Well known TGO Challenger and blogger, Andy Howell has died after a short illness https://www.birminghamworld.uk/news/birmingham-politics-tributes-paid-to-former-deputy-leader-of-birmingham-city-council-who-has-died-3412857 Sad news indeed. I met Andy and his wife Kate on my 2014 TGO Challenge when I stopped at a shooting hut above the Red Bothy in the Monadhliath where they shared their jelly babies with me. Fond memories. The TGO Challenge Facebook page has many tributes to Andy. R.I.P.
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.
Every Challenge participant has different goals. For me, when I planned my route, I had a number of parameters in my mind:
1) I wanted to do a more challenging route with some ridges and Munros. My focus on 2014 was for an interesting, low route, which I could be confident of completing. In 2015, I will be more dependent on good conditions to complete my intended route.
2) I wanted to spend at least three days in the mountainous west. For me, too many of the routes I’ve seen rush through the west, where the scenery is simply stunning. One reason for starting at Dornie rather than Shiel Bridge is to give me a gentle first day to soak up the scenery.
3) I’m not a “bagger”, but I wanted to do some more Munros. My count at the moment stands at three. If all goes to plan, I will more than treble the count.
4) I wanted to go through Stronelairg before any more damage is done to the area. The reservoir is bad enough but the wind farm will be the end if built. I also wanted to walk along the Dulnain again for similar reasons.
5) I’ve not been to one of the famous Cheese and Wine parties, so, if possible, I wanted to include it in my plans. If the Cheese and Wine hadn’t been at the Water of Caiplich, I would have taken a different route through the Cairngorms.
6) The Cheese and Wine location dictated that the next day had to be over Beinn a’ Bhuird and Ben Avon. It also meant that the following day is basically the same as I did this year to Ballater.
7) I’m going to Ballater on the Sunday because I like it and and I wanted to avoid the crowds in Braemar.
8) After Ballater, Dinnet and the Firnmouth to Tarfside means I do a different route than this year, even though the Mount Keen walk is probably better.
9) I enjoyed Tarfside this year, so going back was an easy decision. Hopefully I’ll bump into a good number of people that I already know. I really couldn’t be bothered to plot a ritzy route to the coast from Tarfside, so I’m happy to follow the trade route to the coast. My one concession is to finish at Tangleha’, rather than St Cyrus. Tangleha’ is not very picturesque, but it’s only a short walk back to the tea shop in St Cyrus.
That was the thought processes behind my route. One of the enjoyable things about the Challenge is the mixture of solo walking and walking in company. For the first four days, I will probably be on my own. Through the Monadhliath and up Beinn a’ Bhuird, I will be walking with Andy Walker.
I’m guessing that I will be meeting others along the way. This year, quite unintentionally, I walked three days with David Hale, which was an unanticipated pleasure. Thanks, Dave. The unexpected friendships that are formed on the Challenge make it something special. I’m looking forward both to meeting new people and seeing those that I’ve met before.
I’ve uploaded the photos of my TGO Challenge to my Picasa page. Click here to view. Warning: there are 664, so using the slide show feature will take about half an hour! I’ve not put captions on them. You should be able to work out where they are if you follow my trip posts and maps. Hope you enjoy them.
Here’s a summary of the other gear I used on the Challenge and how it performed.
My modified Rab Neutrino SL 200 worked well. The synthetic base adds hugely to the warmth. It was warm enough except for a couple of nights where I added an extra layer before daybreak. I normally get cold at that time. I think the Neutrino is probably not quite as warm as my Pipedream 400. While the half zip was fine, I do prefer a full zip. It’s interesting that both PHD and Mountain Equipment have brought out hybrid bags recently. This could be a trend, with the rising price of down.
My sleeping mat was an old Thermarest Neoair short with a thin closed cell foam mat underneath. I supplemented this with the GG Air Beam frame from my rucksack under my feet. I also used a stuff sack with clothes at the end of the air bed to support my knees. Overall this was very comfortable although the old style Neoair does lose some air over time. My pillow was the Exped UL inflatable pillow inside a microfibre Buff as a pillowcase.
I toyed with the idea of taking a full length Neoair (and pump) but decided the weight saving of a shorter mat was worth it. I also appreciated the extra cushioning and comfort of an air mattress on a long trip compared with a self inflating mat like the Nemo Zor. Overall, my choices worked well, although I might get a new Neoair short in the hope that it retains its inflation better.
The only thing that went wrong with my clothing was that I didn’t proof my Paramo Vasco jacket before I left. Instead I only washed it in TechWash. This led to the material wetting out in places, although I don’t think the rain leaked through. In heavier rain I wore a hard shell, my OMM Cypher smock, which was fine. In cool weather, I do prefer walking in a Paramo jacket. The Vasco has great venting options, but in future, I think I’d take the 3rd Element jacket for the gilet option. I would couple this with my new Rab Zephyr, which would obviate the need for a separate windproof jacket.
I did take my Mont-Bell Dynamo Wind Parka and was very glad of it. It’s probably the best windproof jacket on the market with proper adjustable cuffs and good sized, mesh backed venting pockets. The hood is good and can be tabbed down using the hanging loop and the Velcro adjuster on the back of the hood (I discovered after a couple of days). Rounding off my outer wear, the Rab Drillium overtrousers were excellent. It’s a shame they stopped making these as they are by far the most comfortable overtousers I’ve ever used.
My mid layer was the Montane Oryx fleece. I’ve really liked this fleece to layer under Paramo or a windproof as the thinner side/underarm panels prevent over heating compared with a conventional fleece. However, they are not very robust. The stitching ran in a couple of places. Also, after a couple of days, it smells badly. In future, I think I’ll go back to either a merino mid layer or Patagonia capilene.
Base layers were a Rohan Ultra Silver T, a Berghaus Vapour Light SS T and M&S ultra hipsters. The M&S hipsters were excellent (no longer available). Both the Rohan and Berghaus T’s were good. Both resisted getting smelly well and both dried quickly. The Rohan T in particular was excellent, feeling like silk and dries very quickly.
From As Tucas, I had the Millaris wind trousers, the Sestrals balaclava and some bespoke unlined booties. The Millaris wind trousers are brilliant either on their own or over some long johns (in my case Arc’teryx Phase AR tights). At 75g they weigh next to nothing. The Setrals balaclava is excellent instead of a sleeping bag hood. The booties were ok, but are more of a summer item, so I’ll get some down booties from Marco for cooler months.
I took my PHD Minimus down jacket. The weather was generally mild, so I could have managed with a lighter alternative. However, you never know how cold it might be, so the Minimus was still a good option. I took a Rohan Equator shirt, which was handy to occasionally walk in and for hotels. However, I’d take the Pacific shirt instead in future as it dries even faster and has a lovely silky feel.
For water filtering, I took the Sawyer mini filter. This was brilliant. It has a good flow rate and only weighs 38g. I wouldn’t use anything else now. My Snow Peak GST stove was fine, but the piezo igniter is getting stiff so I might remove it and use a stand alone MSR one. If you have an iPhone, the Lifeproof Fre case is a great way to weatherproof your phone. I used the iPhone as a bad weather camera rather than risk my Sony WX100.
I took an umbrella (M&S collapsible, 216g) and was very glad I did. On the afternoon of day 3, it turned a miserable rainy afternoon into a minor inconvenience. For some, an umbrella is a heretical and superfluous. For me, I love it! I only used my Wiggy’s Waders on three occasions and probably could have got away with not taking them. However, if the weather had been worse, they would have been useful. Rubber gloves are another comedy item, but great for avoiding chapped hands (especially knuckles). I use them when I’m collecting water or drying off the tent to prevent the constant wetting and drying out of my skin. Split skin on your knuckles is very painful!
The Challenge message board had dire warnings of midges and ticks before we left. The midges were a non-event. I carried some lavender linen spray to spray on the tent and clothes as a midge deterrent (apparently midges hate lavender). It didn’t get used as a midge deterrent, but it was handy to spray on my fleece each day to hide the smell of sweat! I only took a small amount, but it was surprisingly useful. I had no problems with ticks, but others did. I sprayed the bottoms of my trousers and tops of my boots with permethrin. Did it help? I don’t know, but it seems to me it’s a worthwhile precaution.
What might I change?
Overall, I’m not sure I’d change much. If I was being ruthless, I could probably lose a kilo of pack weight by leaving out things like my umbrella and waders and reducing clothing. However, on a long trip, a bit of extra comfort is welcome. If I was doing a high level route, I’d need to be more Spartan. As I’ve mentioned, I think I’d tweak my clothing choices slightly, but it wouldn’t make much difference to my overall pack weight. If I wanted to reduce my shelter weight significantly, I’d have to take my cuben Duomid. I would only do that if I had a solid inner. It’s something I might consider. It would save about half a kilo, which is not to be sniffed at. I put a lot of thought into my gear choices for the Challenge and I was happy with both what I took and the combinations.
Final gear list (click to enlarge)
Several people have asked for a gear round up after my Challenge, so here goes.
Before I go into details, I want to make a couple of observations. Firstly, I think it’s sensible to use gear that is proven rather than untested on longer walks. Everything I used had been well tested and I knew worked. Secondly, it pays to get three critical things right: footwear, rucksack and shelter. Most other things you can get away with something that is sub optimal. However, if you don’t get these three right, you’re in for a tough time. I’ll review these first in a bit of detail and do a separate post on my other gear.
Footwear: Ecco Biom Hike. These are the most comfortable leather boots I’ve ever worn. They are very flexible and well cushioned, making walking on hard tracks much easier. I did get one blister, which I think was a result of the hard forest tracks on day 4 and the road walking/LRTs on day 5. After I popped it I had no problems.
The first three days were very wet underfoot, but my feet stayed reasonably dry, apart from sweat. There were fifty retirements this year, many from foot problems. It really pays to have your footwear sorted out, whether boots or trail shoes. It’s no fun hobbling along. Different people have different solutions, but you need to thoroughly test what you wear and be confident they will work in wet conditions and on hard tracks. The Ecco Bioms were superb.
My only complaint is that I’ve worn through the heel. It seems a shame that they’ve lasted less than two years. I have a replacement pair that I’m breaking in now. I also took my Nike Mayfly’s (300g) as my camp shoes. Excellent, but they are no longer made.
Rucksack: Gossamer Gear Mariposa (new version) plus Air Beam frame. If your rucksack is uncomfortable or can’t carry your gear properly, you’re stuffed. Since I bought it, the Mariposa is the only rucksack I’ve used. It’s that good.
The Air Beam frame makes it even better. I was a bit sceptical at first as it looks a bit Heath Robinson. However, it improves the carry significantly. In particular, the thicker lumbar section makes the hip belt sit properly on your hips. The air channels make for a much less sweaty back. The pressure can be adjusted to maximise comfort. You do need to bit a bit careful that the pump bulb doesn’t detach accidentally and let the air out. At night, I removed the Air Beam and used it under my feet for more insulation.
I love the Mariposa’s various pockets for organising my gear. It just swallows gear. Apart from a small nick on the lid, there’s no sign of wear. None of the stitching has run. I can’t see anything else on the market that competes with it at the moment. It’s a great pack.
Shelter: Tarptent Scarp 1. What more can I say about the Scarp? I did seriously consider the Trailstar, but I was very happy that I chose to take the Scarp. It performed flawlessly. It goes up so quickly and easily. If you tension the corners correctly, it pitches perfectly every time.
I used trekking pole lifters this time, which improves stability and separation. One wrinkle that I’ve not seen elsewhere is to add a shock cord loop on the lifter pull out as a shock absorber.
Two porches are great for wet weather. All the mods worked well. At no time did I regret my choice and want one of my other shelters. One feature that was useful was being able to sleep with my head at either end, making the combination of slope and wind direction less critical. You might argue that it is heavier than some options, but I value having an absolutely secure shelter that I don’t have to worry about.
Nor did I have to worry about losing a trekking pole or having them stolen as happened to a couple of other Challengers. Having said that, I would still consider using the Trailstar or Duomid on the Challenge, or, indeed, the F10 Nitro Lite 200. However, the Scarp takes a lot of beating and ticks nearly all the boxes. It’s really important that you have confidence in your shelter in all conditions on a the Challenge.
In summary, one reason I enjoyed the Challenge so much was that I got the big three absolutely right. This meant I was very comfortable and removed a potential source of worry. Gear is certainly not the be-all and end-all, but getting it right can make the difference between enjoyment and endurance. In the second post, I’ll round up the rest of my gear choices and how they performed.
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.
- The prologue (getting there)
- Day 1 Strathcarron to Loch Monar
- Day 2 Loch Monar to Allt Uchd Rodha
- Day 3 Allt Uchd Rodha to Cannich
- Day 4 Cannich to Drumnadrochit
- Day 5 Drumnadrochit to Glen Mazeran
- Day 6 Glen Mazeran to Allt an Tudair
- Day 7 Allt an Tudair to Coylumbridge
- Day 8 Coylumbridge to Faindouran Lodge
- Day 9 Faindouran Lodge to Loch Builg
- Day 10 Loch Builg to Ballater
- Day 11 Ballater to Glen Tanar
- Day 12 Glen Tanar to Tarfside
- Day 13 Tarfside to North Water Bridge
- Day 14 North Water Bridge to St Cyrus
- Initial reflections
- The statistics
- Complete set of photos
- Gear roundup: the big three
- Gear roundup: other gear
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.