The Great Outdoors Challenge 2018 Mallaig to Montrose

I should probably start, for those who have not read or heard about the Challenge before, with an explanation of what it's all about.
The Great Outdoors Challenge is an annual event largely sponsored by The Great Outdoors Magazine and one or two other outdoor companies. Each September, over four hundred  folk apply to take part and a draw for places is made around the end of October. Three hundred and fifty or so folk gain a place and an unlucky few will be placed on the Stand By List to fill the boots of those that have/choose to withdraw before the end of November. Each Challenger or group (of up to four) submits their own route, starting at one of the thirteen start points on the west coast, making their way unsupported across Scotland to finish anywhere on the east coast between Fraserburgh and Arbroath, then catch the train, bus or walk to Montrose to sign back in. The start points are Torridon, Strathcarron, Plockton, Dornie, Shiel Bridge, Glenelg, Mallaig, Morar, Lochailort, Acharacle, Oban, Ardrishaig and Kilchoan.
Four phone calls must be planned and made to Challenge Control to check up on progress, phone calls must also be made if major route changes occur, or if someone is unlucky enough to have to retire from the event (horrid, horrid phone call to make...) There are few rules, no running (why would you?!), no dogs, no unofficial crossings and no accompanying walkers to do an entire crossing (friends and family can join you for few days)
As David drove me home from Kinloch Rannoch after I'd decided to retire from the Challenge in 2017, I swore I would never Challenge again. I had had enough of the pain and was feeling so lonely. It was, however, no surprise to David when I said a few weeks later that I would have to go back, I had unfinished business, I couldn't end with a failure. So in November 2017 I found myself with an email from Sue and Ali to say I had been successful in the draw and gained a place on the 2018 Challenge. I had spent the summer planning a route that would hopefully give just the right amount of adventure and company. We shall see. Onwards...and maybe just a little upwards.

Day 0 Home to Mallaig
Not quite as planned!!

What. A. Day!!
Rhiannon gave Laura and myself a lift to Inverness but as we were travelling we received messages from David to say the road ahead, the A82, was closed due to a bus fire. We headed straight for the bus station, bumping in to Gordon Green in the Eastgate Centre and Andy Howell, Kate Foley, Russ Manion and Herman Stikvoort at the railway station.  Once at the bus station, we went to the customer information desk to find out the details and how the bus fire and road closure was likely to affect us. As it was, we possibly knew more than them initially, but we were assured that the buses would run as near normal as possible. There was quite a group of us gathered at the bus shelter, buses came and went, but not ours. During our wait, we played our annual game of Spot the Challenger, and spotted a few, including Jim Davidson, who I always seem to meet at Inverness bus station, and Nicole Morschett. We had several updates before a bus was eventually hired and arrived at 13:30 to take us on a slight detour via the A862 and re-join the road at Drumnadrochit and then on to Fort William.

Dropped off

Obviously, we had missed our intended connection from Fort William to Mallaig, but we had choices. We decided the train would get us there quicker and by now I was fed up of travelling and just wanted it all over, so we plumped to finish our journey in relative comfort.
We made a dash for the station and bought tickets, then wandered on to the platform to wait, just briefly, for the train. Once on board it was very lively, we met many, many Challengers, Mick Croydon, Emma Warbrick, Graeme Dunsire, Heather Thomas-Smith, Paul D'Ambrogio and Stephen and Paula Ruscoe,  Angus McKinnon and Skippy, to name but a few.

Good advice, we thought

We waved off various Challengers as they disembarked for their start points as we stayed to the end, where we were met by Mick and Gayle! We also bumped in to John Plume as we left the platform, pointing him in the general direction of his hotel (look for the signs...) We strolled along the road and popped into the Co-op, only to decide to return first thing in the morning and strolled out again. Our B&B, Seaview (highly recommended) was not far, but did have a few steps to climb to reach the door. Steps. Climb. Harrumph. We arranged to message Mick as soon as we were settled in, which was much quicker than expected, and set off to meet them for dinner. I'd also heard from Heather and arranged for her to join us, but forgot to tell the others until she appeared by our table. Oooops!! The lady serving us at the Italian restaurant was lovely and arranged another table for us to sit together, she really coped with us well. We had a very pleasant evening with lots of chat, but soon it was time to settle the bill (again, the lady was wonderful and helped us split our bill) and we strolled back to our various lodgings for the night.

Day 1 Planned Mallaig to Loch Quoich
22km  distance 1330m total ascent

Actual Mallaig to Runival
22.7km distance 1088m total ascent

Perhaps best not to talk about it as it didn't quite go to plan. Must I? Oh. Please don't judge.
It all started okay, we slept quite well and were up in good time for breakfast. The weather was bright enough but a bit breezy, leading to a bit of anxiety about the boat. We went in to the dining room and found our table, there were small bowls of prepared fresh fruit on our placemats. We were offered a range of foods, there were cereals, yogurt and fruit juice available and hot dishes. We both chose a small bowl of porridge, an unusual choice for me but I wanted something bland before the boat trip. I would usually have a selection from the Full Scottish Breakfast, but was being a little indecisive until Donald, our host, offered sautéed potatoes, mushrooms and grilled tomato, perfect! We also had toast and coffee. We settled on a plan of action before heading for the pier, we would visit Co-op to get lunches, then stroll up to the Marine Hotel to sign out, before returning to the B&B to pay and collect our rucksacks. We met lots of Challengers waiting at the pier and Mick and Gayle. Gayle had offered to take a resupply parcel for me to Invergarry, so that was handed over, then we all stood or sat around chatting, feeling nervous and wondering if the boat would sail in the stiffening breeze.

Eventually they started to load the boat and we all trooped down the steps to hand over our packs before returning to the top to queue up. I forgot to take any photographs at this point. By the time we boarded the boat, the available seating was all below deck, which wasn't what I'd hoped for, but I was wearing my travel bands and fingers crossed I would not feel sick. Laura does not like boats so she was not too happy either. Mick came below deck with us and did a very good line in distraction techniques. Dara Oghuiginn, an Irishman living in Canada, shared out a huge bar of Lindt dark chocolate his wife, worried he might starve, had hidden in his pack. I wouldn't normally eat chocolate on a rough boat trip, but it would have been rude not to. Dara later popped out on deck to take some video of the crossing, only to be hit by the biggest wave of the trip. He returned below deck dripping. The crossing didn't take as long as I had thought and was not as rough, we didn't even notice we had arrived and had to be hailed by the captain to disembark! A line had already formed to unload the packs but I was handed a parcel to take on to the pier to do my bit.
We all set off in a bunch, some of us heading down the slippery slipway to dip our toes, some heading straight off and perhaps others heading for The Old Forge.

Waiting for the wave...

Okay, wet now...

Wet now, you can move!

 More toe-dipping

We were soon on our way, a great herd of Challengers heading in to the hills. We somehow missed the coffee shop, but by the time we realised there was no way we were heading back to it, so no coffee was had and we trundled on. We did lose some people at the turning for Sourlies, perhaps more than we expected, but Laura had already made the decision to take her FWA as we just could not predict what state the River Carnach would be in and she did not want to take the risk of perhaps having to return to this path, so we walked on together.

 Looking back

Looking nervous...

The V-shape, just off centre right, is where I was heading

We wandered along, following as the little Challenge Caterpillar continued along Gleann an Dubh-Lochain and as the Mam Barrisdale started in earnest. Shortly after Loch an Dubh-Lochain we paused for lunch, joining another Challenger, Colin Laver (I think...) We chatted a while before he continued his walk and Laura decided it was time to don the waterproof trousers as it started to rain. Soon after we set off, I bid Laura farewell as the path I had now decided to take might be quite time consuming and I wanted to make some headway before the rain really set in.

Looking back from the bealach

Now, this was where I made my first mistake (don't. Just...don't) I decided to take a different route from that planned, which would see me take the Munro baggers path to contour round and then head up to spot height 665. The plan was to continue contouring around beneath Luinne Bheinn to eventually gain the Mam Unndalain, thus cutting out the 450m descent and re-ascent from Ambraigh. However, once I had dropped down from the bealach, I did not like what I saw. There appeared to be several deep gullies blocking my way that I simply did not like the look of and could not see an easy way around, although this was not exactly what the map was telling me. I later found out that this was an optical illusion and that the gullies were small and close, but my confidence left me and I made the next daft decision. The weather was taking a turn for the worse, quite windy and wet and I wanted off that hill and off it now, so I headed down in a generally north direction until I could see the path I wanted in the glen below and made as directly as I could for it. It was wet, boggy ground in places, in others it was rocky and steep, it was really inhospitable and I was swinging between being really cross with myself for not sticking to my well prepared route and actually being a little frightened, but I kept telling myself to focus and concentrate on the job in hand so as to not get myself in to any real difficulties and need help. If I had found a suitable spot I'd thought I should pitch my tent and wait until morning to continue, simply to rest, refuel and gather my thoughts, but the ground was simply too wet or too steep.
I kept going. And going. I crossed the same burn a couple of times, I slipped twice, once wrenching my shoulders due to my pack and poles and once bashing and really hurting my left elbow, but I continued trying to carefully pick my way down. I could eventually see I was going to have to cross a river, but not until after climbing a deer fence. With no gate, of course. That moment you are standing on tip toes, your pack poised on the edge of the fence above your head and about to push it over... I followed with surprising ease, only to find not much further on, another fence. Darn. This time, it was crossing the river with the corner just on the other bank, so obviously I crossed the river first and then followed the fence around. There was a gate! I crossed boggy ground to gain the gate, only to find it bolted shut. At least it was a new, sturdy metal gate and this time I climbed it without even removing my pack. I crossed the Allt Gleann Unndalain and scrambled up the steep bank to gain the path, at around the 168m point. Rather than at the 500m point.
I took a few steps along the path and stopped. I now had a fair amount of ascent to climb. And a long walk.
I turned and walked towards Barrisdale.
As soon as I'd taken those first few steps I knew I'd made the right decision, to pick my FWA and continue with Laura for a few days, but I was very unhappy with myself for not having stuck to my planned route as by now I would not have been far from camp. What. An. Idiot.

Heading for Barrisdale

It took less than an hour to reach the bothy and campsite at Barrisdale, as I passed I could see the bothy was full but I didn't stop in because Laura doesn't like bothies, so I just continued on towards the planned FWA camp at Runival. I passed a couple of fellas who asked how busy the bothy was, but I didn't think they were Challengers. There was also a group of four that passed, I didn't think they were Challengers either. I asked if the fellas had seen a little yellow tent (odd really, Laura's tent is brown...) but they hadn't. I saw two tents pitched but wasn't sure they'd be Challengers, so continued in the blustery rain which did eventually clear for a while. It seemed to take an age to reach Runival, and I didn't like the path in places, when I did get there, there were several tents, but none was Laura's. Where was she? But it was too late to worry about that and I needed to get myself organised.
I dropped my pack and went off to collect water, possibly not from the best spot, then went for a pee before returning to my pack. Here, I had a panic. Where were my antibac wipes? In my wash bag. Where was that? I opened my pack but could find no sign of it. Oh no! I must have left it at the B&B, despite having checked carefully we'd left nothing behind and now I was going to give myself a tummy upset because I'd have to eat my dinner without cleaning my hands first. I could have cried. I got a grip and continued to pitch my tent, in the process realising my wipes were with my toilet kit in the front pocket of my pack. Feeling much relief, I climbed into my tent and shut the world out,  just as it started to rain again. I had to leave my almost dry waterproofs in the porch on top of my rucksack but I was totally dry beneath which was pleasing. I left the water treatment to work whilst I got ready for bed and sorted out my gear inside the tent. Strangely enough, my wash bag put in appearance which was a huge relief and I laughed out loud at my daftness and complete ineptitude. Ho hum. As soon as I was ready for bed I did my exercises for my hip pain, checked my feet (unblemished), applied a plaster to the cut on my elbow, prepared my dinner and got into my sleeping bag. Once I'd eaten, I wrote up my notes and settled down for Sir Ian to read to me as usual. He does do a fine job.
It was the end of a long and stressful day, had it been a good one? I'm not sure. Why did I do this to myself?

Day 2 Planned Loch Quoich to Lochan nan Sgud
22km distance 750m total ascent

Actual Runival to Spot Height 227 (Lovely layby)
21.3km distance 812m total ascent

Saturday dawned and I had not had a great night, partly because I kept berating myself for my poor decisions and stupidity, partly because I kept waking with a raging thirst, so was obviously dehydrated. I had no headache or nausea, so nothing worse. I was finding it hard to see any positives in the previous day's adventures, but I had to move on, literally, and got myself a coffee and breakfast before starting to pack up my tent. Not surprisingly, as the last to arrive the previous night, I was the last to leave this morning. I tried to watch the route everyone else took as they left camp to regain the path. I didn't know any of the other campers, who were early to rise, but they were all Challengers and I believe Chris from the previous day left just before me.
I followed the line everyone else had up to the path and just as I reached it, Croydon appeared. We chatted briefly and walked together on and off for the next couple of hours. Shortly after setting off, Andy Gerrard caught us up. He had stayed at Barrisdale the night before and Laura had stayed there too! I found Croydon perched on a comfy looking rock and took a perch next to him where we chatted and snacked for a while, Croydon told me his life story. There were a few walkers out today, several heading along the path, two couples heading directly uphill, to the bealach between Meall nan Eun and Sgurr Sgiath Airigh, one couple were lightweight and running, the other equipped for a few nights out.

My pitch was tucked behind the little lump, just off centre above

Useful gate...

After a while, Laura came into view on the hill we'd just come over, so I decided to wait for her and Croydon walked on. Laura eventually arrived, I was so very pleased to see her. She'd managed to throw many of the contents of her rucksack on the floor at the bothy, her gas canister was dented and giving her concern, but other than that and a sore knee from falling in to a hole, she was in good spirits and had with her

Rudy and Dara. We all continued together, with the promise of tea and cake at the Kinloch Hourn tea room. The path was arduous and frustratingly slow, it took us a long time to do a seemingly short distance but the path was muddy, slippery and undulating, with sections that were unnecessarily close to the edge of the loch and some tricky obstacles, especially the slabs of rock that required the use of hands and feet to cross. Well, Laura and I did anyway.
We took a break at the tea rooms, enjoying tea and fruit cake and the full use of the facilities, then continued on the road for the rest of the day, walking together loosely as a foursome. Water was scarce, Laura and I eventually found a burn just good enough to refill our bottles and shortly after we joined the boys and took a boot rest and ate a late lunch, then continued along the road.

Random from the road

Rudy left us to walk in to Glen Quoich, we collected water after crossing the bridge and continued for another three kilometres before finding a possible pitch, in a layby already occupied by Paula and Stephen and Paul and his son, Oliver. Luckily they were more than happy to make room for us, Dara and I were quickly pitched, Laura took a bit longer to find an area big enough for her footprint where she was able to get the pegs into the ground, but we were eventually all pitched. I was so glad we had already collected and treated water, especially as Steve said the nearest was a kilometre away, and I was straight into my bed time routine and tucked up in my tent for the night.

Could not be bothered to get out of my tent to photograph my pitch

We had stopped short tonight, which meant tomorrow would be a long, hard day of road walking if we decided not to take the forestry tracks. I was still giving myself a hard time and was not enjoying myself one bit. I was seriously considering retiring once I got to Invergarry and could get a bus home.
Sir Ian did a good job again.

Day 3 Planned Lochan nan Sgud to Invergarry campsite
23km distance 520m total ascent

Actual Lovely Layby to Invergarry campsite
28.3km distance 537m total ascent

When I woke I could hear rain gently falling on the tent, so I ate my breakfast in bed, nice and early. I had not had a brilliant night. I sewed up the seam I had split slightly in my trousers, taped my foot as a precaution and slowly began to pack. I was quite organised by the time  Laura stopped by the tent and told me the rain sounded much worse than it actually was by way of encouraging me to make a move. We carefully co-ordinated our packing and after one last faff, a pee and dropping the tents,  the three of us were ready to leave at roughly the same time. We strolled along the road for quite a while before the sun started to show, we suddenly realised we'd missed the track down to the bridge by the Kingie power station and could not be bothered to turn back, so the first decision not to take the forestry tracks was made and we stopped for second breakfast by the bridge over the Allt a' Ghobhainn, looking out for Rudy as this should be where he would emerge. I suspect he was way ahead of us.
As we reached the Poulary bridge, we could see tracks over the river were badly chewed up the from the forestry works and yet again, we decided to continue along the road, pausing just beyond Tomdoun for a lunch stop. Several Challengers passed by, including Croydon and a few others whose names I cannot remember. I found I had a signal here and rang David, but this was a mistake! As much as I wanted to speak to him, I miss him so much and feeling as down as I did I burst into tears when he answered and told him how much I hated doing this and that I wanted to go home and never Challenge again.  I told him about my ridiculous decisions, how cross I was with myself and my about my injuries, including the bad bruising to my cut elbow and how sore and powerless my thighs felt when trying to climb up. I also explained that whilst I was having no issues with my feet or collar bones, my hip bones were grazed and badly bruised. I suspected this was from the hip belt of my new pack rubbing on the pocket zips of my Paramo trousers. This was not helpful! We hatched a plan to exchange my trousers for a more comfortable pair, but I was still intending to get a bus home.
After lunch, we really began to need water, but any water we found was not suitable or we were not able to reach it. We were walking through Inchlaggan, discussing how useful it would be if one of the bungalows we were passing had an outside tap or standpipe. Imagine my amazement when, just around the corner, by the road, was the Standpipe of Requirement. Deepest joy! We were so surprised, none of us took a photograph. We queued in a very orderly and British fashion, each taking turns to fill our bottles. We persuaded Dara to take more as we doubted we would find anymore along the way and it was truly a very warm day by now.

The Standpipe of Requirement (screenshot from Google Maps)

We decided against crossing the last bridge too, continuing along the road to eventually meet the A87, which felt surprisingly good! After a brief rest to gird our loins, we set out for a quick march along two kilometres of the busy road before crossing and heading off for a track at Munerigie. It was not promising at first, being wet, boggy and overgrown. Then there was a gate, locked and tricky to climb, "I can't get over that!", but I was quickly over it and receiving rucksacks before anyone could change their mind. From then on, however, the track improved greatly and became a pleasant woodland walk, with no gate to scale at the other end and leading directly down into the campsite. It was almost a relief to be at the top of the site so as to not have to climb up to reception then walk back down to pitch, but we were to discover the laundry was also up there and a return trip was going to have to be made, several times.
Booked in, we wandered down to our pitches, only to be waylaid by Mick and Gayle! I nearly burst into tears as I related my tales of woe, they ushered me to my pitch and encourage me to pitch my tent soup. They had made dinner for me and extended to for Dara too, but had already added chicken so Laura sat with us while we ate. She was able to join in with pudding though. A chat with Mick about my miserable first day helped me to see the positives of my experience, after me initial mistakes. My decision making had been relatively sound considering the situation I found myself in. Croydon joined us later and I enjoyed a peppermint tea before retiring, later than intended and perhaps not as rested as I would have liked, I felt a little stressed by it all. But, thoughts of catching a bus the next day had evaporated, perhaps from Fort Augustus instead.
Sir Ian worked his magic.
NB. You will have noticed a distinct lack of photographs today. It was raining first thing and I tucked my camera safely away and never got round to taking it out again.

Day 4 Planned Invergarry campsite to Fort Augustus campsite
17km distance 270m total ascent

Lazy FWA Invergarry campsite to Fort Augustus Hostel
16km distance 347m total ascent

I didn't have a particularly good night, but it was not too bad either. I was awake early enough, but we didn't make for a quick escape. In fact, cups of tea and a bacon butty were enjoyed courtesy of Gayle and Mick before I eventually got packed up and we were on our way before 10:30 am. We only had 16 km to do, so there was no real hurry. I had opted to walk with Laura and Dara again, purely for the company as I was still feeling quite low, although the pain in my thighs was now much improved and my feet were still unblemished. In fact, I was beginning to enjoy myself. Perhaps this Challenge wasn't quite so bad after all.
The first 8 kilometres were along undulating woodland tracks, making use of the Great Glen Way. By the time we reached the canal at the Bridge of Oich, we decided it was time for lunch and a boot break. The bridge opened for a boat and there were plenty of tourists around, cyclists, plus a few Challengers. The route is pleasant if unremarkable and the rest of the day involved slowly plodding alongside the canal. There are no longer toilets at Kytra Lock, but the lady lock keeper let us use her tap to refresh our water bottles. Dara was in serious discomfort and slowed right down, but was happy for us to wander along ahead of him. We were keen to find some accommodation tonight to save us walking on to Blackburn Bothy after dinner, as I had originally planned.




I could not be bothered to move to take a better photograph of the old bridge

Once in Fort Augustus, we went in to the Londis to resupply painkillers, lunch for two days and Laura had an ice cream. I then loitered at some benches and looked after Laura's pack so that she could go further up the road to find a replacement gas canister. Croydon appeared along with Sheila Farley and another Challenger or two. When Laura returned, we realised we were short of B&B options, so a call was made to Morag's Hostel and a message left, then Dara got in touch to say two beds were available if we went straight there to claim them, so we did! Unfortunately they were top bunks in a mixed bunk room, but they were beds, so we took them.
Once showered, changed and slightly organised, we headed off to the pub for dinner. We took a table just the three of us, briefly joined by Bob as he waited for Tony and Lee, and then Gordon and Colin joined us.
I ate like a horse, whale and chips, followed by a posset with fruit and a shortbread biscuit.

Bruised elbow healing...

As usual, I was in bed later than I would have liked, but at least I had Sir Ian to drown out the snuffling and breathing going on.

Day 5 Planned Fort Augustus campsite to Chalybeate Spring
26km distance 1020m total ascent

FWA Fort Augustus to Melvaig Bothy
24.1km distance 1010m total ascent

I had a really poor night, not disturbed too much by the other room occupants returning late, but the chap in the bunk below me had a really odd twitching thing going on through the night, perhaps some kind of fitting. I wasn't sure if it would be that the killed him or the smothering.
Somehow, he survived.
We were dressed and downstairs for breakfast at 07:30. We still weren't packed, paid and organised before 10:00, but never mind.
I was enjoying walking with Laura and felt almost completely recovered, so decided to stay on my FWA for a while longer. Laura needed to pop by the Londis again and I'd thought I'd take advantage of the Post Office there and post my Paramo trousers home. I'd walked in my leggings the day before to give some relief from the pocket zips and it had made a huge difference. With the promised good weather, I thought I could manage wearing my leggings for two days even with no waterproof trousers. I had my thermal tights to change into at night as well as my other warm, dry clothes, so even if I got wet I could change once we had camped. The lady at the Post Office was dreadful. She was trying to insist on having a second address to post to, family, friend or neighbour, in case they were unable to deliver. She was determined this was the rule, despite being told my agreement with my local sorting office is for any undelivered post to be returned to them and I would collect. I gently, but firmly, refused to provide an alternative and although she was very unhappy, she still took my money and my parcel. One suspects she'd realised she'd got it wrong when I'd stated the arrangement made! Jobsworth.
We were eventually on our way, taking a different route to the Corrieyarrick Pass than I'd taken before, but once away from the road it was very pleasant. We were soon heading through the gate and uphill. There were a few new tracks encountered due to the Beauly to Denny power line, but on the whole not a bad stroll was had. I had to stop at the big gate to have a layers faff, so Laura walked on ahead. It didn't take long for me to catch up, but I was glad I'd bothered, as we continued uphill, the cloud came down and obviously, it started to rain lightly. It was a slow gradual climb until we reached Blackburn Bothy where we stopped for a good break. There we met Kathryn, Kate and Sarah. Kathryn was waiting for her walking partner Jenny, but we hadn't seen her. There was some concern as she should have been ahead of us, we wondered if somehow she'd missed the bothy turning or even if she'd been confused by the new tracks, but Kathryn thought this unlikely.

Getting swallowed by the cloud

We left Kathryn at the bothy with instructions that she would stay there and if any of us found Jenny, we would send her back. The girls were soon way ahead of us, disappearing at times into the cloud along with the track. We plodded on until we reached the little shelter just NW of Meallan Odhar. Here, we found the girls and the missing Jenny. She had found shelter and had something to eat, a good plan. She had also made contact with Challenge Control, but we knew Kathryn would have no signal at the bothy, so told Jenny she should return as Kathryn had wanted her to. Initially, Jenny was happy to do this but wanted to leave her pack, we persuaded this was unwise, as everything she might need was in her pack. We left her when we were sure she was following the plan, although I did look back until I saw leave with her pack, just to be sure.
It seemed to take an age to make our way to the top of the pass, onwards and upwards. All day! To the top, but eventually we were starting our way down, down, down the other side. The track was much improved since either of us had been on it several years ago, but it was still a tricky path, steep and strewn with loose rocks and stones. However, we wandered along quite happily, occasionally catching a glimpse of the girls ahead of us but not really ever closing the gap. You can see Melgarve Bothy for about a kilometre and a half before you reach it, which gave us plenty of time to plan our next move. My planned stop (as Laura was still off route and on my FWA) was Garva Bridge, but this is another six or so kilometres along the track which seemed like an awfully long way now. We had chatted about stopping at the bothy for a good break and then continuing, but I thought both of us were tiring now and perhaps we should just stop at the bothy for the night. We decided this was a good plan so I started my bedtime routine. The last ford before the bothy was in spate last time I'd crossed it, this time there was a new bridge! I forded anyway.
At the bothy we met the girls and Mike and Nigel. Mike had been walking with his daughter Amy (?) who had taken a day or two off with blisters, he would meet her again at Kingussie. Nigel was a first-timer who was suffering sore feet and I think just a touch of loneliness. We suggested various things to help, but mainly just trying to shorten his days if he had a spare one would help and some company can make all the difference.
Initially Laura and I decided to sleep on the landing upstairs, but once Kate had lit a marvellous fire downstairs, we realised we would be cold, so the girls kindly agreed to us sharing their room, which I'd shared previously with Pat Deane on my first Challenge. We had a very pleasant evening chatting, eating and relaxing, then off to share a cosy room with the girls, this was a good decision. Sir Ian didn't need much help.

Day 6 Planned Chalybeate Spring to Newtonmore Hostel
21km distance 495m total ascent

FWA Melvaig Bothy to Newtonmore Hostel
33.7km distance 571m total ascent

Today was going to be a long one. We knew that. It had not been too bad a night but it hadn't felt great. We had at least been cosy. We were up at a good time but still not off early, probably around 08:50. We were hoping for just a good, steady plod all day. By the time we were nearly at Garve bridge, we could see  what appeared to be a snack van ahead. As we arrived there were two people standing having dumped large packs and two people at what was now clearly a VW Camper, it was Vicky, Toby and Rowan! The two walkers were Challengers Pat and Helen. We had a lovely break, drinking tea and scoffing cake and tickling Rowan's toes. It put a smile on my face. After a nice chat it was time to move on and we walked as a foursome all the way to Laggan Stores. We had a boot break and lunch in a bit of shade just before the Spey Dam but unfortunately were leaving when Nigel arrived. He caught us again as we dithered at the junction for the General Wade's Military Road and the bridge to take the minor road to Laggan. We opted for the minor road as otherwise we would have to cross the same bridge twice at Laggan to visit the store and I knew it would put us off going across and taking a break.
Helen and I strolled on together, Pat and Laura behind us.

Laggan Stores were a welcome break. There's a public toilet opposite, we took turns to visit, from the store I had a fizzy drink and a large slice of coffee cake, sitting in the shade. It was bliss, but before too long it was time to walk on or we would be late getting into Newtonmore. Over the bridge we went, briefly along the A86, before turning towards Catlodge along the A889. This stretch was quite busy and we were possibly not as focussed on the road surface and more on the traffic as Laura suddenly found herself in a heap on the ground having turned her ankle in a pothole. Ouch! Three drivers stopped and put on their hazard warning lights, the driver from the car immediately in front of us came to our aid and offered help, he was deeply concerned for Laura. She reassured us she would be fine, I think we both just wanted off this busy road now, just short of two kilometres left of it. She didn't want to remove her boot for fear of swelling and I think it was offering good support, so we carefully walked on. Once on the minor road there was far less traffic, most of any there was slowed and gave us lots of room, I really rather enjoyed strolling along here. We took a boot break and snack stop at the Clan Macpherson Memorial on some handy benches there, then we strolled on some more to eventually meet the cycle track by the A9, then on to Ralia and then the road into Newtonmore.

It had been a long day by the time we reached the Hostel, after a quick hello to Gayle, Graeme, Croydon, Merv, Emma and Sally Philips, I dived straight in to the shower (forgetting to turn it in the corrider) and then into the laundry to sort some washing. Then I trotted outside to collect a bag from Gayle and to meet David, who'd brought spare leggings and my Paclites.
David came with me to the pub and with Laura we took a table for three, although he only had a drink. After a lovely meal, David had to go home, I decided I would actually quite like to continue with my Challenge so he left alone. We chatted with friends in the pub for a while before returning to the hostel. A crowd was gathered around the table in the kitchen and I stopped for a brief chat. I thought that now I was continuing and feeling in such good spirits I should make the most of the current good weather and take the opportunity to return to my main route and go through the Lairig Ghru as planned. I asked Laura and she seemed agreeable to this, she would continue on her own FWA from here, along with many Challengers also going through Glen Feshie, so she would have lots and varied company. I would have Mick.
Sir Ian did his best to calm my mind.

Day 7 Planned Newtonmore hostel to Cairngorm Club Footbridge
31km distance 400m total ascent

As planned
33km distance 475m total ascent

I never have a brilliant night in a bed on the Challenge and I was awake at 04:50 but I didn't get up until 06:00, after the "Door Slammer" had left. I made tea, did my hip exercises and then sat in a comfy seat to eat the two cereal bars Emma had given me. Mick and Croydon appeared, as did Merv. The Door Slammer returned for his forgotten items, having wasted an hour walking, slammed some more and left again. When Laura got up I took the opportunity to go back to the bedroom and pack, having unpacked far more than intended the night before. Mick made me a coffee and we left about half an hour after Laura, I popped into the Co-op for some fresh supplies for the next two days, we were on our way shortly after 08:30.
Today would start with around 8 kilometres of road walking until we reached Tromie Bridge. We caught up with Laura shortly after passing Ruthven Barracks and she wished us a good day, we continued to meet the woodland paths at Drumguish, by which time we were ready for a break. I was pretty sure that there was a bench overlooking some open ground, so we walked on until we found it, nearly two kilometres further on. We had a nice break and just briefly looked at the stats so far, 10km at roughly 5km/h, not a bad pace with a 12.5kg pack! I expected to slow down over the rest of the day, but in the end we maintained that pace most of the day. It was a very warm day, again. At Inveruglas we went off through Inshriach Forest to pick up a riverside track to reach Feshiebridge. We met a DofE group on their Bronze practice and had a brief chat with their Supervisors, who were keen to keep a close eye on their charges. We were soon at the bridge where we called lunch and I suggested a nice spot just beside the river. Here we were entertained by two young men and their dog. The dog was very friendly and persistent, one of the boys decided to go tombstoning off the bridge, not something I particularly wanted to witness but luckily he didn't die. They didn't stay for long. They were replaced by a group of young children on some sort of outdoor activity adventure, they were equipped with swimming gear and floats, but we didn't stay long after they arrived.

The Bench of Requirement

Off we went again to make our way through the Moor of Feshie to Loch Gamhna and Loch an Eilein, then onwards through the Rothiemurchus Forest to the Cairngorm Club Footbridge and in to camp. We arrived at around 17:30 at the planned pitch by the Allt Druidh and it is a really lovely spot. Unfortunately another DofE group also thought this, their Supervisor arrived by bike shortly after we started to pitch and apologised in advance of her group disturbing us. They were chatty when they arrived, from the same school as the previous group, they seemed singularly unimpressed that we had walked more than twice the distance they had. We pitched, collected water and started the evening routine.

I had been zipped in my tent getting in to my pyjamas and when I opened my door again there was a bike laid on the grass in front of my tent. I was puzzled as to why the teacher would leave her bike there and leaned forward to ask Mick what was going on only to find Gayle, sitting eating Mick's dinner, drinking his tea and wearing his warm jacket! Does that count as an 'assisted crossing'? It was a lovely surprise, but it was soon time for her to cycle back to Bertie and leave Mick and I to settle down for the evening. I was in bed by 20:30 and snuggled up with Sir Ian, hoping for a good night and an early start...

Day 8 Planned Cairngorm Club Footbridge to Derry Lodge
22km distance 675m total ascent

As planned
21.5km distance 750m total ascent

So today was the day I've been looking forward to for so long, I've been hoping to be able to go through the Lairig Ghru for so long but timing and weather has so often been against me, this was too good an opportunity to miss.
I'd had not too bad a night, despite having woken a few times. We got chatting over breakfast which slowed my progress with packing a bit and we were off to a slightly later than planned start. It was not a bad day, lovely weather, with just enough breeze to keep me cool as the path took us gently but persistently uphill. Once up into the pass itself, we took regular breaks for rest and snacks, with some entertainment provided by three people who'd decided to come down from Braeriach and cross the pass to then climb up the scree slopes towards Ben Macdui, mad fools. We saw only two other Challengers all day, Brisbane Bob and Jim Davidson.

Spot the ptarmigan, playing hide and seek

Last look back towards Aviemore

The boulder fields were perhaps time-consuming until I found a rhythm when crossing them, but I didn't find them difficult. I almost enjoyed them! That might have had something to do with the excellent weather. We had a last break together just passed Corrour Bothy and then Mick was keen to crack on to the proposed camp at Derry Lodge and I was happy to plod on alone at my own pace. There were a few other walkers at this point, but no Challengers. I maintained a good pace alone until I reached the Luibeg ford, which I had kind of forgotten about. Only from the point of view that I hadn't closely researched it and couldn't remember what it was like, but decided there was so little water around the river was likely to be low. If not, then I'd be walking back up to the bridge. As I reached the ford, a gentleman appeared ahead of me and I waited for him to cross as he was taking the route I thought most doable. It was for him, but he had longer legs. We chatted a while, he was andex-Challenger looking for David Hardy and his group, who was expected to be at the bothy, but I had not seen them. He kindly spotted me across the river, offering support but no advice as fording is so dependent on choice, ability, confidence and such.

Looking in to An Garbh Choire

Into Glen Dee passed The Devil's Point

Corrour Bothy, just left of centre, below The Devil's Point

Once across, with more or less dry feet, I was beginning to feel weary and ready to make camp, but still had just over two kilometres to walk. It felt like an unreasonably long time before I finally reached Derry Lodge by about 17:15, tired, and found Mick chatting with Brisbane Bob but not having pitched. Jim arrived shortly after me. Mick and I wandered off to find a suitable spot and wandered back again as none better was found. Once I was pitched and getting organised for the night, other Challengers began to arrive, including Sam Hackett, Terry Leyland, Paul, Bob, Lee and Tony.

I'd eaten my dinner and was tucked up in my sleeping bag relaxing when Mick said through the side of my tent "Are you awake, would you like pudding?" "Yes please!!" I unzipped the door a few inches and an outstretched hand appeared, holding a small pot containing some warmed Christmas Pudding. It was lush!!
Sir Ian didn't have to work too hard to send me to sleep.

Day 9 Planned Derry Lodge to Braemar campsite
14km distance 220m total ascent

As planned
15.8km distance 334m total ascent

Today is a lovely short day, so waking at 05:00 was a little unnecessary, especially as I'd told Mick I was unlikely to be up in time to get into Braemar for breakfast, but here I was awake in good time after a relatively good night. It was a bit chilly this morning, but I'd barely noticed it in the night as my new Mountain Equipment Glacier 450W is wonderful. I just pottered in the tent, taping my foot (preventative again) and having breakfast and was up in time to set off with Mick after all.  I got all packed except for my tent, which I was dreading packing due to the frost, but Mick kindly offered to give me a hand, understanding the Raynauds problem as he does. We made good time despite a comfort break and layers faff for me and we were soon calling in at Marr Lodge for a cup of tea and a biscuit. There were a few Challengers there, including Croydon and Shap and several others. Brisbane Bob caught us up here and we set off again towards Braemar with Sam as well. As we reached the Morrone Birkwood turn off Sam opted to road walk and we went through the woodland to the viewpoint. It's the third time I've taken this route and this time actually went by the duck pond which I've not seen before, after a small diversion. We arrived in to Braemar by 11:30 and I was utterly delighted to be able to book in to the campsite for the Fog Pod that Laura and I was sharing together. I was keen for her to arrive to see how she'd got on with her sore ankle, having had the same experience myself three years ago when I'd been blown off a peat hag and somehow walked mainly alone to the coast.

 Short detour

Ian was at the campsite and after I'd had my shower I popped by to see him and to have tea and biscuits and Lindt dark chocolate, yum. After a little while, Mick, Graeme and I decided it was time for brunch and we went to Gordon's Tea Rooms where we were joined by lovely David Pickles. I enjoyed scampi and chips and a pot of tea before popping in to the Co-op to re-supply (there was a dinky but useful fridge in the pod) before returning to the pod and sorting out my laundry. On the way back to the pod I spotted some friends from home, one of my Gold DofE participants, Kathryn, her dad Nick who helped us support her group and her mum Liz. I was sure Nick and Mick would know each other, so having dumped my clean, dry washing I popped over to see them and called Mick over too. Of course they knew each other and we were invited to join them for a cup of tea and a chat, during which there was an exciting moment with a cup of coffee which then required Mick to remove his trousers quite quickly which Liz whisked away to wash.
I had seen Laura arrive at camp and she had been able to get her chores sorted but she didn't join us at Graeme's table at Gordon's for dinner. We were joined by Emma, Kev, Russ, Herman and Cyril. We had a lovely evening and I thoroughly enjoyed my wild boar burger followed by orange sorbet.

Laura and I arrived back at the pod at about the same time and were both ready to climb into bed and sleep. Sir Ian was on form.

Day 10 Planned Braemar campsite to Ballater campsite
29km distance 300m total ascent

As planned
30.9km distance 449m total distance

Today was going to be a long day. Especially as it started at 05:00 when I needed a pee! At least I could just nip to the toilet block and then get back into my cosy sleeping bag. However, I'd been able to hear the wild weather outside all night and was expecting tent devastation on the campsite. Mick was still tucked up in his billowing tent when I passed. I returned to bed but not to sleep and eventually got up again around 07:00, this time Mick had gone. I had coffee and two pain au raisin for breakfast as Laura got up and got packed. She was ready before me and set off, I got packed up and went to meet Emma before setting off along the road together.
Just as we left the village we met a gentleman Emma recognised, Lindy's husband, Ron (?). Lindy was ahead of us, so Ron shouted her and she waited while Emma and I caught her up. Neither of them knew about the path through the gate that saves just a little road walking, so I took them. Lindy was also suffering with her feet, so we walked at a gentle pace. The path exits onto the road at the same place as the Lion's Face path from the campsite, the gate is usually locked but the fence is easy to climb through, although I made a meal of it, as per. We met a group of three Challengers shortly before reaching Invercauld Bridge, had a brief chat and then directed them to the next gate. We took a brief rest at the next junction and then continued through this wonderful woodland, I always enjoy this walk through the Ballochbuie Forest.
Shortly after crossing the Glenbeg Burn, I was aware we were being followed, the chap eventually caught us shortly before Garbh Allt Shiel and turned out to be Hillplodder Matthew King, a fellow Twitterer. We walked together to Connachat Cottage where we decided to take a good break. It was a lovely rest and we had a really good catch up with Lindy who always amazes me with her determination and good spirits in the face of adversity. Nicole appeared just as we were setting off making good time, she headed off on the Gelder Shiel path, followed by Lindy. It was a group of three that then headed all the way to Ballater together.
Lovely Lindy

We made our way steadily through the estate until we neared the castle, where we decided we should visit the tea rooms. I've never called here before and was, as usual, a little navigationally challenged by buildings, but a few handy sign posts helped us find our way and we were soon making ourselves comfortable at a table outside amongst ordinary tourists. Emma and I went in and chose drinks and scones, followed by Matt. Another two chaps sat at a table behind us and I think they may also have been Challengers. We took a good long break here, boots off, I think all of us just putting off the inevitable road walk ahead of us on this really warm day.

After making use of the facilities, lovely they were too, we eventually set off. I was momentarily confused by the exit from the castle, I'm sure it's changed since I was last there, but we found our way out and onto the minor road we would follow all the way. It's a rather nice leafy lane most of the way, some exposed stretches and unfortunately lacking in picnic benches, and we managed to keep a  slow but steady pace, finding reasonable places to rest and for boot breaks. I had tired feet, but felt okay, Emma had very sore feet and had to walk the last couple of kilometres in her crocs. Matt had a very annoying cough, for him as well as for us, we were quite concerned that it was more than 'just a cough'. We met the same elderly gentleman carrying a small gym bag several times and it eventually became apparent that he was also a Challenger who had bussed ahead and left his rucksack, bussed back and walking without it, "I've walked this road with a big pack before, it's hard." We know.
We saw two young adders on the road within a short distance of each other, sadly both dead but neither of them squashed. they appeared to have died of head injuries, perhaps inflicted by a bird?

We eventually reached Ballater and the campsite shortly after 18:00, (although I forgot to stop my Viewranger track until after I'd had my shower!) but the reception was already shut. A sign suggested I should pitch anyway and pay before departure in the morning, which was fine by me. Ian was again in residence, as was Mick and Gayle in Bertie. Laura had obviously arrived ahead of us and a good many other Challengers. We made our way to the pub in good time where there were yet more Challengers, Lynsey, Richard, Rosemary, Humphrey, Tom, Russ, Herman, Brian and probably more. Lots of people that know me and I don't know them...
We had a lovely meal with good company before making our way back to the campsite, where we popped in to Bertie and had a cup of peppermint tea with Mick and Gayle before turning in for the night. A bit late perhaps, but a very pleasant evening. Sir Ian drowned out Matt's coughing.

Day 11 Planned Ballater campsite to Fungle Road
25km distance 540m total ascent

As planned
23.7km distance 544m total ascent

Well, considering all the coughing (mine as well) I had not a bad night. Had to get up around 06:00 for a pee and could not get back to sleep, so no idea how we were going for breakfast not long before 10:00! Laura had been ready sometime earlier and I had given her a hug and wished her luck as she was due to finish on Wednesday. However, we didn't have a particularly long or arduous day ahead and were in no hurry. We had a good breakfast, I had a bacon butty followed by apple strudel cake and cream with a pot of tea. We were joined by Brian, who I'd recognised at the campsite but could not remember who he was or where from. Of course, he was Brian that I'd walked through Glen Tanar with last time I'd gone this way in 2016. Sadly he'd just had to retire this year with a bad back, such a shame. We bid him farewell and made our way to Co-op, bumping in to the wonderful Humphrey again. We were soon on our way at around 10:45. Good job we were in no hurry.
The Deeside Way is a very pleasant stroll from Ballater to Dinnet and we took our time but at a steady pace. There were boot breaks when a suitable spot appeared and we even managed to get tea and scones at the hotel at Dinnet. Interesting flat scone, but it tasted nice. We made full use of the facilities and also filled our water bottles, then headed off to cross the bridge and make our way in to the Glen Tanar estate, another estate that I am fond of. I took a different route from last time, so no prickly gorse bashing.
This time we wandered along through rather pretty woodland to reach a bridge by the car park which led us to the visitor centre. Here we had a brief chat with two estate rangers who asked us where we were headed. I was a little coy in my answer, I don't like giving out precise information sometimes, but they did mention a fresh water tap at the other end of the building and I thought filling  my spare soft platy might be a really good idea, the water source I'd used last time on the Fungle Road was likely to be even less pleasant in the current dry spell. I persuaded Emma to do the same, I think she was glad she had in the end as the water did not look appetising.

Unidentified structure as we left the road at Dinnet

Glen Tanar Visitor Centre

After using the facilities we walked on, passed the church and onwards uphill to the viewpoint. Here we had a boot break. A familiar cough heralded the arrival of Matt, accompanied by another Challenger who turned out to be Twitterer Graham Taylor. We chatted a while, all of us being cagey of our respective routes and pitches, obviously not wanting anyone to pinch our spots!
We left shortly after the boys and I again decided on a different track from last time, and instead of staying on the Firmounth Road, we headed more directly for Baudy Meg, avoiding any possible diversion later on due to the grumpy Capercallie. This involved a gentle but persistent climb through beautiful woodland, at the top of which we turned slightly NW to meet another track and turn S. We then displayed some very pleasing navigation, at the mid point on the bealach, we headed off roughly SW, in almost a straight line to gain the Fungle Road. It was beautifully done! Well, except after the first two steps taken into the heather, I threw myself to the floor. I felt better when Emma stuck her foot down a big hole and took a tumble, but we were both uninjured. The weather however began to deteriorate, becoming windy and a little cooler, the dark clouds looming suggested there would be rain at some point. We both paused to don our jackets. We gained the desired track, well done ladies! Even if I do say so myself. We then headed S and followed it to the locked bothy I'd pitched behind with Brian in 2016. Just before we reached the bothy, we spotted Matt pitching on a dry patch in the middle of a bog, we tried to attract his attention, but the wind carried away our shouts and he never saw us.

Strange yellow metal object in the middle of the heather

So obviously, we both had our photograph taken with it...

We pitched facing each other quite closely at the southern gable end of the bothy to stay out of the worst of the wind. This meant we could continue to chatter throughout the evening, much enjoying having good company, we'd had a brilliant time, full of gossip and giggles all day. As I was tucking into my evening meal, Emma claimed to hear voices, which I admit I found a shade worrying, until two people appeared around the corner of the building, Markus Petter introduced himself and his sister Silke and they were wonderful, full of joy and laughter. They pitched around the corner, perhaps not as sheltered as us, but obviously quite happy.

Spot Matt's tent...

Tarfside tomorrow! I was really looking forward to catching up with more Challengers and especially my vetters, Ann and Alvar. Soon Sir Ian was lulling me to sleep.

Day 12 Planned Fungle Road to Tarfside
16km distance 555m total ascent

As planned (although, maybe by a different track...)
14.6km distance 426m total ascent

I had an absolutely rubbish night, totally convinced some creature was digging under my tent. I may have been a little worried about damage to my groundsheet, or my Synmat, and I was also pitched with the inevitable downhill slope and spent much time during the night repositioning myself and my mat. There was also wind and rain during the night, I wasn't disturbed so much by the noise as by the thought of packing away a wet tent, a pet hate. I was up at 05:00 to put on waterproofs and nip out for an early pee. It was nice to return to my cosy sleeping bag, but I didn't get back to sleep. Emma was up at 07:00, but we still weren't off to a quick start, we left around 09:00, but again we had a short day and weren't worried, so long as we got to Tarfside in time to bag a bed...

We stayed on the Fungle Road and had a really good track all day, although it was quite steep with a loose surface after we'd reached the top and we started heading downhill. I felt surprisingly weary despite it being a short day so we still had one or two breaks. Initially we were walking in low cloud and drizzle, the views kept disappearing and reappearing, once we were going down towards Tarfside we were walking under blue skies and in sunshine again.We reached Tarfside in good time and bagged a room each. After tea and bacon butties, we each had a shower and did a little bit of washing, I was afraid if I laid down for a rest I might sleep till morning! So instead I sat in the lounge and socialised for the rest of the afternoon until enjoying a wonderful meal followed by cake and a sleepy tea. There were so many familiar faces and friends and I had a lovely evening.

We briefly popped down to the camping field to catch up with a few more friends, especially Craig and Vicky Gulley who had sadly had to retire this year. I soon realised I was feeling cold as I was so, so tired, so we bid them goodnight and returned to the hostel, meeting Pat and Helen as they made their way in to Tarfside. I was in bed before everyone had finished eating and chatting in the lounge, but they didn't disturb me. I woke later with Sir Ian still reading to me and needed a pee, I was obviously well hydrated, it was still not late.

Day 13 Planned Tarfside to North Water Bridge campsite
28km distance 225m total ascent

As planned
28.7km distance 338m total ascent

And so, we start the march to the coast.
I had an absolutely dire night, I realised I was running a temperature and getting a cold which was not the best timing. I felt dreadful. I was up and ready to leave just gone 07:00 so went to the kitchen for a cup of tea and to settle my bill. We bid farewell and thank you to Ann, Alvar and the rest of the volunteers, then made our way to The Retreat for breakfast. Kevin and I set a bit of a burning pace, but we weren't going far along the road and it was a grey and gloomy start so it wasn't too hot at this point. We were the lucky ones at the Retreat and got a good breakfast including a huge and very tasty sausage and eggs, which we'd been told they didn't have. I slid mine on to Kevin's plate as I'm not a fan of egg and baked beans. He didn't mind. The lady kindly filled our water bottles and didn't charge us for our drinks as we'd had a long wait, we used the facilities, then started on the walking. We walked along the road a way before turning off over a bridge and continued through the fields. There were rests and boot breaks and lots of Challengers. We eventually turned off over another bridge, a short spell on the road, then off in to the woods towards the Rocks of Solitude. Actually, we took a middle path and never made it to the stone bench, but did find a handy wooden bench before reaching the Blue Gate. Here, we had lunch.

I was feeling weary and tired today, my cold was taking its toll, by the time we reached Edzell I was ready to stop but I wasn't really hungry. I needed to eat though, so I chose quiche and salad and a coke to try to give me some energy. After eating we left our packs and walked to the Spar in order to pick up a few supplies, mainly chocolate for me, returned for our packs and set off for the last leg of the day, crossing the River North Esk and taking farm tracks to avoid the road. We popped onto the road briefly after Chapleton, then off again at Northgate to take a track almost directly to the campsite at North Water Bridge. It's not the most inspiring of walks, but with the company we had much chat and laughter. Once at the campsite we booked in then pitched our tents, before going to visit Ian who was once again in residence and offering refreshments and chocolate. It wasn't long before I realised I was just too shattered and I had to go to bed. I had some food and a hot drink in my tent before turning in for the night, although I was again briefly awake a few hours later when I needed a pee, but back to my bed and off to sleep again.

Day 14 Planned North Water Bridge campsite to Montrose
13km distance 110m total ascent

As planned
13.1km distance 120m total ascent

Well, that was a slightly better night, but the mid-night pee can stop now! It was 05:00 and I knew I was awake for the day. I got up slowly but was ready and off with Emma and Kevin by 08:15. Could not remember if there was a footpath straight to the A90, so took the long way around the corner. There was a brief dicing with death as we crossed this major road, then off onto busy minor roads. Just a kilometre into the walk and Emma and Kevin turned off to take a different route to the coast, I was continuing all the way to Montrose on my own. It's a surprisingly busy road and there was much leaping on and off the verge, where there is one, most of the drivers gave room but didn't slow down, which can be very disconcerting.

I was perhaps on a bit of a route march, but I was very aware that the walk today was roughly the distance I would walk on my daily route at home, so I automatically set my pace the same as I would usually. I had researched a different, more direct route from Hillside, using some core paths, and so once I reached the village I turned down a side road, Lamondfauld Road. I walked along this quiet lane to the end, then turned right and left on to a marked track that would take me through farm land directly to the outskirts of Montrose. From there, I would cross the A92 and follow this road to the point where I could leave it and make my way to the beach. I was grinning inanely at this point, I'm used to people along the west coast being friendly and chatty as Challengers arrive, but not one person spoke, although most smiled.

As I made my way to the sand a little old dear leaving the beach with her dog said "There isn't much beach." I replied, "That's okay, it's the sea I'm after!" This had been a really easy route to Montrose, I had made it in a little under three hours and I felt unusually emotional, the sea was easy to reach. This must was my first lone finish and I loved it. I dipped my toes and took the necessary photographs before making my way back to the tarmac and to The Park, where I signed back in at Control.

Looking north along the beach

 Toes dipped...

Happy face

It was a little while before my room was ready, but once it was I was able to have a wonderful shower, eat the remaining food in my pack, have a nap and then make my way back to meet and greet all my friends, old and new and celebrate this, my sixth crossing. I was in bed quite late, but I had the room to myself and no one to disturb.

The Last Day

The only travel today would be done not just in comfort, but in luxury, as Mick and Gayle were heading my way and were able to offer me a lift. I had another wonderful shower, then headed down to breakfast. I had a much more restrained breakfast than usual, as I knew I wouldn't be spending so long travelling and hungry, but I was in good company with Emma, Lindy and Gordon. There is usually quiet chatter at breakfast, most of the excitement is over. I was much happier this year as I didn't have to go through the torture of waving off all my friends at the station and waiting for the train going in the opposite direction. As we sat, Nigel finished his breakfast and made to leave, but on his way passed he stopped to speak. I congratulated him on finishing, I knew he had struggled and as a first-timer I thought he'd found it tough, feeling perhaps a bit of an outsider. I asked if he would be back and was so pleased when he said that he would. He then thanked me for my support and encouragement.
I almost cried. I have been there myself, as have most Challengers, when you feel pain and misery, lonely and out of your depth. Other Challengers have always been there for me at those times, as they were at the start of this Challenge, and here I was being thanked for offering the same comfort  and support to a new Challenger. My coming of age.


Unknown said...

Nice one Louise!

Louise said...

Thanks Kevin 😊

Robin said...

The literal and psychological ups and downs of the Challenge! Well done on getting through them. As usual, an enjoyable read and some little snippets for possible future routes. I’m hoping I will be able to do it next year.

Louise said...

Thank you Robin, I certainly had highs and lows this year, so glad I pushed through though. Look forward to seeing you next May! ...if we're both lucky 😉

Gayle said...

As always, a fantastic read.

My main thought on your little adventure on Day 1 is that either you beat yourself up far too much for making less-than-ideal decisions, or I don't beat myself up enough in equivalent situations (of which there has been more than 1)!

As I'm sure you know, there are many positives that can be taken from having lived to tell the tale, a key one being that next time you do something daft in such a context you'll be able to think "well, it's not as bad as the first day of TGOC 2018!".

(Right, now I have to get this to post without accidentally deleting it ... again.)

Louise said...

Ha! Yes, so true. I will bear that in mind, next time 😉😂

Willie Todd said...

A very good story of your walk. Makes me wish it was next May already! Unfortunately it's often humans that kill the adders.

Louise said...

Thank you. Indeed, I am already very excited about a possible route and already making efforts to be fit for it!
I would agree about the adders, unfortunately, I was suspicious as they were so close together, but the injuries were quite specific and although the photograph isn't clear (when on my own, without the ridiculous pack, I tend to be more forensic in my investigations, some people find this behaviour odd...) I *think* it was possibly a bird on this occasion.

Phreerunner said...

Thank you Louise for a most entertaining hour. Well done on finishing and for your prompt and excellent write up, which I’ve read during enforced lay off due to op on Friday. Your ‘pee reports’ are great, and I thank them for stimulating the most important ‘post-op activity’ for me. Which was not a pee!
Well done, and see you next year...

Louise said...

Thanks Martin, happy to have been a part of your post-op entertainment. Hopefully see you next year, if we're both lucky in the draw. I have a route 😉

Phreerunner said...

Sue and I are working on a route from Torridon - I've never started from there.

Louise said...

I have a Torridon route 'on file'...

Alan Sloman said...

Not many to go now until you make ten crossings...
It's so easy to get down in the dumps when you're on your own. The trick then is to find some company and there's no better company than another Challenger who has also been struggling; the miles then fly by.
Cracking read, Missy. Thank you.

Louise said...

Company is key, I learned last year, so this time I knew what to do. Took a while, but got there!
Thank you x

Unknown said...

Louise,congratulations on your crossing and sharing this write up. I think the company you meet is what helps make the whole challenge into something special. Thanks again and may see you next year.

Louise said...

Hi Nigel! Thank you and thanks for popping by! You are absolutely right, it's the people you meet that makes the Challenge what it is, so glad you will be back, look forward to bumping into you again somewhere.

Judith said...

A great read which I've been saving til I had the time to do it justice. I was quite touched this year when someone thanked me for a previous kindness, so I know what you mean about developing into the sort of Challenger who can give support as well as being supported.
Well done for carrying on through the tough parts!

Louise said...

Thanks Judith!
Definitely a nice feeling, being a 'grown up' Challenger.
I keep hoping for fewer tough parts, but seem to manage to find/make them. Adds to the sense of achievement, don't you think? 😉

Steve and Paula said...

Louse, just read your blog and myself and Stephen had nothing but admiration for you on this years challenge. Your determinitation was an inspiration and we would never have guessed you had thoughts of giving up. Although having said that, the lure of an easy ride out does cross ones mind towards the end of a tiring day! We've got the challenge bug and will be there again next year for Stephens 2nd and my 3rd!!! Hope to see you again Paula and Stephen ����‍♀️������

Holly said...

Hi Louise. I love your adventures. Are you in for 2019? I was not able to finish 2018, but I had a goal to finish it if I got in for next year. LUCKILY... I got in, along with my daughter. She acts not excited but I think deep down she really is. HA! I hope to cross paths with you.. would love to meet you.

Louise said...

Steve and Paula, thank you! The first few days were a serious struggle, painful scrapes and bruises and beating myself up mentally, I do make life hard for myself! Walking with friends definitely helped me through that and I gave myself a good talking to. Glad you're coming back again and I look forward to bumping into you again, hopefully I'll be enjoying myself!!

Louise said...

Hello Holly! Thank you for popping by. Sorry you didn't finish this year, it is a really hard decision to make, (I've had to retire twice before) but you know what to expect now and will be better prepared to cope with it. Expect the unexpected! So glad you and your daughter have place for next year, so do I! My youngest daughter wants to Challenge with me but I'll have to wait for her to finish university first. I look forward to meeting you, somewhere!!