The Road goes ever on and on; Down from the door where it began;
Now far ahead the Road has gone; And I must follow, if I can;
Pursuing it with eager feet; Until it joins some larger way;
Where many paths and errands met; And whither then? I cannot say.

[JRR Tolkien, Lord of the Rings]

Tuesday 21 May 2019

TGO Challenge Day 12 - North Water Bridge to Montrose

Tuesday 21 May (0615-0835)
Distance: around 8 miles*
Weather: rainy start, dry finish

The kit failures continue. After a night of rain, we woke up with the floor of our tent masquerading as a paddling pool this morning. Poor Vera Voyager has had a long and hard life and as well as her seams not being as well taped as they once were, it seems her floor may have become porous too. We've been happy with our gear for many years and have no interest in buying new stuff for the sake of it. The downside is that everything is getting old and has been very well used, so we're suffering a glut of things reaching the end of their lives.

Looking on the bright side, at least we've had a dry crossing. Had we had the weather of, say, 2009 (rain for 9 days of our 13 day crossing), the leakiness of the tent would have been a problem. As it goes, we slept well last night and didn't notice the ingress until we came to pack away.

It was raining as we packed and as we set out (requiring waterproof overtrousers for only the second time of the trip) but with hints in the distance that it would stop. It did, eventually, but with barely a breath of wind, the fairer sky took a long time to reach us.

In view of the weather, my good intentions of taking a slightly indirect route, using some of the Core Path network, to Montrose were abandoned and I opted for the shorter and faster option of the road.

Meanwhile, Mick nearly opted for a different finish point. Before I left him in my wake, just after crossing the A90 dual carriageway (his poorly ankle couldn't take the pace and I had a train to catch), he was contemplating going to St Cyrus, but after talking through the pros and cons, he trailed me to Montrose.

Ahead of me was Byron, who I caught up at Hillside, walking into Montrose with him until the point where he turned towards the coast and I went via a shop for a few supplies for the rest of the day.

Before 9am, both Mick and I were sitting in Challenge Control at the Park Hotel, with Mick now officially a Leg End Legend for having completed 10 TGO Challenges. It was an excellent, fun crossing for his tenth too, only marred in the latter stages by Mick's poorly ankle (this isn't the Achiles issue, although that is also still paining him. He twisted his other ankle a few days back. I'm sure it'll soon be fine now he can stop using it).

For today he is loitering in the Park Hotel, where I stayed only long enough for a cup of tea and a shower. As I type this, I'm on a train to retrieve Bertie-the-Motorhome from his storage location. Having arrived in Montrose earlier than planned, it will be handy to have our own accommodation for the rest of the week.

(*During those 8ish miles I managed to cover, according to the road signs, 3 miles in 20 minutes. Three road signs in the space of a mile reported the distance to Montrose as 9, 7 and 6 miles. My measurement concurred only with the last sign (which came only a few hundred yards after the 7 mile marker). The 9 mile one was so far out that I wonder how it has never been challenged and changed.)

TGO Challenge Day 11 - Tarfside to North Water Bridge

Monday 21 May (from 0800 to a time that neither of us can remember! Maybe 1530?)
Distance: 15.5 miles??
Weather: showery

St Drostans Lodge at Tarfside is a religious retreat hostel that is available to rent. For a few days every May it is taken by previous Challengers (or even current - as I said in my last post, two of this year's volunteers had walked across Scotland in a week, so they could man Tarfside in Week 2) who offer food, drink and accommodation, with profits going to charity. There were only four Challengers in the hostel on Sunday night (plus one camping) but even so, the volunteers were all up and in the kitchen before 7am on Monday morning to cook breakfast for Mick and Byron.

We would have been away not long after 7.30 if our next kit failure hadn't occurred: Mick put his arm through the fabric of his windshirt. We'd been saying for a while that it was getting a bit thin, and finally it had given up. The repair kit was dug out for the second time in 24 hours and I sat myself in a comfy chair by a window with a needle and thread to effect a functional, if not neat, repair.

The walking that then followed was a complete contrast to Sunday, being slow and leisurely with ad hoc breaks.

With the Buskhead Bridge at Tarfside still out of action, it was a trudge down tarmac to the next available bridge. I say a trudge, but Mick's poorly tendon is much preferring road at the moment, and if it could be dead flat road that would be perfect. Downhills are paining him most.

Taken from Dalhastnie Bridge

Once across the bridge it was tracks that we have both walked before, Mick more than me, to Edzell.

No track just before Edzell - the farmer had ploughed right to the margin. It wasn't nice.

The usual Challenge haunt of the Tuck Inn was closed, but Sinclair's Pantry across the road was open and there we found Byron. My greeting was to come very close to throwing his coffee over him. By accident, not design.

I'm not sure a warm goat's cheese salad can reasonably be called thus when it is served with only five salad leaves, but what it lacked in quantity it made up for in taste. Mick's sandwich was more substantial.

North Water Bridge turned out not to be as distant from Edzell as my memory suggested, but when we finally joined the B-road on the other side of the river (having taken parallel tracks for a while), that road seemed to go on for weeks. Happily every vehicle bar one gave us a politely wide berth.

It had been raining as we left Edzell and it was still going when we reached the campsite and pitched the tent. It hadn't been heavy enough for us to don waterproof legwear, but we were a bit soggy on arrival.

No matter. Our clothes had made it all bar 9 miles across Scotland without a wash, so my first priority was to get a load of laundry done so that I wouldn't be so offensive to the noses of other passengers on the train tomorrow.

By the end of the evening there were just three tents (all Challengers - us, Byron and Peter A) in the camping area. It will no doubt become a tent town, then a tent city over the next couple of nights.

Monday 20 May 2019

TGO Challenge Day 10 - Gelder Shiel Bothy to Tarfside

Sunday 19 May (0625-1455)
Distance: 19.3 miles
Ascent: around 750m
Weather: foggy start, but with sunny intervals later. A couple of drizzly periods.

A few days ago I mentioned that my Thermarest had developed a small leak. It hasn't been overly troublesome, just requiring me to give it a puff of breath a couple or three times a night. At just before 4 this morning I woke up with my hips on the ground and contemplated whether I could be bothered moving off my mat to reinflate it. Knowing the cold patch would likely keep me awake if I didn't, I did the shuffle-blow-shuffle. Putting my weight back onto the mat there was a pop and a sudden gush of escaping air. The valve had parted company with the mat and as NeoAirs rely on the air to provide the insulation, that was a catastrophic failure. 

The black plastic valve on the left is supposed to be firmly affixed inside of the black plastic hole on the right. 

Mick, of course, immediately moved over so I could use part of his mat, but they really aren't big enough for two people. I thus lay awake for the next hour before deciding we may as well get up and walk - hence the early start.

Murky start to the day

We had already decided we were walking to Tarfside today, but the imperative had now become to get there as early as possible. Plan A was to get a bed there, with the fallback being that immediately upon arrival I would glue the valve back into place and hope that the glue would have cured adequately by bedtime. The earlier we arrived, the more chance we had of a bed and, failing a bed, the longer the glue would have to cure.

Cutting the day up into chunks, we made it through the fog to Spittal of Glenmuick by second breakfast time (in the circumstances, it pained me not at all to bypass the hill that I had, until the NeoAir incident, intended to run up and down on our way). We'd encountered two Munroists (with whom we passed a few minutes) and two fell runners (who smelt very clean, but I bet that didn't last long) en-route.

Our break for second breakfast lasted 8 minutes - which is swift even by our standards, then we were on to Stage 2: up to Shielin of Mark Bothy. Previously we've approached that Bothy by the longer route of handrailing the burns. Today we went the shorter (but rougher) route of up-and-over. I'm not convinced that the longer route isn't the more efficient option.

A Bothy that looks much nicer from outside than it is inside. 

We must have been a good ten minutes over elevenses at Shielin of Mark, and then only made it to the other side of the river before we had to pause again. I'd rock-hopped across the water without incident. Mick chose a slightly different course that involved a huge sturdy-looking boulder. Turned out it wasn't sturdy. It rolled and he submerged a foot - hence the pause whilst he removed his boot, emptied out the water and wrang out his sock.

The going up to Muckle Cairn felt slow, although it was undoubtedly faster than the last twice we went that way, in the days before smartphone mapping, when we had to manually navigate our way. By the time we topped out at 730m the cloud base had risen to around 750m.

Once we'd picked up the track down the other side, I left Mick behind. I can descend quicker than Mick so it made sense for me to get a shift on to Stables of Lee to get the kettle on before he arrived.

Alas, the room next to the stables, with chairs and a table, is now comprehensively locked up, so we had to make do with sitting on the floor of the stable, which was preferable to being outside as lunch coincided with the wettest bit of drizzle of the day (the first drizzly spell lasted but a few minutes).

Mick's tendinitis was troubling him by now, but exactly 30 minutes after he arrived he was off, leaving me to pack away the stove and catch him up further down the hill.

Looking back along Loch Lee

We arrived at Tarfside just before 3pm to the excellent news that they did indeed have plenty of beds available - Sunday not being a busy day. The volunteers (two of whom completed this year's Challenge in a week, before coming to man the hostel) even sorted out the issue we had realised in the last half an hour of our walk: a double quilt that splits horizontally across the middle is pretty useless in a bunk-bed scenario when you need to provide your own bedding.

As I sit here and type this (after consuming a pot of tea and an egg bap, and having enjoyed a hot shower) I have my Thermarest next to me with the valve glued back into place and I've a reasonable level of confidence that the repair will hold for tomorrow night. Perhaps even long-term as, looking closely at the valve assembly, it appears that it only ever had glue on one side of it, meaning I've been using the thing for years with the valve not properly affixed.

Funnily enough, the last time we came this route to Tarfside we spent the night outside Stables of Lee where we were able to lend this very Thermarest to a Challenger-in-need, because Mick & I happened to find ourselves walking across Scotland with three NeoAirs between us (yep, there's a story behind that; can't remember if it's recounted on the blog post for that day, but I doubt it got much of a mention as it was about that time I drowned my Blackberry and was unable to blog until it recovered a few days later).

TGO Challenge Day 9 - between Mar Lodge and Braemar to Gelder Shiel Bothy

Saturday 18 May (0920-1000 and 1230-1630ish)
Distance: 11 or so miles
Weather: rain almost all day

I slept incredibly well last night and only have the vaguest memory of the rain starting. It was, per the forecast, still going when we got up this morning.

On the downside, we had a soggy tent to deal with. On the plus side we were wearing so much that our packs were noticeably lighter, and we only had 2 miles to walk to Braemar, where two cooked breakfasts had our names on them.

Gordon's tearoom was fantastic. When I asked for a full cooked but without the bacon and sausage (they do a veggie breakfast, but I don't like Quorn sausages and did very much want the black pudding) they offered me an extra egg and some fried mushrooms. I made short work of the huge plate of food that was put before me, as we chatted to Colin, Jenny and various other people who passed by.

After a couple of hours (which did also feature tea and coffee, we didn't just loiter) it was time to move on, but not in the direction we had intended when we woke up.

Until this morning we had intended to go over Lochnagar tomorrow. It has been on our route sheet three times now and we really hoped this would be the year that the weather was good for it - which it has been for the last week. Checking the forecast one last time two out of three factors looked good: it will likely be dry with almost no wind tomorrow. It's also forecast to be foggy even in Braemar and the tops are likely to be in cloud all day. Would it be worth expending all that effort just for a navigation exercise with no views? No, we decided. Lochnagar is a hill with fine views; we would rather return on a fine day.

So, after a trip to the Co-op and to the outdoor shop (ouch - that canister of gas was expensive!) we headed off towards Balmoral.

About an hour later, not far into Ballochbuie Forest, we saw a chap coming towards us. We wouldn't have thought much of it, except that as we got closer we saw it was Mike, with whom we had walked the final part of yesterday, from Mar Lodge. "You seem to be going the wrong way!" we astutely observed. He had got about five minutes further along the path when he remembered he hadn't checked in with Challenge Control whilst he had been in Braemar (as his route sheet required) and thus was walking back as far as necessary to get a phone signal. We saved him a bit of backtracking when we turned on our phones to find that our network had good coverage there.

We then stuck together for the rest of the day, through rain that did stop for a while but otherwise was just drizzly (except for one wetter interlude whilst we were taking a break in a curious shelter; it became a long break when two other chaps arrived, then the rain came) until we reached Gelder Shiel Bothy. It was dim, full and very warm inside. The fullness mattered not as camping is our preference and outside there is a bowling green-like swathe of lawn (okay, maybe not quite bowling green, but compared to all of our other pitches on this trip, it is remarkably flat, level and cropped).

Friday 17 May 2019

TGO Challenge Day 8 - Ruighe nan Leum to between Mar Lodge and Braemar

Friday 17 May (0730-1645)
Distance: 17 miles
Weather: overcast start breaking up to give wall-to-wall sunshine by mid-afternoon

It was a day of playing leapfrog. One tent had gone by the time we emerged, but by the time we walked out of camp everyone else looked to be within either moments or minutes of following. Thus every time we paused for a faff or a break at least one person would pass, only for us to pass them again in turn (conclusion: we walk faster than most but faff and stop more).

The surroundings were more barren and open today, as we left Glen Feshie and continued along the Geldie Burn. By elevenses (which fell at 1130 today) we had reached White Bridge which was supposed to be the end of our day. Clearly, we weren't going to stop that early, particularly on a dry, sunny day when there is rain forecast for tomorrow.

Lunch was had in the company of Mark and Phil at Linn of Dee car park (why are there no benches there?!) then another 2 miles took us to Mar Lodge where we picked up our resupply parcel and sat drinking tea for over an hour and a half.

It was tempting to me to stay at the bunkhouse at Mar Lodge (last time we did so we had it to ourselves). Mick was favouring continuing to Braemar and staying at the campsite. We compromised by walking half way to Braemar and pitching by the pond in the forest:

There's even a makeshift bench just behind us. 

There was no real benefit in reaching Braemar today, as the weather forecast means that we will not walk beyond tomorrow's nominated end-point (Lochallater Lodge), so it will be a short day anyway. We're looking forward to frittering away a few hours over plates of greasy food on our way.

TGO Challenge Day 7 - Newtonmore to Ruighe nan Leum

Thursday 16 May (0800-1635)
Distance: 18 miles
Ascent: 550m?
Weather: wall-to-wall sunshine but cooler than yesterday, with a cooling breeze too.

The downside of including Newtonmore in our route was that today we had to reverse the 2.5-mile detour, this time all on tarmac, to get to Kingussie. Then it was more tarmac for another couple of miles past Ruthven Barracks before we veered off onto a track, aiming for Glen Feshie.

Ignoring the tarmac involved in our indirect route (which was worth it for having a bed and shower, and getting to catch up with so many Challengers) the great thing for me about our route thus far is how little of it I have walked before. There was a small overlap with a previous route in Glen Affric, and again along the Findhorn, with the next repetition coming in Upper Glen Feshie.

Today we walked the Feshie from much further down and what a lovely glen it is, made even more gorgeous by the clear blue sky.

A very long lunch was had at the smart Ruigh-aiteachain bothy (quite a few people came in whilst we were there and every single one of them immediately commented on how nice it is). It was supposed to be the end of our day, but we'd decided to continue on a while. We didn't quite get as far as intended, opting to stop when we found a bit of ground that looked okay just below the falls at Ruighe nan Leum. We were first here and had the pick of the ground, making it unforgivable that we have what might be the worst pitch of the Challenge so far. What seemed perfectly acceptable when I checked the lie of the land both before pitching and before putting the flysheet on, suddenly became awful slopey once everything was unpacked. We would have moved, but didn't do so quite quick enough before the other patch of ground we had considered was taken. There are now 8 tents/tarps here, so not the night of solitude I was after. I suppose that's the price for taking a popular route.

Incidentally, last time we came along upper Glen Feshie, I recall not being as impressed by the place as I had expected to be, based on the reports and opinions of others. I don't know whether I was just tired that day or if it was a bit grey and miserable or what, but today I have found it very lovely indeed. I therefore regret not for one moment opting for a low route on a perfect high-route day.

(Other notes:
1) Food. We didn't eat all of our rations on the first few days of the trip so found ourselves with a surplus. We largely dealt with the extra a couple of days ago by doing a lot of eating (whole pack of fig rolls for elevenses? Why not!). Today, at the Co-op, I bought the supplies we needed plus a pack of butteries. We'd eaten all four of them by elevenses, as well as a couple of other snacks. I think we're doing a reasonable job of packing the calories in!
2) Kit failures: a tent pole has a split in it; a Platty bladder has delaminated; my Thermarest NeoAir has sprung a small leak.
3) body failures: two of my toes have small blisters; Mick's sciatica is playing up as it does every time he carries a loaded pack; Mick's Achilles, which had settled down before the Challenge, has flared again.

In the case of kit and bodies, fingers are crossed that everything lasts another five nights.)

TGO Challenge Day 6 - before Coignafearn Lodge to Newtonmore

Wednesday 16 May (0705-1400)
Distance: 14 miles
Ascent: 650m? (if I had the route sheet to hand I'd check)
Weather: wall-to-wall sunshine and around 22 degrees

What a lovely day for a walk through the stunning Monadhliath Mountains!

To our surprise, the sun made it over the hills and was on the tent by 6am and it was warming up by the time we set off up the Elrick Burn. At a junction of tracks we had ourselves down for an off-piste yomp up the top part of the burn to the watershed. The initial part of that burn didn't look good walking, being too steep-sided for comfort. We decided, therefore, that our best bet was to take the first two switchbacks of the onward track, the contour around to rejoin our route. It was a fortuitous choice: at that second switchback we were surprised to find an old (but unmapped) track with a perfect soft surface that made walking easy and pleasant.

The track didn't go very far, but by then the burnside terrain was friendly and continued so until we reached the track in the next glen. At the end of that track the map showed a building which we assumed was a shooting hut and thus we had been aiming to arrive there in time for elevenses. It turned out to be two huts...

 ... and we chose the octagonal one, where coffee and snacks were being served (as long as you had a stove, mug, coffee and snacks with you, which we did). 

With the tent dried and with our bodies suitably rested, up the track we went until the point at which it seemed sensible to take a sharp left and yomp up the side of the Corbett of Carn an Fhreigeadain.

Another top ticked, with excellent views.

I preceded Mick on the track down and when he joined me as I paused at a burn (I knew he was out of water) he looked intently back up the hill.

"What is it?" I asked.
"I'm just looking to see what you were running away from" he replied. Apparently I'd taken the last couple of kilometres at pace.

The obvious route to take from that location would have been down to Kingussie, to overnight there, but our route involved a detour to Newtonmore, about 2.5 miles out of our way. By the time we turned into the path by Loch Gynack the day was hot indeed, making the forest tracks, and latterly the road, hard on the feet. I was certainly happy to arrive at Newtonmore Hostel early enough for a good rest with plenty of tea and cake.

There was a good gathering of Challengers there and some of them had been organised enough to book a table for dinner at the Glen Hotel across the road. We had not been so organised, so it was a good job we went relatively early. Our meals were large...

 ... and we ate every last morsel:

Wednesday 15 May 2019

TGO Challenge Day 5 - Ault-na-Goire to by Coignafearn Lodge

Tuesday 14 May (0745-1700)
Distance: 18.75 miles
Ascent: around 650m
Weather: a few bits of whispy cloud but none obscuring the sun.

Mick counted 23 tents at Ault-na-Goire last night. It has become a popular stopping point - unsurprisingly given the hospitality. Even though the field is a big one, the tents weren't massively spread out and there was a snorer somewhere nearby. I was tired, though, so wasn't overly disturbed.

Breakfast was just being served as we set out this morning and it smelt mouth-watering. If it hadn't been for the thought of carrying yet more uneaten food, I think Mick would have succumbed to it. 

View as we walked along the road.

So, instead of loading up with bacon and eggs we strode off up the road. Road formed the entirety of our first 6.5 miles (we did have a forestry alternative planned but works and diversions were in place). It was right at the end of those tarmac miles that we met a farmer on his quad bike who told us we should have taken the Seven Lochs Trail. We had been unaware of it, otherwise it would have been our route of choice and, annoyingly, when I looked at the map as we continued on, the path was plain to see. I don't know how we missed seeing it when planning. No point crying over spilt milk - onwards and upwards we went.

The next section wasn't great either - the track alongside the River E is now a windfarm road. It runs through nice surroundings, but is both a scar in the land and hard on the feet - particularly on a hot day like today.

Windfarm tracks - better than roads but far from my ideal walking surface. 

At what should have been the end of the track, a lunch hut appeared before us and, as it was 1pm it would have been silly not to take advantage. Thus we sat on benches and availed ourselves of the table to have an abnormally long lunch break. For the second time this trip, we even broke out the stove in the middle of the day for coffee.

Spot the unnecessary luxury items being carried...

The track no longer ends just after the hut but seems to continue up the Corbett of Carn na Saobhaidhe. There we would have gone too, except we had been over that hill a few years ago, and we'd had enough of tracks. Instead we set off across country as our route sheet said we would, crossing the watershed to the south of the Corbett.

What a good move! It's delightful streams like this that make walking through the Monadhliath worthwhile, despite the energy companies' best efforts to ruin the place with tracks and turbines.

So many pitching opportunities! If we could have just found one such spot in the Balmacaan Forest we would have been made up.

Looking east from the top, with the windfarm now behind us, the view over to the snowy Cairngorms was unspoilt and our descent route, along another stream, was as delightful and easy-going as the other side of the pass had been. Even the track we picked up part way down was pleasing: an old, partly grown-over Land Rover Track, rather than the dirt roads that cover the hills these days.

Looking down on Dalbeg, where our route sheet said we would stay, but we didn't. 

Dalbeg, alongside the River Findhorn was supposed to be our night-stop, and is eminently suitable for that purpose with acres of flat grass. However, we didn't stay there - or at least we only stayed long enough to soak our hot feet in the river and filter some more drinking water.

We only walked on a couple more miles, continuing along the stunning glen to the point where we could see the massive building of Coignafearn Lodge. We know not whether it is currently occupied, but in case it is, we then back-tracked about 100m to get out of sight of their windows, before pitching the tent on a convenient bit of flat grass.

With it being so hot this evening (such a contrast to Day 1! ) we had a treat whilst tea was rehydrating: standing outside we took turns in pouring bottles of water over each other's heads so that we could have a proper hair and face wash. Oooh, that feels so much better!

TGO Challenge Day 4 - NE of Loch Aslaich to Ault-na-Goire

Monday 13 May (0820-1100, 1500-1535, 1625-1710 ish)
Distance: 11 miles
Weather: early high level cloud clearing to sunshine.

Last night's pitch was surprisingly comfortable. Or we were very tired. Or a bit of both. But although it didn't look good, we've certainly had less comfortable camps.

Unfortunately, somewhere in amongst the good night's sleep I developed a migraine and thus spent the morning feeling rather poorly. I'm sure the surroundings through which we passed (at least until the motorway of a track that has been newly laid through the forest) were lovely, but after about half an hour of having an intercranial pity-fest, I decided that distraction was required. Apologising to Mick that he wasn't going to have any conversation this morning, I plugged myself into an audio book and walked most of the rest of the way to Drumnadrochit staring at my feet rather than looking at the landscape through which we were passing.

We were in Drum at 11am, and after a quick shopping trip to the Co-op, we set about killing several hours drinking tea and eating. The former was done on a comfy sofa in a cafe, the latter at the cafe/bar next door alongside several other Challengers. By the time we set out to walk to Temple Pier for the boat over to Inverfarigaig I was feeling considerably more well.

There was uncertainty, based on various correspondence with Gordon the ferryman, as to which ferry we were booked on, so we optimistically arrived in time for the 4pm one. That was a good move as our names were down for it. We thus arrived at Ault-na-Goire nice and early. 

At Ault-na-Goire is the Sutherland family's house, where for many years they have invited TGO Challengers to camp in their field (free) and offering home-cooked three-course evening meals (for a reasonable price). It's years since I was last here, but the welcome was just as fabulous, with tea and cake on arrival. Janet even managed to squeeze Mick in for dinner at the last minute when we realised that our recollection of what was in the resupply parcel we had sent here was wrong and we were dinnerless tonight*.

(*the spare dinners I thought we had sent here I now realise went in the Mar Lodge parcel. However, I'd bought bread in Drum because I couldn't remember whether I'd put oatcakes in this parcel. Turned out I had, so as I'd already had a cooked lunch I opted for banana sandwiches for my tea, saving us from having to either carry extra stuff or throw away perfectly good food. This is the only place where our parcel occurs after the shopping opportunity - a situation that wouldn't have been a problem if we'd brought with us a copy (either electronic or hard) of the food plan spreadsheet.))

Monday 13 May 2019

TGO Challenge Day 3 - Cougie to NE of Loch Aslaich (Balmacaan Forest)

Sunday 12 May (0820-1750)
Distance: just short of 17 miles
Ascent: no idea
Weather: high level cloud coming and going but otherwise sunny.

Surprisingly, considering how closely pitched the eight tents were last night (guy lines crossing), it was quiet. I only heard one snorer and they were of the 'gentle' not the 'chainsaw' variety. We also only had a little bit of ice in our water this morning and no frozen socks or shoes.

Not wanting to risk disturbing anyone as we packed away we got a later start than usual, and it was a straight forward start to the day. The road (shown on the map as a public road, but giving all appearances of a track on the ground) from Cougie was supposed to take us the first two miles, but we didn't like the look of our intended route up through the forest from Garve Bridge so decided to take a flyer and risk being able to take a straight line through the forest opposite the Plodda Falls car park, to pick up a track 500m distant. Whilst the line we took in reality couldn't be described as straight, it did get us efficiently up to the track (i.e. quicker and with less effort than going the long way round to pick it up at Hilton Lodge, to then come back on ourselves).

As forest bashing goes, it was easy going. 

Some four or so miles later came our next "hope this works" section, as when the forest track dead-ended, we needed to continue another few hundred yards through the trees to exit the forest. Aerial photos made it look doable, and it was. We even made short work in scaling the deer fence that lay in our way (no swearing required for once!).

It said it was dangerous and we weren't to use it. Seemed fine to me. 

We were now in the Balmacaan Forest - a treeless area of largely unspoilt wild land, from most parts of which few man-made things can be seen. The big exceptions are two windfarms. The first one was only 5 turbines and pained us mainly because those turbines were the only things that marred the 180 degree view between NE and SW until we approached the summit of Meall a'Chràthaich. Aside from marring such a fabulous, otherwise unspoilt area, the wind farm track also lulled us away from our intended route. As we'd joined it we took a bearing and noted that it needed to swing right if it was going to be useful to us; we then completely forgot that and by the time we noticed we'd strayed significantly off route it was easier to continue on track than to put ourselves right across country. It added well over a mile to our day (albeit on easy tracks).

The track that lulled us waaaaay off course. 

Later we cut a mile off the distance when we decided it was too early to stop at the night-stop cited on our route sheet (an intended pitch that we later saw, from up high, would have been idyllic) so instead of going all the way to Loch ma Stac, we took a more direct line to the top of the Marilyn of Meall a'Chràthaich.

Gah! Wrong photo but this App doesn't allow me to delete. Still a reasonable illustration of this fabulous area. 

The wild nature of the next four miles of our route was superb, but hard and slow going, with a lack of any sort of trodden line through the heather, tussock and bog. By a mile and a half after the Marilyn we were ready to stop for the day and hoped for somewhere campable by the next lochan (there are so many lochs and lochans in this area - so attractive under the blue sky).

Of course, ungrazed, unmanaged land of this nature doesn't tend to be littered with suitable camping spots and over the next couple of miles we didn't find any patch of ground even vaguely suitable for pitching.

Between Loch nam Meur and Loch Aslaich an ATV track which made the going significantly easier, but by the latter body of water we were starting to get a bit desperate and our definition of 'campable' altered accordingly.

Leaving the track, we took to walking down the edge of the outflow burn, on the basis that the best pitches are usually found on the edge of a stream. Here all we could find were solid tussocks all crammed together. The options we considered were laughable, until finally I threw my poles down and said "here!". I had found a patch that would only result in one solid tussock and a few squishier ones, under the tent. I'm not sure it's the worst pitch we've ever had, but it's close. On the plus side, the location is nice, running water is conveniently close and we should get the sun early in the morning.

Lumpety bumpety

TGO Challenge Day 2 - Loch Gaorsaic to Cougie

Saturday 10 May (0745-1630)
Distance: 16 miles (plus an extra mile for me)
Ascent: uncounted (plus an extra 150m for me)
Weather: just the edge of a couple of showers with some good sunny spells in between.

At 2030 last night it was raining heavily enough for me to need to turn the volume of my audio book up a couple of notches. The next I knew it was 2340 when, nipping out to use the en-suite, I found the stars to be twinkling above. Accordingly, the tent (and everything around) was already covered in a hard frost.

Chilly pitch! The frost free bit at the front of the flysheet is the result of having boiled water in the porch for tea and porridge.

The water had ice in it this morning and our shoes and socks had frozen solid. Particularly annoying in my case because I'd managed to keep my feet pretty dry until about ten minutes before we pitched last night, when I carelessly walked through a bog and soaked them. Obviously, if they hadn't been wet, they wouldn't have frozen.

Thus, this morning started with us fording the river just below the Loch (on which ice had formed overnight) then, on the other side, forcing our feet into frozen shoes. About half an hour later I stopped to tie the then-thawed laces that had earlier refused to move.

Mick mid-river

The feet soon warmed up as we made our way down to Glen Affric and by elevenses (which occurred at 10.15 today) we had arrived at Alltbeithe Youth Hostel. It was lovely and warm in there as we enjoyed tea and scones (I would have had soup except that Mick misheard my request).

Showers came on and off as we walked along the glen, but our ploy of waiting until we got properly wet before changing to waterproofs worked: we never did get properly wet and thus saved a few stops for waterproof faffs.

At around 12.15 we arrived at the nightstop as stated on our route sheet. We therefore proceeded with Plan D, as I outlined in my last post, and continued into tomorrow's route.

A mile before our new end point, just before the track started to descend to Cougie, I left Mick sitting at the side of the track* with both of our bags whilst I nipped up Creag Dhubh. It was only about an extra 150m of ascent and, as the crow flies, was only 0.5 mile each way, so it would have been silly to pass it by.

What did surprise me was that for the couple of preceeding miles along a track I had been feeling tired and was ready for the day to be over. Yet, without pausing for a break, I found myself full of energy and relishing the challenge as I made my way up the very rough terrain of this hill. I'm not sure whether it was the freedom of not having a pack on my back or the fun of the variety/effort of the terrain that did it.

Looking back over our morning's route

I was up, down and had my pack back on within three quarters of an hour and half an hour after that we were sitting being sociable and drinking tea at Cougie Lodge.

We're now pitched *very* cosily with half a dozen other tents in the flattest bit of land behind the lodge, looking forward to a shorter day tomorrow, as we're already 8 miles into it.

(*I did suggest he could continue on to Cougie and I would meet him there, but he opted to wait.)

TGO Challenge Day 1 - Dornie to Loch Gaorsaic

10 May (0840-1630)
Distance: 14 miles?
Ascent: 650m?
Weather: a few showers but also some sunshine

Dornie is a good Challenge start point from the point of view of the speed at which one leaves tarmac and civilisation behind: about half an hour of walking up a tiny dead-end road from the Hotel (the sign out point).

Alas, the weather gods were a little unkind with a shower starting a few minutes before our departure. With barely a breath of wind, showers were slow moving this morning, although it was light enough that we held out for 45 minutes before breaking out the waterproof jackets. We managed with unwaterproofed legs.

Our first other Challenger, a second-timer called Andy, was met towards the top of our first pass of the day, above Camas-luinie. He paused for second breakfast at the top but we went on. A good move for this reason:

How convenient!

Next to our elevenses spot

Our lunch spot was almost as good, as we sat on the edge of the concrete plinth that supported a previous bridge at the bottom of the Falls of Glomach Path.

A trio of encounters were had as we ascended that path, first with an American woman walking the Cape Wrath Trail, then with a Challenger headed the opposite way to us (she started at Shiel Bridge), then a chap walking end-to-end, up to Dunnet Head. We'd been talking a short while with the latter before we established that this was Cary and we knew of him through Martin's blog and he knew us through Martin, and via this very blog. It's a small world! Once we're back in the land of internet, we'll be catching up on his progress via his blog.

We were supposed to be camping not far beyond the top of the falls, in order to do a ridge walk tomorrow. In view of the amount of snow up there, Plan A was shelved in favour of Plan C: nipping up the smaller Sgùrr Gaorsaic instead. That hill also has snow on its upper reaches, but I would have likely gone for it anyway (probably as an out-and-back first thing in the morning as Mick wasn't fussed about coming along) if it hasn't been for not thinking about the need to cross the river (the Abhainn Gaorsaic) in good time. By the time we found a suitable crossing point we were not very far past the hill in the grand scheme of things, but sufficiently far past not to want to have to backtrack, particularly as we couldn't see any campable land over there. We're now on to Plan D for tomorrow which involves a consolation Marilyn in the way to Cougie Lodge. (Plan B was our Foul Weather Alternative but as we're only 8 miles away from the end of that route, with little ascent involved, we felt the need to come up with a new plan).

Not too shoddy, as pitches go.

So we've ended up by this lochan. There's another couple in a tent just the other side of the ruined building (see photo above). As they're not Challengers they may be a little peeved that they found this nice spot then someone else pitched up nearby, but at least we've got out of sight of them and it really is the best bit of land that we'd seen for quite a while.

The female half of our neighbours went for a swim in the loch as we were pitching. By the gasping, I think we can safely say it was a bit nippy in there!

Then it rained. Repeatedly and, at one point, quite heavily. But rain when sitting in a tent is greatly preferable to rain whilst walking.

TGO Challenge Day 0 - to Dornie

Thursday 9 May

Bertie-the-Motorhome was abandoned at a caravan storage site, a Star of the First Order (as I referred to him when we first met back in 2008, and I've subsequently been proved right in that assessment many times over) gave us a lift to the nearest train station. Going above and beyond he then kept us company for the best part of an hour, in the chill morning air, standing in his short sleeves whilst I shivered in multiple layers.

Three trains, with connections long enough to not feel rushed but short enough not to get bored, got us to Inverness by mid-afternoon. With two hours then to wait until our final transport, more than enough time was available after an early tea and the purchase of our lunches for the next few days. The bus to Portree was full. Most Challengers got off at Shiel Bridge. To my surprise, only three of us alighted at Dornie.

It was gone 7.30pm by then so we wasted no time in getting checked into the hotel and getting the kettle on.

We did finally make it down to the bar and stayed until after last orders was called, whereupon we all (Gary, Malcolm, Martha, Mick and me*) declared that sleep was required.

Kit news of the day: during a search through Mick's pack to check the first aid kit was there before we left Bertie, he finally located his waterproof phone cover that had been missing since before we left home. Similarly I located my mini-gaiters that I thought had gone AWOL. We also discovered a stowaway in the form of a non-slip coaster out of Bertie. Having no possible need for it, that got discarded at the hotel.

(*Jim has been with us initially but left when he realised his initial didn't fit ;-) )

Sunday 5 May 2019

Sunday 5 May - Dun Rig and Friends (NT253315; 744m)

The walk that got deferred from Friday to Saturday (for a better weather forecast) got deferred again to today when I discovered, on Friday evening, that there's a parkrun in Peebles. With Scottish parkruns not kicking off until 9.30am, and with the weather forecast being better in the morning than the afternoon, waiting another day for the walk seemed like a better plan than fitting both in.

Thus, at about 9 this morning, we left Bertie at the end of the Glen Road in Peebles and set off up the Cross Borders Drove Road, which took us past Kailzie Hill and over Kirkhope Law, before it veered off down to Traquair and we continued on the well-trodden line along the ridge, over Birkscairn Hill and Stake Law to our true objective of Dun Rig.

The initial climb towards Kailzie Hill had seen us de-jumpering and for a good while I happily walked along in baselayer and windshirt, with a baseball cap on my head and just fingerless mits protecting my hands. Then, just before the climb up Birkscairn Hill the wind turned slightly, picking up pace a little too, and it was as if we had been plunged into the arctic. The forecast did say we would be experiencing -7 whindchill up there today and that's exactly what it felt like. Even with my jumper, beanie and full gloves back on, I didn't overheat on any of the subsequent climbs. Every now and then a few flakes of snow drifted past us, but not enough to amount even to a light flurry.

I did also walk over various grassy lumps, approx 65m SW of the trig, to make sure I'd visited the highest point.

The plan had been to drop down to the glen after Dun Rig and walk back along the track down there, but with the ridge on the west side of the glen now visible to us, it looked like the nicer route, so we continued up high.

After a boggy section between Dun Rig and Glenrath Heights, a relatively sheltered spot was found for lunch just before the climb up Middle Hill. The sun even came out for ten minutes or so at the end of our break/beginning of our climb - the only sunshine we had all day.

At Hundleshope Heights there was a failure to navigate. We followed the trodden line and continued along it for a while before I looked at the landscape around us and realised we weren't headed towards the intended descent route. A few hundred metres of wading through heather ensued, during which Mick pointed out that the land around us was clearly being managed as grouse moor, yet we hadn't seen a single grouse. In fact, we hadn't seen more than a handful of birds at all. In fact, save for a couple of sheep and hares, all animal life had been absent, all day.

A good track* - pity we didn't follow it right from the top of the hill!

Once down in the bottom of the glen it was just a couple of kilometres or so on a good track (the latter section being tarmac) back to Bertie. We arrived there having walked exactly 14 miles. I haven't counted contours to work out ascent, but (unusually) both of our Fitbits agree that there was 3000' of up.

It was a good walk and undoubtedly vastly superior to my originally plotted route of and out and back using the track along the bottom of the glen. A shame that we didn't have a bit more sunshine (per the forecast), and a bit more warmth as early May deserves, but at least it was dry and we had good visibility.

(*A good track, except that it was booby trapped with a pointy rock sticking out of the left hand tread at a point where I was looking somewhere other than at my feet. I caught the underside of my heel on that rock and crashed to the ground with great speed and quite some force. I suspect I'll be a bit bruised in places tomorrow.)

Thursday 2 May 2019

Thursday 2 May - Cademuir Hill & White Meldon

Cademuir Hill (NT241376; 416m)
I'd thought I would declare today as a rest day, as all of my hills around here required a drive and Bertie was nicely settled on a campsite. Then, as has happened a number of times on this trip, I looked at the map and thought: That's an easy ride away!

In fact, it was such an easy distance that I offered to walk it instead so that Mick could come along, but as I didn't think of that until we'd already gone to the trouble of emptying Bertie's boot to retrieve my bike, he declined and made himself busy with campsite chores whilst I pedalled off down the road.

I'd intended to tackle this hill from a car park on its south side, which seems to be the popular route, however, without the ease of a motor vehicle to get me there I decided on the spur of the moment to try entering via the car park to the NE. I knew that lots of new tracks and paths have been laid through this woodland, and it only covers a small area, so I guessed (rightly) that the waymarked trails would hit this car park too.

There was some dithering in the car park. A map displayed there showed the waymarked trails, but it showed even fewer tracks than on my 2011 map. That left me all a dither as to whether to follow one of the marked trails, or to use the tracks shown on my more up-to-date 1:25k maps in the hope of intercepting a waymarked trail further along. Then there was the dither as to whether, whichever option I chose, to continue by bike or to walk. Feeling like I was dithering so long that I could already have got half way to the top if I'd just made a prompt decision, I locked my bike to the leg of the map display and opted for the red trail. As you may notice from the recorded track shown on the map snippet below, this took me an indirect route:

It did, however, take me to the top (on such good paths that it would have been possible to cycle there), where a picnic bench has been installed amongst the detritus of tree harvesting. The harvested area may look messy, but at least there was a view, which wouldn't have been the case when the trees were standing.

After picking my way across the discarded branches, in search of the true high point, back down I went. As you may notice from my recorded track shown on the map snippet above, I took a more direct route - again entirely on path, but not entirely on ones shown on even my most recent map.

Back at Bertie a short while later, 2.4 miles had been walked, with 190m ascent, and 5.1 miles biked.

White Meldon (NT219428; 427m)
I had White Meldon down as half-mile (each way) quick bag from the parking area on the minor road to the west and thus it also wasn't on the agenda for today. Then, over lunch I looked at the map again, did a bit of measuring and suggested to Mick that as it was only a 2.5-mile walk away from Bertie's pitch, and as Mick was in need of a leg-stretch, we could nip out and visit it this afternoon. From its representation on the map it looks like a 'good hill' - the sort that Mick likes to visit.

I knew we'd walked the first part of the drove road out of Peebles before, and I thought that was on our LEJOG walk. Looking at the archives of the blog just now, it seems that we walked it on both LEJOG and K2CW. Bits of it did look familiar.

At the point where we veered west off the Cross Borders Drove Road route, I assumed that previously we had carried straight on. It was only as we looked down on this view...

 ...that I realised we had been here before too. I pointed out to Mick exactly where we had walked, recalled a cow with horrendous mastitis and recounted our onwards route, but he still didn't remember it.

In view of today's objective, we took a different line, passing through the farmland of Upper Kidston - a farm that doesn't major in having hinges on its gates and very partial to the extensive use of hairy twine (accordingly, we hopped over them all).

White Meldon was as good a hill as I expected it to be and from its summit I pointed out where I'd been this morning and a couple of other Marilyns nearby that are still unvisited.

Our return was a retracing of our steps (more or less), with occasional looks over our shoulders to see how the rain was progressing. The forecast had given a 50/50 chance of rain hitting us, but by good fortune the showers skirted us until about 60 seconds after we arrived back at the campsite (and even that was just the lightest of showers).

Five miles had been walked, with around 380m ascent.