Monday 1 June 2015

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.


  1. What I really like about your overall route map is the eminently sensible spacing of a dry bed, shower and decent cooked meal. Somehow this basic principle of backpacking appears to have escaped my planning process.

    Your journalistic training comes shining through David. I can only commend the way you've crafted the narrative to give the feeling of a an accelerating desire to reach the east coast.....quick.

    A grand job. (p.s. I really must stop avoiding the Monadhliath)

    1. Hi John
      Yes, the B and B thkng has been a deliberate tactic, although it does sometimes feel that I am wimping out somewhat!
      No journalstic training, by the way, but I definitely did feel towards the end that I was ready for the coast.
      The Monadhliath is definitely worth a visit but I think I might have picked the only viable turbine free route across. If you are going you may want to check out the maps of the wind farms on Alan Sloman's blog. James Boulter's blog also describes some good trips he has done there. Walking the 'ridge' looks a good trip.

    2. Wimping out ? Not at all. We're out there to enjoy ourselves and it's not an endurance event. I took a bed at the hostel in Tarfside after not being able to get cleaned up for 9 days.....and it was absolute bliss.

  2. I think you exaggerate a little - it didn't take an hour to the summit of Mount Keen. As I said at the time, it's only a short diversion to the top.

    For pie afficionados, the Edzell pie shop is superb but the butcher in Braemar is a close second.

    1. Well it felt like an hour to me, Ian!!!
      I missed your knowledge of Scottish pies this year in Edzell. However, I took pot luck and my choice was still delicious.

  3. Good stuff David. Great detail and I like the way you got across to Dalbeg. I had a brew there about 11 ish Tuesday on route to a spot by Easter Strathnoon on the R Findhorn. Always good to read your blogs mate.

  4. By the way, Lochnagar was the other Indian in Ballater! That's how I managed to miss all you guys, there was only 3 challengers in that one.

    1. Thanks John.

      I am relieved to hear that an Indian hasn't been built on the slopes of Lochnagar!