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 ...

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Preparing for the 2016 Challenge

In the late summer and autumn of 2015, I spent a lot of time thinking about my future; and I reached the conclusion that I did not wish to spend of my working life doing what I do now. I am therefore going to take early retirement, draw my pension (with actuarial reduction, unfortunately) at 50, and return to college to retrain for a second career as a teacher. This will, of course, have profound implications for my future as a Challenger, since teaching and the Challenge don't mix. At the moment I do not know for sure whether or not I shall be able to do the 2017 Challenge (assuming I get a place), and I am therefore proceeding upon the assumption that 2016 will be my last chance to do the Challenge for a very long time. Accordingly, I want it to be a good one!

The first obstacle to be overcome was, of course, that as a 2015 Leg End, my entry would go straight to the standby list rather than into the main draw; however, the gods of fortune smiled upon me, and for some reason which I am still not sure I understand all of us in this situation were told that our entries had been accepted and we had a place. And so I set to work designing the most outrageously ambitious route I have ever submitted. I just hope the snow melts and the weather holds! I have only three start points which I have not used (Oban, Plockton and Torridon); and so I decided it was time I went from Oban. My route is as follows:

Friday 13 May. South out of Oban on the A816 and the track through the woods and round Cnoc Mor and past Loch Nell to reach Glen Lonan, then through Glen Lonan to Taynuilt.

Saturday 14 May. Through Brochroy, across the bridge to the smoker, through the woods to Loch Etive and along the shore path as far as Glennoe, then over Beinn a' Chochuill (Munro #1) and Beinn Eunaich (Munro #2), descend by the South ridge and on the orange road through Stronmilchan to Dalmally (this last bit of road walking being a stretch I have previously traversed on the Challenge in the opposite direction).

Sunday 15 May. East on the main road as far as Corryghoil then track through the woods past Succoth Lodge and follow the power lines up to the edge of the woods; then ascend Beinn a' Chleibh (Munro #3) and Ben Lui (Munro #4), descend NE, cross the Allt an Rund, follow the track down to Auchtertyre and wild camp at the shielings at the confluence of the Allt a' Chaol Ghlinne and the Allt Gleann a' Chlachain.

Monday 16 May. Ascend Beinn Chaorach (Corbett #1) and ridge walk Cam Chreag (Corbett #2), Stob nan Clach, Creag Mhor (Munro #5) and descend SE over Sron nan Eun to track. Follow track to Kenknock and road down Glen Lochay to Killin.

Tuesday 17 May. Take main A827 as far as the pipeline; ascend beside the pipeline and follow the track to the Ben Lawers car parks. Ascend Beinn Ghlas (Munro #6) and ridge walk Ben Lawers (Munro #7), An Stuc (Munro #8), Meall Garbh (Munro #9), Meall Greigh (Munro #10) and descend E to the shielings in grid square 6944, then track through the woods and road to Fortingall. If I have managed all my hills so far, this route will already be a High Level crossing after 5 days.

Wednesday 18 May. Yellow road to Keltneyburn and orange road NW / N, then track past Creag Odhar. Ascend Sliabh Fada and Creag Chean, then Meall Tairneachan (Corbett #3). Use the track then open hillside (yeah right ... there will be a path!) to reach Farragon Hill (Corbett #4) then track past Beinn Eagagach and down to Netherton, yellow road E as far as FB over River Tummel at NN 903602 and cross; paths to Garry Bridge, cross the Garry and riverside path into Killiecrankie.

Thursday 19 May. Reluctantly bypass Ben Vrackie (it would just have made the day too big!) and head up Glen Girnaig then past Tomnabroilach and paths / tracks to ridge walk Carn Liath (Munro #11), Braigh Coire Chruinn-bhalgain (Munro #12) and Carn nan Gabhar (Munro #13), dewscending by N ridge and crossing An Lachain to make bamp at the old shielings.

Friday 20 May. Over Meall na Spionaig to Allt a' Ghlinne Mor, then Carn an Righ (Munro #14), Mam nan Carn, Beinn Iutharn Mhor (Munro #15) and return down Allt an Ghlinne Mhor to the cocktail party. Camp wherever seems appropriate.

Saturday 21 May. Back up the Allt and past Loch nan Eun, then ridge walk An Socach (Munro #15), Sgor Mor, Creag a' Mhadaidh, Carn na Drochaide, Morrone (Corbett #5) and descend to Braemar.

Sunday 22 May. South to Auchallater then Creag nan Gabhar (Corbett #6), descend to Lochallater Lodge, Ascend Carn an Tuirc (Munro #16) and continue to Cairn of Claise (Munro #17), Glas Maol (Munro #18) and Creag Leacach (Munro #19), returning to make wild camp at high level between Glas Maol and Little Glas Maol.

Monday 23 May. Reascend Cairn of Claise then descend ENE. Cross over Tolmount (Munro #20) and ridge walk Knaps of Fafernie, Fafernie, Carn an t-Sagairt Mor (Munro #21), Carn cac Beag of Lochnagar (Munro #22), then return to Carn a' Choire Bhoidheach (Munro #23), Carn Bannoch (Munro #24), over Broad Cairn (Munro #25) and descend to pony stable which I will use as an improvised bothy.

Tuesday 24 May. Return over Broad Cairn; head SW from Cairn of Gowal to pass between Knaps of Fafernie and Crow Craigies, skirt SE fland of Tolmount and ascent Ca Whims then Tom Buidhe (Munro #27) and ridge walk LIttle Kilrannoch, Dun Hillocks, Mayar (Munro #28), Driesh (Munro #29), return to the pass and descend Shank of Drumfollowto Acharn then road to Clova.

Wednesday 25 May. Path up past Loch Brandy to Green Hill and ridge walk White hill, The Goet of Ben Tirran (Corbett #7), Cairn Trench, White Hill, Finbracks, Manywee (dare you fill your water bottles from a stream running off this one??), Craigthran and descend S ridge. Path and raod down Glen Moyto Cortachy.

Thursday 26 May. Road walking day, heading basically SE, skirting Forfar to the North (unless I should decide I fancy a hot towel shave again ... ) through Dunnichen and into Letham.

Friday 27 May. Roads and paths SE into Arbroath.

And that, my friends, is how I plan finally to achieve my High Level crossing. With 29 Munros and 7 Corbetts on my car, I only actually have to manage to get up one in three ... and with only three days on which I don't go high (the first day, and the final two in the Angus agricultural belt) the weather will need to be pretty dire to keep me down so consistently that I cannot even manage one in three. Still, stranger things have been known ...

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

A bit about Ambronite

You will recall that I was impressed by how polite Valerie Vlasenko, from Ambronite, had been when she asked me if I'd like to trial their product; and that I said yes I would - but it didn't arrive in time for me to take it to Scotland with me on my October expedition (see "Another Interesting e-mail exchange"). It did, however, arrive shortly after I got back; and I promised to do a short write-up.

What I received was a box containing a large green translucent plastic flask, with a screw top and a drinking cap, and ten sachets of "Ambronite" - described variously as a "Drinkable Supermeal" and a "Nutritional Shake Mix". The sachets are a rather stunning green colour. Each weighs 4.2 oz (120g), and has a fairly short shelf life (these samples arrived in October 2015, and have a Best Before date of 31/05/2016). The instructions couldn't be simpler: 1. Add cold water (550ml / 18.5 fl oz) 2. Add Ambronite 3. Shake 4. Get refueled. There are diagrams for those who cannot follow such straightforward instructions without. They are, perhaps, a little superfluous (although not as superfluous as the pictorial instructions you sometimes see on hot air hand dryers in public facilities ... )

So what do you get in your sachet? According to the "Nutrition Facts" on the back of the sachet, each sachet is a serving, and contains:

500 Calories (of which 160 from fat)
18g fat (28% of daily value, based on a 2,000 calorie diet) - being 2g saturated fat (10%), 9g polyunsaturated fat and 7g monounsaturated fat
no cholesterol
1180 mg Potassium (34% )
330mg Sodium (14%)
54g total carbohydrate (18%0 including 13g dietary fibre (52%) and 5g of sugars
30g of protein (60%)

There is then a long list of vitamins and minerals: Vitamin A (25%), Vitamin C (80%), Calcium (25%), Iron (30%), Vitamin D (45%), Vitamin E (20%), Vitamin K (75%), Thiamin (70%), Riboflavin (35%), Niacin (50%), Vitamin B6 (30%), Folate (35%), Vitamin B12 (45%), Biotin (10%), Pantothenic Acid (25%), Phosphorus (40%), Iodine (70%), Magnesium (40%), Zinc (40%), Selenium (25%), Copper (25%) Manganese (140%). Again, these percentages appear to relate to the recommended daily amount for somebody on a 2,000 calorie daily diet.

All of this is derived from the following ingredients: Organic whole grain oats, organic almonds, organic brown rice protein, organic coconut, organic apple, organic lucuma, organic flax see, rice bran, organic stinging nettle leaf, nutritional yeast, bilberry, black currant, mineral salt, organic chlorella, organic spirulina, brazil nut, organic spinach, sea-buckthorn berry. The allergens listed are tree nuts (almond, coconut and brazil nut); and it is mixed in a facility that handles wheat, soy and milk. So fine for me, but probably not for a full-on coeliac.

So much for what's in it. What's it like? I made up a sachet, following the instructions exactly. 1. Add cold water to the flask (550 ml). I turned on the kitchen tap, and held the flask under it. I looked for the 550 ml marker which would show me when I had added enough water ... and there wasn't one! OK, so in the kitchen it was easy enough to find a measuring jug and measure out 550ml of cold water. But on a remote hillside? I'm certainly not going to carry a measuring jug in my rucksack! However, when I had put in 550ml of water and added the Ambronite from the sachet, it came just about to the lip of the flask with the top unscrewed; so if you add the Ambronite and the water in the opposite order, you can judge it with a reasonable degree of accuracy as the flask is the right size. Having added the Ambronite to my water, I screwed the top back on the flask and gave it a good shake. Now I know that the flask is designed with a drinking cap, but I wanted to know what it looked like, so I poured some into a glass and had a good look at it.

Ambronite does not LOOK at all appealing - and I can see why they give you a dark green flask to make it up and drink it from. It is a grey sludge, slightly sloppier than wet cement. And how does it taste? Well, pretty much like one of those cheap mueslis they serve for breakfast in downmarket guesthouses, where the predominant flavor is that of rolled oats; and this is perhaps unsurprising given that the first ingredient listed is oats. It is not unpleasant; but I do not think I should find myself looking forward to my next dose if I were to carry it on expedition and have it every day. I found the flavour was definitely improved by adding a teaspoon of manuka honey; but I do not see myself wanting to carry a jar of manuka honey in my rucksack any more than I wish to carry a measuring jug! It is a little bit gritty in the mouth, and left me wanting to follow it up with a glass of water. This is no bad thing, perhaps, when engaged in strenuous activity and needing to keep up hydration levels.

So will I use up the rest of the sample? Most definitely. I shall take a couple of sachets with me on my next inter-Challenge expedition; and I shall aim to use the remainder on the 2016 Challenge (before they reach their Best before date!). I shall then report back further on whether or not I decide that I shall be buying some more in future. For the moment I really don't know which way I will go on that. The calorie-to-weigh ratio, at 500 calories off 120g of pack weight, is a little disappointing; and it is then necessary to carry the green mixing flask as well, which adds a further 130g to the load. However, if I find myself arriving at my pitch for the night thinking "I could just do with another fix of Ambronite" then - well - that will be your answer.

I also have this strange feeling that the mixing flask may just find itself pressed into service as a cocktail shaker at the Challenge cocktail party, too. See you there ... slainte!

Saturday, 19 March 2016

The last three Munros of 2015 (30)

Beyond Culra, I had to make a choice: cross the bridge and go via Loch Pattack, or stay on this side of the river. The route on this side of the river was more direct; but the tracks past Pattack were better made. There wasn't a lot of difference in the distances, however, and Pattack was probably the quicker option. But I have been along the shores of Loch Pattack three or four times before, whereas I had never taken the path on the East bank of the Allt a' Chaoil-reidhe before. So I decided to give the bridge a miss, and stay on this side.

Having passed the bridge I turned and took one last photograph, looking back up towards Culra and Ben Alder. The mighty Munro remains, and I will be back to tackle it ... some time. Perhaps when I have retired - which may not be too long now as I have decided that I shall take early retirement in 2017, draw my pension at 50, and retrain for an alternative career in teaching. As a teacher I shall be unable to take part in the Challenge again until I finally retire; but I will hopefully have plenty of alternative opportunities to come back to the rugged remote splendor of the highlands.

After taking this photograph I pressed on, and soon caught up with a couple of spirited young lads who provided me with companionship and entertaining conversation all the way down to Dalwhinnie. There we parted, as they had a train to catch that evening, whereas I was stopping at the bunkhouse. Ron and Marilyn was as welcoming as ever, and I soon settled in for the night.

The following day, my journey back South was, well, interesting to say the least. But I made it home, my heart already yearning for the next opportunity I should have to immerse myself in the Highland wilderness.

The last three Munros of 2015 (29)

Soon enough, I came upon Culra bothy on the far side of the Allt a' Chaoil reidhe. On my first Challenge in 2000 I had stopped for a bite of lunch there, on my way from Loch Ossian to Dalwhinnie (no mountains that time - just straight through the passes). Couldn't do that now, though, as the bothy is closed due to asbestos, and nobody is quite sure what it's future will be. Which is sad, because it's a very useful bothy in a beautiful location. I took a photograph and wished it well, and continued on my way.

The last three Munros of 2015 (28)

Having reached the path, I found a good place to stop for a spot of lunch before pressing on. The hard work of the expedition was all now behind me. What remained was the long trudge down to Ben Alder Lodge, and then along the shores of Loch Ericht and into Dalwhinnie, where I had a bed for the night at the bunkhouse already booked. I hoped that I might be able to collect a walking companion along the way because, to be sure, it was a long, dull trudge if you were doing it by yourself.

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The descent of the North Ridge presented few problems. The land form is impossible to miss, and there is a vestigial path pretty much the whole way. The only real issue was deciding where to turn off to the West to complete the descent to the Bealaich Beithe path. This is far from obvious; but after a while I felt it was about time, so I made my way down the open hillside as best I could, and before long came upon a path which led me safely down to the valley floor.

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I was soon at the summit cairn of Beinn Bheoil, my third Munro of the expedition. It isn't much of a cairn; but with spectacular vistas like this, who cares? I lingered a little, and then set off on the descent of the North ridge.

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As I walked the ridge I looked down to my left, where the waters of Loch a' Bhealaich Bheithe shimmered far below me. Another time, I promised myself, I would take that path, too - because just as this ridge was one of the finest ridge walks I had ever known, so too that pass looked like one of the most glorious passes that the Highlands had to offer. The Ben Alder massif may be stunningly remote ... but it is well worth the effort to visit!

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From Sron Coire na h-Iolaire to Beinn Bheoil is one of the most spectacular ridges I have ever walked. The land falls away on either side leaving you with the impression that you are literally walking in the clouds. The ground underfoot is none too difficult, and the views are simply breathtaking. Stunning! Simply stunning ... and I was glad I had come!

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Well, at this summit there were THREE ptarmigan ... and I managed to get them all into the one photograph! It is quite extraordinary, however, that the mountains in the background, the other side of Loch Ericht, are looking as though they are considerably higher ... when a cursory glance at the map will show that they are not.

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I followed the ridge line up, and before long I was at the top of the subsidiary top - the 955 metre Sron Coire na h-Iolaire. Ahead of me I could see the stunning ridge that would lead me to Beinn Bheoil proper; but off to my right there was the summit cairn of this subsidiary top; and I could hear once more the rasping croak of the ptarmigan, so I decided to go and investigate.

The last three Munros of 2015 (21)

The time soon came when I had to decide whether to stay on the path through the bealach, or veer off to the right and tackle the Munro. The weather was benign if overcast, and I had little difficulty in deciding to tackle the great lump of rock in front of me. The steepest part of the ascent had been at the beginning; now it was easing off and presented few difficulties. On the other hand, I was confident that I should soon be seeing some pretty spectacular landscape.

The last three Munros of 2015 (20)

I woke up the next morning, had breakfast, and packed my gear. The day was looking overcast, but the cloud base seemed pretty high and I hoped it wouldn't be interfering with my plan to go up and over Beinn Bheoil. I didn't need to make the final decision at once, however - the ascent of Beinn Bheoil from Benalder Cott begins with the Bealach Breabag path. If the weather turned against me, I could just stick to the path and follow it down through Bealach Beithe to Culra and Loch Pattack. I hoped this wouldn't be necessary, however, as I really wanted to have that third Munro to show for this expedition.

The ascent is none too difficult, and I gained height quite quickly. Trying to pace myself and avoid pushing too hard, I paused to take this photograph looking back over the bothy and Alder Bay beyond it. There really can be no question about it - this is a really rather special place!

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The bridge over the Alder Burn was a little bit alarming; but I made it safely across and was soon settling in to the bothy which is - reputedly - the most haunted in Scotland. There were a few others there who had arrived along the loch by kayak, and we soon had a nice fire going in the grate. I ate my supper, and settled down for the night. And of the ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties, I heard not a peep.

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When I reached the tree line, I followed the fence (and it's a BIG deer fence, not easily crossable) in the direction of Benalder Cott. There is a gate at NN 491661 where the path comes up from the South, and for some reason I thought it might be easier going if I went through this and followed the fence line on the wooded side rather than the open hillside. It wasn't! It was broken and boggy, but I followed the fence down the hill and eventually collected the shore path. I intended to follow this all the way to Benalder Cott, but somehow I lost it at the final little wooded area in grid square NN 4967; so I just headed on up to the skyline, and then made my own way down to the bridge over the Alder Burn. I paused only to take this picture of Alder bay, with Benalder Cott beyond it.

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Once across the river I followed the road for a bit; but it was heading South, and clearly it was going to lead me to the bridge which I no longer needed. Benalder Cott was North North East from here, and I really wanted to be heading North East, then following the edge of the woods until I could drop down to the path - probably in the valley of the little stream which runs off Leacann Innis a' Chladaich. So I turned off the road and strode out over the open hillside once more. Up a little rise, and then the land fell away before me, and I was looking at Loch Ericht. And what a beautiful sight it was!

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Alas! There was no bridge over the river, and my choices were either to follow the river down to the bridge, or to attempt to ford it. I opted for the latter. I found a nice little place where there was a sandy shore on either side, and the river widened somewhat and ought, therefore, to be a bit shallower. This would be my crossing place! So I took off my boots, socks and trousers, put on my sandals, unfastened all my rucksack straps and slowly waded into the stream.

The bottom was sandy, but sloped quite steeply, and the water was soon above my knees. On I went, the stream getting deeper ... and deeper ... and deeper. It was practically to the top of my thighs, but I was more than half way. It would start getting shallower soon, I was sure. But no! It just kept getting deeper and deeper, and before I knew it I had wet underwear!

And then, ad last, the treacherous little stream started to get shallower again, and before long I was putting my trousers back on at the far bank. I took this photograph looking back at my crossing place ...

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Sail Chlachach was not easy going. It was broken heathery peat, with lots of little pools and runnels. However, navigation was made considerably simpler by the fact that Schiehallion was more or less exactly on the bearing I wanted to travel, so all I had to do was to keep aiming for the big old mountain. I did veer to the left, however, and after a while I saw the river ahead - and what looked like a road on the other side. Did that road, I wondered, lead to a bridge which wasn't shown on my map? I reckoned it probably did; and if so, I could save myself some time and distance by heading straight for it. So that is what I did.

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The descent from the Bealach looked perfectly viable, and so I decided to go this way. The sun was already heading towards the western horizon and throwing the slope into shadow, and I determined to try to get down as quickly as I could to enjoy as much of the autumn sunshine as possible.

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As I descended towards the Bealach Leathann, I could see the Corbett rising up beyond it, and I began to do some mental calculations. Would I really have enough daylight to get up a third mountain, and then down to Benalder Cott? It was quite some way to go, and I began to worry that maybe I was trying to push myself too hard. It's a common fault of mine. I'd already cut the expedition plan down from something totally unwieldy to something a bit more manageable; but this Corbett might just be a top too far. So gradually I came up with a more sensible plan - I'd take a good look at the descent East from the Bealach. If I thought it was viable, I would drop down and make my way across the gently sloping Sail Chlachach to the bridge.

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From this ridge, it is possible to look across the south western end of Loch Ericht and see Schiehallion in the far distance. Somewhere in between the two is Loch Rannoch ... but it is hidden from view by the shape of the landforms.

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I left the summit of Sgor Gaibhre and headed South, dropping down the ridge towards Bealach Leathann. It was my intention to continue from there to Meall na Meoig (a Corbett), then descend Eastwards and find the bridge over the Cam Chriochan in order to pick up the Loch Ericht shore path. As I began my descent I encountered a ptarmigan which was quite happy to stand around and be photographed.

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From Sgor Gaibhre, the views were spectacular! This one is looking down over Lochan a Bhealaich.