Thursday 4 June 2015

TGO Challenge 2015 - Gear Used and Abused

St Cyrus Beach, waving my absolutely brilliant Pacer Poles
I posted a kit list before setting out on the Challenge and so I thought I would write a few short comments about some of the gear I took with me. As you will see, I took a deliberate decision to carry quite a bit more weight than strictly necessary.  I still have mixed feelings about this, and constantly struggle to get the weight versus comfort balance right for me. Having written that, I did note ironically, as I bought a piece of unneeded but fancied cheese in the Co-op in Ballater to stick in my pack, that its extra weight entirely counteracted the saving in grams I made when I bought a lighter sleeping bag last year.  But then who wants to eat a sleeping bag half way up Mount Keen I want to know.

 The 'Big Three' (or Four or Five)

Many backpackers write about the 'big three' critical items of shelter, pack and sleeping bag when commenting on gear and weight carried.  I would also add footwear and rain gear.  To be comfortable you really need to get all these right.  So I took:

Tent - My Tarptent Scarp 1. As the weather forecast was for quite a lot of wind and rain and chilliness, I decided on the Scarp 1 rather than my considerably lighter Z Packs Duplex.  I am pretty confident that the latter would have done me just fine, but I have used and abused the Scarp far more, only having acquired the Duplex towards the end of last year.  I also thought the Scarp would be warmer, given its double skin and lack of mesh, which helps cut down on draughts.  As expected, the Scarp performed superbly.  Rock steady in the squally wind, plenty of space with its two vestibules, allowing cooking undercover and storage of wet gear.  If this tent was half a kg lighter I'd never want to use anything else.
My Scarp 1 in quite strong, squally winds in the lee of Dalbeg Bothy
Pack - the ULA Catalyst.  As with my shelter, I opted for my long used, and so well tried, ULA Catalyst, rather than my Z Packs Arc Blast.  This choice was entirely dictated by taking the Scarp. The Catalyst has a massive external mesh pocket which swallows the Scarp far more easily than the Arc Blast.  It has lots of space, meaning packing up, especially in the wet, doesn't require much care or thought, and is superbly comfortable to carry.  If I had taken the Duplex I would definitely have taken the Arc Blast which is also a great pack, and is about 900 gr lighter than the Catalyst.  I am likely to use the Duplex and Blast combination on all my shorter trips.
ULA Catalyst on St Cyrus Beach
Sleeping Bag - A Z Packs 20 Degree bag (long and extra wide).  I think this is a great sleeping bag.  I sleep very cold, and so if the temperature is going to get anywhere near freezing I also wear my PHD down jacket to bed, which has a hood.  I was only chilly on one night in this set up, unlike in previous years when I used a Rab Neutrino 400 - which I found less warm but quite a lot heavier.  The Z Packs bag has to be one of the lightest on the market in terms of the amount of down / temperature rating.  Having said this, I met one other Challenger who had bought and sold a similar Z Packs bag as he didn't like it for a variety of reasons.  Individual preferences.  Oh, and one of my best investments in recent years was the purchase of down socks from As Toucas, which really make a substantial difference to warmth at night and in the tent in the evening.

Trail Shoes - I wear these more and more rather than boots, and think they are brilliant for the Challenge, especially so in avoiding faffing about at river crossings.  You just plunge straight in.  Despite the occasional snow patches, my feet generally kept warm and after about five minutes you do not notice that they are wet most of the time. I wore the same pair as last year, the 'new' style Inov8 Terroc 330s. 'New' style, but no longer made unfortunately. They were faultless, but having done two Challenges now, plus many day walks, they have been relegated to dog walking since I got home as the uppers have worn through in places.  I have no idea what I will replace them with yet.  As for socks.  I am a real fan of X Socks Exped socks which I find incredibly comfortable, and as in previous years I did not get any blisters, even after some fairly pro-longed road trudges.  Rinsing them in a stream each night keeps them relatively fresh.

Waterproofs - I wore a Berghaus Paclite jacket.  And I wore it a great deal because of the weather we experienced.  Paclite is much maligned.  I have been very happy with it, but this item is now about 6 years old, and it has seen its day.  As for overtrousers, I wear Berghaus Paclites, too, and these really are the dog's doo dahs.  I don't reckon there is anything that would better suit my needs, and they do appear to be the commonest type worn by fellow Challengers.  Mine have now provided me with great service for several years.  I have often worn them all day, and find them comfortable and condensation free.

Other Stuff - Most of the things that I carried were used, except for many First Aid items and my repair kit.  I may lighten these for the future, dispensing with some wound dressings and some of the spare dyneema and bungee cord, but this will only save a few grams. I consciously chose to carry other things which I knew would increase weight, and could be dispensed with, but thought they would add to my overall comfort.  Thus, I had the luxury of spare trousers - the incredibly light Rohan Ethers, which I highly recommend if you, too, want to carry a spare pair on trips. They only weigh about 220 gr. I also took the light weight Hi Tec Zuuk shoes for wear in B and Bs and when eating out.  They do the job.  In terms of other clothes I suppose you do not need to carry a spare shirt, socks or pants but it is nicer when you are in town in the evening if you do, and I particularly like my new Rohan Zipped Silver Core base layer which served as my spare.  On the subject of Rohan gear, I walked every single day in my zipped, long sleeved Rohan merino base layer shirt.  I also slept in it every night.  I washed it after Days 6 and Day 9 and to my refined nose it never became offensive!  It is is one of the best bits of basic kit I own.  I wore, and needed, all my cold weather clothing, including lightweight fleece, Montane Prism gillet and Prism gloves, PHD Minimus Down Jacket, fleece beenie and buff.

As is the case almost every time I go out in the hill I used a pair of Pacer Poles which I think can not be beaten, although I wish they would make a model with flick lock closures.

I had one piece of equipment failure.  This was an almost new Piezo ignition sparker thing that came with my MSR Micro Rocket stove which I purchased this spring as the pot holders on my old Optimus gas stove became rather bent.  It packed up after three days.  Fortunately, I carry a spare lighter.  I also had a dodgy self-sealing gas cartridge which didn't self-seal very well, and gave me a couple of anxious moments.  I am, partly as a result of this, thinking of taking my Trail Designs Ti Tri meths / esbit set up in future, rather than gas.

That's enough about gear.  I bought the lot with my own money, of course, so the comments here are not influenced by any of it being free.  Unfortunately!!!!

Wednesday 3 June 2015

TGO Challenge 2015: Wining, dining and sleeping

Essential re-hydration in the Tipsy Laird, Kingussie
When not actually walking on the Challenge, three activities that fill up much of the rest of the time of the average Challenger must be wining, dining and sleeping.  I did not do a great deal of the former this year. Over the two weeks, I managed to down a hip flask containing half a bottle of Tobermory Single Malt, had a couple of pints in each of the Strathcarron and Park Hotels, and also managed a few more pints in the Tipsy Laird at Kingussie, the Moorfield in Braemar, the Alexander Hotel in Ballater and at the two restaurants I ate out in.  Apart from the somewhat over abused excuse that drinking beer is absolutely necessary to rehydrate after a day's walking, alcohol consumption is not vital for an enjoyable crossing.  Eating, of course, is essential and it is interesting to see the approaches various Challengers take to getting their several thousands of calories per day.

Now I love my food, but my approach on backpacking trips to eating has always been functional and basic.  Lots of brews, and lots of hot food, the simpler and quicker to cook the better, ideally with no washing up.

Brewing up in the early morning on Day 2

Thus, my breakfasts are monotonous but edible and seem to do the trick.  I can't get going without a mug of tea. Being a very early waker-upper I brew up lying in my sleeping bag, sometime after half-five in the morning.  I add what I regard as my one food luxury to this - Carnation condensed milk which comes in tubes.  Sweet, sickly and yummier than powdered milk.  I got the taste for this whilst in the school cadet force in the early 1970s, when it was a staple of the '24 hour ration pack'.  If the weather is good, one of the highlights of backpacking for me is lying drinking tea as the sun warms the tent, doors open so I can take in the views and the freshness of the air.  Soon after six I am brewing up again, this time with sufficient hot water also to make up some porridge.  I just add this hot water to a pre-prepared (at home before the trip) zip lock type bag of Oats So Simple, mixed with dried milk and sugar and eat straight from the bag. This, and a cereal bar, does me until I start snacking on chocolate and trail mix during the walk.
Breakfast at Tarfside
Lunches used to be just trail mix and chocolate, but now I also carry a tube of Primula, that most refined, versatile and sophisticated of cheeses, and spread this on tortilla wraps, which is far more filling than snacking on its own.  But the bulk of my calorie intake has to come from my evening meal which I tend to make soon after setting up camp.

This year, as on previous Challenges, I stocked up with several commercially produced dehydrated 'just add hot water' meals and had one of these each evening, preceded by a 'cup-of-soup', and usually followed by a tasty dessert such as Bird's Instant Custard or Semolina, made by adding water to the powder in a zip lock bag, again eating straight from the bag. Towards the end of the Challenge, variety was added by the purchase of a Jamaica Ginger Sponge for pudding.  In the privacy of my tent I savaged this in chunks torn straight from its sticky wrapper.  This diet was supplemented by bacon butties and cake from various cafes en route, one bar snack and two meals in restaurants.

My habit of eating out of food bags is a practise which seems to divide Challengers.  Some feel it eminently sensible; others look on horrified, before, I fondly imagine, they go off to cook fresh scallops, or perhaps moules mariniers, followed by a piece of well hung sirloin, with baby carrots, sauteed mushrooms and onion rings as side dishes, all washed down by a glass of vintage claret. 

Perhaps influenced by meals I have seen other Challengers producing, my views on backpacking food changed during the course of this trip.  I will never again rely night-after-night on commercially produced dehydrated stuff in a bag.  In the past I have found most of these 'just add hot water' meals tolerable when hungry after a hard day's walking.  This year I found them more and more inedible, nay even repulsive.  This began when I started to eat one after a longish day in the Monadhliath Mountains.  I gave up after eating less than half as it seemed rather unpleasant.  My feeling that it was not quite right was confirmed at four in the morning as I headed out in the squally rain with Mr Trowel and his accompaniments.  Two other dehydrated meals were also abandoned, hardly touched, on subsequent nights.  Perhaps my taste buds have finally had enough.  From now on I plan to cook ordinary dried stuff like noodles and savoury rice and perhaps carry a small pot of chilli powder and some dried herbs.

I was going to use this post partly to name some of the poor meals that I had this year, but that might be unfair. They came from a variety of makers and sources. I am not convinced that any manufacturer produces universally good dehydrated meals, and some even seem to vary when theoretically it is the same meal.  And they are universally pricey.  But I can say that I did find the instructions on LYO meals to be both amusing and idiotic.  The Pork in Green Peppers (one of the better meals I had), for example, required the addition of "393 ml" of water. The LYO Beef Stroganoff  packet stated "add 348 ml". Not 400 ml or 350 ml but 398 or 348ml.  Well the idiocy made me laugh on a couple of rainy evenings as I poured in a rough and ready half a pot full of hot water.
Camping by the Allt Coire a Charra, first night out
Cooking and eating is phased across the evening to help pass the time. Walker midnight occurs at about 9 pm, and sometimes earlier.  Then it is time for bed.  Some Challengers camp out every night.  Others, me included, like the occasional stay in a B and B, but when the weather is good and you find a decent spot, camping out in the hills can not be beaten.  One of the best wild camps I have ever had was the first night this year, camped by the Allt Coire a Charra.  I had never been to the area before, and for the last few km of the day I was starting to think I would have trouble finding anywhere reasonably dry, let alone level. But just as I crossed the stream, my planned destination, I came upon a fabulous place to stop, and spent the lovely sunny evening knowing how lucky and how small I was in this massive, lonely landscape.

My second night saw me lower down in Strathfarrar, again in a beautiful spot in the sun.  This time with the added attraction of herds of red deer; and the horror of large numbers of ticks trying to invade my tent, successfully on quite a number of occasions.  

Strathfarrar Wild Camp
Another superb wild camping area is Glen Feshie.  Having stopped here two years running I planned to go a different route this year but circumstances led to me stopping at the same place for the third year running.  "And so what?", I says, for it is idylic.
Glen Feshie wild camp.  Note Mick ' Crocodile' Dundee sorting out his Akto under the shade of a Coolabah tree in the background.  As he is showing off rather too much builder's bum you are strongly advised NOT to enlarge this photograph. I managed to avert my gaze and look at the adjacent River Feshie until he was all done.
The Challenge also throws up less conventional places to camp than wild on the hill, or on a public campsite, thanks to individual or community generosity.  I have, in the past, camped in a private garden, and two favourite spots with Challengers are the Sutherland's field at Allt na Goire and the Tarfside Sports Field, both of which I used this year.  And very nice they were too.

Challengers making use of the Sutherland's generosity at Allt na Goire
A cold and frosty Tarfside sports field, the very early morning after the night before

Another gratuitous early morning brew photo above the Linn of Dee
And looking at these photos and the June sun now shining outside, I am thinking I need to get out in the hills again.  Must go get out my maps....

Monday 1 June 2015

TGO Challenge 2015: Challenger People

Mick 'Crocodile' Dundee: One of the Southern Hemisphere's finest sons
 As I walked along the road by the Ruthven Barracks outside Kingussie I spotted a familiar face dawdling on the grass verge.  He responded cheerily to my greeting.  In that strange accent of his, from that far away southern land, he shouted "G'day cobber, you going in to Glen Feshie mate? You mind if I tag along?  Been a long while since I went walkabout in this part of the bush and I was worried I'd get lost and not find the billabong.  I'll just pack up me tucker bag and I'll be right with you." And so, to my delight, I was able to start walking for three days with none other than legendary, sixteen times Challenger, Mick 'Crocodile' Dundee.  Mick comes from a place called Croydon which, I guess from his strange accent and his frequent references to his childhood in the capital, is within commuting distance of Canberra, in the land of Oz. And Mick has had the most interesting life of anyone in the world.  Unfortunately, none of his many anecdotes are suitable for writing about on my blog.

Mick and I walked from Kingussie to Braemar together.  He seemed content to follow my lead in Glen Feshie, not bothering to consult his map, but demanding absolute precision from me. "You said it would take 45 minutes from the bothy to get to this camping spot you want us to head to", he said at one point, "you ought to know that we have exactly 8 minutes 42 seconds left to get us there or you'll be eating my old jockstrap for your pudding this evening.  And there had better be a nice flat spot for my tent, and I expect the creek to have plenty of the cold crystal clear stuff in it for me to cool down my tinnies before I get me barbie going".  As we arrived he stated that we were 17 seconds late but he'd let me off my jockstrap dessert as he'd stopped for a pee, which just goes to show the magnanimous nature of our colonial cousins.  He showed further generosity of spirit the following day when I took him off route from White Bridge up to the Chest of Dee in the rain and wind. I had been assured by another Challenger, who I will not name publicly, but just refer to as a retired Professor of Software Engineering, 'IS' from Aberdeen, that there was the best wild camping spot in the whole of Scotland if not Europe there, but all Mick and I found was a pretty stream, lots of deer shit and ruffty tuffty hummocky stuff. As it happens, we were happy to walk on towards the Linn of Dee and a very pleasant spot to pitch.

It was great walking with Mick. I had thought that my planned route would see me having another social Challenge but this hadn't entirely been the case.  On the first day I walked a short way with Ray Disson. Then from 1.30 on Friday afternoon I didn't see a soul for over 49 hours until I was approaching Cannich in the middle of Sunday afternoon. The next day saw me walk with the Clegg brothers, Roger and Peter and occasionally others, and then all my walking in the Monadliath for two days was on my own, as was almost all my final two days. Allt na Goire saw about 10 lovely people, and me making 11, squashed around the Sutherland's dining table for dinner and breakfast, and from Kingussie to Tarfside there was much company and sociability.

To me there is only one real advantage of entering the Challenge, and that is to be amongst fellow Challengers, at least for parts of your walk. Almost all the rest of the great things about it could be had simply by going off on your own, and walking a route across Scotland. And Challengers are an incredible bunch.  Most exude fantastic traits.  They come from a very diverse range of backgrounds and places, most have amazing outdoors curriculum vitae, and many have shown vast amounts of determination and courage in adversity.  Some are gobby extroverts, some are quiet introverts, some are cerebral or cultured - and some are not.  There is much humour, much self-deprecation and much friendly mickey taking of others. And quite a number not only carry hip flasks but they pass them around in the evening too.
Challengers lazing around having lunch at the bridge into Glen Feshie near Stronetoper. Gerard(?), Mick Hopkins, Martin Rye, Keith Willers and Steve Rouse.  Martin and Keith, being flatlanders, were keen to take the opportunity to bounce off up some seriously big hills whilst I contemplated dragging myself a few more km along the glen for a brew and early camp

And so from Kingussie I enjoyed Mick's company and along the way that of several others. Braemar was less busy than in my two previous years, what with the Fife Arms being closed.  The Old Bakery Cafe also seemed quieter when I arrived, although I fortunately found Linda Griffiths and her husband lunching there, so I wasn't quite Billy No Mates.  I spent much of the afternoon sorting and washing in my B and B.  I had, however, arranged in advance to meet up with four people with whom I had walked in 2014 and had booked a table for six at the Braemar Lodge Hotel, confident that we would find another to join us. In fact, the booking turned into one for eight, and it was super to meet up again with James 'Bongo' Boulter, Ian 'Steve Ovett' Sommerville, Hugh and Barbara Emsley, Vicky and Toby Grace and Stan Appleton for what turned out to be a more than decent meal.

Meeting old friends in Braemar gave me the chance to walk in the slip stream of Ian Sommerville again.  We arranged to walk together to Ballater and were careful not to disgrace ourselves as we had done in 2014 by getting off route (ie a bit lost) between the town and the Lion's Face, and we sustained interesting conversations for the entire walk - well Ian was interesting and he certainly listened politely to my wittering.  As we gorged ourselves on over priced refreshments at the Balmoral Castle Tea Shop Hugh, Barbara and Stan arrived.  I had walked with Hugh and Barbara for a few days in 2014, and the meal the previous evening and this lunch stop confirmed that Barbara oozes loveliness from every pore.  And Hugh?  Well Hugh wears his Paramo smock and his buff as if they were a silk cravat and smoking jacket.  The word 'urbane' must have been invented for Hugh. I cannot think of Hugh without transporting him in my imagination to a bungalow on a tea plantation in Darjeeling in the 1930s, pouring a gin fizz for his guests as the sun sinks behind the hills, and the insects start to chirp their evensong, a jazz record playing quietly on the gramophone in the background.  I suppose it is just possible that in real life he leads the Portsmouth Headhunter gang of football hooligans or some such, but somehow I doubt it.

Hugh Emsley, Stan Appleton, Barbara Emsley and me, myself and I suffering in the sun at the tea shop at Balmoral Castle. Ian, who is something of a photographer, had insisted we move the lunch debris from the table before he could take the photograph
This enjoyment at meeting fellow Challengers is, I suspect, what brings so many back year after year. This results not just in delight at seeing old friends and making new ones, but also brings frustrations as routes don't coincide with those you would like to see again. Even when they do there can be so many people you'd like to have a chat / meal / drink with that you do not have the time to do this justice, as was the case in Ballater this year.

It did seem that one of the social hubs of the Challenge had shifted to Ballater from Braemar.  The camp site was heaving, and others were staying in town in more luxurious accommodation.  So the camp site was choka bloka with Challengers and I had a big man hug with my Twitter pal Carl 'the Birdman of Alkatraz' Mynott, and a girl hug with lovely Lyndsey Pooler who had escaped her mum duties for a fortnight leaving Alistair holding the baby.  And not only that but Challenge legends Alan Sloman and Phil Lambert were drinking beer in a camper van, with Alan's spitting image of a brother Dave. Which meant that in that van there were exactly the right number of human kidneys - although not necessarily shared out two a piece.

Standing on the camp site, Ian telephoned the Indian on the Green to book us a table. "I'll book for four", he said, "we are bound to find a couple more who want to go". Before he had finished the sentence not only had the two other places gone, but I was calling across to Ian to change the booking to one for six as Gordon Green, Roger and Peter Clegg and Stan were all shouting "and me and me". And an excellent meal it was too, with various freebies provided to supplement our order, and I got to have a decent chat with Gordon, too, who I had last seen limping down the road from Tarfside with a very poorly foot in 2014.

Stan, Roger and Peter Clegg, Gordon Green, me and Ian Sommerville at the The Indian on the Green in Ballater

I could, and should, go on and mention all the others who made my Challenge special, and those who I missed or hardly saw or didn't see enough off, who would have made it even more specialyier. At the real risk of inadvertently missing people out, there were the fabulozy and unfeasibly youthful looking John and Norma Keohane, who unbidden altered their dining plans to come to the Park Hotel dinner with me on the Wednesday.  There were Martin Rye and Keith Willers, James of the Bongo, Vicky and Toby Grace, Andy Walker, Robin Evans, Emma Warbrick, and John Jocys who I missed or didn't see much of.  Johnboy Sanderson whose legs I had planned to hobble like a camel so I could keep up with him going up Mount Battock.  Steve Rouse who kept me going as I flagged in the rain over the last few km to Tarfside and as I tired again towards North Water Bridge, David and Margaret Brocklehurst who added sanity to a meal with some rather more raucous Callengers in the Tipsy Laird (you know who they are Andy and Carl!), Graeme and Marion Dunsire....and others I know through social media and didn't get to see such as Ali Whitaker.  I could go on and on.  And I usually do, drone, drone, drone.....

Thanks to all named and to many others for their companionship and good humour and tolerance, and especially to Mick, Ian and Steve who were prepared to plod along the miles with me and make the experience so memorable.

Ian Sommerville basking in glorious late May weather on the summit of Mount Keen

TGO Challenge 2015 - My Route

Route Overview - Strathcarron to St Cyrus

In my previous two Challenges I had set myself a simple aim which was to reach the east coast.  This year I submitted a slightly more challenging route, with more in the way of ups and downs, hills, bog and pathless stuff.  I should stress that this was 'more challenging' by my standards, not by those who set out to tick off Munros and Corbetts.  As it happens, I varied my planned route quite a lot after about Day 6, and made it easier.  I then often used my Foul Weather Alternative (FWA) routes, partly because there was still a reasonable amount of snow lying up high, but also because I was starting to feel both very tired, far more so than in previous years, and quite 'run down' with a sore throat and temperature and stuff, which may well have been connected with the tiredness.

What follows is a description of the route, with a few asides, which may be (no it will be) a bit turgid at times, but if you are planning on coming this way and the area is new to you, it might contain some nuggets about paths, bridges down, landslips, camp spots and the like that may be helpful to you.
Leaving the Strathcarron Hotel

Days 1,2,3,and 4 (Friday to Monday) - Strathcarron to Ault na Goire

The first four days took me from Strathcarron to just over the Great Glen, via Bendronaig Lodge, Loch Calavie, Pate Lodge, Strathfarrar, the Liatrie Burn, Cannich, Drumnadrochit and Loch Ness to Allt na Goire.

The Friday, and the first part of Saturday, was splendid walking in fabulozy weather, with perfect blue skies, a light breeze, and yet not overly warm.  The path as far as Loch Calavie was reasonably well defined, but gradually disappeared after that, which left me yet again wondering whether the OS surveyors actually just sat in pubs drinking Guinness and 'avin a larf' as they invented paths, rather than studying their hi-tech satellite imagery.  I wild camped the first evening at one of the best spots I have ever had on the Challenge, just where the 'path' crosses the Allt Coire a Charra at GR NH 093393. Photos will appear in a subsequent post.

The route for Saturday was less satisfactory, although it started well. I made my way to Pait Lodge along the non-existent path, over pretty wet and marshy ground, dodging a few peat hags on the way. Having studied the map again the night before I had started to get a bit anxious about the need to cross the fast flowing river there.  I worried that what had looked like the symbol for a bridge when I planned the route might, in fact, be a weir, but as I lost height I could see what must be the most spectacularly placed washing line in the whole of the UK on my side of the river, linked by a very fine bridge to the lodge on the opposite bank.
Pait Lodge
Dodgy Bridge at NH 125391

After Pait Lodge is a good Land Rover (LR) track and I headed to a bridge not marked on my map at NH 125391, which my vetter had advised I use.  It was, however, now fenced off, and a sign warned it was dangerous, which was pretty evident. Fortunately, the stream was easy to ford in many places a few hundred metres upstream, and then it was pathless, but certainly not heatherless or peatless, up to the col between Meallan Buidhe and Meallan Buidhe na Fhedain, and down the other side, heading towards Strathfarrar.  Now Strathfarrar is lovely, and I had really wanted to see it, but I hadn't realised that what I though was a LR track was actually a metalled road beyond the hydro-electric plant at NH 182381.  So I found myself on tarmac for a couple of hours more than anticipated, to a gorgeous area to wild camp that could have accommodated all 300+ Challengers near the wonky footbridge at NH 261383. This glen has a massive population of red deer and I was able to sit out in the evening sunlight watching these superb animals grazing within a few metres.  Unfortunately, this also meant masses of ticks in the grass and I spent a goodly amount of time removing 20 or 30 of these from the tent before I could settle down for the night.

My third day saw me headed up by the Allt Innis na Larach and then down through the woods near the Liatrie Burn. I found this pretty tough going, and it took me 3 hours 15 minutes to do the first 5 or 6 km of the day.  From the footbridge, there is a very obvious track up the west bank, which my vetter had rightly advised me not to use as it soon disappears.  Instead, I followed the east bank which, contrary to what the map suggests, does have a followable path almost to the col at the top.  The way is blocked by a number of landslips from about NH 258367.  These were avoided by crossing the stream for a short distance - easy today, but this might be problematic after heavy rain.  The top has a short section of peat hags to negotiate after which a faint path materialised.  I hadn't been exactly clear how near the Liatrie Burn I would need to be to get through the forest, and found that the answer was 'not very'. If you go this way you might want to note that there is a deer fence barring your route, so head to the gate at NH 255339, follow a faint path through the wood and  emerge from the forest at another deer gate at NH 256332. Also, the forest is pretty open and not an unpleasant tangle of roots and conifers and stuff.

I had not properly thought through the route after this. So keen had I been to head the way I had already come, and to see Strathfarrar, that my mind when planning had minimised the next section - a long trudge along the minor road to Cannich and the main road to my hostel at Bearnock.  I had sort of thought I could cross the river and follow a track for a few km before having to take the road, but I hadn't emerged from the woods where I had expected to. So I just put my head down and ground at the kilometres as fast as I could, in heavy rain for a good portion of the way.  The only relief was a pit stop at the excellent cafe at the Cannich Campsite where I filled my face on a bacon roll and mugs of tea.  And then on another bacon roll and more mugs of tea. The route, but not the weather, improved muchly the following day as I followed the Affric - Kintail Way through the forests to Drumnadrochit, and more bacon rolls, crossed Loch Ness courtesy of Gordon Menzie's First Mate, and then camped in the Sutherland's field at Allt na Goire.

Days 5 and 6 (Tuesday and Wednesday) - Ault na Goire to Kingussie
The next two days were possibly the highlight of my whole route.  I had never walked in the Monadhliath Mountains before. I was slightly apprehensive when setting out.  I was walking on my own.  I had heard much of the peat bogs and featureless terrain.  There was still some snow about, and mist and cloud was intermitently masking some of the tops.  I was also concerned that, despite the best advice of my vetter, Alan Hardy, and fellow Challenger and blogger Alan Sloman, who knows about these things, I might spend much of the time walking between the new wind turbines and dodging heavy construction traffic.

As I walked passed Dunmaglass Lodge it looked like the wind farm construction would, indeed, spoil the walk.  The track had been widened and I was passed every couple of minutes by lorries or vans heading upwards to inflict more pointless damage on this precious landscape. Fortunately for me, but not for our wild land, the wind farm traffic headed off the old track at NH 603198 and up a massive new track.  From then on I was completely alone for the next several hours.  I had worried needlessly about the nature of the terrain, following an easy track as far as the newish Diamond Jubilee Hut at NH 602160 which Alan Hardy had told me about as it isn't on the maps yet. The hut was really welcome, as I had forded a number of streams and was getting quite cold by the time I arrived, so much so that I had a lengthy stop here to brew up, add layers and get some body heat back. After the hut there followed a nervy hour as the track disappeared under deep snow drifts, as did the adjacent stream, leaving me trying to pick a route around the snow, but frequently crossing it, post holing at times, and at other times not being certain whether I was over the stream or not.  I headed up to the summit of Carn Mhic Lamhair at 781 metres and then down through some increasingly horrible peat hags before picking up a good LR track all the way to Dalbeg, where I pinched the most sheltered camp spot in the lee of this shuttered up bothy.  Three other challengers arrived later having followed my footprints through the snow at the top, all expressing some appreciation that I had been first along the route.  And the wind turbine count on this route? One baby turbine, broken and still.  Not another in sight.  Make the most of this whilst you can.
The Diamond Jubilee Hut

My second day in the Monadhliath was really splendid. A combination of pathless stuff and LR tracks took me over the ridge and on to Carn an Fhreiceadain (878m) and Beinn Bhreac (843m) and then down to Kingussie. The weather held, then the sun came out, and the views were superb.  The Cairngorms came into view to the east for the frst time. And I felt really proud looking back from the top, over mountain range after mountain range, and thinking 'you walked from all the way over there matey. That's not a bad achievement by most people's standards'. So my route took me into Kingussie, straight down the High Street and into the Tipsy Laird for Guinness, noting on the way the excellent wild camping spots on the Kingussie Golf Course (the green at the ninth hole looked particulalry nice, but using it might give the Challenge a bad name.).

Snow Bridge in the Monadhliath

Days 7,8,9 and 10 (Thursday to Sunday) - Kingussie to Ballater
The route for the next few days does not need writing up in any detail.  I decided against the Lairig Ghru, given the snow that was still around, and took the Challenge trade route up Glen Feshie and over to the Geldie, then on to White Bridge.  I had considered stopping the night there, but it seemed a bleak, inhospitable place in the squally rain that we were having, and so I went on and camped three km short of the Linn of Dee near the woods before heading in to Braemar via Tomintoul. And from Braemar, I went to Balmoral via the Lion's Face.  This is an easy walk, but the woods are delightful and there is a tea shop at Balmoral Castle, which makes a good half way stop before the road trudge to Ballater, with the only off road section after Balmoral being via the woods and the Polhollick footbridge as Ballater is approached.

Days 11,12,13 (Monday to Wednesday) - Ballater to St Cyrus
Ballater to Tarfside via Mount Keen should be an easy walk, other than for the distance involved and the height climbed. Approaching Mount Keen, the heavens opened, and as height was gained the rain turned to snow and the final hour to the summit, on the mainly snow covered rocky, then bouldery, path became somewhat tougher than it would be in decent weather.  I was glad to be walking with Ian Somerville, and we were both following in Martin Rye and Keith's foosteps - if I'd been on my own I would probably have contoured round the shoulder path well below the summit.  The path down is much better thankfully, and it even dried up for an hour before the rain really came down again as I approached Tarfside, got my tent up on the sports field in the deluge and then legged it to get my bacon butties at a packed and steaming St Drostans.
The top of Mount Keen in the clag and snow

After Tarfside?  I was knackered. I was interested in only one thing - getting to the coast. I ditched my planned route for the last two days completely, which had included a 28 km slog on the last day, much of which would have been on roads to Johnshaven.  Instead I put my head down again and headed for the Tuck Inn and the pie shop in Edzell, the walk being vastly improved this year as I found the 'Blue Door Route' from the Rocks of Solitude, which was an hour of picture postcard loveliness, and then on to North Water Bridge Campsite, followed on my last day by an early morning start, and the lanes to St Cyrus, briefly leaving the roads to summit the magnificent Hill of Morphie, before the cliff path and the beach and the sea and the end.