Woohoo! I've discovered how to add a few little tick boxes at the bottom of each post, to enable readers to record their reactions. Do please use them. I think I've identified the four most likely responses ...

Monday, 18 January 2010

The 2006 Challenge: Introduction

The 2006 Challenge saw me planning my most ambitious crossing yet. I was fitter than I had been in previous years, having been spending a lot of time at the ice rink doing some serious training. Good, non-impact, leg-muscle building work which gave me a good cardio-vascular workout at the same time. Just what I needed to get me into excellent shape for a punishing Challenge.

The planning posed some interesting problems, too. I wanted to start from a good, northerly start point, and I chose Strathcarron. But this is not a straightforward start point to use, if you want to keep your options open for subsequent crossings. Stray too far north, and you foul the lines you'll want to use when starting at Torridon. Stray too for south, however, and you get into country that you ought really to be saving for a Plockton start. Balancing the two posed more than a few interesting questions; but I reckoned that I had found the answers, and so I travelled north with eager expectation of a truly memorable crossing.

I took the Inverness sleeper from Euston, and the afternoon train on the Kyle line. The scenery was spectacular, but I could scarcely see any of it. The cloud base was low and it rained incessantly. I scuttled from Strathcarron station to the hotel, and installed myself in the bar for an evening meal and a few drinks. And then, the following day, I would walk ...

Sunday, 17 January 2010

The 2004 Challenge, Day 14: Banchory to the East Coast

The last day!

I got up early, and hit the road. Another last minute decision to avoid unnecessary hills saw me abandon my original plan to follow the track through Rhindbuckie Wood and Cairnshee Wood, in favour of the little back road south of the Dee towards Balbridie and then the Slug Road to Crossroads, where I could rejoin my original route.

Believe me, that little back road was NOT fun. The locals use it as a racetrack, and I think I'd have been far better off on the tracks through the woods, hills or no hills! I therefore opted to take the track through Funach Wood (which was really lovely) rather than the road route I had put on my route card; and then I took the road to Meikledams and the path to Little Tulloch.

And it was here, less than 15 km from my destination, that I encountered my first really serious obstacle of the entire Challenge: for, just after the river crossing at NO 775949, the path was closed off with barbed wire. I looked for a way round, and there simply wasn't one. So eventually, and as I did not fancy the long detour which woudl be necessary were I simply to turn back, I hoisted myself up and over with the aid of an overhanging tree bough - runing my trousers in the process, which got snagged on a barb at the knee and torn right open. GRRRRRR.

I followed the road to Woodlands, then turned right for Denside, Upper and Nether Muirskie, Nether Craigwell and Mill of Monquich. The pub at NO855952 looks realy rather fine; but I had my sights set on the coast, and there woudl be plenty of time for drinking when I got there, so I pressed on.

Turning right onto the track to Backhill, I saw an utterly unmistakable silhouette coming towards me - that of a lady in riding clothes. I greeted her; and by virtue of that strange and inexplicable bond which undeniably exists, she knew at once that I, too, was a horse owner and rider. She asked if I was doing the TGO Challenge. I was surprised that she knew of it, but she explained that in previous years they had had lots of Challengers coming through this way - although there had been none for the past couple of years, so far as I was aware.

She then asked me a most extraordinary question.

"How long is it since you had a good cup of coffee?"

This lady's name was barbara Winmill, and she lived in the house by the track at NO857948. In no time I found myself invited in for coffee; and the offer quickly expanded to include a sandwich - and then finally lunch. The rain was pelting against the windows, and I was not particularly anxious to head straight back out into it, so I accepted. We chatted away about our various exploits. I told her of the Challenge, and of the trials and tribulations of competing in TREC competitions with my little cob mare Whisky. She, in turn, told me of the Silver Boot - a remarkable long-distance trail-riding competition in which she had been invited to compete for the first time that year. I wonder how she got on. I ought to try to find out, I suppose.

Eventually I had to press on. It had been raining on and off all morning, but now there was a steady curtain of rain and I had all my waterproofs on. I somehow missed the path to West Stoneyhill and so turned left at Backhill through Cookney and Harecraig. Approaching Cookney, I encountered a bull. I cannot now recall the encounter at all, but it is clearly marked on the map and obviously made a significant impression at the time (although evidently not so great as the impression made by Barbara Winmill, whose kind hospitality I still recall so clearly!)

At Cairnhill I rejoined my planned route, through Windyedge, and over the A90 on the bridge that took me into Newtonhill.

As I strode down off the bridge, the rain finally stopped and the sun came out; and for the final kilometre of my challenge, I was walking in bright sunlight with little clouds of evaporating rainwater rising from the pavement at my feet. It was a truly memorable end to my second TGO CHallenge!

The 2004 Challenge, Day 13: Aboyne to Banchory

I crossed the bridge and left Aboyne safely behind me, taking the back road to Mains of Balfour and the track to Allencreich. My route card pretended that I was going to take a rather roundabout way through the woods, past Balnacraig House to Hunter's Lodge and then through Potarch to Tillenteach; but I opted for the rather more direct route via Marywell and Birkenhill. As the end of a Challenge draws near, these round-the-houses detours which looked so enchanting back in December when you were planning the route tend to have this habit of looking ever less enchanting!

At Tillenteach I turned right onto the road, and then left onto the track through Slewdrum Forest. There were forestry operations in progress, and some of the tracks were closed - so I ended up following the path on the south bank of the Dee all the way to Bridge of Dee. Which is all very well, except that on arriving at the bridge I found myself on the wrong side of a large, imposing gatehouse and a pair of very impressive wrought-iron gates, which were locked! Fortunately, however, the gatekeeper saw me contemplating the problem of how to get over them, and came out and unlocked them for me!

I crossed Bridge of Dee, and took a pitch on the caravan site on the north bank (back then they allowed tents; I do not believe they do any longer - although I have to say that on the other side of the road it is possible to geet down to the riverbank, and this would make a very fine pitch for the night!

I did not feel particularly keen on cooking for myself that evening - so I went and had a very fine meal at the Banchory Lodge hotel. The place is eye-wateringly expensive; but well worth it.

The 2004 Challenge, Day 12: Forbestown to Aboyne

My route card said that today, the Tuesday of the second week of the Challenge, I would walk back to Bellabeg and take the track through the woods south of the River Don. But my legs told me they'd just about had it with hills, and there are more than a few contour lines in that part fo the world. So instead, I turned left out of the hotel onto the main road, and then turned off through Heugh-Head and Semeil to reconnect with my planned route at White Hill.

I fillowed the road through Rippachie and took the track over Gallows Hill to Lazy Well. There is a lunch hut here, but it was kept locked; so it would not be available for an overnight stop on another occasion.

Back roads took me through Tarland - an absolutely charming little town - and onward to Culblean Cotts where, once again, my route card said I would take a track across a wooded hillside but my legs told me otherwise. So I headed south to Coull and followed the track at the edge of the woods, and then came down through the grounds of Aboyne Castle and into Aboyne.

The hotel in Aboyne was one of the most run-down places I have ever stayed. The room was large and comfortable; but the decor was shabby, and evening meals were not served. It is a crying shame to see a once-fine hotel reduced to a mere shadow of its former self, but there it is.

I had an evening meal at a rather fine restaurant down by the bridge, and was pleased to be away from Aboyne the following morning.

The 2004 Challenge, Day 11: Descending the Ladder

My plan for Day 11 was to walk the ridge of the Ladder Hills - Monadh ant-Stuichd Leith, Carn Mor, Dun Muir, and Little Gael Charn, then take the path down beside the Coulins Burn to Glenbuchat Lodge and ridge walk Ladylea Hill, Clashenteple Hill, Mid Hill before taking the track round below Corlich Hill to Forbestown and the Colquhonnie Hotel.

It was a short day - only 21 km or so. But waking up to an overcast day, having had no supper the night before, even this seemed a long way. AND there was the question of water. I had less than half a litre remaining, and would not get a chance to collect more for over 8 km.

I didn't feel like cold beans and bacon, any more than I had felt like cold chicken hot pot. So I ate my lunch for breakfast (my lunches consisting, typically, of a variety of cereal and flapjack bars with impressively high calorific content) and decided to try to make the Colquhonnie in time for lunch.

I walked the ridge as far as Dun Muir (cos Carn Mor is the Corbett of the Ladder Hills, and I could hardly miss that) then took the track down over Finlate Hill to Duffdefiance (which turned out to be nothing more than a ruin). Walking through the woods of Glen Nochty, I had my waterproofs on and off half a dozen times, as first it began to rain heavily; then if cleared up and was too hot to wear them; and so on. I stayed to the north of the Water of Nochty and made good time through Tornagawn and Ledmaday. In Bellabeg, they were taking down the marquee from the Strathdon gathering, whcih had taken place there the day before.

And I was, indeed, in the bar of the Colquhonnie before 1 pm.

I ordered a pint, and asked for a menu.

"Kitchen's closed on a Monday," the proprietor said.

Oh.

I explained my situation; and bless him! The dear man went and cooked me scampi and chips himself. And it was VERY good scampi and chips.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

The 2004 Challenge, Day 10: Never Say No To A Tuna Salad

The tenth day started overcast, but soon cleared and turned into another gloriously hot day. I gave the shorts a miss; and I gave the summit of Big Garvoun a miss too, although I had planned to go there. Instead, however, not feeling like asacent so early in the day, I contoured round the top of the Coire Grealach and then dropped down the south shoulder of Big Garvoun and followed the track to the bridge over the River Avon. Here I joined up with another couple of Challengers who were making their way down Glen Avon towards the Linn, possibly after an early start from Faindouran bothy.

We walked together as far as Inchrory, where they turned onto the track east to Inchmore. I, however, was heading back up - up Carn Bad a Ghuail, and then all the way along the ridge to Beinn a' Chruinnich. There are no water sources on that ridge, so I drained my water bottles at Inchroroy, refilled them, waited for the purification tablets to do their bit, and drained them again. Then I refilled them, dropped purification tablets into each, and set off up the hill. I was only carrying two water bottles this year - so I had a litre of water to keep me hydrated for the whole of the ascent, the ridge walk, and the descent at the far end. That's twelve kilometres of walking with some 670 metres of ascent.

It is a delightful ridge walk, especially on a clear day such as this. I enjoyed it immensely; and at the end of the challenge, when I met my companions from the morning again at Montrose, they said they'd watched me up on the skyline and I'd been going at a cracking pace. But needless to say, a litre of water was hopelessly insufficient for my needs no mater how carefully I tried to steward it. It was all gone before I topped out on Tolm Buirich; and the two kilometres from Carn Ealasaid to Beinn a' Chruinnich was really tough.

But worst of all was the descent from Beinn a' Chruinnich, down the northern ridge and then on the track to the road. Walking across the south flank of Tom Garhb-bheinne, absolutely gasping, I could hear the stream away to my left, chattering and burbling, mocking me as it cascaded down the mountainside at the bottom of a deep defile. But I couldn't reach that stream to refill my bottles until I was practically at the road!

When, finally, the path levelled out and I could get to the desperately needed water, there was a couple in their early thirties sitting enjoying a picnic in the afternoon sun. As I gulped down great quantities of water (not, on this occasion, troubling to purify it first) they greeted me, and asked if I would like some pastries. They offered me a great tupperware box full of toothsome treats and told me to have as many as I wished. I thanked them, and took a modest two or three. They were very fine pastries, and most welcome.

"We've got some more leftovers here if you'd like," they said, and proffered another tupperware box full of tuna salad.

I looked at it for a moment or two. It looked very appetising. But then again, I was looking forward to a Wayfarer chicken hotpot when I finally reached my campsite in the Ladder Hills; but in order to get to it, I'd need to ascend Carn Dulack. I didn't fancy doing that on a full stomach, so I thanked them but declined their kind offer.

I walked up the road to Well of the Lecht, then turned left onto the path up Carn Dulack (after a suitable pause at the rather fine picnic site, reading the fascinating information boards and just generally soaking up the late evening rays). When I reached the ridge I turned right and followed it round and off the edge of the map. It's a somewhat peaty ridge, and you have to take care where you're treading. But it's easy walking apart from the occasional boggy bits.

My plan had been to follow the ridge to Carn Liath, then drop a little way down the eastern flank and pitch beside the streams at or about NJ258160. But in the early evening, with the sun slowly sinking far away in the western sky, I didn't feel like doing that final kilometre of peaty ridge with its 50 odd metres of climb, and all for the sake of a 792 metre top that wasn't even a Corbett. So I just pointed myself straight for NJ259165 and an early appointment with my chicken hotpot.

I arrived at my planned campsite, and found to my horror that the stream was dry. I could hear running water somewhere down below. But it was far, FAR below. I estimated at least a hundred metres below. The hillside was steep, and I was aiming to regain the ridge first thing the following morning. Wainwright's rule again ... don't drop that hundred metres if you don't have to. I still had a little over half a litre of water, which was plenty. I could cook my hotpot and leave the pan unwashed, dealing with it some time the next day when I had a suitable source of washing up water. OK, so it's not ideal - but it's hardly a disaster.

So I pitched my tent, then looked around for a suitable flat rock to put my stove on.

There wasn't one.

And the hillside was all heather.

DRY heather.

TINDER dry heather.

I stroked my chin, sucked my teeth, and decided that maybe the stove had beeter stay in my rucksack. I didn't want to go setting the mountain on fire, after all.

Now one of the joys of Wayfarer meals is, of course, that you don't actually HAVE to heat them up. They are pre-cooked and CAN be eaten cold if you absolutely have to. But I didn't fancy cold chicken hotpot. Really I didn't. So I just curled up in my sleeping bag, nibbled my way through a slab of Kendal mint cake, and went to sleep wishing I hadn't turned down that tuna salad.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

The 2004 Challenge, Day 9: Skirting the Cairngorm

After a wonderful breakfast in the guest house, I headed south through Abernethy Forest, taking the tracks by way of Forest Lodge and Rynettin. This was uneventful woodland walking, climbing steadily the whole time, pleasant enough in its own way, but hardly anything to write home about.

When I reached the edge of the tree line, however - well, WOW! Now there was something worth seeing. It was a lovely clear day, the sun shining bright on the clear tops of Cairn Gorm and the Bynacks Beg and More.

I stopped for lunch at Ryvoan Bothy - a delightful little bothy, very well appointed. I suspect its proximity to Glenmore Lodge may well account for the pristine order in which it is maintained. I read the comments in the bothy book, then added a few of my own.

As I ate my lunch, a string of ponies hove into sight. Their riders dismounted to eat their lunch on the grass below the bothy. I exchanged a few words with the ride leaders, and discovered that they are from a stables which arranges a variety of multi-day trail rides through the wilds of Scotland. Being a Challenger with horses of my own, I could see the attraction ... but the logistics of doing it with a dozen ponies must be absolutely mind-blowing!

I headed on past Bynack Stable, at the foot of Streath Nethy. I noted that, should the bothy be full, this was at least a usable shelter of sorts ... but don't go noting that on your maps, guys and girls, because when I passed through on the 2009 Challenge the stable had come down in a storm and there was nothing left of it. Ah well ...

My planned route was to stay on the path as far as Coire Odhar, then turn off to Carn Dubh and walk the ridge north of Glen Avon. But as I headed up that path, I kept looking up at the beautiful, clear top of Bynack More, and wondering what it would be like up there on a bright sunny day like this. And believe me, if this had been the 2000 Challenge, I would have gone and had a look.

But this wasn't the 2000 Challenge. It was the 2004 Challenge, and I was trying to satisfy myself that I could complete a crossing without sparking another asthma attack from over-exertion. And I was walking solo, which meant that I couldn't afford to risk provoking another asthma attack in any event, because there woudl be nobody to help or even raise the alarm. And to top it all, my planned route for the day already stood at something like 30 kilometres, or possibly a little more. Even if I just went up to the top of Bynack More and came back down the way I had come, it was going to add 4 kilometres and nearly 300 metres of ascent. Call it an extra two hours on the day.

I was sorely tempted ... but I resisted. And to this day I bitterly regret that decision. It was the PERFECT day for going high, and I was close enough to bag Bynack More with only a pretty minor detour from my route. If I'd known that there was a wonderful spot where I could have pitched short if I needed to, I wouldn't have hesitated. But I didn't discover that until later. And of course, you can be sure that if I plan another crossing route that aims to go up there, the weather will force me down onto my FWA; whereas if I go for it some time when I'm not on the Challenge, it's going to be a full day's outing rather than simply a 2 hour detour. So why didn't I just do it when I had the chance? Stupid, stupid, STUPID.

Except, actually, no. It wasn't stupid at all. It was sensible. It was the right decision. And let's face it, I hadn't been making very many right decisions so far this crossing!

I had to pick my way a bit through the peat of Coire Odhar to get to Carn Dubh; but once I got there, the ridge walk was glorious (although, in retrospect, I shouldn't have doen it in shorts; and by the time I reached my camp site my legs were somewhat more sun burned than was wise). Heading due east from Carn Dubh to hill 748, I noted that the Glasath valley offered soem truly spectacular camping spots; but I was pressing on further. Hill 742, Monadh nan Eun, the wonderful ridge that is Little Drum Loin and Little Garvoun. I then dropped down to find a nice sheltered place to pitch at about NJ 135082. I put up the tent, cooked and enjoyed a lovely evening meal, and then ever so gingerly slid my bright red legs into my sleeping bag ...

The 2004 Challenge, Day 8: Down Through Grantown To Nethy Bridge

The morning was cold and drizzly; but the cloud base was high and visibility good. I struck camp and considered my options, given that I was in the wrong place but knew pretty much exactly where I was. There seemed to me to be three alternatives:

1. Head back down the track towards Lochindorb, find the path off to Loch an t-Sichean, and follow it. That would add about 4 km to the day. Since it was supposed to be a shortish day of only some 17km, this was hardly what I'd call a disaster.

2. Climb the hill to my east, Carn Sgriob, and drop down the other side onto my intended route.

3. Skirt round the southern side of Carn Sgriob and rejoin my intended route where possible.

OK, so I don't like retracing my steps where I can avoid it, particularly where it involves breaking Wainwright's Rule, so that ruled out option 1. Option 2 involved not just ascent, but ascent into some pretty spiky looking outcrops. Not necessarily a good idea with a whole load of expedition kit on your back. So that ruled out option 2. What remained was a pleasant little jaunt round the south of Carn Sgriob which added no more than 3 km to the day's proceedings. They weren't a particularly difficult 3 km either, as there are some old drainage cuts which give you nice easy straight lines to follow across the hillside, walking on the little embankments where the spoil was thrown aside.

I guess the drainage cuts date back to the days when Easter Rynechkra was a working farm. Now, however, it is no more than a ruin - and a dangerous ruin at that. I took a good look at it to determine whether it might be usable as an emergency shelter should conditions require it. My conclusion, however, was that it was in too bad a state; and that any storm which was bad enough to compel me to search for an emergency shelter was also likely to bring bits of it tumbling down on my head. Which is a shame, because once upon a time this was a rather attractive little steading.

From Easter Rynechra I took the path north. I cannot recall now whether or not the more easterly path was apparent on the ground; but it drops 50 metres to cross a stream, only to gain it again straight afterwards. So Wainwright's Rule guided my thinking. I then turned right onto the path that I should have been following from Loch an t-Sidhein, and followed it down past Foal's Well to Wester Gorton. This is a good path I made excellent progress.

From Wester Gorton my planned route was to follow the path to the south and so into Grantown-on-Spey; but in the event I took the path through Dreggie. I cannot recall my exact reasoning now; but I think it may have had something to do with the fact that this path took me past the Caravan Club campsite where, being a member (I know ... how sad is that? But it comes to us all eventually) I made use of the ablutions block then bought myself a white chocolate Magnum from the freezer cabinet in the club shop. As I sat there eating it, I remember reflecting on the fact that the marketing people over here all made a big thing of "the moment when the chocolate cracks", and yet I had heard a story that they employ a food scientist whose sole purpose in life is to find a way to STOP the chocolate on a Magnum from cracking. You see, they sell these things all over the world, and in some hotter climates the chocolate doesn't so much crack, as shatter ... and then fall straight to the ground in little pieces. Not good. Just don't tell the marketing men!

I walked through Grantown with scarcely a second look, through the forest to Anagach and on to Speybridge. After a short stop at the estate office to beg a refill for my water bottles (I usually find that estate offices are very firendly in such matters; and will generally provide you with valuable intelligence on any shooting paties that may be out at the same time, which is always worth knowing) I crossed the Spey and headed up towards the smokehouse. From here it was just another 7 kilometres on the Speyside Way; which at this point follows the route of the old Great North of Scotland Railway line from Craigellachie to Boat of Garten. The Great North of Scotland reached Boat of Garten via running powers over Highland Railway metals from a junction just to the south west of Croftnahaven. This section of the Highland Railway's line has been restored as the Strathspey Railway; but the Great North line is unlikely to rise again, alas.

The walking along the old track bed was easy, and I watched the fishermen down in the river seeking out the salmon. Can't say I saw any of them catch anything, but they seemed to be enjoying themselves at any rate.

I reached Nethy Bridge about mid-afternoon, and sought out my guest house. I'd wanted to stay at the Nethy Bridge Hotel, but they were fully booked. My guest house, however, was right next door, and I soon found why the hotel was fully booked: it was hosting a gathering of the Rolls Royce Owners Club of Scotland. When I arrived, there were already about three or four dozen classic Rolls Royces and Bentleys, many from the 1960s, the 1950s or even the 1930s, all neatly drawn up in the hotel car park and lining the road in front. And throughout the afternoon more of them kept arriving. Beautiful machines, the cream of British engineering, a joy to behold. And worth being kept out of the hotel to see. Not, of course, that I had any complaints with my guest house. The proprietor was a lovely lady who was more than happy to let me pitch my tent on her front lawn so that it could dry out, and her 8-year old son was fascinated by the proceedings - more so than the cars, if truth be known. He had never seen a tent so small, and was absolutely delighted when I told him that his reward for helping me peg it out was to be allowed to sit in it if he wanted. How easy it is to please small children!!

The 2004 Challenge, Day 7. Who Knows Where??

Day 7 of the 2004 Challenge was supposed to be a long day - about 31 km long - and I always knew it was going to be tough. But it got considerably tougher after an (ahem!) "interesting" start, which made my experiences trying to get from Glen Clova to Loch Lee on the 2000 Challenge look tame.

What follows is NOT a tale of good, accurate, pinpoint micro-navigation.

The plan was to ascend Carn nan Tri-tighearnan, head north east over the open hillside, and follow the track down Meur Tuath to Drynachan Lodge - where there is a nice inviting bridge over the Findhorn. In the early morning light, however, I looked at the heathery hillside behind the lunch hut, and I looked at the good made-up track up the Allt Odhar, and I decided that I would follow the track to its end and only then head up the open hill.

Which would have been OK as a plan IF the track had ended where it runs out on the map. But it didn't. And LONG after it should have been obvious that I had continued climbing way, way beyond the point that it gives out on the map, I was still merrily plugging away up that track.

Eventually, I decided that the track must have been extended, and that it was probably time to turn left and head on up the hill. So this is what I did. Without first taking any bearings or anything (had I learned NOTHING from my experience in Glen Clova??) which meant that I had not identified that the track had swung round to the south, and that the hill I was now merrily ascending was Cairn Kincraig and NOT Carn nan Tri-tighearnan. The low cloud base didn't help, either, as it meant that I did not have a sun in view (I actually do quite a lot of "rough reckoning" off the position of the sun, which is a surprisingly useful navigation tool ... if only you can see it!).

When I eventually reached the top of this low, rounded, heathery hill, I had this uneasy feeling that things were not all as they should be. There was no triangulation pillar, for one thing. And my altimeter was not reading anything like 615 metres, either. But then again, altimeters can be very temperamental, especially on cold damp mornings such as this. Furthermore, one of my earliest navigation instructors taught me that there are two kinds of features on the map and on the ground: those made by man, and those made by God. Of the two, the former have this disconcerting habit of appearing where they are not shown on your map, and of disappearing from where they are; whereas the latter have a considerably greater quality of permanence about them and should therefore be preferred as your navigation landmarks. Triangulation pillars are, of course, made by man.

So I looked on the map for features made by God. If I was on Carn nan Tri-tighearnan and continued the way I had come up then, more or less ahead and slightly off to the right (depending upon my exact approach as I climbed the upper slopes) there ought to be another low rounded top, about a mile away: Carn an Uillt Bhric. And indeed, there ahead of me and slightly off to the right there WAS another low rounded top. OK, so it didn't feel like a mile - I'd have put it at something closer to half a mile - but estimating distances on the ground has never been one of my strong suits.

So - again without bothering to check the compass (compasses are for wimps, remember? At least, they seem to be whenever I go spectacularly wrong!) I headed on over to this second top. As I did so, the cloud base was steadily dropping, and once I reached the second top I was in swirling mist with seriously reduced visibility. Carn an Uillt Bhric, like Carn nan Tri-trighearnan, has a triangulation pillar on it; and once again, when I reached my top the triangulation pillar was missing. But the landform which God had made felt right, the hillside dropped away beyond the top as it ought, and I managed to persuade myself that this was indeed Carn an Uillt Bhric notwithstanding the prominent absence of any triangulation pillar. I could see from my map that if I wanted to find the track down the Meur Tuath, then I needed to descend to the left of the Meur Bheoil. I could see a little re-entrant ahead of me, which was dry right up here at the top of the hill, but I deduced that it would have a stream in it a little further down and so I descended to the left of this, assuming it to be the top of the valley of the Meur Bheoil.

Dear reader, if you have not been following this on the map, I think that now really is the time to open up Landranger 27 and compare the descent I had foolishly convinced myself I was making - a northerly descent at grid reference NH 835395 - with the descent I was ACTUALLY making: an easterly descent at NH 834368. Yes, I was over three kilometres off course, and facing in totally the wrong direction! (Well, maybe not totally - but 90 degrees out at any event.) Moreover, I was making a descent which was FAR steeper than the one which, according to the map, I should have been making had I been in the right place. It was Glen Clova all over again, only this time I was heading down rather than up; and it was only once I found myself in the midst of the scree runs in the north east corner of grid square NH 8336 that I finally admitted to myself that something had gone seriously wrong with my navigation.

When in doubt, stop.

For once I did the right thing.

And as in uffish thought I stood, the mist below me cleared enough for me to see the valley floor, and a majestic river which could only be the Findhorn. So I consulted my map, took a belated (and now absolutely unnecessary) reading on the aspect of slope, and started to devise a sensible contingency plan to get myself back on route. I retreated up the hill a bit, then descended the ridge to the north of the scree runs. I crossed the stream and joined the track just to the south of the little knoll at NH 848378, then followed this through Daless to Drynachan Lodge. OK, so I was supposed to have approached Drynachan Lodge from the north and in fact I was approaching it from the south; but at least I was back on track.

Reviewing the two routes on the map, I think that the route I actually followed may be a little shorter than the one I had planned; and it certainly involved less ascent. But the route I had planned was going to be - ahem - easy to navigate. Just head north east up the ridge, continue north east over the top, past a little lochan, over another top, and descend until you get to the stream where there is a track which will take you to the bridge.

I am reminded of a scene in one of the Police Academy films, where they are supposed to be throwing smoke grenades through a window and into a hut for the purposes of a training exercise. Moses Hightower completely misses the window, but he has thrown his grenade with such force that it goes straight through the wall of the hut. "Nice throw, Hightower" says Mahoney. "It went in, didn't it?" is Hightower's laconic response.

So, never mind how I got there - I was now at Drynachan Lodge. It went in, didn't it?

I crossed the bridge and started up the track past Tirfogrean. This is a surprisingly stiff little climb, so half way up I stopped and ate lunch. Then I pressed on across Carn na Sguabaich, which is a shooting moor; and as I went I put up a number of grouse. Noisy they may be, but they fly low and fast and stay well below the skyline - and I could immediately see why they are considered the ultimate challenge among shooting folk. I'd have enough difficulty hitting something easy, slow and stupid like a pheasant. Grouse are quite definitely out of my league!

At grid reference NH 888362 there is a little building beside the Allt an t-Sluighain Mhoir. This too is a shooting estate lunch hut. It is nowhere near as well appointed as the one in which I had spent the previous night, being just a dingy little timber hut with a corrugated roof; but I tried the door and found it to be unlocked, so I made a note for future reference - little knowing that I was destined to spend a night there on my very next Challenge, grateful for the shelter it provided from a howling gale and pelting rain which would have made for a very uncomfortable night had I had to spend it in my tent.

I carried on south past Carn a' Gharbh-ghlaic, until I came to the little building at NH 895336. This is a bothy, and I ducked inside to change my socks (which has become sodden and uncomfortable after all the heather hillsides and stream crossings of the day so far). It is a very gloomy little shack, with a few - surprisingly comfortable - armchairs, and a notice on the wall telling the story of the crashed aircraft on the hillside behind. It seems that when it came down, there was a shepherd asleep in the hut who was woken by the crash (given that the closest pieces of wreckage landed barely ten metres from the back wall, it would have been surprising if he hadn't!) He did his best to save the pilot, but was beaten back by the flames. What really freaked me, though, was that I have a cousin in the Fleet Air Arm (as I write this, he has just returned from Afghanistan, where he has been doing a first class job of casualty evacuation from the front line) who was - so I am told - such a precociously good flyer that he was the youngest person to win his military "wings" since the War. Well, I looked at the date of birth of the pilot of the plane which crashed behind the bothy in the late 1950s, and subtracted it from the date of the crash, and I figured that if this wasn't the actual guy from whom my cousin had wrested the laurels of "youngest wings" he must nonetheless have come pretty darned close. Some time I must go back and take down all the details, and ask my cousin if he knows the name of the previous holder of that accolade to see if it really was the same pilot. At the time, though, it just made me feel deeply uncomfortable, and I wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible. So as soon as I had changed my socks I set off again.

I followed the track past Knockdhu, and from the track junction at NH917351 I just continued more or less due east, intending to follow the path to the B9007 road.

It soon became apparent why this path does not continue to the track junction east of Knockdhu. The ground between the Leonach Burn and the Tomlachlan Burn is just one ghastly, all but impassable morass of peat and heather. Even when I reached the Allt Laoigh, at the point where it swings east, the going was no better. The "path" is just a figment of some deranged cartographer's imagination. The Tolmachlan Burn is all but unfordable, running between tall bluffs on either side; but I eventually did find a viable crossing point and took the plunge. (My new socks were already sodden from crossing the bog, so what did it matter if they got even soggier?)

Once across the Tomlachlan Burn, I just aimed for the northern end of the ridge that is the Carn nan Clach Garba and eventually, thankfully, made it to the road. As I did so, a steady rain began to fall. Lovely!

I trudged south on the road for a kilometre, then turned left onto the road to Lochindorb Lodge. My plan was to follow the track and path up past Loch an t-Sichein, and make camp at the path junction at NH 984310. It had been a long and wearying day, and I was looking forward to a good meal and a pleasant night's sleep. But the day had one more nasty surprise in store for me! You see, the track had been extended, more or less due south, from the point at which the map shows it becoming a path and swinging to the east. And I completely failed to spot the point at which the path to the loch turned off (although, to be fair to myself, I WAS expecting the only path to be the one turning to the left; I was not expecting the track itself to continue straight ahead.)

Had I been aware of the extension to the track, I should almost certainly have paced the track to make sure I didn't miss the path junction. As it was, however, I had not been expecting to need a measure of distance; but after a while it slowly began to dawn on me that I was almost certainly way beyond the turning for the loch. I was reaching the head of the valley of the Feith a' Mhor-fhir, and the hill rising up ahead of me and to the right told me all I needed to know.

At least this time I knew where I was - which was in the eastern half of grid square NH 9630. It was too late to worry about trying to find my way to my planned camp site. The rain had passed, there was a good spot by the track to put my tent up, with a ready source of water from a small stremlet flowing through a pipe under the track. So I made camp somewhere round about NH 968304. There was a convenient rock on which I set up my stove; and after supper I made myself a cup of coffee. As I sat enjoying it, the keepers came down the track in their 4x4 and we exchanged a few words before they drove on. Then I settled down in my tent for a most welcome night's sleep.

Monday, 11 January 2010

The 2004 Challenge, Day 6: Inverness to Moy Burn / Allt na Beinne

I headed out of Inverness on General Wade's military road, and quickly fell in with the same threesome who had shared my journey through Glen Affric on Day 2. I wish I could remember their names ... but, alas, I cannot. I've never been much good at remembering names, though, so it's not their fault ...

Past Milton of Leys the road started off in good shape, and the walk through the woods was pleasant enough. The way was blocked by a new house at Faillie but we found our way around; and the back road by Scatraig was all dusty with the lorries going up and down to the gravel pit.

After Auchbain, the route began to get a bit monotonous ... kilometre after kilometre of track through pine woods. But at least the going underfoot was good. Which is more than can be said for the stretch after Aultnaslanach which was ... well, let's just say that it went squelch with every step.

At Lynemore, our paths separated for the last time this Crossing. They pressed on to Tomatin, where the pub offered a bed and shelter for the night ... not to mention something other than water to drink. I, on the other hand, headed down across the A9 and the railway, and into Moy.

My planned route took me past Moy Hall and on the track through the woods, over Beinn an Uain and to a wild camp by the Allt Odhar round about NH 798367. However, when I got to Moy Hall I looked at the hill and thought "bugger this ... why should I go over that hill when I can go round it?" I was in no hill-climbing mood; and I ought perhaps to explain as well that this Challenge was something of a proving exercise for me.

I had had a terrible shock on my ML assessment in September 2001 when I suffered an asthma attack 3000 feet up in Snowdonia. It was a scary moment. I had never had an asthma attack before, so I had no medication; we were miles from anywhere (it was between 4 and 5 kilometres even to the nearest road) ... it is self-evident from the fact that I am here writing this blog that I survived the experience: but although I passed the assessment, I declared myself unfit actually to lead anyone anywhere until I was sure I was not going to suffer a repeat performance. By 2004 I was feeling pretty sure I was OK. I'd not had any more attacks, and I wanted to do a Challenge to prove that I could now push myself physically without triggering another one. But I wasn't in any mood to take unnecessary chances. I'd deliberately chosen a fairly sedate crossing; and even then, if I didn't feel like doing what I'd put down on my route card, well, I always think you should follow your feelings.

So I followed the track round the north end of the woods, where sheep were grazing peacefully in the rough pasture to my left, and headed up the Moy Burn. I decided that if the little building shown on the map at NH 794369 was a bothy, I might just stop there for the night rather than pressing on to my planned overnight stop. However, it wasn't a bothy. Oh no. It was a rather impressive and well-appointed shooting estate lunch hut ... with steps up to a nice verandah. I climbed the steps and tried the door ... which was unlocked!

I looked around inside. Well-appointed benches around the walls. A good, substantial table or two. Coat hooks just about everywhere you looked. A four-ring calor gas hob. A well-stocked supply of canned beer and gin for the next shooting party. Yes ... this'd do alright!

I unpacked my rucksack and spread my sleeping mat and sleeping bag on the floor; cooked supper on my MSR stove; made myself a nice mug of coffee and went out onto the verandah to drink it. As I was finishing, the keepers came down the track in their 4x4, so I waved to them and they stopped. I asked if it would be OK to spend the night in the hut and they had no problems with that. Apparently they'd had a couple of other Challengers the night before; and such is the reputation of the Challenge that they had not the slightest concern for their stocks of beer and gin. Needless to say, I didn't touch them either.

It was a very pleasant place to stop for the night, and as I headed off the next morning you would never know I'd been there. That's what low impact camping is about, right?

The 2004 Challenge, Day 5: Lovat Bridge to Inverness

Day 5 was supposed to be a doddle - back roads past the Moniack winery, path up over the Aird, then the track through the woods from Blackfold to Leachkin and into Inverness. Easy, right?

Yeah ... right!

The first bit was easy enough (metalled roads with good big sign posts to see me right) and I paused just past Cabrich to watch a shepherd at work with his dogs the other side of the fence. He was training a youngster, and I could easily have sat and watched for hours. But I had to get on, and I am sure if he really wanted an audience he'd have entered One Man And His Dog. So after five or ten minutes, I gave him a cheery wave and continued on my way.

Well, I turned off the road and headed up on the forest track. Nice easy walking it was, if noticeably uphill at this point ... but the only thing was that the track I was following weren't the one marked on the map! It led me up to a building site in a clearing, where they were putting up a house with truly spectacular views ... and I had to figure out just where the Beauly I was! A little bit of reading the map, a bit of compass work to establish which direction was view and which direction was forest, not to mention the aspect of slope (woohoo! I've always wanted to actually USE that technique!), and I soon figures out that I was somewhere round about NH 566413, which meant that I needed to be walkign through the forest rather than the nice open countryside which constituted the views. So I followed an old boundary line which might once have been a dry stone wall towards Mam a Chatha, completely failed to notice the path that I had been planning to follow (it was THAT clear on the ground!) and ended up going up-and over a couple of ring contours (from which I hoped to be able to see something - ANYTHING - that would enable me to relocate) until I came to the unnamed little lochan north east of An-Leacainn. From here I was able to pick up the tracks again and, confident that I now knew where I was once more, I made my way down to Blackfold and rejoined my original planned route.

If you have never walked this track through the woods from Blackfold over Dulnain Hill to Leachkin, you're just going to have to trust me on this: it really is rather special. Nothing spectacular, you understand - not the sort of fireworks you get in the Cairn Gorm - but for a gentle stroll in the forest and on open heath at the Leachkin end, it is pretty hard to beat.

Finally, a handful of kilometres of easy urban roads brought me into the centre of Inverness, where I hunted down an outdoors shop and got a spare part fitted to my damaged walking pole. Then it was on to Inverness Youth Hostel and a nice, relaxing evening. (It is possible that I ventured back into the City Centre later in the evening in search of a dram or six of uisge beatha; but I couldn't possibly comment!)

Sunday, 3 January 2010

The 2004 Challenge, Day 4: Crossing Eskdale Moor

10 May 2004 began with a few kilometres of road walking north east through Kerrow, past Cannich, and up the eastern side of Strath Glass to Mid Croachail. It was easy walking, the surroundings remarkably attractive, and I noted in passing that the little island at NH361328 would make a very pleasant spot for an overnight halt.

From Mid Croachail I planned to follow the track up through the woods and onto the moor, pass Meall Cluainidh, cut across the moor by way of Carn na Feuchrain and Carn a Bhainne to Loch Neaty, then take the track down through the woods to Eskdale. It was not to be, however, as the track at Mid Croachail was barred by two high gates - about 8 foot high, I would have said - which were secured by a chain and padlock. In my college days I was a dab hand at climbing gates; but I had never had to do it with 20 kilos of expedition pack on my back, and there was no way I could have hoisted my pack over the gates first and followed it over. So I decided to press on and try the next track, just before Easter Croachail.

I pressed on, and almost immediately I encountered a group of four Challengers coming the other way - led by none other than my teenage nemesis, Andy Desmond! We stopped to chat for a few minutes. It seemed remarkable that we were heading in opposite directions on the same stretch of road, but the explanation was obviously that that they had started from a more northerly start point than me, but were headed for a more southerly crossing of the Great Glen. I was headed for Inverness, in fact, whereas they were headed for Drumnadrochit and Gordon Menzies' boat across Loch Ness to Inverfarigaig. It certainly got me wondering: just how many roads, tracks, and stretches of open country ARE there that Challengers on different routes might legitimately traverse in opposite directions? I made a mental note to look out for them when studying the maps of the Highlands - and to try to plan routes which would enable me to use them both ways!

As we went our separate ways, I glanced back and saw that Team Desmond were making light work of the gate. One member was already on the other side, receiving packs which were being passed up from the road to a second member who stood near the top of the gates, hefted them over, and lowered them into the waiting member's outstretched arms. You can do that when you are a team of three or four; but not when you are a solo walker. I contemplated calling back to them, asking them to wait while I returned to join them and help me over in the same way. But something at the back of my mind objected. I was attempting a solo crossing, and that meant accepting no outside assistance. What was the difference between letting someone else heft my pack over a gate for me, and accepting an offer to drive my pack to my destination so that I could have an easy day "walking light"? None, that I could see. Idiot!

So I walked on, and was overjoyed to discover that the next track was unguarded by any gates. My joy was to be short lived, however, as the gates were there alright. They were just out of sight of the road, so that I had already made significant progress up the track before I encountered them. This made sense, of course. Why would you have two tracks up through the same woods, one of which was guarded by a ferocious deer fence and the other of which was not? Come to that, given that the two tracks both led to another which ran more or less parallel to the road, why on earth would Team Desmond have planned to use the second track rather than the first? They had, presumably, attempted this track first, been deterred by the gates, decided to give the next track a try (so at least I wasn't the only one who failed to deduce that if the one was so well guarded, then so would the other be!) and finally decided to heft their packs over that one because there were no more tracks to try.

For my money, however, the gate which now faced me was actually the lesser of the two. But either way it had to be crossed, or my whole plan for the day's walking was in tatters. So I unpacked my back pack and hoisted the contents over in several easy packages, hefted the empty pack over after them, poked my one good walking pole through the wire, and finally scrambled over myself and re-packed my sack.

I followed the track to the woods north of Loch Carn nam Badan then turned back south, before picking my way across the open moor past the south end of the little lochan at NH402346 and ascending Carn na Feuchrain. Now this is easy enough to write, and looks easy enough on the map. But take a good look at those contour forms! That little lochan sits in one corner of a big, open, flat bit of ground surrounded by higher ground. It is, in short, a ghastly peat bog in a hollow. The edges of that lochan are shown where they are on the map because the cartographer had to draw them somewhere; but in reality, it it not a lochan with a crisply defined shoreline at all. It is an open expanse of water which gradually merges into dry land, with a large and ill-defined intermediate zone composed alternately of watery land and landy water. And it was this intermediate zone which I was attempting to cross!

On any of the first three days of my Challenge, short days all of them, I would have simply paused to take another look at my map, and concluded that if I were to continue south on the track past the Loch Carn nam Badan and then ascend the gentler western slope of Carn na Feuchrain rather than the stiffer north west slope, I might save myself the bog and make better progress. But today was a big day - 31 kilometres big - and I had already lost a good slug of time getting over that gate. I simply couldn't afford to lose more time planning time-saving alternatives such as this! (Or to put it another way, I was already so far into that damn bog that I may as well press on as turn back.) Well, just as all good things come to an end, so do all bad things, and I was eventually out of the bog and on the slopes beyond. The ground dried out, and as I ascended Carn na Feuchrain things began to look less gloomy. By the time I was on the top, and walking the wonderful ridge north east, then north, then north east again to Carn a Bhainne, I was actually beginning to feel much happier about the day (it's amazing, really, what an effect getting your feet out of the bog can have!!)

I stopped for lunch on the top of Carn a Bhannie and looked around me. It may not look like much of a top on the map, but trust me on this one - it really IS an amazing summit. The rocky outcrops and perilously steep northern slopes give you the impression of being at the top of a much higher mountain than you actually are; whilst the views away to the east over Loch Garbh Iolachan and Loch Garbh Bhreac to the distant, shimmering waters of Loch Bruicheach - just glimpsed through the narrow velley east of Loch Garbh Bhreac - are truly spectacular. And it is completely, totally wild up there, untouched by human hands. Take another look at that map: in the whole of Grid Squares 4236, 4336, 4436, 4536, 4135, 4235, 4335, 4435, 4535, 4635, 4134, 4234, 4334, 4434, 4534, and 4634 the only signs of human interference with the landsacpe are the triangulation pillar on Carn Mor, and the crannog in Loch Bruicheach! That's one heck of a lot of unspoiled wilderness.

In less than an hour I had gone from the emotional low point of the crossing, as I trudged through that wretched bog, to the most spectacular high I had ever experienced: I was thoroughly intoxicated by the raw natural beauty of the place. I finished my lunch and pressed on with a lightness in my step that had not been there before, down the north east shoulder of Carn a' Bhainne, then north through the valley to the unnamed stream which I crossed and followed down to Loch Neaty.

I followed the north shore of Loch Neaty to the corner of the woods. That sounds easy enough, but the ground rises pretty steeply from the loch and there were several rocky bits where I didn't fancy my chances should I slip. My shoes, socks and feet were already sodden from the bog, and I had learned that my fell running shoes would happily dry out overnight; so on several occasions I just plunged into the loch and paddled, fully shod, in its cold waters.

The wood to the north of Loch Neaty is enclosed by a truly magnificent deer fence, and the path through the woods to Eskdale was accessible only by means of a gate which was securely chained and padlocked. So yet again I changed my plan for the day, and took the path down to Cruive where I joined the road through Druimkinnerras to Culburnie and on to Kiltarlity Cotts. It may be road walking, but it is very pleasant road walking on charming back roads through delightful countryside, made all the more pleasant by a conversation I had on the way down to Culburnie with a motorist who was coming up in the opposite direction. She was on her way home - which must have been in Cruive, or Knockvuy, or Kinneras. And she was looking forward to starting her own crossing - her first - in a couple of days' time. I should perhaps explain that this sort of thing would not normally happen; but 2004 was the 25th Great Outdoors Challenge, and to mark this milestone they accepted a greater number of Challengers than usual, and despatched them in two "waves", a week apart. I was in the first wave; and this lady, whose name I did not record, was to be part of the second wave. I wished her luck for her crossing, she wished me luck with mine, and we continued on our separate ways.

My original route plan for the day had made use of the path by the River Beauly from Hughton, through Ruttle Wood and on through Cruives, Groam of Annat and Croiche Wood. When I reached Kiltarlity Cotts I could, of course, have crossed the bridge and rejoined the planned route by turning right; but it had been a long, hard day and I opted for the easier (and shorter)option. I joined the A 831 and walked the last two and a half kilometres through Balblair to Lovat Bridge on the main road. My overnight stop was on the Lovat Bridge camp site, a delightful spot on the banks of the River Beauly and at the extreme northern limit of the Challenge area - which at this point is bounded by the railway line. In subsequent years I have met other Challengers there; but on the night of 10 May 2004 I was the only one.

I should also say that the camp site has its own licensed bar; and after the day that I had had, this was most welcome!

Saturday, 2 January 2010

The 2004 Challenge, Day 3: Through The Woods To Tomich

9 May 2004. My original route plan for this day had been to resume the ridge walk over Toll Creagach and Meall Mor to Hill 562, then take the path down to spot height 197 and the track through the woods north of the road to Cannich. However, Cannich youth hostel was closed for refurbishment and the hotel had no vacancies, so I had booked a room at the Tomich hotel instead and revised the route plan to cross the River Affric by the bridge at NH 283283, taking the track through the woods south of the Coire Loch and round to the bridge over the Abhainn Deabhag at NH301269. However, since my change of plan for day 2 meant I was already south of the River Affric, the plan changed yet again. I would instead follow the track south of Loch Beinn a' Mheadhoin and fork right at NH253260, then turn right at NH285257 and left at NH284256, continuing past Knockfin and so into Tomich.

It was a spectacularly unmemorable day's walking. The forestry tracks made for easy walking and the pine woods were - well, dense pine woods, planted for commercial logging. I remember the uphill stretches being relatively easy, and the final descent out of the woods being through lines and lines of log stacks waiting for the lorries.

The Tomich hotel is a charming little hotel, where I would happily stay again. I collected my resupply parcel from the receptionist, arranged for some laundry to be done overnight, and went out into the back garden to enjoy the afternoon sun. The garden stretches right to the Abhainn Deabhag, and I cooled my feet off by paddling in its clear waters.

The 2004 Challenge, Day 2: In The Floor Of Glen Affric

8 May 2004, the second day of my second Challenge, was an easy day spent sauntering down Glen Affric, admiring the sheer desolate beauty of the place. My plan HAD been to go high and do the ridge to the immediate North of the glen; but I'd been able to sight it from the summit of Ciste Dubh the previous day, and it was clear that there was still a LOT of snow up there. Narrow ridge + snow + expedition pack - ice axe = not good. So I stayed low and walked my Foul Weather Alternative route instead.

I spent much of the time walking with some other Challengers. Their names escape me now; their courage doesn't. The group patriarch was an elderly gentleman (and I mean elderly by Challenge standards - so comfortably into his 70s) on his 10th crossing, desperate to collect his award for completing 10 crossings despite cripplingly painful arthritis and knowing that there was unlilkely to be another chance. The de facto group leader was his son, in his late 30s or early 40s, carrying far more than his fair share of the load, and doing much to keep up morale with his eternally cheery demeanour. A family friend completed the threesome. The father was a geologist, and was constantly pointing out all manner of things as we walked. It probably helped to distract him from the pain. Certainly, he had a lively and an active mind, and I learned much from him.

We followed the path down past Athnamulloch, and to the south of Loch Affric, only finally saying our farewells after crossing the footbridge at NH180225. They were heading up the Allt Gabh, as they planned an overnight stop at Cougie. I stayed in the floor of the glen, diverting from my route to take advantage of the public conveniences at NH200233 (as I try to avoid toileting in the wilderness wherever possible - for both environmental reasons and reasons of personal comfort) before continuing on round the southern end of Loch Beinn a' Mheadhoin.

A steady drizzle was now falling, and I had no great need to press on, so I made an early stop and camped by the Allt an Laghair after crossing the bridge at NH210228. Doubtless I would not have been making camp until much later if I had gone high. But the following day was not particularly gruelling, and I saw no reason to make it shorter still by pressing on today.

The 2004 Challenge, Day 1: Shiel Bridge to Alltbeithe

7 May 2004. After a hearty breakfast I signed the Challenge register, and took the road north east to Morvich, where I turned onto the trail up Gleann Lichd. It was a fine, clear day, and as I tramped up the glen I noted how many wonderful pools there seemed to be, most of them with lovely grassy swards close by. It would be just the place to come for a swim and a picnic on a hot summer day. Indeed, I was sorely tempted to take a dip that morning; but I thought it was, perhaps, a bit early in the crossing to allow myself such distractions.

The track is easy walking as far as Glenlicht House, which meant that I had had ten kilometres to settle into my stride; but then, after the footbridges, the climb began in earnest. Four kilometres of steady ascent took me to the bealach, where I rested and ate my lunch, and sat gazing across the valley at a lonely little Munro called Ciste Dhubh (979 metres) - which really looked as if it could do with a little company.

My intended route was to follow the path down Fionngleann past Camban bothy to Alltbeithe youth hostel. Only another 6 kilometres, making it a short day; but I had a big day planned for 8 May, going high on the ridge north of Glen Affric, so first day heroics really made no sense.

But sense or nonsense didn't enter into it. Ciste Dhubh sat there pouting at me, daring me to come and keep her company, and I really had no choice in the matter. Call me weak-willed if you must, but I simply could not resist the siren lure of that lonely little Munro. So I left the path and made a bee line to the Allt Cam-ban, which was easily crossed - although somewhere along the way I slipped, and put all my weight onto one of my walking poles, which sank about two feet into the peat and bent itself into a useless shape. I picked myself up and looked at my ruined pole. Maybe I'd be able to get it repaired in Inverness, I thought. If not, I'd abandon it there and buy a replacement. So I fixed the awkward-shaped thing to my rucksack, and carried on up the north west ridge of Ciste Dhubh with just the one pole.

Now Ciste Dhubh is pretty much 600 metres of uniformly steep ascent, and I took it slowly and steadily.

And if you believe that, you'll believe anything.

Because when I get on a mountain like this I tend to go at it like a horse on oats let loose on spring grass after a winter in a loose box with no turn out. I drive myself remorselessly, for no good reason, and if memory serves me correctly it took me precisely an hour from my crossing of the Allt Cam-ban to the summit, with full expedition kit on my back and just the one walking pole. I arrived at the top dripping with sweat and absolutely blown; and I shared a few words with three walkers with day sacks who had come up from the south. They considered it an impressive achievement to have topped out with a full pack such as mine. I think they were simply too polite to use words like "idiotic" and "lunacy".

So, that was one more tick for my list of Munros; but now I needed to get down to Alltbeithe. It was a wonderfully clear day, with bright sunshine and only the lightest of breezes, and there was no reason not to linger so I took a good look at the descent options. I could, of course, go back down the way I had come up: but I never really like doing that. Then there was the north east ridge, between Coire na h-Eiridh and Coire an Athair: but the upper reaches of this just looked too perilous. Maybe they'd be OK in ascent. But in descent? After flogging myself senseless on the way up? Not wise ... and this early on in the crossing, wisdom still played some part in my thinking (yeah, right!) That left the east-facing ridge to the south of the Coire an Athair, and I decided to descend this and use the path on the far side of the Allt a' Chomhlain.

The descent was over uniformly steep, boulder-strewn heather, with a slightly steeper band two thirds of the way down - and I made good use of my one remaining walking pole. The crossing of the Allt a'Chomlain presented no great problems. But the path - well, that was another matter! Path? Ha! It was just one long, continuous, morass of sodden peat, with an occasional bit that looked as though the majority of walkers who had passed that way had all trodden in the same place. Progress was slow - very slow - and it took me soemthing over three hours from the top of Ciste Dhubh to Alltbeithe youth hostel. When the "path" turned left at grid reference NH 074192 I thought better of it, and stayed high on the steeper ground (not wanting to get into the low-lying bog that the path pretended to traverse) and contoured my way round to the footbridge over the River Affric at NH 081200.

Alltbeithe youth hostel is a simple affair which provided me with a very welcome bed for the night. A number of other Challengers were stopping there, as well as a Danish family with their impeccably well-mannered children. I spent a good evening in good company; but I was also troubled about my plans for the next day.

According to my route card, I was going to go high, and traverse the ridge An Socach - Mam Sodhail - Carn Eige - Tom a' Choinich before descending to a wild camp in the Bealach Toll Easa. My route vetter's comments had suggested that this would require careful navigation; although my own impression was that it ought to be a pretty obvious ridge and that it should be well-nigh impossible to go wrong, even in poor visibility. But what was troubling me was that I had been able to make a good #1 eyeball inspection of the ridge from the top of Ciste Dhubh; and what I had seen did not make me happy.

I had seen snow. And lots of it. Lying all along the ridge line, and on the south-facing slopes as well as the north-facing slopes.

In my book, snow and knife-edge ridges do not make a happy combination; particularly when you are walking in fell-running shoes. Reluctantly, therefore, I concluded that I should not be ticking off Munros on day 2 of my Challenge, but marking time in the floor of Glen Affric. It was a disappointing decision to have to take, but it was undoubtedly the right one. And, as a minor consolation, I had at least made it up Ciste Dhubh.

The Second Crossing: Introduction

For various reasons I did not take part in the 2001 demi-Challenge (the full crossing being impractical due to Foot & Mouth restrictions) nor the 2002 or 2003 Challenges, and my second crossing had to wait until 2004. I had plenty of time to prepare for it, and had planned many different routes. I chose what I considered to be the finest of them - from Shiel Bridge to Newtonhill.

In the intervening period I had also taken and passed my ML assessment, and had my knees sorted out. The two were not unconnected. At a mock ML assessment I had been warned that my knees might cause me to fail on mountain fitness and was recommended to see a physio to get them sorted. It turned out that I had, essentially, exactly the same over-pronation problem as Zola Budd; but whereas the treatment was world class ground-breaking stuff back in 1985, it was now common or garden routine which any high street physio could deal with. So I was referred to a podiatrist, who sorted me out with some rather impressive orthotics, and bingo! No more knee trouble.

I did, however, have boot trouble. Two weeks before the Challenge, the welt of my boot opened up and water started pouring in, leaving me with something of a dilemma. I could not reasonably break in a new pair of boots in just two weeks; and my reserve boots, while good enough for a single day's walking, would not be nearly comfortable enough for two weeks' sustained walking. I couldn't possibly do the crossing in a pair of boots which refused to keep the water out. But what alternative did I have?

The answer lay in an old pair of fell running shoes. They had good vibram soles, and took the orthotics easily. I did some trial walking and found them fine; and they were also a lot lighter than my boots. So that was it: they would have to do!

I travelled to Scotland on the Inverness Sleeper on the night of 5 May, and took the morning train to Kyle of Lochalsh. An afternoon in Kyle gave me the chance to take a wildlife cruise in a glass-bottomed boat, and a late afternoon bus took me to Shiel Bridge and the Kintail Lodge hotel. After a pleasant meal in the hotel I donned my pack, walked out onto the beach, and symbolically dipped my walking pole into the waters of Loch Duich. All I had to do now was to carry my pack all the way across ...

Friday, 1 January 2010

The 2000 Challenge: Epilogue

"Never again!"

That is what I said to myself as I sat on the platform of Montrose Station, looking out over Montrose Basin, waiting for the train to whisk me away southwards. But promises, like rules, are made to be broken, and we had not even reached Arbroath before I was musing upon ideas, possibilities, places I might like to go next time ... if there were a next time, that is. By the time we were crossing the Forth bridge, however, it was not a question of "if", but "when" ...

... So please raise your glass and toast
"To next year! To next year!"

The 2000 Challenge, day 14: Brechin to Montrose

I woke early, had breakfast, and was ready to be on my way by 8 a.m.

I call it the "final day turbo-boost". It's 8 miles from Brechin to Montrose, and I did it with full expedition kit in two and a half hours. OK, so it's good main road all the way - but even so! By 10.30 a.m. I was standing in the North Sea at Montrose. I had taken my boots off, naturally, but I did not shed my pack. As far as I am concerned, the Challenge requires you to carry your pack the whole way across, so I carried it the whole way!

So there it was! I had set out to do a relatively easy low-level crossing with one Munro (Meall Cuaich) and one Corbett (Morrone or Morven); in the event I had "topped out" on four Munros and two Corbetts - fully half the requirement for a crossing to be accounted as "high level" - as well as discovering a beautiful minor little top which really ought to go onto every Scottish hillwalker's "to do" list. I had taken a rest day I didn't really need in Dalwhinnie, as well as doubling up to make a pretty monumental 40km day and give myself an additional rest day in Braemar. I had seen some spectacular scenery, a pine marten and a mountain hare, and I have met no end of wonderful people including my teenage nemesis.

As I paddled in the cold North Sea I phoned my wife on the mobile, and held it out so she could hear the surf breaking on the beach. Then made my way to Challenge Control at the Park Hotel, Montrose, to sign in. I wrote some comments in the Comments book which I shall not repeat here - you can see them on the Challenge website for yourself!

That evening, the party went on until the wee small hours. I didn't stay until the end, but it was certainly well after 2 in the morning before I made my way to my waiting bed. I slept well, for I had completed the Great Outdoors Challenge!

The 2000 Challenge, day 13: Memus to Brechin

The road east north east out of Memus leads to a bridge over the Noran Water, beyond which is HM Prison Noranside. Passing to the south of this, it runs more or less straight all the way to Brechin, where it passes under the A90 dual carriageway. It is not an unpleasant walk, as road walking goes, through open, rolling agricultural land with very little traffic. But there are precious few places where you can stop for a pee without being at risk of being seen by the occupants of a passing car, and there is nowhere you can stop to replenish your water supplies as all the watercourses are likely to be contaminated with agricultural chemicals.

As I walked through the streets of Brechin with my expedition sack, my antlers, and my walking poles I was mocked by some teenagers in school uniforms waiting for the bus to take them home. I ignored them, and went into a chippie to buy a can of Irn Bru and a packet of chips, then went down to the camp site by the river. I could practically smell the sea now, as I settled down for the final night of my Challenge.

The 2000 Challenge, day 12: Compasses are for Wimps!

The route I had planned for day 12 took me by road to Clova, then up past Loch Brandy to Green Hill and over Muckle Cairn and Wester Skully to Loch Lee. However, due to a supremely stupid act of vanity, I did not complete this section of my route and ended up having to replan the whole of the rest of my crossing.

You see I had decided before I set off that, although I was naturally going to carry a compass, I wanted to see if I could complete the entire crossing without ever actually using it. Scottish landforms are, after all, generally pretty easy to recognise, and the contour features easily read. I was getting ever closer to the eastern coast and had not had to use my compass so far, so I wasn't about to start now.

Which was fine, except that the cloud base was very low today - about 350 metres - and I had not climbed very far up from Clova before I found myself in swirling mist with visibility down to 20 metres at most. This might not have been such a problem if the paths up to Loch Brandy had done exactly what the map shows .... but they didn't. They divided and sub-divided constantly, and it was impossible to say which was the path shown on the map and which not. Sometimes the path I was following just petered out altogether and I had to strike out across the hillside until I found another. A few bearings taken before I entered the mist, and regular confirmatory bearings taken at path junctions might have helped me stay on the right path; but by the time I decided I should have accepted the use of the compass today, there was already no way of saying which path I was actually on, or where exactly I was. To cap it all, my altimeter was saying that I was already 30 metres higher than Loch Brandy, but there was no sign of any loch.

I looked at the map, and I looked at the rocky outcrops around The Snub, and I decided that I did not want to be blundering about there in zero visibility. I asked myself whether I could be confident that I wouldn't end up doing exactly that if I continued following the path I was on, and my answer to that question was not exactly reassuring. So I concluded that there was only one safe option open to me - to retreat down the hill again. Which is what I did.

There is a hotel in Clova, and there was a roaring log fire in the bar, which is where I now sat with a pint and a nice morale-restoring cooked lunch. Two other Challengers ducked in out of the rain and joined me. And as I sat gazing into the fire I compsed the following song, to be sung to the tune of "The Praties They Grow Small":

Every night the cuckoos call
Way up here, way up here
Every night the cuckoos call
And I long to shoot them all
But I lack powder, gun and ball
Way up here, way up here.

Oh we started in the west
By the sea, by the sea
Yes we started in the west
And we gave it of our best
Now we've made it through the test
You and me, you and me.

Now we've all got blistered feet
Girls and men, girls and men
Yes we've all got blistered feet
Caused by squelching through the peat
At the place the waters meet
'Neath the beinn, 'neath the beinn

But we've reached the eastern coast
Over here, over here
Yes we've reached the eastern coast
And that ain't no idle boast
So please raise your glass and toast
"To next year! To next year!"

When we'll all be back again
If God wills, if God wills -
Yes, we'll all be back again
To do battle with the rain
Not to mention the terrain:
Glens and hills, glens and hills!

I gave the song its one and only public performance, right there in the bar of the Clova hotel; and although I felt utterly defeated, having had to turn back that morning, my fourth verse inspired me. I'd sung it, so I just HAD to make it come true. But how? It was already too late in the day to make another attack on my planned route, compass in hand. The weather was foul and I didn't want to be benighted up on the tops. So I went to the telephone box in the village and telephoned Challenge control, to explain my position and discuss the alternatives now open to me. They drew my attention to the campsite, very popular with Challengers (but now, alas, closed) at Memus - grid reference NO 427591 - and I made this my new destination for the day. It meant road walking from here all the way to the coast, but it also meant that I would indeed reach the eastern coast.

So I trudged through the rain down Glen Clova and through Dykehead to Cortachy, and then past Newton of Inshewan to Memus, where I took a pitch on the campsite and took my evening meal in the pub before settling down for the night.

The 2000 Challenge, day 11: Braemar to Glendoll

After a short stretch of road walking south from Braemar, I turned left at Auchallater onto the track up Callater Burn to Lochallater Lodge, which is on the shores of Loch Callater. After a short stop for coffee at the Lodge I was on my way again up Jock's Road - an old drove road whcih leads up Glen Callater, past the Knaps of Fafernie and Crow Craigies, and down into Glen Doll.

The going is easy enough as you pass along the shores of the loch; but then the climb gets rather stiff and the country pretty wild. Nowadays, they inist that Challengers have a Foul Weather Alternative if they are planning to use Jock's Road. But back in 2000 they didn't, and I had no alternative route up my sleeve in case the road proved impassable. It's interesting to speculate whether, if I had had an alternative, I would have made it to the top. Knowing that I had no alternative helped to ensure that I did. But if I had had an alternative? Well ... who knows!

As I began the really stiff ascent, I found some deer antlers. Rather nice ones they were, too, and I picked them up and tied them to the top of my rucksack with my spare boot laces.

At the top of Jock's road it is but a minor diversion to Crow Craigies - a Munro of 920 metres - so naturally I made the diversion, in order to be able to add another tick to my list. There was snow here. Not a complete ground covering, but plenty enough in the hollows to allow me to have a brief snowball fight with some other Challengers who just happened to be passing. They then carried on down the road, whilst I decided to go for a little jaunt around the plateau and collect the other two easily accessible Munros up there - Tolmount (958 metres) and Tom Buidhe (957). Then, rather than descend Jock's road as planned, I decided to treat my route card as a mere "serving suggestion" once again and took the path down by Lock Esk and the Glittering Skellies to Bachnagairn, and followed the track down past Moulzie before finally turning right to get to Glendoll Lodge youth hostel. It was a pretty tough descent, but I'm glad I did it - because that glen has now been acquired by the Balmoral estate, and does not feature on the list of routes which the estate requests that Challengers use.

Glendoll Lodge Youth Hostel was really rather impressive; and it is a sad loss to the SYHA estate. The campsite has also gone now, making Glen Doll a most inhospitable place for Challengers. This is a shame, because it is a beautiful place with amazing scenery - but truly remote and very wild. If ever there was a place which needed plenty of accommodation options, then this is it!

The 2000 Challenge, day 10: rest day in Braemar

Having got ahead of schedule by doubling up on the way to Muir Cottage, I now had Sunday as a rest day. So I went to church in the morning, and then caught a bus to Balmoral (which is just up the road) to see what Queen Victoria had found so exciting about it.

Now Balmoral is a stalking estate, and has a stable full of stalking ponies - Highland ponies who are trained to bring the deer carcases down off the hillside. Through the summer months, when stalking doesn't take place, they double up and earn a bit of extra revenue by doing pony trekking around the estate. There was a ride going out soon after I got there, and they had a spare mount, so I decided to give my feet a rest and look at Balmoral the easy way.

Now, something you have to understand about stalking ponies is that they are used to having dead weight on their backs and flopping against their sides, so they are pretty unresponsive to leg aids. You've really got to be positive if you want them to take any notice of you. Which makes them perfect trekking ponies, of course, because for the most part you WANT a trekking pony to ignore what its rider's legs are doing, and simply to follow the ride and do whatever the pony in front does.

This led to a few early misunderstandings between me and my pony. But once he had got the message that when I ask for halt, he halts, even if the pony ahead hasn't; and that when the pony ahead moves off I expect him to stay halted until I tell him otherwise - that is to say, once he had got the message that I was the rider, and expected to be in control of the rider / pony relationship - well, we got on just famously. So much so that after they split the ride to let the more experienced riders go for a bit of a blast on the way back in, the ride leader told me she'd never seen anyone get that pony actually thinking forward before. I smiled, and told her I'd had plenty of practice with my little cob mare ...

Buses back to Braemar were few and far between, but I managed to hitch a lift with some tourists, and so ended my rest day in Braemar.

The 2000 Challenge, Day 9: Inverey to Braemar

Inverey to Braemar is not very far - about 8 km separates the two youth hostels - and there is a direct road linking the two. So of course, that's not the way I went. Oh no. I had decided when planning my route that to get from Inverey to Braemar I would go high, and walk the ridge round the Coire nam Freumh to Morven. And, weary though I was as I set out from Muir Cottage, I wasn't going to let the fact that I had walked nearly 40km the day before persuade me to opt for the easy alternative.

And so, from Inverey, I took the track up the hillside known as The Colonel's Bed, and on up to Carn Mor. It was a fine, clear day, but none too hot - an excellent day for hillwalking, in fact; and once I overcame the feeling of "Why am I being such a dumbass - there's a perfectly good flat road down there I could be using, for goodness sake!" I really began to enjoy it. I also found a couple of little keepsakes on the path as I went. A lost Tam-o'-Shanter hat (which I picked up at the time, but have long since discarded) and a rather impressive little multi-tool, which I picked up and have kept in my rucksack as part of my emergency equipment ever since.

Once I reached the top of Carn Mor, I was glad I had come! The ridge I had set out to walk forms a natural horseshoe, enclosing the bowl of the Coire nam Freumh. It is a truly classic glacial landform offering stunning views over spectacular landscape, and the ridge line just beckons you on. So I followed the ridge line.

The col between Carn Mor and Carn na Drochaide was a little peaty, as one would expect, but not too wet and easy enough to pass through. The ascent out of it is really stiff, and leads to a finger-like ridge pointing up to Carn na Drochaide. Look to the right as you climb this, and there is another ridge of beautiful tops stretching away into the distance - Creag a' Mhadaidh, Carn Ghrioghair, Sgor Mor and eventually, in the far distance, An Socach. I was struck by just what a delightful ridge that would be to walk, and I have tried on many subsequent occasions to devise a Challenge route which could sensibly make use of this incredible highway in the clouds. But, thus far at least, I have been unable to come up with anything sensible.

From the summit of Carn na Drochaide, there is an easy descent to the north north east until, after about a mile, you begin to climb once again. A Land Rover track to the summit of Morven now comes up from the right and can be followed for the rest of the way. If Land Rovers can make it, so can people ... or so I thought. But it was still a pretty tough climb, and by the time I reached the summit I really wished I had thought to do a bit of singing on the way up!

At the summit of Morven there is a transmitter mast, and a little hut with a memorial plaque commemorating somebody who lost his life up there. A chill wind was blowing and it was decidedly inhospitable, and I decided not to linger. I had walked my ridge, and now I wanted to get down to Braemar. There is a good path down, well maintained, and I followed this all the way.

Walking through Braemar, I saw the most amazing riding horse and could not resist asking the rider about its breeding. Highland cross Cleveland Bay! Now there's a cross you would never think to try - but the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to make sense.

I bought myself a fish and chip supper, signed in to the youth hostel for two nights, and headed to the Fife Arms to join the party which was already in full swing. I had a rest day to look forward to, so could party as much as I wanted ... except for one thing, which was that I needed to be back at the Youth Hostel before they locked up for the night. Damn!

The 2000 Challenge, Day 8: on to Inverey

According to my route card, day 8 would see me follow the path past Lochan an t-Sluic and Glenfeshie Lodge to the memorial bridge. However, I woke up to wonderful clear skies, took one look at Carn Dearg, and thought "Why not?"

So I did the ridge walk Carn Dearg - Carn Dearg Mor - Carn Dearg Beag and descended the north north east ridge to join the track round to the memorial bridge. The day was wonderfully clear, and it was the most amazing feeling up on the ridge - alone on top of the world! I rather think that these little hills do tend to get overlooked a bit by walkers who are dazzled by the Cairngorm massif just off to the east - although Carn Dearg Mor is a Corbett, so it will inevitably attract its fair share of list-tickers. But if you're ever hillwalking in these parts, do go and have a look at this ridge. It really does repay the effort.

When planning my route, I'd decided that this should be a short day, with a camp on the north bank of the Feshie somewhere in the vicinity of Creag Bheag. But this isn't a good place to camp, besides which I was there by lunch time and it was by then pissing it down with rain. I really didn't feel in the mood to stop and put up a tent in the rain, then sit in it while my fellow Challengers passed by in a steady procession. So I looked at the maps and weighed up the alternatives. The following day was supposed to be another short day, continuing up the Feshie then down the Geldie Burn to White Bridge and Linn of Dee and finishing with a short stretch of road walking to Muir Cottage Youth Hostel. That would be the Saturday night, when everybody else would be partying in Braemar; but I had thought that the final stretch of road into Braemar might prove to be just that bit too much. Now, however, standing in the pouring rain beside the Feshie at lunchtime on Friday, it occurred to me that if I were prepared to put my head down and just press on, I could "double up" and make it to Muir Cottage by Friday evening. Then I could be in Braemar for the Saturday night party AND add a second rest day into my schedule, spending Sunday in Braemar to recover from the party.

At the time it seemed to make perfect sense, and I have to say that the landscape I walked through with scarcely a second glance as I followed the Feshie up and the Geldie back down was scarcely memorable. Sure, the waterfalls at NN 914887 are pretty stunning; but otherwise, it was just one vast expanse of soggy peat which I was glad to leave behind me.

The day I had made for myself, though, added up to nearly 40 km, and by the end of it I was hurting. The weather had cleared by the time I crossed the White Bridge, and I did briefly consider stopping and putting my tent up there. But the promise of a bed at Muir Cottage lured me on, and I had found a good walking rhythm; so I just gritted my teeth and pounded out the remaining few kilometres to Linn of Dee, and then to Muir Cottage. Arriving late that evening, footsore and weary, I don't for one moment think that I can have looked remotely like a superior being!

The 2000 Challenge, Day 7: Dalwhinnie to .... Somewhere

This is a remarkable day. Some of it is wonderfully clear in my memory; but some of it is just a complete blur. I set out from Dalwhinnie and followed the aqueduct up beside the Alt Cuaich, passed Loch Cuaich and followed the all-too-obvious path up the south east shoulder of Meall Chuaich (it's a Munro, so you can be sure there will be a path up any obvious ascent route even if the map says there isn't). A fine but exposed top encouraged me not to linger, and as I descended carefully through the north-facing snow field on the upper slopes, I put up a mountain hare which fled down the hill ahead of me. That, I have to say, is one of the clearest memories I have of this crossing. It was a rather magical moment.

By contrast, I have no recollection whatever of the next few kilometres. I must have descended to Bhran Cott, crossed the Tromie and turned right, then taken the path up the Allt Bhran and made camp somewhere near the woods north of Allt na Cuilce. I remember my route vetter suggesting this as an alternative to my original suggestion, which was to cross Gaick Forest and make the punishing descent to Gaick Lodge, before turning north. But I have no actual recollection of anything between the arctic hare and the ridge walk on day 8.

The 2000 Challenge, Day 6: Dalwhinnie

When planning my Challenge I had thought that it might be prudent to build a rest day into the schedule about half way across. This would enable me to recover a bit if I was feeling in need of a break; and also meant that I could stop short of my planned destination any day I needed to, in the confident knowledge that I could always make it up again by walking on my scheduled rest day.

My scheduled rest day was day 6, here in Dalwhinnie. So as Andy Desmond, my teenage nemesis, walked off into the early morning mist, I sat back in the hotel doing not a lot.

I visited the distillery, which used up a couple of hours. And I went and spent ages looking for traces of the old Highland Railway at the station. But that really is all that there is to do in Dalwhinnie. And it doesn't take a whole day, or anything like it!

So I sat cooling my heels, when I could have been walking. And I had a good evening meal, a good night in the bar with a number of other Challengers who had drifted in during the course of the day, I took a bath morning AND evening, and I got a good night's sleep before setting off again on Day 7.

The 2000 Challenge, Day 5: Meeting My Nemesis

On the fifth day of my challenge, I walked from Loch Ossian Youth Hostel to Dalwhinnie, following the track along the south shore of Loch Ossian (where the Rhodedendrons are really beautiful) to the shooting lodge, then following the path up the Uisge Labhair and ascending the slope to the south east to gain the path from the Bealach Cumhann to the Bealach Dubh, then down past Culra Lodge and Loch Pattack to Ben Alder Lodge, finally following the well-made track along the north west shore of Loch Ericht. What I want to tell you about, however, is not the walk itself, but another Challenger I met and with whom I walked beside Loch Ericht.

To set the scene for this story we need to go back to the early 1980s, when I was a teenage athlete with immense potential (this was before my knees decided otherwise). I won no fewer than five county titles, and three medals at the Southern Counties championships in successive years (two bronze and a silver ... but never, alas, the Southern Counties title). And yet, the one thing that I wanted more than anything else, and yet which ultimately eluded me, were our club records. Because, across all of the young athletes' age classes, in the distances that I ran, there was a solid block of records set in the mid and late 70s by the same person. A person I had never met. By the name of A. Desmond. And, try as I might, I never could quite drive myself hard enough to match the times that he had recorded five and six years before me.

Well, on day 5 of my challenge in 2000, as I headed from Loch Pattack to Ben Alder Lodge, I saw another Challenger ahead of me and I quickened my pace a little to fall in beside him. We were both heading for Dalwhinnie, and naturally we got talking. His name was Andy. Now, I cannot recall quite how the conversation came round to athletics, but it did, and to a famous athlete whom we had both known. He asked how I had known him, and I said we were club mates.

"Really?" said Andy, incredulously. "So were we! Which club were you?"

"Cambridge and Coleridge," I replied - and Andy looked at me unbelievingly. "So was I!" he said. And then, just to prove it, he asked me to describe the club strip (navy blue shorts; white vest with two navy hoops and - at least when I was running for them - the letters "C & C" in navy between the two hoops).

Well, you've guessed where this is going, haven't you? It soon became apparent that my walking companion Andy, and my nemesis A. Desmond, whose club records I was destined never to surpass, turned out to be one and the same person. As realisation dawned, you really could have knocked me down with a feather. At times, the world can be exceedingly small!

The 2000 Challenge, Day 4: Spean Bridge to Loch Ossian

I left Spean Bridge on the little back road past the station to Corriechoille, and then took the track up to the Lairig Leachaich bothy. The climb is easy to begin with, then becomes quite stiff as you head up through the woods - and it was here that I discovered the trick of singing as you walk to regulate your pace. The principle is quite straightforward, really. If you do not have enough spare breath for singing, then you are pushing yourself too hard - so you slacken your pace until you are able to sing again. If you have a voice like mine, however, it is not really recommended unless - like me - you happen to be a solo walker!

The Smiddy House had made me a wonderful packed lunch, which I ate at the bothy, and then I headed on down beside the Allt na Lairige. This turns through 90 degrees shortly before it flows into Loch Treig, as the way ahead is blocked by a little hill (618 metres) called Creag Ghuanach. Well, I was feeing brim full of energy, and Creag Guanach just looked so inviting, that I ignored the path (which turns to follow the river) and kept on heading south, up the inviting slopes. It did not take me long to "top out", and there is a lovely little depression surrounded by craggy rocks at the summit, creating a sheltered hollow. There was no rubbish of any sort. None of the sweet wrappers and banana skins or orange peel which you usually find carelessly discarded at the summit of hills such as this. There was a single boot print to prove that I was not the first human visitor this lonely little hilltop had ever received, and that was it. It was silent, solitary, and unspoiled. And as I stood and turned through 360 degrees, I saw hazy, distant mountains in every direction. I counted at least seventy discernible peaks. To the north west, the Nevis range. To the west, the Mamores. To the south west, the peaks of Glen Coe. To the south, the Black Corries. And so it went on .... and on .... and on.

I was completely blown away with the unutterable beauty of this place, and I just sat in the shelter of the rocks simply enjoying being there. In fact, enjoying just being. I did not wish to leave ... but leave I must, if I was to walk all the way to the east coast. So eventually, reluctantly, I left the summit and descended by way of the hill's south west shoulder and reached the path along the north bank of the Abhainn Rath more or less opposite Staoineag Bothy. Turning east I headed for Creaguaineach Lodge, and almost immediately encountered a party of youngsters on a Duke of Edinburgh expedition. They greeted me excitedly and asked if I were doing the "Ultimate Challenge". When I confirmed that I was, they asked me my challenge number, which I dutifully told them. (If memory serves me correctly, it was 32, which also happened to be my age at the time.) And when I had given them my number, do you know what they did? They wrote it down - on a piece of paper which contained numerous other Challengers' numbers. I couldn't believe it! They were train-spotting, only instead of spotting trains and noting down their numbers, they were spotting Challengers and noting down their numbers!

The track across the southern end of Loch Treig is easy walking, and there was a steady procession of Challengers here, all heading east. Some, no doubt, had come from Spean Bridge as I had. Others had come up Glen Nevis and past Tom an Eite, whilst others still will have come from Kinlochleven, past the Blackwater Reservoir and Loch Chiarain through Gleann Iolairean. The geography of the Challenge area has this effect. Challengers may try to spread out and take different routes, yet there are certain places where many of their routes must inevitably re-converge. This is one of them. Dalwhinnie is another, and Braemar a third. My route took me through all three of these places in 2000.

As we tackled the stiff climb from Loch Treig beside the Allt a' Chambhreac, I walked for a while with two young Germans who were also on their first Challenge: Oliver Freudenthal and his charming new wife. I was certainly grateful for the company, and I showed my gratitude by not singing while I was with them. I was heading for Loch Ossian Youth Hostel, however, whilst they were planning on spending the night together in their tent, and our routes soon diverged so we waved one another goodbye.

Loch Ossian Youth Hostel is a beautiful little hostel, just under a mile from Corrour Station (the only railway station in Britain which cannot be reached by road). It sits in remote isolation on the shores of the loch, and I gather I was fortunate to get to stay there on my Challenge in 2000 as it is not generally available during the Challenge period nowadays. I remember cooking my supper, washing up, then making myself a mug of coffee and heading out into the twilight to enjoy it. It must have been nearly 10.30 pm and the last of the light was slowly fading when, to my surprise, another walker came striding out of the gloom towards me. She was definitely striding - purposefully and powerfully. This was not the exhausted stagger of a walker who had misjudged their day and was finally, gratefully, covering those last few hundred yards to shelter and safety. On the contrary, it was somebody who had planned, carefully and meticulously, a day's walking which would be well within her abilities, yet would make use of every last scrap of available daylight. She was, quite simply, some sort of superior being and I was overawed just to be in her presence.

I decided that a light-hearted approach to conversation would be in order, so as the superior being (whom I was later to come to know as Ally Ogden) approached, I looked at my watch and said "What sort of time do you call this to arrive at a youth hostel?"

And the superior being, who thought I must be the hostel warden giving her a ticking-off for keeping him up past his bedtime, apologised profusely and scurried past me in a crestfallen sort of way.

We cleared up that little misunderstanding the following morning over breakfast; and when I saw Ally's maps and understood just what ground she had covered the previous day, it left me in no doubt that my initial assessment had been correct. She was, indeed, a superior being!