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 Ultralight Outdoor Gear. 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 a few days)
The Great Outdoors Challenge 2020 was cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. There was a slightly different Challenge in 2021, but I had an injury on Day 3 and had to retire. This year, there were a few changes, most importantly the staggered start days. I think this was to have a huge impact on almost every Challenger.
Wednesday 11th May 2022
Yesterday, this day was not going to happen. I was not going to start this Challenge. I could not do it, I should not do it, I would not do it. I found myself sobbing in my bedroom, absolutely convinced I could not do this Challenge.
I spoke to friends, David and our youngest daughter. After a long chat, she told me "One step at a time, go to the start." And she was right.
So David took me and after we had dropped a resupply parcel at Newtonmore Hostel and had a Co-op special lunch in Corpach, we arrived at Linnhe Lochside Campsite where he helped me decide the best spot, I pitched my tent and he left me to while away the hours. A young couple who had been pitched in the best spot offered me some charcoal briquettes as they struck camp, a very kind but strange offer perhaps, then I ate my dinner, mashed potato, no soup or custard, a little chocolate and settled myself in bed by 8pm, trying not to think about making my way to the Lochailort Inn the next day to sign out.
The parcel is ready to drop off at Newtonmore Hostel on the way
Sir Ian read me to sleep.
Thursday 12th May 2022
Planned Lochailort to Allt Feith a' Chatha
Actual Lochailort to Glenfinnan
Thursday dawned and I was up around 6.30am, I had been so bored the evening before, there were lots of people walking dogs around my lonely tent, a tad unnecessary I felt. I couldn't shower, I'd forgotten my shower soap, so I asked David to post that on to Newtonmore. There was much faffing. There had been rain in the night and Netty was wet, but a gentle breeze blew which nearly dried her before she needed to be packed away.
The weather was not looking great. Initially, it was just a bit grey, but as I stood waiting for the bus at the entrance to the campsite, it started to rain and this was to set the tone for almost the entire Challenge. I waited anxiously for the bus, worried I wouldn't recognise it was a bus and flag it down in time. I waited. And waited. The bus did not appear. Quite some time after the bus had been due, I checked the timetable to discover it had been changed, just days before the Challenge started, so looking the previous week had been pointless. I wondered back up to reception to check the information they had, and sure enough, the bus was due in about an hour. The lovely young lady looked after my pack while I nipped to the toilet, then let me set in reception a while instead of getting cold and wet outside.
Eventually, I wondered back up to the entrance and the bus soon came along, I waved hopefully and the bus sailed past, then slammed on the anchors and slew into the layby to allow me to board. I was not sure I wanted to. The lady driver said she had not expected anybody to be there asking her to stop.
On the journey I tried to judge how much traffic was travelling the road, what speed, how much verge there was by the road. The only useful information I gained was that there were two sets of roadworks.
We arrived at the Inn and I was the only passenger to disembark. Not much of a surprise. The door of the Inn was open, but the bar was in darkness. I went in and found a handwritten list of Challengers that had already started their Challenge, way ahead of me. I had noone to discuss ideas and plans with, to bounce ideas off, so I would have to make the next decision alone.
I could catch the next bus back to Fort William.
Or, I could walk.
I chose to walk.
One step at a time.
I walked to Arieniskill and there I paused. The weather was not great, the ridge is not difficult but it is time consuming and it would be quite miserable in those conditions for length of time it was likely to take. My FWA (Foul Weather Alternative) was along the north shore of Loch Beoraid, cross the Allt a' Choire and then through Gleann Donn to Corriehully Bothy. I know this to be a boggy, wet place at the best of times, and the river crossing can be difficult. I made what I felt was a random decision, to walk along the road to Glenfinnan.
I actually felt quite happy. I had made decisions and I had started, this was good.
The road was not horribly busy, the traffic was slowed by the roadworks and came in short bursts either way, I never felt stressed by it. There were a few places I could step off the road if required or if I wanted a break, but the weather was not conducive to spending too much time stationary.
As I approached the first set of roadworks, two traffic management workers were standing at the lights, one spoke cheerily to me as I walked towards him, "Will it upset your day if I say I'd like to continue my walk through the roadworks?" I asked, hopefully. "Not at all," he said, "My colleague will escort you through the works." A moment of panic that I was going to be hustled into a works van to be ferried through, but no, he would escort me walking. As we walked we chatted, and he was a lovely chap.
We passed the set of lights at the other end of the works and I continued on my way. The weather was pretty horrible, I was quite happy with my decisio. I took a break to eat, as eating had been a problem over the last few days and I knew I would have to force myself now. As soon as I stopped, the rain fell harder and the wind blew. I did not pause for long.
After a while, I reached the second lot of roadworks. I was surprised to see the first traffic management chap walking towards me, "I wanted to see your lovely smile again," oh, he made my day. So we walked through the works together and chatted. There had been other walkers he told me, one about three hours before and a few the previous day, so I was not alone in my random decision after all. That made me feel even more confident.
It was not too much longer before I was approaching the outskirts of Glenfinnan. This was my next dilemma. I could walk the few kilometres up the track to my intended stop, but I really couldn't be bothered. I could walk to Corriehully, but I would only have to turn around and walk back the next day, there was little sense in that. So I decided to call into The Prince's House Hotel as I had in 2017 and ask if, post-Covid, it would still be okay to camp in the field by the church. In the pouring rain.
The notice on the door said the bar was not open till 6pm, it was only about 3pm now, so I entered and rang the bell at reception. A lady appeared who I remembered from last time, I asked initially if they happened to have a room available, knowing it would be over my budget, and it was, so I asked about camping. The lady was most grateful that I had asked, said she thought it would be fine, but that she would speak with Frances to check. Frances was indeed happy for me to camp, but also gave Ina the numbers of two B&Bs to try. Ina rang them for me, but there were no beds available. I said camping would be fine, if I could maybe visit the toilets and if she would fill my water bottles for me, which she was happy to do. When I returned with my bottles, Ina said she had spoken to her husband and could actually offer me a room, not cheap, but in the circumstances, I decided to accept the offer and she was thrilled. Clearly, she was worried about me camping alone.
I had a lovely room. I had a wonderful shower, put my sleeping bag to air and worked out where I would hang my tent when I'd been to dinner. I went to the bar shortly after it opened and Celia behind the bar was just as friendly and lovely as Ina, interested in what I was doing and intent on me having a relaxing and pleasant evening. I sat alone, near another solo diner, and observed the other guests, I enjoy people watching.
I chose a chicken and mushroom dish which was delicious and I had no difficulty in eating whatsoever, this was good news! The first proper meal for days, due to my irrational anxiety. I thanked the ladies for making my evening so pleasurable and went back to my room, where I hung my tent from the window and door fittings and lay in my bed, chatting with David and selling a Paramo jacket on Facebook for a good price that more than covered the cost of my room. Serendipity. I may also have eaten some chocolate.
Sir Ian was soon lulling my to sleep.
Friday 13th May 2022
Planned Allt Feith a' Chatha to Glen Mallie
Actual Glenfinnan to Linnhe Lochside Campsite
I had a reasonable but not brilliant night. I was due to bump into Ray later in the morning, so I went down for breakfast quite early and found myself sitting alone for a while before the other solo traveller joined me. He was from Prague and quite determined to take a photograph of the Glenfinnan Viaduct, with the 'Harry Potter' train and someone standing in just the right place. He asked me if he should offer to pay someone, or if I would do it. I turned him down as politely as I could, saying I had a prior engagement, walking across Scotland. I struggled to eat breakfast, as expected, so left to finish packing and pay my bill before heading out with my backpack into the pouring rain.
I walked down into the village, then crossed the road and took the boardwalk only to find the bridge over the River Callop was shut and I would be banished back to the road once more to make my way to meet Ray at the car park. The road wasn't busy, but it took me slightly longer than expected. When I reached the car park, I got chatting to a young American packing away his tent who wasn't on the Challenge, but was doing the Cape Wrath Trail. We chatted a while, he asked me of the road signs were given in miles or kilometres, clearing up a puzzle for him, but he was soon ready to leave and I was on my own. I messaged Ray. After a while he replied to say his tent had been damaged by the storm the previous night and he had hurt his back, he had withdrawn from the Challenge and was trying to find a way to get to me to say goodbye. I had been waiting a while by this point and was getting cold, so I rang and left him a voicemail, and messaged, to say I was sorry to hear his news, but that I had to leave.
This gave me a new dilemma, which I contemplated as I walked. I could continue as planned, but I knew the weather would be awful in the night and there was no shelter where I was heading. I could cross over in to Gleann Suileag and find shelter at the bothy, but that would require crossing Fionn Lighe. After all the rain, that could be unpleasant. Also there was the potential for other bothy users as it is was the weekend and this bothy is easy to access from the road. I stopped at the junction opposite the track into Gleann Fionnlighe and had a snack whilst studying the map. It occurred to me that just a little more road walking would get me to the start of the track for Gleann Suileag and therefore a safer route to the bothy. This seemed like a sensible decision, so that was what I decided to do.
The road walking was fine, not a huge amount of traffic and plenty of verge or laybys to dodge traffic or take a break, although the weather was still not the best. At Fassfern, where I was planning to take the track, there was a bus shelter, so I sat inside briefly while I studied the map again. I realised it was roughly equidistant from this point to either the bothy or to the campsite at Corpach. That would be a safe place to be, with water, toilets, showers... It didn't take much thinking to decide that, having walked the road one day, a second made no odds. I wouldn't normally choose to walk the road quite so readily, but the weather was grim and I just wanted to keep putting one foot in front of the other and make progress.
So I found myself a couple of hours later at reception, booking in to the campsite just two nights after I'd left.
I pitched Netty in a suitably sheltered spot and relaxed, eating, organising my gear and checking my route to get me back on track. I guessed there were Challengers out there having difficulties with the weather, so I messaged Control to let them know my slight route adjustments and that I was out of harms way, one less Challenger for them to be thinking about. Sue replied to say Ray had managed to get his tent fixed in Fort William, returned to Glenfinnan and un-withdrawn himself! Oops. Could have had company at the bothy. Nevermind!
Sir Ian worked his magic.
Saturday 14th May 2022
Planned Glen Mallie to Gairlochy
Actual Linnhe Lochside Campsite to Gairlochy
I was up at a reasonable time to get myself organised, but got chatting to the couple in the tents next to me who were very interested in what I was doing, the lady lives at Stonehaven and the gentleman lives in Elgin, which amused me. My intention today had originally been to walk to Gairlochy Holiday Park to camp, but just a few weeks before I had found out the campsite were no longer taking tents, a little research gave me the nearby option of using the informal camping by the Caledonian Canal.
I thought from experience that it would take Ray quite some time to make his way out of Glen Loy, so I had plenty of time to stroll into Fort William and collect the Great Glen Way in order to meet him as he came through the tunnel under the canal. I had quite a pleasant time, the weather was dry but with a cool wind. There were many people, but as I had asked quite a few at this point if they were Challengers and none of them had been, it was getting embarrassing and I had decided to stop.
I had messaged Ray and decided to sit and have a long break at a point he would have to pass me, if he was able to negotiate the tunnel, so I put my insulated jacket on and had a picnic by the canal.
Need to work on my happy face
Eventually, Ray arrived. He hadn't made bad time along Glen Loy, but had torn his calf muscle just a kilometre from the end of the road before reaching the tunnel. He was not a happy bunny. He sat down with me and we had a chat while he rested a while, then we gathered ourselves and slowly made our way to Gairlochy.
It wasn't actually far to the locks and once there we took quite some time deciding where to pitch, mainly because the ground of the provided informal camping area is quite shocking, barely a blade of grass, lots of tree roots and gravel. The canal worker that sat at the lock gates moved a couple of people from the canal side as it was in his working area, should a boat come through, so it was a group of 10 tents that huddled together on scabby ground. One chap opted to move on. The facilities however, which I had hired a key for, were actually really good. Quite why I decided not to shower is beyond me, I'm sure it made sense at the time. There was even a washing machine, but I didn't investigate it.
My second Challenger of the trip arrived, Ian Cotterill. It was lovely too see him enjoying his 20th Challenge and we had a good chat. All other campers were Great Glen Wayers, except one couple who were on their JOGLE, having a ball.
Sir Ian continued his story
Sunday 15th May 2022
Planned Gairlochy to Allt Laire
Actual Gairlochy to Allt Laire
There was a low lying mist when I got up in the morning, and cloud covering the summit of Ben Nevis, but there was promise of a reasonable day. We didn't hurry away from our camp, as we didn't really have far to go and had all day to walk it. We would also pass through some civilisation today, a chance to shop and maybe a cup of tea and some cake.
We set off, crossed back over the canal and followed the road a while before cutting through the quiet campsite and collecting a wet, boggy, miserable excuse for a path that passed through a place that caravans went to die and then into damp forestry, complete with blowdowns to clamber over, round and through and evidence of livestock, though thankfully we saw none.
We made awfully slow progress, it took us nearly three hours to cover 5km, although that did include a chat with a couple of Challengers we met, Gordon and Jenny Selley. They were also Lochailort starters, but were now on a partial crossing as they had failed to make a river crossing on the first day after taking the north bank of Loch Beoraid and had had to turn and walk back out the next day. This reassured me that I had made the right decision, particularly as a solo Challenger, to road walk to Glenfinnan.
We made Spean Bridge after 1pm, I did a quick bit of shopping (I wasn't eating much and didn't need as large a resupply as planned) and Ray then persuaded the Post Office lady to relinquish his parcel, they had closed just before we arrived. Ray now had a lot of food.
We didn't bother with tea and cake, we obviously needed to get walking. I had wondered if Ray might withdraw here as his leg was obviously sore, but he continued to walk with me instead of his planned route through Glen Roy. This was vaguely familiar ground to me up to a point and we strolled along chatting and catching up on news. We took a long break when we found some convenient seats at the Scout campground at Insh and took a good break before continuing along the East Highland Way. By chance, I noticed a badge on a gate post which stopped us from taking the wrong track uphill, instead we went negotiated the gate and walked through farm land following the river more closely. We eventually reached the point at which I had planned to aim uphill and collect the Puggy Line to my planned camp. This would take a slightly more direct and shorter route than staying on the EHW. Ray decided he had had enough at this point and that he would try to reach the footbridge at Monessie and perhaps get help at the hostel close by. We said our goodbyes despite my misgivings of abandoning him and I struck off uphill. It was a steep track, but it took me in the right direction until I had to cross some open ground to reach the line. Once on the Puggy Line, I had to negotiate several stream crossings where the line bridges have been closed, but the streams were mostly running low or even dry, I had no difficulties other than a little anxiety. The path was good if a little boggy in places and I was soon crossing open moorland. I made good time and eventually reached the dam and weir. I intended to continue along the Puggy Line the next day, so crossed the weir to find a camp spot. The weir was open-ended on my side and a low rail all the way around otherwise, which meant I had to climb to exit the weir. Getting up and over was easy, but down was more tricky, with my right toe just touching the ground, my left leg was at an awkward angle that I would not have thought possible. I wondered if my leg might hurt in the morning.
On the way to Spean Bridge
Light vehicles only...
Taken from the other side, once crossed
In fact, all these are taken 'from the other side'...
That one was fun. Photographed before negotiating
I continued along the path a short way before finding a way down closer to the river, which was running very low. I eventually found a spot to pitch my tent with a bit of shelter from the wind, gathered some water, powdered my nose, then got into my tent. It was a pretty dreadful pitch. I thought I heard whistling during the evening, but convinced myself it was a shepherd calling his dog, or that I was imagining it.
Monday 16th May 2022
Planned Allt Laire to Northern end of Lochan Na H-Earba
Actual Allt Laire to opposite Inverpattack Lodge
I had a really bad night, or at least, it felt like it. Not helped that I had to nip out to the en-suite during the night, which is a first. I was convinced a mouse was trying to get into my food bag. I was very cross. In the morning, I was tired and grumpy. I got myself organised and packed up, dropped my tent and headed off to powder my nose before leaving camp. I saw a man, slowly making his way down the Puggy Line, but I figured I had enough time before things might become embarrassing. When I emerged from the trees, Ray was standing on the across the river, opposite my tent. I was surprised to see him. We had a shouted conversation for a short while as I tried to give him directions to stay on the EHW and meet me further on, but eventually decided to cross the river and join him. It was not difficult (wish I'd crossed that way the night before) and we were soon chatting normally. There had been whistling the night before, Ray had not been sure it was my tent, and when there was no response, he went to the GR on my route sheet and camped there. He'd had a terribly windy night.
We walked along the EHW and discussed our next plan. Ray was feeling quite bright and decided, again, that he would continue with me on my route. We would be on good forestry tracks all day, and I had already decided my planned camp would be too exposed in the conditions and that I would stay on the EHW, so that was settled.
Again, it soon become clear that Ray was struggling. He became quiet and withdrawn. A phone call from his wife cheered him a little, but once we were walking again, he was clearly still not quite himself. After another break, I pointed out that at Luiblea there was the possibility of exit over the bridge to reach the A86. We knew this bridge was in use as the huge timber lorries were using it. There are two laybys at this point, and I was sure Ray would be able to thumb a lift or perhaps get help from one of the many walkers or cyclists that park there. I felt uneasy as I left him there, it goes against everything I teach our DofE participants, to stay together, to look after each other, noone is left behind. But this was his decision, his choice and I needed to catch up on lost time.
Part way along the loch, I met two girls who we had seen earlier in the day. We spoke briefly, they were EHWers and they were setting up camp, taking shelter behind a bank of rocks. This would have been a sensible place to stop, company, shelter and a reasonable pitch, but I needed to get much further to avoid a long walk the following day, so I continued. This was a mistake.
I walked and walked, there was little shelter, little accessible water and the ground was mostly dreadful. After quite some time I reached the point I had intended to stop, but could still find no water and no decent ground. I was getting fed up. I collected some water so that I could stop when I found somewhere to camp, then carried on for what seemed like an eternity. I was getting closer to an inhabited area and knew things would get even more difficult, when I bumped into a friendly lady on a bike with a dog. She was very interested in what I was doing and thought me brave, I suddenly asked if she knew anywhere I could wild camp. She vaguely said there was a field by some trees where I wouldn't be disturbed, but then asked if I'd like a shower. I thanked her and said no, but she was insistent and I eventually agreed. She gave me directions and left with her dog, I emptied my water and followed.
I reached the farm and spoke to a man outside, who was not as friendly as the lady had been. He went inside to speak to her and she came to the door to take me inside. She showed me where to leave my pack and into the shower room. I was feeling a bit awkward again now, so I had the quickest shower ever (well practiced from many a shower in cold, draughty campsites) and as I was getting dressed, there was a knock on the door.
"Are you finished yet?" This was a different woman's voice. "I'm just putting my clothes on."
"What did she say?"
"She's taking her clothes off."
"No! I'm putting my clothes on, getting dressed!"
"Well hurry up. Other people want in!"
Oh, this was weird. I just wanted out.
I gathered my things, stuffed them into my pack, "Have you got your boots? This is a really inconvenient time." "I'll put them on. Do you know anywhere I can camp?" "No, you'll just have to keep walking."
Oh, I'd do that alright.
I legged it back to the track, reorganised myself, and then set off along the EHW again, no water and nowhere to camp, miserable and slightly bothered by the bizarre experience. After a while, I'd found a field but no easy access yet again to water. I continued on a bit and found a way to the river, but nowhere to camp, so I returned to the field. It turned out to be really wet and boggy, but I was fed up by now and pitched my tent on the least damp patch of moss I could find next to the muddy track where I stood. I just wanted to stop. Bizarrely, once in my bed, I just wanted to pack up and leave.
I did the best I could to settle down for the night, again convinced mice were trying to get into my food bag.
Sir Ian had to work hard that night.
Tuesday 17th May 2022
Planned Northern end of Lochan Na H-Earba to Glen Banchor
Actual Opposite Inverpattack Lodge to Invernahavon
I had a particularly bad night. I was packed and away before 7.15am. Again, as I walked, I was making new plans. The weather was showing no signs of improving, wind and rain again were forecast, and I was due to head to Glen Banchor where two or three river crossings can be tricky. I had had an unexpectedly long and disturbing day the day before and wanted to feel safe and relax. I knew there was a nice campsite at the opposite end of Glentruim, this seemed like a good place to head to, but first, I had to tackle the walk through Black Wood to Laggan. I retraced my steps to the bridge where I had collected water the night before, then continued to Feagour where I crossed the A86 and into forestry. The walking was easy, again, not another soul was around. After a short uphill stretch, the path in the trees disappeared under the blowdowns, a significant number, and at first I didn't think I would find a way through. I retraced my steps and looked at things from another angle. I knew that I should probably not go any further, but that would make things really complicated and perhaps another long day, so I persevered. I realised there was a vague, freshly worn path that went neatly around the worst of the trees, there was no clambering done and after about 100m I was through. What a relief. There were no further incidents with fallen trees.
I eventually met the road near Spey Dam where I briefly spoke to one of the young representatives from Ultralight. I met him again at Laggan Stores, which he had expected to be open, but I'd known would be shut. He was planning to road walk to Newtonmore, which is fine, but I suggested he may not enjoy it as the road is busy, fast and narrow in places. I advised him that after a short walk along the A889, the road to Glentruim was a quieter and much more pleasant walk. Plus, there was an open tea room, Caoldair Coffee and Craft Shop on the way. He was easily persuaded. I was going that way and met him there when I stopped for delicious refreshments. I had already phoned the campsite and booked myself in for the night, which allowed me to relax, take my time and gently stroll along the road.
What has become of society that we need signs like this
I have walked this way before, but I still took time to sit a while at the Clan Macpherson Memorial and enjoy the view. There was also a waterproof moment, but not long lived. When I arrived at the campsite, the lady who welcomed me was lovely and the price reasonable. She gave me change that I would need for the washing machine and tumble dryer, then pointed me in the direction of the tent field. I was the first small tent to arrive, there was only two other larger tents at the time, and I pitched behind a small bank of trees, with the hope it would give protection if required. Assuming the wind would come from that direction. I then went off for a wonderful shower before taking up residence in the laundry. The machines were quick and efficient and my washing was done in less than an hour. Bargain. I was able to relax for the rest of the afternoon, eating random food stuffs and rehydrating. Things were looking up...
A bikepacker and two Challenger tents joined me, Geoff someone I think and Steve and Pam Gough. We chatted for a while before they got their tent sorted, tea and a meal. I spoke to David before settling down for the night feeling rested.
Sir Ian read to me for a short while.
Wednesday 18th May 2022
Planned Glen Banchor to Newtonmore
Actual Invernahavon to Newtonmore
Huge day today, clearly. Just as well, as we had a rough night on the campsite. I was so glad I hadn't been in the glen! I was woken by the rain at about 9.45pm and the wind was blowing too. The wind was really blowing. There were times over the next two hours when I was lying with my hands braced against the poles holding my tent up, just in case (of what, I'm not sure) messaging David for reassurance that the storm would pass. There was noise around the site, car doors slamming and voices, but I stayed up. I knew I would need to visit the Ladies at some point, but I would have to wait for the rain to ease. It was nearly three hours before I started to relax, but I did eventually go back to sleep. In the morning, it was like nothing had ever happened.
I had intended to relax as long as possible at the campsite before heading to Newtonmore as I couldn't get in to my hotel before 4pm, but I also wanted to pack my tent when it was dry. So I was away by 10.30am. I tried to just potter along and take my time, but it took me a little over an hour. I then whiled away the time sitting in the shelter drinking tea and eating cake with Ali and a handful of other Challengers, Barbara Saunders, Geoff Gafford, Lee Ellis, Harry James and Ian Cotterill.
It was eventually time to book in to the hotel. It was not the greatest place, I won't be hurrying back, but it would do. I had a little time to kill before dinner, Barry had booked a table for 6.30pm. I did a few chores and had a miserable shower, then relaxed a while. I heard nothing from Barry, who I knew would be arriving from the direction of Chalybeate Spring. I decided to go to The Glen and ask whether dinner could be delayed. Unfortunately, the kitchen shut at 8pm and I was fairly sure by now that Barry would not make it in time. I felt awful. But, I had to eat. So I ordered my food and ate it, alone. I don't think there was a single other Challenger in the bar. I waited a while after eating to see if Barry came in for a pint, but eventually his tracker updated and I realised he had gone, quite wisely, straight to his B&B, so I paid my bill and went back to my miserable hotel.
I watched a bit of television while I made my notes and got ready for bed, then settled down, with Sir Ian.
Thursday 19th May 2022
Planned Newtonmore to Ruigh Aiteachain
Actual as planned
17.78km 234m (clearly planned that accurately...)
I had been concerned that Barry may retire due to an injury early in the Challenge, but after I had been to resupply in Co-op, I wandered along the road and found a dapper gentleman waiting outside his B&B for me. We immediately fell into a comfortable stride and chatted as we made our way to Kingussie. Those first 5km flew by, mainly because of the chatting. Well, it did for me, as I was doing the chatting, but Barry never complained. We took a break on the bench by Ruthven Barracks before setting off again. This was to become part of our walking rhythm, gentle strolling and relaxed breaks. Bliss. Now this was beginning to feel more like a proper Challenge, much better. Although, poor Barry had had quite a traumatic first week, compared to mine which had just been...odd.
Most of this day was familiar to me, I'd walked into Glen Feshie with the lovely Emma on our first Challenge in 2011, and part of the route again with Laura in 2014 and Mick in 2018 and on various DofE expeditions, but I was looking forward to seeing the changes to the glen since the rewilding had started to take effect. We made good time and were soon at Tromie Bridge and heading into the forestry. Not long after that we crossed the first of two bridges and decided to take a break from the wind in the shelter of some ruined buildings.
Average Challenge breakfast, no?
For my nephew
Nice view for lunch
Also for my nephew
After a long lunch break, we continued on towards Stronetoper bridge. The path has changed a little from this point on, mainly due to the river having changed course over time and the Allt Garbhlach having been washed out. There may have been some interesting gymnastic moves, less than elegantly performed by myself, clambering up the bank, but normal service was resumed as we continued on through the woodland to Ruigh Aiteachain. You don't see it as early as you used to, but it eventually appeared through the trees and we entered the bothy.
Forestry tracks go on, and on
The Feshie, looking south
The Feshie looking north
The Allt Garbhlach
The Allt Garbhlach
Wow. It has changed! It was also full of people, Lindsay the MO was obviously there making everyone welcome and there were several other Challengers (may not have all the names...) including Gordon, Craig, Heidi, Graham and a John? There were a few non-Challengers including a cyclist and a young Swede adventurer. I had to look around the bothy straight away, the change is amazing. The alpine bunks Emma and I slept on in 2011 have gone. The pretty door is upstairs where there are two sleeping rooms, the toilet has been replaced by two cubicles with porcelain foot plates, still with a bucket for flushing (PLEASE USE A FULL BUCKET, EVERYTIME!)
We decided to share the upstairs space with Heidi, having asked if she minded, and I set out some of my gear before heading back downstairs as I heard my name being called. Emma! Now that was a lovely surprise, she'd had a few hard days and was on her FWA and it was just pretty neat to be back at Ruigh Aiteachain with the lovely Emma.
Craig got a big hug and we had a chat before Gordon arrived, who also got a big hug. We all benefited from the kettles that were kept on the wood burner to make our various meals and hot drinks as we chatted and swapped tales, it was a great social evening and I felt my Challenge was finally really happening.
We all eventually retired to our various sleeping spots and settled for the night, Sir Ian read quietly to me in my chosen corner.
Friday 20th May 2022
Planned Ruigh Aiteachain to White Bridge
Actual Ruigh Aiteachain to The Red House
Today wasn't long, wasn't going to be as hard as last time, but wasn't going to be easy either. We had a leisurely breakfast whilst everyone packed and left ahead of us, we were the last to leave. I had to take a few more photographs of the bothy before a panic pee and then we were off. The change along the glen continued to be dramatic, the landslips are not as bad as I remembered though. We walked and talked and sang and laughed and just generally had such a good time, it was brilliant. We met Gerry Harber at a small burn crossing, he left as we sat and took a break.
We arrived at the River Eidart far quicker than expected, having been so distracted by the chatter, but for a while after crossing the bridge, things seemed to take an eternity as the ground is not conducive to chatter and fun, we were all looking forward to reaching the landrover track.
A day walker sped passed us as we pottered along and The Red House soon came into view. I knew the toilets were to be open for use, but did not know there would be a work party there at the time. Although there were several cars and a few tents, it wasn't too difficult to find somewhere to pitch, although we didn't identify Heidi's tent before we had all pitched. Of course, Emma and I went to inspect the facilities before bed and were mightily impressed, but they come with a warning. Open the lid of your chosen toilet with your eyes shut...
The weather wasn't great during the evening and we were all tucked up in our tents for most of it, the other two napped (should have recorded the snoring from either side) before dinner but it wasn't long before Sir Ian was telling more Wolf Brother adventures.
Saturday 21stMay 2022
Planned White Bridge to Braemar
Actual The Red House to Braemar
18.58km 399m (approx as I forgot to start the Garmin)
Vague memories of having to snack on a cheese butty at about midnight when I got peckish. We had barely set off before we reached the ford and saw the unmistakeable figure of Alan Sloman making his way across, so of course we stopped and took photographic and video evidence of his fording skills. There were hugs and kisses and handshakes and we set off as a group of four along the track. We had only gone about 4km when we decided to take our first break in a rather lovely spot amongst the rocks. Jayme, Peter and Mario quickly joined us and we were a group of seven, enjoying Jelly Babies and liquorice and various other goodies.
When we began to feel a bit chilly, we set off again, Peter, Mario and I chatting away and oblivious to the yawning gap behind us as we gathered speed, heading for tea and biscuits at Mar Lodge. We were there for some time before the rest of our group joined us. Luckily, the lovely Ben Dolphin, resident ranger, had refilled the biscuit plate by the time they arrived.
We sat for an eternity, catching up with a host of Challengers. It was great to see so many together in one place at last. When we finally left, I knew we'd spent far too much time relaxing and enjoying ourselves and this would likely impact on my getting my chores done in the evening. Ho hum.
We bimbled along the road, discussed whether to continue along the road or take the Morrone Birkwood path before taking the path and this must be the third different way I have walked these woods. We did eventually find the viewpoint, took photographs, then headed off to The Fife for a pint, courtesy of Alan. I'm not really sure they were as happy to see us as we were to be there...
It was soon time to head for the campsite, stopping at Co-op on the way to resupply for the next day. On our way through town, a car horn caught my attention but was ignored as there was no reason to think it was aimed at me. Of course, it was aimed at me, Carl climbed out of the car and gave me a big hug and I met Gabriella, but I was in a bit of a hurry to get my chores sorted and excused myself. Once on the campsite, the tent was pitched and I went off to shower before getting the washing done. The water was hot, but the shower room cold and I had the quickest shower ever before heading to the cosy laundry. We decided to pool our cash and share machines and in less than an hour, all washing was clean and dry. I received a message from Carl to say everywhere to eat was fully booked, a quick Google suggested the chip shop was shut, so our solution was return to Co-op for supplies, in my case soup, rolls and a cake, and just relax for the evening, so in fact, things worked out well.
Sir Ian lulled me to sleep.
Sunday 22nd May 2022
Planned Braemar to Ballater
Actual as planned
29.55km 234m (never matches)
Today would be a long day, but with a stay in a private room at Ballater Hostel in sight, I was keen to get up and off early. We also had a table booked for dinner with Jayme, Mario and Peter, so extra incentive to crack on. Herman was up early too and we had a lovely chat about Challenge related stuff as I had breakfast. Another camper came to my tent and pointed out "It's half past six!", to which I replied, "Morning!". I think they had either had a late night and wanted a lie in, or were having a long lie to prepare for partying the night away at Callater. Either way, if you don't want to be disturbed, don't stay on a campsite. Or in a hostel. Simples. We weren't the first up, nor the noisiest, I hadn't had a go at the guy who had wheeled his water barrel to refill it the previous evening when I was already in bed, it was my choice to be in bed early, he was just minding his own business. C'est la vie, on a campsite...
Anyway, we were off pretty much on time, walked back towards town, then took the footpath alongside the road to Braemar Castle, currently undergoing restoration work. There is then a gate in the fence, through which we went, to take a path that runs alongside the road, keeping us safe for at least a short while from the traffic. The path pops out at the same place as the Lion's Face path (which had been reopened, unbeknownst to me, since reports of it being completely blocked) and a short walk along the road takes us to a gate which I circumnavigate to enter the Ballochbuie Forest.
It doesn't seem to matter how many times I walk through the estate, the first bit to Connachat Cottage is straightforward, but I seem to leave a different way every time. We took a break at the cottage, much to the disgust of the guest on a landrover tour of the grounds. We were joined briefly by Andy Pinkard, Gordon and Heidi. Eventually, we were on our way again, we caught up with Heidi as we left the estate at Easter Balmoral and took a little track to join the B976 along which we walked all day to reach Ballater. Now, a lot of people do not enjoy road walking, and I do understand that. It can be tedious, boring, hard on the feet, not fun and even at times a tad nerve wrecking. But I actually quite enjoy this particular road and stroll along quite happily. My enjoyment is obviously improved by company, I don't think I have ever walked the entire route alone.
No wooden fence to clamber through this year
We found a broad junction to sit and eat lunch near the Mains of Abergeldie and had a good long boot break. Then we were off again, having the odd short break along the way, including making use of some rather splendid and perfectly placed tree trunks, just off the road near Ardmeanach. There was also some Trail Magic, provided by Daniel from Ballater Hostel, thank you! We arrived in Ballater in good time and were able to sneak in to the hostel when another resident returned and opened the door. Daniel soon found us relaxing in the communal lounge and gave us our room keys, we had time to shower, relax and do some admin before meeting in the lounge and heading for dinner.
Dinner was a pleasant affair, good company and relaxed staff with few other Challengers to cause the usual chaos. I did think of Andy while we waited to make our orders, I usually meet him there with Humphrey, Russ and a few others. I remembered the lovely chats we've had there. Missed.
Fish and chips followed by a Belgian Waffle filled the hole in my tummy and then it was time to retire once more to my huge private room, watch a little television, speak to David, cuddle up in bed. Then put the light back on, leap out of bed, unravel the tent and hang it in the shower, cuddle back up in bed and drift off to sleep as Sir Ian continued his tales.
Monday 23rd May 2022
Planned Ballater to Tarfside
Actual Ballater to Shiel of Glentanar
Today I should have been making my way over the shoulder of Mount Keen to Tarfside, but as I was now walking with Barry who was sporting an uncomfortable injury from Day One, we decided to stick together and have a short day to allow him more rest. I went down to have coffee in the kitchen and met Nina and Ken Stimson, on their 10th Challenge. We had a good catch up, Ken was really on form, they are an incredible couple and I was pleased to see them. Ken took my mugs to wash up with their breakfast dishes, lovely man.
We cleared the hostel and joined the boys for breakfast at The Bothy before we headed to Co-op for supplies. I made a quick call to Control as it was my phone in day, but obviously I was not going to be where I planned, so I told JD the new plan and had a lovely chat. Then we were heading off to Balintober and the track to the Shiel of Glentanar. We took our time, with many pauses, but no need for a long rest as we would arrive at our proposed camp by early afternoon and could languish in our tents all afternoon.
Our intended pitch hove in to view just as Barry performed the most awesome commando roll, over rucksack and all. I had the most awful fit of the giggles, which was awkward as poor Barry now had a sore back to add to his other injury. To add insult to injury, with just a few hundred metres to go, it started to rain. I helped Barry get his feet into his waterproof trousers and got my own on and then I took the lead. Within a few feet, I managed to trip over my own feet and found myself on my knees, the first fall of the walk, I thought I'd done so well! I jumped up and continued to cross the last burn, waiting to guide Barry over the easiest crossing point, then down to find a pitch on the huge, flat grassed area, just west of the remaining ruined walls.
We watched rain showers going around us
Heading down to the path across Lach na Gualainn
Spot the three boys on the horizon, heading in to Glen Tanar
This post, one of many marking the path towards Mount Keen
That cross though
Having pitched, we went to collect water and found Trevor and Alex Morgan sheltering under the bridge. We had a natter before they had to leave, time was marching on and they had a little way to go. Soon after, the Austrian Hiking Aina walking with three Germans arrived and pitched their tents a little way from ours, but as the weather was now showery, we decided to retire to our tents to keep warm and dry and to take the weight off our feet. We were pitched close enough to chat.
A short while later a man's voice disturbed my reveries, "Is that Miss Louise?", the lovely Kevin Everett had arrived! I had thought he might continue on to pitch at The Queen's Well, but he decided he'd had enough for today and that this was too nice a pitch to ignore. We managed short chats snatched between showers, but I eventually gave up as I did not want to get wet.
Eccles Cake and custard for pud, yum
I had something to eat and visited the en suite before getting settled with Sir Ian, again.
Tuesday 24th May 2022
Planned Tarfside to Burn of Mooran
Actual Shiel of Glentanar to Tarfside
I had obviously rehydrated well and had to visit the en suite at around 4.30am, much to my disgust, but I did manage to go back to sleep and woke again about 6.20am
Today, once we had made our way over the shoulder, we would have a gentle stroll to the oasis of Tarfside, with friendly faces, tea, cake and the possibility of a bed each. I was excited. And apparently, according to my Garmin, we were on our way before 7.30am. Outrageous.
The path is not too horrific, although if I hadn't been so keen to meet the path over the shoulder, we could have walked further on a better path. No matter, the important thing was to take our time and not undo all the good work of the previous day of rest. I had stopped to remove a layer part way up when I had warmed up, but once over the shoulder, the wind cooled and there was a hint of showers again, so the waterproof jacket went back on. We bimbled along, finding that the track by the Ladder Burn has been slightly improved. Once into Glen Mark, we were on the lookout for some shelter so that we could have a nice long break before strolling the rest of the way into Tarfside.
At the picnic benches in the car park, we were briefly joined by an over-sized scout, Chris Vardy, before he headed off up the Hill of Rowan and we took the track that would lead us to St Drostan's. We could see a couple ahead of us as we reached the gate, no packs so not on the Challenge, but no less a part of it, Angus and Rita McKinnon. Gus kindly pointed us in the right direction, incase we got lost, and we were met at the door by my Challenge dad, Alvar Thorn. I gave him a huge hug before heading into the kitchen to give my Challenge mum, Ann Thorn, a huge hug too. First things first, Ann offered me a bacon roll, er, yes please! Next, I asked Alvar if there any beds, yes there were, so three beds were bagged (not all for me, obviously).
There changes at Tarfside this year, and in my opinion, it was a vast improvement. There were to be no meals, just breakfast rolls, cake, hot drinks and beds available. This meant much less hard work for the volunteers and in turn, the had far more time to socialise and catch up with friends. It was superb and I thoroughly enjoyed my time there. As there were no meals, we were invited to use the conference room where there was a kettle, microwave and sink so we could prepare our dried meals in comfort. Bonus!
We had a very sociable meal before it was time, once again, to retire, although I do believe some Challengers may have visited the Mason's Arms and had burgers from the barbecue.
I was happy with Sir Ian.
Wednesday 25th May 2022
Planned Burn of Mooran to North Water Bridge
Actual Tarfside to North Water Bridge
26km 201m (rough guess, forgot to restart the Garmin)
I had an average night, probably too much caffeine in the many cups of tea, and definitely much better hydrated. Still, I always love staying at St Drostan's and this year was better than ever. We had a bacon rolls and tea for breakfast before getting packed up and away just after 8.30am. We had a long day ahead with the promise of refreshments at Edzell. In the meantime, we had a walk to do. Three of us set off, but soon after Kevin leant his map to the Austrian/German group, we were caught up by Scott Rae. Kev fell into easy stride with his pal and Barry and I slowed to our usual pace and continued to the bridge that would take us to the west bank of River North Esk for most of the morning. The weather was being relatively kind, if a little breezy. We found a little sheltered spot for a break, then it was onwards to cross the bridge and find the Blue Door Walk.
The path through the woods was liberally littered with blown down trees and we did our best to follow our chosen path, eventually meeting the road and walking past, rather than through, the blue door. There was a sign at the entrance to the next section of the walk from the road bridge saying the path was blocked, but we took a punt we could make our way through. There trees down, some were quite awkward, we had to use the track in the field a little and at other times force our way through fallen trees, but eventually we were able to make our way to the path that exits near the Panmure Arms and onto the High Street.
The hotel was not open for lunch.
The Tuck Inn is now a fish and chip shop, which I knew, but was not open in time for us to eat before reaching the campsite.
Sinclair's Larder was open and our saving grace. In fact, I think it was a vast improvement, the staff were utterly delightful and the food delicious. I left a glowing review and I will be back! I couldn't eat cake while I was there, but treated myself to a slice of chocolate fudge cake to eat after my supper. Speaking of which, we had to visit both shops for me to find something that I fancied for said supper. Note to self, neither shop stock Heinz Cream of Chicken Cup-a-soup, pack some! I had to buy a tin. I got butteries though, a firm favourite of this Challenge.
We went under this one...
I popped a couple of painkillers before we left town, just to ease my sore hips, then we were off. I had in my mind that it is another 5 miles to North Water Bridge, but in fact it is 5 kilometres so that makes quite a difference time wise. The walk along the road, once we popped back onto it at Chapleton, was much improved by most of the verge having been cut, giving us plenty of safe grass to leap on to, although the drivers along this stretch were the best I'd met during my entire walk. They don't slow much, but they give lots of room and mostly waved in a friendly fashion. We reached the Capo forestry, crossed the road and took a pleasant track that pops out on the road just a few metres from the entrance to the campsite. We booked in, bought ice lollies which we ate, then we pitched our tents in a unintended neat row, along with Alan and Emma when they arrived. Ian Cotterill was there, amongst many other Challengers, and he was able to give me a few tips on how to pitch my Notch slightly better, a nice man.
We had intended to join Alan for a Cheese and Wine, but I was unexpectedly exhausted and retired early. It later occurred to me, the painkillers I had taken were cocodamol, I suspect they may have had something to do with it. I did manage to eat my soup and cake first, then I put my earphones in and Sir Ian didn't have to work too hard.
Thursday 25th May 2022
Planned North Water Bridge to Kinnaber Links
Actual as planned
17.9km 175m (icludes walking the beach to Montrose and The Park, ugh)
Thursday was a good day, it was always going to be a good day, because not only would we finish walking today, which was incredible considering I wasn't even going to start two weeks ago, it was also Cake Day.
My birthday face...
We were up and away by 8.30am, a small group making our way to the coast. Me, Barry, Kevin, Alan, Emma, Trevor, Alex, Ian and Esther. At the bridge at Broomley Alan headed for St Cyrus, the remaining group (not sure where we lost Trevor and Alex, they were ahead of me and I assume headed straight to Hillside) took a leisurely stroll along country lanes and tracks, avoiding virtually all traffic, then heading through Hillside and onwards to the Charleston Fruit Farm for brunch and strawberry tarts. Delicious.
Following the herd
Bank of comfrey
Scrambled egg on sourdough toast, complete with half a strawberry...
Martin and Sue Banfield were there, as were Gus and Rita and also the lovely Carl. We had a wonderful time! Then we continued on our way to the sea. We celebrated Ian's 20th there, what an achievement, and our own in our own ways, there was whisky and photographs and chatter, followed by sand blasting exfoliation all the way to Montrose, then we found our way round the back of the hotel to sign back in, receive our t-shirts and tea and biscuits.
Ian Cotterill, 20th Leg-gend!
Toe dipping on the east coast
Kevin, Emma, Barry, Birthday Girl, Esther and Ian