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Friday, 1 January 2010

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!

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