A few weeks ago I received the good news that I had been successful in the draw for The Great Outdoors Challenge in May 2015. This will be my ninth crossing and, therefore, the ninth route I have planned. I have always entered as a solo Challenger and – with a little help from the Vetters and the Message Board – planned my own routes.
In my opinion, the route planning is a big part of The Challenge experience. There has recently been some Message Board “banter” about how things were so much harder in the olden days before the Internet and how the easy access to support (and previous Challenge reports) could lead to the creation of off-the-peg routes for download. Whilst it would not be possible to stop someone picking the best bits out of somebody else’s route – or even walking someone else’s route in its entirety – I don’t really see this as a problem. I’ve looked at blogs for suggestions when I can’t see an obvious way to join up two locations on the map but I still end up with a route which I regard as mine. If anyone does copy an entire route then I think they’re reducing the enjoyment they could get from the planning process and I, personally, would not like to be in the situation of interpreting someone else’s intentions as I read the route sheet each day.
I found my first route (Lochailort to Lunan Bay) very difficult to plan. I genuinely did not know where to start ….. or where to go in the middle ….. or where to finish. Scotland looked enormous and made up entirely of huge mountains or water. All the place-names looked identical and very few of them had any previous relevance to me. I’d walked and camped in the the Lairig Ghru before – but now I was being told that this was a potentially dangerous route that should not be walked in “Foul Weather” – whatever that was.
Maybe my biggest mental barrier was that I still had the (English?) mindset that I should only walk and camp where allowed. I had wild-camped in England, Wales and Scotland before but most of my walking had been on tracks and paths, and I don’t think I included any cross-country walking in my first submitted route until my Vetter suggested I could cut out miles of detour by going straight across the open country. At the time, this seemed awfully adventurous and not a little risky.
There seemed to be so much to learn if I was to become a member of the Challenge family. Some message board queries were answered with a curt “That’s all explained in the Event Details” but, being unfamiliar with the place-names, I found it difficult to recognise when the Event Details were talking about somewhere I was intending to go. I really, really wanted to fit in to this strange group of people who, on the one hand, were free-spirited enough to wander coast-to-coast across an entire country on their own but who, on the other hand, were guided by a very detailed set of rules which I was struggling to make sense of.
Although the written guidance felt like an examination study text at times, the Challengers I spoke to were all very helpful and friendly. At the Snake Pass reunion they all seemed to know every place I’d planned to visit on my first route (even if I had to keep referring to the route sheet as I couldn’t remember more than the vaguest detail) and they gave me some helpful tips – mainly about distances, food and rest rather than geography.
That was back in 2005/06. Planning a TGOC route is no longer scary for me and I feel a lot more confident that I can plan a route which a) I can physically complete and b) will be interesting and varied to walk. I still have plenty of questions, but I now recognise the relevance of the advice being offered in the Challenge literature and on the message board.
My planning objectives for my 2015 route are 1. to have a new start and end point. 2. to repeat as little as possible of my previous routes, and 3. to try to attend the Cheese & Wine Party on Friday 15th May at Water of Caiplich.
Objective 1 is easy enough. Of the current starting points, I have not started at Dornie, Kilchoan, Mallaig, Oban or Shiel Bridge. Being an awkward soul, I have deliberately avoided the top three start points – so that leaves me with Dornie or Kilchoan. Kilchoan would put me out of reach of the Cheese & Wine – unless I repeated long stretches of previous routes and made a bee-line for Water of Caiplich – so Dornie it is. I did titter when I looked at my TGOC planning notepad and noticed how many times I have definitely been starting from Dornie…. 3 at least.
My finish point will probably choose itself as my planning gets nearer to the coast. As with Mallaig, Oban and Shiel Bridge, I am avoiding St Cyrus. I’m sure it’s lovely but I don’t want to have to share my special/sad/weary moment with a beach full of people!
During a quick scan of the East coast, I found my eye was being drawn to places which had a PH marked on the map. If I can find a quiet bay with a pub at the top of the hill – and a bus-stop – then that is where I shall finish.
Objective 2 is challenging but there is plenty of scope. For example, in 2009 I reached Loch Affric and turned South. This time I will probably continue along the North shore of the Loch. I’ve been to Fort Augustus and Aviemore before but, this time, my route in will be different and I’m exploring different routes out.
Objective 3 could be difficult. I always start my walk on the Saturday so am a day behind most other Challengers for the first week or so. I don’t want to feel pressured to keep to a time schedule – especially if the weather is bad – so I’ll have to see how my planning pans out. Once I’ve planned the end-to-end route I can then chop it into day-sized chunks and see whether I can reasonably reach Water of Caiplich on the Friday. If not, I shall probably stay further South as I fancy doing the Ben Avon area.
Looking at the maps (and I do like to plan by spreading the Landranger maps out on the floor) brings back lots of memories. I mark up my maps with pencil arrows and annotations to help when I’m walking. The edges of the sheets have scribbles to indicate which map is next on the route, or which year this particular route applied to. On the Challenge I put a pencil cross wherever I camp, and I sometimes draw on bridges (present or missing) or unexpected tracks. My maps tell a story of the pleasures and struggles of my own TGO Challenge experience and it is almost a shame when I buy an updated map and lose the (metaphorical, but sometimes physical) blood, sweat and tears which made the old map mine.
Once I’ve used the maps to plan where I intend to walk I then have to try and break the route down into day-sized pieces which are not too long or short, which are not too rough/boggy/steep, and which have adequately spaced resupply points. I find this is the point when I usually end up making some fairly major changes to my route as I’ll realise that I’m going to have no shops or showers for a week. Yes, I know I could carry more food and go without a shower but it seems sensible to plan a route that gives me a few creature comforts every few days; as I know what an excellent morale boost it can be to be able to dry my clothes and air my sleeping bag when the weather has been awful for a week.
Waiting for the Vetter’s comments used to feel like waiting for an exam result but now I regard the comments less as a judgement on the quality of my route and more as a welcome prompt for where more planning may be necessary. Sometimes, when I read the Vetter’s comments, I look at my route and wonder “What on Earth was I thinking when I planned that?”. Suddenly, easier or better alternatives become obvious because an independent observer has had a look at the route and asked a few simple questions.
One other principle of TGO Challenge route planning is that Procrastination Rules. I have a pile of maps at my feet but I have spent the last couple of hours writing this blog post rather than planning my route. OK…. so, that gap between Fort August and Water of Caiplich….. I suppose I ought to figure out how I am going to fill that in……