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 fourteen 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, Kilchoan and Portavadie.
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)
The Great Outdoors Challenge 2020 was cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This was the route I had intended to do on that Challenge, with a few minor alterations to avoid busy places and camps. There are also a few Covid related new rules.
The red route is my main route, the green is my Foul Weather Alternative, which I might use in Fine Weather, depending on mood and (socially distanced) company.
Planned Strathcarron to Loch Monar
20km 1040m ascent
Actual Strathcarron to Pait Lodge
23.2km 793m ascent
NH 119 398
Just about everything was different about this year, including my mode of transport to the start of my Challenge. David was able to drive me to Strathcarron so I didn't have to risk public transport, which was a lovely change and we arrived in good time. I was able to dip my toes and then I went in to the hotel to sign out, there were about half a dozen people ahead of me, but still about half a dozen to start, I wasn't the last. David took some photographs, wished me good luck and I set off.
I was on my way.
Oh my. I match the hotel
I set off just before 10:30 after some faff, heading roughly south along the broad grassy verge before crossing the road and making my way uphill through the small collection of houses at Achintee. I turned to see David off, but he'd gone. I followed the signs for Hill Paths and soon found myself on a grassy track that didn't seem to have had much use. It wasn't long before I was on the open hillside, although it did seem to take an absolute age for Strathcarron and Achintee to become distant. I slowly plodded my way uphill. I've learnt how to pace myself over the last year of running so I can continue to walk but slowly. I'd probably only gone about 500m when I reached the first obstacle, a tall stile in a deer fence. Well, I should be grateful there was a stile, although once I'd climbed to the top I was less than impressed as there was a huge gap where a step was missing and the handrail felt less than sturdy. I took a bit of a leap of faith and stepped down to the next rung, then climbed down to the ground. Phew.
I had to break the compass out at one point as the path split unexpectedly, according to the map, but it worked and I trusted it, I took the left hand path and continued.
From there the path wound it's way up the hillside and alongside the small burn until eventually, I turned to see the last glimpse of the hills behind me and continued into what felt like the wilds. I have started here before, several years ago, and my aim was to enjoy the route this time. The weather seemed to agree with me, as this time there were blue skies with fluffy clouds, a breeze and a bit drier underfoot. I began to get into my stride and realised I felt far more relaxed and happy to be there than I'd expected, it felt right to have a rucksack on my back, boots on my feet and to be surrounded by wide open spaces, hills and the big, big sky. This was good.
There wasn't a soul around. I was supposed to leave the path and make my way up the steep hillside to the NE to bag a trig, Carn Geuradainn, but I'd decided before I set off to alter my route to mainly follow my Foul Weather Alternatives. Why? Well, I was feeling pretty nervous about my fitness as I'd done precious little exercise for the last month. Also, I found the idea of not seeing my friends, or any new Challengers, really daunting and decided if I took it easy, that would all be easier to cope with. So, I stayed on the path. Last time it was more like a river bed, so it was pleasing to find it is actually quite a good path to walk.
Nearer Lochan Fuara my attention was drawn to a strange sound. Initially I actually thought it was an emergency whistle being blown, but not quite correctly. I paused to listen. After a short while, the sound moved a little, then a little further. I realised it was a bird call, so I tried to spot it. Eventually I could see it, sitting on a rock not too far away, a Golden Plover. I'd never heard this call before, I decided it was perhaps a distress call, trying to draw me away from its nest or chicks. I moved on.
Quite glad I was heading for Bendronaig...
You can't see the missing step from here...
The hotel and Achintee have finally disappeared from view
Looking back, gone now
It was around here that I heard the Golden Plover
I soon reached Bealach Alltan Ruairidh and began to make my way down to meet the track that would take me to the bridge. Suddenly, I saw ahead of me a figure. At about the same time, I lost the path. I decided the person ahead of me must either be on the path, or had also lost it but were making there way across the open ground safely, so if I followed I should be okay. There was quite long grass in places, the ground was quite rough and surprisingly wet at times. I caught up with the lovely Lindy as we both met the track at about the same time and it was good to see a friend so unexpectedly. We stopped for a quick breather and a chat. Shortly afterwards, Adrian Wain appeared, he had recognised my Tilley hat from a distance, and he also stopped for a brief chat, but he was heading off towards Iron Lodge I think. Lindy and I gathered ourselves once more and set off, heading for Bendronaig Lodge to have a sit down and something to eat. We chatted along the way, having a good catch up as what has been happening to us over the last two years. As we walked I also realised I didn't want to climb the grassy, pathless bealach and down to Loch Monar at the end of the day, so I voiced my concerns to Lindy and asked where she was headed. She made the grassy bank behind Pait Lodge sound so inviting. I went through the bog fest on the way to Pait Lodge last time and there were tears, but I concluded my experience of bog hopping is vastly increased now, perhaps I could take a better line this time. I was slightly concerned that I would be going further to camp than I had then, but I was stronger and fitter now, even after two years of no backpacking, so I thought if I took it easy, I would be fine.
We reached the bothy, which was locked, as expected, so found a pleasant spot to sit at the back of the building where we had a little shade but enough breeze to keep off the worst of the midges. I filtered some water to mix a hydration tablet and Lindy made herself a brew. We both ate and rested, the conversation flowed. Not long after settling ourselves, a lady approached the bothy. I think she was hoping to be able to use the toilet and was disappointed to find the door locked. We chatted briefly, she and her companion (who we didn't see) were walking the Cape Wrath Trail. She asked if there was a shop in Strathcarron, I was able to tell her I thought there was in Lochcarron, but this was out of their way. They left.
A little while later, we were joined by two gentlemen. They were The Graham/Graemes 69/70 and they joined us for a while. I have previously met Graham, he reminded me, at Tarfside. They were heading for the hills, I think planning to camp beneath An Socach, so they didn't stop long. A while after they left, I collected my things and left Lindy in peace, agreeing to see her at Pait Lodge. I knew the next bridge was rather exciting, due to having many missing slats and no hand rails. Imagine my delight, when I reached the bridge and there was a new one! The old one was still there, in a bad state of repair, but I didn't need to cross it so I didn't mind. The good track continues to Loch Calavie and on to the ruins of a shieling. I was pretty sure I could see the Graham/Graemes ahead of me, making their way along the lochside and I finally caught up with them as they were pitching their tents at the ruins. I'd been told before that it was bad for ticks there, so I wasn't tempted to stay and bid them goodnight. Not long after, the track becomes more vague. Looking at my Viewranger track, I seem to have wandered off slightly between Allt a' Ghraigh-fhear and Allt Coire a' Charra where I camped before, which I don't remember from last time. From there I picked up an ATV track which seemed to be going in the right general direction and covering reasonable ground, so I followed it. Every so often I checked where I was, but I seemed to be on a good line and there were no peat hags, I pressed on, hoping the lodge would eventually come into view.
Leaving Bendronaig and Lindy behind
An 'improved' track and a new bridge, leading to hydro works
Our bridge, Vanessa!
I came across a few of these 'recommended route' signs
I was beginning to think I'd never get there when I climbed a small rise and there it was, much closer than I was expecting. From there, I made my way towards the river in the hope of spying a camp spot and maybe crossing the river without having to cross the bridge right by the lodge, but no such luck. Worse was that I'd forgotten about the gate on the other side of the bridge, I had no option but to go through. It feels like you are walking into someone's back garden, I really don't like it and to make matters worse, there was a young woman at the window right in front of me. She came to the next window, which was open, and called to me, "Are you okay? The only way from here is by boat." I reassured her I was and that I would be making my way into the hills the next day, but in fact I was looking for somewhere to camp and if they didn't mind I had hoped to pitch by the river behind the house. The young lady and her gentleman companion assured me "It's Scotland, you can camp where you like! But I can radio the owner if you like, he may suggest a beautiful spot for you." I thanked them, but as long as they didn't mind, I would be just fine by the river, they were quite happy with that and I promised to leave no trace. It made me chuckle. I suspect, given the chance, the owner might have sent me much further on to a boggy hole.
It was shortly after 19:30 as I wandered a short distance behind the house, they could probably have seen me if they'd hung out of the very corner window at the back, but as I, loosely speaking, had permission, I wasn't worried. I busied myself pitching Netty Notch and collecting water before I nipped off into the nearby hags to powder my nose before bed. Once sorted, I heated some water and set my food to rehydrate whilst I inflated my mattress, organised my gear and got ready for bed. I had a battery operated insect killer to back up the Permethrin soaked inner and I had hung that from the walking pole handle by my head. I also lit an incense stick which I put by the door. It appeared to work, I certainly had no problems. I ate my dinner and drank my sleepy tea, taking two valerian capsules, then settled down to write up my notes listening to Sir Ian before I snuggled down in my sleeping bag.
A good day.
Planned Loch Monar to Coille Garbh-leac
22km 540m ascent
Actual Pait Lodge to Coille Garbh-leac
17.7km 502m ascent
NH 255 382
Lindy had arrived late, but she hadn't disturbed me. I woke in the morning not sure she'd still be there, as I know she likes to set off early, but I heard her Pocket Rocket roar and was glad I still had company. We chatted as we both had breakfast and coffee and started to slowly gather our thoughts and our possessions. Just as we were packing our tents (we have matching Notches) a small group of walkers appeared from the lodge, including the young man I'd chatted to briefly the previous evening. Pleasantries were exchanged before they left us to it, we packed the last few bits and pieces before hoisting our packs, checking the ground was clear and heading off a little before 09:00. The fence line and small patch of woodland is not quite as marked on the map, but we took the obvious line to intersect the path which soon came into view. Shortly after there was slight confusion and maps checked as an unexpected junction threw us, but we were soon heading in the right direction again and reached the river and the bridge. Not a great bridge, to be honest, but a bridge. Lindy was first to brave the crossing, as I watched closely, then it was my turn. Can't say I enjoyed it. It was a collection of short planks strung together with two wire 'handrails'.
We both got a cross safely.
My Flash, Lindy's Notch
This appears to be a Lousewort, but I usually expect them to be pink
Lindy taking the lead over the shougly bridge
We set off to cross the boggy, lumpy ground in the general direction of the bealach between Meallan Odhar and Meallan Buidhe after a bit of discussion as to what was the best line. It was quite slow progress over rough, wet terrain and after a short while Lindy decided to take a short break and I decided to continue, I would see her in the evening at our intended camp spot.
I could see some slabs marked on the map and headed almost directly for them. On the way I saw lots of flowers and lots of frogs. Suddenly a deer hind appeared in front of me, quite close. We stood and looked at each other, then the deer moved on a short distance and stopped again. Then again. It had really got my attention now, I was curious. I stood quite still and looked around, peering at the ground beneath the peat hags. Sure enough, I spotted what I was looking for, a red deer fawn. The hind was probably trying to distract me. I took a quick photograph then continued on my way, only to see two more hinds appear ahead of me, watching me intently. This was awkward. I didn't want to distress them and assumed they too had calves nearby, so I tried to loop round behind them slightly in the hope the calves were to my right near the first one. They moved off and I continued on my way.
I eventually reached the slabs I had pinpointed and decided to take a break from the boggy ground and have a sit down and a snack. I relaxed a while, taking in the view, and the grey clouds that were approaching from behind. Now might be a good time to pop on my waterproofs, and as I had brought my Rab Kinetic Plus jacket and trousers, I would have to take my walking trousers off first, they would not be comfortable underneath. I realised it would be convenient to powder my nose at the same time. I didn't manage to get my waterproofs on before the first spots of rain, but I didn't get too wet, got myself organised and headed off towards the bealach. I can't tell you how delighted I was as I rounded the corner and realised how beautifully I had navigated the hillside and positioned myself to tackle the bealach without having to do any lengthy or major hag hopping. It didn't take long to make my way across the bealach and down the hill to meet the track. The rest of the day would now be spent walking rough track and tarmac, in rain on and off.
Looking behind towards Pait Lodge and Loch Monar
Excellent camouflage (zoomed in)
Looking along Gleann Innis an Loichel
I set off again, looking for a likely spot to stop and have a break between showers. There wasn't really much opportunity until I reached the small dam before the power station where I sat be the side of the bridge and ate a sandwich and some Oreo Bites. The view was not great and obviously it started to rain again shortly after I stopped. At least I'd had something to eat, I moved off. I eventually reached a bend in the road where there was a handy rock perched on some higher ground which I hoped might catch enough breeze to keep the midges off. I decided to take another longer break, just because I was aware I wasn't resting much. The rock was quite comfy, I put my rucksack behind me and lay back in an attempt to relax and enjoy myself. I then put my midge net on, there were just a few midges making their presence felt, but a little breeze from time to time which helped. A car passed me by with some smartly dressed occupants. Not sure what they thought they would find down the road, it was not a very exciting dead end. I rested for a good while before continuing, another car passed by. Strange. As I reached the dam of Garbh-uisge, one of the cars returned, passed me again and then parked just metres in front of me so I had to walk around the car. They seemed utterly fascinated by the water flow. I stopped to take pictures so I wasn't missing anything.
It's about 6km from the dam to where I planned to camp, so I walked on hoping the time wouldn't drag too much as it's a long walk on tarmac. A walker popped out ahead of me, but obviously a day walker with a small rucksack and much younger and quicker, I never caught them. I was passed by one or two estate or farm vehicles while I walked, neither driver waved or acknowledged me. I was just beginning to think I wouldn't recognise the place I'd camped before, but eventually I rounded a corner and there it was. There is a green track down away from the road, but the grassed area is not hidden at all. It is obviously an area animals frequent, a little further away there were clear signs of fodder being left, probably for deer, I had passed a large herd earlier, chilling by the river.
I had a look around, the grass was too long, it was a bit damp, there were stones, lots of deer poo, but I didn't think the grass by the bridge I planned to cross the next day would be any better, so here would do. I pitched Netty Notch on the least offensive ground, collected water from the best spot I could reach then powdered my nose before settling in. I set up my insect killer, burnt some more incense and boiled some water for my dinner and a hot drink. I sorted the inside of my tent, got ready for bed and generally chilled a bit in between showers. When it wasn't raining, I had my door open in the hope of seeing Lindy, I wasn't sure this was where she planned to stop. Quite a few vehicles passed by, as did a few walkers and cyclists. When it rained, I shut the door and lay on my back, watching the midges in their death throes on the top of my inner. There weren't as many as I'd feared, but I'm glad I took the insect killer machine, it worked. I'd eaten, written up my notes, listened to Sir Ian and nodded off briefly before Lindy arrived, she pitched close by. I think she'd had a lovely time, really enjoying the wildlife and the flowers and generally taking her time to soak up the atmosphere. We chatted briefly before settling down for the night.
I must remember, I can navigate, quite well.
Looking back, Meallan Bhuidhe na Fheadain on the right
My own dehydrated food, White Bean Casserole
With Idaho Buttery Mash (tastes better than it looks, honest)
Planned Coille Garbh-leac to Bearnock
27.9km 828m ascent
Actual As planned
NH 414 302
I woke after a reasonable night and started to sort my gear as I ate breakfast. I'm not sure I had coffee, which was a mistake. Lindy woke soon enough and we chatted. I went to powder my nose before setting off, by which time Lindy had decided she needed to sleep a bit longer, so I wished her well, hoping to bump into her later in the Challenge and I set off alone just before 09:00. I walked further than I had thought it was (not far in reality) before I could see the footbridge and a little further before I could make way across the field to reach it. I think the grass was a little to lush and green for camping and the ground a bit damp. I was glad I had stopped where I had the night before. The bridge was a minor improvement on the previous one, but the path on the other bank was badly overgrown and I made a mental note to do a thorough tick check when I reached my destination. I made my way through the undergrowth, vaguely following the Allt Innis na Larach and hoping the path I wanted would magically appear. Before heading uphill, I stopped by some rocks to adjust my boot laces and adjust my attire. Setting off again I stayed close to the river before suddenly spotting the path I was after, quite clear and well defined. I don't know how I'd missed it. I made good progress initially, but was aware there had been some landslips that I might have to avoid. Lindy had climbed higher on a deer trod to avoid them the last time she came this way, I had made a bad mistake and followed a good track on the west side of the river that had dumped me in the middle of dreadful peat hags last time. It was Stormy Sunday that year and I had had a thoroughly miserable time. This time, I stayed on the eastern bank and initially things went well, I made good progress uphill if a little slow. At times I crossed the river to little islands or even to the west bank briefly, the river was very low and crossing was easy. Eventually, I did have to stay on the east bank and the going got a little more tricky, there were deer trods over boggy ground, a few landslips to negotiate and some really boggy steep banks.
Looking ahead to Allt Innis na Larach, you can clearly see the track on the west of the river
Looking back west
A better looking bridge
It was climbing up one such bank I slipped, my pack swung and pulled my shoulder. I managed not to lose my footing completely and scrambled up to the top, finding my thumb was bleeding around the nail quite badly. This obviously distracted me from my shoulder as I didn't initially notice any discomfort. I continued along the bank, hoping that I would reach the watershed shortly, the river narrowed and eventually I found the peat hags. Rather pleasingly, the ground was relatively dry, so I essentially just walked through the hags, it took just a few minutes, and then I was looking for the new hydro track to take me down to the road at Liatre. Once I hit the track, I realised I hadn't had a break since I'd left Glen Strathfarrar, so when I spotted a rock just off the track, I took off my pack, sat down and had something to eat and a drink of water. My shoulder was now making it's presence felt and when I hoisted my pack it became quite aggravated.
I followed the track until it met the road, turned towards Cannich and just kept walking. I walked another 5km before deciding to have another break, again sitting on a convenient rock by the road surrounded by some scrubby looking grass. I took painkillers and tried to ease my shoulder as best I could, but the pain was now quite significant. Another 5km of walking saw me entering Cannich and making my way to the Post Office and Spar, which I happened to know now sold takeaway fresh pizza. That had to be better than running the gauntlet of The Slaters Arms again.
I parked my pack at a bench under the adjacent shelter (I hate leaving my pack) put on my face mask and entered the shop. The young man at the counter greeted me cheerfully and took my order for a cheese and tomato pizza. I then wandered around the shop trying to make decisions as to what I needed, just to get me to Drumnadrochit. He laughed at my indecision, puzzled by my struggle, but in the end I went to the till with two packets of crisps, a bag of Babybel, a Nature Valley bar, a dark Bounty bar and a bottle of pop to drink with my pizza. I went back outside to wait for my food to be ready, when I returned fifteen minutes later, the young man was just bringing my pizza to the front of the shop. I took it outside, sat at the bench and started to eat.
It didn't take too long to be full, I didn't manage the whole pizza. I did consider somehow ramming the box into my pack and taking the rest of the pizza with me for supper, but I couldn't be bothered, so binned it. Which I hated doing. I didn't enjoy the drink at all, I could taste the sweeteners in it. I would have preferred fresh orange juice.
Looking back towards the bealach, to the right of the hill
The hydro track leading to the road in Glen Cannich
I couldn't take anymore painkillers yet, so I sorted my pack and then put it on top of the bench to make hoisting it easier. Then off I went again. I could have taken the newly opened path from Cannich to Millness to avoid some of the road walking, but it adds about a mile to the route and I just wanted to get there and take the pack off, so I did the road walk to Bearnock again. The hill starts just after you leave the village and goes on. And on. And on. For at least 2 miles. It feels like forever, but typical of me, I just keep going, pausing only to step onto the verge when cars approached, and a cyclist or two. My shoulder was really sore now, and plodding on by myself, with no distractions, my brain kicked in. Nag, nag, nag, the self doubt, the worry, my confidence took a dive, and thoughts of home and the fact I needed to be fit after the Challenge to look after my grandson left me feeling pretty grim. I tried to push it all to the back of my mind, just focus on putting one foot in front of the other, get to the hostel, have a shower and some chocolate, everything will be fine.
So I plodded on, on auto pilot having walked this way so many times.
Eventually, two hours after leaving Cannich, the hostel hove into view and I made my way to my room (contactless check in), relief. I carefully lowered the pack to the floor, emptied it without ceremony to find my washbag and some clean clothes and went straight into the shower. The water was hot and plentiful and after a good wash I stood for quite some time in the steamy atmosphere running water as hot as I could bear on my sore and aching shoulder, to try to unknit and relax the muscles that were now in spasm, trying to protect the injury.
Once dressed, I made myself a cup of sleepy tea and phoned David for a chat. It was then, in that moment, I knew I had to go home. I was in pain now, there was no way that my shoulder was going to feel better as I walked and I still had ten days of walking ahead, the next day I should be heading in the Monadhliath, not a place to go when not fully fit. My shoulder would surely get worse, rather than better, and I couldn't risk not being able to lift and look after my grandson on my return, my son relies on me to be able to. Had it not been for that, I would have tried another day, just to see, but the stark reality was there was really no point.
I had to make that call.