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.
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.
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.
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.
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.