Saturday 15 June 2024

Reflections TGO 24

This Challenge was important.

I needed to complete my 9th Challenge, I needed to successfully cross Scotland so I can try to get my 10th next year. It's just taken me too long, failed too many times and it's become a monster. This monster has eaten away at my confidence and my anxiety has grown and become almost unmanageable.

I needed a plan.

Friend and fellow Challenger Laura was also having confidence issues, although probably not so much the anxiety thing going on, but I decided we needed a plan together, to get us both to the east coast and restore confidence in ourselves.

The plan was simple, but I think quite clever. I had already plotted a route for myself from Oban to Kinnaber Links, the first day would see me walk a coffin route from Achnaba to Barcaldine. I'd chatted to Laura about this as I had a few queries about it and after a while, she asked if she could walk that first day with me. This was a great idea, but the second day would be tough, through Glen Creran to Glencoe, and quite long, probably too long for me let alone Laura, so I had a think and worked out a way to take out a day from towards the end of my route and squeeze it in to the beginning, giving us three days to get to Glencoe. The basic plan was for us to meet up each night for the first week or so, plotting our own routes in between. This would then give us choice most days, we could choose to walk separately or together. Camping together every night would give us the chance to discuss our day, whether we'd enjoyed it or not and offer each other support and encouragement to carry on. After the first week our routes diverged and we planned to go our own ways to the coast.

We were very organised and had our routes vetted quite early on, this gave me lots of time to look more closely at possible pitches in case my intended spots didn't work out, what shops were available where for resupply, book accommodation and transport and generally iron out all the finer details. I love the planning and always enjoy this part. But as the Challenge drew closer, I got more and more anxious. Had I bitten off more than I could chew? Had I set myself up for failure? We are both solo Challengers for a reason, it's what we enjoy and works best for us. We walk together as friends outwith the Challenge, could we tolerate each other for a week? Two weeks before the off and I was so anxious I could barely eat, I lost weight, it was ridiculous. The day before we were due to travel to Oban, we had a slight hiccup with arrangements, but David came to the rescue and Laura arrived with her gear to stay the night before Ciara took us to get the train to Oban in the morning...

In the end, we reached the east coast, together!

It wasn't easy, Laura showed real determination and tenacity to carry on with blisters from very early on, due to the heat and a combination of the wrong socks and possibly the Gore-Tex lining of her boots. We looked after each, made decisions together, gave each other space at times, but we ended up deciding to stay together to the bitter end and we did it! We had a brilliant Challenge.

Of course, the Challenge wasn't just about us, there was the gear I decided to take with me and how that all performed.

The Good

Last year I'd had blisters for the first time in over a decade which ended my Challenge prematurely. I still don't know why, as I had worn socks and boots that usually suit me and that I have crossed Scotland wearing before. I decided to try different socks, Injinji liner and hiker socks, but also stick with my favourite, tried and tested style, Bridgedale Hike Midweight Merino socks. I also carried a pair of Bridgedale liners, just in case the Injinji pair didn't suit.

I found the Injinji socks very comfortable and they worked brilliantly with both pairs of hiking socks.

I had a new pair of boots, Hoka Sky Kaha II, but when I started to wear them in the lead up to the Challenge, realised that they were a tad short and I could feel the end of my boots with my toes. I was a bit surprised, they were the same size as the previous pair, but obviously, they were no use for the Challenge, so I'd bought another pair a half size up and they were just dandy.

No blisters this year. No sore spots at all. In fact, I usually have slightly swollen feet by the end of the Challenge, just because walking every day for two weeks, 20-25km most days, is hard on the feet. Once my feet settle down the skin usually peels off, a very odd experience.

I didn't even have swollen feet this year! So no skin shedding either. Brilliant!

I was very aware I was going to have limited laundry opportunities, so I had reverted to carrying long sleeve merino tops, one to wear walking, a clean one to walk in when the first could walk by itself, and one to sleep in. Long sleeve because I don't like bare arms and they give protection from insects and the sun.

Worked perfectly, kept me comfortable at all times, walking and in bed, no pong, this will be my go to for future Challenges.

I also returned to taking my Tilley hat. It is my trademark hat and gives the best sun protection.

I have been cold on the last couple of Challenges. In 2022 I had forgotten the silver mat I put under my Synmat and thought that was why I was cold, but last year I had taken the mat and still felt the cold. I'd also omitted my thermal tights in a bid to shed a few grams from my pack weight, about 100g, to be precise. So this year, I had a rethink. Instead of my primino hoodie, obviously I had a merino LS top. I also swapped my primino zip top for my Montane Allez Micro Fleece. I decided to take my Montane Prism jacket and RAB Xenair gilet, despite them being a few grams more than just taking my Montane Fluxmatic jacket, because I felt the combination was more flexible. And I took my thermal tights.

This was also a good decision, being able to wear thin layers under the Prism jacket, tights under my 'social' leggings and have the gilet loose in my bag over my hips really helped keep me warm and comfortable this year.


I've started to carry a GoPro to video my adventures. I'm not very good at it, but quite enjoy doing it. The problem has been carrying it, along with my phone, my maps and my compass.

This year, my compass was in a hip pocket of my belt. Last year, I had taken my OMM Chest Pouch, but I found it very faffy and annoying with the way it attaches to the chest strap of my pack but the bottom attachments or elastics and hooks and I haven't found a way to attach them that isn't a pain, so this year, I took my Montane Gecko waist pack.

It worked an absolute treat, proved to be very useful when we were in civilisation as a handbag (we do like gear to have two uses) and I only nearly lost it once...

I also took mesh Tesco fruit and veg bags as a food come shopping bag. They are super lightweight, you can see the contents easily and they are stronger than say a plastic carrier bag.

The Bad

I did consider carrying my Osprey Exos pack to save weight, but on closer inspection one of the webbing shoulder straps is worn and damaged and I was worried it might fail during the crossing, so I took my Ariel AG 55L. I do like the way it carries and I have a routine for where everything is packed, nothing dangling on the outside, but yet again I had very sore hips, grazed and bleeding, especially my left one. As one is worse than the other, it's clearly not just the hip belt that is the problem. I have realised that not only do my knickers have a seam in an awkward place, there is a label on the left side.

So, I need to solve the hip belt issue and the seam/label issue. I may get my Exos fixed, so long as I can keep my base weight low, currently 7.209kg without pack or food, the Exos should be fine. Or I could carry my Ariel without the top pocket, which would reduce its weight by about 200g, but I would still get sore hips.

I need to source different knickers...

I have an Exped Hand Pump for my Synmat and air pillow. It's great, but it does have a drawback. It's fine when the weather is good and I can pump up my mat with it inside my tent and me standing just outside, pumping with my foot, I just look a bit of a plank. If the weather is pants, I have to lie in my tent, with the Synmat lying on top of me and pumping the pump on my head to inflate the mat. Laura could hear all this going on and found it hilarious. Me, not so much... But I have solved this issue! For my birthday I asked for a Flextail Zero Pump. Weight wise, it is only one gram lighter, but it takes up so little space. It will also be useful for pumping up our Exped mat in Ellie. Perfect.

The Ugly

I love my Tarptent Notch. Or at least, I did. I like having two porches, the space inside the inner suits me, it is quick and easy to pitch once I got the hang of it, but I do think the half mesh inner is colder than my Terra Nova Laser.

I also discovered a leak.

Or more precisely, five leaks.

There are four ties to tie back the outer doors. Loops on the outside and a hook on a loop on the inside. It would appear that, despite having paid for seam sealing when I bought the tent, the ends of the loops caught into the seams have not been, or not done properly, and after a couple of periods of rain the loops wet out and moisture then tracks along the loops inside the tent and drips off the hooks onto the inner. The moisture makes the inner damp and anything that touches it then gets wet, including my sleeping bag, if I'm not careful or don't notice in time. The centre seam also appeared to spring a leak and again, looked like it had not been sealed properly.

I need to have a look at these areas and see if I can seal them effectively myself, but I have lost a little confidence in the Notch now and I might just go back to using my Laser again, because I do love it.

So just a couple of projects to get sorted.

Wednesday 18 October 2023

Reflections of TGO 2023

 I've taken my time to have a good think about this post. I think we can safely say, my Challenge this year didn't go to plan.

I didn't have any major changes of gear this year, except I carried my RAB Xenair gilet and the lighter of my two Montane primaloft jackets, the Prism, in the hope of a little more flexibility with my insulated layers. I also had my Montane Primino zip top instead of my Montane Allez Micro. The combination seemed to work, but I was still cold at night at times, so I might have a re-think.

My food plan works, so long as I can find suitable items to resupply. Kinlochleven was tricky, but I managed. Perhaps more imagination needed.

The route plan itself wasn't the best, I think I lost sight of my goal of a simple route across Scotland and took the easy option of cycle paths in the first few days which meant I had long days. Coupled with the added pressure of a ferry crossing on the first day, and missing the most convenient one back to the main land, the first three days proved to be quite taxing. The blisters that developed on Day Four were my own fault, I felt the hot spots but couldn't be bothered to deal with them, I was so close to camp. At the end of Day Five I really aggravated them after taking some heavy duty painkillers for my shoulder and didn't realise the damage I was doing until they exploded.

In the first few days after returning home, I was convinced I was not going to Challenge again. I have now failed four times out of twelve to get across Scotland, perhaps I'm not really cut out for this? There was some doubt in my mind that the Challenge itself might continue after 2024, meaning maybe I couldn't now get my 10th Challenge, so what was the point?

After a while, I decided that if I didn't get my 9th next year, and the Challenge did continue, it would take me longer to get my 10th.

Then I had news from my dear friend Alan that change my thinking completely. Alan had been hugely influential on my having entered the Challenge in the first place, back in 2009. Ever since, he had been the most wonderful support, always encouraging and interested. Not just to me, but to dozens of other Challengers and First Timers.

So now, I *have* to get my 10th. Because Alan had faith in me. So I must have faith in me too.

Thanks Alan xx

Alan and his pal, Phil, in the Mason's Arms, Tarfside

A walk with Laura and Jasper - 30th August

 Laura and I decided to meet near Boat of Garten for a walk. It was a lovely day and we wondered through the woods just chatting and setting the world to rights. Jasper was such a good boy, we met a few people including two of the Cairngorm Rangers, but mostly we just had a lovely, quiet day

Lovely boy, Jasper
Loch Mallachie, looking towards Craiggowerie

Yellow Staghorn

Loch Garten

A young fungi with a slight blush colour

Dragonfly pond
Yellow Brain or Witches' Butter

We sat in the back of Laura's van to eat lunch with the tailgate open, the weather was nice but trying to rain. You can just see a van parked on the verge outside the car park. Not entirely sure why he chose to park there, he did walk round the car park which was plenty big enough and virtually empty. People are strange.

Lovely walk though.

Roughly 7.5km and 263m total ascent

Adventures with Ellie - 19th August '23 Caithness and Sutherland

 It was later than I'd hoped when we finally set off after dinner, but it did mean the roads were relatively quiet once we were north of Tain, heading for a favourite spot at Latheronwheel. We weren't far from our destination when David exclaimed, "I've forgotten the blinds!" Oops. I was not perturbed by this, we have plenty of things in Ellie that I thought we could use to overcome the main issues of daylight and privacy, so we continued.

We arrived to find a motorhome and a couple of vans already parked, one of which was across the front of the harbour. We parked up and started to figure out how to best use the lightweight bath towel, the toilet cabinet cushion and table to best effect as window blinds, during which time the van at the front moved and parked next to us. I wasn't sure if we had somehow caused offence. Anyway, we were soon settled for the night as it was late and we were tired.

We had a peaceful night, although David never sleeps well for the first night or two, but we were in no rush and had a relaxed breakfast. The van next door started up early and we thought they were off, but then discovered they had simply moved back to their original spot. How odd. A small council van arrived, we thought it strange on a Sunday, but the chap got out and did a litter pick (not that there was much) and had a chat with the occupants of the van, obviously agreeing to take their rubbish for them. They turned out to be Spanish, and they had moved their van to use the wall for putting their stove on to cook breakfast. Must be a tricky set up in miserable weather.

We went for a little stroll along the John o' Groats Trail, just out of curiosity, heading north this time having headed south last time. I'd like to do more of it, in time. As usual, we left a donation in the box, we didn't see anyone else do the same. Then we packed up and set off towards Dunnet Head as I'd never been there. It's a busy place, but there was plenty of parking and an ice cream van when we arrived, sadly he left before we'd had lunch, so I didn't get an ice cream. The motorhome spaces were full when we arrived, so we'd parked in the next space.

We went for a little walk, there were rather a lot of people so we didn't hang around. There is a trig point, not many people seemed to know this, so we went for a short walk to visit it while no one else was there, then went back to Ellie. We popped the roof to have lunch, but had no intention of stopping as it was too early and too busy. We planned to head to another favourite spot for the night.

Heading to the bridge

Settling down for the night


A pony and cart, we weren't expecting that!

Looking north, towards the Orkney Isles

We visited the most northerly main land trig

Something missing...

Remaining military buildings

We left after lunch and continued our drive heading roughly west, enjoying the views. There wasn't a lot of traffic, some of it was slow. We eventually turned off the main road and headed south for a bit before parking up for the night. When we arrived, there was a van already there, but they had parked neatly and there was plenty of room to park next to them. As we were setting up the van, David went to put light the gas for the fridge, only to find it wouldn't. A little investigation (handy being married to a techy person) it transpired there was no gas to either the fridge or hob, although there was plenty of gas in the cylinder. This is the second regulator to have failed when we've been away. Luckily, having learnt that lesson last time, we had a small camping burner and cylinder with us and were able to conjure up curry and rice for dinner. Whilst eating dinner we rustled up a plan for the next day to backtrack a little to collect a new regulator, then carry on with our adventures.

Slow traffic

Ye olde Campingaz Twister

Ta da!

We had a good night, but didn't get off to an early start, unlike our neighbours who were away by 8am. On our way to Wick, we stopped off at Halladale Inn and Campsite to empty all of our waste for a small fee, being the responsible campervanners that we are. We then collected the replacement regulator and visited Tesco. They were having a bad day, all their refrigerators had failed and they'd had to destroy the vast majority of fresh dairy and meat products. We again found ourselves improvising, for dinner this time. Then we headed to Noss Head, which is so out of the way we had expected it to be quiet.

It was not.

We took a walk to the castle, Castle Sinclair Birnigoe, which is quite interesting and has a lot of information, I may have grumbled a significant amount. We then returned to Ellie and left, pausing briefly to collect an entire toilet roll that we'd seen by the side of the road that had incensed me, not a difficult thing to dispose of responsibly.

A casual drive saw us following the coast again for a while before heading inland, south along Strath Naver to another favourite overnight spot. On the journey there, I was becoming increasing concerned by the number of signs at parking places stating 'no unauthorised vehicles' and similar statements, obviously reserving the parking for fishermen. As we approached our planned stop, we could see a vehicle parked at what appeared to be our spot, but as we got closer we could see it was actually just off a passing space (not a great place to stop, don't do it) and our preferred spot was empty. We were aware of the car all evening, never really worked out what they were doing. During the evening we were also aware of what looked like head torches approaching from the other direction, but they seemed to be making very slow progress and we went to bed without seeing their final destination, possibly meeting up with the chap in the car.

Dinner was had and as we had a good signal, we watched a little television before settling down for a peaceful night.

Dolmio pasta, chicken, Philadelphia cheese and mushrooms

The obligatory Jamaican Ginger cake and Birds Instant custard

The next day dawned and the car had been parked overnight, the occupant didn't look as if he'd had a good sleep as he got out, stretched and mooched about before leaving. We concluded the headtorches we'd seen the night before had not been connected to the chap in the car and were probably fisherman in boats on a small loch.

We had breakfast and decided to head for a walk at Rosal, a clearance village with some ancient history, not far from where we had spent the night. On arrival, there was a couple in a car loitering at the entrance to the forestry track, clearly a little unsure as to whether they could continue. As we confidently set off along the track to the car park, they followed us down. The car park is quite a way down the track and looked a little sad and forlorn when we arrived, minus an information promised in the WalkHighland details of this walk, but we were confident we were correct, which we informed the other walkers and they believed us.

A short while later, having set off on foot along said forestry track, we found an obviously much newer car park, with a new information board, and having been passed by a car as they left, I would say only known about by the locals. Thanks WH.

Anyway, we found the settlement and entered the enclosure to explore the remaining rock piles, the many sites of the clearance village, bronze age and souterrain. A really interesting place, had the promised information boards been in evidence. Also, no clear paths as it was so overgrown, but there were little posts so we could make our own way around the site.

Having spent a good while wandering around, getting wet feet, we left the enclosure and followed a little path through the trees to return to the old car park. We met a couple coming the other way who had obviously turned off the main track by the gate, rather than along the track, but no matter, we reassured them they didn't have far to go. On returning to Ellie, we decided to spend the night at Falls of Shin. We have stayed there before, but last time the cafe and facilities were open. We arrived to find these are sadly no more, although plenty of people still stop by to walk the dog or for children to play at the play park, some may also have ventured to see the salmon leap. The motorhome facilities are still there in full working order for a small fee, and we used them.

Many people came and went during the afternoon and early evening, including many vans and motorhomes, but only one other van was clearly going to settle down for the night along with us. We went for a walk before dinner, pleased to find there was just enough breeze to keep the midges away until morning, but even then, they were not a big issue.

Heather in full bloom

Had to really wander around to get a feel for the place

There's a post in there somewhere!

Can just see that one...

We worked our way around this fallen tree

Papa was missing Oscar

Improvising, again

We woke in the morning to find our neighbours still there, but they were ready to leave before us. We had a good journey home.