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Thursday, 4 November 2010

The 2009 Challenge, Day 7: Dalwhinnie to Corarnstilbeg

By contrast with day 7 of the 2000 Challenge (which also started, for me, at Dalwhinnie) day 7 of the 2009 Challenge is most clearly etched in my memory; and I do not think that the difference is solely down to the fact that, well, it is nine years more recent. Far from it. There are more recent days which I remember not at all - but Day 7 of the 2009 Challenge is one that I do not doubt I shall remember with particular clarity for as long as I live.

To start with, when I awoke my feet were sufficiently recovered from the previous day's exertions that I did not feel I must inevitably withdraw from the Challenge - especially in view of Chris Townsend's suggestion - so I rang Challenge Control and let them know that I should, at the very least, be continuing from Dalwhinnie. However, I had a 33 km day ahead of me, which took me up and over Meall Chuaich - and this really was going to be a make or break day. I needed to be clear what progress was needed to complete the day - if I took too long on that Munro then I was, inevitably, going to have to retire as I simply could not afford to fall behind. So I calculated a route schedule for the day, and marked the points that I needed to have reached each hour if I was to complete the day's route. Assuming I could achieve 4km/h on roads, 3 km/h on tracks and 2 km/h in mountain ascent and descent mode, I reckoned that a 9 o'clock start and a 12 hour walking day would get me where I needed to be ... it was going to be tough, but doable!

The last time I passed through Dalwhinnie, in 2000, I followed the path beside the aqueduct all the way up. This time, to make things a little different, I started by heading North North East out of Dalwhinnie, on General Wade's road to Kingussie, then turned through Cuaich (which enabled me to pass beneath the A9 rather than having to cross it on the level - always a worthwhile aim so far as I am concerned). I was doing comfortably in excess of my planned 4 km/h on the road (almost 6 km/h, in fact) and this gave em early confidence that I should complete the day. I walked this first bit, and on up beside the Allt Cuaich as far as Loch Cuaich, in my sandals. Then I took the footbeds out of my approach shoes and slipped into them for the ascent of Meall Chuaich.

All the way up, I had to remind myself constantly that I was not a special case, and that blisters or no blisters I must stick to the worn and eroded path rather than treating myself to the soft, springy, virgin turf beside it. I struggled, really I did. But I am sure that practically everyone who ever stepped outside the well-worn path had assured him or herself that it would not matter to do it just this once. That one pair of boots would make little difference. That the mountain could take it. But they were wrong - the visible evidence is there for all to see, on mountain after mountain after mountain - and despite my blistered feet, I was virtuous.

I was half an hour ahead of schedule when I arrived at the summit of Meall Chuaich; and this gave me confidence both that I should finish the day's walking and also that I now had a realistic prospect of finishing the Challenge. This was a wonderful realisation, and I texted Challenge Control from the summit: "Challenger 44 topped out on Meall Chuaich half an hour ahead of schedule. Feet in good shape. Carrying on." Shortly afterwards, I received a text from Roger: "Well done Jeremy, and thanks for letting us know". I have never felt so pleased to receive a text as I was to receive that one!

The descent from Meall Chuaich to Bhran Cott was slow and careful. There was not as much snow as last time, but there was some. This time I saw no mountain hares. Safely across the Tromie, I changed back into my sandals and turned left. I had originally, when planning my route, thought that maybe I would go high and walk the Clach-mheall / Croidh-la ridge. When planning my route, however, I had not foreseen the crippling blisters that I was now nursing. High level heroics were definitely out, and I was sticking to the track down the valley floor which (to my very great delight) turned out to be fully metalled.

I made steady progress down beside the Tromie, and a lovely walk it was. Beyond Glentromie Lodge I met an elderly gentleman walking a dog, and we stopped for a bit of a natter. He cautioned me against my original plan to turn through Killiehuntly as (he said) the farmer there is none too fond of walkers and not particularly friendly so I carried on a little farther and forked right to Drumguish, entering the woods by a slightly more northerly route than originally planned.

My original plan had been to finish the day and make a wild camp in the vicinity of Baileguish; but a steady rain was falling and it didn't seem like a very good place to pitch in the wet, so I pressed on wondering whether I might find a chance of a little hard shelter at Corarnstilbeg.

And so began one of the most delightful episodes of all my Challenges to date.

The farmhouse of Corarnstilbeg, to the West of the track, was all shut up and clearly not in use. To the East of the track, however, there was a yard with a range of buildings around it which looked to be in good order. I entered the yard by a gate, closing it carefully behind me, and noted that the building immediately to my right was a stable block. It was not locked, and so I entered - checking as I did so that it would be possible to open at least one of the stable doors from the inside if somebody should chance along in the night and shoot the bolts from the outside. It was ... which was good.

The stables were basic, but one of the stalls would provide a better overnight option than my tent on a wild night such as this. However, I wondered if I might do a bit better still. Exploring further, I found that an end door opened from the stables into a large barn, and that there was a ladder leading up to a loft above the stables. Originally a hay loft, it was now a general storage loft holding all sorts of junk and detritus, as well as a couple of tatty old armchairs and a table, and various other rickety items of furniture.

The floor was bare boards, and very dusty. But there was a pile of empty animal feed bags, and I was able to spread a few of these down by way of a carpet to create an acceptable sleeping area. Having done this, I hung all my wet gear up to dry over whatever hanging palces were available in the downstairs barn - so that it would be clear to anyone entering that somebody was in occupation, and they should not be taken by surprise by my sudden appearance from the loft - and then I prepared and ate my evening meal.

After supper, I had a quick look around the rest of the yard. There were more loose boxes, but they appeared to have a variety of sheep in residence so I did not interfere. Not long after, a 4x4 truck came bouncing down the track, so I flagged it down and asked the keepers if it would be OK for me to spend the night in the loft. They had no problems as long as I didn't mind the sheep and lambs ... and that was fine by me, so I waved them goodbye and climbed up to bed in the loft.

It was a wild, stormy night outside. Not a night to be in a tent. But I slept soundly and comfortably in the dry; and in the morning I would wake to dry gear which would be easy to pack away.

Never underestimate the joys of a night on the floor of a loft over a stable ...

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