Thursday, 10 July 2014

Mirror, mirror on the wall: Reflections on the 2014 TGO Challenge

On St Cyrus beach
 As I walk along the streets of Penrith, or the lanes of NE Wales, I am often stopped by strangers with the question “Mr Fellbound, do tell us what the Challenge means to you.  Share with us. Do”.

It seems presumptuous of me, a mere two times Challenger to give my views and reflections. Actually, I do not believe what I have just written.  It is not at all presumptuous. It’s just that these are based on my limited involvement in this great event. So they are the views of someone who has limited involvement in this great event. Ok? 

Challenge People

Without a doubt the vast majority of Challengers are lovely people. Of course you meet some absolute ars*holes, and I am sure that some Challengers will think I am one of these, but we ars*holes are few and far between. It is not just the friendliness of the Challengers that you meet. Or the many acts of kindness you see or benefit from.  It’s also their inspirational determination. You constantly observe, or learn by chance, of superb feats they have achieved.  Ultra long distance walks such as Lands End to John of Groats, the GR11, the National Trails and so on. Overcoming serious illness. Climbing high mountains in far off places.  Long Challenge days ticking off large numbers of Munros, whilst I struggle along in the glens. Walking for three days with the sole coming off their boot. Walking for the best part of a couple of weeks with blisters or a hurty knee or similar. Of my thirteen days of walking this year I only had two days where I walked completely on my own. On all other occasions I had wonderful companions. You know who you, are so thanks.

My Route

For the second time I took a lowish level route. What some would regard as merely a lengthy stroll was still, to me, a Challenge. And that is what matters. Each to his or her own. So whilst I sometimes feel I should have planned some tougher, longer days, I was happy with my route. There was, though, one massive, prolonged disappointment that I had partly anticipated from my route planning, but which was far worse in reality.  My route from Torgyle Bridge to Garva Bridge was absolutely blighted by the impact of industrial scale development in the most unsuitable of landscapes. For two days I followed massive, bulldozed tracks, with enormous lines of new and old pylons all around me. And on every horizon around Fort Augustus there seemed to be wind farms. So the walking in these places was easy on the feet, but not easy on the eye. I silently fumed throughout these days, my emotions oscillating between sadness and anger.

Best day? I know it was short and easy, but walking alone along General Wade’s Road from Phones to Kingussie in lovely sunshine.  Absolutely gorgeous

I have no pretensions of being a photographer but I was very pleased with this picture of the early morning at Garva Bridge, captured on my Kodak Box Brownie Instamatic

My Food and Drink

Best tasting meal? The Gathering Place Bistro in Braemar.  Worst meal?  A Mountain House Chilli Con Carne.  Nicest coffee and cake?  That café on the A889 between Laggan and Catlodge.  Most expensive coffee and cake?  That café on the A889 between Laggan and Catlodge. Best whisky? That’s a close one. Toss up between the malts Hugh Emsley and John Sanderson were carrying – and I can’t remember the names of either. Best pudding? Birds instant custard made in a plastic food bag at the Shielin of Mark bothy. Luxury food item? Tube of Carnation condensed milk. Most versatile foodstuff? Primula Cheese Spread.

My Gear

My pack was about 13kg with 3 days food. For many that is very heavy. This is partly because of a number of deliberate choices.

Tent: So glad I took the Scarp 1. It’s just brilliant, and I don’t care that there are lighter shelters about. Headroom is excellent and it is nice and airy, and those long corner struts keep the fabric well away from your face at night.

Pack: The ULA Catalyst pack is far too large according to many. I don’t care about that either. Its hip belt sits on my hips, and I’ve not yet come across another rucksack so good for someone who is 6 foot 3 inches.

Sleeping bag:  Rab Neutrino Endurance 400. When will I get it into my thick skull when buying sleeping bags that manufacturer’s comfort ratings are a joke for someone who sleeps as cold as I do? I reckon they are at least 5 degrees too optimistic. This bag should be ok to freezing point. So why was I so cold when it got down to one or two degrees even wearing a hat, PHD down jacket, fleece top, trousers and socks in the bag? It’s not even light at over 900 grams. I was cold most nights.

Sleeping mat: Neoair X Lite large size mat.  This has now done two Challenges and a number of other overnights. Great. And it didn’t go down. As I keep saying, the large size is wider and far more comfortable than the regular size.

Footwear: Inov8 Terroc 330s, new style, with the insoles they came with. Absolutely fine, and they drain and dry well despite some of the gloom mongers' prophecies when the upper fabric was changed this year. X socks. Brilliant too. Mind you I wouldn’t wish the smell on anyone after a day in wet peat.

That’s enough about gear.

Early morning brew: bliss

And to conclude:

So will I apply to do the Challenge again in 2015? I’m not certain. For me, between getting a place in November and setting off in May it becomes all pervasive, dominates much of my thinking and possibly intrudes too much into real life. I am sure I must bore my ever supportive wife silly in talking about it.  I can’t really explain this notion properly or even articulate why this pervasiveness is a problem. Nor is the Challenge cheap – the way I do it.  Fares, dehydrated food, new bits of gear, 3 or 4 nights in B and Bs, 4 or 5 meals out, pub visits.  Yes I could cut out most of that but….

The other factor in my mind is the route. I can’t see myself doing much in the way of big hills or miles of trackless stuff. I’m not physically or mentally up to that, certainly if walking alone, or if the weather is dubious (and in Scotland it normally is).  This is a limiter, because I would also want to seek to avoid the pylons and the wind turbines and that is becoming harder and harder to do. The Scottish Government might think that it is scaremongering to say that such development could harm their economy but I am sure that it really will start to drive tourists to other places. I may be one of these. Perhaps they do not care.

So whatever I decide I know that in the Challenges of 2013 and 2014 I have had two superb experiences that will, literally, remain with me until death or dementia. I met many fabulous people and generally had a wonderful time. And that, of all the feelings that the Challenge evokes, is the one thing that could see me buying the TGO magazine this October. An Oban start sounds good......


  1. It was a Bunnahabhain 12 year old malt David. A not very typical Islay whisky.

    1. That's got to be a made up name! I will be finishing the last of my Jura Superstition this weekend, John. A man needs a change from Famous Grouse every once in a while.

  2. Nice reflections and i can agree with them all. Sleeping bag figures are based on the person wearing a base layer to sleep in but you will know this already. Why you should be cold with that bag and all that gear is strange as you should have been way too warm. Thankfully temperatures didn’t dip below minus 3 or 4 on my challenge route and this was only for 1 night.
    You are very right though that the challenge does tend to take over your thinking throughout the year and can be a bit of a nuisance. I resisted many opportunities to partake but then i just had to do it, to get it out of my system so to speak. Ha! Unfortunately you can’t get it out and now that you have done 2 i’m sure you will do it again and again. Its a special event, with special people both on it and behind the scenes. And of course the blogs are there to keep the stories live and new routes available to visit. I’m never doing it again btw.

    1. Have to admit I was cold on a couple of nights. But then I did make the mistake of packing a sleeping bag which I had a vague recollection was a 2/3 season bag, only to spot 1+ season on the label as I lay shivering under my Trailstar.

      I think my dilemma for is not that the TGO takes over life from October to May, but that one trip simply generates a head full of ideas for other challenges. There's only so many weeks I can free up in a year, and when I look at some of the people section hiking say the Coast of Britain, I realise I can't do everything. Whatever I choose to do, it will become all pervasive. Wanting to do everything is my problem.

    2. Hi Alan. I just seem to sleep very cold. It may be to do with my medication!!!

      Are you really not doing the Challenge again? What I quite fancy is the GR11 but I doubt I will ever create the time or have the nerve to head off alone on such a trek. I have bought the new guide book, though. Not quite the second best thing. I also like the sound of the Wales Coastal path plus Offa's Dyke to circumnavigate my new home country.

  3. Great storytelling David. And I note your "never say never again" conclusion.

    See you next year then ;-)

    1. Still thinking about it Phil. plenty of time yet. And I did find myself using your blog today to look at various routes from Oban.....

      But, whatever, I hope I will see you next year. Who knows, I may get an invite on the Pre-Walk Daunder which is, of course, a far more prestigious event than the Challenge itself.

    2. PS, thanks for the complement Phil. As you know your blog posts have been highly and rightly praised - you could write professionally.

    3. I think the Pulitzer has to be yours.

    4. I am sure that the judging panel would choose you, Phil. After all, this is not a beauty contest ;-)

  4. Mmm, it can be a tad obsessive. But then, it keeps me occupied and happy. My solution to be cold in my sleeping bag? Disposable handwarmers. Like mini hotwater bottles that I can move around the coldest bits, made such a difference to my Challenges! Extra weight? Well, yes. But I'm warm so I don't care! And you can wear too much in a sleeping bag and stay cold.
    I can't imagine not applying every year, which is p'raps a tad sad, but there ya go. My next route is planned, just need my name to pop out in that draw...
    Nice write up, btw. Always an interesting take on things!
    Oban you say...?

    1. LOUISE!!!

      I thought you must have dropped off the end of the world or something. Handwarmers is an interesting idea. I would far rather carry more and be warm and get a decent nights sleep.

      Thanks for the complement (I think!). Yes, I did mention Oban. I think I would do the standard route to Glen Kinglass from there, then......... Hold on a minute, I haven't decided to enter yet.

    2. Ha! It's an Oban start then, you've already planned the first couple of days.
      Yep, handwarmers. The dog's doodahs.
      See you somewhere in Scotland next May ;-)

    3. Louise, I may feel the cold but I'm not warming my hands up on the dog's doodahs. I would get arrested or bitten. Or probably both.

  5. Loved it, Sir.
    A great easy style that merrily takes the piss out of anyone, everyone and yourself is a great formula!
    Oban eh?
    But you don't know where the cheese & wine party is yet!

    1. That is true, Alan. I do need the venue of the cheese and wine before I can finally decide on my start point and route. Not that I've decided to enter yet, you understand.....

  6. You're never gonna make that decision early enough for a cheese and wine to be on my route, I think I'm safe ;-)

  7. blogpackinglight12 July 2014 at 09:51

    I find sleeping bag ratings hopelessly optimistic as well. I'm buying some down booties :-)

    1. I covet down booties, Robin, but not certain I can justify the expense. I have got as far in the past as getting them into my online checkout basket and putting in my card details before hitting "cancel".

    2. I guess you got cold feet!

      Boom boom :-D

  8. Nice one Phil. As always, quick off the mark and quick of the mind. The old jokes are the best of course. I have just said as much to Mrs Fellbound, to which she replied "and don't I just know it", whilst giving me that strange look she sometimes uses.

  9. I posted this ages ago.
    Just realised it never went.
    That is Fenland Interweb for you.

    Anyway.. 2015..

    Phil isn't going either.

    So... September...

    Remembering it is my 10th and Al's 20th..

    We'll see you there.

    If not, you better turn up at the cheese and wine.
    You'll be able to spot it.
    We are building a HENGE..

  10. Enjoyed your account and this Dave. Hope to see you on it again. I'm applying. Be my last if I get on.

  11. Thanks Martin. your last? Why is that?

  12. Reasons best not mentioned here. Tell you why over a pint some time.

  13. Very cryptic but look forward to it!