TGO Challenge 2021 – Turning potential failure into success

This year’s TGO Challenge felt different to the ones I have done before.  I wrote here about my pre-Challenge nerves.  Chats with fellow Challengers showed that I wasn’t alone in feeling anxious.  Fitness, the summer heat, midges, Covid (restrictions and maybe even catching it) – these are tangible, logical worries but there was also a more vague nagging worry which I think was caused by the mental upheaval of the pandemic and lockdown.  Many of us were setting out to do something which should be normal for us ….. but which felt so strange and which I wasn’t completely convinced would ever actually happen after two postponements.  Travelling for many hours on public transport; being so far from home; making a “non-essential” journey; eating in bars and cafes; mixing with people; all of these things contributed to my anxiety and I believe others had similar concerns.

A Kilchoan start was always going to require at least an extra day so, for the first time, I travelled on the Thursday and had the pleasure of meeting several Challengers on the journey.  At Oban I waved them goodbye and caught the ferry to Mull, then the bus to Tobermory.  A night in a B&B (booked whilst on the train North; most of this year’s planning was last minute, partly due to my inability to believe that the Challenge would happen) gave me a comfortable base from which to explore the town and walk up to the lighthouse.  A beautiful location which I decided would have been worth the trip even if I gave up now and went home.

I forgot to dip my toes in the water at Kilchoan but I’m counting my Tobermory to Kilchoan ferry, on Friday morning, as an appropriate alternative.

My day 2 camp was my first bad midge experience.  It was horrific.  I felt trapped in my inner tent by a huge cloud of them.  At around 1am, so in the very brief period of (almost) dark overnight, I woke up gasping for air.  I was so hot in my tent; I needed some air ….. but I couldn’t open the inner tent door because of them.  I tried to calm down, but I felt so panicky.  I wrote in my diary that “I wanted to turn on the big light” – ie I didn’t want to be in a hot, enclosed space in the dark.  I’m not scared of the dark; I usually love camping or bivvying at night, but I felt so claustrophobic, it was horrible.  I decided to go outside and run around a bit.  It was cooler outside and there didn’t seem to be any midges.  Returning to my tent, I thought calm thoughts – mainly about that day’s boat crossing of Loch Shiel which had been such a joy – until I fell asleep.

After dropping me off at Polloch my boatmen head back to Dalelia

That experience put huge doubt in my mind about my ability to complete the crossing.  Usually, in May, I can camp high or low or find stealthy spots in woodland as I near the East coast.  This year, though, I might find myself trapped inside a small tent slowly poaching.  I could lose most of the pleasure of camping.

When I reached the Corran Ferry on Day 3 I bumped into John, a Challenger, who was hatching a plan to alter his route to miss out Lundavra and instead go through North Ballachulish on the road.  I was physically exhausted and mentally scarred and realised that there were hotels and B&Bs along that road; I booked one whilst on the ferry!  I tweeted about my struggles and got so much support from people telling me that adapting my plan was very sensible and not a sign of weakness (although I could only half see that myself).

Most of Day 4 was spent walking with Graeme who, I think, had also altered his route.  It was great to have some company on the road walk into Kinlochleven and for coffee and lunch.  It’s possible Graeme saved my Crossing as his company was a welcome distraction from the self-doubts that were nagging away at me.

From then on things started to get better.  My back had been absolutely killing me due partly to the weight of my pack but also probably due to the relatively thin padding of the (old style) Osprey Exos rucksack.  I gave myself regular rest stops but found that anything over 12 or so miles was a chore.  At least the weather was generally ideal for a rest; I’d have probably kept walking in the rain.

I booked a couple more (unplanned) rooms along the way; 7 of my 13 nights were in the tent.  Knowing that only every other night would be midgy gave me the confidence to camp and I didn’t have another night as bad as that second camp.

The view from the tent on a midge-free camp

By the start of the second week I felt that I would finish.  I’d found a way to cope with the additional challenges I was facing this year and I was actually enjoying myself.  There were so many flowers compared with in May.  I saw a stoat, lots of frogs, loads of birds, and deer – including ones with antlers (which I hardly ever see).  I was also followed by a swarm of black flies which spent the night bouncing between my inner and outer tent but didn’t bite.

Probably just a type of grass but I thought it was pretty

I’d bought a new mobile phone a couple of weeks earlier and could now, for the first time, carry the offline 1:50,000 and 1:25,000 OS maps for my whole route.  This made a huge difference and saved so much time compared with the compass and 1:50,000 map method or even getting a grid ref from a GPS.  I did use my printed maps and compass, as I find that a quick and satisfying navigation method for open country, but the OSMaps app was heavily used for confirmation and checking detail.

As usual, I made some navigational bloopers; usually when I knew exactly where I was and didn’t need to pay attention to map, compass, or common sense.  The descent into Glen Clova, over a steep, bracken and heather-covered hillside was not fun and could have been avoided if I hadn’t been blasé about which track I was on.

Clova is down there. Now STAY FOCUSSED!

From Clova I tweaked my route and tagged along with Alan, Barbara and Lindsay for a couple of days.  They were good company and I think we all kept each other going.  We climbed the Stile of Death, scared off some ne’er-do-wells (who possibly had crossbows ….. but the story gets more far-fetched with each telling), ate fig-rolls and, in Brechin, drank beer.

My final day was spent on my own and, with no comment on the previous days’ company, I was glad of that.  The weather was beautiful and I enjoyed a slightly meandering route to the coast.  There was no rush; I could enjoy being by myself and eke out the final hours of my walk.  I was horrified to see the St Cyrus sign when I reached the place marked as Cocklem Bents on the (1:25k) map.  I swore, many years ago, that I would never finish at St Cyrus as it’s a very popular finish point and I’m contrary.  It turns out that the St Cyrus nature reserve is a little down the coast from the village of St Cyrus.

Not where I expected to be but the toilets were great!

The beach was wonderful.  I went for a paddle then sat listening to the waves.  OK, I may have shed a tear, too.  I was so pleased that I’d not given up when the going was tough.  I’d managed to work though the difficult times, with support from people both remote and present.  If I’d given up, I’d have added to the list of worries which were weighing me down at the start. 

The beach at Cocklem Bents / Nether Warburton / St Cyrus Nature Reserve

This was my 12th crossing and in many ways unlike any of the others but I think it highlights what the TGO Challenge is known for; individuals facing their own unique challenge and finding their own way, with the moral support of fellow Challengers, to succeed.  I’m so glad I did it.

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Nerves

Catterline – The end of my 2015 TGO Challenge

My last blog post was in July 2020. It was about the first of three one night bivi camps I had last summer. After the misery of the first few months of the pandemic, it was great to be able to get back to normal and go camping. Of course, we now know that things did not get back to normal – not then and not for a long time afterwards. After August I had no more trips and by the New Year, when I would normally be bivvying in the snow, we were all locked up again. Locked up? Locked down? Same difference.

I carried over my TGO Challenge place from 2020 to 2021. Originally planned for the normal May dates, I dithered a bit when it was moved to late June. Heat and midges were the tangible reasons but I was also not sure I would be ready. Physically and mentally ready to walk 200 miles across Scotland with a heavy pack. Emotionally ready to travel by public transport from The Wirral to Kilchoan. I’ve been conditioned to keep away from people; could I cope with a busy train or bus?

On the basis that you never know what tomorrow holds, I confirmed to the Coordinators that I’d be making my crossing in June. Carpe Diem.

One Sunday in May I got a phone call from the Kings House Hotel. They were just checking that I’d be staying there next day. Cripes! I’d forgotten to move my booking to the June. I’d moved it from May 2020 to May 2021, but not got round to moving it again. They were very good about it!

This gave me the mental kick up the backside I needed. I WAS GOING TO DO THE TGO CHALLENGE IN JUNE …… and I needed to sort myself out.

My West Coast trains are now booked. I traced my route on OS Maps at the weekend. I don’t know which nutter decided to do so many rough hilly bits, but the flatter, easier Foul Weather Alternatives look quite attractive. I’ve confirmed that my planned campsites are still taking tents, so I’ll get round to booking pitches soon. I’m intending to print my maps this year rather than taking OS Landrangers. I’ve got a feeling that’s going to be a pig of a job, so maybe it’ll be Landrangers after all?!

Usually, two weeks before the TGO Challenge I’m prepared. I’ve built up a bit of fitness (never enough) and I have plans for meals, resupplies, accommodation, benchmarks to bag, etc. This year…. well …… I’ve still got a fortnight.

I’ve started and finished 11 TGO Challenges. A couple were tough but my mental strength got me through. I’m not absolutely sure if that strength is still there. It probably is. I hope it is, but not since my first crossing have I doubted my ability to complete my walk. What if my route is too hard? What if it’s too hot? What if the midgies make every camp a misery? What if ….. ?

It was good to reread my July 2020 post as it reminded me of what I get out of my trips to the hills. If I struggle on this year’s walk I shall look around and remind myself of what is good in life. Mountains, sky, that lone tree that makes you wonder if there used to be a forest here, the squeaky birds that make me laugh, the instant pasta which is unbelievably delicious ….. until you have it at home and it’s horrible, spotting the footbridge just before you start edging your way over the slippy rocks, the campsite shower after 4 days in the wilds, clean socks, oh clean socks, tearooms, bumping into that person you spoke to last time, remembering his name 2 days later, getting a phone signal and catching up with your TGO Challenge twitter pals, ……

Yeah, I’ll be OK.

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A return to camping

I spent last night sleeping in a bivi bag on the side of a hill. My first camping trip since February. It felt good!

The Covid 19 lockdown has been difficult for everyone, so I’m not looking for any special sympathy when I say how much I’ve missed being able to head for the hills with everything I need on my back. It helps me to clear my head and renew my enthusiasm for life. I’d missed out on three planned trips, including the 2 week TGO Challenge, and I don’t think it’s any coincidence that I found May difficult; my mood was very low indeed. I’m sure people have written better than I can about the sense of loss that lockdown has generated. I realised a few weeks ago that it was as if I’d been through a grieving process for the loss of my freedom. So many mixed and negative emotions before I arrived at acceptance and was ready to move on.

Living on the Wirral peninsula, the North Wales hills are my usual destination for overnight camps. The Clwydian range is less than 30 miles away, which is closer than the Peak District, and I can easily get there by car and (less easily) by train. However, one noticeable lesson from the Covid response is that the UK is not as United as I had thought, with the 4 nations all having their own rules. I’d tried to find out whether an overnight camp in Wales was now allowed but, of course, it would be surprising to find any legislation or government guidance which specifically mentioned that lying in a bin bag on the side of a hill was permitted. I relied on the fact that the 5 mile limit on travel had been relaxed and that people could now stay overnight in self-contained accommodation. Entering Wales, a matrix road sign advised me that “Welsh Covid rules apply” and I hoped that I wouldn’t meet any hostility.

Parking in a place I’ve often parked before, my mind flashed back to my last visit when I’d found myself up to my chest in freezing water. On that occasion I’d been grateful for a pot of hot tea in the community cafe but, on this trip, I’d have to be fully self-reliant; partly because I’m not yet comfortable with the idea of eating in a cafe and also because it seemed to be closed.

I headed North up Offa’s Dyke Path as I knew there’d be a choice of grassy hills to camp on. Chest height bracken has thwarted my plans in the past. I also wanted an exposed pitch where the breeze could scare off the midges; a reason I don’t often camp in the Summer.

River Alyn / Afon Alun

Despite the thick cloud I could see quite a long way with Snowdonia just visible. I imagined how crowded the honeypots would be.

Throughout lockdown I’ve been for a walk every day. These have varied from a quick dash around the local park all the way up to a 15 miler with packed lunch. However, the Wirral is relatively flat and Offa’s Dyke Path isn’t, so I soon experienced the suprisingly pleasant feeling of being out-of-breath and having wobbly legs!

I had a couple of locations in mind for my camp site but had also planned to stop early if I found somewhere good. At one point I wondered if there might be a patch of clear ground amongst the heather so I left the path and made my way over the rough ground. It was a fruitless search, though, and I eventually turned back and continued on my original route. Actually, “fruitless” is the wrong word as the hillside was covered with those little blue berries which I never know the name of. Blueberries? Bilberries? Blaeberries? Whatever they’re called, they were very tasty.

At around 8pm I found somewhere to camp, blew up my mattress and put the stove on for a coffee. I was down the hill less than 10 metres from the path but I’d only seen two people and their dog all day and was confident I’d not be disturbed.

Dinner was some home-made Veggie chilli and pasta which I’d brought in a tub and only needed to warm up in my pan. For an overnight camp there’s no need to bother with lightweight dehydrated food. I was starting to feel chilly and it was good to get some hot food inside me as I watched the last shafts of sunlight fall on the hills ahead of me as the sun set at my back.

I woke a few times in the night, as usual. One thing I like about not having a tent is being able to immediately see what’s going on around me. Sunset was officially at about 9:30pm and I went to bed after the 10 o’clock news but I could still see quite well until 11-ish then, next time I woke up, it was dark. Sometimes when I woke there was a large patch of clear sky with millions of stars. At other times the cloud had spread back over and only a few brighter stars were visible. I saw no moon.

Sunrise was due to be just after 5am but the sky was getting lighter not long after 3.

I presume the horizon was relatively “horizon-tal” but this photo was taken whilst lying down.

At home I struggle to get up early but this morning I was having my breakfast at 6 and was packed up by 7.

The only photo I took of my campsite was this one when I had nearly packed up. No, my mattress hadn’t burst; I was just about to roll it up.

I took a different route on the walk back to the car and saw nobody until after 8 when a couple of cyclists went past. Back on the ODP I encountered a herd of cows, or possibly TWO herds as they were on both sides of a fence and blocking my access to the gate. I’d walked though several fields of cows already but had been able to give them a wide berth. These beasts were clustered either side of the gate and I had no choice but to walk towards them and hope they moved [or mooved]. I’ve heard horror stories about cows and walkers but I hoped that a confident approach, whilst not getting between mother and calf and keeping my eye on escape routes, would work. They were curious and a few stepped towards me but extending my arms and softly calling “G’wayyyy” encouraged them to step back. Once I’d gone through the gate and rejoined the path the cows seemed to lose interest in me.

Back at the car just after 9 I ate Breakfast No 2 whilst catching up with Twitter and was interested to see how many Likes I’d received for a poor quality photograph of the patch of flattened grass where I’d spent the night. An indication, I believe, that the majority of us who spend time in the hills do camp responsibly and care for our environment.

I was back home before 11 and, after a much-needed trip, I even enjoyed airing my kit and putting everything away. So nice to be finally able to do something so normal and which is such a positive part of my life.

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(Virtual) TGOC 2020 – The Ends

As Covid 19 has put paid to the 2020 TGO Challenge, I am revisiting my previous crossings and celebrating what this marvellous event has brought to my life over the years. 

This post looks back at the final day and reaching the East Coast on all of my TGO Challenges.

My first TGO Challenge was in 2006 and I finished at Lunan Bay where, sandal-clad, I had a paddle.  I love seeing my map case dangling round my neck. (Newbie!)

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2007 was Stonehaven.  Some Challengers tried to convince me that I must come with them to Dunnottar Castle but I was not inclined to walk any further.

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2008 Inverbervie.  A pebbly beach.  After my paddle I had chips with Bob.

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2009 Black Dog 

This is one of my favourite TGO Challenge photographs.  I’d taken off my rucksack while I had a paddle and savoured the moment on the beach.  I looked back and saw my whole world – for the last 2 weeks and 200-ish miles, at least – sitting on the sand.

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2011 Portlethen Village.  A rugged coast with a small beach.  It’s important, at the end, for me to be able to walk into the sea.

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2012 Collieston.  My certificate says Sands of Forvie but I regard my finish as Collieston.  A lovely beach, where I watched two Border Collies having a whale of a time.

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2013 Auchmithie My planned finish was Meg’s Craig, chosen as the name reminded me of a dog (called Meg, not Craig; although that would be a reasonable name for a dog).  However, I couldn’t be certain exactly which feature was Meg’s Craig and I couldn’t paddle there without a treacherous climb down a cliff.  So, I went a little further North up the coast to Auchmithie.

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2014 Johnshaven  I don’t remember a huge amount about Johnshaven apart from I obtained refreshments from The Anchor then realised I’d missed my bus, so went back in and re-refreshed myself.

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2015 Catterline.  Sitting on a bench wondering how my planning had been so poor that I’d got there before the Creel Inn opened.

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2016 Ethie Haven  My tenth crossing and I chose a finish close to where I’d reached the coast on my first crossing.  I loved how this little group of houses was set into the cliff.

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2018 Peterhead.  A busy port and very unlike my other finishes but I felt quite at home and there’s a beach for a paddle.  There’s also a brewery tap.

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My 2020 finish would have been Cocklem Bents but, for vetting purposes, was on my route sheet as Nether Warburton.  Hopefully I’ll get there in 2021.

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(Virtual) TGOC 2020 – Day 12 – 2012 My Lord’s Throat to Udny Castle

As Covid 19 has put paid to the 2020 TGO Challenge, I am revisiting my previous crossings and celebrating what this marvellous event has brought to my life over the years. 

This post looks back at Day 12 of my 6th crossing on Wednesday 23rd May 2012.  The original post is here.

I’d spent the night in a stealthy camp with a broken stove and not much drinking water, so hydration was at the front of my mind as soon as I woke up.  I do enjoy those few occasions when I’ve packed up and started walking early in the morning – but it doesn’t happen often as I also enjoy lying in my pit until lazy guilt gets the better of me.

Those “stalking” Germans were most odd.  I don’t see the attraction of killing animals for fun but I can kind of understand why some people would track an animal across wild countryside – although the fact that only one party to the chase has a firearm does seem unfair.  What made no sense at all was driving a vehicle along the hedgerow then jumping out and shooting a deer.  It’s not really sporting, is it?

TGOC2012 – Day 12 – My Lord’s Throat to Udny Castle

As usual, I woke at first light and stuck my head out of the tent door; it looked like it was going to be a nice day.

The view from the tent at 10 to 4 in the morning

Walking before 8am – possibly for the first time this trip, despite my best intentions – it was already 22 degrees C and felt like it would probably get a lot hotter.  Water could be a problem today, but I’d be passing through Inverurie where I could have my lunch and buy some water if necessary.  I would also call in at the Tourist Information Centre to see if there was any chance of booking a bed in Pitmedden or nearby.

I was glad to be up early, but was not alone on the road.  Two Germans in a left-hand-drive G-Wagen were out “stalking” – which seems to mean driving along the edge of a field until they saw a deer then getting out and shooting it.  They had two small dead dear on a platform at the back of the vehicle.  There was something very strange about 2 Germans dressed in Tweed and Barbour shooting Scottish animals from a vehicle they must’ve brought over from Germany.  I’ve put stalking in quotation marks because, when I asked them what they were shooting, they made it quite clear that they were, in fact, stalking.

Today’s planned route was 32km with the option to add in a diversion to Mither Tap.  Why I ever thought I would want to add an extra 3.4km and 230m, I’ll never know – but I did see it in the distance!

Mither Tap

By the time I reached Inverurie, the sun was very hot and I was in desperate need of a long cool drink.  The map showed a big town, with a big road – the A96 – to the West of it, but I hadn’t really been prepared for what I found.  A motorway-type service station with a caff, toilets, shop and a big carpark.  After nearly two weeks of wilderness and quiet countryside, this was quite a shock to the system.  I bought a couple of bottles of pop and, removing my shoes and socks, sat on the grass for a rest.  For such a busy place, the kids in the playground were the only people who paid me any attention, so maybe the locals were getting used to strange rucksack-carrying weirdos passing that way.

In the town, I started off by calling into the Visit Scotland shop/office.  The woman did her best to help me but was hindered by two things: First of all, she could only tell me about accommodation which was part of the Visit Scotland scheme and, secondly, everywhere was full!  Next time I head towards Aberdeen, I shall make sure I book my accommodation months in advance.

I found a cafe – well, it was more like a works canteen with a hot counter – and asked what the Vegetarian option was.  There was an awkward silence, then a shout went back into the kitchen.  A bit more shouting.  Then, “Baked tatty?” was offered.  I said that would be fine.  (I was slightly suprised not to have been offered deep-fried macaroni pie, as that is my usual Challenge fare.)

The caff was attached to a shop so, after lunch, I bought a few rolls and regretted not having pinched a few pats of butter from the cafe but would have felt a bit cheeky going back for some.  I also bought 3 litres of water.  Yes, that’s 3kg of water, and my pack suddenly became very very heavy.

Now that I knew there no rooms available in Pitmedden, there seemed little point going there, so I chose to head towards Udny Green instead.  Both Udny Green and Udny Station have a PH marked on the map, but I knew one of them was now a restaurant.  What I couldn’t remember was which Udny it was and whether it also had rooms to let.  I used the internet on my phone to find out as much as I could and decided that Udny Green was my best bet as at least it would place me nearer to my finish point if they couldn’t put me up (or let me camp outside).

At Udny Green, I found a lovely grassy square that would have made a nice campsite.  However, the old pub was most definitely only a restaurant and this didn’t look like the sort of place that would welcome camping outside.  I spoke to one of the staff and asked him if he could suggest anywhere that I could camp.  He obviously wasn’t a camper but did his best to describe bits of woodland that could be suitable.  I didn’t have much confidence in his suggestions but he did fill my water bottle.

The suggested woodland turned out to be a Community Woodland with marked dog-walk trails and not really ideal.

I kept my eyes open as I walked past the grounds of Udny Castle on the other side of a stone wall.  At the end of the wall was an old disused gate giving access to a large field of cows.  I’m wary of cows, but this was a big field and the grass looked beautifully soft and green.  I clambered over and had a look around.  Would the cows mind me being there?  They didn’t seem bothered?  Would the farmer move me on?  It was worth the chance; this was a nice pitch and, already quite tired,  I doubted I’d be able to find anything better that evening.  Only 18km left to Collieston.

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(Virtual) TGOC 2020 – Day 11 – 2015 A lazy morning and a bitterly cold mountain

As Covid 19 has put paid to the 2020 TGO Challenge, I am revisiting my previous crossings and celebrating what this marvellous event has brought to my life over the years. 

This post looks back at Day 11 of my 9th crossing on Tuesday 19th May 2015.  The original post is here.

I’d been exhausted, physically and mentally, when I reached Ballater on the Monday night and it was good to have a leisurely start to the day and a good natter.

I’d never heard of Shiel of Glentanar until I’d phoned Challenge Control from my tent and heard that’s where lots of the Ballater crowd were heading to.  I’d planned to make it to Tarfside but now had a couple of options for a shorter day – although I was surprised to see how early some people had their tents up!

It was perishingly cold on Mount Keen.  I didn’t have an extra layer easily to hand.  To put on more clothes would have required stopping and temporarily getting colder so I took the gamble of keeping going and hoping that I’d soon be past the worst of the wind and icy snow.

My overnight pitch was a few miles short of where I’d planned but was lovely and I felt no pressure to go further.  Only a couple of days from the coast, I knew I could relax and enjoy myself.

TGOC2015 – Day 11 revisited – A lazy morning and a bitterly cold mountain

Half of the Challenge was camped at Ballater.  I’d briefly chatted with a couple of Challengers in the evening but it was only in the morning that I realised just how many were there.  I spent a very leisurely couple of hours catching up with old friends and making a few new ones.  Nobody seemed to be in a rush, although I noticed that some had already been up and away whilst I was still asleep.  I felt refreshed and ready to crack on with the walk.  As a solo walker I’m usually happy on my own but this visit to Ballater, with its opportunity for a bit of gentle socialising, had given me the morale boost I needed.

My original plan for today was to walk to Tarfside and camp there. However, after several long, tiring days I made up my mind to camp a few miles short which would even out the distance today and tomorrow and give me a bit of a rest.  I had a Munro – Mount Keen – on my route sheet but I also knew that there was a pretty good chance that I’d take the bypass path to the West.  Still, I was definitely going near a Munro and I could always see what happened when I got there.

I soon got the impression that Mount Keen must be a popular mountain as I kept coming across signs.

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Despite there being plenty of fellow Challengers around, I walked alone ….. apart from when this little fella accompanied me for at least 15 minutes.

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I knew that several Challengers were going to camp at Shiel of Glentanar.  It looked like a good spot and by 1:30pm I could already see several of them making camp.

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Just after taking this photo I tripped and gave myself a nasty jolt.  The weather was starting to get a bit sleety and – despite the opportunity of a pleasant camping spot down in the glen – I wanted to get the mountain behind me rather than waking up in the morning with aches and pains, poor weather and a flippin’ big hill ahead of me.

As I ascended the Mounth Road the weather got worse.  The wind was icy and there was a mix of sleet and snow.  Navigation was simple enough and I was grateful for that as I really didn’t want to stop to get my bearings.  At times I wondered about stopping to put on some warmer clothes or change my socks but I gambled on staying warmer by keeping moving rather than risking chilling even more by stopping.  It was the sort of weather in which I would have used my bothy bag to warm up and have a flask of tea …. although I had neither of these things with me.

Through the falling snow I could see two cyclists who appeared to be pushing their bikes to the summit.  At first I couldn’t figure out what they were doing but then I realised that they had a trailer on one of the bikes and they were alternately pushing or riding their bikes up the hill then walking back and manhandling the trailer over the rough terrain.

Even though I’d not taken the summit route, it was a relief to eventually drop down and get out of the wind.  The cyclists soon caught me up and stopped for a chat.  I was amused to see that their backs were covered in snow…. then realised that mine was too.

From the hillside I could see that Glen Mark was just what I’d been hoping for and that there’d be somewhere to camp.

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Queen’s Well was interesting …..

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…. but I presume Queen Victoria had a hardier constitution than me, as I certainly wouldn’t have drunk from this fetid pool:

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The cyclists were camped nearby and I decided to go on a little further.  I camped in the lee of a small wood a mile or so from the road.  It was a lovely spot and this photo, taken next morning, is one of my favourite from this crossing.

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(Virtual) TGOC 2020 – Day 10 – 2012 Cock Bridge to Tufty Swamp via the Forest of Dead Things

As Covid 19 has put paid to the 2020 TGO Challenge, I am revisiting my previous crossings and celebrating what this marvellous event has brought to my life over the years. 

This post looks back at Day 10 of my 6th crossing on Monday 21st May 2012.  The original post is here.

I’d had a strange night in my room in the Allargue Arms.  It’s funny how memory works.  I can remember three things: Robin Gibb had died, so my head is filled with Bee Gees songs whenever I look back at this period; the landlord had, very kindly, made me a bowl of pasta which was just a little too al dente; and I had a tiny sink in my room with only cold water.  Still, it’s always good to have a bed raised off the ground!

This was quite a tough day but the sort of day I look back at fondly.  Yes, I got stuck in an evil forest, the weather was hot and I was exhausted by the time I crawled into my tent, but I enjoy that kind of honest toil.

TGOC2012 – Day 10 – Cock Bridge to Tufty Swamp via the Forest of Dead Things

At breakfast, I found that there had been two other Challengers staying in the hotel.  They’d been doing a no-camping crossing which, in some ways, appeals to me but I think I’d prefer to keep hotels and hostels as a treat after a few days of camping.

I found the first few miles quite hard going. The old military road was easy walking through pretty scenery but I just couldn’t get my body into gear.  I looked out for the potential camping spot that I’d intended to use if I’d walked that far the day before; it will keep for another time.

The old military road running SE from Cock Bridge

I saw this trap at the side of the road.

I can’t see it being an effective form of pest control, as the pest could take another route and it would only catch one at a time, so I assume the target animal is of some value.  For fur?  Surely not for meat? Mink?

Looking back towards Cock Bridge from the A939

From the A939 I had two choices.  My original plan had been to follow tracks towards Strathdon, but I had also considered going in a straight line, cross-country, over the tops of Scraulac, Cairnagour Hill, Mona Gowan and Slacks of Glencarvie.  The weather was fine and I was feeling good, so I headed for Scraulac.

The next couple of hours were excellent.  It was mostly dwarf heather underfoot, and very dry, but with the occasional boggy bit.  I walked up and down the first three hills enjoying the excellent views and knocking a few stones off each of the cairns I passed. (It’s a habit of mine).

Scraulac, or Cairnagour Hill or possibly Mona Gowan – they were all pretty similar

At the top of each hill, I spent some time sitting in the sun and savouring just being there.  It had been a leisurely day so far, with just enough “up” to make it interesting, and my progress had been quite slow.  I decided to miss out Slacks of Glencarvie and Mullachdubh, and to follow the track that goes N from Mona Gowan.  I’d be able to rejoin my planned track in the forest in a couple of kms.

There were a number of farm tracks and buildings at the bottom of the hill and, having walked through a field full of inquisitive cows, I had no option but to wade through ankle-deep slurry – which was not very pleasant whilst wearing Inov-8 Terrocs.

The map showed that I would be able to find my track through the forest by following a path to the edge of the trees.  Realising that paths are often not visible where the maps say they should be, I switched on my GPS and started to look for a gate along the edge of the forest.  Eventually I found one in roughly the right place and with the vestiges of a track on the other side.  I climbed over and entered the forest.

There were lots of fallen trees blocking my way, so it was quite an effort to make any headway.  Many of the trees were dead with sharp, broken branches – one of which scratched a deep 4 inch gouge in my left calf.  The blood dried quickly in the heat, though.

I was expecting, at any time, to find the main track running perpendicular to the one I was on.  After a while, I checked the map and GPS (which, amazingly, still had a good signal despite the tree cover) and decided that it was worth going back to the gate and trying to make some progress in the other direction.

It was just as bad the other way and it was hard work going round, under and over all of the fallen trees whilst trying to pick my way though patches of swamp.  As well as dead trees, there was a good collection of skeletons of birds and animals and I was starting to wonder if anything ever came out of this forest alive.

Looking into the forest from the gate. It doesn’t look too bad from here!

After about half an hour of getting nowhere, I decided to cut my losses and find another way.  I went back to the gate, washed the blood off my leg and had a think.

My only option seemed to be to follow the pylons over the hill.  By now I was quite tired and I didn’t fancy having to walk over rough ground, but the pylon route turned out to be relatively easy – apart from having to crawl though a barbed wire fence.  These fences are always just a little too high for me to climb over, especially when the top two strands of wire are barbed like this one was.  Crawling on my belly through the lower two strands is far less risky!

It was good to reach the track, and then the road, after what had been a difficult couple of hours walking in quite hot sun.  I stopped at a burn and, after a drink, tried to wash the slurry out of my socks; I don’t think they’ll ever look clean again.

I’d planned to camp by White Hill but the pitch didn’t look that good from the road and I was sure I’d find something better futher on.  I very nearly knocked on a door near the bridge over Deskry Water, when I saw a lovely patch of grass in someone’s garden, but I really wanted a “wild” camp out of sight of the road, so I kept going a little further to the track that goes to Tarland via Lazy Well and managed to find a dry patch in the middle of a swamp.  By lying down on the ground, I identifed a sleeping-bag sized patch of flat, tuftless grass and pitched my tent over it.

It was tufty; it was boggy; but I was tired and it was the best I could find.

I would have slept well, had it not been for the annual bird jamboree taking place in the nearby trees.  I swear every bird in Scotland had descended on Gallows Hill and was tweeting at the top of its voice – ALL NIGHT.  By midnight, I’d resorted to earplugs and was soon well away.

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(Virtual) TGOC 2020 – Day 9 – 2016 A thin lunch at Kirkmichael followed by thick soup in Coire a Bhaile

As Covid 19 has put paid to the 2020 TGO Challenge, I am revisiting my previous crossings and celebrating what this marvellous event has brought to my life over the years. 

This post looks back at Day 9 of my 10th crossing on Sunday 22nd May 2016.  The original post is here.

This was, for me, a typical TGO Challenge day.  The thought of food never far from my mind.  A little bit of rain, with the threat of more to come.  Finding amusement in the little things.  Oh, and more food, of course.

TGOC2016 Revisited – Day 9 – A thin lunch at Kirkmichael followed by thick soup in Coire a Bhaile

There were no flooding disasters overnight so, of course, my dodgy bit of not-as-wet-as-the-rest-of-it patch of ground became a lovely little pitch with a nice view of the full-moon; triggering thoughts of the Werewolves of the Upper Dulnain who would hopefully have had the genial company of Challengers a few days previously.

Navigating by forest edges, once again…

p1040652-2… I was heading for the A924, which I would have to walk along for a couple of kilometres.

As I dropped down to the road at Dalnavaid I saw a group of motorbikes heading SW. Then another group appeared …. then more and more. I started half-heartedly counting them and I reckon there must’ve been at least a hundred; it was like the Horseshoe Pass on a Summer Sunday afternoon. I’ve no idea where they were going or if, indeed, they were now coming back.

My route took me along part of the Cateran Trail.  The trail logo on this stile seemed a little bit creepy as I headed into the dark woods….. here be heart-ripping monsters!

p1040656-2I was disappointed with the shop in Kirkmichael.  It looked quite big and, superficially, there was a lot of choice but there wasn’t much for a hungry Vegetarian. The only instant pasta / noodle option was Chicken Supernoodles…. and they did appear to have chicken in them.  The chill counter was full of meaty pies and pasties. There was a macaroni cheese pie but the label clearly said it contained lard; oh for a label-free macaroni cheese pie!

I bought some coffee, cake and some pop to have for my lunch and some bread rolls to take out. I realised that I’d fallen into the habit on this crossing of always buying a hot drink and a cold drink; I’d drink the cold drink first for refreshment and rehydration then have the hot drink with my meal. Sitting outside at the picnic table I wore my raincape to protect myself from the light rain. This seems to be the best use for this cape. It doesn’t work well with a big rucksack whilst walking but I’ve used it a couple of times when I’ve stopped for a break. It’s like a mini bothy bag.

It was getting a bit crowded outside the shop. A mini-bus had just disgorged a gaggle of walkers who were now chatting noisily and waiting for lifts home. I walked round to the Kirkyard from where I phoned Challenge Control.  I spoke to Ali who told me that they’d just been looking at my recent blog posts and were going to put a couple of my photos up on the notice board in the Kinnaird Room.  I felt like Teacher had just given me a gold star for my drawing of “What I did on my holiday by Judith aged 7”.  🙂

Heading NE up towards Ashintully Castle I was disappointed not to find an actual castle, and also by the number of Keep Out; Stay on the Path; Oi! Clear Off! Signs along the route.  Although this sign …. p1040658-2 had me giggling as I remembered this Gary Larson The Far Side cartoon:

Copyright © 2000, 2007 FarWorks, Inc.

Copyright © 2000, 2007 FarWorks, Inc.

By the time I reached Coire a Bhaile, the weather was starting to get a bit thundery and I expected to be caught in torrential rain at any moment.  I quickly threw up my tent and prepared for the storm… which never came.

p1040660-2Tonight’s tea was the best yet.  Potato and Leek soup with stale House of Bruar bread rolls mushed up in it, followed by cheese and biscuits..  Yes, it sounds disgusting but it was surprisingly good.

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(Virtual) TGOC 2020 – Day 8 – 2012 Red Bothy to Nethy Bridge

As Covid 19 has put paid to the 2020 TGO Challenge, I am revisiting my previous crossings and celebrating what this marvellous event has brought to my life over the years. 

This post looks back at Day 8 of my sixth crossing on Saturday 19th May 2012.  The original post is here.

My 2012 crossing was tough at times.  The weather had been grim in the first week and my mood was quite low – and I was getting even more disheartened by the fact that the weather was getting me down!  Surely I could just pull myself together?!

A bit of human contact and some unexpected kindness did wonders for my spirits.  Thankfully the weather also improved in the second week.

TGOC2012 – Day 8 – Red Bothy to Nethy Bridge

Today’s route was due to be 33km with around 400m of ascent and a lunch break in Boat of Garten although, having spent the night in Red Bothy, I’d now have to make up an extra couple of km. The weather was reasonable, if a little cold, and I set off with two targets in mind: first of all, to reach Eil – as that was where I should have started the day – and, secondly, to get to Boat of Garten where I could have something to eat. Breaking my longer days up into chunks helps me to manage mentally, especially when I’m not particularly enjoying myself. I was glad I’d chosen to stay in the bothy, as it made getting dressed, having my breakfast and packing everything away much easier, but my spirits were low and I was starting to get quite disappointed with myself for feeling so miserable.

This time I followed the sign down the right track

I’d walked part of today’s route on a previous TGO Challenge but I had some more up-to-date information from my Vetter so knew I’d be able to cross the Dulnain via a bridge rather than fording it near Dalnahaitnach. I’d seen the sign to the bridge last time but then misinterpreted which track it was pointing to and ended up believing that the bridge had been washed away (rather than I’d made a mistake!)

I was convinced that I had never been to Boat of Garten, so it was a very strange feeling when I walked down the main road and seemed to recognise the buildings, shops and even the bus stops. At the bottom of the hill, when I saw the railway and the little ornamental garden, I remembered I must have been here in February 2007 when I spent a week in the Cairngorms. The memory was confirmed when I went into the hotel and sat at my “usual” table in the bar!

I think the signs say it all. It was cold but BoG has everything a tired walker could need.

The pub triggered memories of my last time here.  There were a number of well-heeled, smartly dressed folks having their lunch and a glass of wine. And then there was me looking like I’d just walked over a hundred miles in awful weather and had been sleeping in ditches and abandoned farm buildings for a week. I felt slightly uncomfortable but really shouldn’t have worried as the staff were wonderful. The barman, in particular, couldn’t do enough to make sure I had everything I needed. Along with my food and beer, he brought me a large glass of iced water with a slice of lemon just because he thought I could do with it – and he was right, it was just what I needed.

Whilst eating my lunch, I turned on my phone and sent a Tweet. Almost immediately, Carl tweeted back some words of encouragement. The break and food & drink did me a power of good and I’d made contact with the rest of the Challenge world.  I was feeling a bit happier and, not wanting to lose my momentum, I decided to change my route.  Instead of going South-east-ish through Abernethy Forest and camping by Loch a’ Chnuic, I would go through the North part of the forest to Nethy Bridge.  I’d camped in the snow at the Lazy Duck campsite in February 2007 and found it a simple, welcoming site.  If I couldn’t get a pitch there, I could try the hotel.  I was happy to camp, but I really didn’t fancy the idea of a wild camp if the weather turned rough again.

I took the waymarked Speyside Way to Nethy Bridge and walked past a couple of groups of Osprey spotters.  Although I’d been to Nethy Bridge before, I couldn’t quite remember where the hostel/campsite was, so I looked at the Tourist Information board in the centre of the village.  A leaflet reminded me that the campsite only accepted a maximum of 3 or 4 tents at a time – and this was Saturday night.  Should I phone ahead and risk being turned away, or just turn up and try to look desperate and pathetic?  I decided the second option was more likely to succeed.

As I arrived at the Lazy Duck, I could see a family setting up a couple of tents but the site didn’t look busy so I hoped I’d be in luck. At reception, I asked a young woman if I could camp there.  She apologised and said that they had another family arriving soon and had no spare pitches.  I tried to stay cheerful and started to ask if I could at least fill my water bottles and have a rest before moving on.  Then she noticed my rucksack and asked if I’d walked in to the site.  I told her I had.  “Oh, in that case, I’m sure we can find somewhere for you”.  Wahey!  She took me to a patch of grass away from the usual camping field and I started to put up my tent.  Two minutes later she came back and said she’d found a better place, so she picked up my half-erected tent (causing me a certain amount of anxiety!) and helped me move to a pleasant spot near to the cooking shelter and from where I could watch red squirrels scampering in the trees.

I’d almost finished putting up my tent when the young woman appeared again with a tea tray. I thought nothing of it, assuming that she was just tidying things up in the cooking shelter, but she came over to me and handed me the tray saying that they always gave refreshments to somebody who had walked in and that she hoped I would enjoy a pot of peppermint tea and a bowl of dates. I was quite touched at this kind gesture and also slightly surprised to find that the mint tea and dates (which wouldn’t have been my first choice if tea and cake had been on the menu) were delicious and really refreshing!

It had been a long day and a slog in places but twice I had received simple, kind hospitality (plus a couple of encouraging Tweets) and that had made a world of difference. I needed good weather if I was to carry on with the route I had planned for the next day, but at least my spirits were a little higher and the odds were now tipping towards me carrying on rather than quitting.

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(Virtual) TGOC 2020 – Day 7 – 2015 An unintentional Munro

As Covid 19 has put paid to the 2020 TGO Challenge, I am revisiting my previous crossings and celebrating what this marvellous event has brought to my life over the years. 

This post looks back at the seventh day of my ninth crossing on Friday 15th May 2015.  The original post is here.

Rereading this blog post makes me happy.  Good weather and up high.  Lovely!

TGOC2015 – Day 7 Revisited – An unintentional Munro

Today was always likely to be relatively hard work – with most of the day off the beaten track – but with the potential for great views and a wonderful “out in the middle of nowhere” feeling.  It did not disappoint.

The TGO Challenge planning notes said that I had to identify all Munros and Corbetts on my route sheet.  This is all well and good if you’re a bagger, but I only have a vague idea what a Munro is and don’t have a clue what a Corbett is.  Planning today’s route wasn’t too hard but trying to work out why a 942 metre hill was not a Munro was challenging.  And another problem was that there is not enough space on the route sheet to write “when I include a hill’s name it doesn’t mean I intend to go to the top so it doesn’t really matter whose list it is on.”

Anyway, for those who’d like to follow the route on the map as they read the blog, here’s my route for that day: E via easiest route under foot – Sneachdach Slinnean (NH621026 914m not Mun) – NE – Carn Ban (942m not Mun) – Carn Ballach (920m not Mun) – Meall na Creughaich – Meall a Bhothain – Round Carn Sgulain (Mun NH684059) – Carn a Bhothain Mholaich – Round Carn an Fhreiceadain (Corbett) – Beinn Bhreac – Meall a Chocaire – A Bhuidheanaich – Carn Coire Dhugain – Camp NH798093  It looked great and I couldn’t pronounce a word of it.

The morning was cold and I stayed wrapped up until the late afternoon.  The going was quite slow for the first couple of hours as the ground was either rough and boggy or covered in snow.P1030955

Crossing the snowfields was interesting; looking out for slight changes in the colour which indicated a potential icy pool beneath.  A few times I found existing footprints in the snow and took advantage of them.  At one point I saw a little black frog sitting on the snow.  I bent down to have a closer look and s/he flattened him/herself against the ice.  I pretended that his/her cunning attempt at camouflage had been effective and walked on.

In my trail shoes, my feet were getting quite cold crossing the larger snowfields so I wasn’t hanging about.  I only plunged knee-deep into cold water and mud a couple of times, which was fortunate.

The going got easier when I reached Carn Ban …. but this was where my navigation skills failed me.  I had one of those “The map is wrong.  The GPS is faulty.  And someone has moved that glen.” moments.  I must’ve spent 20 minutes, getting colder and colder, trying to figure out where I was.  I was convinced that I was heading towards Carn Ban because I was heading uphill and there were some other people with rucksacks going that way and… erm, well, I’m not really sure.  It was mildly inconvenient that I was heading SE and should have been going East.  Oh, and that valley really shouldn’t be there, but maybe if I just keep going it will all become clear?

Eventually I figured it out.  I was heading towards Carn Dearg.  The valley was probably Gleann Ballach.  I needed to go North and stay on the high ground; not SE and down into the valley which, for some reason, was an option I had considered.

Approaching Carn Dearg … possibly.

Back on track, I was now quite annoyed with myself.  I could’ve avoided the confusion by anticipating the lie of the land and paying more attention to where I was rather than (subconsciously) following the other walkers.

The walking was now easy and enjoyable.  Yes, it was a bit chilly but it was a lovely day for walking and I just followed the high ground, first NE then generally East.  There were faint tracks in the short scrubby vegetation and I guessed that they had probably been maintained by hillbaggers.  With that in mind, as I approached Carn Sgulain, it was clearly going to be less effort to head for the summit rather than forging my own path to the South as planned.  It was not a deliberate decision to “bag” a Munro; it just sort of happened.  I reached the top at the same time as another walker who, if I recall correctly, was returning to hillwalking after a lengthy gap and was finding it quite hard going so had decided to cut his planned 3 Munro trip to 2.  I don’t seem to have taken any photos to mark my first TGO Challenge Munro, but I did take my GPS for a wander round all the nearby lumpy bits just to make sure I’d been to the top.

By late afternoon I was getting quite tired.  I’d had a great day but cross-country walking always wears me out and I was wishing that there was a way I could change my route to make the last few miles a bit easier.  I was wild-camping that night so it didn’t really matter where I ended up.  I considered taking the track S into Kingussie but that would have taken me back over ground I’ve done before so, instead, I decided to miss out A Bhuidheanaich and take the more direct route towards Kincraig and look for somewhere to camp by the quirky-shaped patch of forest.

I bagged the trig point on Carn an Fhreiceadain [Oh my word, I’ve just realised I did a Corbett, too!] then headed as due East as I could manage.  I was at the trig point at about quarter to six – and the forest finally came into view at about twenty past eight.

At last, the forest comes into view. That’s where I want to camp.

I had my tent up by 9pm.  It was a nice spot near a burn and with lovely views of snowy mountains.  I was exhausted but I’d had a brilliant day.

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