walkhighlands

TGO Challenge 2019

Date walked: 10/05/2019

Time taken: 14 days

Distance: 314km

In the summer of 2018 I became quite interested in the idea of hiking right across Scotland from coast to coast and upon Googling the idea I soon became aware that this was an annual organised event that hundreds of other similarly-minded folk embark upon. I mentioned to my friend, Allan Brown, that I was considering the Challenge and to my surprise Allan informed me that he had completed the Challenge no less than eleven times in his younger days. In fact, he had been contemplating coming out of Challenge "retirement" in 2019 with his son but his son had work commitments and so the idea had stalled. Allan and I very quickly sensed an opportunity - he was looking for a hiking partner and I was immediately interested in the wealth of experience that Allan could bring to the table. We seemed like a good fit and so we applied for the ballot (the Challenge is always oversubscribed so a draw takes place) and were notified in October 2018 that we had been successful.

After some route-planning with the assistance of Allan's wife Maggie's legendary Sunday roasts we were pretty much good to go. However there was to be a twist that would eventually reshape the whole experience in what would tutn out to be a good way. Many years ago, Allan had met an American soldier by the name of Robert Small on the Challenge and they had remained good friends and stayed in contact many years later. This year, Robert's two grandsons Rob and Elias had signed up for the Challenge but duty called for Elias ruling him out and so Rob was stuck. His father Chris had done the Challenge a couple of times and knew Allan so the four of us agreed that we would undertake the trek as a team.


Like all plans though, nothing ever goes smoothly and a couple of weeks before the Challenge Allan has a health scare. We are all nervous about the trek given that we'll be entering very remote terrain many miles from help but nevertheless Allan gets the go-ahead from his doctor and we agree to "see how it goes".


Fast forward then to Thursday the 9th of May and I descend the stairs down into Dundee train station carrying all of my essential kit for the next two weeks weighing roughly 18kg. I spot Allan and am introduced to our American hiking comrades Chris and Rob. On first impressions Chris looks at least a decade younger than his 65 years and is a friendly, knowledgeable chap with a handsome smile. Rob, a couple of years younger than me, is quieter but has the look of a man in possession of a steely determination.

We use our one hour connection in Perth to have coffee in Costa where an old fellow introduces himself in a frankly incomprehensible dialect so that none of us are any the wiser as to his name but he seems excited about the Challenge so good luck to him. The train journey up the A9 is as scenic as ever and we take the time to get to know eachother. After another connection at Inverness we take a train full almost exclusively with challengers to Kyle of Lochalsh. There we are met by our taxi driver, a cheerful Glaswegian by the name of Alan McFadyen, who instructs us to get some food from Hector's Grill where we wolf down cheeseburgers before being whisked off to Morvich. The Ruaraich B&B is run by Hazel Glover and exceeds all expectations for £80 a night per twin room. I make small talk with two Canadians who are in the area for a Macrae convention where I am told there will be over 70 Macraes from around the world. I then slope off to enjoy a proper bed for the last time in a while.


Friday 10th May - Morvich to Camban - 9 miles

ImageView from Ruaraich B&B by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

ImageTGO by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

We're up at 7:30 for a superb fried breakfast with freshly caught salmon. Outside the owner's dog has clearly seen to its own breakfast judging by the mouse's tail dangling from its jaws. It's raining but not heavily. Allan, Rob and I (Chris is an "unofficial" challenger) walk to Sheil Bridge to sign in then return to Morvich to collect our packs and Chris. We pick up the waymarkers for the Affric Kintail Way and make short work of the flat start, stopping at a locked hunting lodge but taking brief shelter in the side cellar.

ImageGlen Affric by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

As the rain begins to ease off we start a sustained ascent that catches Allan off-guard and things soon become a struggle. The initial plan was to hike to Altbeithe and camp near the hostel but when we arrive at Camban Bothy 3km short of our target we decide to bunk there for the night sharing the bothy with two Frenchmen, a Romanian chap and his Italian girlfriend. Hot food soon lifts Allan's spirits and after some jovial banter we all get our heads down for the night.

ImageTGO by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

ImageTGO by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

ImageTGO by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

ImageTGO by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

Saturday 11th May - Camban to River Affric - 11 miles


I awake to find that the local bothy mouse has chewed a hole in my rucksack and helped itself to some of my tortillas.

ImageTGO by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

ImageLeftovers from the mouse’s supper. by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

Thankfully my rucksack has plenty compartments and I manage to rearrange my kit to minimise the damage. Undeterred, we quickly make up the 3km shortfall to Altbeithe where we pop into the hostel for some hot lentil soup & buttered roll for £3 each.

ImageGlen Affric by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

ImageTGO by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

ImageTGO by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

Soon we're on the move again but Allan is finding it difficult and is talking about sacking it at Drumnadrochit. We stop at Altnamullach and cook some food outside the hunting lodge next to Strawberry Cottage. The Affric munros look intimmidating on the north bank of Loch Affric with a dusting of snow on them. As we traipse through Pollan Buidhe forest spirits are low but Allan admirably pushes through.

ImageTGO by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

We pich the tents at River Affric car park next to a picnic table and again dinner time raises morale. The old adage that an army marches on its stomach is ringing true already. There is uproarious laughter as Allan unwittingly sets fire to the route sheet whilst reading it next to his camping stove. Talk about smashing the compass and burning the maps! :lol:

ImageRiver Affric camping by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

Tomorrow is a 12 mile hike to Cannich, we'll see how Allan gets on. But the first two days have felt tame enough to me and there's been nothing so far to suggest that this challenge will be beyond me. The view west up the river is a thought-provoking backdrop for journal writing and the sound of the river is relaxing. I'm looking forward to a good night's kip in my tent.

ImageRiver Affric by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

Sunday 12th May - River Affric to Cannich - 13 miles


It's a chilly old night but the noise of the river soothes me to sleep. The outside of the tent is frosty in the morning but I get everything packed into my rucksuck in an order that will son become routine. The sun is out and it promises to be a good day. The views are restricted by the trees as we march along the forest track and pick a spot for lunch after making good time for the first 6.5 miles (3hrs).

ImageTGO by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

ImageTGO by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

We then descend to Dog Falls, fill up our water bottles, cross the road and head uphill into a logging area where the smell of freshly felled trees reminds me of the timber smell when my father used to drag me around B&Q as a child. Allan is now really struggling and our progress to Cannich is painfully slow. When we reach Cannich he decides that tomorrow morning he'll get the bus to Drumnadrochit and begin his journey home. I phone Challenge Control to check in and update them of developments as we sit outside the Slater's Arms and demolish plates of steak pie. I never eat brocolli but on this occasion the plate is cleared.

ImageTGO by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

ImageTGO by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

After enjoying the perks of the first civilisation we've seen in three days, we stroll down to the Cannich Caravan Park where we pitch our tents for £9 a head. The facilities are good, I charge my phone, use the WiFi and learn that Man City have beaten Liverpool to the league title on the final day of the season. Although it has been tough to see Allan struggle on the trails over the last three days, we're going to miss his gregarious company especially in the evenings. I get the impression that he really enjoys the cameraderie and I'm sad for him that he's having to drop out as I think he's really been looking forward to two weeks out in the wilds with the lads. Nevertheless, we are now a team of three.

I'll be bedded by 8pm tonight. We can't mess about tomorrow - our boat across Loch Ness leaves Drumnadrochit at 5pm so we aim to be out of camp by 7am to give ourselves plenty time. All in all so far, no real grumbles. Slight signs of blisters on the soles of both feet but they don't need popped yet. Tomorrow will be the last easy day before we embark upon the traverse of the Monadhliath on Tuesday so I want to enjoy the stroll while it lasts.

Monday 13th May - Cannich to Inverfarigaig - 15 miles


There were a few pain in the arses who stayed up til 11pm last night shouting the odds but after that I got my best sleep so far. We bid Allan farewell and begin the uninspiring trudge up the main road. Allan phones to tell us he got the school bus to Drum and has arranged for Rob to collect our food parcels from the post office. The road is steadily uphill but we set a ferocious pace and are soon into the forest where, after 7 miles, we stop for lunch at a clearing. I'm using boil in the bag food and the guys are using freeze-dried food so we've devised a system where I boil mine then give them the boiled water to save fuel.

ImageTGO by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

ImageCannich to Drumnadrochit by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

The forestry track begins to ascend brutally on rocky terrain which does our feet no favours. Then the forestry diversion takes us on a magical mystery tour that we frankly weren't in the mood for. We arrive in Drum a bit hacked off but once we've picked up our food parcels from the post office, scoffed some fish and chips and resupplied at the co-op we're in better spirits.

ImageTeatime in Drumnadrochit by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

The walk round to the ferry pier seems longer than the 2km on the map and for a brief moment there's a bit of a panic on as we increase our pace but we make it with 15mins to spare. Gordon Menzies is a local boatman in his 70s who runs Loch Ness tourist cruises but during the Challenge he makes a few extra quid taking hikers over from Drum to Inverfarigaig. He is a jovial, engaging old chap and an oracle of Loch Ness knowledge.

ImageWaiting for the boat across Loch Ness by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

ImageCrossing Loch Ness on Gordon Menzies’ boat by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

ImageTGO by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

ImageInverfarigaig by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

The ferry crossing takes 35 minutes and within 10mins of landing we find a perfect flat grassy camping spot at Farigaig car park with working toilets. I have a couple of blisters developing and my achilles tendons narked at me a couple of times today but other then that I feel good. Tomorrow will be a proper test as we ascend 800m over to Dalbeg with three days worth of food in our packs. But after four days we've crossed our first big geographical feature in Loch Ness which feels like an accomplishment. The next big milestone will be crossing the A9 into Aviemore but there's a lot of work to do before that happens.

Tuesday 14th May - Inverfarigaig to Dalbeg - 18 miles

The camping area at Farigaig turns out to be a good flat peaceful one. I waken at 4am cosy in my sleeping bag but I can feel the cool air on my face. We're packed up and ready to go by 8:35 am and we make our way through the forest where there is logging in progress. We miss our turnoff and overshoot our marker by about 1.5 miles but it's quickly rectified. Still though, I'm with two guys I've only known for a couple of days, one is a military veteran and the other is a current military serviceman and I'm unsure what they make of my navigational error. We stop for lunch at a glade in the trees at about noon. I think it's too early to stop but sensing they might not be in the best of moods with me I just go along with it.

ImageStopping for lunch before heading up into the Monadhliath. by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

We can see the windfarm we're aiming for and although it's a prolonged uphill climb the gradient is forgiving and the track is comfortable on the feet. By about 3pm we're at the high point 780m just south of the Corbett, Carn Saobhaidhe.

ImageTGO by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

Then the path runs out and our fortunes change. I'd suspected this section would be pathless but the trudge through the peat hags with 18kg packs on at this stage of the day totally kills our morale and our pace drops considerably. I can tell Chris isn't enjoying it but he puts a brave face on it and doesn't complain. After what feels like an eternity we reach the path shortly followed by the bridge represented on the map where Chris and Rob refill their water bottles.

ImageTGO by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

Our spirits and our pace are lifted and after chatting to a solo challenger who must be at least 75 years old we stagger into Dalbeg at 19:30, our faces as long as our shadows. We are exhausted, sore, demoralised, but defiantly undefeated. The terrain, the heat, the distance and the ascent have all taken their toll but Chris takes the time to tell me what a great job I did on today's navigation and for getting us here which instantly makes me feel better. It was a classy thing to do given how knackered he felt only an hour ago and the sentiment is hugely appreciated.

ImageTGO by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

ImageTGO by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

Dalbeg is the sort of place I dream about. A shallow, rocky river with mountains all around. Splendid isolation and remoteness. Silence save for the river, the birds, and the breeze in your ears. This is what I crave. Today at times was absolute purgatory but none of that matters as I wolf down a tin of chicken curry and a double decker taking in my surroundings. People often ask me why I do it, why I don't take up golf or something like normal people. But I'm not like normal people. I'm just a wee bit different. The reward circuits in my brain are just wired a certain way. It's why I love stuff like this and will endure all the pain it takes to find these places. As I lie in my tent writing this a sense of peace and calm comes over me. No worldly cares other than how we're going to get to Red Hut tomorrow. This is the life for me. Tomorrow is a shorter day but we've earned it. Today may turn out to be the hardest day we face on this challenge but we did it and I'm super proud of the three of us.

Wednesday 15th May - Dalbeg to Red Hut - 13 miles

Dalbeg turns out to be a perfect camping spot. It's not as cold as I expected at 400m elevation and I enjoy a good night's sleep. The early morning sun enables me to reverse my tent's cover sheet to dry off the condensation. I've looked at the map and it's bad news - today is a 13 miler and there'll be more pathless terrain but the guys remain upbeat.

ImageUntitled by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

The morning walk to Coignafearn is a joy on soft flat grass and the lodge itself is incongruously opulent. Who builds that in the middle of nowhere? People with lots of money who don't want to be hassled I guess. The heat is searing for the second day running as we join the tarmac road where an old lady is oil-painting the landscaoe and an old fellow is watching buzzards through an impressive looking telescope. We stop for lunch under the shade of some trees before beginning the ascent up the track. Soon the track splits in two and predictably we take the wrong branch turning back after half a mile once we realise. Another faux-pas which makes me wary of what the guys think. Further along we encounter a guy called Graham who is going all the way to Aviemore today on the track and tells us we're going the long way but if we want to go "heather-bashing" then that's up to us. Chris has had his head turned by this and seems quite keen to go Graham's way. I'm now a bit annoyed at the whole situation. I insist that I don't have the map to go Graham's way, it's way longer than our more direct route, and I'm not following some guy I've only just met through the Monadhliath like the Pied Piper of Hamelyn. I insist that we stick to our route but it has annoyed me because I know that there is tough terrain ahead and the guys are now going to cross it thinking "we should have gone the other way".

Sure enough, the terrain is challenging but it's not long before we're over the bealach between points 713 and 704 on the map and we're thean heading downhill.

Image“Heather-bashing” our way to Red Hut. by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

It's a mercy that we've had dry weather and the peat is firm. As we cross the barren plateau we see a couple of deer and a hare. Eventually we pick up a landrover track that leads us to Red Hut. I joke with Chris that he probably won't be starting up the Albuquerque heather bashing club when he gets home in an attempt to lighten the mood. The 30-40 minute trudge to Red Hut is tough. Our feet are in pretty bad shape but we've made it again. The bothy doesn't look up to much so we decide to campand find a good pitch behind the bothy further on right next to the river. I chat to a couple of young strong English lads, one of whom looks a bit like the golfer Danny Willett, I explain what happened to Allan and one of them starts, "The guy who had the stents put in a couple of weeks back? Yeah we spoke to him at Camban Bothy and kind of thought he...", there was a pregnant pause. I finished it for him, "Shouldn't be here?". We all laughed, I'm glad it wasn't just me that was thinking it :lol:

ImageCamping near Red Hut bothy by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

Chris, Rob and I sit together for dinner and Rob says "You navigated the **** out of that today Ross, it was exceptional". I think they understand that I'm doing my best. I reassure them that tomorrow will be easier. Right now we're all just keen to get to Aviemore with all of its comforts and we'll sit with a burger and chips laughing about the heather bashing. It'll be good to see Allan again too who is driving up to Aviemore from Dundee for the day. He was only with us three days but I could tell he was revelling in the cameraderie that develops on treks like these and he'll no doubt be full of the joys. These last two days have been tough but I don't think it'll get much tougher. We're over the worst I feel. We now just need to stop our feet from falling to bits and everything else will be all in the mind.

Thursday 16th May - Red Hut to Aviemore - 10 miles

We're up at 6am to try and make an early break for Aviemore but Chris has a blister that needs treating so it's 7:45 before we're away. The Burma Road is a gravel track that makes much easier walking than the last two days and our pace is good. The path can be seen winding uphill from miles away. The skies are blue and our views are unconstrained over exposed rolling hills, it's very impressive. The views of the Cairngorms from the other side are glorious as we blaze a trail down to Aviemore by noon.

ImageTGO by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

ImageTGO by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

ImageCrossing the A9 by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

We're at Macdui's for opening time and feast on venison burgers. Allan soon joins us and is in good form with his infectious banter. Aviemore is busy in the spring heat. I buy maps, fuel and food. We bid Allan farewell and try to find a hostel but they're all booked out. This is to our advantage though as the campsite at Coylumbridge is taking challengers and it's 2 miles along tomorrow's route. We get our first shower for a week and walk to the Woodhouse Bar like new men. The pizzas and fizzy pop make it feel like a holiday again and it's all smiles as we chat to a small-scale tent manufacturer called Colin from Auchtermuchty. Tomorrow was meant to be a hike to Bynack Stables but having knocked 2 miles off it today we decide that we'll try to get to the refuge at the Fords of Avon instead to make Saturday easier. Today has been mentally important both crossing the A9 and recharging our batteries with a hot shower and some proper food. We should be carrying a bit of thrust tomorrow and I'm looking forward to it.

ImageTGO by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

Friday 17th May - Coylumbridge to Fords of Avon - 14 miles

I was up at 4:30 with a jalepeno related matter but other than that a good night's sleep was had. An odd quirk of sleeping in a tent with a white flysheet is that when you wake up at midnight it feels like dawn. We're on the move by 8:20am and set a strong pace along the old Glenmore logging route stopping at Loch Morlich where some young lads are smoking something exotic. Further along we chat to a DoE assessor who has a bunch of schoolkids from Inverness who he describes as "the best I've ever assessed". The green Lochan Uaine is briefly admired before we reach a fork in the path and decide to take lunch as it's quite sheltered from the wind.

ImageLoch Morlich by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

ImageLochan Uaine by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

ImageChris & Rob taking a break at Bynack Stables by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

We stop again at Bynack Stables to fill up water bottles - it's another hot day although the stiff breeze helps. This was originally meant to be our campsite for the night but we are all in agreement that we should push on to Fords of Avon. We're told that Strathnethy is a bogfest so we decide instead to skirt around the eastern flank of Bynack More. This involves a steep pull of 400m with a fully laden pack on and my achilles tendons begin to feel the strain but we're soon onto the high ground with views of the high Cairngorms all around us. The last two miles down to the refuge feel like 20 and my feet are killing me but we're the first ones there and we claim the two best tent pitches. I briefly chat with an older guy from Wishaw passing through on his way to Fiandouran bothy and he swears he knows me from somewhere but can't put his finger on it.

ImageBynack More & Beag. We skirted round to the left. by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

ImageOn our way to the Fords of Avon by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

ImageFords of Avon by Ross McGowan, on Flickr


Rob, Chris and I huddle into the refuge and eat dinner together. We may have only known eachother for a little over a week but there is now a natural cohesion that doesn't feel forced. We're a good team and we always try to emphasise the positives in every situation whuch I think is crucial in this sort of environment where there is plenty to moan about if you're that way inclined. I retire to my tent and check my feet. They're not great but they're ok. For me I would say that today has felt like the hardest day so far but I'm really glad we worked hard today to gain those extra 6 miles and make tomorrow easier. Rain is expected tomorrow but once we reach Inchrory we'll be more or less out of the Cairngorms and the terrain should start to improve for us. Day by day we're getting closer and closer.

It's almost time to turn in but I step out of my tent for one last look at the Fords of Avon in the evening twighlight. It's a magnificent setting at the confluence of four impressive glens. It's bloody windy though and at 700m elevation I suspect we may be in for a cold night.

Saturday 18th May - Fords of Avon to Inchmore


Last night's sleep was accompanied by the steady sound of rain bouncing off the tent and when 7am comes there's nothing else for it but to get up, get ready and get on with it. It takes discipline but at the end of the day do you want to complete this challenge or not? I get all my tent's contents into my rucksack and take it into the refuge where Chris and I huddle for breakfast. I then strike my tent in double-quick time in a futile attempt to keep it dry before helping Cris and Rob with theirs and soon we're on our way in full waterproof gear.

ImageFords of Avon refuge by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

ImageTGO by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

The path east initially reminds me of the north end of Glen Tilt with its steep sides and deep ravine. The path is awash with standing water and I quickly realise that my boots arent waterproof after all. A couple of hours pass and we make it to Fiandourain bothy which is warm as if it had just been vacated. We have our lunch early thinking this might be the best chance of shelter we'll get. As we head back out the path improves into a landrover track to our relief. I'm feeling better today. My pack is lighter and although the conditions are miserable it concentrates the mind and gives you renewed purpose. Along the way we find an old corrugated iron hut which turns out to be the Pony Men Of Glen Avon's Hut. It gives us welcome shelter and rest for 15mins before recommencing.

ImageTGO by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

ImageGlen Avon by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

ImageTGO by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

ImageGlen Avon by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

By now our usual morning spright is wearing off and we begin to slow towards our original target of Inchrory. Rob's knee is now playing up but regardless we determine to press on a further 3.5 miles to Inchmore. This takes us away from the river Avon and its gushing noise which has been the soundtrack to our day. The new silence coupled with the drizzle and low hanging mist create an eerie atmosphere across the open moorland. A group of mountain bikers pass us as we approach Inchmore, the only people we've seen for hours. I guess most challengers have gone south down Glen Derry to Braemar where they can resupply. I enjoy the solitude though. It's interesting to meet other challengers and exchange stories but at the same time this challenge is meant to be about wilderness so the peace and quiet is welcome.

We pitch on the flat grass outside Inchmore Lodge and to my surprise I pick up 3G on my phone. To my delight, Lazio have won the Coppa Italia. My feet hurt but it's fatigue rather than any potentially prohibitive damage. Today's biggest challenge has been the wet kit. But there's not a lot we can do about our walking gear. As long as my sleeping bag and evening stuff is dry I can endure wet clothes on the trail for 6-7 hours on the trail during the day. Tomorrow is a shorter day, 11 miles to Morven Lodge. Then after that it'll be four days of whatever it damn well takes to get to the east coast.

Sunday 19th May - Inchmore to Ballater - 16 miles

ImageInchmore by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

Last night I sat up a while after my journal entry to study the maps and an idea occurred to me. Ballater is only a few miles south of our intended campsite at Morven Lodge. I check my phone and Ballater Hostel has vacancies for tomorrow night. If we could make it then it'd be a great opportunity to get a comfy bed, hot shower, real food, ressuply our electrics, wash & dry our kit. It's just a matter of whether or not Rob's knee can withstand a 17 mile day. I resolve to put the idea to them over breakfast and my sleep is regularly broken by my ruminations on the subject. I awake at 7 to a cool cloudy but dry morning and in truth my idea doesn't need much selling as they're both keen.

We agree to walk the 9 miles to the turnoff for Morven Lodge, have lunch then assess things there. We begin slowly over the moorland track chatting to a fellow with impreesive full-boot gaiters who is about to hike up Brown Cow Hill near Cogarff Castle.

ImageInchmore, a couple of miles west of Cogarff. by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

I check in with Challenge Control before we strike across the moor to cut the A939's corner before rejoining the road as convoys of motorcycles roar by. Soon we're at the turnoff and after a 45 minute lunch we decide to push on to Ballater. Initially the going is easy and we eat up the miles quicker than expected. But the final two miles are brutal with the day of tarmac taking its toll on our feet. We arrive at the hostel at 16:20 but it's closed til 5 so we sit outside the terrace of the cafe round the corner savouring our coffees and feeling like Ballater was a good move.

ImageTGO by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

When we head back round to the hostel the staff are delightfully helpful and the room is perfect. We get showered, put our washing on and head out to the Alexandra Hotel for dinner and it is buzzing with challengers including a Bristolian called David who we pass the time of day with. It feels like sheer luxury and we're glad we made the effort to get here. After a trip to the co-op we return to the hotel where Chris and I sit in the common room and put the world to rights. I'm really impressed by him and I seem to have made a positive impression on him too. Earlier today he was saying I'm welcome to visit him in Albuquerque which feels like the seal of approval after ten days of us all trying to get the measure of eachother. I've tried to make the best decisons and navigate as well as I can and the guys can see it and appreciate it after being naturally wary to begin with.

We also comment that although we've all been fighting our own internal battles on this trek we've kept the negativity to ourselves and always made an effort to stay outwardly positive. We all congratulate eachother on that collective attitude and there's no doubt that it has been a big part of our success so far and the strong trio we have become. I think strong binding friendships have been cultivated over the last ten days. We have an admiration for eachother's qualities. Rob absolutely smashed it out the park today despite carrying an injury, I just hope now that we can all finish this thing together.

ImageSuper organised at the Ballater Hostel by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

Monday 20th May - Ballater to Gen Tanar - 9 miles


Seeing as today is a short distance day we enjoy a lie-in to 8am at the hostel before thanking the hosts and walking up to the cafe next to the co-op for a fried breakfast. It's raining when we start for the day along the Deeside Way which reminds me of the Miley in Dundee - a long narrow path through small trees.

ImageBallater to Dinnet by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

ImageTGO by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

ImageThe Deeside Way by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

The terrain is pleasant to walk through - flat mud/gravel paths and soon the rain eases off. It's still mild. It's not long before we reach Dinnet where we stop at the plush-looking Kinnaird Hotel for coffee, soup and a roll. There we meet Ray and a couple called John & Sue, all challenge veterans. Soon we're off again but as soon as we hit the forest the heavens open and we get a good soaking before taking refuge in Glen Tanar visitor centre. Once the rain eases off we head 200yds up the path and pich our tents near the river.

ImageTGO by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

ImageCamping in Glen Tanar forest. by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

We chat briefly to the ranger who warns us of an aggresive male capercaillie on the loose in the forest but they're very reclusive creatures and I pay it no mind. For a while I stand on the banks of the river and I begin to ponder. We've now been at this for eleven days utterly fixated on the end goal of reaching the east coast but suddenly I realise that there are only three days left and I'm really going to miss this trek and my team-mates. For a moment I feel a wee bit emotionally vulnerable, like a child. There's an "I don't want to go home" moment. And it hits me how much I've enjoyed this adventure, how much I've just completely immersed myself in it. My mind drifts to Thursday and I suspect it'll be quite emotional. But first we have to get over the Firmounth to Tarfside. One thing at a time.

ImageGlen Tanar forest by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

Tuesday 21st May - Glen Tanar to Tarfside - 12 miles

It rains heavily all night and when I get up in the morning the peacful river that had lent so much inspiration to yesterday's philosophising is now a raging torrent a few hours more rain away from bursting its banks. We strike the tents as quickly as possible in the rain before setting off in our waterproofs again. The path begins uphill through the forest and careful map-reading is required through the maze of tracks. Then the drama begins :o As I turn a corner, there he is...the capercaillie. He takes a few moments to suss us out before spreading his feathers, puffing his chest out, and confronting us.

ImageCapercaillie by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

ImageThe capercaillie by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

I pick a route through the heather as the capercaillie holds the path. Rob and Chris soon follow and the capercaillie follows us until he is satisfied that we're going away. How exciting! Hardly anybody ever sees a capercaillie. Birdy drama over we exit the forest and begin to head hard uphill over boggy ground which knocks the stuffing out of us. Near the top we're walking in the mist and a couple of compass bearings are needed to keep us right. Once we're over the high point (Temple) we take shelter from the wind behind a stone grouse butt and take lunch.

ImageUp the Firmounth Road with Glen Tanar forest in the background. by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

ImageTGO by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

ImageFirmounth hare by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

ImageDown the Firmounth Road to Tarfside. by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

The descent to Tarfside is slow - Rob's knee, my achilles tendons, and Chris's feet are all done in with such a hilly day. Tarfside is like TGO City. It seems like a bottleneck for a number of routes and in the end there are about 30 tents pitched. I go round to St Drostans for a bacon roll, coffee and cake for the very reasonable price of £3.80.

ImageThe famous St Drostan’s bacon roll at Tarfside by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

We then head round to the Mason's lodge where Chris & Rob enjoy a Guinness and Chriss keeps us entertained with his card tricks. There we decide to change our itinerary and walk 16 miles tomorrow to Northwater Bridge giving us an easier final day. It's tarmac all the way but we'll need to take it easy as we're all now starting to feel our injuries. There is an atmosphere around the campsite this evening that is festive and anticipatory without quite breaking out into celebration just yet. We all understand how close we are to the finish line and appreciate what we've gone through to get to this point and that creates a sense of togetherness.

Chris gives me his now-customary "good job today Ross" and we retire to our tents for the night.

Wednesday 22nd May - Tarfside to Northwater Bridge - 16 miles

ImageTarfsideopolis by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

Last night was a cold one and there is frost on the outside of my tent when I rise. It starts raining when it's time to strike the tents so it's another speedy disassembly job. We go round to St Drostans in the hope of a bacon roll but there's a queue a mile long so we decide to forget it and just start walking. The weather is unsettled all the way with the rain on and off every ten minutes. There is now a long caravan of challengers filing down the tarmac road. We are nursing aches and strains so our progress is slow. It is also mentally tiring walking on tarmac with every mile looking the same as the last.

ImageEdzell by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

Eventually we make it to Edzell where we park ourselves outside the Panmure Arms Hotel and wolf down a bar lunch of haddock & chips. I nip down to the Spar for crisps and chocolate and we follow a wodside path which takes us to a wobbly flat bridge over the river. From there it's a long straight road past Edzell barracks to the Dovecot campsite next to the A90. We pitch up and I go to reception to charge my phone. Chris and Rob soon join me but we're all too exhausted to say much. We're now only 8 miles from the finish at Montrose and tomorrow's weather forecast looks decent. After all my worrying about my old injuries since I signed up for this last year, the realisation sets in that we're actually going to do it. I still don't know what to think or how to feel. The hard work has already been done. I just want to enjoy tomorrow, whether it's euphoria, relief, or a tinge of sadness that it's over, just savour whatever emotion it throws at me. Whatever it is, this thing will have made a permanent mark on me as a person. But that's for tomorrow.

ImageTGO by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

Thursday 23rd May - Northwater Bridge to Montrose - 8 miles


We're up at our usual early time but the decent weather forecast has not materialised and it is to be a day of light rain. We cross the busy A90 taking our lives in our hands then proceed along a busy single carraigeway road at rush-hour with lots of hopping up and off the verge to avoid the traffic. The solitude in nature of last week now feels like a distant memory. As we approach a rise in the road I wonder to myself "it can't be long til we see the North Sea", and sure enough as we reach the prow of the hill, there it is, that thing we've been walking towards for the last fortnight. I never thought I'd find myself calling Montrose the Promised Land but today I make an axception. We stand there and admire it for a moment before continuing with renewed vigour.

ImageMontrose and the North Sea now in sight! by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

The walk down into Montrose is a victory procession. When we arrive at the Park Hotel there is a friendly welcome at Challenge Control. We feel out of place, haggard and bedraggled in such civilised surroundings. We collect our goody bags but there is one thing that remains to be done. Roba nd I walk down to the beach to dip our feet in the water just as we'd done at the west coast two weeks earlier.

The atmosphere at the beach is still, quiet and calm. No fanfare, nothing spectacular, just peaceful reflection and in many ways it feels just right. We did it, but it's not a leap around celebrating moment. The appreciation of the scale of what we've achieved is deeper and more understated than that. I'm glad it is this way.

ImageMontrose beach - the final few yards! by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

ImageTGO by Ross McGowan, on Flickr

When we return to Challenge Control, Allan is there to pick us up and drive us home. He has done this Challenge eleven times, he knows what is required and what is involved, and his congratulations carry some weight, they mean something.

As I sit here three and a half months later typing up my hand-written journal from the trek the sense of pride has not diminished. Would I do it again? Never say never, although I'm happy to let others have their turn for now. But those two weeks will stay with me forever. Every now and again I remember something from the challenge and it makes me smile. What we achieved in those two weeks, the hardships endured, the laughs enjoyed, the cameraderie shared, the friendships forged have been and I expect will continue to be important to me.

My advice to anybody contemplating it? Know what you're doing. Get a few 3-4 day hikes under your belt, get used to being self-sufficient and lear good hillcraft and campcraft. But 100% go for it. It's not easy, nothing worth doing ever is. There will be low points along the way but they will bring you and your team-mates together. That's how good teams work. You endure the hard times together and celebrate the good times together.

It's definitely a challenge like no other.

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Magoo82


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Location: Coldside, Dundee
Occupation: Data Analyst
Activity: Hill Bagger

Munros: 173
Corbetts: 5
Grahams: 1
Donalds: 2
Wainwrights: 2
Hewitts: 1
Sub 2000: 8
Islands: 15
Long Distance routes: Cateran Trail    Affric Kintail Way   



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Statistics

2019

Trips: 1
Distance: 314 km

2018

Trips: 3
Distance: 19 km
Ascent: 1144m
Munros: 1

2017

Trips: 4
Distance: 52 km
Munros: 5

2012

Trips: 2
Munros: 4

2011

Trips: 4
Distance: 30 km
Ascent: 1395m
Munros: 7


Joined: Apr 02, 2011
Last visited: Oct 18, 2019
Total posts: 141 | Search posts