TGO 2017 
Strathcarron to Stonehaven





How it all began

You  could say it began 25 years ago when the Shrewsbury Rambling and Hillwalking Club organised a winter week in Glencoe. Now I had started as a rambler and gradually progressed to the hillwaking bit - but this sounded a bit serious. Janet they said - get yourself an ice axe and crampons. We will have plenty of trips Snowdonia before we go to Scotland. We will show you what to do. So I got an ice axe and crampons. And I went to Scotland. February 1994. High pressure. Superb snow conditions - hard crisp nevee. Bidean nan Bian. Ben Nevis via number 4 gulley. Buchaille Etive Mor. Beinn a Bheithir. It was the start of my love affair with Scotland. I have kept going back in winter in the fond belief that Scotland is always like that (despite many experiences to the contrary). And the next trip to Scotland that they organised - this time a summer one to Skye - I was the first to sign up.




There came a time (In the Drovers at Inverarnan - the one with the moth eaten stuffed bear) when my old friend Neil decided to get a Munro guide and count up how many he had done. It was a bit of a rough and ready count as he had started on Whit Sunday 1959 on Sgurr Alasdair. However he came to the conclusion to his own satisfaction that he had certainly done about 170. So the cry went up - you must finish them. This involved me accompanying Neil on nearly all of the ones he had outstanding.And as we both enjoyed backpacking that is how we approached the approached the task.  He compleated on the Arrochar Ben Vorlich on a steamy wet summer day in 2003. By then I had done rather a lot too and he decided that I too should compleat. Which I did 2004 on Ben More, Mull. 

Of course we were not going to do the Corbetts. We had had a few years of hill bagging and now 
we were just going to enjoy the hills without any lists. But - we could cherry pick some of the tastier Corbetts that were in area that don't have any Munros. So - we had a trip to the far North. To various islands. To Ardgour, Moidart, Sunart. And of course we had to go back to Knoydart as Knoydart is rather special. To cut a long story short we finished the Corbetts together on Stob Dubh Beinn Ceitlein 26th September 2015. 


Neil on our last Corbett


By now Neil was 77. He refused point blank to even contemplate Grahams. In fact he had decided a few years earlier that his backpacking days were over. He was too inflexible to get in and out of a tent. Socks were a major problem. So I was backpacking alone. Neil keeps very active. He has been revisiting favourite hills, pottering round Shropshire and Mid Wales and nowadays mainly cycles. I join him on cycle rides (we did a very pleasant 55 mile circuit of South Shropshire Hills last Saturday - and no he does not have an electric bike). However my love affair with Scotland is far from over. There is still a group of us who have a winter week - geriatrics with crampons. But I think of all my friends I am almost the last backpacker standing (staggering).


The TGO


It was 2016. I needed a new tent. I had been carting a 2 person tent around Scotland on my last 2 or 3 backpacking trips. It was a fairly ancient Terra Nova voyager. Excellent tent but a bit weighty for a solo traveller and the outer was beginning to get brittle and degraded. Time for a new one. I went to Cotswold in Shrewsbury and there I met Peter. We had a very long chat about tents - where do you want it for he asked. Scotland - obviously. Aaah he says - are you doing the challenge?

Now I have vaguely known about the challenge for years. I have a number of friends who were regulars. But I never saw the point of backpacking with a few hundred other people. Peter was a Challenger. He put me right. Entries open next week he told me  - have a go. So I did. By the way we had great fun with the tents. Basically Peter ordered in to Shrewsbury almost every possible backpacking tent that Cotswold sells - and he brought in his own tent that they don't sell- and we spent a happy Saturday morning in the tent loft trying them all out. And since you ask - I now have a Hilleberg Akto. For some reason everyone else has a mid green Akto and mine is so dark it is almost black. Perhaps that is why I got a very good discount. Don't try to convince me you can be comfortable in an ultra light tarp. I like my creature comforts and the reassurance that my tent will not take off in a Scottish gale.


Applying

I think I bored Sue'n'Ali witless. Well the form basically asks what you have done in Scotland and I tried to give them an edited overview. Lets just say they let me apply. Then of course the anxious wait till I knew I had a place by which time I was well into route planning.


The Start Point. Strathcarron



Toe dipping at Lochcarron



No deeply profound reason why I fixed on Strathcarron. I think I started looking at Torridon, realised I could not go North of Glen Torridon, scrolled down South and came to Strathcarron which gives immediate access to some fine hills I had not visited in a long while. So Strathcarron it was.


This all looks like a lot of words without many pictures so lets cut the details of route planning, vetting and the sleeper to Scotland. Though I should mention the small select group of challengers waiting at Crewe station just short of midnight for the sleeper to pull in. And I suppose I should just  add a word about the train to Strathcarron, the meeting of more challengers including the legendary Alan Sloman in the bar at the hotel (although I didn't realise he was legendary then), the excellent B and B in Lochcarron together with the equally well known Marian and Mike Parsons.


Day 1 Strathcarron to Bealach an Soltaidh via Arineckaig, Sgurr na Feartaig and Beinn Tharsuinn


I began to learn about the challenge when I signed out. I signed out about 9.15 and it looked as if I was the last. A steady stream of walkers was heading South to Achintee. I turned North and assured someone that (for me) I was going the right way. I headed along the dead end road and track to Arineckaig passing the local brewery on the way - which I thought was a good omen. There is a path on the map which I didn't expect to find on the ground and the first ascent of the challenge was up through pathless heather - but then an ancient path rolled ahead of me giving easy access to some fine knobbly ground as I made my way to a little lochan before the ascent of Sgurr na Feartaig



Little lochan under Feartaig


The sky is blue, the pack is comfortable (despite being over 20 years old - I thought it was better than my all singing all dancing new one). A brief pause before the ascent of Sgurr na Feartaig with its stunning Northern views. Down to the Bealach Bhearnais I saw my first challengers since the start - like me enjoying a drink before the next climb. They were heading for Sgurr Choinnich, I was making for Beinn Tharsuinn. Apparently a friend of theirs was also on his way up Tharsuinn but I saw nobody until the tent was going up in the little bealach between Tharsuinn and Bidein a Choire Sheasgaich. It was quite an emotional afternoon. Many years ago - when my son was 15 and he will be 40 this year, we had a backpacking trip from Craig to the Cluanie Inn bagging a whole swathe of Munros and inefficiently leaving out some more. Ed's first Munro was Sheasgaich - quite a prize. I was using his map which was covered with his pencilled notes including details of the pitches we had. In fact I meant to stop at our first pitch of that trip which was by the little lochan South of the top of Tharsuinn but the water was a bit sparse so I carried on.

I was watching Mike - also a first timer - descending Sheasgaich towards my pitch. A fine example of challengers crossing paths in diametrically opposite direction having started from the same place. A good chat - he carried on and I settled down for the night.

Day 2 Over Bidein a Choire Sheasgaich and Lurg Mhor to Allt Loch Calavie. Over An Cruachan to pitch between An Cruachan and An Socach.


After the sunshine of day 1, day 2 starts in mist. I take care up Sheasgaich remembering it as a Munro that showed few signs of human activity. Rather more today - cairns and a footprints but still not a mountain gouged out with a munro baggers path. Up to the first little terrace it was fairly easy going. Had to look about a bit for the grassy runnel that leads up through the crags but took it slowly and carefully and emerged onto the top heading over to Lurg Mhor and as I was checking my bearing a runner appeared out of the mist. Obviously a local he nodded approvingly at the compass. Rather different to some of the lowland runners I know who are not much into careful navigation. Plan was after Lurg Mhor to head to Loch Calavie and Loch Cruoshie to cross the river but I reckoned that the ground conditions were so dry that I would be able to get straight down to Lochan Ghoblach to cross towards An Cruachan. Mist had all lifted now so I just yomped down. I had a pleasant time wending through the lochans in the valley - not sure I saved much in the way of effort or time but it all worked out. Now I am not, not, collecting Grahams but I really could not simply by pass a Graham as remote as An Cruachan just in case in the future.... Probably the hardest climb of the entire trip. Totally pathless, long heather on the northern side and I descended a rather bouldery strip to the south only to realise that there was a strip of grass I could have used about 150m away. Well worth the effort. I sat on the top looking at my objective of the next day. I could see up into Coire Gorm Mor and in particular at the ridge heading west out of the coire onto the north ridge of An Socach. It looked very tempting indeed - a bit of rock at the top but nothing to get excited about and the urge to head into this little visited coire was strong. In fact when I got to my intended campsite between An Cruachan and An Socach and couldn't find water my reaction was - oh good, I have an excuse to go into the coire. But I did find water and as a new challenger I believed I really needed to stick to my route. I would not be popular wandering into remote coires and experimenting with tempting looking ascent lines if anything went wrong so I behaved myself and did what I said I would do. 



Day 3 An Socach, An Riabhachan, Sgurr na Lapaich and Carn nan Gobhar





My vetter thought the ascent looked steep - in fact it went so well I was at the top before I realised. My ascent from Coire Gorm Mor would have been fine - I went to have a look. And then of course it was just a very fine day.



Sunshine, bit of cloud, few spots of rain and a snowflake or 2 that didn't amount to anything. A few patches of old hard snow. Not much in the way of water but found some just off the ridge. Heard voices at this point (I think) but saw no one on the ridge.


Finished over my antepenultimate Munro Carn nan Gobhar.
(I had managed to do the other 3 on the ridge but not this one and had to come back specially for Carn nan Gobhar and Mullach na Dheiragain, my penultimate Munro. That was a trip to remember. Just suffice it to say I will never again decide that a bivvi bag is OK for a couple of nights in Scotland). 
Then to Coire an t Sith. Had intended to go to the dam but you do not turn your back on a nice grassy patch near good water after 4 Munros.



Day 4 To the Fleshpots of Cannich


A gentle quiet wander down to Cannich. Stopped on the road just before the village and turned on the mobile. Main message was one telling me that Saliha had won Masterchef. I didn't want to know. Then into Cannich I met loads and loads of Challengers all with tales to tell of the first few days. Ate a very large lunch. Walked round to Kerrow House where Liz and John made me very welcome, washed my clothes, plied me with tea and cake and eventually sent me off to the Slaters Arms for another large meal. Most memorable moment is meeting one young very tall and strong challenger whose bag was so huge I couldn't lift it off the ground. His motto was "just in case". Then back to Kerrow House to be plied with whisky and lots of chatter. Liz and John usually only take bookings for 2 nights but as they knew me - I had stayed with them several times -I had a privileged one night stay.

Day 5 Cannich to Ault na Goire via Loch Riabhachain, Affric Kintail Way and a rather unpleasant boat trip

Sent off with kisses, good wishes, more cake - and misleading directions. Opposite Kerrow House is a track not marked on map. Does it, I ask, go over to Corrimony. Yes says John. Lovely man, not a hillgoer. It didn't. So I abandoned that idea (I wanted to get the boat at 5 and didn't want to waste too much time). Plan B was to go to Loch Riabhachain. By now I was getting a bit blase about my route sheet which said Affric Kintail way but I was trying to avoid road walking. The so called track under the power lines turned out to be a line of great tussocks and low birch trees and bog. Someone else had been there as there were fresh boot marks and I recalled some one asking about the loch on the TGO message board. The going improved in the forestry and the loch was pleasant but not sure as it was worth the effort as the fences stopped me going cross country to the road and I was forced back eventually to the forestry track. Anyway it cut out some road and it was a bit different.





From the Corrimony turn the path was very pleasant and is a bit of a linear social gathering. I meet - among others - Phil who has pulled out of the challenge early but is gainfully employed handing out cans of beer. I fall into step with Russell. Now this is a bit of an achievement as Russell is about 7' 4" and I am 5'1 and I think I take 3 strides to his 1 but we amble on together, he shows me the path to the fort which he goes to inspect while I - fearful of missing the boat (a quite unnecessary concern) head into Drum. You note that I have picked up challenger language here - not Drumnadrochit but simply Drum. Tea and cake, post some maps home, and off to the ferry.





The sun is bright the sky is blue but the wind is whipping up great waves on the Loch and the little boat plunges up and down and I wish it were over.Others enjoy it. I am just glad to get to the other side.



We disembark  (8 of us) at an ancient jetty with great warning to be careful. 7 of the 8 myself included walk in bright sunshine up a highly scenic road with deciduous woodland overhanging crags and the burn running in a mini gorge. Up the road to the fabulous Sutherlands, a warm welcome, a flat pitch and an amazing meal with lots of chat about challenges old and new. I am beginning to see why backpacking with 300 other people is not too bad.

Day 6 To Dunmaglass Lodge, Allt Calder and ruins at Coignafeuinternich 

After a  convivial breakfast in the kitchen the various challengers set off having dried off their tents all of which were affected by condensation after a very still and humid night.
 It's no problem as it is a bright sunny day and everything is soon sorted. Of the 7 at Ault na goire 5 are going to Glen Mazaran and John and I are going over to Coig na Fearn lodge on the river Findhorn.  Naturally we go to together. John is an American lawyer who has done some amazing trips in very remote areas but is afraid of bears so prefers Scotland to home.  We start through the village of Errogie and turn down a side lane to Farraline lodge then reach a junction where we have to head East to Dumnaglass lodge. John does not entirely trust my navigation and I have some sympathy as there is nothing on the ground save if you look very closely the most indistinct line through the heather.  However I lead him to a gate in a deer fence and sense he is beginning to trust me as we head through more heather and newly planted trees find a waymark post. At the lodge we find our way to a bridge and a huge new road building project. We head for the old track that is fine. Good surface very steep in parts but excellent  views. John tells me there is a bothy at the top. So there is but it is surrounded by windfarm construction.  Vehicles are whizzing round, earth movers moving earth and  blades turning. Only good thing is that we can use the tracks to cross some rough ground to the place where we need to start dropping towards the Findhorn.  John is extremely mistrustful as I make him step off the track and start moving cross country over the detritus that wind farms generate. However he is relieved when we start dropping easily down a water course
We enjoy some very pleasant country to the Findhorn valley which I immediately recognised although it didn't register when I planned the route that I had been here before. It is of course where I started to cycle up towards Carn na Saobhaidhe when involved in unashamed Corbett bagging. The ruins at Coignafeuinternich made for a very pleasant pitch once all the eagle spotters had gone home. 

Day 7 Allt a Mhuilinn, Allt Steallaig, Red bothy to Aviemore


Wake to warm sun and blue skies and the sound of multiple birds singing. As it is 5.30 I carry on listening for a while and sit out of my tent like pictures in TGO magazine doing my breakfast. My mate John also emerges. I think I can smell bacon frying but he assures me he has not been making a bacon butty.  
We then set off together. Our route today starts up a delightful watercourse on an old track.
I then discover that the track has been extended far further than on my (old) map so we make progress.  However the track then swings north which is OK for a bit but we need to head east. John is a bit reluctant to leave a track again but follows me across the heather. We have come a tad too far north seduced by easy going on the track  but I swing south of Carn an Radhaire over the 710 spot height and into the valley of the Allt Steallaig which is easy going to the Red bothy. The book is full of challenger entries. As we leave Alan and Dave turn up. Then up the Burma road. At the top we meet Phil again, this time handing out  jelly babies.  It's then an easy drop with views of the Cairngorms to Aviemore
and the bunkhouse which is a mistake as it is packed to the rafters.  Sleep may be an optional extra. 


A digression on maps, GPS, electronic mapping and and poles

I love maps. I can settle down on a winter's evening with a map as others settle down with a book or a favourite television programme. Of course it used to be paper maps which would be enhanced with old routes highlighted and criss crossing, marginal notes and quite often a hole worn in the exact place where you wanted to consult most keenly. Now more often it is memory map which is also criss crossed with routes marked here there and everywhere and little red flag waymarks denoting something that once I felt to be important but now have no idea what it was. Out in the country I feel totally naked without the right OS map. I have of course made innumerable navigational errors with map and compass and will doubtless continue to do so and I certainly would not say that no one should go out in the hills unless they can navigate properly with map and compass as it is an ongoing learning curve. When I first decided that I really needed to be able to navigate alone in winter I went to the Arenig on a misty snowy day and did some practise. I vividly remember a sheepfold emerging from the mist exactly where it should have been and the sense of relief. This is my blog and I can be opinionated if I want to - and in my opinion no one should be out in the hills without map, compass, some basic knowledge and a willingness to learn. GPS devices - well I was willing to give them a go. Purchased one, got it out of the box - couldn't work out how to turn it on. After several hours of getting not very far and bogged down with instructions I decided map and compass were much simpler. Was persuaded that if I bought another model I would have no problems at all. Bought it. Got a bit further than with the first one but not much. Besides think they have now been totally overtaken with mapping on smart phones. First revelation was OS locate. Brilliant app giving you a grid ref and with an electronic compass. Really all you need for reassurance and a helping hand when things go wrong. Then it was downloading new OS maps by rubbing off the silver layer to reveal the code. After a while it dawned on me that you could actually see where you were on the map with the little red cursor. Next revelation came when I decided to celebrate my place on the TGO by using the Viewranger offer on the maps of the TGO area. They are very useful. Reassurance. Useful when you are trying to look at a bit of ground that is on the join between 2 or 3 maps. Useful on my 2018 TGO when I walked off the paper map following a river to a place I could cross. Useful as you are dozing off in the evening and thinking in an idle fashion about TGO 2020 (or whenever the next one is). Back up if your map blows away or turns to papier mache in a deluge. Useful when your paper map is 20 years old and you come across a track that is not on your map.  Not, however, a substitute for a map.Not only the obvious points about what happens when you run out of battery or drop your phone off a mountain (that will feature assuming I get round to a 2018 blog) or deskilling by reliance on little red arrows. For me proper paper maps are part of the whole experience - and I mean proper maps not laminated postcards showing one day's route. I don't expect you to agree - it is just what I prefer. I like to spread the map out looking at a broad sweep of country not just a little snap shot. I like to say - what is that pointy thing over there, consult the map - aah Schiehallion. I like to be able to say - this is simply not going to work - I need a complete rethink. And have enough map to do it. And besides some of these much used maps are old friends. This of course means that I have to set in place a system of posting maps and self addressed envelopes along the route to receive new ones and send home the old - but only at locations where I can acquire a substitute if the postage goes astray. 
Poles. Much as I admire the athleticism of those who stride along with 2 poles I simply do not have the coordination. 1 pole - useful for all sorts of things, Testing depth of bog. Balancing or bracing on a river crossing - and especially saving the knees a bit on rough steep downhills. Besides - how do the 2 pole athletes know where they are going? How can you hold a map case and a pole in the same hand? I have been asked several times if I have lost my other pole. Actually they are things that I regularly lose - but only 1 at a time.

Day 8  Glen Eanich, The Argyll Stone, Sgor Gaoith and a couple of little lochans.

My concerns about the bunkhouse were, regrettably, fully justified although one could not have predicted the 2am uproar from the late revellers. I was glad to get away into what MWIS suggested was the last fine day before the downpour. Plan had been to have a rest-ish day and to pitch near Loch Eanaich to climb to Carn na Criche the next day but it seemed a shame to waste a good day. Once again I was using an old map that my son had used (aged 16) when we had a backpacking trip with his mate Ian in the Cairngorms. On that occasion we had climbed from Glen Eanaich to the Argyll Stone and had camped very near the summit of Sgor Gaoith. 

Seemed like a good plan. I set out along the cycle track alongside the B970 and then the minor road to Whitewell (hut circles and what I thought were cairns but may simply be where the fields were cleared.) At the road end I had a choice - left or right. Left looked more interesting so that is the way I went and was surprised to find Achnagoichan was a busy lived in property - I expected a remote ruin. Then track to Glen Eanaich and a heathery climb to the Argyll Stone. No one else seemed interested in Sgurr Gaoith today and I had the ridge to myself. 
Not much water to be found on the ridge today so I would have to move on for a pitch and I was rather pleased with my eventual choice, by 2 little lochans South of Coire Odhar, sheltered, good water and a fine view

As I pitch the tent I see a  party of about 12 walkers striding along in a crocodile all with walking poles over towards Tom Dubh. Can't be challengers as there are too many together and I assume they will be camping as it is getting a bit late to head out if they are day trippers. 

Day 9 Carn na Criche, Sgor an Lochain Uaine, Cairntoul, The Devil's Point to Glen Laoigh Beag

Some rain overnight but not too bad and when I look out in the morning I can see down to Loch Eanaich so visibility (for a brief moment) not too bad either. So I start to climb towards Carn na Criche. Weather does not improve. there are some patches of overnight snow on the ground and I think of my American friend John who was planning to camp at the Wells of Dee the previous night.By the time I get to the ridge it is sleeting steadily - not the day to do an out and back to Braeriach - its a day to get on and get down off the hill. This is the second trip I have been frustrated by the weather from revisiting Braeriach, my favourite Cairngorm peak. However, as my friend Neil would say - it is not going away. 
When I went over Sgor an Lochain Uaine with Ed and Ian - all those years ago, it wasn't a Munro (promoted in 1997). It was also boiling hot and we saw families of ptarmigan chicks - 20 or so little ones behind their parents- and  snow buntings. Apparently Ed got bumper points in the I spy book of birds for the snow bunting in summer plumage. Today it was head down, handrail the crags with all wildlife sensibly sheltering out of the weather. Coming towards me I met a dozen walkers with walking poles. I assume it is the party I saw last night as its a bit early for anyone not camped high. The leader was too busy pontificating about Scottish conditions to say "hello". How do people walk over stony ground with 2 walking poles and not get completely stuck? Or trip over? Maybe if I went to a nordic walking class I would learn.
As I lost height the weather turned from sleet to rain and eventually wet mist. I hadn't intended to go up the Devil's Point but it looked so small compared to what I had been over that it seemed ridiculous not to pay it a visit. Then down to the bothy where challengers were gathering. One was intending to spend the night there and at this stage that idea sounded rather tempting. The lovely Sue fetched water and demonstrated the magnificence of her jet boil. It certainly boils fast and I was rather tempted to get one but it is pretty heavy compared to my pocket rocket. 
So basically I sat around drank tea and chatted until the weather brightened up. There was lots of discussion of the bothy and pitches at Derry Lodge. I had never walked down Glen Lui and wasn't sure what to expect. I didn't know if the Lodge was still lived in and I had planned to pitch just before it. Well I was put right on that but it seems as if it would be a very popular place to stop. Mindful of the noisy night in Aviemore I saw no reason to change my plan unless there were no pitches where I intended. There was a very fine one by the river. Weather much improved and a peaceful night except for the thieving rodent.




Day 10  Glen Lui, Creag Bhalg, Mar Lodge and Braemar

In the tent porch I left, overnight, my breakfast. A bag of muesli with added fruit and nuts all mixed up with milk powder. I know I should have brought it inside but I didn't. Silently in the wee small hours I had a visitor who chewed through the plastic bag containing my muesli, ate all the nuts raisins and dried cranberries and left the boring bits scattered on the grass. After 30 seconds trying to gather up bits of cereal I decided that the muesli had to be abandoned. Fortunately I usually carry a spare dehydrated meal for an emergency unplanned overnight. This was not an unplanned overnight but it was an unplanned breakfast shortage so I had macaroni cheese for breakfast. Had a look round Derry Lodge and appreciated why people chose to pitch there. Challengers strung out along Glen Lui but I left them at the track up through the forestry towards Creag Bhalg. As I said, I am not collecting Grahams. Just thought it would be a pleasant viewpoint (which it was) and a mild variation on what looked like a trade route. In fact it was an excellent viewpoint (short hills surrounded by big ones usually are) with a misty retrospective over the Cairngorm. I yomped up through heather from the West but found a little path to the top which I descended which was a lot easier - and the track down to Mar Lodge was very pleasurable. 
Now for Mar lodge, another challenge institution. Counted all the marks on the wall enumerating how many challengers had passed through (To be precise, an awful lot). Marvelled at the size shape and packing of the parcels awaiting collection. Drank lots of tea and ate all the biscuits. Then into Braemar meeting (inter alia) my friend John. Loved the little welcome messages from Gordon's on the way in. The hostel didn't open till 5 so I dumped my pack in the porch and headed into town for some serious eating and buying of supplies. Maybe it was lack of calories that made me lightheaded but I managed to buy a multi pack of trekker bars in the Co op, emptied the cardboard pack and threw away the bars and retained the cardboard. So those of you who saw a scruffy rather smelly lady rooting through the bin outside the Co op, yes, I admit it. It was I. 

Day 11 Lochallater Lodge, Carn an t Sagairt Mor, Carn Bannoch, Broad Cairn, Sandy Hillock, Broom Hill. 

Braemar was pretty full. I met Peter from Shrewsbury Cotswold who was the one who encouraged me to enter when I bought my new tent, a very courageous lady from Finland who had gone to the local doctor for antibiotics as she had been walking on a poisoned foot for 4 days but she had chummed up with a German girl and they were going on together. Loads of challengers in the YHA but I have only one other person in my dorm a visiting French tourist and she causes no noise except a gentle snore so I sleep well. Fine and breezy first thing and I walk up the minor road past the golf club and over the river to Glen Callater  and Lochallater Lodge, another Challenge Institution. I am asked about my route and if I am bagging. "No", I reply "revisiting some old friends" which seems to be the right response.  Unfortunately it decides to piss down as I approach my first old friend Carn an t Sagairt Mor.  I find some old aeroplane wreckage but do not really remember the top till I start to descend. The ridge divides with 2 tops that look the same height and as I stop to consult the map I experience a strong sense of deja vu. I have stopped here and checked this before. The rain stops and it is fine easy walking over Carn Bannoch and Broad Cairn.  I can see a fine waterfall cascading into Glen Muich and Lochnagar on the other side of the Glen and when I look the other way I see residual snow on the Cairngorms.  
The plan is to pitch by the Waters of Unich, Why? Because I saw the name on the map and liked the sound of it. Found a Geograph photo of grassy meanders and fine pitches. I knew that the walking over Broad Cairn and Carn Bannoch was very straightforward as was the walking above Glen Clova on White Hill, Green Hill and the Goet so I assumed the bit in the middle was equally easy going. Besides there was a boundary line over Ferrowie and Lair of Aldarie. And boundary lines usually mean old fence lines. And fence lines usually mean a path. So what could go wrong.
Before I find out I meet a man on a cairn - John Jocys - busy studying his map. We chat - as you do when you meet another walker in the middle of nowhere and he asks me where I will be starting form next year."Glen Elg" is my immediate response. Apparently it is John's stock question to first time challengers - and if they know the answer he knows they are hooked.
When did I become hooked. Well before the end of day 1 I knew I was with like minded people in a country I love. In fact, I think I have been a challenger for the last 20 years but because I had never done the challenge I didn't know it. As for Glen Elg - well apart from the fact it is a very special place, I had also heard from John (American) about signing out in the cottage porch. Of course I had to start there.
I left John (Jocys) deciding his route (in my naivety I thought you had to decide at a rather earlier stage) and I embarked over Sandy Hillock. Which was sandy. There was no fence, no path,and as I approached Dog Hillock a preponderance of peat hags. Progress is steady but slow and more to the point it starts to rain again so I find a little sheltered spot by a watercourse (grass, not a peat hag) and put the tent up.  It then lags it down for an hour or so but I am warm dry and comfortable and looking forward to more exploration tomorrow.

Day 12 Somewhere near Dog Hillock, Ferrowie, Lair of Aldarie, Waters of Unich, Falls of Damff, Hunt Hill, Tarfside

It hammered down overnight  but the morning was one of those dream camping mornings with blue skies and a gentle breeze so I  breakfasted dried and aired everything and set off to my destination of the night before.  It is a good thing I stopped when I did as it would have taken about 2 hours to my intended stop. The ground is still rough peat hags but I take a cunning line around the hills to drop to the head of the Waters of Unich where  I see 2 others with big sacks.  I assume they are challengers and assume they will wait and have a chat as we are in such a remote spot but they rush off. Oh well, they clearly want to be alone. I assume they are cutting across to  nearby less meandering water course but as they clearly do not want company I stay with the meanders. However they are rather meandering meanders and eventually I decide I need to make more progress so cut across to the Burn of Longshank for a more direct line. I must say I find this section hard.  Maybe I have given myself too much to do and for the first time on this challenge I feel under time pressure as I am told if you want food at Tarfside you need to be there early.  Doesn't help that the path marked on (my old) map does not exist (having consulted a newer map I find that the path I was hoping for has been expunged).  However I get to the very fine falls of Damff.  It is a true waterfall where the water shoots off the end of an overhanging crag


I sit down, eat a great deal, have copious drafts of rather indifferent water and feel a lot better.  I then look at Hunt Hill my Graham of the day in a new and more favourable light.  It's intrinsically a very fine hill with dramatic cliffs overlooking Glen Lee and when I start climbing I feel better than I have felt all day. I enjoy views to Mount Keen and over the craggy upper reaches of Glen Lee. It's then a drop over the other side and an easy walk of 7 miles or so down the reservoir through Kirkton and along a very attractive path to Tarfside where the TGO takes over the village.  There are at least 50 tents on the village green and the local masonic hall has a barbecue and is selling beer at £2 a pint.  The atmosphere is convivial and it is explained to me that we have done the hard walking and the next 2 days are a social experience.So my understanding of the social mores of the challenge increases.

Day 13 Breakfast at the Retreat and a modest Corbett to the Black Burn of Arnbarrow

The plan was to go due North from Tarfside up the water of Tarf and follow the ridge to Mount Battock but I now understood that a minor route adjustment to the Retreat would afford the opportunity of an excellent breakfast. Minor route adjustment made I followed hordes in a sort of TGO conga to the Retreat. Good choice. Had a friendly chat with an 80 year old on his first challenge. He had to pull out before the Cairngorms as his mate retired and he did not feel confident enough to cross on his own but caught a bus and picked up on the Eastern side - and was obviously having a very good time. As was everyone else. With a calorie intake that would probably have done for about 3 days  it was time to press on. Up the track at Auchintoul I lost the crowds (and the road) but found a tower that is said to be a Masonic tower. No I don't understand either but it was a fine walk, a sort of twin to the one past the monument on the hill of Rowan to Tarfside. Using my old paper map I had planned to follow the track from Millden Lodge up the burn of Turret and over the burn up to Wester Cairn. A lucky navigational error put me on the track I knew nothing about which climbed Whupps Crag Hill of Saughs and up a path straight to the top of Mount Battock - where I met a fellow challenger about to come down the way I had come up. It is one of the aspects of the Challenge that I find most satisfying - that people following a perfectly logical and sensible route West to East can meet going in opposite directions. I was alone at the top and for the first time since Strathcarrron I can see the sea. It is a very emotional moment and I sit down for a while letting the whole experience of the last 12 days just settle in.
But not too long. All the challengers seem to have gone elsewhere as I drop down the Burn of Baddymicks to the Charr bothy. There seems to be life in the bothy but I have a hill to climb up the water of Charr.


Leaving the main track  and heading round Hound Hillock the going is quite rough and I am soon thinking it might be time to put a tent up. Why am I here? Well when I originally looked at the map I thought the narrowest bit of agricultural land to the sea was from Fetteresso Forest to Stonehaven so I started planning a route to Stonehaven, and I was very satisfied with it but... I then started reading blogs etc. about Fetteresso and windfarms and it really put me off. I don't like navigating in forests. You can't just set a bearing and walk the way you want to go.There are all these bloody trees in the way. And I didn't like the idea of unexpected wind turbines springing up and waylaying me. So I decided on a final day of quiet road walking up Strath Finella and South of Fetteresso. Furthermore, at Clatterin Brig, was a restaurant which might come in handy. So my final pitch on my first TGO was a fine level grassy sheltered spot by the Black Burn of Arnbarrow. I liked the name too. 




Day 14 Clatterin Brig, Glen of Drumochty, South of Fetteresso Forest, Kirktown of Fetteresso to Stonehaven and the sea


I woke at an early hour feeling very warm as the sun was streaming down on my tent. I.had a long road walk to do and decided to get going early to avoid the afternoon heat as much as possible. Something of an upset as I packed. I had felt very hungry the night before so I ate my breakfast cereal on the basis that I had a spare dehydrated meal so I could eat that in the morning. Trouble was that it was macaroni cheese which is pretty unpleasant in dehydrated form. So it proved to be as after I I forced it down my stomach rebelled and I threw the lot back up. So all I had were 3 cereal bars for about 17 18 miles. Well getting to the road was a bit of a challenge. My old map did not show the splendid track which I could have joined by going 300m or so further down the burn.  There was a fine track over Arnbarrow Hill. That must go to the road I think and stride along with confidence. Unfortunately it suddenly stopped by a grouse feeding area so my easy stroll turned into a heather yomp,a narrow strip of trees and some complex fields before I get to the road but it could have been far worse. Meet mother and daughter on their horses and have a chat acting as if climbing over fences is a perfectly obvious way to proceed. . Discover the B914 is closed in both directions and that the Clatterin Brig cafe does not open till 10. Right I think.  I have 3 cereal bars which I need to ration and I need to carry a litre of water. The burn by the bridge does not look good as there are cattle grazing upstream but a short way further on I find a good spring coming out of the hillside so I am sorted.This may be road walking but it is very pleasant along Loch Saugh and then through Glen Drumochty. The road is very quiet. It's lined with deciduous trees providing welcome shade. There is a fine clear watercourse running along side the road but most of all the spring flowers are brilliant and the scent is really heady. The road passes a Scottish baronial castle and associated church. It gets hotter as I come out of the trees north of Auchenblae but unusually I reach a part of the road shaded by an avenue of beech trees with a  beech hedge between the trees. I think of Linley Beches back in Shropshire as I enjoy the shade.  I then have a hot unshaded section but I making good progress and I stop under a small bit of woodland for a good drink and my second cereal bar. It's not long afterwards that I get my first view if the sea and I am on a roll. I had planned to go into Stonehaven via Fetteresso Castle and the old Kirk which looks perfectly feasible on the map but when I get to the relevant turning there is a sign "no access to Fetteresso castle" (it lied apparently) .So I carry on to the outskirts of Stonehaven which looks like an industrial estate however there is a garden centre with restaurant. I head in order lunch and a pot of tea and receive the congratulations of some local ladies who know all about the challenge. I eat drink and contact Chris (husband)  to arrange to meet on Stonehaven beach. And so it happens.




 A few other challengers are arriving most like me heading for the gourmet ice cream shop for a suitable celebration.  Chris then takes me back to Montrose via the spectacular Dunotter Castle.  At the event centre at the Park hotel I receive certificate,  congratulations,  t shirt and thanks from walk control.  They said whenever I checked in I was really positive and cheerful and it made a lovely contrast to those who moaned about feet,weather and everything else!

After a thorough shower and wearing my event t shirt I attend the event dinner with loads of bonhomie and Hamish Brown (yes the actual Hamish Brown) saying grace and presenting awards to those who have completed 10 or 20 crossings. It was quite an evening. 

And as soon as I get home I start planning my 2018 route from Glen Elg



  

Comments

  1. An excellent read - and it's always intriguing to learn how and when the first time challenger becomes hooked! Not me though - no, never again ... I've said that for the last 20 years 😉

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  2. As Phil says, an excellent read!
    It was lovely to meet you on the Challenge - and I'm so glad you returned. Very well done on creating your blog - and of course becoming addicted to the Challenge....see you next year then!

    Where did you say you were starting from? ;-)

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