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, 7 June 2012

First tweak to the new route

< br /> Hmmmm ... getting up and over Gulvain, along the ridge, down to Gairlochy and all the way into Spean Bridge is looking like quite a big ask.

Maybe it would be better to stop at the Old Pines hotel, and make up the distance the following day. Responses to my questions on the Challenge message board suggest that the going on the old tramway is good, so that sounds promising. Need to check the Old Pines will be happy to hold a resupply parcel for me and to put a laundry load through overnight, though ...

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

A Route For My Next Challenge

OK, so I know it's a bit early to be thinking about the next Challenge, as the dust has only just settled on this one (and some folk are still writing up their experiences in their blogs). However, I couldn't resist jotting down a few ideas for my next crossing and ... well ... before I knew it, I had a whole darned route. So I thought I may as well post it here and see if anyone has any thoughts or suggestions as to how it can be improved. I mean, don't get me wrong - I think it's a pretty good route as it stands. But there's always somebody who has a suggestion as to how a dull little bit here or there can be improved.

I decided I want a Morar start - but I don't want to go along the north shore of Loch Morar. I want to save that country until I have used up all the start points and am going round again, so I can have a Mallaig start that doesn't involve a boat trip (or maybe I'll be REALLY perverse and walk from Mallaig to Tarbert, and then take the ferry back from Tarbert to Inverey!). But I also want to keep some of the country south of Loch Morar unused, in case they bring Arisaig back onto the list of start points. Oh, and I thought that after two years of having it on my route card and not climbing it, I really ought finally to drag myself up Sgurr nan Coireachan.

So this is what I thought I might do.

Friday. LR 40. Start at Morar and follow the coast road (i.e. the old road - the one I had to drive the first time I went to Mallaig back in the 1980s) to Arisaig school and follow the track / path past Sunisletter and SCamadale to Locahn a' Bhealaich. Turn up the stream to Loch a' Choire Riabhaich and camp beside the loch.

Saturday. LR 40. Follow the stream E, and then the ESE branch. Descend to Lochan Feith a' Mhadaidh, then follow the string of lochans up to Beinn nan Caorach. Descend Allt a' Bhlair Dheirg and Abhainn Chlachach. Cross bridge over River Meoble (or divert N to Rifern bridge if this looks at all dodgy) and follow track S to Lochan Lon a' Ghairt. Traverse N shore of Loch Beoraid and camp at Kinloch Beoraid.

Sunday. LR 40. Ascend Ruighe Breac and Allt a' Choire into Coire Odhar Mor. Follow NW branch up (for easier gradients above 650m) and gain the arrete. Ascend Sgurr nan Coireachan (Munro #1). Descend by Sgurr a' Choire Riabhaich to Corryhuhlly and down Glen Finnan to Glenfinnan. Cross Callop River by footbridge (not shown on map, but it's there) and take track up river, rejoining road at NM 924794. Walk on road through Coille Druim na Saille and take the track up Fionn Lighe. Camp at Na Socachan.

Monday. LR 40 & 41. Ascend Gulvain (Munro #2) and ridge walk Mullach Coire nan Geur-oirean - Druim na Giubhsaich - Mullach na Briobaig - Loch Briobaig - Maol Aird and descend to Inver Maille. Track to Achnacarry and roads to Gairlochy and Spean Bridge. Overnight at a B&B, guest house or hotel in Spean Bridge where laundry and any drying can be done and where a resupply parcel can be sent.

Tuesday. LR 41. Road to Insh. Track SW then SE to dismantled tramway. Tramway / tracks to Fersit. Ascend Allt Chaorach Beag and camp by the Lochan Coire an Lochain. In the evening make a light ascent of Stob Coire Sgiordain (Munro #3) because it would be rude not to.

Wednesday. LR 41 & 42. Ascend Chno Dearg (Munro #4). Descend by way of Meall Dhearcaig. Path to Strathossian House. Cross footbridge NN 410727 and follow path to Loch Ghuilbinn. Ascend Allt Coire na Cosaig, and camp by lochans between Mullach Coire nan Nead and Beinn Eibhinn.

Thursday. LR 42. Ascend Beinn Eibhinn (Munro #5) and ridge walk Aonach Beag (Munro #6) - Geal Charn (Munro #7) - Sgurr Iutharn & descend E ridge to Bealach Dubh path. Culra. Loch Pattack. Ben Alder Lodge. Dalwhinnie. Stay at Dalwhinnie bunkhouse. Laundry & Drying and resupply parcel.

Friday. LR 42 & 35. Head S out of Dalwhinnie. Track up to disused quarry & hill 902. Ridge walk hill 914 - Carn na Cairn (Munro #8) - Meallan Buidhe - hill 824 & path down Bruthach na Craoibhe. Path / track N past Gaick Lodge and Loch an-t-Seilich and briefly onto LR 35. Path up Allt Bhran & find a suitable pitch somewhere beside the Allt Bhran.

Saturday. LR 42 & 43. Continue up Allt Bhran to Minigaig. Traverse E across hillside to hill 831 & follow approximate line of boundary to Glas-leathad Feshie, Hill 837, hill 845, Meall Tionail & Carn Ealar (Munro #9), continuing to hill 906 and An Sgarsoch (Munro #10). Descent over Scarsoch Bheag to track and camp at Geldie Lodge.

Sunday. LR 43. Cross Geldie Burn. Chest of Dee. Linn o fDee. Mar Lodge. Victoria Bridge. Braemar. Stay at B&B, YH, guest house, bunkhouse or hotel in Braemar. Laundry, drying & resupply.

Monday. LR 43 & 44. Road S out of Braemar. Up Glen Callater to Lochallater Lodge. Track S. Carn an Tuirc (Munro #11) - Cairn of Claise (Munro #12) - Tolmount (Munro #13) - Ca Whims - Tom Buidhe (Munro #14) - Crow Craigies - Jock's Road. Camp at the edge of the woods in Glen Doll.

Tuesday. LR 44. Descend to Acharn and Kilbo Path to Kilbo. (N.B. If bad weather has forced use of FWAs so that only 10 or 11 Munros have been climbed, it is a short diversion to Mayar and / or Driesh to bring the total up to 14; but as I have already bagged these two, there is no need for the diversion if 12+ Munros have already been bagged this crossing). Path up to Glack of Balquhader. Ridge walk Cragie Thieves - The High Tree. Path down Bad Buidhe and up Eskielawn. Ridge walk to Corwharn. Path down to join track between Corwharn & Tarapetmile and camp in the pass.

Wednesday. LR 44 & 54. Track down Quharity Burn. Path up Clinking Cauldron, over Cormaud to Monthrey. Ascend Cat Law. Ridge walk to Long Goat. Path down SE ridge and Burn of Corogle to yellow road and turn R onto road. Turn L at road junction NO 361589 to orange road S of Prosen Bridge. Orange / yellow roads past Inverquharity and continue past East Bog & Over Bow. Bridge over A90 and turn R into Forfar. Take a pitch on teh camp site by Loch of Forfar. Laundry.

Thursday. LR 54. Leave Forfar on B9128. FP from Welton & yellow road to Burnside. Path to Finnieston. Road through Letham and over Idvies Hill & flank of Boath Hill. White road to Parkconon. Yellow road to Collieston & Letham Grange. Old railway path to St Vigeans. Roads to Warddykes & Bearfauld then green dotted route to Whiting Ness & finish.

I have not yet measured the days or counted the contour lines; but it feels as though these days should all be perfectly manageable. The laundry and resupply points are better distributed than this year, so I should be able to get away with carrying less gear - which will make for a welcome reduction in pack weight. The first couple of days are nice and short to break me in gently - as I am only too aware that I have tended to plan very big days at the beginning of my crossings, only to find that I have to stop short - so this time I'm planning on stopping short. And although I have not yet planned the FWAs in detail, it does look as though they shouldn't be too hard to find (except for the day out of Braemar - the FWA from there may have to send me to a whole different place to finish!!) So, all in all I am feeling that this is a good route which will suit me well - and maybe, finally, give me my first "high level" crossing. But, as I say, if anyone has any observations, comments or suggestions on my planned route, I am all ears!

Monday, 4 June 2012

The 2012 Challenge: Epilogue

On Saturday 26 May, I had an Arbroath smokie for breakfast at the Park (and absolutely delicious it was, too), packed my things, paid my bill, and headed down to the station. Anticipating (correctly) that even in first class they wouldn't have any food to offer that I could eat, I bought a variety of supplies at the supermarket before catching my train. The 10.32 was right on time at Montrose, and would have been on time at King's Cross were it not for a half hour delay at Peterborough while they investigated a problem with the brakes on the buffet car.

So now I have completed 7 Challenges off 7 starts, including the two with the highest attrition rates ever (2009 and 2012) and that with the worst weather (2011). I have had 7 different start points, and 7 different finish points - but I have re-used two different Great Glen crossing points (Inverness and Gairlochy). My ambition of achieving 10 crossings by the time I am 50 is looking eminently achievable. All my crossings to date have been solo crossings, and I imagine the next 3 will be as well, making me one of those rare Challengers who make 10 solo crossings.

2012 was a very enjoyable crossing, despite the need to tear my route sheet up and pretty much make it all up as I went along. The knowledge and experience I have gained in previous crossings enabled me to do that, because I knew that if I got from Oban into Glen Pean it would take me down to Strathan, and from Strathan I could follow the Loch Arkaig road to Spean Bridge. No matter that I didn't have a map for the section after Glenpean bothy - I was confident and safe walking that section without a map. Likewise, I knew from experience that once I was at Spean Bridge. it was a day's walking to Corrour / Loch Ossian - which would mean I was back on track, even if not on schedule. And I knew from experience of planning routes which I hadn't, in the end, actually walked that there was a route from Blair to Braemar which would take just two days, and so enable me to make up for lost time.

What I am coming to realise, however, is that my approach to planning FWAs is, perhaps, in need of a re-think. At the moment I just think in terms of having a FWA for each day when I go high. But sometimes, when you go high, there is more than one ascent effort in the day; and you might find yourself able to do the early ascent effort(s) with no problem, but then needing an FWA for the later ascent effort(s) as the weather deteriorates during the day. It is not simply a question of asking yourself, at the beginning of each day, "is this a suitable day for going high?" It is more a case of asking yourself, before each ascent effort, "Should I be making this ascent, or not?" This is (or should be) what you do when you're out on the hill - and maybe the thinking about FWAs at the route planning stage should reflect this.

What happened to me this year was that my first day had 3 ascent efforts; but my progress was slower than I had expected, and I stopped short after only two of them. However, I only had a FWA planned for the whole day. I didn't have an FWA planned for the third ascent effort; and then I found myself needing one. I was able to plan one as I sat there at Oban ... but of course, the only record of it was the entry I made in Oban bothy book. So when I finally got the call through on the satellite phone on Tuesday morning (and, for the record, the whole message did get passed to Challenge Control), John's immediate reaction - according to Kathy, whom he phoned straight away to let her know that they had now heard from me - was "What on earth is he doing there??"

So, in future my FWA planning will be based on ascent efforts, not days (whether this makes my route cards unmanageably complicated remains to be seen). I have a route for 2013 planned and ready to go (Morar to Whiting Ness; but crossing the Great Glen at Gairlochy again, I'm afraid). The days are worked out, although I haven't measured distances or counted squiggly lines yet. And I haven't worked out the FWAs yet, either. But as soon as I've got the main route drawn up on a set of maps, I'll be looking for separate FWAs for each ascent effort - you can depend on that!

The 2012 Challenge, Day 14: Fettercairn to St Cyrus (9)

Well, what can I say about St Cyrus beach, other than that it is simply magical? Just a vast expanse of golden sand, and practically nobody there except myself. Maybe three or four other folk dotted about, and a dog. And that was all!

I walked across the sand to the water's edge and then, as I had done at Lochailort two weeks previously, I bent down and dipped my finger in the sea. And, with that, I had finished!

I stood up and turned my back on the sea, and walked back up the beach. As I did so, I sent a brief text to Challenge Control. "34 Jeremy Burrows finished at St Cyrus as planned."

It was a surprisingly stiff climb back up the cliffs; but I was soon at the top and I made my way to the cafe. Big John hadn't waited for me - although they said he'd only left a few minutes earlier. I drank two cans of Irn Bru; but they didn't have anything that I could eat, so I left it at that. At 2.30 I headed out to the bus stop, only to find on a closer reading of the timetable that the 2.48 only runs on non-schooldays. Never mind - the 3 o'clock bus would do.

It is only a short bus ride from St Cyrus to Montrose, and I had plenty of time to get to the Park; so my first port of call was the pharmacy where I bought a razor, a toothbrush and some toothpaste so I could make myself presentable for the dinner. Then I went to the Park. Jim Davidson was sitting outside with a variety of other Challengers. He welcomed me and said I should join them for a drink once I'd signed in. I said I would.

I checked in and dumped my kit in my hotel room, and then made my way to the Kinnaird Room where I was heartily welcomed by Roger and John. There were three other Challengers still to come, that was all. There were plenty of spare Challenge T-shirts (unsurprisingly, given the high attrition rate) and they gave me three. They were also having a bit of a clear out and selling old stock, so I bought an "Ultimate Challenge" cloth badge. I never actually did the Challenge in the days when it was called the Ultimate Challenge ... but I do rather like the mountain goat emblem!

They did rather better this year at accommodating my dietary needs for the dinner - even though they hadn't actually done anything to warn the kitchen despite my giving them loads and loads of notice. It came down to the waitress asking me how they should adapt the menu to suit me! I wanted to try to keep as close to the actual menu as possible, to make life as easy as I could for the kitchen. The starter was fine (fan of melon with prawn Marie Rose) but the main course (chicken breast stuffed with haggis in a cream and whisky sauce) and the dessert (apple pie and cream) were both going to cause me problems. So I suggested that they do me chicken breast with bacon (I meant wrapped in bacon ... but I didn't say "wrapped" and in the event it didn't come wrapped) with a red wine reduction sauce and that for dessert they do a backed apple stuffed with spiced fruit. They did both these things for me, and it was very acceptable.

And then after dinner, John delighted in telling the story of the Mountain Rescue callouts (there were two - the other one being very much more necessary than mine!) and asked me to sing a song which I had written summarising my experiences on this year's Challenge, which I was delighted to do. It was very well received, too, so far as I could judge. The tune is, of course, "The Twelve Days of Christmas" and I had to take one or two slight liberties ... for instance, exaggerating the severity of my first day hangover, and omitting to say that it was only a practical joke when they told us there were no spare beds at Tarfside. So, for those who missed the Friday dinner, here are the words to "Jeremy's Crossing":

Oh the first day of my crossing was a day that I felt cursed -
The hangover to end all hangovers

The second day of crossing was a day that I felt cursed -
Stuck in Oban bothy and the hangover to end all hangovers

The third day of my crossing was a day that I felt cursed -
Mountain rescue shout ... etc.

The fourth day of my crossing was a day that I felt cursed -
All day on the roads ... etc.

The fifth day of my crossing was a day that I felt cursed -
Union politics! ... etc.

The sixth day of my crossing was a day that I felt cursed -
Deep river crossing ... etc.

The seventh day of crossing was a day that I felt cursed -
Nasty squelchy peat bogs ... etc.

The eighth day of my crossing was a day that I felt cursed -
Didn't pack the sun cream ... etc.

The ninth day of my crossing was a day that I felt cursed -
Missed out all my mountains ... etc.

The tenth day of my crossing was a day that I felt cursed -
No spare beds at Tarfside ... etc.

The eleventh day of crossing was a day that I felt cursed -
Yet more road walking ... etc.

Oh the twelfth day of my crossing was a day that I felt cursed -
Can't believe it's over ... etc.

I should perhaps just add that, as I originally wrote it (and sang it), "Missed out all my mountains" was the eighth day, and "Didn't pack the suncream" was the ninth day; but as I have been writing this blog up, it has struck me that actually, I was suffering from lack of sun cream while there were still mountains on my route card which I hadn't yet missed out. So, with the benefit of hindsight, I have corrected the song to make it a more accurate reflection of my 2012 Challenge experience, by switchin these two verses around.

The 2012 Challenge, Day 14: Fettercairn to St Cyrus (8)

I headed on past the school, towards the cliffs and the path down to the beach. As I did so, I met a slightly out-of-focus Big John coming back up from the beach. He had finished ... I still had a little way to go. He asked me if the cafe was still open and I assured him it looked as though it was. I wondered if he would wait for me. After all, it wouldn't take me long to get down to the beach and back up.

When I reached the clifftop, I took some photographs on my mobile phone and sent them to Kathy to let her know I'd arrived. I briefly toyed withteh idea of texting Challenge Control and asking if they could send a helicopter to pick me up from St Cyrus beach, but thought better of it ... probably best not to joke about such things! And so I descended the cliff path to the beach.

The 2012 Challenge, Day 14: Fettercairn to St Cyrus (7)

I turned the corner at NO 744651, and there was the sign telling me I had reached my destination! Now all I had to do was get down to the beach.

At the main road there are public toilets and a bus stop. It was a little before 1.30 and I checked the bus times. There should be a bus at 2.48 which would do me just fine; and if I missed that, there was another at 3 o'clock. So no need to worry about getting to Montrose before 5 - everything would be just fine.

So I walked through St Cyrus, and found myself passing the primary school while the children were still out in the playground enjoying their lunch break. Suddenly somebody shouted "There's one o' them hikers!" and they all came crowding over to the fence, shouting "Well done" and applauding me as I passed. It really was a rather special welcome to the east coast!

The 2012 Challenge, Day 14: Fettercairn to St Cyrus (6)

This was my first sight of St Cyrus ...

The 2012 Challenge, Day 14: Fettercairn to St Cyrus (5)

Off to my right, the little side road to Mains of Kirktonhill looked absolutely delightful ... but that wasn't the way I was going. I pressed on past Hospital Shields and Sillycoats, then I turned left at Hill of Morphie.

At 1 o'clock, I flopped down onto the grass verge at NO 739651 or thereabouts, and enjoyed my lunch. Just a very short way to go now ...

The 2012 Challenge, Day 14: Fettercairn to St Cyrus (4)

At the A937, I saw my first sign for St Cyrus. Not far to go now!

The 2012 Challenge, Day 14: Fettercairn to St Cyrus (3)

By noon I was safely across the A9, and heading for the gap between Hill of Garvock (to the left of the picture) and Kirktonhill (to the right).

The 2012 Challenge, Day 14: Fettercairn to St Cyrus (2)

Leaving Sauchieburns behind, I followed lovely quiet back roads past Pitgarvie Wood (pictured), Brigton, Dowrieburn, Mill of Thornton and Mill of Barnes. Mill of Barnes farmhouse offers B&B, and this too is worth noting for future challenges as a potential last night stopping point. If they don't do evening meals it's no great problem - depending upon how early you like to eat and how late you are happy to walk, a meal could be taken at either the Ramsay Arms or the Sauchieburn hotel, and then the final short stretch to Mill of Barnes walked after supper.

The 2012 Challenge, Day 14: Fettercairn to St Cyrus (1)

Friday 25 May was another gloriously sunny day, and after a satisfying breakfast of smoked haddock and poached egg I paid my bill and hit the road at 10. I may not have had all that far to go, but I didn't want to be walking through the heat of the day if I could avoid it - besides which, there was still the small matter of getting from St Cyrus to Montrose, and being at the Park by 5 pm. I therefore allowed myself to crack along at a fairly brisk pace.

11 o'clock saw me at Sauchieburn, and the proprietors of the Sauchieburn Hotel were more than happy to give me copious amounts of water to drink, so as to preserve the limited supply I was carrying in my drinking bottles. The Sauchieburn Hotel is not nearly so grand as the Ramsay Arms, but it struck me as a cosy and friendly place; and another year I may try to stay there the last night before I reach the coast.

The 2012 Challenge, Day 13: Tarfside to Fettercairn (8)

The Ramsay Arms Hotel is an impressive building to look at, and it displays the royal arms over the door to commemorate Queen Victoria's visit. However, it also closes between the hours of 4 and 6 in the afternoon ... and they don't think to publicise this fact. So I arrived just after 4, to find it completely deserted and nobody manning reception or answering the bell when I rang. A quick scout around, however, soon located the staff sunning themselves in the beer garden, and we were in business! The young man was happy to show me to my room, and as he is anxious to do a bit of serious walking himself he took a great interest in learning about the Challenge and everything to do with it, and in being shown my gear, what I chose to carry, and why.

Practical demonstrations over, I had a long, luxurious bath and then went for a pre-dinner stroll. By some strange magnetism, my stroll seemed to be drawn inexorably to the distillery ... and to my surprise the visitor centre was still open - although apparently this was only because they were stock-taking. They explained rather apologetically that although they could give me a tasting, they could not sell me anything, because they were outside the hours of their licence. I assured them that a tasting would be just fine, and so they served me with a very enjoyable dram.

Well, once I'd got the chore of whisky tasting out of the way, I returned to the Ramsay Arms for supper - and very good it was too! Indeed, the goat's cheese salad which I had for my starter was quite probably the most excellent goat's cheese dish I have ever eaten. And trust me, I have had a fair few of them!

I made a note that this was a hotel well worth returning to, and retired for the night.

The 2012 Challenge, Day 13: Tarfside to Fettercairn (7)

I entered Fettercairn through the arch, built to commemorate a visit by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. They had come from Balmoral, riding ponies to Mount Keen and then crossing Mount Keen on foot. They then took a carriage down Glen Esk to Fettercairn, where they stayed the night without letting their true identities be revealed. The following day they returned to Balmoral. Even with the assistance of ponies and carriages, that was quite an impressive two days' journey!

There is not a whole deal to see in Fettercairn, other than the arch, the meerkat cross and the distillery. However, there is a cafe which goes by the imaginative name of The Arch Cafe, and I went in there and enjoyed a long, lazy root beer before heading back to check in to the Ramsay Arms Hotel.

The 2012 Challenge, Day 13: Tarfside to Fettercairn (6)

After a few kilometres of fairly unspectacular road walking, I came to Fettercairn cemetery. Beyond this there is a well made path into Fettercairn, and it was about 3.30 pm when I arrived at my destination for the day.

The 2012 Challenge, Day 13: Tarfside to Fettercairn (5)

The Rocks of Solitude are an amazing place, and my photograph does not do them justice. But it's the only photograph I have of them, so it'll have to do.

At about 12.45 I chanced upon a little grotto beside the path, with seats, and an elderly couple were enjoying their lunch there. They suggested I joined them; and although I wouldn't normally stop until 1, it seemed such a delightful place that I did. We chatted for a bit, and then they finished their lunch and departed. I took a while longer to finish my lunch, and then pressed on.

The riverside path continues past The Burn, and there are a number of benches dotted about the place. I spent a while sitting on one of these, simply enjoying the sense of place, the stillness, the beauty, and the shade from the summer sun. But eventually I had to continue, and soon I arrived at the Blue Door. Opening this and passing through I emerged onto the B966; and as there didn't seem much point now in going into Edzell, I turned left for Fettercairn.

The 2012 Challenge, Day 13: Tarfside to Fettercairn (4)

Another lovely little off-road diversion was provided by the track down to Haughend, and then back up to the road. This one is shown on the map; and I stopped on the track back up to the road for my 12 o'clock glug stop. Then, soon after I had rejoined the road, I heard a vehicle approaching from behind. I moved over to the side of the road to make as much room for it as I could, but the vehicle pulled up alongside me. It was Alvar and Ann, in their camper van, heading down to Montrose for the Thursday festivities. They kindly refilled my water bottles with fresh water, which was most welcome, and told me that in fact I wsan't the Challenge tailender after all as they had passed another Challenger a couple of miles back who had said she was heading for North Water Bridge campsite. A lot of Challengers head for that campsite after Tarfside; but I was headed for the Ramsay Arms hotel in Fettercairn.

Soon after Alvar and Ann had left me, I made a discovery which instantly dispelled any regrets I may have had about staying north of the river and on the road - and that was the riverside path through the Rocks of Solitude and past The Burn to the Blue Door. If you look very closely on the map this IS shown; but there is a boundary line along the river and other fussy detail which makes it very easy to miss. However, there was a nice notice board with the paths clearly shown, and I didn't need a second invitation!

The 2012 Challenge, Day 13: Tarfside to Fettercairn (3)

At one point where the road and river came together, it looked as though there might be an anglers' path along the riverbank. No path was shown on the map - but such paths seldom are. So, even though I was walking in sandals not boots today, I though it would be nice to get off the roads for a bit if I could, so I decided to follow it and see where it took me.

Alas, it didn't take me very far before I was forced to turn back and retrace my steps. However, what little of the path I was able to follow was absolutely delightful.

The 2012 Challenge, Day 13: Tarfside to Fettercairn (2)

Maybe I should have taken a closer look at my map before setting off along the roads, because there is in fact a riverside track on the south side of the river which eventually joins the road to Dalbog and would have allowed me to avoid going up into the hills without having to spend all day on the roads. Oh well ...

The road down Glen Esk is a very pleasant road to walk (albeit littered with a LOT of roadkill - mostly rabbits, but there was also a pheasant and a deer) and some of the views are really rather delightful. However, I could see a walker on the path to the south of the river (or was it two walking in step? I couldn't quite see). It wasn't Big John ... so it was presumably either Jim Davidson or Dave Collins. Or both. And I couldn't help thinking, somewhat wistfully, that maybe I should have been across there with them.

Still, one of the advantages of being on the road was that I could make cracking progress. I'd left Tarfside at 9, and the kilometres were just flying past. And at this stage of the Challenge, this is what matters. Because at this stage of the Challenge, you have so much effort invested in the crossing that you just want to get on and get it finished.

The 2012 Challenge, Day 13: Tarfside to Fettercairn (1)

Thursday 24 May was another bright, clear morning which promised to turn into a scorchingly hot day. My route card for the day said that I would take the south bank of the river, then go over Hill of Wirren and East Wirren, and over Hill of Corathro to Little Tullo and Lochside, cross the bridge in Edzell and then by way of Inch of Arnhall and Meikle Strath into Fettercairn. But that would involve spending a lot of the day up on exposed hill tops, in fierce sunshine, with no water sources. And I just thought ... "Nah!" And so I decided to stay north of the river, and just walk the Glen Esk road. OK, so it meant a lot of road walking when I'd planned a day that was nearly all off road ... but the off road route would always be there another year.

Breakfast options at Tarfside are generally bacon rolls or bacon rolls (or book breakfast at The Retreat instead) - but as the roll bit was not an option for me, they agreed to do me a plate of bacon and eggs. Which, I have to say, was absolutely delicious and set me up for the day. Then I settled my account, and Jim gave me another couple of squirts of his sun cream for my arms. And finally, before setting out for Fettercairn, I took a photo of 6 wonderful folk of Team Tarfside.

The 2012 Challenge, Day 12: Is there a bed at Tarfside? (8)

We arrived at Tarfside just after 3.30 and went in for a chat and some refreshment - at which point it became clear that there was plenty of space at the hostel, and the "no beds" comment had been a practical joke on Big John. Well, it certainly worked, as both John and I were completely taken in by it. In reality, we had the pick of the rooms, because we were the first two Challengers to book beds that night (Jim having decided that as it was such a lovely evening, he would rather save his money and sleep under canvas on the camping field).

Alvar advised me that there was no need to phone Challenge Control, as Challenge Control always phones the Tarfside Hostel at some point in the evening to find out who is there; so having settled in I took a quick look round the kirk and then took a short pre-dinner stroll. I met a large group of school kids and their teacher, coming in off a Duke of Edinburgh Bronze practice expedition, and heading to the camping field for the night. So it looked as though Jim was going to have plenty of company!

Two other Challengers arrived at Tarfside after us. One was Dave Collins, a first time Challenger from Rushden. Rushden is a little town just across the Bedfordshire / Northamptonshire border, and I think he is probably my most local fellow challenger. We exchanged e-mails before the Challenge and tried to meet for a chat, but it never quite worked out. The most promising weekend, he e-mailed me on the Friday and said "I can meet you in Bedford any time this weekend"; but I was already driving north in the camper van for my two days of walking in March! It was nice to meet up at last! The other Challenger was a lady whose name I did not catch, who arrived just in time for dinner.

Dinner was a wonderfully relaxed affair. There were five Challengers and six hostel staff, and extra portions for anyone who wanted as it was the last evening meal they would be serving, and any spare food would like as not go to waste. This was in marked contrast to the previous day when, apparently, no fewer than 70 Challengers had passed through Tarfside! Challenge Control duly phoned, took details of who was in Tarfside, and imparted the news that there had been 53 withdrawals but that all other Challengers were accounted for. And after dinner, Big John's flask of Aberlour came out and we all had a nice wee dram before turning in for the night.

The 2012 Challenge, Day 12: Is there a bed at Tarfside? (7)

We took the track to Westbank and followed the path between Cairn Robie and Hill of Rowan into Tarfside. John said that if I wanted to run up to take a look at the monument I should feel free; but I wasn't running anywhere in that heat! Besides, how could he be sure I was going to be able to find my way back down to Tarfside without troubling Mountain Rescue?

As we approached Tarfside I spotted two figures lurking in the heather to the left of the track - and they turned out to be Alan and Marion, who had come up from the hostel to greet Big John. And they brought bad news with them. "There are no beds left I'm afraid. That fellow - what's his name - Jim has just booked the last one." I turned to Big John and shrugged. Oh well - the camping field for us, then. Not a biggie, that - it was going to be a lovely night for camping, and presumably we'd have the field pretty much to ourselves.

The 2012 Challenge, Day 12: Is there a bed at Tarfside? (6)

At the car park we sat beneath a shady tree for half an hour or so, enjoying the day again. There was no hurry, we thought. Either we would get a bed at the hostel, or we wouldn't. No worries. Certainly neither of us was going to rush to get there. John said he'd explain his tardniess to everyone by the need to escort me down off the hill. He'd say he found me at Shielin of Mark, thinking that I was at Glas-allt-Shiel, and decided that if he didn't escort me down to Tarfside they might need to get the Mountain Rescue out for me again. I just grinned and said "Yeah, yeah!"

After half an hour or so, we decided that perhaps we should press on and finish the day's walking. At the foot of the Auchronie track, we were most entertained at the sight of these sheep, being moved around in a transport box. They seemed a little bemused, but not too upset by it all.

The 2012 Challenge, Day 12: Is there a bed at Tarfside? (5)

Loch Lee is a beautiful loch, and as John remarked it has one very great advantage over lochs like Arkaig, Ericht and Rannoch - which is that it does NOT go on and on for ever! We were soon at the east end, and passed through Kirkton and past Invermark Lodge before coming to the enchanting (if slightly unsafe) ruins of Invermark Castle.

The 2012 Challenge, Day 12: Is there a bed at Tarfside? (4)

We stopped for lunch when we reached the west end of Loch Lee. Jim was long gone by now - practically at Tarfside, I shouldn't wonder. We, however, were just bimbling along, enjoying the sunshine, and the views. The photograph was taken from our lunch spot, looking across the head of Loch Lee towards Inchgrundle. Such wonderfull names they have for the places in Glen Lee! Another time I can see I'm going to have to come over the hills from Clova (well, I still need to make up for my failure to get over in 2000!) and descend from Cairn Lick. That way I can have the delightful-sounding Shank of Inchgrundle on my route card!

The 2012 Challenge, Day 12: Is there a bed at Tarfside? (3)

There are some impressive rock faces overlooking Glen Lee. This is Craig Maskeldie.

The 2012 Challenge, Day 12: Is there a bed at Tarfside? (2)

Jim soon opened out a healthy lead on John and myself; but John's natural walking pace and mine were almost perfectly matched, so we walked in company. We caught up with Jim again at Stables of Lee (pictured), where we all took a breather and a glug; but once we left Jim was soon opening up the gap again. Hurrying to Tarfside is, of course, an old Challenge tradition. Beds at the hostel are allocated on a "first come, first served" basis - although John was saying that he had been promised a bed for tonight and would turf somebody out if needs be, and I wasn't altogether sure whether he was joking or serious. Earlier in the week, you would have needed to arrive at or not long after noon to be sure of a bed. But today was the last day that the hostel was open and I had no idea how busy it would be. Perhaps it was safe to arrive a bit later on the Wednesday, with the majority of finishers trying to be at the Thursday night dinner in Montrose.

About two kilometres down the glen from Stables of Lee, there is a small wooded area. There has been some felling here, and a little building can now be seen which was, apparently, previously hidden away in the woods. It is not shown on the map but it is there. And when I went to investigate it proved to be a nicely appointed little bothy with a table, chairs, and plentiful supply of firewood. No bothy book that I could see, however, and clearly not MBA. But if ever forced to stop short of Tarfside, I think I should far prefer this to the Stables of Lee as my overnight shelter!

Sunday, 3 June 2012

The 2012 Challenge, Day 12: Is there a bed at Tarfside? (1)

Wednesday 23 May dawned bright and sunny ... just like the three days before it! I really should have bought myself some sun cream in Braemar ... but thankfully this morning Big John came to the rescue with a few squirts of his for my arms. The neck wasn't such a problem, as I'd be walking in my havelock again.

After breakfast Jim, Big John and I all packed and headed off at pretty much the same time. We were all going to the same place: Tarfside. And we were all getting there by pretty much the same route: Over Muckle Cairn and down Glen Lee. Jim and John were intent on staying north of the river once they got to Glen Esk, whereas I had put on my route card that I would use the tracks and paths to the south of the river; but I didn't need all that much persuading to change my route to be sociable!

John and I took a rather different path up Muckle Cairn from Jim. His route was rather to the south of ours. We thought we had picked the best line by reading the hill and the vegetation, but Jim was powering along a whole lot fast than us - with the result that we all met up together on the Land Rover Track as we began our descent. In this photograph Jim is in the lead, followed by Big John, and I am bringing up the rear.

The 2012 Challenge, Day 11: Braemar to Shielin of Mark (11)

My navigation was absolutely spot on, and as I reached the little gully through which the headwaters of the Water of Mark flow, I saw the roof of the bothy directly ahead of me. I picked my way down the slope and came round to the front door, and went in.

Jim was already there, of course ... but so was another Challenger: John Hutcheson (or "Big John" to his friends). They had already taken the two main sleeping shelves, and I reckoned that I would probably be just as well off in my tent so I pitched outside. Then I went into the bothy and cooked my supper.

After supper, the whisky came out. I produced my flask of Caol Isla, and Big John produced a Sigg water bottle full of a Speyside malt. Aberlour, if memory serves me correctly. The evening passed quickly in mirth and merriment; and then I retired to my tent and slept soundly all night through.

The 2012 Challenge, Day 11: Braemar to Shielin of Mark (10)

Up on top of the peat hill I turned and looked back towards Lochnagar. It was going to be a glorious sunset, and I should have loved to have been able to stay up there and watch it. But I had a bothy to get to.

I was right about two things, though. There were plenty of peat hags up top, and travelling on a bearing would have been well nigh impossible. However, there was no real difficulty reading the hill, and as I worked my way through and around the hags, I had little doubt that I was putting myself in the way of the bothy.

The 2012 Challenge, Day 11: Braemar to Shielin of Mark (9)

The ascent of the glen in the evening light was really very beautiful, and most enjoyable. I took it very easily, not wishing to risk another breathing problem, and everything was fine. I watched the altimeter steadily counting off the metres as I climbed, and I was sure that I was going to make it to the bothy tonight.

At NO 328832 the stream divides, and it is necessary to make a choice how you are going to navigate to the bothy. My instinctive preference is to handrail the streams south, and then east north east across the face of Round Hill of Mark. However, at the Spittal we had met a lady who says she regularly takes groups up there on navigation exercises, and she said you're better travelling on a bearing over the top of the hill. Jim, certainly, had opted for this alternative - and had taken a bearing when he was down at the Spittal, although I remain unsure how this was supposed to have helped him. When I reached the stream junction i decided that I too would go over the top - although I wasn't convinced of the merits of the bearing. It was obviously a peat hill, and travelling on a bearing through peat hags is notoriously difficult. But it was a beautifully clear evening, the land forms all around were clearly discernible, and I decided that there should be no difficulty simply reading the hill and pointing myself in the right direction without the need to use a compass. And so I headed up from the stream junction and across the open hillside ...

The 2012 Challenge, Day 11: Braemar to Shielin of Mark (8)

We took the descent to Spittal of Glenmuick steadily, savouring the views to distant Mount Keen. We arrived at about 5.30 and took a breather. Jim got out his stove and made a brew. I went to the public toilets ... and came away without my money belt (which contained all my money, my credit card, and my train ticket home from Montrose - its loss would be a complete disaster!) As soon as I realised this I headed back - but the cubicle I had used was occupied, and I had a tense wait until its occupant emerged, and I could check whether my money belt was there. Fortunately it was!

I had told Challenge Control that I would telephone them tomorrow, either from Spittal of Glenmuick as I passed through, or from Tarfside on arrival. According to the map there is a telephone at the Spittal of Glenmuick visitor centre, and indeed there is: but it is for emergency calls only! So it was going to have to be Tarfside, then!

Jim left Spittal of Glenmuick at about 6 and headed up to Shielin of Mark. I waited a good three quarters of an hour longer to gauge my recovery, and to decide whether or not I was going to be able to tackle another ascent this evening. Eventually, however, I decided that I should be able to make the climb as long as I took it nice and steadily. So at 6.45 I set my altimeter (the first time in a very long time I had felt any real need to use it ... but I wanted to be able to monitor my progress: Jim had told me that there were some good wild pitches half way up the glen to Shielin of Mark, and I wanted to have as much information as possible as possible to help me decide whether to stop short or press on). Then I shouldered my pack and began a slow, steady climb.

The 2012 Challenge, Day 11: Braemar to Shielin of Mark (7)

As we followed the track, we had views across to Lochnagar; and it was all too obvious that there was still plenty of snow up on the top. Staying low today had definitely been the right decision.

"Low", of course, is a relative term ... and the Clais Rathadan track does in fact climb to 700 metres. We were walking at a fair pace (slightly faster than my normal pace, in fact, as Jim appears to have a somewhat faster gait than me) and I began to get into difficulty.

I have only had one full-blown asthma attack in my life, and that was on my ML assessment in September 2001 - 3,000 foot above sea level and a good 5 miles from the nearest road! When I got home I saw my doctor and was tested for asthma, and the results were negative. However, all my life I have suffered occasionally from symptoms which I am now convinced are asthmatic in nature. The only way I can describe them is that it sometimes feels as though I had a load of stale air at the bottom of my lungs, and I cannot get rid of it and replace it with fresh air - all I manage to do when I breathe in is add fresh air on top of it, and when I breathe out again I am only expelling the fresh air, not the stale air at the bottom of my lungs. When I get like this, I have to take several deep breaths, and eventually one of them will feel as though it has displaced the stale air, and I can breathe normally again. Well, that's how I began to feel as we trudged up the side of the Coire na Ciche. I stopped. I breathed deeply. But I could not displace the stale air. Eventually I did ... but it took me a lot longer than it normally does; and by the time I succeeded, I was feeling very unwell. We continued to the junction with the Lochnagar path and then I sat and rested for a while. When I felt well enough to continue, I told Jim that I didn't know whether I'd be up to climbing from Spittal of Glenmuick to Shielin of Mark tonight. I'd make my mind up when we got to Spittal of Glenmuick - but if I wasn't up to it, I'd take the level path along the shore of Loch Muick to Glas-allt-Shiel.

The 2012 Challenge, Day 11: Braemar to Shielin of Mark (6)

We stopped for a short break at Gelder Shiel bothy, and checked the bothy book to see who had passed through recently. Jim regaled me with the story of the near-incineration of the bothy on last year's Challenge, for he had been one of the unfortunates taking shelter there when the incident occurred. For those who are unfamiliar with the story, this was during the really bad storms of 2011. The bothy was packed full. It was late at night. Everyone had had their supper and was trying to settle down for a good night's sleep, when a late arrival burst in and set up a petrol stove. What he was doing wrong is anybody's guess, but the bothy rapidly filled with petrol fumes and he had to be forcibly restrained from striking a match by those who feared that if he did, they would quickly be engulfed in a fireball! Well, that's how the story has come to my ears, in any event. Doubtless those who were actually there will put me right on the odd detail or two.

After a short rest, during which we didn't burn the bothy down or even come anywhere close, we were on our way again. As Jim had predicted, there was no real onward path and we were soon heather-bashing our way to the Land Rover Track. Once we reached it, progress was good, and I began to debate what I should do when we reached Clais Rathadan. If I had been going over Lochnagar, I would have descended to Glas-allt-Shiel and spent the night in the bothy there; and my Foul Weather Alternative Route therefore aimed to finish at Glas-allt-Shiel too. But then the following day's route took me through Spittal of Glenmuick and up to Shielin of Mark bothy, and I began to think that maybe I should just aim for Shielin of Mark tonight. There was plenty of time, and that was where Jim was headed, too.

The 2012 Challenge, Day 11: Braemar to Shielin of Mark (5)

We crossed the bridge over the Gelder Burn and paused for a glug and to refill our water bottles (well, my water bottles and Jim's plastic bag thingy that he uses to carry his drinking water ... and which he never seems to fill more than about a quarter full). It was a lovely spot, and the sun was smiling down on us. So I recalled the Twin Towers telling me, on my first Challenge, that I should slow down and not be in such a hurry to get to the end of my day's walking. What was the point, they asked me, of walking THROUGH all this beauty if I was in too much of a hurry to ENJOY it? If memory serves me correctly, that was on the Lairig path heading up to Leacain bothy ... The views were magnificent, looking back across the woods to the snow-capped mountains north of the Dee. It was probably right to have stayed low, rather than attempt Lochnagar ...

Well, I reckoned that this was the time and place to sit back and just enjoy the beauty. I told Jim to feel free to continue if he wished (this being one of the advantages of walking together because you just happen to be heading the same way rather than because you have entered as an official pair - you can stick together or split up as you please). Jim decided to stick with me, however, so we just lay there in the sunshine, soaking up the rays, for perhaps half an hour. Then we decided it was time to continue - and another choice had to be made.

The official "preferred route" from here is via Gelder Shiel, and then the path up the stream which joins the made up track just below Little Conachcraig. However Jim, who has been this way before, told me that beyond Gelder Shiel there isn't really a path, and you just end up beating your own way through the heather until you reach the Land Rover track. The alternative, it seemed to me, was to take the left fork at NO 255906 and then turn right at NO 258908, which would avoid the heather-bashing altogether. However, it would also bypass Gelder Shiel; and as I had never been to Gelder Shiel we decided to stick to the "official" route.

The 2012 Challenge, Day 11: Braemar to Shielin of Mark (4)

We re-entered the woods, and chose a shady spot to sit and take lunch. Jim gave his feet a break from his boots - not something I have ever thought to do in the past, but I can see the merits! Then we continued round the back of Ripe Hill, down the Feith an Laoigh and to the Gelder Burn.

The 2012 Challenge, Day 11: Braemar to Shielin of Mark (3)

In the clearing by Garhb Allt Shiel cottage we came upon a large herd of deer. They were obviously well accustomed to human presence, and did not take fright and run off as we passed, so a reasonable photograph was possible. Then we strode out all the way to Connachat Cottage.

Beyond Connachat Cottage, two tracks came down from the right to join the road we were walking. According to the map there should be two tracks joining from the right, but they should be about 200 metres apart, whereas these looked rather closer than that. Furthermore, they both appeared to join our road at pretty much the same angle, whereas according to the map they should be joining at very different angles. I therefore felt a little uneasy about simply identifying the first track we encountered with the first track shown on the map (which was the track we needed to follow to the Gelder Burn). However, a little bit of compass work soon confirmed that the bearings at the first junction were an exact tally for those of the track shown on the map, and so I was reassured that it was indeed the track we should be taking. As we followed it, though, I kept up a constant reference back to the map, until I was satisfied that it was indeed behaving exactly as it ought. Once we emerged from the trees and the unmistakable form of Ripe Hill was there in front of us, I was entirely satisfied that we were on the correct track.

The 2012 Challenge, Day 11: Braemar to Shielin of Mark (2)

Beyond the castle, the road runs close to the Dee, which is here tranquil and graceful. After a little way, I found a gate which opened on to a track running through the woods which appeared to follow the road, and it seemed prudent to follow this rather than risk life and limb on the road. I'm glad I did, because otherwise I should not have seen the defensive positions dug by the local Home Guard to defend Braemar against invading Germans coming up the Dee. However, before long I came upon a waymarker describing this as a "circular route", which kinda made me feel that maybe I ought to return to the road while I still could. One climb over a rickety fence later I was back on the road, and as I sat enjoying my next glug stop I encountered my first "walking Challenger" of the crossing. Jim Davidson was heading the same way as me, and so we walked in company for pretty much the rest of the day.

We crossed the Dee twice - using Bridge of Dee and Invercauld Bridge - and took the track for Garbh Allt Shiel, which is one of the estate's preferred routes for Challengers to follow. The tracks on the Balmoral estate are well made and the going is easy. It is also incredibly beautiful, and it is easy to see why Queen Victoria fell in love with this estate.

We paused briefly at the bridge over the Glenbeg Burn to replenish our water supplies, and Jim kindly gave me some of his suncream for my arms and my neck. And then we continued through the woods.

The 2012 Challenge, Day 11: Braemar to Shielin of Mark (1)

Tuesday 22 May started with a delicious cooked breakfast (thank you SO much, Marion Baker!). Then I collected my laundry, jettisoned all the uneaten food which I wouldn't be needing now my resupply parcel had arrived, left the rest of my new tin of boot wax for Richard to put on his boots, and generally did everything I could to lighten the load as much as possible. We hadn't got around to putting my mittens through the washing machine with the tech wash and reproofing stuff, so i left that too for Richard's benefit. It had only cost £8, after all!

My route for the day was supposed to take me over Lochnagar; but there was snow up high and I really didn't want to be venturing into it, so once again it was my low level alternative route that I would be following. And, with that decision taken, I committed myself to omitting every single one of the 17 Munros and 2 Corbetts on my original route card. That was worse, even, than 2011 - when I had at least managed to top out on Beinn Resipol on the first day! But, as I always say - the Challenge is about getting across. Mountains are a bonus. And if you ever have to choose between sacrificing the mountains for the sake of the crossing, or sacrificing the crossing for the sake of the mountains, well, it's the mountains that have to go.

And so I headed out of Braemar on the road past Braaemar Castle (pictured).

The 2012 Challenge, Day 10: A Stroll into Braemar (8)

Supper in the Fife Arms was acceptable, and after supper I got to talking (and playing pool - rather badly, in my case) with a young couple called Dave and Sue. They were the first Challengers I had met since setting out from Lochailort, but it turned out that they had withdrawn. They had been following one of Peewiglet's routes from Torridon, which they said had impressed them because it just seemed to flow in sympathy and harmony with the landscape. However, the weather had got the better of them. Sue, especially, had been having difficulty keeping warm at night, and they weren't enjoying themselves in consequence. They hadn't encountered a great number of other Challengers and so saw little of the legendary cameraderie, and so they decided to call it a day. They didn't know if they'd be coming back another year - they felt that if they wanted to walk across Scotland they could do it any time, and it didn't have to be as part of the Challenge. They also gave me the somewhat stunning news that there had already been 50+ withdrawals from the Challenge which, if true, would be an all time record attrition rate.

When I got back to the B&B I telephoned Challenge Control to advise that I was safe and sound in Braemar, and to confirm my booking for the Friday dinner. They confirmed the attrition rate, which had risen to 52 withdrawals. I was glad not to be one of them!

The 2012 Challenge, Day 10: A Stroll into Braemar (7)

Before I took my leave of Howard, I asked his permission to take a couple of photographs of the painting, so I could juxtapose it with my photograph of the view he was painting. This was readily forthcoming, upon condition only that any time I publish the photograph, I add a link to Howard's gallery website. That seemed a perfectly reasonable request to me, and here is the link (or at least the URL - I'm not sure I know how to turn it into a link!): http://www.butterworthpaintings.co.uk/index.html

As I said goodbye to Howard and took to the road once again, another walker came by and we walked the rest of the way into Braemar together. He was a young man called Nigel, and he was heading for a pitch on the Braemar camp site. He was not a Challenger; but I fancy that in future years he may become one.

Arriving in Braemar, we went our separate ways. I went to the pharmacy and bought some lip salve, as my lips were getting quite seriously chapped. I guess i should have bought some suncream too, but i didn't think of that! Then I went to the outdoor shop and bought some new bootwax and an Ortlieb map case. I asked them what they thought about the mittens, and they suggested that it might simply be a case of needing to reproof them. So they chose to sell me £8 worth of Tech Wash and reproofing stuff, rather than £50 - £100 of new mittens (I've no idea what they'd cost these days; but I do remember paying Joe in Arran Active £50 for the existing mittens, and that was 18 years ago). I'm always happy to deal with such shops!

Having bought all the supplies I needed, I then went to Richard and Marion Baker's wonderful B&B, where I had a room booked, and where my resupply parcel was waiting. I settled in, and Marion took my laundry and put it in the washing machine. Then I had a nice relaxing bath, put a fresh coat of wax on my boots, and went to the Fife Arms for supper.

The 2012 Challenge, Day 10: A Stroll into Braemar (6)

I stopped for lunch at a layby, where an artist was at work on an oil painting of the view looking back up the Dee to Mar Lodge. This is the view he was painting. We got talking, and it turned out that he is a very celebrated local artist called Howard Butterworth, who has a gallery in Aboyne. He was fascinating to talk to, and even more fascinating to watch at work, and I ended up spending something over two hours in his company, watching him transform the canvas from a painting which would sell for £2,000 into one that will sell for £10,000 (his words, not mine!) Prints of the finished work will probably sell for about £250.

I could happily have spent all day watching Howard at work and learning from him, but I had to get on my way.

The 2012 Challenge, Day 10: A Stroll into Braemar (5)

I crossed the Dee by the Victoria Bridge, and turned left onto the road. Just 5 kilometres of road walking to go, and I'd be in Braemar!

The 2012 Challenge, Day 10: A Stroll into Braemar (4)

Mar Lodge is an impressive building, and no mistake. It was built, if memory serves correctly, for Princess Louise - one of Queen Victoria's daughters - and is now owned by the National Trust for Scotland. I was the only customer in the tearoom; and they did not actually have all that much that I could eat or drink. I had a fresh orange juice and an apple, and continued on my leisurely way.

The 2012 Challenge, Day 10: A Stroll into Braemar (3)

At Linn of Dee, an A4 poster attached to a gate post welcomed TGO Challengers, and informed them that the Mar Lodge gunroom tearoom would be open and welcome them until 4pm today. I had heard all about Mar Lodge, but never actually visited it. I aimed to rectify that this year, so I stayed on the north side of the Dee. There is a nice, tranquil riverside path for some of the way; but for the most part it was necessary to walk on the road.

The 2012 Challenge, Day 10: A Stroll into Braemar (2)

As I headed down the Dee, I paused to take a photograph of the confluence of the Geldie Burn (to the left of the picture) and the Dee (to the right); and then I continued down to Linn of Dee. I paused to chat to two local walkers who were out with their dogs - and they assured me that they had camped at Loch nan Eun and never had any trouble with the seagulls. Local knowledge, eh? You can't beat it, can you ...

The 2012 Challenge, Day 10: A Stroll into Braemar (1)

Monday 21 May was another bright, sunny morning. I enjoyed breakfast, struck camp, and was walking by 8.45. I had taken a little sunburn the day before, on my arms and neck, and I decided that I had better wear my havelock to keep the sun off my neck today. It is intended as a waterproof, but it serves just as well as a sunproof and, not being lined for warmth, it is not too hot.

White Bridge to Braemar is not a hard day's walking - but that was fine by me. I wanted to get settled in to my B&B and get some laundry done. I needed to visit the outdoor shop and sort out some kit replacements (one of my map cases - the one I used to carry all my "spare" paperwork - was falling apart and needed replacement; my boots were beginning to look as though they could do with another coat of wax; and my ancient and much-loved waterproof mittens had finally proved on Stormy Sunday that they could no longer be relied upon to keep hands dry ... so after 18 years' service, it was probably time to retire them and buy some replacements). However, even with the desire to reach Braemar while shops were still open, i knew that I could afford to amble at an easy pace and enjoy the sunshine while it lasted.

The 2012 Challenge, Day 9: Right Up Yer Tilt (11)

And then, finally, at 6.30 ... it was time to cross the Geldie Burn. It was wide, and it was fast-flowing ... but it looked fordable. And so I prepared for my second "trousers-off" river crossing of the Challenge. Unlike last time, however, there was no rain coming down, the sun was shining, and the air was warm on my skin. Boots and socks round my neck ... sandals on ... trousers off and in the rucksack ... rucksack on but straps not fastened ... and then I took the plunge. The water was cold, and I would be in it for rather longer than last time as the Geldie Burn was quite a lot wider. I faced upstream and scuttled sideways through the waters which, at their deepest, came just above my knees. And then I was out the other side. Unlike last time, I was in no immedaite hurry to get dressed and warm again - the sunshine saw to that - so I decided to see if the little building at NO 003869 would provide a suitable changing room where I didn't have to sit on potentially wet grass and mud ... and perhaps a suitable place to spend the night without needing to pitch my tent. Alas, however, it was fenced off with warning signs saying that it is a dangerous structure. So I got dressed again in the open air, and headed on down to White Bridge where I knew there were some good turf pitches.

It didn't take long to cover the 2 kilometres to White Bridge. I was passed by a steady string of mountain bikers all from the same local club, the first of whom stopped and walked a while. He told me that had I walked my original planned route, I would have discovered that my wild camp at Loch nan Eun was far from peaceful. Apparently the locals call the old boathouse pitch "the noisiest campsite in the world" because the seagulls who live on the island don't like intruders, and will spend all night dive-bombing your tent. Or so he said, anyway.

The cycling club waited at White Bridge for stragglers to catch up, so when I arrived there was quite a crowd there ... a dozen or so. They soon departed, however, and I crossed the bridge and pitched on the north bank of the Dee. I heated up a pouch of Duchy Originals parsnip an dapple soup; but having eaten it, I really didn't feel like eating anything else. So I washed up, packed away my stove, and settled down for the night.

The 2012 Challenge, Day 9: Right Up Yer Tilt (10)

I passed the ruins of Bynack Lodge a little after 6. According to the map, the path leads you right up to Bynack Lodge, and then you have a choice of a path which crosses the Bynack burn immediately, or a Land Rover track which stays to the east of the Bynack Burn, crosses the Allt an t-Seilich, and then fords the Bynack Burn lower down where it is much broader. On the ground this was not what happened at all. The path never turned towards Bynack Lodge, so far as I could tell; and it just became the Land Rover Track. So I found myself stone-hopping across the Allt an t-Seilich, and then fording the Bynack Burn lower down. It was wide and had a reasonable flow, and picking my way as best I could my boots had to repel a fair bit of water. Fortunately, with all the wax I'd piled onto them before I started, they were up to this task and my socks stayed dry.

The 2012 Challenge, Day 9: Right Up Yer Tilt (9)

As I began to descend, fresh vistas began to open up: and I could see clear to distant Ben Macdui (or is it Derry Cairngorm?), capped in snow. There was a time when Ben Macdui was believed to be the highest mountain in Britain. One year for Christmas a former boss of mine, knowing I was a keen mountain-goer, gave me a reproduction of a print (undated, alas!) entitled "A Comparative View of some of the PRINCIPAL HILLS in GREAT BRITAIN". This shows Ben Nevis at 4,370 feet, and Ben Macdui ("N.B. the Highest Hill in Great Britain") at 4,570. The original print clearly post-dates the rebuilding of St Paul's Cathedral, as the modern St Pauls is shown as a point of comparison; and it equally clearly pre-dates the completion of the Ordnance Survey triangulation, which achieved much more accurate measurements of height. It is notable that the heights given for the coastal mountains are much more accurate than those given for the inland mountains (which isn't really surprising: as fewer triangulations are required to achieve a measurement, with the result that there is far less scope for compounding of error). However, some of the information on which it is based is completely spurious, and modern Munro-baggers are advised against rushing off to Shetland in search of the 4,000 foot Ronas Hill ...

The 2012 Challenge, Day 9: Right Up Yer Tilt (8)

When I reached the bealach, I was quite frankly stunned by what I found. Normally, cols such as this are places of mire and peat bog, where water runs in from either side, but does not run out so readily at either end. You squelch your way through them, and emerge an hour or so later with wet socks and evil smelling goo all over your boots. But not this one! Oh no: this col contains vast, broad expanses of soft, flat, DRY turf. You could easily find wild pitches for a hundred tents up here AND still satisfy fire regulations with the space between each tent! There are one or two places where you have to pick your way a little carefully. But this is far FAR removed from your average bealach experience. The day just got better and better ...