TGO Challenge Preparation 2017: Getting Through the Day

By now most first time TGO Challengers will have created their route and probably had it vetted and approved. You will probably also be well on your way to acquiring any kit that you think you need.

I’ve decided to continue this series after a couple of discussions with first timers, really about the things that sit at the back of your mind and worry you — especially is this is your first long multi day hike and wild camp.

So, let’s think about how we get through the day. As always, the rest of the team — feel free to add in your words of wisdom.

On TGO Challenge the day is your best friend. Days here are long, indeed, it only gets dark late in the day and the sun is rising far earlier than most people consider setting off. So, if you are a little unsure of things and worried about the route the first golden rule really is to start early. Remember you are walking and not running. As the old adage goes; you walk distance by walking long not walking fast. Of course, experienced hill walkers and TGO Challengers have their own routine and that’s fine. Some (Chris Townsend is a fine example) are not early risers but they will use the length of the day to walk into the evening. But if you are a little nervous an early start will give the you capacity to deal with most problems.

Although I have written this before elsewhere, it is worth repeating that walkers make mistakes when they are tired. This is probably more likely after really heavy exertion than anything else. So, don’t race across the ground but pace yourself. Walk at a comfortable pace. Let time work its magic. Take regular breaks and eat regularly and well.  When training for the event I tend to think that the main purpose is to work out your most comfortable pace and to give yourself the confidence that you can keep going for hours. We are walking after all and this is, at least, as important as raw fitness.

Working on a long day gives youth potential to deal with anything that the route throws at you. Days vary on the Challenge as the terrain varies. I like an early start though when I’m walking with Kate I’m not away quite as early as when I am on my own days. Some days I might be walking until 3.00 of 4.00 in the afternoon and other days I might be walking until 7.00 or 8.00. Long days are your friend simply because if you need to you can throw in an extra four of five hours which helps you catch up with lost time.

Most first time routes are straightforward and stick to hill tracks. But even on these you are likely to find yourself on stretches of open country over a couple of days, most often during the early part of the event in the hills of the North West. Even though your route has been vetted and approved events — most notably the weather — can provide unexpected Challenges. Knowing you have the ability to claw back time might make you feel a bit happier! For example, here are some thoughts that are going through my mind at the moment.

This year is my tenth crossing and it’s become a bit of a tradition for people to put together routes of their best bits for this walk. All of my route (or very nearly all) has been walked before. My route sheet came back with no changes needed stamped on it. But my vetter this year (Super Legend Dave Marshall) reminded me of a few things that I thought I’d better consider.

On my first day I walk from Strathcarron, our into the hills and on past Bendronaig Lodge. At Loch Calavie I have two choices, to walk on a path heading North to Loch Monar before turning South again or, to cut off the long dog leg by heading over open and marshy ground. The last time I cut across this ground it was indeed very marshy. I seem to remember sinking in quite deeply on one occasion. I remember being quite pleased I wasn’t walking alone! Now, here’s the thing. I can’t remember if this was a dry year or a wet year. If it was a dry year then I might find the ground a bit more challenging if it is very wet. If I’m not happy then I always have the option of taking the longer track. As it is a track the going will be quicker. I might have to walk longer than planned over two or the e days but I will still reach Cannich Campsite on evening three.

On day two my route goes south from Loch Mullardoch up and over the Bealach Coire Gaidheil before dropping down into Glen Affric. I’ve been over this beach before with no trouble. I’ve also walked the surrounding Munros quite happily off challenge. But Super Legend Dave mentioned that the bealach can be snow bound. Now, I guess this might happen in a very bad year but then you never know. Looking at the map my first option would be to head high but that hardly makes too much sense with a lot of snow. I’ll be honest. I don’t really enjoy walking in snow. Being based in the Midlands doesn’t give me experience of it and  more generally I am happier tackling Munros without a massively heavy pack on my back.

So, what to do? It’s a thought. No FWA is needed for these days but there is a small chance that some improvisation will be needed. What gives me the confidence to look again at the maps is the notion that I can walk long to catch up time.

There is another way, of course there always is. But this will eat up time, indeed it will loose me about three quarters of a day over three days. But the alternative will always be walkable — a bit wet perhaps — but doable.

This isn’t so much a planned alternative route as more an awareness of what I might be able to do in exceptional circumstances. I just need to make sure I have the map with me. This is one of the reasons why I like carrying a full map rather than just print outs. I am happy carrying print outs if I’m pretty confident that the route is straightforward. Some may consider this a bit old fashioned but generally I prefer to be safe! Also, beware experienced Challengers here. I could probably find this alternative route without a map, or least by just using my mobile phone. But I wouldn’t have been able to do it ten years ago!

And my final bit of advice is to not take risks. Trust your intuition. If you don’t feel happy take an alternative, walk long and use those long days. This is especially important if (whether solo or in a pair) you are walking alone. You need to trust your intuition — especially when navigating — and not simply the confidence of someone else you are walking with, unless you are very confident with them of course.

I will finish with an anecdote from my very first Challenge.

I started from Mallaig. The weather was wonderful and I was feeling very fit. I got to Soulies Bothy (my stop for the night) and carried on. And on. And on.I finally camped at the top end of Glen Dessarry.

As I began my descent into the glen I came across the first patch of forestry. Two paths are shown on the map, one running around the northern boundary of the woodland and the other — the main track — heading straight into the middle of the woods. The obvious route is to walk through the middle. As I approached the woods I met a local heading out to Soulies. He told me there was a quicker way through. Take the northern path and you will find a path that heads back into the woods and saves time. Looking at the map now this doesn’t make sense. But he was a helpful local and I followed his advice.

It was getting on now. I find the path back into the woods. After a short while the path came to a narrow and steep mini gully with a fast running stream at the bottom. Over the gap was placed a long plank of wood. The gap was not far but just that little too far to jump. The plank looked rotten. I thought about it. Then I began to shuffle forward. Just as I was thinking I might make it the plank collapsed. As I began to fall I managed to lunge forward and grasp long grass on the other bank. I kind of hit the opposite bank like a cartoon character. I quickly scrambled up the bank to the other time. Sitting there I realised what an idiot I had been. If I’d have fallen I could easily have broken a bone. Nobody else would have been coming that way that day. And even next day most Challengers would have taken the main path. These days I accept such advice with gratitude, study the map and then usually follow the plan. If something instinctively feels dodgy I stick with the instinct. Sometimes, instinct is all you have!

Even on simple routes weather can play a part. That river which is easy to cross is suddenly in spate and dangerous. Don’t risk it. Sometimes you can simply walk uphill until the stream narrows and it is safe to cross; this may take time. With bigger rivers you might simply have to camp for the night and wait for the ricer live to drop overnight. Don’t panic. By walking long you can pull the time back even if it takes you a week to do so.

So, be prepared to use the whole of the day. Take the long way round if possible. And before you leave home make sure you have spend hours studying the maps, understanding your route and looking for potential hazards, even if a FWA is not needed.

Keep safe. We want to meet you in Montrose.


  1. thompson brennan says:

    Thanks for these notes! My wife and I are from Vancouver, BC Canada and were on a wait list, now we’re in- but playing catch-up with the planning. Your advice rings true based on the hiking in various conditions we have done. Weight of pack, risk-taking in route finding and weather are all challenges we will not take for granted.

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