My TGO Challenge was planned to take place between the May 11th to the 23rd. Thirteen days of what I could only hope to be great hiking in the Scottish Highlands. This is my trip report covering my start in Shiel Bridge on the west- to my finish at Dunnottar Castle, Stonehaven, on the east coast.
It ended up being closer to 360 km in eleven days and an accent at the height of Mount Everest. That’s quite the challenge if you ask me…
My trip started well before the actual challenge. Down in the southern parts of Sweden I boarded a bus up to Stockholm and Arlanda Airport. I stayed the night at an hotel close to it. I arrive in Edinburgh the next day just before lunch I went to one of the museums, checked a few exhibitions and used their bathroom to change from my travel clothes into hiking gear, shorts and leggings, and a long-sleeved tee… Then I went to the post office and forward all of my travel clothes to Montrose before starting the hunt for alcohol (fuel). This sent me off to a few different stores before actually finding any. My train for Inverness was leaving at 5pm so I had plenty of time dine and stock up on food for the first three days of hiking.
I spent the night in Inverness and had a short walk to the bus station where I met up with a few other Challengers. We arrive at at Shiel Bridge at around 11am as the bus was about 40 minutes late out of Inverness. This far everything had been late and delayed. My bus to the airport in Sweden, the plane to Edinburgh, the transfer from the airport, the train to Inverness and now this. I started to see a pattern.
After a quick bathroom break most of us set off at 11:45. I put my right foot in the water just outside the Kintail Lodge. The weather is good, the sun is out and there’s a slight breeze.
When I get closer to the stalkers path up Ben Attow I meet a man that also a part of the TGO Challenge. We chat a while before I take off up the Munro, he’s headed to the youth hostel. The wind started to pick up as I came to the first cairn off the stalkers path onto the lower plateau. Soon the rain got at it too. Getting to the top was quite exhausting, battling the wind and the ground was very wet. At the top I have to take refuge in the makeshift wind shelter and swap into my rain gear. It’s really windy at this point and I have to stop several times on my way here and hold on to all my gear and go down to a knee not to get pushed over by the wind.
My map says I’m to decent down the north east ridge but it’s too windy and dangerous. I have to turn back to the peak after about a 150m decent. Back at the shelter again, a quick break and then going back the way I came up.
The walk to the youth hostel is windy and rainy but not rough in any way and I make good time. I pitch the tent and make some food before going inside for a cup of tea and meeting up with a few other challengers.
After a cold and rainy night, I sleep in and let the morning sun dry the outside of my tent. After 10am I’m off to the Affric Kintail Way and meet many challengers along the way.
As I reach the loch I meet up and hike alongside Barbara for at least 30 minutes. Listening to stories from former crossings and received a tip or two about local waterholes in different towns. She is the oldest woman on the challenge. It’s hard to believe that she’s 81 years old, hiking fast and with a steady pace, she’s on her 13th crossing. This makes me think that if I just take care of myself, I can hike for many years, something that felt very surreal before seeing her still going strong.
Further up the road I stop at Cougie for about an hour. I order toast with jam and a beer. A few more challengers comes in as I’m about to leave and I linger a little longer just to socialize.
When I come up at Plodda Falls where I’ve planned to camp for the night I see a sign “no camping allowed”. Bugger… I continue up the path east of Hilton Lodge and soon find a good spot as the forest comes to an end. I pitch my tent and sit and watch the sunset and enjoy the beautiful weather.
Another rainy night and a cold morning. I start hiking around 9 and soon catch up with a few I met yesterday. The rain started to let up after 1.5 hours and the sun came out and stayed for the whole day. Not too warm, just perfect.
It’s easy hiking to Fort Augustus but the hard gravel roads were painful for many hikers. I caught up with Byron on the last accent and we hike together for the last hour to Morag’s Lodge. Alan, a hiker that I met on the first evening at the youth hostel is already there.
We dry out our gear in the sun on the lawn outside the lodge before going down to Londis to resupply. When I come back I get word about free sandwiches. Apparently a group tour that should have stopped by never made it and they’d ordered sandwiches. Yummy! I down two of them and they’re accompanied by a couple of ale.
I got up in good time before breakfast at 07:30. Continental breakfast, ish. Porridge and toast with beans for me. I’m off around 8:45 and headed down towards the canal. The sun is up and it’s quite warm. I don’t know what I was thinking but seeing the town and probably suffering from sunstroke I take a wrong turn and ended up on a sightseeing tour of the canal before I got back on track. A few kilometers extra just an hour into the day, a good start! I pass the church burial yard exiting Fort Augustus and got on General Wades road through the Corrieyairack Pass. I decided to take an older path up the hill and after tree trunk climbing and some uphill heather bashing, I met up with Paul that just came down the top on the ‘main road’.
We hike together to Blackburn Bothy where he stopped for tea. Just as we came up on the bothy a man comes out on the trail in front of me, sporting a Üla pack and Altras. I take up the chase and soon catch up to him. His name is Stefan and he’s also a first timer on the TGO.
We have a similar pace and we hike together and stop at Garva Bridge where we setup camp. A few others come in to the campsite a little later, Brian, Alan and Rory. About one hour later a guy crosses the bridge. He comes up to me and shakes my hand “I read your blog!” he says with a big smile. His name Itai and lives France.
It was a good evening with laughter and chatting until after the sun set.
In the morning me, Stefan and Rory sets off together. We have the same route for the day and apparently even some parts of the next days.
We walk into the Laggan Stores Coffee Bothy and stay for a while with a few other challengers. Then we’re on our way to Newtonmore.
We reach Ali and Sue’s, organizers, at 3pm and I book a room at the hostel and pick up my maps that I had sent there before hand. I even meet up with a fellow Swede. Stefan has got a reservation at another place and Rory talks me into going to a bothy to shorten our next day. So I cancel my reservation. We’re not leaving just yet, not before picking up some food at the grocery store and having a meal at the pub.
We get to the bothy and it’s completely empty. I get a fire going and we stay up till half past 10, chatting in the warmth of the fire.
I wake up as Rory starts shifting around in his sleeping bag. I look at the window to my right and it’s completely fogged up, condensation running down one side of it as the sun hits the window. It’s damp and a little chilly.
Last night we decided that we wanted to get an early start to make up some miles before the sun gets up. The weather forecast says warm sunny days until the weekend when the temperature will drop. Going down from about 20C to 10C.
It’s 5am and we have a quick breakfast and start hiking toward Tormie Bridge up by Kingussie. We part ways a little further up the road as he’s off to Aviemore and through the Lairig Ghru while I’m going to the Glen Feshie stopping at the Glen Shiel Bothy.
I arrive at the bothy just before 10am. I’m greeted by a lovely family that’s currently taking care of the last bits and pieces of the restorations. I get a cup of tea and have lunch with them. The bothy is really a five star one.
Stefan walks in the door about an hour and a half later. He started from Kingussie this morning. We stay for a while and I’ve decided to tag along with him towards White Bridge where he’ll camp. My day is actually done, my planning says that I should camp here at the bothy, but my body feels good so I thought I might as well do two days in one.
We push on and get to White Bridge but we don’t like the camping spots that it offers, hard packed ground and sheep. We decide to go a little further and we find a really good spot just outside Glen of Dee.
It’s been a long day and we’re both tired, about 48km today.
The tents come up fast and we go to get some water. Dinner is getting ready but mine isn’t too tasty as I’ve managed to burn some of my instant soup… Black flakes floats around in my pot… Good job! I guess it works as a type of odd seasoning. I’m to hungry to care so I eat it anyway.
The night was cold. The grass was covered in frost in the morning, so at least 0 degrees last night. We cook breakfast and Stefan sorts my feet out and kill my heel blisters.
We walk into Braemar around lunch time. Beer and burgers for both of us. I’ve booked myself into the youth hostel and he’s got another reservation so he’s off to that. I do some shopping at Co-op, 5 days worth of food, all the way to Stonehaven.
Before going to dinner I clean my socks and long sleeved hiking shirt. One could think that the green shirt has given colour to the water because it’s everything else but clear. I meet up with Paul and Paul and a couple from Holland. We have drinks and food at the hotel before going to bed.
I wake up just before 8 and start to get myself ready. Paul is also up getting his backpack in order. I take my stuff and head down to The Bothy cafe for second breakfast.
Sitting there in the sun I finally decide to go up Lochnagar. For the past few days I’ve been thinking and quite determined to skip it. But last night during dinner they convinced me that I should do it, I’m a head of schedule, don’t be lazy.
It’s a bit of road walking before you get to the parking lot where the trail starts. There are plenty of people in front of me and we all come to the lodge at the same time.
There are two guys just outside the fence, Bill and George, they’re putting up a sign “T.G.O. tea” and an arrow pointing at the stone houses.
Apparently I’m the first Challenger to get there this year. After about 20 minutes or so Scott walks in through the door. I’ve actually met Scott and we had dinner together in Newtonmore. We have a chat and then we’re off. He to Jocks Road and I’m up the other side toward Lochnagar.
The climb is quite easy and with a slight breeze and the sun at my back I’m up on the plateau faster than I expected. When I reach the top there’s actually cell reception and I manage to call home and give them the grand FaceTime tour of the top.
I start heading down toward the Queens estate and it’s a very steep decent and my feet are really feeling it. But I just put that away because the views are just stunning. I reach the house at Loch Munich and have some snacks and air my feet on the lawn.
I make up my mind to push a little further to Shielin of Mark bothy. I go fast on the gravel road and Spittal of Glenmuick is in front of me in no time.
I start the climb toward the bothy and after some encounters with heather and peat I’m there. There are also three women from Holland here and a few hours later, three more hikers in from Aberdeen join us. I let them have the bothy so I sleep outside in my tent by the burn.
The sun woke me up around 6am. Shining straight into my tent. I pull down my buff over my eyes and manage to fall asleep. At 8 the tent is too hot, I need to get up. I start to get out of my sleeping clothes that consists of a merino t-shirt with more holes in it than I can count. An R1 fleece and my tights and shorts. On my feet I have a pair of short down booties.
I break down the tent and just before I’m to set off one of the Hollanders comes down to me and offers me a piece of banana cake that I happily accepts.
At 09:45 I start walking and set my compass almost straight east up the hills. There’s a large rock or similar that I aim for. The ground isn’t too wet and I make good progress. I come to the ridge and find the land rover tracks and I go left to see the Muckle Cairn.
Then I go back and down towards Glen Lee and past the stables, which is a beautiful decent down all the way to Loch Lee.
I arrive at St. Drostan’s at around 1pm. The old church sits just at the outskirts of Tarfside. The two route vetters/organizers Anne and Alan has just arrived a few minutes earlier and are surprised to get a TGOer so soon after getting there. I get offered tea and toast, I also book a room for the night, shower and food!
Not too long after, Roger Smith and his wife arrives. It’s nice to meet the one who you’ve corresponded with via e-mail to get the most out of my planned route. I get to ask Roger about my planned descent down Ben Attow as I believe I miss understood his directions and he says that what I tried to do is quite hard even in good weather and that he meant that I should have followed the ridge all the way toward the youth hostel just as I suspected, in hindsight.
Paul arrives after a few hours. We have dinner around the big table in the kitchen, two challengers and six vetters. After dinner Scott shows up and he’s had a rough day via Mount Keen. Heather and peat bog sums his day up pretty well. He also decides to stay the night at the church.
When dinner is over Roger Smith and Alan goes through the list of retirements from the challenge. Number after number, sheet after sheet. You really start to notice it’s not all that easy.
An hour passes and the phone rings at 8:45. It’s from Challenge Control just as planned. They’re expected and it’s just for a quick update of the lists, more retirements maybe. It’s a quick call and Alan comes back to the common room and stops in front of the fireplace. He stays silent for a moment and then says
– We’ve got one AWOL.
The whole room shuts down. Everyone is quiet.
– He’s been found by other challengers and is well, but he’s a part of a group and we don’t know if they’re still looking for him. There’s no phone reception in that area…
The vetters look at each other, they can’t do anything about it, it’s just facts.
Conversations are on the topic about routes and how this can happen and the mood is definitely changed. They’re expecting an update later tonight about the rest of the list. Challenge Control is currently busy handling the situation.
My alarm rings at seven and I drowsily walk to the kitchen. Breakfast. I meet Scott in the hallway and when I get to the kitchen Paul is already there. I have tea and toast.
Paul leaves first. He has to finish in St. Cyrus today, a pretty tough road walk for him. Scott and I have the same route over the hills and Mount Battock so we leave about 30 minutes after Paul.
We start the climb and it’s a nice morning with overcast and the sun shines through in the distance. The climb up Craig Soales is steep and the wind is picking up. We get to the top and stop to enjoy the views and take some photos.
It’s getting cold when we stand still as we’re both in shorts and base layer shirts. When we start the accent up Mount Battock the wind is really picking up and we guesstimate 45mph or there about. After another kilometer Scott stops and asks if we’re to put on our wind trousers and I agree. Smart move!
We continue up toward Mount Battock and at this point the wind hits us sideways and I have to lean into the wind not to loose my footing. As we reach the top we both hurry into the wind shelter and sit down. Sitting on the small bench everything is very quiet compare to the howling wind that hits the stone walls. Scott offers me some homemade trail mix and I happily accepts. Going down the wind is at our backs and it’s quite easygoing but you really need to hold on to your trekking poles because the wind is eager to steal them from us.
When we arrive at Charr Bothy, which is where Scott is staying for the night we have some snacks and a cup of coffee. I’m to continue on into the Fetteresso Forest to setup for a short 19km (actually 27km) walk into Stonhaven and Dunnottar Castle tomorrow. He’s looking at almost a 40km day so after some contemplating on his part he decides to tag along. I got a nice tip from Anne, one the vetters, last night about a good camping spot and that’s what I’ve drawn fresh lines on my map towards.
After a nice walk through forests and up Cairn Kerloch past the wind farms, we end up at a sort of meadow. Not to many spots to pitch at but we manage to find two good ones. We both start to boil water and enjoy an evening meal by the burn and stay up chatting till 8pm.
The night had been calm and warm. I guess being camped in the Fetteresso Forest the trees help to retain the heat. I slept really good, the sound of the wind turbines in the distance wasn’t as disturbing as I first found them. Rather soothing actually.
When I get out of my tent Scott was already sitting outside enjoying the morning sun, scribbling something into a book. I eat a few breakfast bars while I break down the tent. We filter some water and then we were back on the trail. The forest was still and the sun trickling through the tight knitted canopy and the birds receipted a well known tune.
This is the last day on the trail for us, The Great Outdoor Challenge of 2018…
The forest is littered with small tracks and bigger logging roads. Unfortunately we’re soon on to the latter. As we’re about to exit the forest and onto the tarmac a cuckoo said goodbye. There’s always a cuckoo close to camp for whatever reason.
We have a quick stop, coffee break, just before hitting the road and mixing with the vehicle on it. Not too long after we have our eyes on Stonehaven in the distance and I say that it looks like there’s smoke coming out from the forest. When we get closer it’s quite obvious that it’s not a fire but rather a pretty dense fog rolling in from the North Sea.
When we get closer to Dunnottar Castle it’s soaked in the fog and visibility is poor. The temperature has also plummeted. Previously it was a really warm day. There’s a lot of people here, feels really busy compared to the hills.
As we start descending down to the beach I’m trying to understand what I’m feeling so close to completing the challenge. I ask Scott who’s also a first timer
– So this is what it feels like?
He responds with something like “aye”. I think he’s just as empty as me. It’s low tide and we go out on the sharp rocks covered in seaweed and kelp. Scott takes off his boots and socks and puts his feet in and I take his picture.
I ready my camera, set the aperture, check exposure, puts it down on the rocks and hit record. The red circle comes on. I take a few steps and go out as far as possible. Then a wave roles in and I try to jump up and escape it but it completely soaks my shoes up to my ankles. I look at Scott and say
– Does that count?
– I think so, he says with a grin on his face.
I put my hand in just to be sure and we start walking back up to beach and follow the coast into Stonehaven.