To complete the videos of my TGO Challenges, I’ve uploaded a video slideshow of my 2014 Challenge from Strathcarron to St Cyrus. Hope you like it.
To complete the videos of my TGO Challenges, I’ve uploaded a video slideshow of my 2014 Challenge from Strathcarron to St Cyrus. Hope you like it.
Alex Roddie has written a feature for the TGO Magazine website on the experiences of six Challengers. I was part of the group asked to share our experiences and you can read the article here: https://www.tgomagazine.co.uk/news/digital-feature-what-makes-the-tgo-challenge-special/
2014 has been a bit of an odd year. I’ve not been able to get out as much as I would have liked, with only four trips. However, with the TGO Challenge, I have managed a total twenty one days backpacking, so not too bad overall.
The first trip of the year was in April to the Monadhliath with Alan and Andy. It was a lovely introduction to the area, with a gentle walk along the River Dulnain. Despite not particularly brilliant weather, it was very enjoyable. Hopefully, I will be revisiting a short section on next year’s TGO Challenge.
If you haven’t yet been to the Monadhliath, I suggest you try to visit next year as the area is under very serious threat from planned wind farms. The Loch Ness side is already being despoiled. Unless there is a change of mind, Stronelairg and Allt Duine are next in line. If they go ahead, it will largely destroy the Monadhliath as a wilderness area.
My second trip was a two day pre-Challenge shake down on Dartmoor. I’ve really grown to love Dartmoor over the past few years. In terms of backpacking and wild camping, it’s possibly the finest area in England. Although it lacks spectacular hills, I love the openness and the ability to wander wherever you want (assuming there’s no firing on the ranges).
Strong winds and heavy rain proved to be a good test for my Challenge gear. It persuaded me to take my Scarp rather than the Trailstar. It didn’t rain all the time and there was some enjoyable walking. For me, the great joy of Dartmoor is the wild camping. If you know where to look, there’s some brilliant places.
Obviously, the highlight of the year was the TGO Challenge. Although the weather for the first three days was not great, for most of the rest of the time it was good. While it was quite windy, it was generally mild, especially compared with the previous year.
Once I got into the swing of the Challenge (about day 4), I relaxed and really enjoyed myself. I was very pleased with the route I chose, which had a decent amount of wilderness walking and camping, but wasn’t too arduous. All in all, everything went exceptionally well.
If I had to pick some highlights, the first two days from Strathcarron and along Loch Monar were terrific, despite the weather. Crossing the Monadhliath via Glen Mazeran was excellent. I enjoyed the traverse through the Cairngorms both for the scenery and the company. I thought nearing the end might be disappointing, but Mount Keen was a highlight and I loved the camaraderie at Tarfside.
What makes the TGO Challenge special is the people you meet along the way. As a solo walker, I had the best of both worlds. I had times of solitude and times of enjoyable company. It’s good to meet with like minded people from all different backgrounds. I had so many interesting conversations on a whole variety of topics.
I had intended to do some trips in the summer. In particular, I wanted to do a week on Dartmoor in August, when there’s no firing on the ranges. However, due to circumstances beyond my control, it didn’t work out.
My final trip of the year was to the Lake District in September. This had a dual purpose of getting our daughter to university at Manchester and giving me a well earned break on the Far Eastern Fells. Despite taking the wrong inner for my Trailstar, I improvised and had a great trip.
I achieved a long held ambition of camping in Deepdale, which must be one of the finest wild camping locations in the Lake District (perhaps not quite as good as below Scafell, though). Although I only had two full days of walking and not very arduous ones at that, it was a good trip. I was blessed with good weather and some fine walking.
I made some preparations to visit Dartmoor in October/November, but, again, for various reasons those plans had to be abandoned. The only thing fixed for next year is the TGO Challenge in May. I’m hoping to start my walking year with a February visit to the Lake District and get a couple more trips before the Challenge. With a more ambitious route, I’m going to need to improve my fitness levels.
Wishing everyone a merry Christmas and a happy New Year!
Out of idle interest, I’ve put my Challenge on a spreadsheet to analyse distance each day, ascent and average speed. The first surprising thing is that I actually only spent an average of five and a half hours each day actually walking. This is an approximation as I didn’t religiously time how long I was taking for lunch and breaks, but I did note when I started and finished a day. If you add in somewhere between an hour and an hour and a half for lunch and breaks, my average day was between six and a half and seven hours. Four days were basically half days (days, 7, 9, 11 and 14). The longest day was day 8, which was eight hours walking and nine and a half from start to finish.
My average daily distance was 19.5km and ascent of 499m. Even on a relatively low level route with only one Munro, my total ascent was nearly 7,000m. My total distance was 273.1km. It would be interesting to know what the average distance is for all Challengers.
Average speed for the whole trip was 3.6kph with a high of 4.7kph on days 7 & 13 and a low of 2.8 on day 2. Day 2 included the very slow first section of Loch Monar, while days 7 & 13 were on tracks and roads.
What this analysis suggests to me is that my route was actually quite unambitious, even though it was very enjoyable. Much of the walking was on tracks and paths, rather than over rough ground. On any future Challenges, I think I would plan a more ambitious route with some slightly longer days.
Having said that, I would be careful in taking to account the terrain. It is sensible to factor in quite slow speeds on rough ground (2kph), while on tracks and roads, faster progress can be factored in (4kph). In future route planning I will split any day’s walk into three categories: rough (2kph), path (3kph) and track (4kph). This should make planning times more accurate.
Although at times I felt tired, at no time did I feel fatigued. Perhaps by accident, no day was too long or over-ambitious. Also, I had a good mix of days in terms of length with some flexibility. The ability to have a late start or early finish occasionally helped to make the walk more enjoyable and appreciate the landscape more.
Weather was also a factor. The only adverse weather was on the first three days and on days 8 and 9. Clearly, wind and rain slows you down and saps your energy. While there is a limit to how much flexibility can be built into a schedule, some flexibility helps. There are times when you really don’t want to have to rush through the landscape just to keep on schedule, but to linger and savour it.
This is summary page for my TGO Challenge trip diary, to make it easier to navigate through the whole trip. Click on the link for the appropriate post.
North Water Bridge to St Cyrus
Thursday 22nd May
Start 8:00, finish 11:00,12.7km
The last day. How would I feel at the finish? After breakfast and packing, I had a quick chat to Ian Cotterill and then I left the camp site by a “secret” back entrance. The first obstacle was to negotiate crossing the ferocious A90 without getting run over. In the event, it was easy as there was an immediate gap in the traffic.
I was quickly on to a minor road. I overtook one Challenger. Next I met Kate Kowalska and I decided to be sociable. I slowed down a bit and we walked together to St Cyrus. One of the joys of the Challenge had been to walk with a random selection of people from all walks of life. I couldn’t have picked a better companion for the last few miles. Thanks, Kate.
The walk to St Cyrus is not very exciting, taking minor roads through agricultural land, but chatting with Kate made the miles go quickly. Just after the railway viaduct we were passed by Mick Hopkins, who looked like a man on a mission.
We bimbled along happily past fields of rape seed and barley. As we approached St Cyrus, the weather looked threatening so we put on our waterproofs. We turned into St Cyrus and quickly located the cafe and bus stop.
All that remained was to find the cliff path and get on to the beach. Fortunately the rain held off and we were able to take the obligatory end of Challenge photos. That was it. The end. The Challenge had been a major focus in my life over the past few months and getting to the end had been the focus of the past two weeks. Suddenly, I’d done it. There was no leaping up and down, just a few smiles.
I experienced a mixture of a feeling of achievement and relief. Even for someone who is a relatively experienced backpacker, I still felt a sense of pride in having achieved my objective. I also had a feeling of relief. The disappointment of having to retire from the Challenge in 2012 had been expunged. All that was left was to get back to the cafe for a celebratory tea and cake, then get the bus to Montrose to sign out at Challenge Control.
Tarfside to North Water Bridge
Wednesday 21st May
Start 8:45, finish 3:30 26.0km
Despite my best intentions, I didn’t get away until 8:45. By that time, a good number of Challengers had already left Tarfside, many to The Retreat for breakfast. I decided to take the road for a while rather than cross the river, partly to find out where The Retreat was, for future reference.
I was feeling fit and walking fast. I soon passed The Retreat and started reeling in Challengers who had started ahead of me. I must emphasise this was not deliberate, just a function of the way I was walking.
Although road walking is often dull, the scenery to Mudloch Cott was attractive enough to distract me. I stopped briefly to talk to Lindy Griffiths. I caught up with another gaggle of Challengers (including Ant and Sean) at the bridge taking me to the southern side of the River North Esk. I seemed to be flying along.
It was all very pleasant until I reached a part of the track that was being used to clear logs which had been cut down as part of a forestry clearance. I would have taken a track closer to the river, but there was a large herd of cows blocking the path. For about half a mile I was hopping about between muddy ruts. Eventually I made it through. Looking back, on the fence, there was a notice that said the track was for “authorised persons only”. Whoops!
By now I was getting close to the new bridge that Alan Sloman had told me about. I encountered another herd of cows on the track with young calves. I was careful to go round them and not get between mothers and calves
At the appointed grid reference, I found the bridge, although it was quite well hidden from the track. On the other side, foolishly, rather than follow the track to the road, I followed a track parallel to the river. This led nowhere and I had to cut up to the road, climbing a rickety barbed wire fence in the process.
A little way along the road, I found the signpost to The Rocks of Solitude path. The path descended back down to the river and followed a delightful ravine with some rapids. It was the highlight of the day. Part way along I met Rob Harvey. We had a quick chat, then I moved on. Not long after, he caught me up and overtook me as I took several photos along the way.
Soon the walk was over. I didn’t realise that there was a footpath that followed the river into Edzell, so I took the main road. At least there was a pavement most of the way. I reached Edzell at about one o’clock and made my way to the Tuck Inn for lunch.
Lynsey Pooler was there with her two children. There were a couple of other Challengers but it looked as though I had made it ahead of the crowds. A few minutes later, Rob Harvey came in and joined me at my table. I pigged out on scampi and chips followed by a chocolate nut sundae. Rob left as I had a postprandial cup of tea.
Just after two o’clock, I thought I’d better make a move. I located the bridge (turn off by the Post Office), and followed a footpath before reaching a series of minor roads. I passed Rob having a sit down and a drink.
This was a really dull section, leading to a long stretch of road past the old aerodrome. At Northgate I turned left on to another minor road, past a sawmill (horrible smell) and then onto a track. The track led past a couple of fine looking houses and then to the road that led to the North Water Bridge camp site.
There weren’t many tents when I arrived, so I selected a relatively secluded pitch at the end of the site. It was a pleasant sunny afternoon. I had a shower and chatted to Mike Knipe, Peter Dixon, Lee Taylor, Matt Holland and Ali Whitaker. As the camp site filled, I was glad I had chosen to camp at the far end as it got a bit crowded.
After a while I went back to my tent to have something to eat. I didn’t socialise after. I wanted to write up some notes and have some time to think. Today was the last real day of walking on the Challenge. Tomorrow was only a short walk to St Cyrus and the finish. Tomorrow it would all be over. Part of me wanted to get to the end, but part of me didn’t want to finish the walk.
Glen Tanar to Tarfside
Tuesday 20th May
Start 8:30, finish1:30,16.4km
When I got up at 6:30am, it looked like it was going to be a fine day. Although there was some hill fog, the sky was mainly clear. As I was eating breakfast, Andy Gerrard swung by. He was making an early start and heading for Tarfside. My start was rather more leisurely.
I was packed by around 8:15, by which time Ant and Sean could be seen climbing up the path to Mount Keen having camped a bit further down the glen. I stopped for a chat with Rob, who explained a bit more about his Challenge.
It was warm enough to wear just a base layer and fleece, without a windproof. The path up from Glen Tanar is well graded, so I made good progress. The views behind were glorious, so I took a number of photos. Near the end of the first section of the climb, I caught Ant and Sean.
I was feeling good, so I surged ahead. After a flat section, I stormed up the steeper rocky section to the top. Not far from the top, the views disappeared as I climbed into the cloud. By this time I had put on my windproof top as it had become windy and somewhat chilly.
It took me an hour and ten minutes to reach the summit from Glen Tanar, which I thought was a good effort with a full pack. Unfortunately, there were no views, so I had a quick bite to eat, sheltered by a rock outcrop and started my descent.
The path down was excellent, although I was walking into the full force of the wind. Part way down, I phoned Challenge Control to let them know that all was well. I emerged below the cloud where the path meets the LRT that goes down to Glen Mark. The rougher LRT made for slower going. I winced as I thought of Rob Leech coming down here with his 34kg pack.
The descent into Glen Mark was lovely, especially in the lower reaches. By the time I made the building, the sun was shining. I diverted to look at the Queen’s Well, where the water was covered in weed.
A little further on, I met a farmer releasing his sheep onto the hillside. We had a chat for about ten minutes, then I was on my way again.
The lower part of Glen Mark is less interesting, although still pleasant. The track made for good progress. At the junction with the road, I bumped into Norman Reeves (or Stormin’ Norman as he is known). He was suffering a bit, so after a quick chat, I stepped on the accelerator and pushed on ahead.
The distinctive monument on the Hill of Rowen, suggested that I didn’t have far to go. I overtook some other Challengers and soon I was in Tarfside. I decided to pitch my tent before visiting St Drostan’s.
I was surprised how few tents were on the field, but it was quite early. I pitched my tent down near the river, as I though it was bit more secluded and I was less likely to be disturbed any any snoring.
After pitching, I spotted Andy Walker. So much for Alan and team not visiting Tarfside this year! I went to the hostel and pigged on two bacon buns, cake and tea. I chatted to several other Challengers including David and Margaret Brocklehurst. The Tarfside team did us proud. Outside, I had a chat to Vicky and Toby Grace who I “knew” through Twitter.
Back at the camp site, I saw David Hale and Ray Disson. I caught up with their news. By now the field was filling with tents and I was glad that I had chosen a more secluded spot. Back at my tent, Peter Dixon and Lee Taylor wandered over to introduce themselves. They too were people I had been in contact with through Twitter.
At around six o’clock, a car pulled up and someone from The Retreat arrived to take food orders for delivery to the camp site. This was an opportunity not to be missed! I ordered a burger (!) and chips. About half an hour later it arrived and I sat down with Dave and Ray on the grassy bank next to Dave’s tent for a scoff.
After a brief respite, it was on to the Mason’s for a drink with Ray, Vicky & Toby, Dave and John & Sue Tattersall. Then Alan Sloman walked in with some half baked excuse about hurting his knee and having to change his route. After a while, Ray and I left the hardened drinkers to it and retired to our respective tents.
I really enjoyed Mount Keen. It was a shame there were no views at the very the top. I wasn’t sure what to expect at Tarfside. I’m not one for crowds. However, I enjoyed the atmosphere and the camaraderie. St. Drostan’s and the Mason’s were good fun. As with all the Challenge, everyone I met was very friendly. It was a really good day, perhaps tinged with a little sadness as the end was drawing near.
Ballater to Glen Tanar
Monday 19th May
Start 11:00, finish 2:00, 9.7km
Today was always meant to be a short day, to allow for resupply and avoid a long walk to Tarfside. I looked out of the bedroom window to check the weather at about 6:00am. To my surprise someone had pitched their Scarp on the green outside the hotel! 10/10 for style. I later found out that it was Fred Campbell who had been told by the hotel that it would be OK.
I was down to the restaurant for breakfast promptly. Humphrey, Bert and Suus were already at their tables. Humphrey gave me some tips on my day’s route. It was good to have a proper breakfast instead of granola bars.
Back in the bedroom, I did a full rucksack re-pack. By 9:30, I checked out and paid the bill. Next stop was the Co-op to stock up on food. While the range of food was better than Drumnadrochit, the choice was still quite limited. However, I bought what I needed and made my way back to the green outside the hotel, to a bench to pack my supplies.
Just as I finished packing, a familiar figure ambled by. It was Ant Cathcart, who I had met in 2012 on the Challenge. He was walking with Sean Putnam, who introduced himself. After a chat about weather and routes, Ant and Sean left to do their own shopping.
By now it was nearly 11:00am, so it was a really late start, even for me. I crossed the bridge and took the short walk down the B976 and turned off onto a farm track to Balintober. The weather was decidedly murky, with the hills wreathed in cloud and mist.
From behind I was hailed by another backpacker. It was Rob Leech. I waited for him to catch up. He seemed to be struggling a bit. I later found out that he had a 34kg pack and was doing the Challenge as part of some army training. No wonder his feet were a mess!
The navigation was not entirely straightforward and we took a line along the edge of a field. We spotted the path on the other side of the fence and climbed over. The path was signposted Glen Tanar and Mount Keen, confirming we were going the right way.
We started the gentle ascent of Craig Vallich on a LRT. It was quite humid, with not much breeze. Although the cloud was dark and clinging to the hill tops, the sun seemed to be trying to break through. It was obvious that Rob was going to be much slower than me, so when he stopped for a break, I pushed on.
The track was easy and well graded, so even though it was climbing, it was possible to make good time. Before entering the mist, I fortified myself with a Co-op fruit salad. I put on my windproof as the breeze had picked up. Reaching the track junction and lochans, the way to Mount Keen was signposted. I followed the track a little way before turning east on a footpath, again signposted.
Visibility was restricted by the mist. It felt a little bit like Dartmoor with the relatively featureless, boggy terrain. By now I had my compass out to walk on a bearing. After a little deviation, I picked up the path again, which was marked by small wooden stakes at intervals.
At Lach na Gualainn there was an iron gate and a cross. On the other side the track began to descend and I had glimpses of Glen Tanar. After crossing an unnamed burn, the path became more distinct.
As I emerged below the cloud, I could see the floor of the glen and the great bulk of Mount Keen beyond. Further on, I spied the grass at the end on the glen, which was my destination. It looked for all the world like a cricket pitch.
When I reached it, I was amazed at its incongruity. Here was a meadow of close cropped grass with daisies surrounded by slopes of heather. Totally surreal. I was spoilt for choice with places to pitch my tent.
As I was putting my tent up, I was hailed by another Challenger, Fred Campbell. He had read my blog and was interested in my tent mods, so he got a guided tour! In the course of our conversation, it emerged that it was his Scarp pitched outside the hotel, that I had seen earlier that morning.
After Fred said goodbye, another Challenger arrived, Andy Gerrard. Like me, this was his destination for the day and he wandered off to put up his tent. By this time, the cloud had cleared and it was a beautiful, warm, sunny afternoon. It was so good, that I decided to to wash my smelly fleece, base layer and socks as they ought to dry in the sun and wind.
A little later, Rob Leech arrived. I said there was plenty of room on the grass, but he decided to pitch down by the river. After a cup of tea, I wandered over to Andy’s tent for a chat. After talking for a while, it was time for dinner.
I had bought some pork pies in Ballater, so I ate those and further reduced the weight of the food in my pack. As the sun went down, I took down my washing, most of which had dried. Now all my socks were clean, as were my base layers and fleece. Luxury.
Loch Builg to Ballater
Sunday 18th May
Start 8:30, finish 4:00, 25.3km
I was awake early again. It was not very encouraging to hear the sound of rain on the flysheet. However, after a while it abated. I had a relatively early breakfast and we were away by 8:30am. The clouds were low and threatening, but there was no rain.
It was easy to pick up the LRT that follows the River Gairn. In places the wind was strong, yet in others it was quite calm. There weren’t any decent spots to camp before we got to Corndavon Lodge, validating our decision to stop early the previous day.
Nonetheless, Corndavon looked a good place to camp. While one of the buildings is derelict and the other was locked, there’s plenty of grass to camp on. By the time we arrived at Corndavon, any Challengers who had used it the previous night had left.
We ploughed on down the track. It wasn’t particularly interesting or scenic. At the bridge at Daldownie, we found a sheltered bank to stop for a rest. Not long after, we were joined by Paul Atkinson, who had camped the previous night a bit further down Glen Builg.
Although comparatively sheltered, we didn’t tarry too long. After about half a mile, Paul left us to walk another route into Ballater. We passed through the ruins of Tullochmacarrick, where a few sheep were grazing.
After a minor navigational cock up, we followed a footpath, then a LRT down to the river. It was surprisingly wet in places. There was supposed to be a path which cut off a bend in the river. After trying to follow it for a bit, we cut back to the river to follow a farm track.
Every so often, we heard the roar of motorbikes as they climbed the road in the hillside opposite. Just past some farm buildings, we joined the road briefly. In the space of about five minutes, about ten motor bikes roared past us. Luckily, we were soon back on a farm track.
A little further on we decided to sit on a nice grassy verge to have some lunch. On the other side of a wire fence some sheep appeared imploring us to share our food with them. Eventually they twigged that we weren’t going to feed them and they lost interest and wandered off. By now the weather had cheered up and we were getting glimpses of sun.
After lunch, we picked up the farm track again. The way ahead wasn’t entirely clear so we went a bit off piste, cutting across a field to pick up another track. This one was way marked as a historic trail, so we were more confident of our right of way.
Just past Inverenzie, we met another couple of Challengers (Bob and Marlyn Simpson?). We walked with them for a while, but Bob stopped to sort out a blister, so we pushed on ahead. Despite now being on a minor road, there was no traffic. We made rapid progress and were soon in Ballater.
I rather liked Ballater. In the centre, Dave found a cashpoint, while I had a look at the outdoor shop. Outside, I met Lawrence and Leslie Dark and Frank Row. I had booked a room at the Alexandra Hotel, so that was the next destination. Seated outside were some more Challengers, including Bert and Suus. Inside I checked in and booked dinner for Dave and myself. Dave went off to the camp site and I went up to my room.
The room was very nice. I had a shower and did some washing. I rigged up a clothes line in the shower to dry my bits and pieces. After calling home and Challenge Control, I deleted 240 emails on my phone, then I wandered down to find Dave for dinner. We had a good meal, during which Bert and Suus popped over for a chat. Dave was planning to get to Tarfside on Tuesday but via a different route, so we parted company, hopefully to meet again in two days time.
I decided not to go to the bar but to return to my room to get an early night. Tomorrow was going to be a relatively short day to Glen Tanar, but I also had to resupply at the Co-op.