I found this year’s TGO Challenge tougher than last year’s. Part of the reason was the route involved a bit less track walking and a bit more off piste. However, I think the main reason was the weather. We had a lot more rain than last year. While the air temperature wasn’t that cold, during most of the Challenge, there was a bitingly cold wind. After a while, it becomes energy (and heat) sapping.
The poor weather had an impact on clothing and washing. The logistics of getting clean socks began to dominate my thinking. The wet weather meant socks had little or no opportunity to dry out either in my boots or on my pack. Being able to launder them at hotels and B&Bs became a must. Hence, at Aviemore, I stayed at the Cairngorm Hotel rather than the camp site, so I could do some laundry. In future, I’d be tempted to take an extra pair (or two) of socks.
The perishing wind also meant fewer opportunities to wash properly, so it was a bit more smelly than last year. I did have a small collapsible bowl to wash in the shelter of my tent, but often I just made do with a quick flannel rinse of my face and used some hand sanitising gel to get rid of body odour. I also used some lavender linen spray to mask the smell of my base layer and fleece.
Despite the more adverse conditions, I didn’t have any excessively long days and I was always finished before six o’clock. On no day did I feel shattered, so I think I paced myself well. Unfortunately, the snow conditions and weather meant I used my FWAs and stayed low, but that seemed sensible in the circumstances. Overall, I was pleased with my route, which had some outstanding walking and good camping spots.
It’s difficult to pick out highlights, but I think the Falls of Glomach, Glen Markie, the Dulnain, the Water of Caiplich and Glen Tanar/Water of Allachy were scenic highlights. Seeing the eagles along the Dulnain was a thrill as well. In some ways, the changeable weather actually enhanced the majesty of the landscape. It’s difficult to capture in photos just how wonderful the landscape looks in rain and low cloud.
This year felt an even more social experience than last year. This is strange because I reckon I spent around half the time walking on my own (more than last year). I think this is down to knowing more people and more time spent walking in groups (perhaps also the Cheese & Wine party).
I was particularly fortunate to walk with Emma for the first two days, who was good company. On several occasions I walked in groups with Lynsey, Carl, Andy, Gordon, Mick, Louise, John and Norma (not necessarily all at the same time). I walked with Dave and Graham a couple of times and the Rev. David. I also accompanied Bob and Rose and Martin and Keith briefly.
I think at the heart of the appeal of the Challenge is the opportunity to meet and walk with like-minded folk from all walks of life. For a solo walker like me, the ability to pick up with walking partners and swap and change as well as going solo is a great attraction. It’s not something that is achievable outside the Challenge.
I think this answers the question “why do the Challenge when you could walk across Scotland at any time?”. There seems to be a special bond between Challengers. Talk to almost anyone during the Challenge and after five minutes, it’s like you’ve been friends all your life. The best example is the night I spent in the bothy on the Dulnain with Paul and Wayne. Although we’d met very briefly, we’d hardly talked before. Yet within a few minutes we were having a laugh and a joke like we’d been friends all our lives. It was a brilliant and memorable evening.
The other incident that sticks in my mind was when Louise fell over and injured her knee on the way to Ballater. Everyone rallied around to make sure she was ok and that she could continue. Carl patched her up and we redistributed some of her pack amongst us. Later that evening, everyone checked what her route would be the next day so she wouldn’t be walking alone.
The phrase “the Challenge family” is much used and here it was in action. I’m sure that most Challengers will have similar examples, even on this year’s Challenge. In a generally selfish world, the Challenge exhibits a different and uplifting ethos. In my view, its espoused aim of “fostering fellowship among walkers” was amply demonstrated this year (and on previous Challenges). I hope this defining characteristic of the Challenge continues for as long as the event exists.
Will I do the Challenge next year? You’d better ask my wife that question! The deal this year is that she gets the veto for future Challenges. For her, me being away for over two weeks is arguably a bigger challenge than me walking across Scotland, given her health. It may be that I have to wait three years until our daughter has finished university and is back home. We’ll see.
I definitely hope I can do it again. I shall miss all the people I’ve met on my Challenges, but look forward to seeing them again in the not too distant future. If you’re wondering whether to do the Challenge, if you can afford the time, you should give it a go. Only by participating will you understand its magic.