Unfortunately I won’t be applying for the 2018 TGO Challenge. My wife’s health is too fragile for me to be away for such a long time. Hopefully I’ll be able to do a shorter trip to Scotland to overlap with the Challenge and meet a few reprobates.
Unfortunately I won’t be applying for the 2018 TGO Challenge. My wife’s health is too fragile for me to be away for such a long time. Hopefully I’ll be able to do a shorter trip to Scotland to overlap with the Challenge and meet a few reprobates.
I’ve not been very well the past week or so with a summer cold. To relieve the boredom, I’ve started to think about the 2018 TGO Challenge. I’m not 100% certain that I will apply, but I thought I’d start thinking about a route.
My last three Challenges have all started in roughly the same area: Strathcarron, Dornie and Plockton. My first attempt at a Challenge started in Oban. The two start points that appeal to me are Mallaig and Lochailort. Now, none of this is set in stone and I may change my mind, but I’ve plotted a route from Lochailort to Lunan Bay, perhaps saving Mallaig for another time.
In the process of thinking about a Challenge route and the various options, it struck me how route options are being diminished by the industrialisation of the Highlands. One of the challenges of the Challenge for northerly routes is crossing or getting around Loch Ness. Essentially there are three options: Inverness, Drumnadrochit (using Gordon Menzies excellent boat service) or Fort Augustus.
The Inverness option is not hugely attractive as it is a large conurbation and takes any route quite far north. Getting down to the Cairngorms is a bit of a trek. An increasing number of Challengers are doing the coastal route, but that doesn’t appeal to me.
At the southern end of Loch Ness, Fort Augustus is a pretty place to stay with excellent accommodation options and has a good campsite. However, the exit routes from Fort Augustus have become decidedly unattractive. I’ve not done the Corrieyairack, but a number of people have said it’s not very good with large power lines intruding most of the way.
The other option from Fort Augustus has been the Glen Doe reservoir road. As I experienced this year, this has become a total wreck with the building of the Stronelairg wind “farm”. Even when the construction has finished, it will be a monstrous intrusion into a wonderful area of wild land. I can’t think many will take that route in future.
You could go up the Tarff and follow the ridge north of the Corrieyairack, but the wind farm will still be in evidence. You could follow the B862 to just before Whitebridge and take the road and track to Stronelairg Lodge, but it’s a lot of road walking. All in all, Fort Augustus as a crossing point for the Great Glen has become a lot less attractive.
This leaves you with the boat from Drumnadrochit to Inverfarigaig. I took this in 2014 and loved it. Unfortunately, when you look at the options of getting across the Loch Ness flank of the Monadhliath, nearly every route is spoilt by wind farms.
Working north from Stronelairg, the River E is blighted by the Corriegarth wind farm. Further north, you get Dunmaglass/Aberader. You can use a good track up the Allt Mor and over to Glen Mazeran. Even there, you are squeezed between Dunmaglass and the Farr/Kyllachy wind farms. Basically, nearly the whole of the north-western flank of the Monadhliath is off-limits if you want to avoid the intrusion of wind farms into your Challenge experience.
Monadhliath wind farms (courtesy of Alan Sloman)
What this means is that if you want to avoid being plagued by wind farms, Loch Ness and the Monadhliath ceases to be a route option. It’s such a crying shame that a wonderful backpacking area has been sacrificed on the altar of “renewable” energy and political expediency. There’s no doubt that wind farms are a major intrusion into the wilderness experience of backpacking in Scotland and it is becoming increasingly difficult to plot routes that minimise or avoid encountering them.
However, it’s not just wind farms, small hydro schemes and hill tracks for “sports” have proliferated in recent years. I was shocked at the mess caused by the Glen Affric and Glen Doe schemes. I’ve seen pictures of the wreck around Bendronaig Lodge. There are also schemes along Mullardoch and Loch Quoich, amongst others. Of themselves, they are smaller than wind farms and hopefully there will be remedial work after the construction is finished, but they do give the impression that the Highlands is being industrialised.
The proliferation of hill tracks is another blot on the landscape especially for shooting. Quite frankly, this is not sport. Driving up a massive track in a 4×4, blasting a few hundred birds out of the sky and quaffing a few bottles of champagne is not sport in my book. I’ve more sympathy with deer stalking, but grouse shooting, it seems to me, is one of the worst field “sports”.
Anyway, back to Challenge planning, all of the above leads to thinking about routes which are a bit more southerly and cross the Great Glen south of Fort Augustus. There do seem to be less issues with wind farms with routes that go through the middle of the Challenge area (routes starting further south are not great either). It is surprisingly difficult to get decent up to date information on wind farms but here’s a post by Alan Sloman from last year.
In many ways, Scotland ought to be a backpacker’s paradise. The Highlands is not a spine of mountains but an area. It’s large enough for good multi-day trips, yet small enough that lines of communication and habitation are never too far away. There is a genuine feeling of remoteness in many places yet they are not too isolated. The mountains are high enough to be challenging and give good views but low enough to be tackled by most people. Very few require true mountaineering skills to climb. Access legislation gives a wonderful freedom for walkers and campers (sadly abused in some places by a moronic minority).
It’s difficult to think of a better area to backpack, certainly in Europe and possibly the world. However, this is in danger of being destroyed by mindless development. What is especially ironic is that this is being pushed through by the SNP which is supposed to look after the interests of Scotland, yet time and again it overrides local wishes and railroads through these developments.
It’s very disappointing that some outdoors journalists (with honourable exceptions) who are close to the SNP have been virtually mute on this subject while at the same pontificating on other issues where they have no apparent competence. It’s shameful that they haven’t used their public profile to oppose these abominations to greater effect. The same could be said for some charities and NGO’s.
The upshot of all this musing is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to plan pleasing and rewarding TGO Challenge routes. While I will still do some more Challenges, I’m increasingly drawn to considering doing trips to areas where I’m less likely to encounter industrial development. That might mean confining myself to just an area of Scotland or somewhere else in the UK or maybe even abroad. On the other hand, there is an urgency to see the unspoilt areas before they are wrecked. What a world we are bequeathing to the next generation!
I’m happy to accept comments as long as they are polite and constructive. Any abusive or inappropriate comments will be deleted.
My hardshell waterproofs were an OMM Cypher Smock and Rab Drillium overtrousers, both discontinued. Both are eVent fabric and kept me dry and comfortable on day 9, when it rained all day. I also took a Paramo Quito jacket which I treat as a soft shell jacket. It’s perfect for showery, windy days or light rain. I love the large vents, long sleeves and hood. At 500g, it’s not heavy as a soft shell, more water-resistant than many competitors and is a very versatile jacket. It packs quite small as well. I’m glad I took it. My windproof jacket was an Arcteryx Squamish jacket, which is the best windproof I own. The material has a lovely feel to it. It’s decently water-resistant. It seems to breathe well while keeping out the wind. It also has an excellent hood and velcro/elasticated cuffs which can be pushed up when hot. Again, glad I took it.
For insulation I took a Haglofs LIM Barrier smock, Arcteryx Delta Zip fleece and Arcteryx Phase AR leggings coupled with As Tucas Millaris windproof trousers. The weather was very mild, so this combination was adequate. However, I did miss my As Tucas Sestrals insulated trousers and, in future, I’d take those instead or in addition to leggings. I used the leggings to sleep in but they were also useful instead of trousers under overtrousers. I’d probably take a warmer top too, either my Berghaus Furnace jacket or PHD Minimus. The Arcteryx Delta fleece was perfect. It’s a 100 fleece with a grid pattern on the face. It was very versatile. Gridded fleeces seem to regulate temperature well. The sleeves can be pushed part way up your arms, further helping temperature regulation. It’s so good I’ve bought a second one.
Base layers were Rohan Ultra silver T-shirts (2), Rohan Union merino T, M&S Ultra hipster trunks, Adidas running shorts. I love the thin Ultra silver T’s. They feel like silk and evaporate sweat so quickly. They wash and dry quickly too. Mine are the first iteration, which seem to be more smell resistant than later versions. Having two was probably a luxury. The Union merino T is excellent as well. It uses a merino/polyester fabric and dries much faster than pure merino. It seems to regulate body temperature better too. Up to a point, it’s pretty smell resistant. I was pleased with the versatility that my upper base layers gave me and they were easy to launder too. My M&S hipster trunks are favourites (now discontinued). I prefer synthetic trunks to merino as they dry much quicker. They don’t seem to smell much either. I usually take a pair of running shorts in case I need shorts, for sleeping and as spare underwear if I need them. Would I do anything differently? Accidentally I took three pairs of trunks. I could manage with two, although having a spare was nice. I could probably manage with only one Ultra T too.
Other clothing. I took a Montane Terra Sportwool long sleeve top for around camp and to sleep in. I also took a Rohan Pacific shirt in case it was hot and for something smarter in hotels. Both are no longer made, but both are quite light and I like the flexibility/luxury of them. I used Montane Terra trousers. For me, these are just the best backpacking trousers. I had a Smartwool merino beanie that I mainly used to sleep in. During the day, I mainly wore an OR Sunrunner cap. I took three pairs of gloves and never used any of them! I took a microfibre and a Polartech buff. The microfibre one doubled as a cover for my Exped inflatable pillow.
Trekking poles: Leki Sherpa XL
These are the best poles I’ve ever had. Incredibly strong and sturdy. Ok they weigh just over 500g for a pair but they don’t seem heavy. In fact the extra weight seems to give them better balance in your hands than lighter poles. The flick locks are better than the Black Diamond poles I have. The foam handles are really comfortable and the cloth wrist straps are comfortable against the handles if you don’t have them over your wrists (I don’t usually bother). They are brilliant for the A frame for my Tramplite shelter.
For shoes around camp etc. I used Vibrobarefoot Ultra Pure shoes. They worked well and were surprisingly comfortable. I could’ve used them for wading in conjunction with Reed Chilleater waders if necessary, but didn’t need to. I used my cheapo M&S collapsible umbrella several times and was glad I took it. I’m impressed with the new Petzl e+lite head torch. It’s much brighter than the old version. I didn’t use it much as the hours of daylight are so long, but it’s great as a lightweight torch. The Sawyer mini filter was mainly for peace of mind, as most water in the Highlands is potable, but it’s so light that I’d rather be safe than sorry. I use a Fozzils folding dog bowl (37g) for washing if I’m away from a stream or it’s raining outside. For minimal extra weight it means that washing either face or hands is much more convenient.
Full Gear List (first day):
Overall, I was very pleased with the performance of the Tramplite. The conditions weren’t hugely testing, but it kept me dry and warm. It’s easy to pitch, especially the flysheet. Compared with a Duomid, it’s less fussy about being level. There’s a decent amount of room in the inner. Having access to a storage area at the back is helpful. I used a lightweight spinnaker Akto footprint, which meant the rear area had a floor. Not strictly necessary but handy. The footprint also protected the cuben groundsheet from pucture. Again, not strictly necessary but a sensible precaution. There is also a decent sized porch on the door side for cooking and storage. My custom made valances were a good addition, especially when the wind flipped around 180 degrees on Loch Affric. I used my trekking pole A frame which made it rock solid and takes away any obstruction for access. The valances and tweaks have increased the weight to 772g plus 48g for the A frame top piece. 820g for a bomber tent is pretty good.
Were there any drawbacks? I think the only one is that compared with the Scarp 1, which I used on previous Challenges, it is more cramped in the inner and packing inside in rain is more taxing. Also you have to get used to the inner fabric being close to your face when sleeping. However, it is half the weight of the Scarp. How does it compare with a Duomid? It’s more aerodynamic, quicker and easier to pitch. The rear porch is great for storing stuff out of the way. The only disadvantage is that there’s not so much headroom. That said, there’s not a lot to choose between them. What would I choose next time? If I prioritised weight it would be the Tramplite. If I wanted comfort, it would be the Scarp.
Sleeping bag: As Tucas Foratata Quilt
Hopefully this will go into production soon. I’ve become a huge fan of this and the Challenge comfirmed it as my favourite sleeping bag. It weighs 510g with 250g of top quality down. The down is superb and even better than my Western Mountaineering bags. It’s basically the same design as the Sestrals quilt but using down. It has an enclosed foot box. The open section has three kam snap closures. I’ve added two more, making a more snug closure.
It is a bit different to a conventional sleeping bag. Even closed, it is much wider, so when turning over, you can move inside the bag easily, keeping the kam snaps under you. Although it doesn’t have a hood, it is long, so you wrap the upper part around your head. I’m a cold sleeper. For me it’s fine down to 2-3c before I need extra insulation.
Until you’ve tried one it’s difficult to describe how much nicer it is sleeping in one of these than a conventional sleeping bag. I’m a restless side sleeper. For me, it is much less restrictive than a conventional sleeping bag, especially in the knee area. I love the freedom of movement and being able to wrap it over my head. I should also mention that the Schoeller shell fabric is the best I’ve used. It’s soft and warm (but not sweaty) to the touch. It’s very downproof as well. So far I’ve has no feathers escape.
I was worried that the snap fastener opening might be draughty, but with two extra snaps, it’s performed well. Because there’s a lot of room to move about, it’s easy to keep the opening underneath you. I’m really pleased with this bag. Other than possibly winter, I’ll be using most, if not all of the time. I used it with a Thermarest X-Lite short air mat, which worked well.
Rucksack: Gossamer Gear Mariposa (2012 version)
I’ve used the Mariposa a lot over the years and reviewed it several times. The only difference this year was the new hipbelt, which is definitely better than the old one. It’s stiffer and wraps around your hips better improving the carry. The pockets are larger and better too. The only other thing to note is that I tore the stretch mesh pocket when we bushwacked through the forest on the first day. I patched it temporarily with McNett Tenacious Tape but I’m not sure how to repair it. I may have to get it done professionally.
Footwear: Salomon X-Ultra Mid GTX
As I mentioned in the previous post, I was quite concerned about how my feet would hold up to a fourteen day walk. In the event, my feet were fine and the X-Ultras performed beyond expectations. I bought a new pair specifically for the Challenge and experimented with going a full one and a half sizes up from my normal shoe size 9.5 vs 8.
For the first time in probably seven or eight years I didn’t suffer from bruised toes. Deep joy. I used Sidas Conformable footbeds which I’ve had kicking around for years and they worked really well in conjunction with the X-Ultras. Even with road walking, my feet never felt tired or battered.
Personally, I like mid boots. They give a good compromise between trail shoes and boots. They have the flexibility and mobility of trail shoes but give some protection against rolling your ankle. I did go over on my ankle once and the boot saved me from a worse sprain. Mid boots also give a bit more protection from water and debris ingress.
In fact, I was really impressed by the combination of breathability and waterproofing. My feet never got excessively sweaty even when it was hot, nor when the outer shell was wet. I think this is partly due to the lower cut than a normal boot so damp air gets pumped out.
What really impressed me was how they performed in wet weather. In the past, my experience with GTX footwear is that your feet stay reasonably dry in wet weather for three or four hours before the membrane gets overwhelmed and then your feet end up being quite damp. On day 9, when it rained all day, at the end of the day, when I took my boots off, my socks were only slightly damp and certainly a lot drier than my experience in the past. I think there were a number of factors in this.
Firstly, I was using Bridgedale Woolfusion Trekker socks plus my usual M&S merino suit socks. The Trekkers are a combination of lamb’s wool and nylon/polymide and seem to wick moisture better and dry a lot quicker than pure merino socks. They even dried out so well overnight that I was able to use one pair three days in a row. The M&S merino suit socks are also a combination of wool and synthetic. This combination worked really well and my feet were very happy all Challenge.
The second factor that helped in the wet was my gaiters. I’ve been using a pair of Extremities Trekagaiters recently. They are reasonably lightweight (150g), very breathable and surprisingly robust. Wearing some gaiters stops the upper part of the boot from wetting out, helping breathability.
Lastly, I waterproofed the material on the toe cap area with a thin coat of Silnet. On black boots it is hardly noticeable cosmetically, but it means the vulnerable toe area of the boot doesn’t wet out. It doesn’t seem to affect the overall breathability of the boot much.
I was blown away by the performance of the boots and socks. Outside of very hot weather, when I’d use trail shoes, this is the combination I will be using. The only two negatives are that the rubber soles wear quite quickly and occasionally the grip is not perfect. Those are minor issues compared with the overall comfort of the X-Ultras.
Some Reflections on the 2017 TGO Challenge
Well, that’s my third successful TGO Challenge. Every Challenge presents a different set of challenges, psychologically, physically, topographically and meteorologically. Overall, it was a rewarding experience but not without some low moments.
The Challenge of the Route
In many ways this was a much more uneven route than the last two Challenges. I had pencilled in four specific days where my route would take me high over Munros. As always, you are at the mercy of the weather. On two of those days (days 4 and 9), low cloud and rain meant that Foul Weather Alternatives were the only sensible option. Day 3, I had intended to go over Carn Eige but the weather forecasts put me off and I did a different route. Only on day 7 did I do my intended high route and took in two Munros. There were compensations, however, particularly walking up Glen Feshie which was a real delight, even in the rain.
I spent a bit longer in the west (5 days) than most people. Consequently, I felt I was always a bit behind the curve and couldn’t afford to let my itinerary slip, which added to the psychological pressure. Daily distance was mainly in the 19-26km range, with three half days (3, 10 and 14). Three days were long days in terms of time or distance or both. Day 1, I walked much longer than anticipated. Day 11 was 29km to Ballater but was pretty easy with not much up and down along tracks and roads. Day 13 was much more challenging with 30km of distance and 1,180 of ascent with some trackless terrain and eroded paths thrown in. That was definitely the toughest day.
One of the biggest disappointments of the first six days was the proliferation of wind farms and hydro schemes. I knew about the wind farms, but the hydro schemes at the Allt Garbh and Corrie Dho came as a shock. The wind farms around Glen Moriston, Loch Ness and the Monadhliath intruded in the vistas. The worst of the lot was the Stronelairg wind farm construction site. There were warnings that it would be horrible, but it was like walking through Mordor. In retrospect, I should’ve taken a different route.
Offsetting those horrors, if I averted my eyes from the views northwards, the ridge walk along the Spey was a delight, as was Glen Feshie. Glen Tanar was as lovely as ever. Gleann Gaorsaic to Glen Afric was wonderful with bleakness turning to beauty. The walk out of Cougie was also an unanticipated pleasure. Perhaps this trip, the landscape highlights were too few, partly because of familiarity, partly because of the depredations of development.
I was blessed with some wonderful places for wild camps. In particular, Loch Affric, Chalybeate Spring, Allt Mor and Glen Feshie spring to mind. I love wild camping and certainly these made up for some of less attractive aspects of my route. It was so wonderful to camp at Chalybeate after the torture of tramping through Stronelairg.
I was also fortunate with the weather in that it was generally quite mild (only two mild overnight frosts) and only one day of persistent rain (day 9). It rained for a large part of day 4, but it was only light and barely merited waterproofs. On day 5, there was about an hour of heavy rain but then it cleared. Other than that, the weather was as good as could be expected. It was also exceptionally dry underfoot and the rivers were low so no wading was required.
When planning the Challenge, resupply points are an important consideration. For the last two Challenges, the only thing I’ve posted ahead is freeze dried meals. I’m keen on buying as much as possible locally. However, with the limited range of food available in the smaller supermarkets, this is a challenge in itself. It was particularly frustrating not to be able to get simple things like plain peanuts or pocket tissues. I was talking to Sue at the Bank House B&B and she said within reason, she would be happy to get basics for walkers to resupply. Perhaps staying at B&Bs and getting the owner to get supplies for you might be a good way around this problem.
The Psychological Challenge
Perhaps I underestimated the impact of the death of my mother. Most of the time life goes on but when you have time on your own, the grief returns. I still miss her a lot. My wife’s poor health has been a constant worry too. When I set off, I knew there was a possibility that I might have to abort the walk at Fort Augustus. By the end of day 3 I was incredibly anxious and had a terrible night’s sleep worrying about virtually everything to do with the walk.
Fortunately, I was able to talk to my wife midday on day 4 and much of the concern subsided. After Fort Augustus, there was little likelihood of having to stop, so my state of mind improved. This state of anxiety coloured my enjoyment of the first few days and it wasn’t until half way through the walk that I truly regained my equilibrium. Compared with 2014 & 2015, psychologically this was a tougher walk.
Perhaps another factor making the first half of the walk more challenging psychologically was that out of the first eight days, I walked six either wholly or mainly on my own. I’m used to solo walking and very happy to do so, but when there are things dwelling on your mind, too much time to think can be unhealthy. The flip side was that from day 9 onwards I had company every day. I’d like to thank Ali O, Dave W and Dave H for their excellent company (as well as Dickie, Rosie and Rich at the start!). It really makes the miles go by when you’ve got someone to talk to.
The Physical Challenge
In the months before the Challenge, I had suffered from a number of minor foot complaints, mainly to do with inflammation between the third and fourth metatarsals in my left foot. As the Challenge approached, although there was an improvement, I was unsure how my feet would stand fourteen days hard pounding.
In the event, I had no real problems with my feet other than a tiny blister on day two caused by a loose thread in one sock. I used Salomon X-Ultra Mids and Sidas Conformable footbeds which worked perfectly in conjunction with Bridgedale Trekker socks.
My general level of fitness was pretty good. I put this down to doing a number of trips in the months before the Challenge and doing 10,000 to 20,000 steps daily (monitored by a Fitbit). For someone living on the outskirts of London, the most difficult thing to achieve is true hill fitness. For me, I can either do long distance or a lot of ascent, but doing both is tough with a full rucksack. That said, apart from a couple of days, I never felt really tired at the end of a day.
I only had one “injury”. On day 13, the descent from Cairn Kerloch was on an atrociously eroded path with lots of loose rock. On the next day, after about half an hour, I felt a pain behind my left knee cap. A long time ago, I had problems with my knees from playing football. For the last fifteen years or so, I’ve not had any issues. However, I’ve always carried a Bioskin knee support just in case (which I used to use for skiing). I felt my knee cap was a bit unstable, perhaps because of the tough descent of the previous day straining my knee. Once on, the issue was resolved. It just shows that you shouldn’t always chuck out stuff that you don’t use regularly.
It’s taken me about three weeks to recover from the physical exertions of the Challenge. Initially I was a bit worried that a couple of insect bites that I had early in the Challenge might have been ticks. Your mind then turns as to whether you’ve got Lyme’s Disease. However, I don’t have the external symptoms and the tiredness has largely gone, so I think I’m ok. I did a short trip to the Lakes a week after the Challenge and my fitness was good, so I don’t think there’s a problem.
I’ll do another post on how my gear performed and some thoughts.
Distance: 19km, ascent: 206m
After a couple of kilometers, I felt a slight pain in my knee. This is the first time I’ve had any problems in a knee for probably over ten years. All that time, I’ve carried a Bioskin knee support just in case. Now I had a chance to use it! I put it on and instantly the issue was resolved.
Eventually we made it to Mergie and out of the forest. I know there are some fans of the Feterresso, but I’m afraid I’m not one of them. I don’t think I’ll be back, especially with the wind farm right in the middle.
After some congratulations we found a cafe and had some lunch. Instead of walking back up the hill to the station, we splashed out on a taxi. It was only a short train ride to Montrose and on to the Park Hotel to sign in at Challenge Control.
That’s three successful TGO Challenges now. Will I do more? I’m sure I will, although probably not every year. A big thanks to Ali and Sue for organising, also to all those at Challenge Control and the vetters for making it happen. Thanks also to all those I had the pleasure of walking with. Despite a shaky start, in the end, I enjoyed it.