TGO Challenge 2012 part 2

Day 4 14th May (16 miles)

I arranged with the hotel to have an early breakfast and for a taxi to take me back to Kings House to resume my walk. At breakfast, the room was full of Challengers. Amazingly, Stan Appleton and Emma Warbrick had walked over the Devil’s Staircase the previous day.

My taxi turned up at 8.40. I was sharing it with two girls who were finishing the WHW. The taxi driver gave us a commentary of the points of interest along the way. He too said the weather had been exceptional and agreed that bailing yesterday had been sensible.

At Kings House, we disembarked. As we were walking the same way, the two girls, Karen and Laura, one a nurse, the other a midwife, agreed to walk with me. It was nice to have some company. We chatted about the Challenge and I demonstrated how mad we all are by knowing the exact weights of all my gear.

Buachaille Etive Mor

After about half an hour, the misty cloud lifted and the weather brightened enough for a few photos. The ascent up the Devil’s Staircase was pretty easy, although the wind and rain yesterday would have made it much more difficult. A couple of light showers we’re warded off by my trusty umbrella.

At the top, we stopped for a snack. The girls wanted to push on quickly to Fort William, so I bade them farewell. Briefly I walked with Dutchman called Kees, but he was a keen photographer and a bit slow, so I left him. The track down to Kinlochleven was a lot better than I had been led to believe.

Devil’s Staircase down to Kinlochleven

As always, I was a bit behind my internal schedule when I arrived at Kinlochleven. It was about one o’clock and I decided lunch in the Ice Factor would be a good idea. It would kill two birds with one stone. I could have lunch and I could buy a long sleeved base layer in the shop. With the forecast cold weather, I needed a long sleeved top.

After lunch, I started the long trek up the River Leven to the Blackwater reservoir. Although the path was quite wet, it was a delightful track dodging in and out of birch woodland. Every so often there would be glimpses of the river and waterfalls.

Woods along the River Leven

Just over half way to the dam, I had to cross a raging torrent (Allt Coire na Duibhe) barring my path. Without waders, I would have been scuppered. However, I slipped on my Wiggys Waders and crossed easily, despite the water coming above knee high. I have to say, I felt extremely smug.

The next burn crossing required negotiating a broken down iron bridge which was slightly tricky. Not long afterwards, I emerged from the woods to the sight of a tremendous water fall and an isolated lochan.

Waterfall before the Blackwater dam

The Blackwater dam itself was rather smaller, or rather, lower than I thought it would be, but nonetheless an impressive engineering achievement. On reaching the dam the landscape became very bleak and I could see rain showers ahead. I must admit I felt slightly apprehensive and slightly lonely.

My objective was the bothy at Loch Chiarain. It was five o’clock, so I was in for a late finish. The path to the burn was frustratingly elusive so in the end I just followed a bearing. Fortunately, when I reached the burn, the path became clear. I looked out for the monument to the navvies who died building the dam to check I was going in the right direction.

Path to Loch Chiarain

The landscape was unbelievably bleak. It was a bit like Dartmoor on steroids, except for the mountains. As I walked, I noted that there was nowhere to camp, even if I had wanted to. Luckily, Stan had told me that the bothy had some good places to camp.

So far I had avoided the showers but my luck ran out. However, the hail shower that might have been an unpleasant experience at the end of a hard day was turned into a minor inconvenience by my trusty umbrella. Smug points were going through the roof, further boosted by another river crossing requiring waders.

 Last river crossing

Finally at 7.30, the bothy came into view. It was a hugely welcome sight. Stan was right. Around the bothy was perfectly flat. I had a look around the bothy, which was immaculately clean. In retrospect I should have used the bothy, but I like camping, so I pitched my tent.

 I was around half a day behind my planned schedule so an early start was needed the next day.

 Day 5 15th May (20 miles)

Overnight there was the constant patter of rain on the tent and the temperature dropped. I rued my decision not to use the bothy. About five o’clock in the morning I decided the best course was to pack my gear and go inside the bothy and have an early breakfast. Mercifully, the rain eased off so I didn’t get very wet.

Morning at Loch Chiarain

The tent was draped over some chairs. I had a slightly longer breakfast than normal with the luxury of two cups of tea! However, if I was to catch up on my schedule I needed to make an early start, so I was away by 7.30.

Looking south, I could see fresh snow on the hills. The morning air was cool, with a keen edge on the breeze. The track to Loch Treig posed no navigational problems, but was rather wet underfoot. Nearing Loch Treig, the path became indistinct and I had to do a bit of modest heather bashing.

Loch Treig

It was a relief to reach the track along the loch shore. I sat down for a bite to eat. A couple of Challengers (Paul and Barry, I think) passed by and stopped for a quick chat. They moved on before I’d finished eating.

By now the weather had improved and was quite sunny, but still with a cold wind. Climbing the track to Loch Ossian, I decided to change from running tights and overtousers to trousers. As I was changing, Lee Wells and Tony Bowe swung by.

This turned out to be a real blessing as I was able to walk with them for the rest of the day, which helped me to do a long day relatively painlessly. We passed under the railway bridge and walked on to Ossian, going via the northern shore, rather than the southern one on my itinerary, not that it made much difference.

Loch Ossian

It was pleasant walking in the trees, sheltered from the wind, as we chatted about this, that and the other. There were occasional flurries of very light hail, almost snow.  At the end of the loch we reached the shooting lodge and sat down for lunch. The cold wind and hail meant we didn’t stay too long. We then started the long trek up the Uisge Labhair. Although it was quite sunny, the wind ensured it remained quite cold.

While the path was reasonably clear, it was very wet in places. Nevertheless, it was a very good walk. The bealach could be seen in the distance and the Ben Alder stalkers path climbing it. For a long time, it didn’t seem to get much closer.

Walking up the Uisge Labhair

However, eventually we reached a crossing place on the burn and crossed relatively easily, not needing the waders. There was a sharp pull up to the stalkers path through some peat banks. At last we reached the superbly maintained stalkers path, pausing for a breather and some photos.

It had already been quite a long day for me, but I was determined to reach Culra bothy, which would bring me within touching distance of my original plan. The excellent path was a real boon at the end of the day.

Walking down to Culra

Lee forged ahead, while Tony and I went at a slower pace. Once again I had to use my waders to cross a stream. The brolly also came in useful to ward off another hail shower. I paused to take some more photos, while Tony pressed ahead.

I guess I must have reached the bothy around 6.30. Inside were Stan, Emma, Jane, Dave and Kate O’Shea. Stan boiled some water for a cup of tea. The consensus was that I had done well to walk so far, which was quite pleasing. As the ground near the bothy was reasonable for camping, Lee, Tony and me decided to camp there.

Camping at Culra

After dinner, I decided to go back to the bothy for a bit of socialising. We swapped experiences about our routes. My wading of the Allt Coire na Duibhe elicited some admiration. Not surprisingly, gear was also discussed. After an hour or so I decided to call it a day.

For the first time on the Challenge, I went to bed relaxed. I had caught up and felt that the day’s walk had proved I could cope with a long tough day.

 Day 6 16th May (9 miles)

As usual I was awake by first light. I checked my thermometer. In the tent, the temperature had not dropped below zero. I was surprised to find outside that puddles had frozen and there was a light dusting of snow. I could see snow showers over Ben Alder.

Ben Alder and passing snow shower

After breakfast, I was packed quickly and wandered over to the bothy. Stan and Emma were preparing to walk to Dalwhinnie, so I decided to accompany them, rather than wait for Lee and Tony. The path to Loch Ericht was excellent. Conversation makes the miles go quickly and I enjoyed talking to Emma while Stan strode ahead.

Ben Alder

As we gained the main Land Rover track, we met Jane and Kate and we formed a little group to walk to Dalwhinnie. The good track meant that my boots had a chance to dry out. We swapped conversation partners regularly. At around eleven we stopped for a break and a snack, perching on some convenient boulders.

Loch Ericht

After the break, Stan and I forged ahead. The miles flew by as we talked tents! Soon we were at the lodge near the end of Loch Ericht. We waited for the others to catch up. After crossing the railway line, we made for the Dalwhinnie bunkhouse and restaurant where several of us had food parcels waiting.

At the bunkhouse we were made very welcome. We able to pitch the tents on a nearby patch of grass. Lunch was taken and then parcels were unpacked. We were allowed to use the bunkhouse facilities and have a shower.

Gatehouse at Dalwhinnie

My original plan had been to carry on to Loch Cuaich, but it seemed sensible to stay in Dalwhinnie and have a half day. Little did I know it would be the end of the Challenge for me.

We spent a lazy afternoon in the restaurant. Jane decided to push on. Lee and Tony arrived to add to our tent city. We all had a very good evening meal, then, for me it was time to return to the tent and write up my notes. It started to rain.

 Day 7 17th May

 At around 1.30 a.m. I woke up with bad stomach cramps. After a while I decided I needed the toilet. Fortunately, the public toilets a hundred yards down the road had been left open. It was still raining, so I took my brolly. You don’t need to know the details, but suffice it to say I knew that my Challenge was in jeopardy.  I lay awake for a while before another visit. I was fairly sure I had a stomach bug, which on past form would probably take two or three days to clear.

I thought through my options. I could stay a day and see whether it got better or I would have to abandon the Challenge. At least Dalwhinnie had a station, so getting home was straightforward even though it would be a long journey.

Dalwhinnie bunkhouse and restaurant

If I stayed a day, it would mean some long days to catch up and I could certainly only afford to stop over for one day. The next thing to check was the weather, so I looked on my iPhone for the forecast. The next three days were going to be wet, with temperatures only just above freezing.

It didn’t seem very sensible or appealing to have to try to catch up on the Friday or Saturday in foul weather conditions, especially with gastric problems. If the weather forecast had been reasonable it might have been doable.

Reluctantly, I came to the conclusion that the most sensible course was to abandon the Challenge and go home. After all, it’s a holiday not an endurance test. I was also concerned that I might find myself in Glen Feshie and have to walk back out to Kingussie or Newtonmore if things went wrong.

It seemed to me that the hardest course was the best option. In the light of the reports that came back over the bad weather and freezing temperatures endured, I think I made the right decision. Walking 17 or 18 miles in terrible conditions with a stomach bug just isn’t a good idea.

The green where we camped

At breakfast I told the others that I was finished. Initially they suggested I take a day off, but when I told them about the weather forecast, most thought I was taking the sensible option.  It was a bitter pill to swallow as I had come so far and done so well. After breakfast, the others trooped off, leaving me to pack and wait for the train. After I had packed I had a cup of tea and then left for the station.

On the train to Edinburgh, I struck up a conversation with a transport policeman from Aberdeen, who gave me some interesting perspectives about local politics in Scotland. At Edinburgh, I rushed to get a ticket from the ticket machine and managed to get on the Kings Cross train with two minutes to spare.  I arrived in London at 6.00 and was home just after 7.00. My wife was very pleased to see me as she had been quite unwell with a cold and bad throat.

There was a nagging doubt as to whether I had made the correct decision to go home. However, over the next two days, I didn’t feel particularly good, so I was glad that I had come home. When I saw the weather conditions, I was doubly sure I had done the right thing.

There was a crushing feeling of disappointment in not finishing the Challenge and a sense of failure. However much you tell yourself that you haven’t failed, it’s difficult to shake off that feeling. I really enjoyed the six days I did have of walking, even stormy Sunday. I’d like to do the Challenge again, although it may have to wait until 2014.


30 thoughts on “TGO Challenge 2012 part 2”

  1. ‘The girls wanted to push on quickly to Fort William’ – are you sure that had nothing to do with telling them the weight of each bit of gear in your rucksack? 🙂

    A shame that you had to pull out, these things can’t be planned for. I remember the feeling when I pulled out on my first challenge after 5 days. I was gutted. Made me double determined to finish last year!

    2014 will be your year.

    1. I think the young ladies were rather disappointed to learn that I am married with a teenage daughter. 😉

  2. The hardest decision you can ever make is to turn back, but it looks like you made the right one there Robin. The TGO should be fun and I know it takes me at least 4 – 5 days after one of those to get back to full strength. Thanks for the trip report and gear musings, the Scarp seems to be getting a good press at the moment. Here’s hoping you are able to tackle next years with Gusto.

  3. Some great views and some fabulous country to walk through. Those views of the Alder area are fantastic. It’s such a shame it all had to come to an end early but from other accounts (and my own experience on the hills in the last couple of weeks) it has been pretty tough conditions and I think the right decision was made.

  4. A fine report there Robin. Turning always rankles, no matter how sensible it is. I’m not sure that this ‘fun’ concept is likely to catch on 😉 . You certainly got some very Scottish weather.

  5. A great trip report, Robin with good photos. Shame about the illness, but some things are beyond our control. The weather has been particularly cold and wet (ie snow in the hills) for the past week.

  6. Commiserations on having to withdraw. Having done the same a few years ago, I know exactly how that feels — apart from the stomach bug. I remember reading somewhere that a very high number of withdrawals occur at points of good road/rail connections. Along the A9 road in particular.
    For me it was at Kingussie. I had a similar choice. Will the condition improve, give the problem a rest for a day or two, with doubts about completing on time, or catch the next train home? I still don’t know if I made the right decision.
    I guess I never will.
    But there might be a next time.

    1. In the end it’s down to personal choice. For some, pushing on despite feeling grotty would be their choice. In a sense there’s no right or wrong. Hopefully I’ll get another crack at it. Dealing with the feeling of disappointment and failure is not easy, but kind words help.

  7. “it’s a holiday not an endurance test” – never a truer word spoken. Must be gutting to have to give up on a challenge you’ve steeled yourself for but you’ve taken in some spectacular scenery, met some great people and had some fine days in the hills and sometimes that’s enough 🙂

  8. Great photos Robin, looks like a fantastic challenge I would love to give it go one year. Such a shame you had to abandon it but you did the right thing as you say trying to catch up with a bug in poor weather would not have been comfortable, Especially as you would probably have been dehydrated due to the bug. There’s always another time.

  9. Sorry to hear you had to abandon, very disappointing for you. Hopefully you are recovered by now and possibly harboring thoughts of next year? Wish you well.

  10. Robin, so sorry to hear from Colin, Stan and Emma u had to abort. I was checking in with all the Oban starters as I met them and heard you had to pull. Some lovely photos here – i’ll read more when I have a tea break from all the usual unpacking and home admin. But just wanted to say well done anyway and you walked your own walk and it is a tough deal anyway let alone with a bug, so all the best and I know we’ll do a stint on it one day together.

    nice one fella

    1. Cheers. It was tough to pull the plug, but I think it was the sensible thing to do. I’ll try again if not next year, then the year after.

  11. A great write-up, Robin, even if the ending wasn’t as planned. I would have hated to have “an upset stomach” during the bad weather days, as that would have made a miserable day into an horrendous one. It sounds like Dalwhinnie is now a good Challenge destination again; I hope the bunkhouse stays open. Good luck in the TGOC draw next time, and better luck wth the innards!

    1. Thanks. I’ve never had a stomach bug before when walking and I’m scrupulous about hygiene, so hopefully I won’t suffer again. Sounds like you had a tough crossing. Dalwhinnie is well worth considering.

  12. Hi Robin
    Ignore the ignorant lout. Cowards are always willing to chuck shit about from behind their keyboards.
    Do you have his IP address? If you do I can probably find out who he is.

    A good challenge, cut short, probably sensibly, in my opinion – and I’ve crossed 18 times now. I wonder how many times “TBT” has crossed?

    1. If (big if) *TBT* is a Challenger he certainly has a very different spirit to the ones I met. Emma confirmed to me that the weather made the walk to the Feshie very demanding and not one to be undertaken when ill. Arguably, given the conditions, it would have been irresponsible to have carried on. It’s heartening to have the sympathy and support of true Challengers.

  13. And taking the place of someone who would have completed the TGOC is nonsense. He or she might have stopped during day 1.
    I took a backward fall from the ridge leading to The Saddle on day one. It could have ended my Challenge, or even my life, there and then. I wasn’t even injured, except my pride. It was my first Challenge but I’d done many ridges in the Highlands.

    BTW Soft backbones don’t break, they bend.


  14. Hey, you. Really sorry to hear about your illness; stomach bugs can leave you as limp as a Tesco lettuce and if you had trouble keeping food (fuel) down, you certainly wouldn’t be in any shape for that much hard physical work. Hope you’re feeling better now?

    Sean’s making tentative noises about next year’s TGO – would be wonderful if you wanted to do it again, and we would promise to keep you away from hotel food!

    Best wishes,

    1. Thanks. Fully recovered but was rather wobbly for a few days.

      What I did I enjoyed. Really nice people, i.e. like-minded nutters.

      2014 is more likely than 2013 as our daughter has A levels next year but who knows, I may be allowed out.

  15. Some stunning photos for me Robin. Snow adds to the wild look. Ben Alder area is superb. Need to go that way again.

    Gutted for you. Ill is ill. As for the nameless troll. Ignore him simples. I doubt they were on the TGOC. Up to them to prove otherwise.

    Next year I hope to see you on it. We have a walk to do in Norfolk as well don’t forget.

  16. Well given the read up of your write up I would bet it was a real ball until the bowels took over, Robin. Old twat face misses the point, it was your walk and no-one else’s. Your towel to throw in, and your train to catch. “Ballbags” is what I say.

    Here’s to another walk, in the wilds and around. Here’s to enjoying them all, and not suffering them.

    Here’s to happy blogging, and in the words of Bill of Loch Callater Lodge….

    “Here’s to the hills, and here’s to the heather”.

    Cheers, Robin – I’m off to have a dram.

  17. It’s good to read open and honest reports that show a Challenger is making sensible personal decisions when conditions turn against them. Whenever we’re in the mountains we walk with our brains as much as with our feet; it’s all about judgement whether crossing a high pass or fording the Feshie.
    Sadly it’s TBT’s “carry on regardless” approach that has led to too many mountain emergencies.
    TBT clearly didn’t consider the huge effort you made in recovering that lost half-day so quickly, nor seen the exhaustion on your face when you arrived at Culra, nor your pallour on that final morning at Dalwhinnie.
    Happy to walk with you again, Robin.

    1. Thanks, Stan. Hope we can meet again. The biggest disappointment was not having another opportunity to walk with the new friends I had made. Hopefully there will be another opportunity.

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