through a field of criss-crossing guy ropes to scramble up the heather-clad bank overlooking a patchwork of tents. Clustered satellite camps had sprung up over the last couple of hours, stretching to the other side of the burn and into the heathland beyond, safety in numbers, as they say. The emphasis on simplicity, slow-living and almost total absence of phone service for the duration of the trek was a relief for a chronically busy person like me. Momentarily alone in the dark, unrushed, unscheduled, uncomplicated.
Hastily chugging down coffee and stuffing the soggy tent into our packs, the skies darkened on the morning of the final day. My mountain goat-like companion set off at a strong pace – it was almost as if she could smell the beer waiting at the finish line. Once again any hint of a crowd thinned out as we began retracing our steps along the gravelly track that wound its way back towards Mar Lodge. The sudden solidity of the terrain made my legs feel heavy, and conversation lulled as we absorbed the last of the fungus-flanked paths.
Approaching the lodge, we were met by an almost eerie quiet as the flags of our basecamp danced into view. ‘Has everyone gone straight to bed?’, we joked in theatrical whispers. The near-silence was suddenly and riotously broken by clapping, whoops and cheers as walkers poured out of the communal tent to line the walkway to the finishing arch. Entirely unaccustomed to this sort of ceremony, our faint embarrassment quickly transformed to delight as our camping companions came into view, throwing their arms around us in genuine, hearty embraces. I couldn’t hide an ear-to-ear grin as we toasted our arrival with that well-earned beer that Kat had sensed many miles ago. This ceremony, by the way, was repeated for each finisher that crossed the line in their varying states of exhaustion and saturation, and in each one it prompted that same irrepressible grin.
There’s immense satisfaction and fulfilment to be found in the simplest experiences; in lingering a moment to look at the finer detail, in savouring that last sip of coffee or a conversation with a stranger-turned-friend. Walking the Classic was a gentle reminder to embrace a change of pace, to disconnect from modern distractions, schedules and our busy lives and instead connect with one another and the world beyond our doorstep. To quote Shepherd once more: