It’s going to take a bit of time to assemble my trip report for this year’s Challenge. I have forty pages of notes and over 700 photos to sift through, so you’ll need to be patient!
The Challenge is the first multi week walk I’ve done since the Pennine Way, back in 1978. It has an entirely different quality to the shorter walks I’ve done in the past few years. It will require a slightly different approach in writing up.
My initial idea near the end of the Challenge was to do a brief account with a lot of pictures. However, I do have a lot of material. Perhaps a longer, more detailed account might be more satisfying. Any views?
Some experienced Challengers remarked that this was a very happy Challenge. Certainly everyone I met was very friendly and there was an exceptional camaraderie between the participants.
The aim of the Challenge is to foster fellowship among walkers within the framework of a challenging expedition. From my perspective, it certainly achieved this objective. Participants come from different backgrounds and walks of life but are united in their love for backpacking and the Scottish landscape. Why can’t ordinary life be more like this?
A two week trek is a different challenge to the 3–5 day trips I normally do, both physically and mentally. For everyone, the challenges are slightly different.
My (modest) training regime was surprisingly effective in setting me up for the Challenge. Although at times I was tired, I was never fatigued.
On my forest training, I had concentrated on increasing my pacing cadence to walk more quickly. This really paid off when walking on roads and tracks.
Maintaining a good pace on easy sections meant that, on many days, I completed the day’s walk with either a late start or an early finish. Relieved of time pressure to make a destination, I could enjoy myself more. Overall, I found the walking well within my capabilities.
The psychological side of the walk was more challenging. In 2012, I had to retire part way through the Challenge with a stomach bug. Always in the back of my mind until the beach at St Cyrus was the possibility that something might go wrong.
At Strathcarron, I thought I was getting a cold. On the second day, I had a pain in one foot. Later on, I had a pain in my stomach (too many dried apricots?), which caused me some discomfort. I can look back and laugh at these things now, but at the time, they had the potential to be more serious.
In the end, they were all minor issues that resolved themselves quickly and easily. For various reasons, fifty people retired from this year’s Challenge. They have my sympathy. I’ve been there and know how devastating it is.
Not surprisingly, foot problems were the cause of many retirements. Many people (including myself) noted how wet it was underfoot in the West. My boots and gaiters kept all this at bay admirably.
Later on, the roads and tracks linking and through the Monadhliath and Cairngorms posed a challenge for many. The cushioning on my boots meant I could plough on, often at some speed, without discomfort.
Although I did walk on my own on a number of days, I was also fortunate to have some excellent walking companions. One of the unique features of the Challenge is the opportunity to walk with a variety of people during the two weeks.
I very much enjoyed walking with Dave Hale for three days through the Cairngorms. I accompanied Jean Turner from Glen Strathfarrar to Cannich. Despite the weather, we had an interesting and varied discourse.
From Ault–na–Goire to Glen Mazeran, I was fortunate to be in the company of Ian Sommerville. Not only was Ian an interesting person to talk to, but we set a blistering pace to Glen Mazeran, which really helped on a relatively long mileage day. On the next day, I walked with Steve Crofts, who won his place on the Challenge in the Hanwag competition in the TGO Magazine.
For smaller portions of the walk, I had the company of “flat land” Ray Disson and his friend Mark (who wasn’t on the Challenge), Kate Kowalska and Rob Leech. The latter is in the army and was doing a totally mad route with a 34 kilo pack. Total respect to him. It would have killed me!
All these people helped me forget the nagging fear of failure and helped me enjoy the walk. Of course, you meet plenty of other people along the way who encourage you. I had a lot of laughs with complete strangers who became friends within minutes.
Apart from the psychological aspect, an unexpected challenge was re–supplying with food at local shops. I’m not used to this. I sent only one small food parcel (two freeze dried meals) to Ballater. The rest of my food, apart from the first four days, was bought locally.
The limited range of food available in Drumnadrochit and Ballater was a particular challenge. In the end, you buy whatever is on offer and accept a heavier than normal pack weight. Even in the larger Tesco at Aviemore, many pack sizes were too large, so my shopping list had to juggled accordingly.
Of course, the actual walking and camping was excellent. My camping spots, in particular, were generally superb (with one notable exception, which I will reveal in my trip report). It makes me weep to think that many of Scotland’s wild places are under threat from wind farms and inappropriate vehicle tracks.
Getting to the beach at St Cyrus was quite an emotional moment. Suddenly, it was over. I had been very focused in the previous two weeks on getting to the end and in an instant I had achieved my goal. My sense of purpose vanished and I felt disorientated.
It was lovely to share the finish with Kate. We were lucky that the rain held off until we reached the cafe for a reviving tea and cake. Challenge Control was slightly disconcerting with an unaccustomed buzz of activity. Fortunately, I was able to chat to Mick and Gayle and Ian and Jen, which helped me reorientate myself.
I enjoyed the dinner. Luckily, I was sitting with Dave, Ray, Vicky, Toby, John and Sue. I don’t really like crowds, but being with people I’d come to know made it a special night. I also managed to have a chat with Emma, with whom I had kept in contact with from the 2012 Challenge.
Yesterday was a day of transition from the bubble of the Challenge back to normality. At the Park Hotel, there were many goodbyes. The train journey home was made more enjoyable with the company of my travel agent, Alan, and Andy and Phil. Opposite, was Gordon Green.
It was good to get home to see my wife, daughter and dog. None of them understand the strange compulsion of a backpacker. So it’s back to normal today with shopping to be done and dog walks.