Friday is for Hiking

Last year I decided I wanted to work a four day week – for my own sanity and for hiking. For the most part this year I’ve used it well – conquering a fair few Munro’s on my Fridays off and racking up a few miles on trails too. Recently I’ve been lacking motivation – I always do at this time of year, the urge to eat junk and hibernate as the nights draw in is strong.

Some spectacular weather was just what I needed to induce me to plan a route and head out last Friday morning, into the beautiful November sunshine. I started off from Invermoriston, on the shores of Loch Ness – my plan was to find a path along the loch side before cutting up on to the low route of the Great Glen Way, walking as far as Allt Sigh and then heading south along the high route back to Invermoriston – a distance of 12 miles in total. After not much more than a kilometre, I encountered a minor problem. The path, which I was so sure would be there, wasn’t. Perhaps it was overgrown or maybe it was never there to start with but I couldn’t find it. Too headstrong to turn back I fought my way along the banks of Loch Ness for about an hour, clambering over windblown trees and through thick rhododendron, I was exhausted. For most of it I was trapped between the shore of the Loch and the main A82 trunk road and it only occurred to me a few times how stupid it was to be scrambling along the side of this steep bank with little hope of being found, should something go wrong! I finally reached the gate that I’d been aiming for and somewhat joyfully I skipped across the road and onto the well trodden path of the Great Glen Way. From there it was an easy trudge along the forest path towards Allt Sigh, I was hoping to meet some other hikers but met none at all. The GGW, although popular, is much quieter than the West Highland Way – perhaps it doesn’t hold the same appeal and is less accessible to those in the central belt. Much of its route is far superior than the West Highland Way in my opinion, and offers some amazing views over Loch Ness.

I used this hike to further test out my new rucksack – the Gorilla 40 by Gossamer Gear. I honestly can’t fault it as a pack. I’ve used it twice now on day hikes – both times carrying around 10kg and I’m not sure that I will ever be able to go back to the heavy Osprey packs that I used to love so dearly. The Gorilla 40 is super comfortable, I picked the medium pack size and it works really well. I was a little concerned as I’ve never used a rucksack without a rigid back frame before but I can honestly say that this pack was just as comfortable. I can fit everything that I would need for a multi day hike inside it and including food and water it still only weighs around 11kg, which is a massive saving of 3/4kg on my previous packs. The front stuff pocket on the pack is probably my favourite feature – I used it for food and snacks on my day hikes. I love that I don’t have to go into the main body of the bag to grab bulky items anymore. The side pockets are generous too and can easily fit a tent. There are so many options for storage with this pack, I can’t wait to take this bag out on multi-day hikes!

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Find the Gorilla 40 here. 

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The Moray Coast Trail; A Lesson

In April this year, Laura and I decided to spend the weekend hiking the Moray Coast Trail. Since completing the West Highland Way together in 2016 we’ve become firm hiking friends, I don’t think there are many others I could walk 96 miles with. Last year we hiked the Affric Kintail Way and the Dava Way and later this year we are planning the Deeside Way. We picked the MCT for its length and logistics, being about half way between our two current places of residence and short enough distance to be manageable in our timeframe (or so we thought). Our timeframe consisted of a Friday evening and a weekend. This is a lesson in why you shouldn’t underestimate the Moray Coast Trail. 

I met Laura at Cullen at the end of the MCT, it was around 4pm on a Friday afternoon and the sun was shining beautifully over the sea. I took this as a good omen for the rest of the weekend and double checked that I’d packed the suncream. Logistically we needed to leave one car in Cullen and drive the other back to the start of the route at Forres. We popped into the golf club at Cullen and asked if we could leave a car in their car park. The lovely lady behind the bar happened to be a long distance walker and quickly began regaling us with tales of her exploits on the West Highland and Great Glen Ways! Funnily enough she hadn’t even heard of the Moray Coast Trail that runs right past her doorstep. Finally escaping from her chatter, we headed to Forres. Abandoning my car at the newly built train station, we were instantly confused by the new layout. The trail had been moved and required a diversion over the new railway bridge and along the road to the distillery. 

At last we were free of the town and wandering along a small country road. As this was a warm up for the TGO Challenge I was carrying a full pack, almost 17kg – heavier than I would have liked but I also had my dog with me on this trip so some of the extra weight was accounted for by his food and other supplies. The weather was fine and the road was quiet and it was a nice start to our adventure. Another friend, Danni (who would become pivotal to our expedition) lives in Kinloss and we were planning to arrive at hers for dinner and a warm bed for the evening before continuing with our walk in the morning. Baked Camembert greeted us on our arrival – the perfect hiking treat – Laura and I devoured most of it. We’d only walked four miles but were already ravenous. We settled in for a comfy nights sleep. 

Day 2

Day two dawned bright and sunny. Perfect weather for walking with a nice breeze. Danni and Mark had left us a delicious breakfast of croissants and fruit. Trail magic in evidence already. Today’s walk would take us from Kinloss to Findhorn Bay and then along the coast to Burghead and Lossiemouth. We set off shortly before 9am, making our way back to the trail which ran along the main road from Kinloss to Findhorn. We passed the former airstrip and the Findhorn Foundation before arriving in the pretty little village of Findhorn. The trail gets a little muddled here and we lost it for a while, wandering through the whitewashed streets. Luckily it wasn’t hard to find the beach, and the tide was well out giving a wide stretch of sand for us to enjoy. It was slightly surreal strolling along a sunny sandy beach with a huge backpack but also a very enjoyable trail surface.

We stopped for snacks at one of the concrete bunkers just before Roseisle. Relaxing in the sunshine, we both felt lazy and content to enjoy the good weather. There was one problem though, no fresh water for Cluanie the dog. We diverted off the beach into the Forestry Commission car park to use the facilities and fill a water bowl for Cluanie. It was a nice change to be in the shade of the pine. It was busy with people enjoying the weekend so we headed on along trail, keeping to the trees instead of the beach. The trail emerged into Burghead Caravan Park and from there into the town and out the other side. Our stomachs were rumbling so we found a well located bench just beside the trail. I thought I would try out one of the dehydrated meals that I had bought for the TGO. A morrocan cous cous with chicken meal was actually much nicer than I’d expected.

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We were about 13 miles through the MCT, with 9 miles still to cover to Lossiemouth, where dinner and a camping spot would hopefully be waiting. The next section of the trail was much more coastal, sweeping cliffs, gorse and seabirds swirling overhead. It was now a swelteringly hot day and we were both down to t-shirts. I was glad I’d packed 3 litres of water at the start of the day but by the time we reached Hopeman in the early afternoon my water bladder was dry. After a hunt we found some public toilets and refilled our water packs and gave Cluanie the dog a big drink too. We were both feeling the heat and envied the day trippers lounging in the harbour cafe. The beach huts at Hopeman were delightful but still closed, the summer season hadn’t really started yet. The trail became a twisting path through dunes and then up onto the top of cliffs through thick gorse. 

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Walking towards Lossie Lighthouse

The lack of shade was exhausting, it was too hot to even stop for a break. Descending from the clifftops the path wound its way through sand dunes towards a distant looking lighthouse. Walking on dunes with a full pack is some kind of insane torture. One step forward and two steps back. This was the last straw for me, my mood had soured – I was exhausted and in so much pain from my heavy pack. I was trying not to think about what that meant for the TGO Challenge which was coming up in less than a month. Reaching the lighthouse, I was hoping to see Lossiemouth just beyond it – it was definitely not just beyond it. 

After another hour of trudging along the beach towards the town and we finally reached a paved road. Oh the joy of firm ground beneath my feet. We were heading for the ‘Beach Bar’ which was dog friendly and promised burgers and pints. It didn’t occur to me at the time, how odd we must have looked, two weary hikers, two massive backpacks and a bedraggled dog fighting our through a busy Saturday night bar. We found an outside table, collapsing under the weight of our bags and putting on extra layers before we cooled down too much, food and drinks arrived. It was all going to be ok after all. Now onto our next dilemma of where to camp. We had planned to walk a couple of miles past Lossie and camp in the forest but as we were both completely done this was no longer an option. Laura proclaimed that the idea of spending the night in a tent was too much and so we began searching online for places to stay locally. After much googling and a few phone calls there didn’t seem to be anywhere that could accommodate two tired hikers and their dog for the evening. One text message to Danni and our prayers were answered as she whisked us back to Kinloss for another night in an extremely comfy bed. I’m not going to lie, it was good but I also felt like a huge failure. If I couldn’t do one twenty mile day and then find the strength to camp at the end of it, what would become of me on my coast to coast walk?! In the end it was the best decision, we were both over tired and severely dehydrated and twenty miles is not a short day. 

Day 3

We needed a new plan, my car was still in Forres and we needed to get back to Lossiemouth to continue on the trail. Danni dropped me in Forres to pick up my car and I took Laura and Cluanie back to Lossiemouth to continue on our merry way. It was another sunny morning but we still had 21 miles to cover if we were to make it to Cullen by the end of the day. All the extra car logistics had cost us some time and it was 10am before we left Lossiemouth. The tide was out so we had the whole width of the beach to ourselves, this soon turned into a gravel bar so we retreated into the woods for yet more dune walking. I swear as long as I live I will never hike across sand dunes again. I could have cried with every step. After what seemed like an eternity we were back on the beach, behind the gravel bar on a semi solid path. It followed the line of concrete blocks which were placed there to ward off possible invasion during the second world war. These made good resting points and we settled down on one mid morning to eat some trail mix and reflect on the weekend so far. 

The trail took us along the edge of plantation forestry and through a RAF firing squad. Luckily there was no one firing at us and we climbed the watch towers just for fun. We started to see other people on the beach and path ahead. We’d seen no one on this section from Lossiemouth. 

 

It had clouded over but the temperature was still high and as we approached Garmouth it began to rain slightly. Lovely damp stickiness… just what we both needed in a day already lacking in motivation. Our next destination was Spey Bay, we crossed the Garmouth Viaduct (which was seriously cool and almost made up for the rest of the days short comings) and headed back up the river towards its mouth. We settled on a bench outside the visitor centre (no dogs allowed inside) and had a late lunch. It was almost 3pm and we covered only about 10 miles so far, we still had another 11 to get back to Cullen. It just wasn’t going to happen and we needed a plan B. 

We would walk the next five miles to Buckie and from there catch the bus back to Cullen. It felt like defeat. There was no way that we would make another six miles from Buckie to Cullen and we both had work the following day, not to mention lengthy drives home. 

And so we departed Spey Bay, both feeling a little happier that we had less miles to walk, but neither of us wanting to admit it. The next section of the trail was also the Speyside Way, so it was busier, well signed and much nicer under foot. It followed the old railway track in part but still kept relatively close to the coast. The sun came out again and there was a nice breeze but still words could not express how much I wanted this day to be done. We sat down on a bench in Portgordon, both completely done with walking. Even Cluanie collapsed to the ground, which does not happen often. Only two more miles to go we told ourselves. We must have looked so pathetic sitting there, exhausted and beaten. I don’t even remember the last two miles to Buckie. I’m sure I wanted to cry and scream and sit down, but somehow we made it and in plenty of time for the last bus. 

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Sad hikers in Portgordon

Its crazy really how much I beat myself up about not finishing the whole route. We’d still covered almost 39 miles over the weekend and over some arduous ground in higher than normal temperatures. Really we should have been proud of our achievement. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to admit that you’ve had enough and that you need to quit. It doesn’t make you weak or a lesser person. It is an important lesson for any hiker, knowing when enough is enough. 

TGO Challenge Day 10-13

Day 10 – 19/05/2018        Braemar to Ballater 19 Miles 

It has taken me a while to sit down and start writing this post. It’s the last part of my adventure and I don’t want it to end again on paper. The last four days were great for the most part, but underlying them was the simple fact that it would be ending soon and I wasn’t ready for that. 

Mum was walking with me today, which was nice – she’d been doing a lot of walking in preparation and I was a bit worried she would be striding off without me! I was feeling lazy after two nights of good food, a cosy bed and hot baths full of epsom salts. So we left at a leisurely pace around 9am (it might have been 9.15am…) and headed through the village towards todays trail. We passed Gordons Tearoom and who was sitting in the window eating breakfast – Margaret and Alan Brown!! It was great to see them again; the last time had been at Cougie. Margaret almost ran out of the door to greet me and there were big hugs. All our news was exchanged in a matter of moments and I was sad to learn that they were headed in a different direction and wouldn’t arrive in Montrose until Friday; I wouldn’t see them again, at least on this challenge! 

We found the trail for the Lion’s face with relative ease; I’d heard people had often had trouble in the past. Chris and Ray caught us up in the forest, and joined us for the days walk. Chelsea was taking some time out and would meet up with Chris and Ray at Tarfside to finish their last couple of days together. The sun wasn’t shining today, and the sky was grey and overcast but still warm. We wound our way through the forest until we reached the dreaded A93. A 2km road walk on the A93 on a Sunday morning was possibly the most terrifying experience. Cars, motorbikes, campers, and buses whizzed past us, rarely slowing down and there was very little verge at times. Thankfully we soon reached Balmoral Estate and were able to follow forest tracks well away from the road, although we could still hear the screeching motorbikes. The hike through the Queen’s Estate was interesting if not a little monotonous. Mainly pine and well maintained forestry track, the odd cottage or memorial made it a little more interesting. We came across a few other Challengers, Emma, Louise, Lindy and another whose name I’ve forgotten, we stopped briefly to chat before heading on. 

Just before lunch we came across a perfectly placed port-a-loo. Not a fan of the outdoor facilities available, my Mum was delighted with the find. We puzzled over why there was a port-a-loo in the middle of the forest, and in relatively good condition, before putting the pieces together. The royal wedding was the previous day and there was no doubt some celebration at Balmoral which had something to do with it. We lunched at the cricket pavilion; there was a bench, a tap, more port-a-loos and even bins, very luxurious as lunch spots go. The advantages of town days meant that lunch was fresh pasta salad and pancakes – no dehydrated meal for me today. I love how good eating fresh food feels when you’ve become accustomed to dried long lasting food. After lunch we skirted round the castle, admiring it from afar and carried on through the estate to Easter Balmoral – a gorgeous little hamlet. 

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Balmoral Castle

From here the rest of the day would be spent avoiding road walking as much as possible, although not very successfully. At least it was a quiet country road, we found a couple of nice tracks to walk along parallel to the road. Even discovering a beautiful wild flower garden and orchard at Abergeldie Castle, before having to rejoin the road. It felt like it was going to be a long 6 miles to Ballater. Chris took a side trail into the forest for an hour or so to give his feet a rest from the constant tarmac. Ray, Mum and I continued on the road some more and met back up with about an hour later. We trudged on, heads down, one foot in front of the other, without much chat. A couple of miles outside Ballater, Dad pulled up in the car to collect Mum. I was feeling pretty proud of her for doing 17 miles with us especially given the boring underfoot conditions and warm weather! 

It felt so good to finally get to Ballater, road days are so long and hard compared to hill days but unfortunately necessary sometimes. It was one of the first days on the challenge where I felt that I couldn’t physically have walked another step, luckily they were rare. I was looking forward to a shower and tomorrows first ‘off route’ day to Tarfside. 

Day 11 – 20/05/2018 Ballater to Tarfside 18 Miles

Luckily the sun was out again today; I’d missed it the previous day, although I’d somehow still managed to get a little burnt. I’d spied the track that would be taking us out of Ballater the previous day. It looked horrific to be frank, a steep winding track up a bare hillside. As I ate breakfast I felt a little sick and wondered whether I should have just stuck to the safety of the Deeside Way. It was too late for that now so the Mounth Road it would have to be! I was secretly excited about the prospect of adding a Munro to my route. 

Again I surprised myself, setting out from Ballater around 9.30am; I was stood on the top of that very hill looking at sign for Mount Keen by 10.45am. By midday we were sitting by the River Tanar enjoying lunch in the sunshine. Here we met another challenger called Chris, he was heading for a different Munro, having done Mount Keen twice before but promised to catch up with us at Tarfside. Todays lunch was Chilli Beef, Mac and Cheese – I’d saved this one as I thought it sounded amazing. It was good, but a little spicy – I missed pancakes. On the bridge I found some super cool sunglasses, which I modelled for a quick selfie, but then returned to hopefully be reclaimed by their rightful owner. I spoke to a couple of day hikers who asked how long I’d been out; when I replied that this was Day 11 they were pretty amazed and impressed

We were now right below Mount Keen, the path was a pretty big scar across the hill, but it looked doable. I was feeling strong, we’d flown through seven miles in less than three hours and it was a beautiful day. We started our ascent, the path was steep and uneven, and it was obviously a popular route. There was still a little snow on the northern face of the mountain but well away from the path. About three quarters of the way up Mount Keen there is a choice to be made, take the easier path over the saddle or detour over the summit before rejoining the saddle path on the far side of the mountain. The whole way up to the path junction I was having an internal fight in my head, could I do it or not. In the end I knew I would regret it if I didn’t try and the summit looked so tantalizingly close. Ray had chosen to take the saddle path, so Chris and I headed for the summit path alone. We counted steps, a hundred at a time, with little breaks in between. It took us nearly 800 steps to get to the top. It was definitely worth it, the view was great, and if it had been a little less hazy the North Sea would have been visible. It was chilly though and windy so we didn’t linger and headed back down to find Ray.

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On top of Mount Keen

It was a long rocky descent down to Glen Mark, we were all underwhelmed by the Queens Well, and that we still had six miles to go to Tarfside. On we trudged, finally reaching the public road and then the track past the Hill of Rowan, we vaguely joked about climbing that too. 

We arrived at Tarfside to be greeted by lots of familiar faces; we booked in for dinner and celebrated our successful day with a cider. The atmosphere was fantastic, everyone nearing the end of their journey now and enjoying the feeling of near success. It was nice to see Ann and Alvar again and meet some other Challenge volunteers. St Drostans lodge is a great place too, owned by the Church but available for private parties to rent out. I was really glad that I’d changed my planned route. 

Tarfside itself was a little further on from the Lodge and the ‘village green’ made a great showcase for many different lightweight and backpacking tents. The public toilets were open for challenge use, there was a playpark, a BBQ and the Masons Arms were open for business. The whole thing could have been mistaken for a music festival, albeit a quiet one. I found a lot of friendly faces in the Masons Arms, Alan Ross, Tres Amigos Locos, the two guys whose names I still don’t know and Chris from earlier on at Glen Tanar were all there. It was nice to catch up with Alan R and Kent from Albuquerque, who I hadn’t seen since day 2 in Glen Affric. It’s one of the great things about the challenge, you greet people that you only met once (and briefly at that) as the best of old friends. 

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Tarfside Tent Village

I went to sleep buzzing about the day, when I started this challenge I thought I would struggle with even the smallest climbs, one Munro later I was feeling invincible and craving more.

Day 12 – 21/05/2018        Tarfside – Edzell 12 Miles 

The day of two breakfasts. My first day of two breakfasts, the first one was a bacon roll and coffee at St Drostans and the second was a scone and apple juice at the Retreat not more than an hour later. I was feeling sluggish and over tired, despite having slept really well, maybe I’d overdone it the past couple of days. At this point I definitely wasn’t going to walk past a coffee shop especially when they were offering free wi-fi. I hadn’t checked in with Sam for a couple of days so I sent him a couple of messages relaying my victory over Mount Keen. ‘There’s no stopping you now’ was his response and that’s exactly how I felt too. 

Today I was firmly back on familiar territory, having grown up less than 20 miles away from this glen. I was looking forward to the Rocks of Solitude and getting to Edzell where a hotel room was waiting for me! 

First it was a long walk down what quickly became known as ‘shotgun valley’, because of the millions of shotgun shells left lying on the track, and then ‘rabbit death lane’. There were miles and miles through fields of sheep and cows before finally finding a bridge to cross to the right side of river for the walk through the North Esk gorge. After navigating a dodgy planting scheme and having to climb a barbed wire fence, on which I got my pack completely caught, I finally saw the sign post for the RoS trail. I don’t know whether it is a blessing or a curse knowing exactly how long you have to walk for the day. Today it was definitely a curse, I was feeling exhausted, at one point I put my pack on the ground and curled up beside it, I felt utterly defeated. The second last day of the walk, I should be enjoying every minute but I really wasn’t. 

It was great to walk through the North Esk gorge though, it is a place that I have visited since I was a child, first with my parents for weekend walks and then later with friends from school, to swim in the river and enjoy long summer days. These memories kept my mind busy and distracted me from the exhaustion I was feeling. Seeing the little blue door come into view was another boost, only another mile and half down the river to Edzell. 

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At last a well-deserved pint was had at the Panmure Arms, another gathering outside the pub had made it impossible to pass. It was only 4pm but I felt like I’d been walking for days.. well I had but you know what I mean!

Edzell must be the longest village in the world and my hotel was at the other end of it. It was well worth the extra mile though, the comfy bed and free jelly beans went down very well, as did the afternoon swim that I enjoyed in the hotel pool. The pork and black pudding burger and Mr Whippy cone from the Tuck Inn later that night, also made up for the days shortcomings. Maybe the day hadn’t been so bad after all. 

Day 13 – 23/05/2018            Edzell – Montrose 12 Miles 

The last twelve miles, the last twelve miles all on road and the last twelve miles of my first ever TGO challenge. It was a bittersweet day. On one hand I was so excited and proud of myself to reach the end of this challenge but on the other I didn’t want it to end. I’d caught the thru hiking bug and I wanted to walk and walk and walk.

I had a delicious breakfast of boiled eggs and soldiers, and was on my merry way by just after 9am. There’s not much to say about the days walking, it was all on tarmac – the only saving grace was that I was moving quickly, spurred on by the lure of the coast. Crossing the A90 was a pretty terrifying experience, making a dash for it between lorries and cars probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do. More country back roads, thankfully pretty quiet but still incredibly boring, led to the House of Dun and an equally boring lunch spot. A vague plan to find a way to walk along the basin to Montrose was completely thrown out the window when a four mile marker post  came into view, indicating a route along a cycle path beside the main road into the town. Four miles was all that was left. It was however a pretty unpleasant four miles along the busy main road, traffic was moving fast, unlike me. 

Arriving into Montrose was probably one of the most underwhelming experiences of the whole challenge. It reminded me of exactly why I hate towns and cities. They are so impersonal, nobody cares what you’re doing or why you’re there. Montrose was also a lot bigger than I remembered and it seemed to take ages to reach the actual beach. I knew there would be tears, although not as many as I’d expected. Exhaustion probably had a lot to do with that, and that the realisation of what I’d achieved hadn’t yet sunk in and wouldn’t for a couple of days.

On the beach we took some photos and did the traditional toe dip into the North Sea. I was happy to have reached the East coast, and with some good friends who I had made along the way.  I sat on the steps down to the beach for a while and thought about how different this side of the country was to the other. Chris remarked that he now understood why the Challenge is walked from West to East and not vice versa. I couldn’t walk a 22 mile day on the east coast, I’d die of boredom and traffic fumes.

There wasn’t much to do but head for the Park Hotel to sign out. Another mile back into town but it felt nice to be heading to Challenge Control, where our efforts would be appreciated and rewarded. The reception was littered with backpacks and weary Challengers, all offering congratulations to each other.  It was great to see Ali again and meet the voices behind Challenge Control, and I was excited to get my certificate and much talked about t shirt. I was not excited about waft of smelly hiker that hung around the Challenge Control HQ. There was however tea, biscuits and chatter with other Challengers who were slowly arriving into control. It’s all a bit of a blur to be honest. I was restless, I’d expected to feel overwhelmed with happiness at the end of the challenge but I was mainly just sad that it was over. What now but back to reality.

I don’t really know how to end the story. I had a very different journey across Scotland to the one that I had originally envisaged. That was as much to do with the people I met on the challenge, as it was to do with the strength I found inside myself. I’ve never been one for cheesy, over the top, motivational statements, but if you believe you can do something then you can.

TGO Challenge – Day 7-9

Day 7 – 17/05/2018 16 Miles                  Newtonmore to Glen Feshie

The best day. Everything about today was good. I woke up feeling amazing, I’d slept solidly from 10pm to 7am and I felt invincible. I still didn’t manage to clamber down from my bunk until nearly 8am but that was ok and the pain in my shin had gone. For breakfast I had a slightly odd combination of baguette, garlic and herb cream cheese and coffee. Eyebrows were raised at the breakfast table but I didn’t care, I was so sick of porridge and granola.

I was packed and ready to leave by 8.45am (sticking to rule one for once). I felt pretty sad to be leaving the hostel, it had been a great wee break from tent life and I had enjoyed meeting so many other challengers. Just as I was departing Kev the Pump turned up, as well as Peter from Bristol – it was good to catch up with them again and they were both in good form.  After modelling Peter’s antlers for a photo and persuading him to leave them with Ali to take to Montrose for him, I headed off alone. I was craving some fresh fruit so I popped into the Coop for a second breakfast of orange juice, apple and grapes. Here I met Graeme Dunsire, who was also stocking up – I’d heard from Emma that he was also from Forfar so we struck up a good conversation and quickly discovered lots of connections. Trail magic appeared in the form of a large box of homemade tablet and an honesty box at someone’s front door. With a delicious slab of tablet safely tucked into my treat pocket, we continued on along the cycle path to Kinguisse. It was another sunny day and there were plenty of TGOers dotted along in front of us. 

I left Graeme in Kinguisse (he was in search of lip balm) and headed off towards Ruthven Barracks and the road walk to Tromie Bridge. I passed ‘The Dell’ on route and took a quick selfie for the shinty contingent back at Glengarry. The 3km to Tromie Bridge passed quickly and I was excited to be leaving roads behind for a couple of hill days. Just as I reached Tromie Bridge, two busloads of DoE kids arrived. My pace quickened automatically and I silently prayed that they weren’t heading for Glen Feshie too. At just about the same moment I also met Phil the Scot, born in Scotland but now a resident of North Carolina. We chatted briefly before I left him behind to escape the gaggle of teenagers who were now hot on our heels. I was feeling super-fast and full of energy, finally into the swing of hiking every day. The pain in my shin had gone, my pack was comfortable and I was enjoying every step, not something I’d imagined would happen before the challenge began. 

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Baileguish

I passed a couple of Americans at Baileguish and found Croyden airing his feet by the footbridge, Tom from the hostel was also there and I paused briefly to chat to them. At this point there were several different paths to choose from – I opted for an ‘as the crow flies’ approach and headed straight through the heather towards the track on the hill which would take me into Glen Feshie. To my delight I found Chris from Michagan loitering on the hill, waiting for his friends who I’d just passed! I was so happy to find out they were all still going. Ray soon caught us up and the three of us wandered lazily down into Glen Feshie, catching up on each other’s journeys over the past three days. I’d planned my lunch stop for the pony bridge over the Feshie, we arrived there at 1pm and collapsed on the grass beside the bridge – the perfect spot! Here I broke rule five, taking my boots off and dipping my toes in the river – my hiking rules were definitely turning into guidelines on this trip. Lots of familiar faces arrived to join us at our lunch spot, Team Boggins, Laura, Croyden and the third member of Team Michigan – Chelsea. There were 10 of us in all and it was nice to sit and enjoy each other’s stories of the trip so far. Grace, Steve, Grant and Ian were heading for Sgor Gaoith  – I would have liked to join them but I thought dragging my pack up a Munro might kill me. Team Boggins were all using super lightweight Gossamer Gear and therefore could just pop up a Munro or two whenever they felt like it. My Osprey pack suddenly felt very heavy… 

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I was heading for Ruigh Aiteachain Bothy though, excited to see the upgraded bothy. I had planned to spend the night there but it was only 2pm and only 4km to the bothy.  I decided to change my plan and push on for a camp a couple of miles further on. 

I was looking forward to the walk up Glen Feshie, I last visited more than 10 years ago on a university field trip and I was excited to see the changes that had taken place since then.  Reluctantly Chris, Ray, Chelsea and I left our perfect little lunch spot and headed further into Glen Feshie. The path followed the river closely and soon we came upon a section of washed out bank, it was pretty steep and eroded and the path was completely gone. The River Feshie is incredibly mobile; its course must change every year. I know the estate has begun works to restabilise its banks with vegetation, so hopefully that will help in the future. The impact of the change in the management of the estate is already evident; walking through areas thick with Juniper, Birch, Scots Pine, Blaeberry and many other native species was a delight and a reminder of how the rest of Scotland should, and could be with some effective land management. At times I almost felt as if I’d left Scotland behind, so dramatic was the change in flora and fauna.  

Ruigh Aiteachain was another delight, the old dark bothy has been transformed into a white washed bright and airy building more akin to a holiday cottage than a highland bothy. Here we met Lindsay, I’m still not sure who he was or why he was there but he was lovely and made me a cup of tea. I spent a bit of time relaxing and exploring the newly refurbished bothy and decided I would definitely have to return here soon.  Not tonight though, there were a few more miles to be gained and a camp spot to be found. The camp spot turned out to be the best of the whole two weeks, nestled under an ancient pine on the banks of the Feshie. It was flat, soft under tent and sheltered with a perfect view back down the glen. I could have stayed forever. There was plenty of space for the four of us (Chris, Ray, Chelsea and myself) to pitch our tents and we all sat round our ready-made fire pit to cook dinner and enjoy the evening. 

Day 8 – 18/05/2018 17 Miles              Glen Feshie to Linn of Dee

I did not hike before 9am today. I slept badly, awake half the night and tossing and turning the other half. Given the perfect camping spot, this was pretty annoying. I ate some crappy porridge and drank some crappy coffee and packed up my things slowly. I was still first away from camp, leaving the others behind. I had a deadline today and I’d underestimated how many miles I had to go to Linn of Dee. Back on the path I met two English guys who I’d seen on and off for a couple of days, I never got their names, which is a shame. We chatted for a bit and were forced to backtrack at one point to dodge a river crossing. It was a long slow slog out of the Feshie, the sky was overcast but still warm in that horrible muggy way. I passed Vitalis taking a picture of a Scots Pine in a puddle, which I think every challenger passing probably photographed also. I pushed on emerging from the forested glen into the ever familiar grouse moor – bare hills for miles around. The only redeeming feature was the river that made its way down the glen in great pools and cascades, the water was as clear as glass even without the sunshine. 

Chris caught me up as I lounged beside a waterfall, I’d given up walking temporarily. We carried on until the path disappeared completely, luckily Viewranger had our backs and we followed the little red dot until it led us back to the side of the River Eidart and a fairly precarious looking bridge. Scaffold and a degraded timber deck took us over the bridge; I was fairly dubious that the bridge would last the day, especially after reading the sign welded to the far side. 

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Chris was waiting for Chelsea and Ray at the bridge so I headed off, I’d arranged to meet my mum at Whitebridge, sometime between 4 and 5pm and it was already 1pm, I still had plenty of miles to go. The next part of the trail was a bit of trek, up and down and over the moor for a couple of miles of uninteresting scenery and solidarity.  I had a brief break for lunch at the first viable stream, I can’t remember what I ate but I’m sure it tasted good. Here I met Amy and her dad Mike and a couple of other Challengers. I didn’t chat to them for long, I was going to have to hike fast if I was going to get to Whitebridge on time. The next couple of hours were probably the longest of the whole challenge, I didn’t feel like I was getting any nearer and the landscape barely changed. Finally a bothy came into view, and the river I’d been following met the Bynack Burn. Hooray a change of direction I thought! As I neared Whitebridge (which isn’t white) I could see a figure hanging around by the bridge. It was pretty nice to find a friendly face waiting for me in the middle of nowhere and even nicer that my mum had walked 4km out to meet me. The bad news was that I still had another 4km left to walk; the good news was that there was a hot shower, delicious dinner and a cosy bed waiting for me in Braemar. 

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Mum at Linn of Dee

I walked the last 4km with my mum, passing all the little tent villages that were popping up along the glen before Linn of Dee. I waved to a few as I passed and felt a little sad that I wasn’t joining them for another night. It was really nice to have some family support on the challenge though and I knew my mum was keen to join in as much as she could. Dad was waiting at Linn of Dee for us, I made a mental note of the exact point to return to tomorrow and jumped in the car to Braemar for the evening. 

Day 9 18/06/2018 6 Miles      Linn of Dee to Braemar 

I’ve never slept as well as I did after my Glen Feshie experience, although I’m sure the comfy bed had something to do with it too. My parents had rented a wee cottage for the long weekend and it felt very luxurious compared to the silnylon walls of my tent. So relaxed was I that I didn’t get out of bed until 8.30am, and didn’t arrive back at Linn of Dee until nearly 9.30am! Team Boggins were just arriving at Linn of Dee, having camped at Whitebridge the night before, so I joined them for the stroll along the road to Mar Lodge. Teas and coffees were promised at Mar Lodge but it was more the gathering of challengers there that I was looking forward to. It didn’t disappoint either, the row of backpacks lined up neatly along the walls gave away how many challengers were also enjoying catch ups inside. Chris, Ray and Chelsea were all there as well as a few others who had been through Glen Feshie in the previous days. There was very little in the way of tea and coffee left at this point and the smell of hiker was pungent, so I didn’t stay too long but headed off with Team Michigan for the final stretch to Braemar. It was another ridiculously sunny day (I know you are sick of hearing about how good the weather was) and a couple of kilometres on the road was enough. We headed up into the forest for some shade and softer walking underfoot, a much nicer route than walking along the main road. It was such a nice day that we even took a longer detour through a beautiful birch wood just for the fun of it, we really were hikers now. 

 

Arriving in Braemar I found my parents holiday cottage locked with no one at home, I abandoned my pack at the door and went in search of lunch in town. 

Braemar had been magically transformed into TGO town and every other person I met was a Challenger. The tables outside the Bothy were crowded with Challengers as was the tiny supermarket, and Gordon’s Tearoom. It felt great to catch up so many friendly faces from the past week, find out that everyone was doing so well and enjoying their challenge experiences. 

I’d had a niggle in my mind over the past few days, soon I would be leaving the most popular challenge route behind and heading for the Deeside Way to Aberdeen. I’d decided on that when route planning in the winter months, I was fairly sure I’d be sick of walking by this point and want an easy way out but now that I was here, I didn’t. I wanted the opposite, to push myself harder and make the most of my time on the TGO. I also didn’t want to leave all the friends I’d met behind.

I got the map out back at the cottage to see if it was viable. I would continue with the plan to walk to Ballater but from there I would head towards Tarfside via Mount Keen. I might even go over the summit… I was feeling pretty excited as I phoned Challenge Control to let them know! 

TGO Challenge – Day 4-6

Day 4 – 14/05/2018 6 Miles

It was a pretty lazy start to day four. I could have just stayed in bed but my feet were still twitching… I’d originally planned a rest day but thought I would head up to Blackburn Bothy for the evening and get a little head start on the Corrieyairick Pass. 

I spent the morning pruning my pack and enjoying some home comforts, namely another shower and boiled eggs on toast. I managed to shed a good 3kg from my pack, getting rid of anything that I hadn’t really used in the first three days. I sacrificed some additional layers of clothing (walking for days on end really helps re-evaluate your sense of smell) and wearing the same thing every day becomes completely acceptable. Everyone smells bad on the TGO and no one cares. 

I left home around 1pm at a more than leisurely pace. I made a quick stop at the shop to load up on babybel and pre-grated cheddar (I was having major cheese cravings), fruit pastilles were also high on my shopping list!  Fully resupplied with yummy goodies, I headed out of Fort Augustus and up the hill towards Culachy, the pink castle and the start of the Corrieyairick Pass. New territory for me again, despite being a local, I’d avoided walking this route due to the proximity of the Beauly/Denny pylons but actually enjoyed the hike up the hill. The power lines were mainly hidden from view and Culachy Estate is actually pretty green and welcoming, at least it was once I’d safely navigated the herd of scary looking Highland cows.  

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Looking back down to Fort Augustus and Loch Ness 

 

 

 

About 2 miles before the bothy, Kevin Everett caught me up; we’d vaguely met on the first day and then again at Cougie. He was heading for Blackburn too so we wandered along together. Neil Fox joined us just before the bothy and the three of us arrived there around 4.30pm. I felt as if I should push on a bit further after my meagre 6 mile hike but laziness dictated that I pitch my tent here and enjoy a relaxed evening instead. Kev and I both set up our tents outside the bothy. Neil headed inside to join Alan B (one of the ‘two Alans’), unknowingly I’d already met Alan R in Glen Affric. I lounged in the sun outside, quite literally as the bothy provided some lovely plastic chairs. After a while I heard a whirring noise coming from Kev’s tent, I looked at Neil, bemused – ‘Is that a pump’ I said! Who knew you could buy a tiny battery operated pump to blow up a Thermarest, and so it came to be that Kevin Everett would become ‘Kev the Pump’ for the rest of the 2018 challenge!!  

I enjoyed my evening at Blackburn Bothy, I even found a small patch of 3G phone signal on top of a stack of peat above the bothy – I can hear your eyes rolling – but it was nice to call home and provide an update of the days stroll. I cooked dinner, a dehydrated chicken korma, in the bothy and sat around the fire with Alan, Neil and Kev for a few hours with a hot chocolate. It was pretty nice until I had to leave the warmth of the bothy and head back out to my draughty tent! 

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Day 5 – 15/05/2018 22 Miles

The longest day – but not in a bad way! When I unzipped my tent on day 5 it was another beautiful day, I couldn’t believe the weather had been so amazing for almost 4 days now! I ate breakfast in bed as a treat and packed up my little home. It was just a little after nine when Kev and I left the bothy to head up and over the Corrieyairick Pass. The track was good all the way but I felt sluggish and slow – probably too much rest the day before! Reaching the top of the pass about 11.30am, the wind had picked up and there was a hint of rain in the air. Luckily we managed to stay ahead of it as we slithered down the loose rock on the other side of the hill. It was eerily quiet and we saw no one all morning! Where were all the other challengers I thought, had I been left behind after my half day of rest in Fort Augustus. On we plodded, to Melgarve Bothy for lunch – although this was  my intended overnight halt I had plenty of energy left to keep going! It was at Melgarve Bothy that I met some of my favourite faces on the challenge, Peter from Bristol, Grace, Steve and Ian (Team Boggins, as they are affectionately known) from Colorado and Jim Anderson from Kinross. We all crowded into the bothy to eat our lunch and it was nice to swap stories from the journey so far, I started to understand the sense of community that makes the challenge special.  

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Rucksacks outside Melgarve Bothy

Leaving Melgarve I pushed on along the minor road towards Garbha Bridge, I don’t mind walking on tarmac too much – despite it being hard on the feet. Waiting for us at Garbha Bridge were Steve Smith and his amazing coffee producing campervan Hugo! My first taste of trail magic, I was delighted. If I don’t do the TGO again next year I will definitely be driving round the country throwing snacks and drinks at any TGOer I can find! Kev was camping at Garbha Bridge for the night so Peter and I left him behind, pushing on for a campsite closer to Laggan. We toddled along the road past Sherrabeg and the Spey Dam, joining up with Team Boggins for a little while before they turned off for Laggan Wolftrax. Peter and I kept going, we were getting pretty close to Laggan now so we might as well push on we thought. On the minor road to Laggan we met a red campervan; its occupants were smiling and waving madly at us. They stopped and the door sprang open, ‘Are you on the TGO, do you want some cake and wine?’ it was Vicky and Toby who had done the challenge in previous years. More trail magic, and just as the feet were beginning to feel a little tired. I gobbled up some chocolate muffin and Cadbury fingers and was eternally grateful for their kindness.  

Arriving in Laggan there was literally nowhere to camp! For the first time I felt a little bit of panic that I hadn’t thought this through. Peter opted for a space in the play park… I kept going, walking down the A86 towards tomorrows planned route through Glen Banchor. I made it as far as the Laggan Hotel and decided to see if they had a room for the night – which they didn’t. They did however let me camp in their garden, offered to let me shower in the morning and let me use their Wi-Fi! The kindness of strangers never ceases to amaze me. I pitched my tent in-between a large Rhododendron bush and an elm tree, it was pretty sheltered and probably the flattest pitch of the whole two weeks. I even considered going into the hotel for a pub meal but settled on some pasta, which I managed to tip out all over the grass, it still tasted delicious with plenty of melted cheddar and salt and pepper! I didn’t have much trouble getting to sleep after my epic 22 miler! 

Day 6 – 16/05/2018 – 10 miles

Another beautiful day, this was amazing, even for May! I wandered over to the hotel to use their facilities, I didn’t think they would appreciate me digging holes in their lawn… ‘Come and have some breakfast, its on the house’ the manager offered, I gratefully accepted the offer and sat down in the dining room just as all the other guests were departing for their coach trip. It is probably the closest to ‘hikertrash’ that i’ve ever felt but I didn’t care. Four poached eggs, two slices of toast and a jug of orange juice later and I was lazily packing up my tent.  

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I was looking forward to the days walk through Glen Banchor to Newtonmore, a glen which  I hadn’t explored before. First I had to negotiate the busy A86 for a couple of kilometres, not something I was really looking forward to. I set off along the main road, dodging cars and lorries by jumping onto the verge at every opportunity. I was lucky enough to spot a pine marten in some woodland and then a stoat when I reached the start of the public footpath to Glen Banchor. All in all not a bad morning so far. The day only continued to get better as I wound my way down into Glen Banchor, a wide sweeping valley with a heavily braided river bed at its centre. It was pretty unexpected, I hadn’t realised there was so much space behind Newtonmore. I popped into Dalnashallag Bothy, studied the bothy book and added my own entry. I was pleased to see some familiar names were not too far ahead of me. I followed the path close to the river, I’d heard that this was a boggy place, but the dry weather seemed to have aided that situation somewhat. It was about half way down Glen Banchor that my right shin started to really hurt. Every step became pretty painful and I had no idea why. I stopped for a while and stuck my leg in the river to cool down a little. I hadn’t seen any one else all day but a couple caught me up while I was sitting with my leg in the river, they weren’t on the TGO but were hiking the East Highland Way instead. 

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Glen Banchor

I limped on, worrying that the pain in my shin could be a hindrance over the next 100 miles. Starting the descent down into Newtonmore was particularly painful, all on tarmac  and in parts quite steep. I was looking forward to the hostel and a proper bed for the night.

I arrived at the hostel just before 2pm to be greeted by Ali, so nice to put a face to a name finally. Tea and cake were waiting in the kitchen, along with Ann and Alvar who would also become familiar faces over the rest of the challenge. I ate way too much lemon cake, which was delicious, and departed for a shower. I did some washing, sorted out my resupply box which had been waiting for me at the hostel and wandered down to the Coop to buy some snacks and cheese. Hiker hunger took over and I came back with pork pies, a ham and mustard sandwich, babybel, fruit pastilles, a big pack of wispas, baguettes, soft cheese, fruit and fanta. It seemed unlikely that I would eat it all before departing for Glen Feshie the next day but I was definitely going to try. For the rest of the afternoon I rested my leg, watched the various people arriving and departing from the hostel and caught up with news from the outside world. I was sharing a bunk room with Emma, Louise and Laura, all regular challengers. I had a delicious dinner of fish and chips and was snuggled up in my bunk by 9.30pm! 

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TGO Challenge 2018 Day 1-3

Day 1 – 11/05/2018 18 Miles 

So the day had arrived, I was pretty damn nervous. I didn’t know what to expect at all. Sam dropped me off at Kintail Lodge Hotel at 9am, I popped into the hotel to sign the register and use the last proper toilet for a couple of days. I was greeted by a sea of back packs, and their quieter than normal owners. I recognised a couple of faces from the message board and Instagram, but I was keen to get going so I didn’t linger. 

Off I went, along the old road towards Ault A’ Chruinne and then onto the public road to Morvich. All pretty familiar territory so far, I work in the area and know it well both from work and previous walks. Last year on the Affric Kintail Way I had spent a couple of painful hours descending from Camban Bothy to Glen Lichd House, and it was the thought of this ascent that was filling me with dread as I wandered along the track. I met a few people before Glen Lichd, Dougie (who I would not see again until the final dinner), Katie from Oregon who I hoped to catch up with later on the trail, and Susan from Livingston with who I spent most of the day but then never saw again! It was a pretty windy day, and when I arrived at Glen Lichd House I found a few people sheltering behind it. Here I met Galaxy Magic Man (whose real name I have no idea of) he produced a giant 1kg bar of Galaxy Chocolate from his backpack and proceeded to share it round the assembled hikers. I could get used to this I thought… 

It was time to start the dreaded ascent to Camban Bothy, in my head I had built it up to be an epic climb, clinging to the edge of cliff faces and risking certain death for at least 10 miles. In reality it took me little over an hour and a half to get to the top of the steepest section. On day one this was a huge confidence boost and I knew if I could do that section with such little difficulty then maybe I would be ok for the next 12 days of hiking. The good thing about solo hiking is that nobody else is dictating your pace and you can have as many, or as few breaks as you like. I remembered an old sheepfold with a good view a little before Camban Bothy, so Susan and I stopped there for lunch. I was pretty disappointed that I’d forgotten my specially purchased Harry Gows sausage roll,  so it was dehydrated meal number one (Morrocan Chicken and Cous Cous) for me! 

We arrived at Camban Bothy at 3pm, there were already a few people there setting up for the night so we pushed on and made it to Alltbeithe Hostel a little after 4pm, just as the rain started. I’d been looking forward to this stop off at the hostel for more than a year. Last time, when I was on the Affric Kintail Way, (unknowingly the same weekend as the start of the TGO) my friends and I heard tales of amazing scones at the youth hostel, however when we arrived they were all gone. So the scone and tea that greeted me when I wondered into the hostel on that first Friday tasted even better. Hannah is amazing, I have so much admiration for her and the job that she does – it must be a pretty lonely and bleak place to be at times. 

It’s amazing how much half an hours rest and some extra calories can lift the spirits. I decided to continue along the track to Loch Affric, I left lots of fellow TGOer’s gobbling up scones in the hostel. I was feeling pretty determined to get to my first planned stop and I wasn’t going to let a little bit of rain stop me. I basically marched along the track to Strawberry Cottage where there were 6 or 7 tents already pitched; I recognised Ray_KickButts and a couple of others, but headed on for the beach. It felt pretty good to walk down on to the grassy flat above Loch Affric and know that day one was almost done. There were a couple of others camped down on the beach (Kent, Gregory and Richard from Albuquerque), I was pretty glad they were there as no sooner had I put my tent up, the pole broke! Luckily Kent lent me a trekking pole which was high enough to use. I use Black Diamond Ladies poles which only extend to 125cm, not the 145cm required for my tent! I wasn’t too sure how I would cope the next night but I didn’t want to worry about that too much. Tent up and bag unpacked I set about making dinner, another dehydrated affair, Chicken Biryani this time but still pretty tasty! It was still pretty rainy so I cooked in my roomy vestibule and then retreated to the inner to listen to the rain on the outside of the tent. 

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Waking up on Loch Affric Beach – Day 2

 

Day 2 – 12/05/2018 14 Miles

Day two was absolutely stunning weather wise and completely justified my decision to push on for the beach. The sky was cloudless and there was not a breath of wind, a stark contrast to the night before. I had a lazy breakfast to let my tent dry out from its soaking the previous evening. It didn’t take long and I was away by 9am, although still the last to leave the beach. Lazily I climbed back up the track and meandered by way along the side of the loch. I wasn’t feeling so great, probably dehydrated, so my progress was pretty slow and it was ridiculously hot. I arrived at the Allt Garbha Bridge feeling zonked; here I met Alan from North Berwick, although I knew neither his name nor hometown at that point. Alan was chilling out next to the river and I was pretty jealous of the sunny spot he’d bagged so I hung around until he moved on, and sat there for a while.

I was about to leave my comfort zone and head up a path that I hadn’t taken before, coupled with the heat, I wasn’t really looking forward to it! The path to Cougie turned out to be a boggy mish mash of trampled hillside; I followed it up for a couple of km and then noticed a couple of people high up on the top of a hill above me. My heart literally sank, all the way up there in this heat and with my huge bag…. I checked my map, and quickly became pretty confident that they were not on the same path as me, phew! So I kept trudging up the boggy path, the Hydro Scheme have made a pretty poor attempt at reinstatement here and I later heard that several people had lost the path altogether. I came to a gate and crossed into a rocky restock site, I was getting closer to the hill where I had seen the others high up on the ridge. 10 minutes later and the path veered off to the right, skirting around the ridge – they must have gone the wrong way or been looking for a quicker route! I stuck to the path. It soon joined a bigger track which I assumed was access for the Hydro Scheme, it was pretty rough but I could see Loch Nan Gillean in the distance so that kept me going for a while. I still felt exhausted, sick and a little dizzy. I could see a little green fishing hut nestled beside the Loch and at this point I was pretty sure that I would happily spend the rest of my days there rather than walk another mile. When I got there I found Peter and Gayle already occupying the veranda so I collapsed in the sun next to them and chatted for a bit. When they departed I moved in, heated up some non dehydrated (woohooo) chilli con carne and made a cup of tea. 

I think I had dozed off in some sort of heat induced stupor when the friendliest face ever appeared at the side of the hut. It was Margaret Brown, she probably saved my life! ‘Put your hat on, drink lots of water and I’ll see you at Cougie in an hour’ were her words of wisdom!. Luckily she did see me at Cougie, although it might have been more than hour later. A couple of big glasses of orange juice and two scones revived me, and I managed to walk another 5 miles finding the best camp spot ever just outside the forestry gate. 

I was camped near another TGOer, the speedy Swede, who had flown past me earlier! I passed a few people down in the forest too. I put my tent up and sat out front to make dinner and a celebratory coffee. Day 2 done, I hoped they’d all get easier from now on. 

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Campsite above Guisachan – Day 2

 

Day 3 – 13/05/2018 13 Miles 

I awoke on Sunday morning to the sound of rain on my tent, great I thought a soggy trudge along the pylon road for 13 miles into Fort Augustus!! At least there was a warm bed and a hot shower waiting for me at home, not many challengers could say that on Day 3 without dropping out.

Spurred on by the thought of a night at home (and the cheeky hot apple and custard desert I made myself for breakfast) I packed up and clambered back over the burn to the track. There were several others making their way up the hill – I recognised Peter, Gayle and three guys I’d met at Cougie – Anthony, Morris and Sean. I walked with them all for a while, chatting happily about the prospect of the end of the day in Fort Augustus. The rain stopped about 10am and the speedy Swede (who had still been in tent when I headed off) caught us up, just as we crested the hill to look down into Glen Moriston. It was a welcome sight for me, I knew exactly where I was and how long it would take me to get home. I practically skipped down the Pylon track to Torgoyle Bridge, crossed the river and headed eagerly up the hill on the other side. Then sense prevailed, I realised it was 1pm and I hadn’t eaten since breakfast.. reluctantly I sat down and ate some of my diminishing supplies. I was already pretty sick of all the trail bars that I’d packed – some rethinking of this would need to be done when I got home. I managed to gobble up a cliff bar, some trail mix and get back on my feet! 

I hadn’t seen anyone for a while – I’d left them all behind in my hurry to get home – but soon a figure appeared behind me on the trail and caught me up as I reached the top of the hill. It was Chris from Michigan, who was on a mission to get to Fort Augustus and drop his pack before returning to help his friends who were struggling a few miles back! We chatted the rest of the way down into the village, and when we went our separate ways I very much doubted I would see him again – it sounded like his friends might not make it! 

It was definitely a treat to spend the night at home, with a delicious dinner cooked by Sam, happy dogs and a comfortable sofa to relax on! My feet were already itching to get on the way again though. 

An adventure well done…

On Wednesday 23rd May at around 2pm, I wandered into TGO Challenge Control in the Park Hotel, Montrose. This marked the end of a two week adventure which I will never forget.

I’m not sure that anyone can really understand the sheer force behind crossing a country on your own two feet with everything you could need strapped to your back, until they’ve done it for themselves. For me it was a revelation, a life affirming nonsense. I’ve hiked before, but this was something different. How can something, that sounds so trivial to most, have such a huge influence on the way I feel about everything else in my life. Suddenly the stupid little things that worry me on an almost daily basis don’t matter, they are mundane. Mundane problems that I don’t have on the trail and that I would happily never think about again for the rest of my life.

I have spent most of my life believing that I am not strong. I have been beaten back and told not to/that I can’t do things so many times that I began to believe it. What I have achieved over the past two weeks shows me that the opposite is true. Possibly my biggest revelation over some of the hardest miles I walked was that even when you think you can’t, you can. And when you really can’t then there’s probably some one around who can help you do it. Whether that’s with their words, their actions or just their absolute belief in your ability. For me the TGO family were the ones who got me there when I thought I couldn’t do it on my own.

Although I hiked most of my miles on my own, I was lucky enough to spend some time hiking with some amazing people of varying age, nationality and motivation. These people are doubtless the reason that some return to the TGO year after year.

Then there are the ones who are harder to let go. Having a trail family made me a better person and watching them all disperse to their various parts of the world was pretty heartbreaking. I have no doubt that one day I will meet them all again and hike some hikes with them. They made me laugh and cry and kept me going on the hardest days at the end of the challenge. The smile on my face would have been significantly smaller without their intervention. We shared food, drinks, songs and an enormous sense of achievement at the end of each days hike.

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Hiker Lunchtime in Glen Feshie.

A good starting point..

Less than three months to go

I’ve always loved to walk and I have always wanted to write, the two seem to go hand in hand – I stumble across more and more blogs online about walking, hiking and climbing mountains.  It doesn’t seem to be a unique thing to do any more but here I am about to start writing about walking.

In just over two months time I will be setting off on the longest walk I’ve undertaken so far, only around 180 miles, but for now it seems like a long way. In the grand scheme of things it is an unimportant and tiny dot on a world map of people doing incredible things, but in my head it is a huge mental and physical challenge.

Last November, rather spontaneously and with little thought for the logistics required, I signed myself up for The Great Outdoors Challenge (TGO), a coast to coast crossing of Scotland over two hopefully midge free and sunshine filled weeks in May. The date of the dreaded departure is the 11th May 2018.

66 days to be precise.

When I leave Glen Shiel on the first day of my walk I will be 29 years old. 10 years ago If the mere suggestion had been made that I would be walking across Scotland, carrying everything needed for a two week trip AND doing it alone – 19 year old me would have keeled over in utter shock. How times have changed.

At the moment I feel ridiculously under prepared. I have submitted by route and bought a new tent, thats about the extent of my preparation to date. I’ve also spent an inordinate amount of time reading blogs and posts by previous challengers, I am in awe of those on their 10th plus crossing, I can barely envisage completing one crossing. My route will take me from Glen Shiel on the West Coast, through Glen Affric, across to Glen Moriston and Fort Augustus. From there I will walk over the Corrieyairack Pass to Laggan where I will join the East Highland Way before turning off to Glen Feshie, Glen Geldie and Braemar. From Braemar to Ballater and onto the Deeside Way to my final destination of Aberdeen. I chose my route for ease of navigation and relative safety when walking alone. I’m hoping to stay on tracks, paths and trails for the majority of the walk which I’m sure to many will seem like a bit of a cop out but is still a significant challenge for me.

I’ve always been drawn to the hills of Scotland. Well I say that, but as a child I was dragged (often kicking and screaming) by my parents on weekend hill walks and excursions in the Angus glens and beyond. Now that I am no longer a petulant child I can see the value and impact that it has had on my attitude now. For this I have my Dad to thank, his passion for the hills and mountains of Scotland is now my passion and I hope I can make him proud by dragging myself (probably kicking and screaming) across Scotland.