The Great Outdoors Challenge 2023 Oban to Stonehaven DNF

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 a route of their own design and planning, 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, from north to south, 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)

This year I planned an Oban start for the second time, always a popular start, but this time I intended to take the ferry to the Isle of Lismore...

Day 0 Home to Oban

Wednesday 10th May 2023

In recent years I have chosen a start point I can get to and start walking from on the same day, or David has been able to take me and drop me off easily. This year I had found a cheap and cheerful B&B and David dropped me off in time to book in and relax for an hour or so before meeting friends for dinner. I had booked a table at a local seafood restaurant and met Lindy, Vanessa and Barry for a pleasant meal before retiring to my B&B in the hope of a restful night before an early start to sign out and catch the ferry to Lismore.

Day 1

Thursday 11th May 2023

Planned Oban to Duror Bothy via Lismore

29km 630m

Actual Oban to Lagnaha Campsite

28.74km 232m (guesstimate, as I didn't pause Garmin for the ferry crossings...)

I had set an alarm for 06:30, to make sure I wasn't late to meet Barry at 08:00, but I was of course awake from 05:00 and I gave up trying to sleep again quite quickly. I tried not to disturb any other guests by not having my shower before 06:00, when other people started moving around the accommodation. I had not booked a breakfast and had coffee and biscuits in my room, I also nibbled on a Porridge-To-Go bar, but eating has never been easy when I am anxious.

I was ready to leave on time, left my room dropping the keys into a box and made my way across the car park to find Barry making final adjustments to his pack at picnic tables outside his accommodation. We set off to sign out at the Youth Hostel and then dip our toes to officially start our Great Outdoors Challenge '23. We passed just one other Challenger on our way.

We were on our way...

A short walk along the promenade took us to the ferry terminal where Barry quickly ascertained where we should wait for the Lismore ferry. In the waiting room we chatted to a nice lady who was enjoying walking and cycling the islands and was interested in what we were doing. No other Challengers were immediately obvious before the ferry arrived, once aboard, there were just three. One Challenger chatted for quite some time before taking a wander around the ferry. Then Douglas came and chatted, he he had expected to meet me last year as we had both started from Lochailort and was curious as to how we had missed each other. He had braved the north shore of Loch Beoraid, which I had done everything to avoid. He had realised his mistake. We other Challenger was the one we had passed as we had gone to sign out, never got his name either.

After a pleasant and uneventful crossing to the island, we all disembarked and set off, one Challenger taking the road route and the remaining four of us taking the coastal path. It was a lovely walk as we enjoyed views of the distant mountains and I saw my first swift of the year. We passed a monument and soon reached the broch, where we took a break, the other two Challengers climbed to investigate the brock itself whilst Barry and I skirted around the edge and perched on a grassy bank overlooking the road we were soon to join. After a snack we gathered ourselves and set off again, heading for the jetty at the northern end of the island to get the passenger ferry to Port Appin. I had been very aware that I would be under time pressure at this point, but failed to display any need for urgency and we just strolled along the country lane heading north. We could see two of our fellow Challengers not too far in the distance. Once we reached the shore line again, we could see the ferry moored at the jetty on the mainland opposite and to my despair, I realised we were probably not going to meet the ferry on time. We reached a point of leg it to try or accept our fate and stroll, then enjoy a two hour lunch whilst there is a short hiatus in the service before resuming for the afternoon.

Interesting stile

Eilean Dubh

Lunch view

We strolled.

We watched the ferry cross the narrow stretch of sea. We could not see as passengers disembarked and embarked, but we could see the ferry again as it set off for its return crossing, with the other three Challengers aboard.

We had a very hot two hour break, the only shelter was the plastic waiting room provided, I'm sure very welcome in wet, cold weather, but on a day like today, the heat inside was stifling and we opted to bake on the grass outside. There is also a toilet. I do not understand why people think it acceptable to be so disgusting in a public toilet, or do they behave the same way at home? Anyway, it was there.

In time, we saw the ferry set off again and we were soon on our way on the short crossing to Port Appin ourselves. We set off along the road and were shortly stopped by a couple at their car who asked if we would like a lift. Obviously, we explained why we couldn't accept their kind offer, much to their bemusement, and were soon on our way again. I stopped briefly a the little shop to buy a bottle of water as I knew water would be tricky for the afternoon. Then off we went again, walking along the busy little road to find the Jubilee Bridge. There are nice views from the bridge, particularly of Stalker Castle and of distant hills. Once over the estuary we found a lovely stone built enclosed seat that was in a sheltered spot to take a break and had a chat with a local volunteer who was keeping the track clear of encroaching trees and overgrown bushes. We were soon following the cycle path north as it continues along the side of the road, at times crossing it and and wandering through the trees, then back to the shoreline, then across the road and up through forestry and down to the road again... It went on a bit. And although it's not a particularly hilly route, the heat of the day made it quite tiring, not to mention the lack of available water.

I had intended to stop at Duror Bothy, Taigh Seumas A' Ghlinne, but realised this was going to be a really long first day of nearly 30km, with over 200m ascent in the last 3.5km and this had become less and less appealing. I got in touch with a lovely campsite right next to the cycle path. They had agreed to let us camp (they were not really taking guests until July having planted a wild flower meadow...) so we slowly made our way there, stopping briefly in forestry above Duror to put on waterproofs when it tried to rain. It soon stopped, just to make sure we were now well and truly too hot. As we arrived at the campsite we were met by Karen and Clive as they went to bring their pretty ponies in for the night. After a brief chat, they left us amongst the midges to settle down for the night, it was now gone 8 pm and much later than I would have liked after an early start, but we were safe and well and had access to toilets, fresh water and a shelter to sit and make and eat our meals. After pitching my tent, getting into my evening wear and making my dinner, there was just enough breeze to deal with the winged little devils and I suddenly reached tipping point needing my bed.  I was soon tucked up with Sir Ian McKellen reading to me in dulcet tones.

It was the end of an unnecessarily long and hard day.

Day 2

Friday 12th May 2023

Planned Duror Bothy to Kinlochleven

22.32km 577m

Actual Lagnaha Campsite to Kinlochleven

26.64km 260m

The day started early, with dawn chorus as the sun rose and Barry padding about organising his gear and breakfast. I had been on the edge of just warm enough during the night and now was suffering total lack of motivation, lying for quite some time contemplating why I chose to do this before finally deciding I needed to move. There had been no wind over night and a heavy dew had settled on our tents. Barry's Notch Li had no issues, my sil version was and would remain to be soaked. I hate carrying a wet tent.

We had breakfast, packed our tents and prepared ourselves for another long, hot day, made worse with the knowledge there would be a ridiculous amount of tarmac and lack of shops, coffee, cake and water.

Sack the planner, I say.

We set off just after 09:00, later than I would have hoped, but not unusual for me. We were following the cycle path again, which is a mix of roadside and woodland tracks, the first stretch took us up to a view point but stayed mainly low and gently undulating for the rest of the day. We reached South Ballachulish and took a break leant up against the cycleway gates which was where Douglas found us and stopped to say hello. He was heading towards Glencoe, which now sounds far more attractive than our end point for the day. A mistake, perhaps.

A nod to the history of the route along an old railway line

Soon we set off again, over the road bridge to North Ballachulish then generally east along the north shore of Loch Leven. I had figured this road would be quieter than the one on the opposite shore, or at least have more opportunities to leap out of the way of traffic. It was okay. We took breaks in some dubious places, eventually it became easier as we could duck down off the road to the grassy lochside. We also got some respite from the hot sun in the dappled shade of the roadside trees along the way. Quite a long way a long the road is a seafood café and as we needed refreshment it seemed a reasonable place to stop for a while. Barry had ice cream and a cold drink. I had a cheese scone, ice cream and a pot of peppermint tea. We also bought water (had I had a more substantial meal, I probably would have had the nerve to ask for tap water) but we were soon on our way again, plodding towards Kinlochleven. It seemed to take forever, even when we reached the outskirts of town, but eventually I spotted the tiniest Co-op in the world and went in to buy supplies for the next few days and my dinner. I had booked a pod at the hostel and had a fridge, microwave and kettle at my disposal. The chicken and pasta bake I chose was actually quite nice, the pod was fine, the facilities at the hostel a disappointment, especially the shower area which was gross. I left a review to point out their faults. We had arrived about an hour earlier than we had stopped the previous evening and I tried to dry my tent before I went to bed, but the breeze died and the tent was having none of it.

Sir Ian McKellen was soon working his magic.

Day 3

Saturday 13th May 2023

Kinlochleven to Corrour Station

23.76km 902m

Actual Kinlochleven to Chiarain Bothy

14.12km 582m

We set off slightly earlier, just after 08.30 fully aware that the first part of the day would be a gradual but constant climb up to the Blackwater Reservoir. It was also forecast to be another hot day, but at least there would be water readily available most of the time and initially we would be in the shade of mixed woodland. We made good, steady progress, really enjoying the proper hill paths, shade and bird song, this is what we were here for, this was Challenging.

We decided to have lunch when we reached the dam shortly after we had met and chatted to a nice chap out for a day walk. I went to visit the powder room and took a sudden and unexpected horizontal moment. Soon after I returned to our lunch site a chap appeared as if by magic, a curt nod, and he continued on his way, towards the bothy.

He must have seen me fall and powder my nose.

Nevermind. I would never see him again...

At lunch, I discovered that the rolls I had bought for were the most solid, brick like little balls of dough I had ever had, I was going to find it very difficult to force these down. Deep joy. I tried. I also ate half a bag of crisps and some chocolate.

After a good long break, we rejoined the path and continued on our way, but it soon became clear that we were struggling again, mostly due to the heat and the tough terrain. There is a path and it was possibly to stay on it most of the way, but the motocross event that takes place here had caused significant damage and at times meant we had to take detours. The ground had obviously been quite dry during the event and I believe the damage was less than in previous years, but I still don't understand why such an event is allowed over such delicate ground and along paths marked on the map. We had slowed significantly and after a rough calculation in my head I suggested that we would not make the restaurant in reasonable time to make the effort worth while, it might be better to stop early where we had shelter at the bothy and have a longer rest to try to recover for the following day, rather than pushing on. After a short discussion we decided this was the best option and once agreed, I immediately felt more relaxed and positive. We could spend time in the evening working out how to proceed.

Eventually the bothy came into view. I was so pleased I may have done a little dance, or cheered, or something. When we arrived we found there was one other occupant. He may unfortunately have seen me both fall and powder my nose earlier in the day, but he either didn't recognise me (I hope) or was too polite to mention it. His name was Stephen, a German train driver on a backpacking holiday in the area. He seemed to be having a great time and we chatted during the evening as Barry and I settled in, mainly about politics and world economics. Bit heavy. Luckily, due to the Garmin inReach Mini that I carry, I was able to message Control and tell them we had stopped short for the day at the bothy because Barry had been suffering the effects of the heat, it is quite reassuring to be able to let people know you are safe and well when things don't go quite to plan.

I had initially intended to camp in front of the bothy, there is some good ground there and I had pitched the tent to dry before I unpacked, but I decided that if it was going to rain as forecast, I didn't want to carry a wet tent again, so once dried, I packed my tent away and put my sleeping mat and bag on the platform upstairs. Downstairs was your typical cold, damp stone/concrete bothy, but upstairs was wooden, dry and really warm.

I faffed about fetching water and deciding where to cook and eat, but when Stephen went to bed, I went downstairs to keep Barry company whilst he tried to eat and rehydrate before I got too cold and went to bed myself. I tried to creep into bed on my squeaky mattress with my rustling sleeping bag and not disturb Stephen too much before Sir Ian lulled me to sleep before 21:00.

Day 4

Sunday 14th May 2023

Corrour Station to Culra

21.13km 472m

Actual Chiarain Bothy to Uisge Labhair NN 427 702

19.36km 362m

I had a pretty good sleep, although I was aware of heavy rain during the night and was glad I had dried my tent and put it away, but briefly concerned the roof of the bothy may leak. Stephen got up once daylight broke, I visited the powder room after he'd returned to bed, and then Barry got up, so eventually I think we all gave up and went downstairs to get breakfast. There was more politics for a while and general chat before Stephen was ready to leave, heading for Kinlochleven. We were later than I would have liked setting off again, it was about 09:20, but it was a much cooler, slightly damp day and I hoped we would make good progress. We walked for about 3 km before we had a brief pause and discussed whether or not to take a slight shortcut, crossing the Allt Fèithe Chiarain and following a vague track. We could see the track and decided it was worth the risk, so off we went. We made really good progress even though the track was boggy in places, the wind and rain showers were at our back and we had remarkably good views, Barry was feeling reasonable in the early part of the day. It took about three hours to reach Corrour Station, so it had been a good call to stop early the night before. We had toasted sandwiches and tea for lunch, Barry also ordered some takeaway sandwiches to make up for his missing meal, having eaten it the night before. I had been carrying a spare, so I was okay. The couple running the little restaurant are just lovely and I took advantage of their kindness by asking if they could dispose of a couple of my cheese brick rolls for me, which they did. I was very pleased.

First glimpse of Loch Treig

The oasis, Corrour Station

Towards Loch Ossian

After a good, long break we set off again. We had realised that it was unlikely we could reach Culra to camp, so aimed for a spot I knew by the Uisge Labhair where I had camped before with a D of E group, but it did mean we would have a lot of distance to cover the following day if we were to get to Dalwhinnie. I was beginning to feel concerned. The tracks were good all the way from here and I think we sped up slightly. We had a break near the northern end of Loch Ossian when I really should have had a look at my feet, I was aware of some building discomfort, but I didn't. I really, really should have. A group of young girls said a cheery hello as they walked by and a young man stopped for a chat, on his way from Ben Alder (or was it Culra? can't remember) to Staoineag. What it is to be young. After a while we continued and eventually reached the spot I thought I remembered. It didn't look so good, so we walked on briefly before deciding we should make the best of it and returning for a second look, actually climbing down the bank to the river. On closer inspection it was actually a fine spot and we made camp. I was able to message Control again to update them and had a message chat with David, another huge advantage to carrying the inReach. I was soon drifting off to sleep with Sir Ian.


Day 5

Monday 15th May 2023

Culra to Dalwhinnie

15.52km 192m

Uisge Labhair to Dalwhinnie

30.05km 483m

I had obviously been rehydrating well as I was up before midnight to powder my nose, I could see lights on Leum Uilleim and hoped everyone was safe. I drifted off to sleep again but stirred often due to the cold and Barry cheerfully informed in the morning that there was fresh snow on the tops. I knew it had been cold. Today would be a big day if we were to make it to Dalwhinnie and we were off to a good start, setting off by 08:30, but it was slow progress as Barry was still feeling unwell. We took our time and had many pauses and breaks as we made our way towards Bealach Dubh. It looks quite intimidating from a distance, but as you get closer you realise you are doing most of the climb on the way and just have a short, tough ascent after crossing the river at a point of your choosing to gain the Ben Alder path that takes you over the bealach. The ground across the river is boggy, wet, lumpy, heathery and generally tough going, but slowly and surely we made it to the path. The path itself is being diligently restored by a lovely chap we chatted to briefly, but I didn't get his name. We could see a couple of walkers that came up the path behind us, but crossed the river ahead of us and up to the path, we never actually bumped into them to find out if they were Challengers.

Once over the bealach we rested at the first opportunity, Barry decided he didn't feel well enough to continue after Culra, he was fatigued and just wanted to put his tent up and rest. It didn't actually take much longer after we started walking again and we soon reached some reasonable ground near the bothy where Barry was happy to camp. We had a serious heart to heart at this point. I knew if I stopped, my Challenge would most likely be over as catching up was going to get harder each time we stopped short, we were currently 15km behind. We could continue and re-route through Glen Feshie, making up time by walking Braemar to Ballater in one day, but that would put us back to walking stupid long days and I felt this was unwise. Barry was absolutely determined that he was safe, had food, water and shelter and that if I stood a chance of continuing I should take it and continue now alone. I felt awful about this, I did not like leaving him feeling unwell, but he reasoned with me and persuaded me I should go and that he was happy for me to do so.

The dry patch where my tent had been pitched...

Towards Bealach Dubh

The view behind

Once we gained the Ben Alder path

Looking back

Over the bealach, towards Culra

Towards the bealach

Looking towards Ben Alder

So at about 15:00 I found myself heading off alone in the direction of Dalwhinnie. It felt very strange to be walking alone, and my legs got totally carried away and took off at my usual walking pace. Not normally a problem, but I'd got these two blisters that had developed the previous day. I had dressed them as a precaution and up to this point I had been completely unaware of them. As I walked by Ben Alder Lodge, my usual shoulder pain started, so I stopped to take some painkillers to make the last few kilometers more comfortable, ate some chocolate which always helps, and as I had a signal, I rang David for some encouragement and support. I set off again at a good pace, trying to ignore the loch to my right as it can give the impression of slow progress. A few forestry workers passed me by on their way home, noone offered me a lift which is probably just as well. Soon, The Shieling came into view and slowly, slowly I made my way towards it. I could see the dam and I knew I would have to walk along side to use the underpass to exit this long walk. Shame, had the Ben Alder crossing been open over the railway, I think I would have made it unscathed. As it was, the blister on my left foot suddenly exploded about 1.5km from the hostel I was aiming for.

I was shocked.

I had no idea my blisters had got so bad, I'd taken co-codamol rather than paracetamol and it had effectively and completely masked the pain in my feet.

I was devastated.

I recognised immediately that I was in trouble. I experienced the same blister explosion sensation on my first ever backpack walking home from Glenmore in 2007. I completed my first two Challenges with horrendous blisters, the second time the whole of the ball of each foot had blistered and my feet so infected and swollen by the time I reached Tarfside I could no longer get my boots on my feet and walked to the coast in my Keen sandals.

I carefully tried to walk. The pain was excruciating. Unbearable. 

This was a disaster.

I limped on, under the railway and passing the garage shop where I had intended to buy some food for dinner and to get me to Newtonmore.

The shop was shut.

I felt this was a strong message.

I had blistered feet and no food.

Decision made.

David was on his way to see me, he often does pop by if I pass this way on the Challenge as it is so close to home. This also seemed to be a message, I should go home. When I reached the hostel, I explained to Lee that Barry would no longer need his room and I wouldn't be staying either. He made me a cup of tea and invited me to wait for David in comfort. Sitting alone, I dared to take off just one of my boots and have a look at my left foot. I couldn't actually get my sock off, it was blood soaked and stuck to the ball of my foot. I was definitely going home. After I'd finished my tea and washed up the mug, I decided to go outside and wait for David, he couldn't be far away and as I reached the side of the road, he turned in off the main street. He was somewhat surprised when I approached the boot of the car, opened it and heaved in my pack, then sat in the passenger next to him.

I explained what had happened. He didn't question my decision as he knows it is heartbreaking to have to do and knew that I would not give up without good reason. He took me to Newtonmore for me to collect a parcel waiting there for me and I got to explain to Ali in person that, with exploded blisters and socks full of blood, I was going home.

I had nothing to prove.

Don't look back...


FellBound said...

Well Louise, I am sorry you had to drop out. Fortunately until recently I never got blisters but have become more prone over the last few years and I can sympathise. as you say, there's always another year. I assume Barry was ok?

Louise said...

Thank you David, it was particularly frustrating after so many years blister free, but I think it was a one off and should be fine in future, fingers crossed.

Yes, Barry is fine