TGO Challenge 2012 Strathcarron to Braidon Bay (Well, it started off that way...)

I decided almost as soon as I finished my first Challenge last year that I should have another go. It was a huge achievement for anyone to complete last year as the weather conditions were testing, but I still felt a little disappointed in myself. I seemed to have accidently stumbled across Scotland on a wave of kindly Challengers and finished in a complete daze. As I'd set off, I'd been anxious that there was something I'd not considered or planned for, but everything went better than I could have hoped for with regards my route and gear, so this year I was able to follow the same planning method, enabling me to feel prepared and far less anxious, maybe.
This year, I would complete the TGO Challenge with More Style, Less Drama Queen...

The Start

Thursday 10th May 2012

I'd collected Laura from the bus stop on Wednesday so that she could have a sleepover and we could talk Challenge for the evening. I'd cooked a rather lush veggie meal and after we'd all eaten together as a family, the great pack began. This is where a good spreadsheet comes in handy. I knew exactly what I was looking for and mostly where to find it. There was soon a mountain of stuff on the lounge floor next to a rather small looking Osprey Exos 58. Really? Oh yes. But miracles happen and it all went in. I only had to empty and repack once, quite an achievement, I thought.
Laura had a deflating night as her Neoair sprung a leak, but at least we could deal with that and popped into Craigdon Mountain Sports near the bus station to buy a replacement before heading for the station. I was still feeling fine.
Colin, Laura and me! (Pack looks reasonable, I thought)
There were Challengers, but not an overwhelming amount. We were soon on the train sharing a table with Andy Howell and Shap and on our way.
There was chat and swapping of news and tales. I have been told since I looked terrified. This is probably true. Oh dear.
I booked in and met first timers Carol Kyle and Sandy Main in reception, looking calm and relaxed. My room was lovely and I did a good job of not unpacking so I didn't have to stress about getting it all back in! I went for a stroll to do the obligatory toe dip and strolled back, watching deer across the fields (wild or farmed?) and getting rained on. 
Neat room
Toe dipping
When I went to the bar at about 4.15pm, Mike Gillespie, Alan MacDonald and Brian Martin were already in the bar with Colin Reid, all very refined drinking tea from cups with dinky little tea pots on trays. I sat down with a pint of Red Coulin, start the way I mean to go on I thought.
Vanessa Ling arrived soon after and over the evening other Challengers joined us, including Mike and Marion Parsons, Carl Mynott, Mike Knipe, Tony Bennett, Sue Oxley, Heather T-S and David Albon. There was eating and drinking and chat and stories. I realised I was to face a fortnight of "You're Louise!" or "Oh, that Louise!", equally unnerving. A pleasant evening was had, new friends made and old friendships renewed. This Challenge had potential.

Day One

Friday 11th May
Strathcarron to Allt Coire a Charra
11.8 miles 2406 feet

I signed out and finally left at about 9.30am, but I don't think I was the last to leave. (Okay, there was Nicole Morschett and John Jocys who both arrived and left Strathcarron around lunch time and still managed to catch me up!) The  Damned Hobnailed Butterflies  were back. With a vengeance. Breakfast was unfortunately the same ordeal as last year, except at least this time I wasn't Billy No Mates on a table on my own, I was able to share my anxieties with David, Sue and Heather, who were all very kind and encouraging. After they left me with my struggles, I was joined by Vanessa who had stayed too long in the bar last night and Carol and Sandy. How are all these people so calm? What is wrong with me?! I fret about fretting, I know I need to get a grip but I can't.  A small bowl of cornflakes, half a slice of toast, some beans and a rasher of bacon later and I have to admit defeat. Maybe the walking will help.
Looking back to the hotel and station
Off I went, map in hand, making adjustments every few steps to my pack and attire, faffing on the move. I left the main road at Achintee and after being a little disturbed by finding signposts (I never trust them, signs just want to misplace me!) I was off up the hill and into the wilds. It didn't take long, with a little huffing and puffing, to leave all signs of civilisation behind and feel I was entering a vast wilderness. On my own. With a map and compass. Hmmm, should have thought about that a bit more!
Into the wild
The weather was okay, if a little threatening. There were a few showers and at times a brisk breeze, but on the whole, not an unpleasant walking day. I stopped often to check I was still on track, I am terribly doubtful of myself at times and I regularly paused to orientate the map, check my surroundings and pick out landmarks. Of course I wasn't lost, I just had to convince myself. There wasn't another soul in sight. I did however feel fine, no nausea, no anxiety, just walking and musing and soaking in the wilderness. 
There be weather out there
Eventually I could see a bothy deep in the glen below and hopefully, it would be Bendronaig Lodge! It takes a little care to pick out the path to join a decent track. That track takes you briefly out of view of the bothy, which is a little disheartening, but then you find this delightful little bridge, a curiously pretty man made feature in this otherwise virtually untouched land.
Pretty bridge
Bendendroig Lodge bothy
The main room
When I reached the bothy I found Carol, Sandy and another couple whose name I've forgotten (this could become a running theme...) and an indoor toilet! My new friends soon disappeared (?!) in the direction of Maol-bhuidhe I believe and I started as I meant to go on (again) by taking off my boots, firing up the trusty Flash and having a proper, warm, sit down lunch. After a while I was joined by Nicole. Nicole and I were both first timers last year but never met. We've briefly connected via our blogs this last year so it was lovely to meet and chat. Bit depressing that she'd caught me up after leaving at lunch time however! She made crumbs then soon left me as I decided to wait for Vanessa as I fancied a bit of walking company by now. She arrived and rested a while before we carried on towards Pait Lodge. The afternoon had brightened considerably, but there was still the odd shower and a slight chill in the air.
 Looking brighter
We walked for a short while, chatting and catching up, before we happened upon a crossing. There was one of 'those' dodgy looking bridges or a ford. I wasn't keen on either, nor was Vanessa, so how I found myself being leader and tottering across the bridge I'll never know. There was much careful foot placement and waiting for the swaying to stop between each step, but I made it. Looking back, not quite sure how I managed the last bit. I encouraged Vanessa across, despite her apprehension. Afterwards she told me that despite not being able to hear my words, my voice was calming and helped. Good stuff.
Ah. One of 'those' bridges
We walked and chatted and breathed until reaching the feature described on the map as 'shieling'. This is an overstatement, but one I was aware of, so we found shelter on the far side of it just for a rest. Vanessa was in some discomfort from her slightly stuffed pack and after a while, I realised she'd gone awfully quiet.
"Vanessa? Are you all right?"
"...I'd just nodded off."
A figure appeared on the track behind us and I recognised JJ (oh yes, I was caught up by a second late starter, oh dear) and he paused whilst we gathered ourselves together and we walked on as a loose group for a couple of miles. We spotted a group of three tents and a figure bounded towards us across the heather. Heather T-S did the photograph thing and gave us a brief catch up of their snowy exploits before we stumbled on and JJ decided to pitch by the track at All Coire a Charra. Vanessa and I had really both intended to camp beyond Pait Lodge, but it was getting late, probably gone 9pm by then, so we thought it was sensible to stop and wandered down the burn a way to find a sheltered spot for two. We were soon pitched, fed and tucked up ready for bed.
 Wild camp one

Day Two

Saturday 12th May
Allt Coire a Charra to Allt Uchd Rodha
13 miles 1904 feet

The day dawned bright after a cold, cold night, but luckily it had only snowed on the hills. I was glad I wasn't heading up there!
 Bright sunshine
 The view south-east from camp
 Upstream from camp
If only I could tell the time! I made a classic mistake in the night, finding my watch and trying to see the time. I pressed oh so many buttons to find the light and then, because of my appalling eyesight, couldn't read it anyway. As the day dawned, I could see more, grabbed the watch and had another go. Ah, 7am, perfect start time! So I packed up, even though it was still all quiet from the tent next door. As I was ready to drop the tent, I checked the time again. It said "Alarm set 7am". This is not good I thought. I pressed another button, 5.17am was displayed.
Oh bum.
A tad early, perhaps.
I tarried awhile, killing time and pottering about, but eventually realised I just had to make a move. I wrote a note and used a spare tent peg to pop it just inside her fly. I didn't want her to worry or feel offended by my sudden, somewhat early departure. As luck would have it, after a bit more faffing, she woke and I was able to explain my foolishness. Oh goody, I like people to know the real idiot inside.
Off I went, only to be waylaid a short while later by a tardy JJ in his tent, second, third or even fourth coffee in hand? We chatted a while (quite calming, considering The Damned Hobnailed Butterflies were back) and then he remembered the card he was carrying that he'd been charged with collecting signatures, so another small delay as I laid down poles, removed mitts and made my mark. At around 8.30am I set off for a pathless plunge to Pait Lodge. At least going this way, I knew I couldn't get lost at this point. Just a bit boggy. Oh yes. This way there be bog. And lots of it in my boots...
The view behind as I made my way toward Pait Lodge
I was overtaken by the Fearless Freesome, Sue, Heather and David and tried to keep track of the line they took to the Lodge, but obviously got it completely wrong as I landed both feet in bog. Up to my knees in peat, clutching at a heathery mound, I wondered if it was worth shouting for help, but then decided I could carefully wriggle my right foot out and perhaps lever out my left. I didn't cry, as I looked at my pitifully peaty legs and feet, but felt like it. Perhaps today wasn't going to be so good after all.
 Boggy boots
A figure appeared and headed in my direction and JJ made his way far more successfully over to the Lodge, just to dent my confidence further. I tottered in his direction, we crossed the bridge and struck up conversation as we passed round the side of this rather pretty place and found a lovely sheltered spot by the outflow of An Gead Loch.
"How about a brew?" said JJ
"What a brilliant idea!"
So we did.
I rinsed the worst of the cack off my gaiters and wiped my boots down as best I could. Tea and hot chocolate were soon on the go and I decided JJ was perhaps nice enough to share my digestives with. Another couple joined us for a brief chat, but all too soon we were off to find the track beside the Allt Riabhachain and make our way towards the bealach. At this point I thought JJ might not mind some company.
Quite why we decided to bypass the perfectly good bridge to wade the river further up, I will never know, but JJ perhaps felt a little guilty as after his swift wade (I was still doing the sandal faff) he waded back for my pack too. Not really necessary.
I had originally intended to go over the bealach between Meallan Bhuide and Meallan Odhar Doire nan Gillean but we took a more scenic route between Meallan Bhuide and Meallan Bhuide na Fheadain to pick up the track down into Gleann Innis an Loichel. Not far from the power station we saw that couple ahead of us and soon after we stopped for a tea break, Vanessa also caught us up. It was a very scenic route. Vanessa only paused a short while as she had a long way to go and the pressure was on for her to rendevouz with her husband at Struy. We took Vanessa's vetter's advice and shunned the locked bridge and the ford in favour of a longer, but easy walk round Meall Innis Loichel.
Along Gleann Innis an Loichel
We trundled along the road looking for a pitch, but I was being difficult. Nicole had warned of a weather front coming in on Sunday of up to 80mph gusts and I wasn't sure how windproof my tent really is, so I wanted to find as much shelter as possible. As luck would have it, we eventually spotted a nice spot with four tents/shelters already pitched by a river and the decision was made. I found David Pickles and Shap in an Akto and a shelter and we pitched behind them. It wasn't a bad spot. Ablutions (some more than others, which can be a shock to the uninitiated...) food and bed. That was a good day. A really good day.

Day Three

Sunday 13th May
Allt Uchd Rodha to Bearnock
16 miles 2540 feet

Now, this was a day that I knew was going to be tough.
I woke after an unnecessarily fretful night as although the wind had got up and the rain had rained, my tent was only gently rattled by the odd strong gust and held firm and dry all night. I was, however, shattered from the worry. What an idiot. Anyway, I got up and fed and was soon almost packed away. The weather was worsening by now and I began to regret not having made an early start as the other campers had. JJ was relaxing in his tent, taking his time and having another coffee. Again. He noticed my anxiety and decided not to let me wander off alone in a state with The Damned Hobnailed Butterflies.
"Come and sit down, have a cuppa."
I really wanted to get on, this was going to be a big day for me, but actually, tea sounded nice, so I sat.
We chatted, the tea was brewed and I fretted some more. When the mug was placed in my hands the tent was nearly overwhelmed by the tidal wave within, caused by my violent shaking. Damn those butterflies!! I suspect he decided I was a danger to myself, I would have a walking partner for the day.
At a suitable lull in the weather, (actually, we just had to make a break for it) the tents were dropped, stuffed and tracks were made. I did not like the bridge over the River Farrar, but it was crossed and we picked our way up towards the great gash in the hillside ahead, by Allt Innis na Larach. There is a choice of tracks beside the stream, we chose one to the right. It was steep, rocky and wet, but that was essentially to be the theme of the day. Well, with a bit of bog and peat hags on the side. We went interminably up. Up and up and it rained and blew. A lot.
It was reassuring to have a map conflab and come to the same conclusion as someone  more experienced than me and had an almost immediate effect on my confidence in my competence. It was even better that he tended to be slightly ahead of me and singing. It meant I didn't have to look up from my feet, placing them carefully, as so long as I could hear his singing he wasn't far away and I wasn't lost!
It took a while but eventually we reached the watershed, did a bit of bog hopping, climbed some peat hags and started to make our way slowly down the Liatrie Burn. And boy, was that slow progress too. It's pathless and steep. There was much slipping and sliding downhill until we eventually met the road, almost exactly where my vetter had suggested. I found a large rock by the side of the road on which to perch whilst I removed my boots and socks to empty and squeeze out the water. Lovely. This was probably the start of my troubles, taking a wild guess.
It was now a bit of slog along the road to Cannich. I was booked into a five star hostel tonight, a single en-suite room with running water and heating and everything. I was not going to miss that! But it was quite a while away yet, so we trudged on, chatting. We avoided a herd of marauding cows on the road and I tried to provide a little education, birds and stuff mainly, but the wind and rain were mainly behind us now. I suspect walking alone would have been quite miserable.
We reached Cannich just as JJ was beginning to fade away with starvation and insisted on a late lunch in the bar. Late? How late? 5.30pm late, that's how late. We removed our dripping outers and had there been one, I would have won the Miss Wet T-Shirt competition.
Poor soul was famished so he consumed steak pie and chips followed by pudding at a rate of knots. I managed half a bowl of soup and most of a cheese toasty. Lack of eating was becoming a problem again.
The camp site was obviously going to be awash, so I offered to enquire if there was a bed available at my luxury, five star hostel. So, decision made, we called into the camp site to collect JJ's parcel (bloomin' heck, he was expecting to starve for weeks!) and started the plod along the road to Bearnock. It didn't take long and the weather began to clear. We arrived shortly after 9.30pm and were delighted with the accommodation. Warm and dry, clean sheets, a shower, warm and dry (did I mention that bit?) and a kettle. No boiling water by gas tonight, yey!
Despite some of the most horrendous conditions I mostly really enjoyed myself, although at times I did just want to get to the end. I had a huge sense of achievement at the end of the day.
Oddly, there are no photographs of today.

Day Four

Monday 14th May
Bearnock to Ault na Goire
10.38 miles 1426 feet

This would be an easy day. Apart from the amount of road walking and the boat trip (the smaller the boat, the more the fret.) We didn't need a really early start, but the chap at the hostel obviously didn't want us to feel too comfortable, so we were soon off. There were the odd waterproof faffs as it was a bit showery and they were a shade heavy and wet. It was however straightforward all the way to Drumnadrochit.We even found time to stop for an ice cream at the garage just outside town. We strolled into civilisation and headed for the pub, like you do, but they obviously didn't like the look of us and told us to go away. We went next door to the coffee shop which was almost empty but friendlier and were soon joined by Peter Molenaar, the dutchman I met on last year's Challenge. He was perhaps a little taken aback by my unexpected hug as I'm not sure he really recognised me at first, but I refreshed his memory of the night at Melgarve. I think I was maybe more chatty on this occasion than I had been last year. We lunched on mushroom soup (no, I didn't manage it all) and then we were off to the shop for supplies before making our way to the boat.
Now, I'm okay on boats, but this is a small boat and I was a little anxious. Still, we got there and there were plenty of folk aboard, including Mike and Marion, Carol and Sandy, John and Helen Dixie, Andy Howell, Bryan Waddington, Colin and Denis Pidgeon.
After alighting the boat, there is a hill to saunter up to reach the wonderful oasis that is Ault-na-goire. There we met up with Mick and Gayle and all in all I think there were about 17 of us camping in Janet and Alex's expansive garden. I had booked dinner and breakfast. I sat down with Carl, Carol and Sandy, Dave Pickles, Mike, Alan and Brian (I think) and had a wonderful dinner of lasagne with a fresh green salad followed by apple and blueberry crumble with cream. I had quite deliberately booked this meal to force myself to eat, it would have been rude not to, and the ruse worked as I forced down every delicious mouthful which did me the world of good, then it was time to go to bed.
Mick had packed another fetching crinoline whilst JJ needed props. Gayle was unencumbered and free-standing
Oasis at the end of the rainbow (I may at some point photoshop the light bulb out, but don't hold your breath...)
 There were lots of us
One of the noisy neighbours

Day Five

Tuesday 15th May
Ault-na-goire to Glen Mazeran
15.1 miles 2273 feet

I had a moment through the night, again. I'd woken from a strange dream, but not completely and was apparently ransacking my tent in a somewhat distressed state, desperately searching for 'it'. (What? I don't know.) Unfortunately, I woke a nearby camper.
"What's up Louise, are you alright?"
(Arrgh, what am I doing?)
"Do you want a cup of tea?"
"No, it's okay, I'm just, um, looking for something..."
I fretted a while, listened to some music, before I was able to snooze till a more reasonable hour. I was up in time to watch the things of beauty which are Mick and Gayle packing away. A joy to watch.
We had breakfast and again, I tried to eat well. Probably the best breakfast I'd managed so far and The Damned Hobnailed Butterflies had at least removed their boots. It was an intrepid threesome, The A Team consisting of me, JJ and Denis that left the oasis shortly before lunch to head off into the Monadhliath.
We strolled and chatted and laughed our way along the road to Errogie, these two chaps were good company. At Errogie I signed the visitors book housed in the comfortably decked out phone box, complete with stool, fake flowers and a novel to read if you have a few spare minutes. Then it was onwards to the Monadhliaths.
The track into the hills just past Aberarder House was easily located and we decided it was a good place for a rest during a break in the rain and hail showers we'd caught earlier.
 Slightly sad feet, by comparison with what was to come...

The man himself
For some strange reason, this was a bit of an uphill struggle for me. By the time we reached the shooting hut at the top of the track, the reason I'd chosen this route today, I was completely bushed. There were a couple of chaps whose peace we were to shatter a few times over the next day or two, I'm sure someone will remind of me of their names sometime. They were pitched outside and quite happily pottering when we descended upon them, but they made us welcome as I was persuaded to make soup and drink coffee and eat chocolate amongst other things. I was feeling a little stroppy at the time. I think the lack of sleep over the past few days was beginning to take it's toll. After a really good break, never a problem in the company of these two laid back types, we were able to continue.
 We crossed the bog and lived to tell the tale
 We're following this on our way down to the glen

 Sunshine and snow showers and shadows
Glen Mazeran
We found Peter and Mike Knipe pitched in quite a nice spot, but there was not much more room and we decided to plod on down the glen. I was wondering where we might end up but oddly, it was right where I'd intended to pitch anyway, right next to the bridge! There was a Nallo pitched up against the woodland, but not surprisingly, I can't remember who we decided was in it. Our tents were pitched in a row along a small ridge leading from the bridge to avoid lumpy and somewhat damp ground. It was getting kind of late, again. I seem to remember pitching with head torches before settling down with something hot to eat and drink, cosy in sleeping bags. And then it started to snow. The end of another hard day.

Day Six

Wednesday 16th May
Glen Mazeran to Red Bothy
9.05 miles 1402 feet

This wasn't to be such a big day, but it did have a somewhat inauspicious start with a chill in the air and snow showers. Mike and Peter both stopped by on their way to Red Bothy to say hello. Peter had woken with quite some snow frozen at the side of his tent before they'd hit the trail. I had a change of plan. I was supposed to be heading to Sluggan Bridge, actually a pitch I'd found last year and was really looking forward to using, but I suddenly felt uncertain of crossing the open ground alone to get there if the conditions were a bit tricky. After a bit of discussion and persuasion I was on my way with the other two thirds of the A Team to Red Bothy.
Off we went.
We found the track we were after soon after a comfort stop. We made our way up yet another steep hill, not surprisingly and sure enough, found ourselves in another shooting hut disturbing those nice young gentlemen again. They had themselves a fire going and we made our presence felt with laughter and chat as we made soup and coffee before making tracks again further up the hill. We didn't go right to the top, but nipped off round the side of Carn Ruighe Shamhraich to hopefully do a little bog trotting before finding a track to the bothy. It started to snow about now and didn't let up.
Oh no! That fence wasn't there last year, apparently! And it's electric! Calamity!
This caused a little consternation for a while and we wandered about, confirming we were where we thought we were and that fence shouldn't be there. Action had to be taken. One of us knew how to temporarily disable the fence, so he did. (Well, you didn't think it would be me, did you?!) Then 'we' discussed who was going over the fence and how for a while. At some point, JJ turned to me, now standing on the other side of said fence and seemed somewhat surprised.
"How did you get there?!"
"I climbed. Get on with it you two, it's getting cold and lonely over here."
Denis was eventually helped to haul his sorry carcase over the fence followed by a marginally more sprightly JJ. Still don't know where I got the energy from but it made them shift a bit! We weren't going to reach the track they'd used last year, but we could see Caochan na Gaibhre and Denis knew if we followed it, it would lead us straight there. So we did. And so did it. It was a bit scrambley in places what with narrow bits and landslips but we soon found ourselves at a point where we could nip over the top to pick up the end of the track we'd wanted in the first place. As we descended, a figure appeared ahead of us and headed our way. He marched straight past us before turning on his heel and Mike joined us to stroll down to the bothy where he and Peter were already pitched and ensconced. There was a fire roaring and chairs and hot food and whisky. It was a jolly fine and sociable evening.
The three chaps pitched away from the bothy don't know what they missed.

 Lost in translation
Denis holding court

Day Seven

Thursday 17th May
Red Bothy to Aviemore
8.03 miles 1363 feet

We woke to find between four and six inches of snow had fallen overnight. It was also cold. The Pieman kindly shook the snow off the tents which was a little disconcerting when you were on the inside and not expecting it! What a sweetie.
Now this was another day off route for me, but it put me in position for my night at home with the family and for our choice making in the morning, either Glen Feshie or Lairig an Laoigh as planned, but from a different direction. We had breakfast and then a discussion with Denis, but I was feeling a bit grim again and reached a point when I had to get going or start to fade. Denis was happy to make his own way, the Burma Road was our route for the day and not exactly hard to follow, so two thirds of The A Team made our way off. As there was snow and low cloud cover, the Road was not as obvious as usual and we had a reasonable walk over to Aviemore. There was a Whoop Whoop moment as we reached the memorial, I've been here before on a navigation refresher walk with David last April, so now I was well into my comfort zone. We soon had a signal and I was able to phone for TTS taxi to meet me in Aviemore. At Lynwilg we struck off left up a rough path before nipping over a stream and onto the wide, wide verge. There's an underpass which we took to safely cross the hell that is the A9 and before too long we were outside JJ's lodgings for the night, the bunkhouse. I trailed wearily up to the station to wait for my taxi. When TTS arrived, we thought we'd pop in to The Winking Owl for a pint and a bowl of soup, then off on our way home for my night of luxury.
Another day of no photographs.

Day Eight

Friday 18th May
Aviemore to Derry Lodge Monster Day!!
21.2 miles 2874 feet

So, there was much discussion and communication regarding today's walk, but we eventually decided to stick with the original plan and deal with what we found rather than Glen Feshie, which really warranted an extra day. It's an easy stroll towards Glenmore, and what do you know, there's a cafe there!

Not having had the luxury of a cafe en route, we had to pop in and had coffee and delicious cake for fortification. We were soon on our way, that was me, JJ, Peter and Alan (somebody).
Come on boys, work harder!
Up to Bynack Stables is so familiar to me now and we built up quite a head of steam, but I could have overdone it slightly, as we made our way over the shoulder of Bynack More, I began to flag.
That is a happy face
I got grumpy and started to fret about getting so far behind the long legged Peter and Alan, despite knowing the deal was they would wait at the Fords of Avon to make sure we all made it across. I ended up throwing a wobbly and steaming off uphill at one point, in tears and fed up. The weather was grim with snow, hail and sleet coming at us sideways all the way. The path was not a path, it was clearly a stony riverbed doing a very poor impression of a path. There were boggy bits and the odd stream to negotiate before we finally made it to the Refuge, the last stream was a bit tricky but we made it.
Peter and Alan had been waiting a while and had been able to ascertain that the Fords were going to be a piece of cake, so they left us to keep the Shivering Teens company in the Refuge whilst we enjoyed our lunch. The Shivering Teens were up for the weekend from Darn Sarf and perhaps thought the building marked on the map was a bothy, but this is not. It is not intended for overnight use except in dire need and is really a dark, damp hole. We tried to encourage them to move further down, perhaps to Ryvoan Bothy, whilst they still had the light to do so, but I don't think they would have. Fools.
After a substantial lunch we dived off again into the weather, tiptoed over the Fords and stumble tripped along the 'path' towards Derry Lodge.
Looking along Derry Burn towards Loch Etchachan, I think
It was a long, long day along that long, long, lumpy, wet path. The Glas Allt Mor was a really tricky crossing and I think has set me back a bit. I could find my way so far across then get stuck where the step to the next rock was just too far to stretch my stubby little legs. I really struggled until JJ came back half way and steadied me whilst I did some deep breathing and girded my loins to make a leap of faith for the opposite bank. I made it but had to crouch for a while to regain my composure. I was a little distressed by the experience. At the bridge further on we considered camping, but a large D of E group had got there first, not surprising considering how late it was, so  we continued on. On and on, far too far to be sensible, but we were now not thinking straight due to tiredness and hunger. At the end of the track in the deepening darkness, we could see the hut, but could we find the bridge? No such luck. It was there, we knew it was, but we just couldn't fumble our way to it. Just pitch was the answer and so, we did.
Hot food, a drink and a wind down before hitting the sack, exhausted, but we'd done it. Yes, it was a long, hard day, and we made some silly mistakes, but I was still chuffed!

Day Nine

Saturday 19th May
Derry Lodge to Braemar
8.51 miles 670 feet

So glad this was going to be a short day! First we had to find the bridge. Which happened to be directly outside. Excellent. What a pair of idiots, but lesson learnt. After we packed up and crossed we met Peter and more or less walked together to Mar Lodge for tea. That was a very welcome break and we met up with some familiar faces, Robert who helped me find a way into Mar Lodge last year and Emma Warbrick and Stan Appleton who were first timers with me last year, but both vastly more experienced. After a good break, we made our way over Victoria Bridge and along the road to Braemar, although Peter joined Stan and Emma on the scenic route. I just couldn't be bothered.
When we got there, the plan was food, shower, nap, pub. It actually turned out to be pub (that three bottles of Dark Island was a mistake), food, shower, nap, pub, bed. There were friends to catch up with, Colin, Mick and Gayle and Andy Wright, a first timer with me last year. And it was a bed, at Rucksacks. JJ had kindly found a bed for me, yes! Got my washing done too. Marvelous.
Feet so sore now!! And I needed to sleep. Lots and lots.

Day Ten

Sunday 20th May
Braemar to Nowhere
No miles no feet

My kind of day, a rest day. Peter had stayed at Rucksacks and we found him, looking a little forlorn, sitting in the garden. He wanted coffee. And cake. After some faffing (not me, I don't think) we went into the village and into The Old Bakery. I devoured a bacon roll, it just hit the spot. Peter then ordered a huge wedge of gooey chocolate cake and when it arrived, a second fork had been provided for me to share. Peter was having none of that and climbed a private chocolate cake mountain.
Everybody made a mass exodus for Callater, but that was not for me, so I stayed behind and Laura came to see me. Bless her, she'd had to pull out at Fort Augustus after suffering horrific conditions, a fly away tent and damaged feet, poor love. It was really good to see her and have a good chat and after a visit to Braemar Mountain Sports with no purchase made, we popped into the Fife Arms. We had a glass of Merlot each and then Sue and Martin Banfield appeared and lo, there was a bottle of Merlot! We shared and chatted a while, but then Laura had to run for the bus and I made my way back to Rucksacks for soup and a roll. Nik Lawcock was also around and suggested a swift one in the Fife. What a truely outrageous idea! So, off we went but it turned out I was extremely tired and only one was had before we made our way back and I hit the sack. I hoped to sleep.

Day Eleven

Monday 21st May
Braemar to Ballater
16.9 miles 1132 feet

Another fairly substantial day was in the offing and JJ had decided to give the snowy Lochnagar a miss and stroll into Ballater with me, calling on Laura en route at Crathie for lunch.
I also had a phone call to make to a potential employer, a phone interview if you will, but I hated it.
We eventually set off for the Lions Face path, which wasn't too tricky to locate and follow and soon we met Nik, just about to scale a gate. We suggested going through the large gap between the rungs round the corner might be easier. We all strolled up the road and it wasn't actually too hair raising, we then nipped off over a wall and down a track to avoid the Invercauld Bridge and made our way to Connachat Cottage. We may not have taken the usual route to get here, but it was peaceful woodland walking and we had a very pleasant time chatting and strolling together. We took a break at the cottage as I needed more painkillers by now, the slightly sad feet were by now more persistently poorly feet, but I put one in front of the other as we headed off towards Balmoral.
Me and Nik in residence

Soon it was time to leave Nik in search of porcelain as we headed off for lunch with Laura. It was lush and a very welcome rest.
Delicious lunch chez Laura
We were soon on the road again, heading for Ballater. We took the road all the way until Bridge of Gairn where we took a pleasant river walk into town. I headed off to Habitat@Ballater which was an interesting experience. Martin had kindly collected my entry card and parcel so I was able to get into my bunk room, shower, spread kit liberally around the room and shoot off to find dinner. I had time to wander around and take photographs.
Explosion at Habitat
River Dee from the bridge
I eventually made it to the Alexandra Hotel but there were no tables, however I was lucky and joined Colin Tock, Roger ? and Mike Akin-Smith for dinner where I had pizza and chips. Or at least, I would have done, except Roger kept pinching the chips. Sue, Martin, Emma and Stan joined us later and there was much chat and laughter before I went back to my lodgings and snuck in to bed. Would I get any sleep?

Day Twelve

Tuesday 22nd May
Ballater to Tarfside
16.6 miles 3316 feet

No! Was the answer to that.
Today was going to be another long day with a little bit of ascent so I thought I'd make an early start. I was out of the hostel early and as the day was promising to be another warm one, we made our way to Colin's recommended route. Not sure we took it, as we headed from Balintober to Lach na Gualainn where we had an enforced break, then down to the Mounth Road and up over the shoulder of Mount Keen. Martin was adamant I should summit, but my feet were in shreds and my pain threshold ever lower due to lack of sleep, so we made our way slowly and painfully to the Queen's Well.
 Mount Keen
 Going the right way!
 A nice bridge
 The hills behind us
We had a good break at Queen's Well and I made large in roads into the huge quantities of Jaffa cakes purchased in Ballater before making our slow and my excruciating way to Tarfside. On our way I spotted a short-eared owl hunting. These are some of my favourite birds and really made my day. I hobbled on and when we arrived at the village camping ground, we received a heart-warming cheer before we pitched our tents and added boiling water to dehydrated meals to sate our hunger while enjoying a drink or two at the Mason's. We serenaded Alan to Tammy Wynette's "Stand By Your Man" while we were there. He was touched. Soon I was just too tired to think and had to retire once again to my trusty bag. Another excruciating day.

Day Thirteen

Wednesday 23rd May
Tarfside to Edzell
11.5 miles 662 feet

I slept very badly again. Very, very badly. My feet had reached a point of unbearable discomfort and I was taking more ibuprofen than is really advisable with my conditions and medications, so I had to ask for help. The offending articles at the end of my legs were inspected and instruments of torture produced. Opinions from passers by were leant, ideas sort and eventually, blisters lanced, creams applied and wounds dressed. It was such a relief to finally ask for and receive help and such care, I wish I'd swallowed my pride and done it sooner, but all I appeared to have done was gain admiration for true grit and determination (or attain a reputation for stupidity and stubbornness...) 
Another late start as I donned my fording sandals before we were finally on our way to the Retreat where we were too late for breakfast so made do with a cheese sandwich and a chocolatey thingy. It's then an easy walk to Edzell and on to North Water Bridge. There was more resting, lancing and dressing of feet en route before we made it to the Tuck Inn for tea.
After eating fish and chips it became absolutely clear I was not walking to North Water Bridge. I was absolutely dead on my offending feet, dealing with the excruciating discomfort was completely exhausting, so a single bed at a B & B was found. I was soon bathed, pj'd, repaired and scoffing homemade cakes and drinking tea in the outstanding company of other guests, Margaret and David Brocklehurst and our hosts (don't ask me, I should have made a note). I retired too exhausted to think straight. Sleep? Oh please.
No photographs, I've been this way before and, well, that's it.

Day Fourteen

Thursday 24th May
Edzell to Montrose
12.3 miles 367 feet

Didn't sleep brilliantly but felt a little more rested. The feet felt slightly less offensive. A fabulous breakfast was had and route plans made before I again donned the fording sandals and I was on my way. Met up with the Brocklehursts and JJ  as I left the boundary and headed for the House of Dun for lunch.
Leaving Edzell
We set off at a real rate of knots but at the time this did not feel bad. Shortly after we crossed the A90 and headed up the Hill of Stracathro we happened across Richard Fuell and Rosemary Bryant taking a break in the shade and they joined us on our march to the coast. I eventually had to call a rest and I slowed for a while, but soon caught the group as they scaled a gate into the grounds of the House of Dun where we had been promised a delicious lunch could be purchased. And so it was! The gorgeous soup was most welcome, even on this meltingly hot day, along with tea and cake. There was more minor surgery performed with the help of Margaret, before they left us to continue their march and we took a gentle stroll into town. There was a bit of a fumble to get to the sea, but we made it.
 Oh, so close

 Nik braves the dunes
Scurdie Ness. A future finish?
Nik had joined me and been photographed and then left to make her way to the camp site, I made my way to The Park. As I entered, the reception was too full. Denis had come to join us all, the Brocklehursts were there, Colin Tock and so many others. The hugs and congratulations began and I dissolved. This was an excruciating, intense yet exquisite battle. I simply couldn't have made it without the encouragement in the beginning and the support in the end. There were so many amazing people on this Challenge who I can now call my friends and I will be back.

The Deflation

Friday 25th May
The Park to the Station

This may only have been my second year, but I've learnt already that this day is the worst. I cannot bear going to the station to wave away my friends, but it has to be done. There were more tears and more hugs, I'm such a sook, but this is an extreme experience like nothing else. There was much discussion during this long walk and the conclusion is that this is a separate world. No one outside the Challenge can understand the intense nature of the Challenge experience, it can not be explained.
Despite the extremes of weather, the pain and tears, I have a great Challenge. So many people commented on my growth and confidence which was so touching. It's been amazing and thank you so much to all that have made it that way.

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