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 ...

Thursday, 31 May 2012

The 2012 Challenge, Day 4: Off Map and On Road (4)

It didn't take long to get to the road, where I turned right for Gairlochy. Lovely views of Loch Lochy soon opened up, and something I had not noticed before (or perhaps it had not been restored to its present state 12 years ago) - a landing craft training facility. The idea was to train assault troops in landing craft disembarkation by building a mock-up on dry land, with a brick and concrete base and a wood and canvas superstructure. They could then practice disembarkation as much as they liked without ever going to sea; and only when they had got it down to a fine art did they have to risk seasickness and German E-boats. There is a little interpretation board telling you all about it, too. That CERTAINLY wasn't there twelve years ago!

Soon after the landing craft, I came to a good well-made path through the woods down to the loch-side. This, too, was new since I walked this way in 2000, and was way-marked as part of the Great Glen Way. Although I was walking in sandals not boots I decided that this looked well-enough made that I shouldn't fear wet socks, so I turned onto the path. I hadn't gone far, however, when it started to rain, and I came upon another walker busily putting on waterproofs and stretching a weather cover over his rucksack. I decided it might be prudent to do the same, so I stopped and we talked. His name was Andy, and he had been up camping and fishing. Now he needed to get down to Spean Bridge to catch a bus to Inverness, as he had a ticket for a coach departing Inverness at 7 the next morning. He didn't know how long it would take to Spean Bridge - but I assured him we should be there by 6, which gave him plenty of time to catch his bus and me plenty of time to get something to eat before catching the sleeper to London. And so, suitably waterproofed, we continued for a while in company.

The 2012 Challenge, Day 4: Off Map and On Road (3)

Well, it's a long old walk along Loch Arkaig, but eventually the end arrived. I very much wanted to continue to the Eas Chia-aig waterfalls, as I imagined they would be well stocked with water and looking at their most photogenic. However, I knew that it was quicker to cut through Achnacarry, and I was anxious to call Challenge Control and find out whether they had told Kathy (my wife) that they had mislaid me before calling out the mountain rescue people. If they had, then I needed to get a phone call though to her and tell her there was no need to go looking for my life insurance policy just yet. So I turned right across the head of the loch, noting the still-ferocious flow of water under the bride as I did so, and headed for Achnacarry.

Now, at Achnacarry there is a museum. The Clan Cameron museum, to be exact. Which I reached at about 3 o'clock. And - blessing of blessings - there was a telephone box there with a working telephone! It wouldn't accept coins, though - only credit cards - but I had one of them with me, so that was alright. I telephoned Challenge Control, and both John and Roger were keen to speak to me and delighted to find I was OK. The confirmed that Kathy knew they had mislaid me, so I thought I'd better call her as soon as I could. However, I got the feeling that this phone box wouldn't let me call a mobile number, and I didn't know her work telephone number. John also told me he thought the police only needed to speak to me, rather than actually have me visit in person (whereas the mountain rescue people had been pretty adamant that they would need to see me in person to close their case). Well, John had a telephone number for the Fort William police station (or "Fort Bill Old Bill", as I noted on my piece of paper as I wrote it down) so after ringing off from Challenge Control I gave them a call. The police had loads of paperwork to fill in and it took us a little while, but once we were done they confirmed there was no need for me to call in in person, so that was fine.

Now, I was getting pretty thirsty, and the museum had a refreshment room. I hoped they might be able to sell me a can of Irn Bru ... and I hoped they might also have a telephone they'd let me use to call Kathy. Well, the only drinks they were selling were bottles of water, and I decided to pass on that. But they DID have a telephone. They said that they weren't supposed to use it to phone mobiles ... but in the circumstances, they could see it was a bit of an exceptional case. So they allowed me to use it to call Kathy, and I assured her I was fine and well and that there were no problems. She said that John had been very reassuring and had told her he expected I was fine and that I had probably just had to go to ground somewhere because of the storm. The police, she said, had tried to reassure her, but had been telling her that the winds had been strong enough to blow articulated lorries over onto their sides, and that in the circumstances she hadn't actually found this all that reassuring!

Well, anyway, I didn't want to be on the borrowed phone for too long, so I promised to give Kathy another call as soon as I had mobile signal (which I was sure I should have fairly soon) and then I rang off. I gave the museum some money for the call, and then I headed for the shores of Loch Lochy.

The 2012 Challenge, Day 4: Off Map and On Road (2)

We finished our lunch, and were on our way again by 12.30. Shortly afterwards we heard a vehicle approaching, and stood to the side of the road. The oncoming vehicle turned out to be the Lochaber Mountain Rescue ambulance, and when it saw us it slowed to a halt. The driver asked me "TGO?" and I relied "Yes." He then asked "Are you Jeremy Burrows?" and again I replied "Yes." They said they'd been looking for me, and asked if I were alright. I assured them I was. They then asked if I wanted a lift back to Fort William, and I said that no, I was on a walking challenge and accepting a lift really wasn't within the spirit of the thing. After a little deliberation, however, Colin and Terry decided that they would accept the lift, as they had no reason to keep walking when a ride was available. So I bade them farewell, and the Mountain Rescue people asked me to call in to the police station when I reached Spean Bridge, and that was that.

I continued walking along the loch road, and after a while I spotted some deer ahead. I stopped, and took a photograph, then advanced a little before stopping again and taking another photograph. In this way I was able to approach reasonably close before they took fright and ran off. I had a number of photographs, and this was the best.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

The 2012 Challenge, Day 4: Off Map and On Road (1)

It was raining when I woke up on the morning of Tuesday 15 May, and I was on the road by 8.30, hoping to find a house with a working phone. At 9 I came to a house which showed hopeful signs of occupation, and I knocked at the door. When it was answered, I explained my need to make a phone call to Challenge Control in order to try to prevent an unnecessary Mountain Rescue callout, and they said that they had a satellite phone and would try to get through for me. Why is it, in such circumstances, that the owner of the phone always insists on saying a few words before passing the phone to you? Challenge Control was obviously busy, because the call "bounced" to the Park reception desk, and the kind telephone owners started by saying "We have an emergency call for you from Jeremy Burrows". That was actually most unhelpful ... because the one thing it was not was an "emergency call". In fact, it was the very antithesis of an emergency call ... it was a call to say "Don't panic ... there is no emergency." Unfortunately, by the time they passed the phone to me, the signal was breaking up. I tried to pass the message that I was safe and well on the shores of Loch Arkaig ... but I wasn't sure whether or not this message was going to get through to Challenge Control. Still ... I had tried; and the elderly couple were very kind, boiling a kettle and making me a mug of hot Bovril, and refilling my water bottles for me and allowing me to use their toilet before I left.

Shortly before I left, two walkers passed by on the road, and I soon caught up with them. They were not Challengers. Their names were Colin and Terry, and they had been trying to walk from Fort William to Ullapool; but Sunday's storm had destroyed their tent, and with it their plans. They had been making their way from bothy to bothy since then and were now trying to make their very bedraggled way back to Fort William. They, too, were off map - but I reassured them that we were now on roads that I knew and they would have no trouble getting back to civilisation. We walked together for a while, and as Colin and Terry had been walking since about 7 a.m. we stopped for lunch a little before 12 in a lovely sunny interval. As we sat enjoying our lunch, a helicopter flew overhead, then returned back up the other side of the loch. I had an uneasy feeling that it might just be out looking for me ... and Colin and Terry thought that it might be looking for them, as they too had missed a number of calls to their wives and presumed that their wives had also placed an emergency call by now. However, they also suggested that the storm had probably left quite a few stranded walkers in remote parts of the West Coast, and quite possibly they had a long list of people they were looking for ...

The 2012 Challenge, Day 3: Oban to Loch Arkaig (10)

I left Glenpean bothy at 4, and headed into the woods. The old path is pretty badly mired, and they have opened up a new path a little higher up: follow the tape, it said, so I did. This path soon put me on the main track through the woods, and I made stonking progress - arriving at Strathan at a quarter past 5. That's 5 kilometres covered in an hour and a quarter. I guess that not having a map on which to measure progress must have helped!

At Strathan I had my first human interaction in practically three days: a young pair of walkers, not Challengers, who were on their way up to A' Chuil bothy. We exchanged a few words and they went on their way. I tried my mobile again, but still no signal. I knocked on the door of the one inhabited house at Strathan, in the hope that they might have a working telephone, but there was no answer. So I pressed on, and soon came to the start of the metalled road. Here there was a parked BMW, and I wrote a note asking that if they were returning tonight to anywhere with a phone, they phone Challenge Control and give the message that Challenger number 34 is safe and well and camped by Loch Arkaig. I put the note under a windscreen wiper (without setting off the car alarm in the process, which I thought was pretty good going!) and changed from my boots to my sandals.

I also changed into a dry pair of socks (I was only going to walk a short distance further tonight, and they'd be fine for walking in again tomorrow) and made myself a cup of hot Bovril before setting out along the loch looking for the first good camping pitch. I soon found one - and the photo shows the view from my tent looking back west up the loch. It was 6.30 pm, and my GPS said that the grid reference was NM 99352 91788 (that's NM 993917 to any sensible mortal like you and me!) - so in the first three days of the Challenge, I had managed to progress no more than 30 kilometres from my start point!!! No sooner had I pitched my tent than the rain started falling again. So I collapsed into my tent, settled for a few handfuls of trail mix by way of supper (thereby saving the necessity to go and sit out in the rain to cook an evening meal) and quickly fell into a deep, satisfying sleep.

The 2012 Challenge, Day 3: Oban to Loch Arkaig (9)

I reached Glenpean bothy at 3.30 and found the door wedged open and somebody's kit all nicely laid out inside. I saw a figure down by the river beyond the bothy and waved to him. I am sure he saw me too, but he didn't wave back and didn't come across to speak. Indeed, he soon disappeared from view altogether. I spent half an hour at the bothy, making an entry in the bothy book so that any rescuers would know I had made it this far and carried on to Strathan. I desperately hoped that at Strathan I might be able to get a mobile phone signal, and so prevent any rescuers from being called out at all.

I was also at the edge of my map now. Once I was in the woods, I would be off-map and navigating on the basis of local knowledge alone. But I knew full well that the track led to Strathan; and that from Strathan I could follow the road all the way to Loch Lochy and then through Gairlochy and past the commando memorial into Spean Bridge. I didn't know the distances for sure, but I knew they were manageable. However, I wanted more than anything to reach the metalled road before I stopped and camped for the night. That way I could spend the whole of Tuesday walking in sandals; and when I got up in the morning, I should not have to start by plunging my nice fresh dry socks into boots which would still be wet from their dunking in the River Pean's overspill.

The 2012 Challenge, Day 3: Oban to Loch Arkaig (8)

Well, beyond the lochan there is a path beside the river, and I thought that I was going to make it down the glen without further incident ... but alas I was wrong! Shortly before Glenpean bothy (indeed, actually within sight of it ... as the photograph shows) I encountered a flooded stretch of path where the river had broken its banks. There were stepping stones there ... but they were underwater. Quite a long way underwater, in fact. In places it was ankle deep. But the rock face to the left didn't look as though it offered a bouldering solution (at least, not to somebody wearing walking boots rather than rock shoes, with an expedition pack on his back) so I decided that it was time to get my feet wet ... and took the plunge.

The 2012 Challenge, Day 3: Oban to Loch Arkaig (7)

It wasn't an easy traverse, high up on that steep hillside, and it took all the "security on steep ground" skills I had learned for my ML. Even then, there were times when I felt decidedly exposed - and I sure was glad I hadn't managed to make it through to here in Sunday's storm, and that I wasn't trying to make my way across this high, steep, exposed hillside in howling winds and pelting rain! But my traverse line was a good one, and I reached the West end of the lochan without incident. The descent was easy enough, if steep and therefore slow; and it was 3pm by the time I was back down in the valley floor. Exactly an hour to get from the West end of the lochan to the East end ... and it's only a kilometre! However, it was a beautiful place and a wonderful experience; and if you were to ask me now to point to a single hour which was the highlight of my crossing then I would have to say it was the hour I spent high up on the hill above Lochan Leum an t-Sagairt (just don't ask me to try pronouncing it!!)

The 2012 Challenge, Day 3: Oban to Loch Arkaig (6)

Progress along Glean Pean was good, and by 2pm I found myself at the West end of Lochan Leum an t-Sagairt. I remembered reading about this lochan in somebody else's Challenge blog. somebody else who had planned to be here, and hence had some comments about the place from their route vetter. I remembered that they had been told that there was no viable way along the shore, that you had to go high: and looking at the loch shore I quickly concurred in this view. What I couldn't remember, however, was whether they had been advised to go high on the North side or the South side. However, as I was on the North side of the river, and as the river was now looking quite healthy, and somewhat forbidding to cross, I decided to stay on this side. It was obvious that I needed to get above the trees and onto the open hillside, and I could see an obvious (if somewhat challenging) route up the steep hillside. So I drank some water, consumed a tube of energy gel, and started up the hillside.

The 2012 Challenge, Day 3: Oban to Loch Arkaig (5)

At the top of the pass I came across this signpost, which gets my nomination for the "Pointless Sign of the Year Award 2012". I tried my mobile phone again ... but still no signal. Then I descended into upper Glen Pean which, although not particularly photogenic, is certainly immensely charming. Indeed, as I threaded my way through the boggy patches in search of a good way down beside the young River Pean, I found myself thinking that this was, quite possibly, the most charming glen I had ever walked down. Maybe it was the total remoteness of it all. The lack of any sort of path or track or evidence of human presence. I don't know. All I know is that, despite the obvious difficulties of access, it is a glen which every lover of the wilderness ought to try to visit at least once in their lives. Just don't all try to visit it at the same time, OK?

The 2012 Challenge, Day 3: Oban to Loch Arkaig (4)

Well, today the river was easily forded; and having crossed dry-shod, I stopped for lunch and checked my mobile (more in hope than expectation) but there was no signal. Then I pressed on into Glen Pean. According to the map there is no path here, but I found the semblance of a track. The droppings along the way looked more like deer droppings than human droppings, and there were times when I felt that a third and fourth leg might have been a distinct advantage. But it led me through the rocky pass, above the nameless little lochan, and through into Glen Pean.

The 2012 Challenge, Day 3: Oban to Loch Arkaig (3)

Well, I really needn't have worried about that great lake - because when I reached the exact same spot where it had been the day before, there it was: gone! I found this really quite extraordinary, because it had continued to rain through the night. But, obviously, nowhere near as heavily as on Saturday night and during the course of Sunday, with the result that the lake had had a chance to drain. Surveying the ground, I decided that it probably WOULD have been possible to wade through it (a little more than knee deep at its deepest, in all probability) - but I might have done myself a nasty injury had I unwittingly put my foot into the bed of the stream which, overtopping its banks, had created the lake in the first place. Besides which, even if I could have got through the lake on Sunday, there would still have been the problem of fording the river a little higher up.

The 2012 Challenge, Day 3: Oban to Loch Arkaig (2)

As I headed up the glen, it was obvious that the river was FAR less angry, and I began to entertain very real hopes that I would find it in a fordable state ... if only I could find a way through (or round) that massive lake which had blocked my path the day before. Everything felt right ... I was going to get through to Glen Pean today, so I took a "farewell" photo looking back down the glen towards Loch Morar and Oban bothy. I wouldn't be able to make Corrour with just a day and a half of walking time ... but I should be able to make Spean Bridge and that would be good enough! I could catch the sleeper there, return to Spean Bridge the following night, and I'd be a full 24 hours behind schedule but I felt sure I could find some way to get in touch with Challenge control. They'd been expecting a call from me on Sunday evening, and it was now Monday afternoon ...

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

The 2012 Challenge, Day 3: Oban to Loch Arkaig (1)

Monday 14 May. It was raining when I woke up (somewhat earlier, it has to be said, than I had awoken the previous day!) and I immediately concluded that I was unlikely to get away from Oban today. I therefore went downstairs and had a leisurely breakfast. However, when I went outside during a brief lull in the rain to refill my water bottles, I was immediately struck by the appearance of the run-offs on the north side of Loch Morar: they looked far more as they had on Saturday evening than as they had on Sunday. There was FAR less water in them than there had been on Sunday. And if that was true north of the loch, could it also be true south of the loch? Would I, in fact, be able to get out today?

I decided that it had to be worth a try ... although first, I thought, I ought to do my best to dry as much of my kit as possible (as the storm had been so intense that quite a lot of gear was wet despite my waterproofs.) The bothy has a wonderful fireplace and grate - but it was all terribly choked up with ashes and clinker. So I gave it a thorough cleaning out before lighting a fire and doing what I could to dry all my gear. Then when I was ready I packed all my gear, made sure the fire had burned itself out completely, made a further entry in the bothy book saying that I would make a further attempt to get through to Glen Pean (as I still didn't think that the weather looked all that suitable for going up high on Sgurr nan Coireachan) and, at 11.45, I set out from Oban bothy once again. This time, however, the weather was FAR more settled - as this view looking west along Loch Morar shows!

The 2012 Challenge, Day 2: All Dressed Up And No Place To Go (3)

A closer inspection of the river confirmed my worst fears. There was absolutely no point whatever in pressing on upstream in the hope of finding a viable crossing point - this river was simply not going to be crossable in its current state. So I turned around and by 3.45 I was back in Oban bothy once again. I realised that this meant there was no way I was going to be able to get a call through to Challenge Control until at least 24 hours after I had said I would phone them, and quite possibly longer; and that this meant they may well call out the Mountain Rescue to look for me. I also realised that this might turn out to be no bad thing, because I had no idea how long it would take these raging torrents to subside. And, basically, I was now trapped at Oban bothy and had no choice but to sit it out until either (a) the rivers became fordable once more, or (b) rescue arrived in the form of either a helicopter or a boat. (I was hoping for a boat ... the older readers among you may recall that the Scilly islands helicopter crashed into the sea in 1981, and that one young lad who survived lost his entire family. That young lad's older brother, who was drowned, had been in my class at school. And ever since then I really have NOT liked the idea of flying in a helicopter ...) So I settled myself in for a wait of indeterminate length, organised my food and planned how to make it last. Then, after eating a much more spartan supper than the previous day, I turned in for the night. And it continued to rain throughout the night, or so it seemed ....

The 2012 Challenge, Day 2: All Dressed Up And No Place To Go (2)

By 2pm I was back at Oban bothy. I made a further entry in the bothy book, recording my inability to get through to Glen Pean and my intention to return to Meoble if the river Taodhail remained fordable. I figured that if I got to Meoble tonight then on Monday I could return to the road and reach Glenfinnan (from where I ought to be able to telephone Challenge control - albeit a whole day late) and then on Tuesday I should be able to get myself to either Spean Bridge or Fort William, even if it meant walking on the roads the whole way. That would enable me to make the sleeper - albeit there may be an excess fare to pay - and I'd worry about its consequences for my route after the Union AGM. So I left a note in the bothy book recording that this was what I was now going to attempt, and I wrote a note on the back of my Cona Glen map sheet (as I use A3 photocopied maps during the crossing) which I could stick through the letterbox at the Meoble farmhouse if nobody answered when I knocked. I have it here beside me as I write this entry. It reads:

Hello. Nobody was at home when I called, so I have taken shelter in your tractor shed. If you find this note on 13 May then you will find me in the tractor shed. If not then I shall have set off back to Lochailort. If you are able to offer me a bed for the night then this would be very much appreciated; but even more important, I should appreciate the chance to use a telephone if you have one which works from here, as I have no mobile signal. I have been unable to follow my intended route due to the state of the watercourses, and the TGO Challenge organisers are expecting me to call them from Corran tonight. If I do not manage to alert them to my safety and whereabouts, then they may initiate a Mountain Rescue search which is (a) unnecessary and (b) in altogether the wrong place. We need to try to prevent this if we possibly can. Kind regards, Jeremy Burrows

By 3 o'clock, however, as I approached the Taodhail River, it began to look pretty obvious that I was not going to be using this note after all, as the river was unlikely to be fordable.

The 2012 Challenge, Day 2: All Dressed Up And No Place To Go (1)

Well, after the night I'd had, I didn't finally get out of bed until 10.45! The wind was still howling and the rain was still pouring. I had insufficient water to make up any milk for my cereal, and I didn't fancy going out into the storm to get any. So I just had a few handfuls of trail mix for breakfast. Then I dressed up in all my waterproofs, put my camera in my rucksack where it would be safe from the rain, and spread the waterproof cover over my rucksack.

I figured that it probably was not wise to plan on sleeping under canvas tonight, so I decided that I should only attempt to get as far as Glanpean bothy today. That would mean I had to make a fair old yomp along Loch Arkaig tomorrow, and I'd have to hope to get some mobile signal (or find a working phone in some other way) before Challenge Control put out an emergency call ... but this seemed like the best plan I had! So I made a further entry in the bothy book saying that this was what I now planned to do, left the bothy book open in the middle of the table, and headed out into the storm at 11.30. However, I did not get all that far! The river looked angry and swollen, and as I walked up beside it I wondered if I really was going to be able to ford it ... but long before I reached the fords, at 12.45 I encountered THIS little lake at NM 884895 or thereabouts. And I really did not like the look of the thing. How deep was it? Waist deep? Chest deep? Neck deep??? Neither did I like the look of the rocks to the right. There MIGHT be a way through them ... and I MIGHT be able to find it in the howling wind and rain ... and if I did I MIGHT be able to cross the river and continue into Glen Pean. But I decided that, on the whole, the odds were heavily stacked against my being able to continue through to Glen Pean. So I had my lunch and then turned back to Oban bothy.

The 2012 Challenge, Day 1: Lochailort to Oban (7)

Eventually Oban bothy came into view, and what a wonderful sight it was! I went inside, dropped my pack, and considered my options. It was 4.30 pm. I'd told myself I needed to be at Oban by 3pm to tackle the Munro in safety. 4pm at the very outside. I hadn't made it ... and no matter how I tried to look at the map, I couldn't see that it would be safe to start over that Munro now given the rate of progress I'd been making so far.

To be fair to myself, looking through the entries in the bothy book, it appeared that 7 hours was a pretty normal time for walking in from Lochailort, and I hadn't taken much more than that. But ... well, the only sensible decision had to be to stop short for the night. However, that then gave me a further problem, because with the storm forecast for tomorrow, I didn't think I would be wanting to head up that Munro in the morning either. And even if I did ... well, I'd never make up the lost time and make it all the way down Cona Glen to Corran. And this was a problem in itself, because I was due to phone Challenge Control from Corran on Sunday evening. Having stopped short at Oban, that already wasn't going to happen.

I tried my mobile, but there was no signal - so I couldn't even let Challenge Control know what was going on. But what WAS going on? I was stopping at Oban for the night, and then ... what?? If the route over Sgurr nan Coireachan was impactical, then it looked as though my only viable alternative was going to be to head over into Glen Pean and down to Strathan, then along Loch Arkaig to Spean Bridge. That would take two days - Sunday and Monday - and then on Tuesday I could follow the route I had taken on my first Challenge in 2000 from Spean Bridge to Corrour, and so make the Sleeper and my Union AGM in London as planned. I would have to hope for a mobile signal somewhere along Loch Arkaig to let Challenge Control know what was going on, though, or else they might call out Mountain Rescue. And, what was worse, they'd tell Mountain Rescue my planned route via Corryhully, Cona Glen and Corran ... and I wouldn't be ANYWHERE NEAR any of those places!!!

I figured I'd better leave a very clear entry in the bothy book, and leave the bothy book open on the table, to let any rescuers who came looking for me at Oban know where they should go looking next! Having made my entry, I had supper (a tin of smoked mussels; a gluten and dairy free chicken hotpot; a couple of gluten free country slices and a quick swig of Caol Isla from my hip flask) then settled down for the night. I went to bed at 7.30 but got very little sleep, because the storm arrived early and there were howling winds and beating rain pretty much all night long.

The 2012 Challenge, Day 1: Lochailort to Oban (6)

As I descended, the view along Gleann Taodhail to Loch Morar slowly opened up to me. But the descent was a tough one, and picking my way was more difficult than I had expected. It was already past 3 o'clock by the time I found myself fording the River Taodhail - which I was able to do dryshod. The path was then easily found, and progress down towards Loch Morar was easy enough. But I was aware of that ticking clock all the way down ...

The 2012 Challenge, Day 1: Lochailort to Oban (5)

I stopped for a glug at noon, a little way short of Meoble, having covered about 7km in a little under 3 hours. This rate of progress worried me a little, as it was a further 9 km to Oban bothy and I reckoned I really needed to be there by about 3pm if I was to have enough daylight to get up and over the Munro in safety and down to Corryhully bothy. I figured that maybe I'd be OK to carry on provided I was at Oban before 4 ... but any later than that, and I reckoned I was going to have an issue with finishing the day's planned route. Especially as, with the violent storm forecast for the following day, there was no way I wanted to risk being benighted on the ridge and spending the night at high altitude. So I pressed on past the steading south of Meoble, noting as I did so that the tractor shed to the west of the track would, in an emergency, offer a very acceptable overnight shelter; and then I headed up again beside the Allt Slaite Coire.

I stopped for lunch at 1pm and pressed on through the Slaite Coire and over the bealach. As I began my descent, this stunning view towards An Stac (that's a different An Stac from the one in the earlier photo: NM 866889 as opposed to NM 763793) opened up. Beinn Gharbh is to the right of An Stac; whilst the glens are Gleann Taodhail (left) and Gleann Cul an Staca (right).

The 2012 Challenge, Day 1: Lochailort to Oban (4)

Loch Beoraid soon came into view, beautiful and cobalt blue down below me. It is tempting to head straight for the path along the north shore of Beoraid, and many do. But I'd heard it can be very difficult going, and so I'd planned a different route - down to Meoble, up the Allt Slaite Coire, through the Slaite Coire into Gleann Taodhail and round to Oban bothy. From Oban, I then planned to take the river path and ascend Sgurr nan Coireachan (one of the Munros I had omitted in 2011), finally descending by way of Sgurr a' Choire Riabhaich to spend the night at Corryhully bothy.

As I looked for the path down to Lochan Lon a' Ghairt, however, things began to feel VERY wrong. I was approaching the edge of the woods alright ... but all I could see was tree tops, and it felt as though I was approaching the edge of a very deep precipice. I took a deep breath and back-tracked up, moved across to the left, and tried again. This time I found a path heading down ... which looked more like a deer track than a human track, but at least it was a track! I thought of the mountain goat symbol of the Ultimate Challenge, and followed it: and before long it became all too obvious that I HAD been heading straight for a rocky precipice with a drop of 30 or more metres. I shuddered to think how fatal that drop could have proved, and made a note not to come up here in poor visibility. But my troubles weren't over yet, because my track led me into a deep gully. I had no difficulty fording the stream ... but getting back up the north face of the gully? Well, that was another matter altogether! Eventually, however, I found my way down to the footbridge at the south end of Lochan Lon a' Ghairt, and headed North up the track to Meoble.

The 2012 Challenge, Day 1: Lochailort to Oban (3)

Alternatively, turning back Westwards, I could still just see Loch Ailort in the distance. Not for long, however, as I climbed steadily onwards. The path became less and less apparent, and there was no obvious sign of the path junction shown on the map at NM 795842. Eventually I found myself at the bealach, simply aiming for the obvious gap on the skyline. As it was a beautiful clear day with unlimited visibility, I had not resorted to any micro-navigtation techniques, however. This was a day for macro-navigation. Head up, look around, and follow the lie of the land!

The 2012 Challenge, Day 1: Lochailort to Oban (2)

After a couple of kilometres of road walking, I ducked under the railway line and started up the path beside the Allt na Criche towards Prince Charlie's Cave. As I ascended, looking back I could easily make out the pronounced conical form of An Stac, with the rounded top of Seann Chruach in front and to its right, and the towering mass of Sgurr na Ba Glaise (actually some 60 metres higher then An Stac) beyond and to the left. The classic glacial form of the Coire a' Bhuiridh is simply gorgeous to behold.

Monday, 28 May 2012

The 2012 Challenge, Day 1: Lochailort to Oban (1)

For some reason I woke up on Saturday 12 May with a bit of a hangover. I didn't think I'd had all THAT much to drink the night before ... but no matter. It wasn't all that bad, and I was sure I could walk it off soon enough.

The weather forecast was for a really bad storm on Sunday 13 May ... so I decided to give my boots a second coat of wax just to make sure they really were nice and water repellent. Then I went downstairs and enjoyed a fine breakfast of kippers and poached egg (hotels on Loch Fyne please take note ... if hotels in Lochailort can supply their guests with kippers, then so can you!!!!!)

After paying my bill I hefted my pack, and set out along the road back past the station. At my first glug stop I finally found a use for that little multi-tool which I have carried ever since finding it by the path on the 2000 Challenge. There was a nasty little sharp projection on one of the strap clips on my new rucksack, and I was sure I was going to cut myself on it sooner or later if it remained in place. So I chose the saw blade, and sawed it off. A great improvement, and a worthwhile contribution to Health & Safety on the TGO Challenge!!

The 2012 Challenge: Getting to Lochailort (6)

As I retraced my steps, a rather impressive rainbow appeared, and I whisked out my camera to try to get a photograph before it disappeared again.

Having returned to the hotel, I enjoyed a very nice supper (local langoustines straight off the boat - the kind that you can only ever find in the inns close to where the fishing boats are based - followed by a rather fine venison curry) and had a drink or two at the bar. While I was still enjoying my drinks, however, a couple of local musicians began playing and, ever one to enjoy live music, I stayed and listened. And had a few more drinks. And bought some drinks for the musicians.

They wished to know whether I were a Jacobite. I assured them that I was, and proved my credentials by asking them to play "Roses of Prince Charlie" - which they did, rather well.

Eventually, however, all good things must come to an end and I knew I ought to get some sleep before starting my Challenge in the morning. So eventually I bade them all goodnight and headed up to bed.

The 2012 Challenge: Getting to Lochailort (5)

So I walked down to the water's edge, and took an atmospheric photograph. I dipped my finger into one of the ripples which pass for waves in the shallow, sheltered waters of the loch and declared my crossing officially started; and then I turned and made my way back up to the hotel.

The 2012 Challenge: Getting to Lochailort (4)

The Lochailort Inn stands at the junction of the main road from Fort William to Mallaig, and the meandering road which runs from the Corran Ferry through Acharacle and up past Glenuig. I checked in and went to my room, where I unpacked my sleeping bag and fluffed it up a bit so as not to leave the down in a compressed state for too long, and applied a coat of wax to my boots. Then I decided it was time to go right right down to the sea's edge ... only, I couldn't make the lock on my room work. Try as I may, whatever I did, the door would still open. And when I fetched somebody from the hotel to show me to do it properly, she couldn't make it work either! So she offered me another room, and i had to move all my gear ... and THEN I went down to the water's edge.

It is a short way from the inn to the water's edge, and I suppose I should really have carried my pack there and back. But I'd already unpacked a few things, so I left it in my room and went down without it. I went without my waterproofs, too, which may or may not have been a bad idea. There was a light drizzle falling, but nothing too worrisome. So I headed down in just my microfleece and hoped it would be OK.

The 2012 Challenge: Getting to Lochailort (3)

It is only a short walk from Lochailort Station to the Lochailort Inn, and there was nothing much to remark upon other than this charming little kirk which stands directly opposite the inn.

The 2012 Challenge: Getting to Lochailort (2)

On the train from Glasgow Queen Street, I found myself in conversation with a young English couple visiting the West highlands for the first time. I gave up my seat so they could sit together by the West-facing windows, and pointed out a few of the more interesting landmarks as we crossed Rannoch Moor and headed on to Fort William.

Then the train reversed and continued towards Mallaig, and once again I could not resist taking a picture from Glenfinnan Viaduct. This year, however, I did not alight at Glenfinnan, but travelled on one stop further to Lochailort.

The 2012 Challenge: Getting to Lochailort (1)

I was on strike over the government's proposals to abolish my pension on Thursday 10 May, and this gave me a chance to go into London and make all the arrangements to deposit a suit, some kit and some provisions at a storage place just round the corner from King's Cross. I'd be needing the suit on Wednesday 16th, when I was due to return from the Challenge on the overnight Sleeper to attend my union AGM. I would then leave my laundry behind in store, pick up the fresh kit, and resupply with the provisions before taking the sleeper back to Scotland and continuing with my Challenge.

That sorted, I returned home and organised my rucksack, leaving it to the last minute to compress the down sleeping bag. I had ANOTHER new rucksack this year - a 66 litre pack which would force me to minimise unnecessary clobber - or so I thought!!! It still came to nearly 17 kilos when fully loaded. However, I wasn't too concerned about this. With fewer laundry and resupply opportunities this year, I needed to carry more clothes and food. Next year, all being well, I should be able to get below the magic 15 kilo figure.

Thursday 11 May began with an early alarm (5.15, no less!) and my long-suffering wife drove me to Milton Keynes Central to catch the 6.22 to Glasgow. A wonderful train, this, if a little uncivilised in its hour of departure. The photograph shows it arriving bang on time.

It was raining when we arrived in Glasgow. I had a couple of hours to kill, so I bought myself some lunch bits to eat on the next train, then found an outdoor shop where I stocked up on necessary supplies which I had been unable to find anywhere in London (in particular, boot wax and Kendal mint cake). Then it was on to Glasgow Queen Street for the afternoon train to Fort William and Mallaig.

March Munros (2)

On Sunday morning I took the van to Inverey and followed the path up Allt Cristie Beag before turning South over hills 798 and 801 to Geal Charn. It's all peat up there ... but in March it was frozen peat, and I made great progress.

The picture shows the summit shelter of Geal Charn, where I took a short breather and a bit of lunch before continuing to Carn Bhac, then on to Carn Creagach. The weather started to deteriorate and I feared being caught on the tops in an electrical storm, so I angled down across the north face of Creag an Lochain to join the Glen Ey path shortly before the bridge over the Allt an t-Sionnaich, then returned to the van.

March Munros (1)

So, come March, off I went to do a couple of Munros in preparation for the 2012 Challenge. I took a long weekend (Monday - Friday) so I could have two days of clear walking time, and I drove the trusty old camper van north.

On Saturday I parked up at Spittal of Glenshee and hoofed it along the Glen Lochsie path and up Glas Tulaichean, to make up for having had to omit it on the 2010 Challenge. I met a nice couple up there who took this picture of me at the summit cairn, and then dropped down to Loch nan Eun and back to the Spittal by way of Gleann Taitneach. Then I drove over the Devil's Elbow (or what's left of it) into Braemar, figured out where Richard Baker's B&B is and said hello, then went for supper in the Fife Arms.

As it happens, Richard and Marilyn were involved in organising a show in the village hall on the history of Scottish dancing that very evening ... so I got talked into going to see it, and a very enjoyable evening it was (even if I did get sold a whole load of dud raffle tickets!!!)

Then I drove down to Linn of Dee and parked up for the night.