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.