I’ve not been very well the past week or so with a summer cold. To relieve the boredom, I’ve started to think about the 2018 TGO Challenge. I’m not 100% certain that I will apply, but I thought I’d start thinking about a route.
My last three Challenges have all started in roughly the same area: Strathcarron, Dornie and Plockton. My first attempt at a Challenge started in Oban. The two start points that appeal to me are Mallaig and Lochailort. Now, none of this is set in stone and I may change my mind, but I’ve plotted a route from Lochailort to Lunan Bay, perhaps saving Mallaig for another time.
In the process of thinking about a Challenge route and the various options, it struck me how route options are being diminished by the industrialisation of the Highlands. One of the challenges of the Challenge for northerly routes is crossing or getting around Loch Ness. Essentially there are three options: Inverness, Drumnadrochit (using Gordon Menzies excellent boat service) or Fort Augustus.
The Inverness option is not hugely attractive as it is a large conurbation and takes any route quite far north. Getting down to the Cairngorms is a bit of a trek. An increasing number of Challengers are doing the coastal route, but that doesn’t appeal to me.
At the southern end of Loch Ness, Fort Augustus is a pretty place to stay with excellent accommodation options and has a good campsite. However, the exit routes from Fort Augustus have become decidedly unattractive. I’ve not done the Corrieyairack, but a number of people have said it’s not very good with large power lines intruding most of the way.
The other option from Fort Augustus has been the Glen Doe reservoir road. As I experienced this year, this has become a total wreck with the building of the Stronelairg wind “farm”. Even when the construction has finished, it will be a monstrous intrusion into a wonderful area of wild land. I can’t think many will take that route in future.
Stronelairg sub-station construction
You could go up the Tarff and follow the ridge north of the Corrieyairack, but the wind farm will still be in evidence. You could follow the B862 to just before Whitebridge and take the road and track to Stronelairg Lodge, but it’s a lot of road walking. All in all, Fort Augustus as a crossing point for the Great Glen has become a lot less attractive.
This leaves you with the boat from Drumnadrochit to Inverfarigaig. I took this in 2014 and loved it. Unfortunately, when you look at the options of getting across the Loch Ness flank of the Monadhliath, nearly every route is spoilt by wind farms.
Working north from Stronelairg, the River E is blighted by the Corriegarth wind farm. Further north, you get Dunmaglass/Aberader. You can use a good track up the Allt Mor and over to Glen Mazeran. Even there, you are squeezed between Dunmaglass and the Farr/Kyllachy wind farms. Basically, nearly the whole of the north-western flank of the Monadhliath is off-limits if you want to avoid the intrusion of wind farms into your Challenge experience.
Monadhliath wind farms (courtesy of Alan Sloman)
What this means is that if you want to avoid being plagued by wind farms, Loch Ness and the Monadhliath ceases to be a route option. It’s such a crying shame that a wonderful backpacking area has been sacrificed on the altar of “renewable” energy and political expediency. There’s no doubt that wind farms are a major intrusion into the wilderness experience of backpacking in Scotland and it is becoming increasingly difficult to plot routes that minimise or avoid encountering them.
However, it’s not just wind farms, small hydro schemes and hill tracks for “sports” have proliferated in recent years. I was shocked at the mess caused by the Glen Affric and Glen Doe schemes. I’ve seen pictures of the wreck around Bendronaig Lodge. There are also schemes along Mullardoch and Loch Quoich, amongst others. Of themselves, they are smaller than wind farms and hopefully there will be remedial work after the construction is finished, but they do give the impression that the Highlands is being industrialised.
The proliferation of hill tracks is another blot on the landscape especially for shooting. Quite frankly, this is not sport. Driving up a massive track in a 4×4, blasting a few hundred birds out of the sky and quaffing a few bottles of champagne is not sport in my book. I’ve more sympathy with deer stalking, but grouse shooting, it seems to me, is one of the worst field “sports”.
Anyway, back to Challenge planning, all of the above leads to thinking about routes which are a bit more southerly and cross the Great Glen south of Fort Augustus. There do seem to be less issues with wind farms with routes that go through the middle of the Challenge area (routes starting further south are not great either). It is surprisingly difficult to get decent up to date information on wind farms but here’s a post by Alan Sloman from last year.
In many ways, Scotland ought to be a backpacker’s paradise. The Highlands is not a spine of mountains but an area. It’s large enough for good multi-day trips, yet small enough that lines of communication and habitation are never too far away. There is a genuine feeling of remoteness in many places yet they are not too isolated. The mountains are high enough to be challenging and give good views but low enough to be tackled by most people. Very few require true mountaineering skills to climb. Access legislation gives a wonderful freedom for walkers and campers (sadly abused in some places by a moronic minority).
It’s difficult to think of a better area to backpack, certainly in Europe and possibly the world. However, this is in danger of being destroyed by mindless development. What is especially ironic is that this is being pushed through by the SNP which is supposed to look after the interests of Scotland, yet time and again it overrides local wishes and railroads through these developments.
It’s very disappointing that some outdoors journalists (with honourable exceptions) who are close to the SNP have been virtually mute on this subject while at the same pontificating on other issues where they have no apparent competence. It’s shameful that they haven’t used their public profile to oppose these abominations to greater effect. The same could be said for some charities and NGO’s.
The upshot of all this musing is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to plan pleasing and rewarding TGO Challenge routes. While I will still do some more Challenges, I’m increasingly drawn to considering doing trips to areas where I’m less likely to encounter industrial development. That might mean confining myself to just an area of Scotland or somewhere else in the UK or maybe even abroad. On the other hand, there is an urgency to see the unspoilt areas before they are wrecked. What a world we are bequeathing to the next generation!
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