Saturday 31 May 2014

TGOC 2014 Day 3: What was that whizzing passed? That was your life mate.

Day 3: Route
Sunday 11 May, 21km, 388 metres climbed, 7 hours 15 mins

The Allt na Muic, just beyond my camping spot

I wake up early. At home or in a hotel or in a tent.  Today was no exception.  Well before 5.00am. I do not actually start walking early, rather I potter around, if one can potter around in a single person tent.  Pottering around in such circumstances means slowly brewing up, usually a couple of times,  getting sleeping bag clothes off, and walking clothes on, making porridge and brewing up again, eating a cereal bar and, of course, taking the early morning trip with the MSR Blizzard to do what a man has to do.

Most of the copulating ants had now, it seemed, left for wherever flying ants go when they are not pestering humans.  Presumably their lust was now satiated and, no doubt, their mission to promulgate their species successful.
I know that looks like a path but it didn't look like one when I was walking down here.

A nice spot for a break by the Allt na Muic
I was walking by 8.15am. I first blundered through the heather to the deer fence at the edge of the forest, and then down hill between the Allt na Muic and the forest.  Unsurprisingly, the OS’s idea of a path, which should have materialised at the deer fence according to the 1:50k map, seemed to be at odds with how a dictionary would describe such a feature, for I saw little signs of one until much further down. The ground was pretty wet underfoot but not too difficult. Towards the bottom of the hill I was pleased to find Hugh and Barbara again, breakfasting at a pleasant spot by the stream, and the sun appeared to be winning its battle with the clouds at this point. We walked together for most of the rest of the day, first plodding along the road to Torgyle Bridge where we lunched at a picnic table in heavy rain shower, with other Challengers materialising here for the pull over the hill to Fort Augustus.
On the way to Fort Augustus
It is very easy walking from Torgyle Bridge to Fort Augustus, first on forestry tracks and then on awful new tracks built to allow the construction of the massive replacement pylons and power lines.  I am afraid that whilst I make use of these tracks I also resent the ruination of the landscape that they cause. I guess that is a form of hypocrisy but that’s how it is. I could, of course, have planned a different route to avoid this area, but that wouldn't have meant that the countryside would have been any less spoilt. The way, though, was redeemed by the last kilometre through Jenkins Park which is a pretty way in to the town.  I was at Fort Augustus by half three, quite early for the B and B, so I forced myself into The Bothy pub and bravely sank a couple of pints of Guinness.

Welcome Sight

Hugh, Barbara and I ate in The Bothy later.  Allen and Fran were there too, Fran with a pair of shiny new boots bought from the gift shop, and gradually more Challengers arrived, including John Woolston, who I had shared Day 3 with on the 2013 Challenge. It seemed like only yesterday.  Time certainly is “the subtle thief of youth”, as that guy Milton banged on about back in 1632 when he was just 23 years of age.

Fort Augustus

I would be happy to accept an offer of sponsorship from Guinness.  If their marketing director would like to contact me.....

Sunday 25 May 2014

TGOC 2014 Day 2: Bogs, boots, lubricants and sex crazed inverterbrates

Day 2: Route

Saturday 10 May, 18.4 km, 667 metres, 7 hours 45 minutes

Weather:  Pretty wet, drying up in the afternoon.  Sort of.

View from the Scarp (taken on the previous evening)
One of the less than pleasurable aspects of wild camping is the early morning walk with the MSR Blizzard stake, with the improvised duct tape handle, to a place remote from other tents and water courses for a man to do what a man has to do. Not too bad on a dry day, it is most unpleasant when it is raining.  So I can tell you that having wandered off from my tent at 5.50am in the dry to undertake aforementioned euphemism I felt pretty smug 15 minutes later as I lay back in my sleeping bag with a brew and it started to tip it down. 
Loch Affric

It continued to rain throughout the morning, which was no surprise, this being Scotland in May and Challengers all along the north west of the country were just getting on with it.  I headed off along the track towards Loch Affric, eventually catching up with Fran and Allen near the track that turns away from the Loch and heads up towards Cougie. I only caught up with them because they were repairing Fran's boots again.  I walked with them through an increasingly unpleasant, steep, wet and muddy excuse of a path to the main track that heads to Cougie.

Allen scoured the track for old bits of wire and cable ties to add to his boot repair kit for Fran.  We stopped near Cougie for lunch.  After getting very fed up of trail mix and too many cereal bars on previous backpacks I have started to buy wraps for lunch and spread these with Primula Cheese.  This is far more satisfying.  I am also packing my mug so that it is more accessible to encourage me to drink more water when passing burns.  It’s a new Evernew mug, bought just before the off.  It did make an annoying grating sound whenever I unfolded the handles but I found that a tiny squirt of Primula down the titanium channel that holds them in place sorted this.
Above Cougie

We followed a track up the hill out of Cougie.  It disappeared long before the Ordnance Survey said that it should, and despite the use of GPS to check we were on this “path” we waded through heather and bog for a goodly bit ie a couple of hours or so.  I can only think that the OS map makers, who now use satellite imagery to plot features such as paths, were using the same satellite that had told master blogger Alan Sloman that there was a brilliant wild camp in the middle of a Cumbrian wasteland on the Pre-Walk Daunder in April. Not that I’m bitter, you understand.

I had planned to camp by the Allt na Muic and not far from the grid reference given on my route plan I did see a pretty reasonable spot.  Allen wanted to “push on for a bit” so I was deprived of his and Fran's excellent company and settled down to a wild camp alone – the only time on this Challenge when my tent was on its own.

I spent an interesting evening.  I foolishly left my tent door open as I went for a short wander to the burn for water and when I returned it was filled with large numbers of flying ants who, it seemed had needed to “get a room”.  They were hell bent on using the Scarp for immoral purposes, and despite shooing as many of them as possible away I had to lie in my sleeping bag watching the remaining swarm with voyeuristic fascination as they cavorted and copulated on the sides of my inner tent until tiredness saw me drift to the land of nod.

Wild camp pitch near the Allt na Muic

TGOC 2014 Day 1: Boring Challengers

Route, Day 1

Friday 9 May, 21.1km, 706 metres height gain, 8 hours 25 minutes

Weather:  A bit of inconsequential drizzle, some sunshine, clag on the tops
The cliche photograph
 And then they were off! I dipped my toes in the Loch at 9.05am and set off for Glen Affric.  Despite the fact that there were over 50 people due to start from Shiel Bridge over the Friday and Saturday I only actually saw about 10 Challengers all in whilst walking on Day 1.

Leaving Shiel Bridge

Happy chappy in Gleann Lichd

I took the ‘trade route’ up Gleann Lichd, then over to Alltbeithe, and on to just over the bridge beyond Athnamulloch.  The old building here, I was to learn from more experienced Challengers is also known as Strawberry Cottage.  The way is very beautiful, which was unsurprising, but no less wonderful for that.  This is especially so as the path pulls up out of the Glen and heads over towards Alltbeithe.  As has often been the case for me on Challenge days I fell into the small scale OS map trap.  Almost every walk I do normally is with a 1:25000 map.  Whenever I then use a 1:50000 everything seems so much further! You can walk off the edge of a 1:25k much more quickly than a 1:50k.  Well I know what I’m talking about.

Retrosopective on the way to the waterfalls

Approaching the waterfalls

The waterfalls

I’d learnt from my first Challenge last year, though.  More rests (hence note above the time it took me for this day), more water to drink, and more snacks. Works a treat.

One of the delights of the Challenge is to be able to walk alone or to walk with others, with companions constantly changing along the way. You make new friends and come across, with delight, old ones. The latter may be from previous years, or just people you met a couple of days earlier.  The shared experiences of such a walk create a bond.  For me, today was one of lovely new acquaintances.  Having set off alone I caught up with Hugh and Barbara Emsley and Andy Williams.  They were to be my delightful companions for much of the day, and I was to walk far more with Hugh and Barbara on subsequent days.  I left them as they stopped for a break at Camban Bothy, and later met up with Allen and Fran Mellors, and walked with them to our wild camping spot near the river beyond Strawberry Bridge.  They are both very experienced long distance backpackers, and a lovely couple. Fran was showing incredible gutsiness, determination and cheerfulness in adversity.  The sole of her boot had come away as she was leaving Shiel Bridge.  They were having to stop every few minutes to carry out running repairs using various bits of string and spare boot laces to tie it together.  Fran actually walked for three days like this, all the way to Fort Augustus, and whenever I saw her she was smiling away.   Allen and Fran are tough.  Allen refers to their walking style as ‘bimbling’.  I would describe it more as a fast jog.  Allen is also a great one for saying “”we’ll just push on a bit” which in my language translates to “we may as well do most of tomorrow’s route as well as today’s”. 
Andy and Hugh approaching the day's literal highpoint

Heading towards Alltbeithe Hostel

Meeting so many different Challengers over the fortnight, and repeatedly bumping into those who share parts of your route has a downside, that of ‘Boring Challengers’.  Now this might appear as if I am suggesting that some Challengers bored me.  Far be it for me to pass such a judgement!   No, I am referring to the complex I suffer from of not remembering what I have said to whom, and what has been said to me by others.  You talk to so many people in the course of a few days.  Challenger talk always starts off on the same topics.  Your respective routes, the weather, gear carried, bogs you have crossed, before it ventures to wider information such as where you are from, family, work and anecdotes.  This gives me a terrible complex.  What was this chap’s name?  Did I meet him on the coach coming up? I’m sure he told me where he was heading tomorrow, is it the same route as me?  And so on.  Thus, I have this constant, nagging fear that I am boring everybody silly, repeating stuff and so on.  Not that I let that stop me!

Rob Jones arrived.  I happened to mention I snore badly. He pitched his tent about 400 metres upwind from me.  Wise man.  Andy Williams pitched up too.  We were joined much later at our camp spot by Keith Leonard and Charlie Ngumo. They looked done in.  I handed Keith my hip flask. Twice. Big mistake.  Keith is not a man to sip from a hip flask.

Camp at Athnamulloch

Friday 23 May 2014

The Great Outdoors Challenge (TGOC) 2014: Ready for the off

Loch Duich from Kintail Lodge

This is the start of the write up of my 2014 TGO Challenge.  The TGO Challenge is an annual self-supported walk across Scotland from west coast to east coast.  This year it was sponsored by Earwig, a German boot manufacturer, with unofficial behind the scenes backing from Primula Cheese (all sale proceeds from Primula go to charity folks, so spread, spread, spread like there is no tomorrow).  Before I get down to the real business, I need to set out the ground rules for my reports.  By reading beyond this paragraph all are warned explicitly of the following:

  • Any action against me for libel will be defended to the last.  Potential litigants will need to be prepared to fight me and my top legal team, which is already on stand-bye, like a dog in a ditch.

  • There may be some (!) hyperbole and exaggeration in my reports.  On rare occasions there may be a grain of truth in what I write.  Fact and fiction will blur, depending upon the degree of befuddlement in my mind at the time of any incidents written about.  Despite this, my decision in any dispute about the accuracy of events is final.  Any version posted by any other blogger is almost certainly less accurate, unless it shows me in a particularly good and heroic light in which case that blogger shall have the final word.

  • My reports may contain sections of an adult nature, with graphic descriptions of sex and violence.  Readers who may be offended by, for example, detailed reports of voyeurism and flying ants copulating en masse in my tent on the occasion that it turned into the location of an insect orgy, before they were subject to a slow and agonising death may like to turn to a more sedate blog.
  • Nor are the posts really suitable for anyone who does not like Primula Cheese out of a tube or, for that matter, for anyone who thinks that the main use of a tube of Primula Cheese is as a foodstuff.  Read on and you will not just learn, but you will really start to live life to the full.

In the interests of the sanity of those who seek out multifarious blog posts to read about the experience of TGO Challengers, I will do my best to avoid these reports merely being a description of where I walked and when, of how wonderful the scenery was, how deep the bogs were and so on.  I will try to break up these bits, for they will inevitably appear, with observations on various aspects of the Challenge. Given my vast experience of TGO Challenges ie all of two, these observations will prove to be particularly insightful, perhaps not of the Challenge but certainly of the state of my tortured and twisted mind.

Wednesday 8 May 2014, and I am due to start walking in 36 hours.  

I am not one of those woosy Ultralight Challengers who is incapable of carrying their kitchen sink across Scotland.  Oh no, I carry a bit of weight on my shoulders.  But I thought that I should get into the spirit of things.  Having studied and analysed the kit lists of other Challengers, I managed to lighten my planned load by almost 3kg without ditching a single item.  How?  “Seemples”, as that Russian squirrel thing says in between the shows on the Independent Television Channel.  Firstly, I edited my kit spreadsheet and reduced the weight of everything I might possibly wear at any time on the Challenge to 0 grams.  Secondly, I changed my tent J cloth from the genuine article to a Tesco own brand cloth.  2 grams saved!  Oh yes, I can play this ultralight game.  Thirdly, I changed the weight of my fuel on the spreadsheet.  I have noticed some gear lists only include the weight of the gas and not the cartridge itself.  What’s good enough for Challengers X and Y (you know who you are!) is good enough for me. With 3 days food the whole caboodle (that’s not a flash make of rucksack manufactured in Kansas or some such, but it ought to be) was down to 13.2 kg. That's the real weight as measured by one of those aircraft luggage scale thingies, not the lie in the spreadsheet 'total weight' box. I packed it all into my Lightwave Ultrahike.  I then unpacked the Lightwave and put it all in the ULA Catalayst.  I removed my hip flask and topped it up a bit further. Perfect
The Journey Begins

10 hours later I was at Penrith station for the train to Glasgow Central.  I backpacked across Glasgow City Centre to Buchanan Street Bus Station.  On to the coach for the 5 hour journey to Shiel Bridge. Sat opposite a young Glaswegian who appeared to be ‘off his heed’ on some substance, legal or otherwise.  Tried to avoid eye contact with said youth until he got off the bus at Fort William.  The journey was far less tedious than I had envisaged and the driver dropped a whole bunch of Challengers at the Kintail Lodge Hotel.  We all had beds in the Trekkers Lodge or the Bunk House, there being a wedding on, and all the posh rooms being booked.  I finally got to meet fellow bloggers Laura and Louise who were as jolly in real life as they are in cyberspace. I wandered by the loch and it was good. All was well in my world.

Loch Duich at Shiel Bridge
We dined in the hotel and were joined by some of the other Shiel Bridge starters, including Hugh, Barbara, Alan and Fran, all of whom I walked with at various times in the coming days.  I was far less apprehensive than last year. Then, I had a mind set that kept telling me that I would probably never get to the east coast.   I have clearly made progress because this year that thought was never to cross my mind……..TO BE CONTINUED