TGO Challenge 2019
A beginner’s tale of highs and lows.
I had failed to gain a place in an earlier lottery, and was assured a place should I apply again. So, in the late 2018, it seemed the right thing to do. It’s many years since I had the opportunity for an extended trek in the Highlands, and the Challenge created that ‘groyne on the beach of the sands of life’ to make it happen. My place confirmed, it was time to plan the crossing. There are lots of resources to help and with some givens for me, the route soon unfolded.
I wanted to travel by train, use “Gordon’s” ferry across Lock Lomond, finish in Montrose and plan for a high level crossing of the Cairgorms NP.
The TGO Challenge requires your route to be approved, with alternates for high routes in case of poor conditions. Planning the route in detail is just as much a part of the event as the crossing itself. Arial imagery came into its own in seeking out prospective sites for overnight stays. Indeed, it is often said that backpackers fall into two groups, those that walk to camp, and those that camp to walk, me, I can't decide.
The route accepted was Strathcarron – Cannich – Drumnadrochit – Aviemore – Braemar – Ballater – Montrose , bagging a few munros where possible with a couple of high level pitches.
Soon enough the following May comes around, and with resupply packages sent, it’s time to join others in the trek north to start.
Thursday 9th May
Seeking Local Produce
Piling on to the London bound train with a gaggle of commuters I feel distinctly at odds with the ‘suits’. There are moments of me looking at them looking at me, each thinking the other is in the wrong place. The sardine underground tube transit to Kings Cross just reinforces why I’m running to the hills. LNER provides for great service to Inverness, and while there must be other ‘Challengers’ on the train I fail to spot them in the queue to board, but coincidently sit directly across from such a companion.
Transiting the Highlands, the snow covered peaks of the Cairngorm sow doubt that my high level route may not be passable given my winter gear is safely stored at home.
The planned first day allowed for a Friday midday departure from Strathcarron , and so the fleshpots of Inverness were there to be enjoyed on the Thursday night. A room above the Black Isle Brewery Tap was available, and it seemed rude not to enjoy the hospitality on offer from the Brewery based just outside Inverness. A good night’s sleep in a comfortable bed was the plan, well half of that was true. The bed was comfortable, but the penetrating low frequency hum from roof mounted extraction fans mounted directly outside the window defeated my ear plugs. I can sleep through flysheets thrashing, but that intrusive hum was a different matter. The adjacent Wetherspoons provided for an economic curry before returned to explore the range of Black Isle beers on tap. The demographic split between the ‘youngsters’ in the Black Isle Bar and the ‘oldies’ in Wetherspoons couldn’t have been more stark.
Friday 10th May
And So it Begins
16km 677m Ascent 322m Descent
No need to set an alarm, plenty of time for a last shower before repacking the rucksack. Wetherspoons’ breakfast with coffee, but pleased to see that that particular microcosm in Inverness is similar to others in the land, where at least someone will be sat there drinking beer. Wetherspoons have allowed nightshift workers across the land to enjoy that after work drink previously restricted to those early doors market workers.
The 9:00am train was busy, ScotRail have managed to square the wrong circle. They seemed to configure the seating in a way that means everyone ends up with little legroom while having less seats per carriage than the southern operating companies manage on their local services. I’m shoe horned in amongst a variety of tourists, whisky and golf seems high on their agendas.
The train runs to time, and arrives into Strathcarron just before 11:00am. On the platform there are six of us looking for the sign out location of the Strathcarron Hotel. Fortunately, with the hotel clearly visible from the platform none of us had to suffer the ignominy of an immediate navigation failure. The sign out was all very organised, with a pre printed list for all those starting, a simple indication of the huge effort behind the scenes to organise and run the events. My fellow challengers had to use all of their influencing skills to liberate some coffee from a reluctant host , busy looking at their watch and tutting about the chef has finished. I didn’t stay, but for the chef seemingly to be involved in coffee making, I looked forward to catching up as to its quality from participants later on the trail.
Heading out to the hills was easy enough, assuming you can follow the ‘to the hill’ finger posts , presumably installed to prevent many a hill goer attempting to walk through the locals’ back gardens.
Strathcarron turned out to be an ideal start, easy navigation on tracks and good paths, soon to leave signs of habitation behind. The weather was excellent, with far reaching views over the surrounding hills. Since my co-challengers were still enjoying their artisan coffees, and those challengers who stayed overnight in Strathcarron had departed bright and early so were way ahead of me, the land was my own, or so I thought. This section is part of the Cape Wrath trail and a Canadian couple heading the other way disrupted the tranquility for a time. On joining the recently improved Bendronaig Lodge access track, (side effects of the plethora of micro hydroelectric schemes) I encountered a fellow challenger from the USA interrogating his GPS as to why the lodge wasn’t where he expected it to be. It was a km further on, and his planned lunch stop. My Vetter suggested it too would be a great refuge in poor weather, but with the poor weather forecast for later in the day, I pressed on. Leaving the mini motorway as I split off to skirt Loch Calavie and my planned overnight pitch. While it was only 15:00 , the spot in a Shieling was wonderfully flat , though offered little shelter should unforecasted winds appear.
Backpacking is such a cameo of life, everything stripped back. So here is a decision faced by all, do I take the opportunity that is currently in front of me, or hold off in the optimism that there is something better around the corner?
I have always held to the view that if what is in front of you meets or exceeds then go for it ( jobs, girlfriends, prospective employees, houses, and of course pitches).
Pitched, water collected just in time for the first few raindrops heralding heavy showers for the rest of the day. Evening entertainment was a series of Challengers passing by driving on towards Pait lodge.
Saturday 11th May
22km 1428m Ascent 1032m Descent
My Laser Comp tent can suffer from condensation, but mods to increase the inner and fly separation have reduced the chances of a refreshing shower. However, the humidity and stillness of the night would have tested that arrangement to its capacity had nature not stepped in and dropped the overnight temperatures such that all that condensation was frozen solid. I eagerly awaited the sun tracking across the glen in front of me. The remains of shieling walls were soon decked with sleeping bags, mats, and all manner of things that looked more like an impromptu garage sale than the contents of my rucksack. The snowy lesser summit of An Riabhachan (1040m) , with my access via its north slope to the ridge visible , shone enticingly in the early morning sun.
Heading east, a few of those that had passed the previous evening had stopped short of Pait lodge and were now moving again, variously scattered across an apparently trackless hillside. The OS map shows a track, that I assume has long since disappeared, but there is always the doubt that while you’re thrashing through albeit relatively dry bog, others have discovered the track and are quietly ambling along. Pait Lodge, and its adjacent footbridge funnels us together where I resist the urge to say I wandered across on a lovely dry track, and confirm that we’ve all forged our own path.
South I go, on initially good tracks, but once across the most southerly footbridge over Alt Riabhachan, I head upwards on the north slope of the mountain from which it gains its name. Ariel imagery had me believe there was a track of sorts, but it was impossible to locate on the ground, and while going should have got easier on the higher slopes, the combination of snow and fractured scree made progress slow until sufficient snow depth built up to kick a way up to the initial summit. With such great visibility, and a weekend, then it came as no surprise that I was soon sharing the route with day trippers. The broad ridge to the true summit offered panoramic views, though with air temperatures around 1C, wind chill said this was no place for leisurely lunch. The final summit Sgurr Na Lapaich (1150) was shared with a fellow Challenger before descending to locate a spot to catch early morning sun near Loch Tuill Bhearnach. The descent was helped by the snow in the gulley being soft enough for a heel kick descent. A glorious 800m high pitch with views to just sit and watch, though an early evening hail ( more properly graupel) shower caused a retreat to the tent for the day.
Sunday 12th May
Returning to Civilisation
23.5km 516m Ascent 1265m Descent
A clear start to the day, with sun soon tracking around to roast you out of the sleeping bag. To think that shortly before departure, there was a moment of angst as to whether I should substitute in my 4 season bag with all its knock on requirements for a bigger / heavier rucksack etc. It would have been way overkill, and the last minute adds of extra clothing layers wouldn’t last in the rucksack past today’s overnight stop in Cannich. What are grouse doing this high, this early? Their croaking sounding more like a lost frog than a bird. More overly sweet porridge and off to summit the remaining munro of the set: Carn non Gobhar. I met a young couple coming down , who asked whether I had just completed the ridge that morning, perhaps I looked more knackered than I felt! With the early start the snow was still frozen allowing for better progress to be made walking up the snow patches before they thawed and you dropped through to your knees. Something reminiscent of childhood with the glee of making your own footprints in the snow. Carn non Goghar’s lesser summit (some 10m less) has the larger cairn, perhaps there is a movement to make up that 10m? Tracked westward on the broad ridge much less walked before disturbing herds of deer on the descent to a new micro generation access road alongside Liatre Burn and a couple of Challengers enjoying an extended break in the sun. The rest of the section was on the shady metalled road, that seemed to go on and on. Not least because a lazy look at the map convinced me that the road had to cross the river about 5km before Cannich , and I was still tramping along expecting the bridge to appear soon, knowing that then I would be an hour out when a proper look showed that in fact I was only 3km from the campsite. Around 15:00, reached the central crossroads, nicely warm from the walk in in 20C, with the hardest decision of the day. Right to the pub , or straight on to the campsite? Straight on to pitch first. Cannich campsite is a large affair with lots of dedicated sites, as well as larger open area. By the time I had arrived some 10 or Challenger’s tents were set up in the communal area. Reminded me of what I termed as the ‘penguin effect’ after the way that New Zealanders, with all the extensive country at their disposal, seemed to love to camp cheek by jowl on crowded campsites. Perhaps with time in the great outdoors, we are in fact a social species and enjoy the close company of others.
Not for me, ear plugs are for bothies not for camping where you can use distance to mitigate nocturnal disturbances.
Off to the local hostelry to sample local produce. Trying to minimise the coins of the realm stealing precious grams of cargo allowance, payment by card is to be sought where possible.
Conversation with the barman: Can I pay by card? Sorry 10 GBP minimum charge. Can I run a tab, I’d like to eat later. No, but you can run a tab when you eat ….
Monday 13th May
A day of three thirds
23km 560m Ascent 577m Descent
The campsite café provided for a leisurely cooked breakfast, awaiting the opening of the post office for the return of excess clothing. Other Challengers were wrestling with antlers to dispatch home, it was not clear whether they had enjoyed the rest of the deer or not.
The majority seemed to have elected to indulge in A831 billiards, where the speeding lorries adopted the role of the que ball, while the Challengers tried to avoid being ‘potted’ into the ditch. A fellow traveler and I independently took a more direct route via the chambered cairns of Corrimony. Thank goodness deer seemed to know the best way across fairly boggy terrain such that I could simply follow their trail. I say simply, where it was far from simple when we entered the forest, a backpacker occupies a great volume than a fleeing deer so trying to shimmy under fallen trees took limbo dancing to another level.
Re joining the Affric Kintail way resulted in a trudge along forest trails, with only the odd view of the remote hills. Spirits started to rise on the final third of the day, except the forestry commission conspired to test us all. The direct route was closed, and the diversion would have the Grand Old Duke of York rejoicing as we trekked up hill and down in a seeming never ending circle with the day’s destination of Drumnadrochit always just over the next horizon.
Finally, the descent is terminal and I emerge onto the pavements of ‘Drum’, hot footing it to the hostel, well almost when directly opposite was an oasis awaiting discovery. Fiddlers café bar & restaurant with a wonderful selection of local beers, draft and in bottle. Fellow travelers recounted how important it was that we support the local economy, so I took one for the team and sampled their local produce without the aid of a plastic straw. Eco credentials and a thirst satisfied in one sitting, result!
The hostel room offered the chance of a shower, some much needed gear washing, and to collect my food parcel.
Back to Fiddlers for wild venison (hmmm perhaps that’s where the antler collectors’ surplus ended up) , some great banter, and early bed.
Tuesday 14th May
25km 795m Ascent 250m Descent
The local store opens at 6:00 , and by the time I arrived around 7:00 the bacon was sizzling well. Coffee, bacon roll, and a sunny bench outside to watch the world wake up. Clearly the owner knows their business, as during my short stop, there wasn’t a lorry passing by that didn’t stop for similar sustenance. Sausage rolls safely stowed for today’s lunch, and a leg stretch along to Temple Pier and ‘Gordon’s Ferry’. Eleven of us gathered for the crossing at the appointed hour, Gordon arrived with spreadsheets in hand , and when all were accounted for , off we went. He recounted tales of various heights as we journeyed across a placid Loch Ness, seemingly all too soon it was time to disembark at the crumbling Inverfarigaig Pier. Gordon didn’t return alone, two ducks that knew they were onto a good thing by joining us to feed from Gordon’s bread stash on the outward trip, returned with him. They had treated us to a demonstration of landing skills that many a navy pilot would have been proud to possess.
The morning had to be given over to road walking, but the initial section alongside the babbling Allt Mor was a peaceful as you could wish for. Serenity was lost with the B682 performing the lion’s share of the trek to foothills of Monadhliath Mountains. Time to reflect on the strangeness of local government policy when encountering a newly completed replacement bridge. The policy must call for all new bridges to incorporate dedicated cycle lanes. So, there we have a broad B road in the middle effectively nowhere, with not a pavement or cycle way for miles enjoying a 50m section of dedicated track.
Finally leaving the metalled road, signaled an opportunity to seek a pleasant lunch spot before the winding ascent to the high moorland. The sausage rolls were excellent, can’t say the same for the curried noodles (a late local forage addition). I’m sure I must have missed the warning on the packet that was along the lines of ‘guaranteed free from anything natural’. The effort required to clean the pan afterwards indicated that they may have been better utilised as a building material.
Clear skies and the temperature nicely into the 20s, ensured that the ascent was dusty and memorable. I had been advised that there was a shooting hut at the terminus of the track that could provide shelter in rough weather, what I needed was a nicely shaded veranda, seemingly not part of the standard hut architecture in Scotland. With the track left behind, the path ascended up through a scattering of grouse butts, to emerge onto peat groughs.
A bit of follow your nose navigation and soon enough the watershed is crossed and the descent into Glen Mazeran located. In normal Scottish weather, descending alongside a nascent water course involves steering clear of enticing green patches, as these will surely be saturated and lying in wait to fill your boots, but with this recent dry spell they all but dry and put a real spring your step as you bounce along.
While still early, the only thing to be gained by pressing on was a loss of lovely burnside pitches.
As the sun drops, the small trout entertain by leaping for the their dinner .. perhaps they might jump straight into the pan?
A still warm night , the hail and frozen condensation of earlier nights pales.
Wednesday 15th May
Electric Fences and Nocturnal Adventures
22.4km 606m Ascent 739m Descent
Despite the best of intentions, it is gone 9:00 before I’m packed, the early morning sun creates no sense of urgency coupled with a lazy breakfast sat by the burn. Maybe an alternate strategy for an earlier start might be to leave the bottle marked with a ‘P’ out of reach overnight?
The track becomes increasingly maintained toward the lower part of Glen Mazeran, but I’m way too late to catch fellow Challengers still with their tents up. I encounter the 1st group as we divert around Glen Mazeran Lodge. One of their member is struggling with what later transpires to be a serious chest infection requiring a helicopter ride to Inverness Hospital.
The open moorland is a joy, but with clear skies and high sun seeking shade for a mid-morning break is idea shared by others. The riverside trees by the bridge to Dalmigavie Lodge already house a smattering of Challengers as I seek out a welcoming tree. One of the unexpected joys of travelling within the TGO Challenge framework are these Canterbury Tales moments, the random clumping that occurs as each wayfarer’s journey overlaps for a short period before continuing at their own pace.
The subject of the ‘electric’ fence arises, with discussion as to the effectiveness of the two parallel fence approach, some think they are more human rather deer fences. Either way , they run for miles, and need to be treated with respect. I’m taking a more direct route, which gambles on finding gates through these fences at convenient places. Ariel imagery would have you believe that the gates are there, but who can be sure.
The initial gate can be seen from the track onward from Dalmigavie Lodge so I leave my fellow travelers and head up through the sheep to seek the second gate. Fortunately, everything works as planned, and now through the fence, it is simply a matter of staying on the W side as it runs its course across the hills. I spook a mountain hare , now without its winter camouflage, it seems to adopt a well-rehearsed strategy of running between the twin electric fences for a while, before stopping to watch and listen. Once the fence leaves me to my own devices, with such great visibility it is simply (I say simply, but the terrain is anything but forgiving) a matter of heading for the end of the track toward the Red Bothy aside the River Dulnain. The sun continues to ensure seeking shade is a good idea, and again a shooting hut offers the chance to sit out of its glare. Nicely settled in, a Challenger appears , somewhat flustered, and I’m sure went past muttering “Oh my ears, I’m late, I’m late” , or maybe I’ve overestimated my navigational ability and ended up down a rabbit hole. I later learn that this hut is unlocked and had provided a handy wooden tent for the someone else’s overnight stop.
My planned stop is at the bottom of the final ascent on the Burma road to Aviemore. There seems little to be gained from pressing on, a semi rest day is planned for Aviemore with accommodation already booked for the following night.
Aside Alt nam Moireach , I catch sight of the odd Challenger pushing on to clear Aviemore, some looking to pass through the Lairig Ghru ahead of Saturday’s forecast rain and increasing winds. My current schedule will mean that Saturday will be munro bagging in the cloud and rain.
Thursday 16th May
And so it Ends
12km 318m Ascent 507m Descent
At 2:00am I awake feeling distinctly unwell, shortly to eject what remains of a suspect lemon sponge pudding. Not tried this variety before, and on opening the packet it didn’t look or feel particularly dried. Any vestiges of sleep were interrupted by a local scanning the hillside with a truck mounted searchlight, for whatever reason. At least Aviemore was only 12km away, so after a slow pack up and a breakfast free start (there’s always an upside, my enjoyment of overly sweet porridge was distinctly on the wane) it was a slow and steady ascent of the Burma road to descend to the Speyside Way. The descent passed an estate worker’s house with a truck parked outside, sporting a roof mounted searchlight. On better days I might have been tempted to shine a powerful torch into their bedroom windows, but today was not such a day. Those last few km into Aviemore were the hardest of many a trip. Fortunately, the accommodation was available and the bed was my companion for afternoon. A foray out for supplies and food was abandoned, with food poisoning now setting in …….
The rest they say is history with too much time lost to get through the mountains and onto Montrose before the cut off.
A fantastic week, with an unplanned for end.
Until the next time I get a place on the TGO Challenge then ………