Not The TGO Challenge Days 1 & 2

As most readers will be aware, I was unable to participate in this year’s TGO Challenge. However, I was able to do a seven-day walk from Fort William to Aviemore,  meeting with some friends who were on the TGO Challenge and walking with them for three and a half days.

Day 1: 26.2km distance and  905m ascent

While the Caledonian Sleeper is the most efficient way to reach the Highlands, I can’t say my journey was particularly enjoyable. Firstly, the booking system is poorly set up. I thought I’d booked a First Class berth and it turned out to be a Standard Class single. It wasn’t just me who had been misled, several others found the same thing. Secondly, I had the worst possible berth: Berth 12. This was next to the stewards room, so there was much slamming of doors and I could hear conversations on the intercom. It was also almost directly over the wheels, meaning more noise and a less smooth ride. Thirdly, there was the indignity of having to pay for a bacon roll in the morning. Lastly, the new rolling stock had been delayed so we were in the old grubby and noisy carriages. Hey, ho!

I did get some sleep, but I  was up in time to look out of the window as we crossed Rannoch Moor. The sun was shining and the scenery was beautiful. The steward was a lovely Eastern European lady who was very helpful. It turned out it was only her second time doing this journey. Slightly late, we eventually rolled into Fort William.

Next to the station is a Morrison’s with a cafe. After just one bacon roll on the train, I thought it wise to have brunch, so I could skip lunch. I had a really nice cooked breakfast and an apple pie. However, it meant I didn’t make a start until nearly eleven o’clock. Any thoughts of a quick getaway were hampered by a bit of confusion in negotiating  the dual carriageway, but after a bit of a navigational faff, I found the way out of town and onto the West Highland Way.

My plan was to follow the WHW to just above Kinlochleven and then take the track to Loch Eilde Mor to meet Alan, Andy and Phil to camp. This was to be my longest distance day with the most ascent, but it was a necessity to catch the others. I thought the WHW should be relatively easy, which the navigation was, but the conditions underfoot were quite hard at times.

After a bit of a road walk, I took the track up into the forest. There were some pleasant views back towards Ft William and across to Ben Nevis.

High cloud and some sunshine made for some good walking conditions, although higher up the forest prevented much in the way of views or interest. I was tempted to have a look around the hill fort (Dun Deardail) but the late start meant I was under some time pressure, so I pushed on. As I crossed the top of the ridge, I started to come across other walkers doing the WHW in the opposite direction. I guess I must have passed at least fifty over the next three hours. They seemed to be split evenly between those who were happy to give a greeting and smile and those who could only grunt ,  grin and bear it. After crossing an unattractive area of felled trees, I descended to Lundavra/Ft William road.

At Blar a Chaorainn, there was a convenient spot of short grass to sit down and have a bite to eat. I was hoping that the WHW would improve from here and be a bit more interesting. However, the next section, despite showing a bit of promise was a bit of a let down. The wilderness aspect was of the valley was somewhat spoilt by the electricity cables and poles on the opposite side of the glen. The path was surprisingly rough, so progress was not quite as fast as I had anticipated.There were a couple of ruins along the way to add a bit of variety and at Tigh-na-sleubhaich, the front step provided a convenient seat to have a bit more to eat. I was carrying seven days of food, so any opportunity to lighten the load was welcome! I met a couple of WHW walkers who were looking for a place to camp. I said there were a few decent places about 3km from where I’d come from but they didn’t seem interested.

After about another hour and a half, I could see Kinlochleven below me. Eschewing the WHW which goes down to Kinlochleven I carried on with the track that eventually leads to Loch Eilde Mor. Just before the radio mast, a ligament in my right knee started to feel sore. I put on my Bioskin knee support, which, fortunately seemed to cure it at least for the moment. At the radio mast, I picked up a good mobile signal, so I phoned home.

It was sad to see the Mamore Lodge all boarded up. It must have been a fine place to stay when it was open. The car park was full of construction vehicles and paraphernalia.

It was a bit of a trudge up to Loch Eilde Mor, although it was still sunny with a pleasant cool breeze for most of the way.  Finally, I caught my first glimpse of the loch. Phew! I was nearly there.

As I descended the slope to the loch, I was a bit concerned that I couldn’t see any tents. However, my fears were unfounded as they were hidden until the last moment. Alan and Phil were there as well as Lynsey. Apparently Andy was off peak bagging with TGOC organiser, Sue. I parked my tent a little way away from the others, and gratefully settled down for something to eat. A little while later, Andy and Sue arrived. As it was quite a late finish, there wasn’t much socialising.

Day 2: 24.4km distance, 658m ascent

Alan had dictated an 8 o’clock start. For me, as a slow starter in the mornings, this meant getting up really early. However, as it gets light by about 4 o’clock, it was not a big trial. Miraculously, I was packed by the appointed time.

Our first objective was the bothy at Loch Chiarain. This had bitter-sweet memories for me as I stayed there on my 2012 TGO Challenge. While I had lovely camp there, three days later I had to pull out of the Challenge due to illness. Already through social media, I had heard of two Challengers who had pulled out through injury and my thoughts turned to them in sympathy.

However, any gloomy thoughts were banished by the perfect start to the day. The sun was shining and there was barely a ripple on Loch Eilde Mor.  After negotiating the boggy section at the end of the loch, we started to climb towards Meall na Cruaidhe. While the path was obvious, every so often we came across a section that had been trashed by motor bike scramblers. Not surprisingly, we had a good moan about how ridiculous it was to allow motor bikes in areas like this.

Onwards and upwards we went. After a mile or so, we separated into two groups with Andy, Sue and myself out ahead and the rest of the group a little behind. When we reached the shoulder of Glas Bheinn, Sue decided that she wanted to climb it, while Andy and I continued on the path to the bothy. We were treated to glorious views across the Blackwater and Rannoch Moor to the Glencoe range. As usual, photos don’t really capture the grandeur or drama.

We couldn’t see the others, who presumably were taking a break somewhere, so Andy and I decided to carry on down to the bothy for an early lunch. By this time the clouds were building and it seemed the weather forecast of some rain in the afternoon might prove to be accurate.

When we reached the bothy, we were alone. While we were having a poke around another couple arrived and ensconced themselves in the second downstairs room. After a bite to eat, the others turned up and decided they would make themselves at home upstairs, so we followed them taking our chairs with us. Not long after John and Sue, who were also on the Challenge arrived. It was good to see them again as I had met them on previous Challenges.

There was some discussion about the viability of crossing at the outlet of the loch by the stepping stones. I was sceptical, but John and Sue, together with Andy crossed over with the intention of climbing Leum Uilleim. The rest of the party wanted to take a lower route around the shoulder of Tom an Eion. A heavy pack, with nearly six days food still in it and the glowering clouds to the south made me feel this was a better option for me, so I opted for the low route.

We pootled along the glen for a while and then crossed the burn to pick up a faint track that contoured around the hill. Alan had spotted this on aerial photos and had plotted it precisely on his phone. At first he wasn’t sure that it actually existed but much to our delight it proved to be very real.It contoured beautifully and, although faint in places, made our progress much easier than forging a path through virgin heather and bog.

By now there were occasional flurries of light rain. Fortuitously, the wind was at our backs so our rucksacks protected us from the worst. As we rounded the end of the shoulder, there was a gloriously moody view of Loch Trieg with clouds shrouding the surrounding hills. As we were sheltered from the wind, we stopped for a short break.Our next objective was Corrour Station where Alan, Phil and Andy had resupply packages to pick up and where we could have some food in the restaurant. The track continued to reward us with a wonderful walk and an easy passage under foot. In amazing piece of timing, just before the station, we met up with Andy, John and Sue, who had been joined by the other Sue, so we all rolled into Corrour together.

I was in two minds whether to have something to eat or to push on to my proposed camp site. The lure of a good meal got the better of me and I ordered a venison burger. It was so good that most of the others ordered one too. I thoroughly recommend the restaurant at Corrour. Everyone had excellent food with friendly and helpful service. The others were going to stay overnight at the Youth Hostel at Loch Ossian. However, my plan was to camp at Corrour Old Lodge which was about 6km further on.

Slightly reluctantly, I girded my loins for a final walk to my camping spot. By now the clouds had lifted a bit. I passed the hostel at the end of Loch Ossian and then took the track up to Peter’s Rock. Maybe because I was a bit tired, the walk to Corrour Old Lodge took me a bit longer than I had anticipated and I arrived just before 8 o’clock.

The weather had continued to brighten and there were tremendous views over Rannoch Moor. I poked around the ruins of the lodge to find a suitable camping spot, selecting a reasonably flat space about 50 metres away, just above the burn. All in all it had been a great day’s walk. The next two days were to prove even better!

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