Off Challenge: Drumnadrochit to Aviemore

And so it was time move on from Drumnadrochit but before we left the village still had some surprises up its sleeve. 

After settling up with the cheery man who seems to run everything we headed off to the Deli/Bistro for breakfast. This was fabulous and what we had been missing. There was a range of breakfast on offer, including lots of fresh stuff.  As we whiled away the time it struck me that the ‘bistro’ but of this might be open in the evening and yes it is (goodness knows why I didn’t clock this before). If you are spending night in Drum I suggest checking this place out first.

The weather continued to be gorgeous. We ambled around the village a little. The village was festooned with notices for a meeting of the Drumnadrochit Flat Earth Society. Apparently, more people are interested in these theories than you might imagine! I wondered whether this was a tourist strategy to re-enforce the eccentricity of the place. Or might it be something to do with quantum physics? Somewhere in another dimension there Drumnadrochit sits on a flat earth and is home to many monsters. You might be forgiven for suspecting — as I did — that this was probably something else to do with the cheery man who seemed to run everything.

We slowly made our way to the bus stop and then spent no small amount of time trying to understand the timetable. (understanding quantum physics is easier). We had checked the times on the Traveline Scotland app while we were in the deli. We planned to walk over to the bus stop about 10 minute before the bus was due (I hate being late). About 15 minutes before the bus was due we saw one coming in — not on the timetable. At the bus stop we seems to have choice of both local and larger coach services. The local bus simply didn’t turn up. And then we realised have made a fatal mistake.

A flashy coach bus turned up. Do you have tickets shouted the driver. No. I can’t let you on then. Where do you buy tickets? You buy them from me. Can I buy a ticket then? no, we’re full. There were spaces but I presume he had to carry some free capacity in case ticket holding people got on at the next stop. Off he zoomed. More timetabled buses failed to turn up. I hobbled down to the post office to ask if there was anywhere locally that I could buy a ticket. Nope, you could only buy them from the driver. If you by any chance happen to be travelling by bus from Inverness (to almost anywhere) don’t forget to buy a return.

We were joined by a young French backpacker. He had a ticket but only for a certain service. He was struggling to understand the timetable and seems rather bemused when I told him I couldn’t either.

Our young French friend was not impressed with the village. He had been down to Castle Urquhart. There’s not even a restaurant there he exclaimed. Not even some nice furniture to look at. Nope, it’s a wreck I confirmed. Of course, in France even such a wreck would have had a café or at least a bar opposite. Where have you been I asked? He’d flown in to Edinburgh. He’d then gone to Glasgow. There’s nothing to do in Glasgow he exclaimed. Then he’d gone up to Inverness. They tell me it’s a city but it’s really a village. Well, I had to agree, it is a little city. There was nothing to do their either he exclaimed. Was it possible to get from the Coach Station in Inverness to the airport? Yes, I confirmed. He seemed not convinced. My French is better than his English and I thought about switching language but then thought there was little point. He clearly would go through the whole of his trip being unimpressed with everything.

Are you going home? No, I’m travelling down to London. I am going to see the Royal wedding tomorrow. He was from Lyon. I had to explain to Kate that Lyon was a pretty conservative and traditional place. Presumably, our friend who had been really disappointed with Scotland and the Highlands was going to be perfectly happy sitting in a Windsor Park and watching the wedding on a big TV.

We had been waiting at the bus stop for two hours – I don’t exaggerate. Next to the bus stop there was a notice fixed to a fence advertising the local taxi telephone number. Now, I am a bit slow on the uptake and eventually realised this notice has been placed here with strategic intent. I rang the number. A very pleasant woman answered and said she would belong in five minutes. It would cost us £32. This seems a bargain after our two hour wait. She turned up right on time. Just as the coach rolled in. But we stuck to the taxi.

Back at the Train Station I went to enquire whether I could claim a refund on our train tickets from Montrose to Birmingham. I was simply referred back to our booking website. We had a couple of hours to kill. I felt we’d spent much of the last week trotting aimlessly through Inverness. We found a Weatherspoon clone next to the station and sat down to eat another indescribably burger. I noticed a few hundred years away was a Travelodge. I suspect this might be a better option for those making their way to a Challenge start, so long as you book in advance. It is strategical locked between the train station and the bus station.

Soon we were on the train to Aviemore. The train was rammed. We had booked into the Cairngorm Guest House. The Guest House is ten minute walk  to the north of the train station — past Tesco and The Mountain Café and keep going. This was quite a find. We were given a warm greeting by the owners. The place was very comfortable. It had very good wifi. Over at the Scotrail website I discovered my train tickets were not refundable.£125 gone. I booked a new set of tickets from Aviemore to Birmingham. It was a bit of a shock. Let’s just say the tickets were not cheap.

We strolled back down the High Street to the Cairngorm Hotel to eat. I’ve always liked this place ever since they looked after me after I collapsed through the door exhausted one Sunday after three days hard walking with Colin Ibbotson. The hotel was full but we managed to squeeze into the last table in the restaurant. The food here is pretty good. It is basically the usual Highland menu but the difference here was that they could actually cook with quality ingredients. It was Saturday evening. I reassured Kate that all the Challengers would be setting up camp at Derry Lodge.

Back in the bar a rather good duo were playing covers. We found a spot to sit. Everywhere you sit in this bar you have a view of two TV screens. One showed a rugby game and the other was carrying Coventry City’s play off final.

A face appeared and said hello. It was a Challenger. More specifically it was Sabine Zawadzki from Germany (number 376 for those of you who worry about such things). Sabine had planned to come through a day later than most. She was also nursing a dodgy knee but was struggling on. She was headed for the Lairig Ghru the next day. I resisted the temptation to say that if I was heading there I wouldn’t be starting in Aviemore but she was headed for Corrour Bothy which meant a pretty reasonable walk the next day. Sabine had started from Torridon. I was jealous. Torridon is my favourite Challenge start. I’ve started from there on two occasions but the weather on each was dreadful. There had been no chance to climb up high and tackle the wonderful ridge  of Being Liath Mhor (which I’d had to do on an off challenge trip). Sabine’s schedule was behind most people’s simply because she’d been able to take in all those peaks. Was a wonderful way to spend the first days of the Challenge.

And that was it. Our off Challenge experience was over. We had least at had something of a break. But there were lessons to learn and there are lessons to share. You don’t really consider the implications of an injury and of pulling out of the event. I’ll deal with these in a final post. These are — at least — with some consideration!

Off Challenge: Drumnadrochit

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Drumnadrochit — No Rucksacks!

Loch Carron has treated us well but, to be honest, there’s not a great deal to do there when your movement is a bit limited. So now we have regained our orientation a little it was time to work out what to do. Kate was keen to stay in Scotland for a while and kept muttering things like “it will be like a real holiday”. Whatever next?

We struck on the idea of visiting places that we would have seen on the Challenge, only visiting them for longer. The only rule was that we wouldn’t go anywhere until the Challenge had gone through! How about that Drumnadrochit? It always seems nice on the Challenge and surely it never rains there?

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Off Challenge: Loch Carron and the NC500

Since everyone has returned from the TGO challenge I’ve had a number of phone chats with Challengers who wanted to know all about the injury and event withdrawal. We talked quite a bit about floating around the Highlands and especially about longer stays in some of the places we usually just race through. A few folks have suggested that I write some of this up. So, here goes.

To start with a recap. From Attadale we were given a lift by a local to the Loch Carron Hotel and we spent a couple go glorious days there in simply magnificent weather.

Loch Carron

Loch Carron


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Review: Living With the Altra Lone Peak 3.5

Altra

I didn’t, perhaps, get the opportunity to test these on the Challenge as much as I wanted. However, these have been used in a variety of real world conditions, on steep grass slopes, on mountain tracks — good and bad, and tarmac (rather too much). I worse these exclusively for a couple of weeks.

The longer use of these shoes confirmed what I described in the First Impressions: Altra Men’s Lone Peak 3.5 post.

I should say at the outset that these are probably the best trail shoes that I have used to date!

Comfort and Fit

A reminder; my feet are rather broad and with a high instep. One of my feet is significantly different in size to other. For me to find shoes to be comfortable they have to have a wide fitting and to still continue to grip the heels of both feet. The Altras succeed on both counts.

On first inspection these shoes appear not to be quite as wide as the Inov-8s that I have been using but I really don’t think this is the case. I’ve had no problems wearing these, even in very warm conditions. What makes for the difference in the feel is, I think, that these shoes are far more robust than the Inov-8’s. They appear to be less flexible but for my wide feet they are no problem at all. Altra recommend that you go up a full size from the UK equivalent, so for me that meant going from 9.5 to 10.5. This worked well. The Altra website has a size calculator which will give you guidance for other size measurements; on this experience I would expect this to be spot on.

General Performance

These shoes perform admirably. They grip grass well on steep slopes. They shed water as quickly as you would want The sole unit is firmer and tougher than that on Inov-8. The sole unit will wear down a little but so far these are holding up more effectively than they Inov-8’s. There is more cushioning in the sole unit, not over the top this but enough to be very effective on rocky paths. they are also far more comfortable when walking distances on a tarmac surface.

The robust nature of these shoes is not simply down to the sole unit. look closely at the photograph and you will see that the top of the shoe features mesh that has been reenforced with red stretching. The mesh itself sheds water very well and efficiently. The ditched mess seems to give more strength to that mesh top. Bashing through heather when your shoes are damp often leads to holes in the mesh but so far there has been sign of such a problem with these shoes.

The extra build of these shoes does mean they weight about 750 grams, a little more than the Inov-8’s, but they are still very light and I have not found this weight increase to be significant at all.

Zero Drop

I mentioned in the first impressions post that I was a little wary of the zero drop heel. Mainly this was because of an ongoing problem I have with a sore achilles. These shoes have not caused any problems and, indeed, the heel cup works as effectively — if not more effectively — than any trail shoes that I used to date. This might seem odd but with these she’s your feet — and heels — are more lightly to go exactly where you want them to go! they certainly encourage you to heel and toe properly.

Conclusions

There is almost nothing to dislike about these. True, they are expensive but these are a quality product. So far, I have found these to be the best trail shoe that I have used to date.

I’ll continue using this throughout the summer and right a long term review  then. But on my experience so far, these are simply excellent trail shoes.

Available in both men and women’s fittings

 

Altra Men’s Lone Peak 3.5

TGO challenge: Excitement to Despair in 24 Hours

This afternoon my TGO Challenge comrades will begin to mass in the small East Coast Town of Montrose. They will be celebrating the end of their coast to coast walk across the Scottish Highlands, catching up with old friends and searching out the new ones that they met along the way. Sadly, this year I won’t be with them.

This year’s Challenge started from Strathcarron, one of my past, favourite starting points. I knew it was going to be an odd year when we got off the train, strolled into the hotel, only to be told that the hotel had not food. Why? Because the hotel had no chef. I’ll deal with this in a different post. Needless to say, the spirit of the Challenge took over and two Challengers hitch hiked to Plockton and co-ordinated fish and chip orders with the rest of us before they took the train back to the hotel. We didn’t starve that night.

The next day we were off with our usual enthusiasm. What I like about this start is that you are very quickly climbing into high hills, the road and train-line left behind, with only a mountain skyline for company. Apart from the other Challengers. We set off with William from Barbados, Thom from Minneapolis, from Somerset and Herman from Breugel in the Netherlands (I like the diversity of the challenge).

Up we climbed to reach the old fence line and then it was a sharp downhill towards Bendronaig Lodge, the estate track built up as are so many these days to facilitate a new mini hydro electric scheme. The Lodge was as welcoming as ever. The weather was stunning gorgeous and the flush toilet a continuing novelty.

After out break which struck out onto the track to Pait Lodge. As we began a gentle climb past  Loch Calvie I slipped coming out of a stream and bashed my knee pretty hard. We carried on walking for the best part of another hour before Kate, William and I decided to make camp in the shelter of some tuffet/hags. During the night the knee was painful. Next morning the knee was very inflamed, painful and more or less useless. We had a long day ahead of us, starting with some comping over open ground. I knew I couldn’t do that. The alternative was a longer walk on tracks. I tried to walk it off but just knew if wasn’t going to work.

What is it like abandoning the Challenge? Its there a great sense of despair? Well, not really. It was pretty clear to me that to carry on would have been pretty foolhardy and may well have caused more problems.  There was nothing to do but walk out, back the way we came.

Her’s something I hadn’t considered. There was not phone signal. I pretty quickly realised that nothing (serious) was broken. I could walk — uphill and on the flat were not too bad but the slightest downward slope sheer agony. But I could work and it seemed wrong to make an emergency rescue call. We aimed for Bendronaig Lodge which we rejoined at lunch time.

The weather was simply gorgeous. We put the tent up at the back and took shade from the sun in the bothy. We had a few passing visitors during the day but even on a Saturday had the place to ourselves in the evening. An afternoon of rest was what the knee required. I’m not sure how I slipped but I think I sprained the knee as well as banging my knee cap.

On Sunday we began the second part of the walk our, straight along the estate path to Attadale. And then I slipped again, banging my ribs this time. I was not a happy bunny. But we walked on enjoying the stunning weather as best we could.

There was no phone signal until we reached Attadale and it was only then — towards the end of the afternoon of Day 3 — that we could phone control and tell them we were pulling out, although the injury occurred on Day 1. I suspect I was the first drop out though maybe not the first reported.  All of this made me think a bit more than usual about safety and no doubt Bob and I will talk a bit about this in the podcast series.

There is nothing at Attadale other than the house gardens which are closed on Sundays. There is a train station and it seemed the right idea to get there and start searching for places to stay. At the other side of the Loch was Lochcarron with a campsite and a hotel.

Just as I was mussing on options a ,local walker spotted I was struggling. He asked where we were going. Perhaps, Loch Carron. As luck would have it he lived in the village and gave us a lift to the hotel who had a room free for the night.

It was time to regroup. We decided to spend the week up in Scotland, perhaps, visiting those places we only rush through on the Challenge (more about this later).

We had glorious weather the whole time we were in the Highlands, both in the West and in the Cairngorms. This must have been the best Challenge on record and I missed it!

All of this is very frustrating but — as they say — the mountains will still be there next year. Sometimes it is important to know when not to cause more damage. As I write, the knee now has all of its movement back, some ligaments are still a bit rocky and the knee gets tired. But things are getting better quickly.

So, to all my fellow Challengers in Montrose, have a great evening. I will miss you all. I’ll be back next year — but then, of course, it will rain every day!

First Impressions: Altra Men’s Lone Peak 3.5

Lone Peak

 

I’m a bit slow to the party with these shoes. Fellow Challenger Shap McDonnell has been using them for a few years now and Chris Townsend peaks highly of them. I’ve been testing out alternatives to the old Inov-8 Terrocs for a few years now and the Lone Peak 3.5s are the latest in the quest to find a replacement.

My Feet Profile

Searching for shoes is a bit of a challenge for me. I have wide feet and I’ve found that many firings are simply too cramped, certainly when backpacking for days on end. I also have one foot which is larger than the other and has a high instep. It is a bit of a challenge to find two shoes that both hold the heel in effectively.

The Zero Drop

The Lone Peak’s are ‘zero drop,’ a system that Altra have been pioneering in running and trail shoes. The ‘drop’ is the relative distance from the heel to the level of the ball of the foot. When you stand without shoes the heel and the ball of the foot are at the same level. With most shoes the heel is raised and the ‘drop’ is the distance between heel and the front of the foot. Often the drop is quite small, my last shoes had a drop of 4 millimetres, but such small measures can result in a very different feel.

The idea of the Zero Drop system is that your feet are positioned as naturally as possible.

On Test

I used these straight out of the box for a three day backpack walk, carrying a full pack weight. I replaced the insole of the shoe with the replacement insole that I usually use (the Pro 11 system).

The Lone Peaks were very comfortable from the off and gave me no problems at all over a range of different terrain. The sole grip seems more than adequate for the task.

Fit

These are probably some of the most comfortable trail shoes I have used. The fit is broad and there was more than enough room for my toes to spread when walking. There also seemed to be a little more room across the mid width of the shoe as well. The heel system has some solidity to it and more than adequately cupped both of my heels.  I didn’t find any pressure points and the shoes were comfortable throughout the walk. For a light and small shoe the cushioning of the mid sole was quite impressive.

The Zero Drop

Although a number of people have spoken highly of thee shoes I have been a little reticent to try them because of the zero drop. I have read a number of accounts of these shoes stretching the heel and the achilles a little more than usual. I have a slight problem of soreness with one of my achilles. 

In practice, however, I fund no problems at all with these shoes. The walking position seemed comfortable and natural from the off and I detected no problems with the achilles — the biggest factor here seems to be how well the heel is held in the shoe.

So, there seemed to be no downside in using the zero drop system. I did form the impression that, on uneven ground or when scrambling, the system was better than many conventional systems. It seemed to me that my heel was always where I assumed it would be — I’m not sure this is that scientific and observation but it just goes to underline that there is no downside in using this system.

General Performance

The shoes are very well made and seem pretty tough. There is a very effective toe box too protect the front of the foot. The mesh surface of the shoe is re-enforced with stitching at key points of stress and wear which seems a nice touch. I shall take another look at this when making a full review.

Trail shoes like this need to shed water effectively and the Lone Peak is no slouch here and presented no problems. For those of you that used the Terroc system this shoe sheds water, perhaps, a teeny bit slower then the original Terrocs but better I think to the second generation of Terrocs. The water shedding performance of these shoes is excellent.

In General

These seem like a very sound investment. The fit is excellent for those who need a wider fitting. The construction seems of a very high quality. The laces are some of the best that I have used. The shoe seems pretty tough and yet still comes in at a shade under 300 grams.

 

In short I could find no downside to these shoes at all. I shall be using them for two weeks on the TGO Challenge — a backpack coast to coast across the Scottish Highlands. This is a walk that tests shoes to the full.  I shall write a final review when I have returned at the end of May.

 

TGO: Last Minute Rehearsals and Checks

A last minute rehearsal for the TGO challenge is helpful in many ways. For our last jaunt before heading north we took a three day backpacking circuit around the Shropshire Hills.

Shropshire is an interesting place. Although a reasonably small area it provides tremendous variety. More than one visitor here has compared it tot he Southern Uplands in Scotland. Our walk took in a far amount of ascent, some viciously step climbs (and descent), some high ridge walks through the heather, bashes through fields of rape and a fair amount of road walking. A good and full three days. 

I’m always fascinated by the things I forget to bring with me on one of these rehearsals, which is the point I guess. These also serve to remind you of other things — like how the limbs protest at the end of the day and the start of the next!

Pre Walk Check

These are pretty important — and a lot of this can be done without the walk itself:

Gear check — that hole in the webbing on my pack pocket? It’s not that serious; a bit of masking tape should do the trick;

The small tear on the PHD down Gillet — not that bad; a bit of masking tape should do the trick.

You can see the importance of masking tape here. I usually roll some around the top of the handles of both walking poles — note, the tape could do with replacing.

What goes where?

It is a good idea to pack the pack in the way that you usually use it, or think that you will be using it. Getting into a strict regime is always helpful. What goes in the front pocket of the pack?  What sits in the belt pockets? How do you pack the main compartment?  Is there enough room for food bags?

I find the hip belt pockets of my pocket to be very helpful, not least as you can access them as you walk. These contain things like sun lotion (needs replacing), blister plaster(top up) and swiss army knife. Just why did I have two swiss army knives with me on this trip?

The front pocket of my pack is made of webbing which allows water to drain off wet waterproofs. But it also holds a small first aid kit (need to check contents), toilet trowel, tent pegs, windproof hat and some other bits and pieces for the camp.

Inside, the pack needs to be ‘packed’ properly in order to get a good balance and to ensure that I make maximum use of space. Inside my main liner neatly folding my down gear preserves space.

One of my most important pieces of kit for a longer walk is my ‘office’. The office is a large and waterproof map case. On the Challenge this holds maps, a notebook, various charger chords, a small electric plug adapter and a rechargeable ‘brick’.

Kitchen Gear

Most important of course. And when two of you are walking together make sure you collectively ahem the gear. Why did we forget our folding plates on this trip?  (Probably because we were going to eat in pubs.)

That pot cozy for out 2 person pot definitely needs replacing.

Caldera Cone or Honey Stove?  The Cone is lighter but its container bulkier. The Honey stove is also a wood burner — an, of course,the weather is going to be fine this year.

 

If you’ve not had time for a real rehearsal you can still check the packing of the pack in almost real world conditions.  It certainly is worth it. A few years ago I discovered my water container, while it looked fine, had developed a leak.

Anyhow, replacement bits and pieces have been ordered and the new pot cozy is on its way.

If you are on the challenge we hope to meet you somewhere down the road.

Challenge Gear 2018

Preparations for the TGO challenge are well underway if not a little delayed by me having twisted my ankle and damaged some ligaments. Thankfully these are healing quickly.

What gear am I using? I still get asked this a lot. There’s no much too for improvement this year. I do need a new pack but I’ll get another year out of this one before I go setting off for a replacement (probably in the direction of Colin Ibbotson).

The big change this year will be shoes. This year I hope to be using the Altra Lone Peak 3.5 shoes. These are shoes that Chris Townsend has been raving about for a while now. Shap McDonell — fellow Challenger — has also been using them for a few years. These are zero drop shoes, in other words your heel is at the same distance to the floor as the front of your feet — you are walking very naturally.  I picked mine up this morning and haven’t had a chance use them yet but they are very comfortable. Altra suggest sizing up one size from the USA size, so my 9.5 becomes a 10.5.  they are have a nice wide fitting for those of us who have wider feet and there seems to be enough room min the toe box.  Apparently walking in them seems a bit odd for a mile or so before you adjust. i shall report back as seen as the ankle is properly back in action.

I’ll be wearing the Altras with X Socks Trekking Lite — still the best socks I have found for trail shoes. X Socks are currently available on Amazon for a ridiculously cheap price. As backups I will also carry a couple of pairs of Tekko merino socks.

My waterproof will be the PHD smock which has served me very well for three or four years now. My waterproof trousers are the minimalist and very light Berghaus Pac Lites. Underneath this will be a Rab mid layer, merino base layers, Jack Wolfskin walking trousers and my PHD down gilet for added warmth. I’ve damaged the gillet a bit over the winter and it will probably be patched with masking tape!

The tent will be the my Tarptent though it has to be checked over yet. This has a small walking pole hole in the roof that was patched with a bit of spare fabric and seam sealant — it just needs checking over.

I’ll probably put the final list online at some point but for now I’m engaged in industrial food production!

Se you soon.

History of the Clearances — In Our Time

I think that if you walk in the Highlands the experience is heightened my a knowledge of local history and culture.

The wonderful In Our Time programme (BBC Radio 4) has this morning broadcast a programme which talks about the history of the Highlands, the clans and the clearances. Fascinating stuff.

Those of you walking the TGO Challenge for the first time will be walking through a landscape that can tell many, many, stories. 

You can hear the programme here:

The Highland Clearances

In a day or two this will be listed in all of the popular podcast aggregators as well.

Well worth listening to.

Calling All Photographers

Coming up in tend days or so is The Photography Show in Birmingham. Bob and I will be there, covering the show for the Outdoors Station.

This time we’re trying to be well prepared and have asked the major manufacturers to highlight for us gear that they think meets the needs and the profile of the outdoor enthusiast.

Bob, of course, will be doing all the exciting stuff. My job is to scour the NEC for accessories that might be really useful.

So, are there things you want to know more about? Are there challenges in outdoor photography that you’d like some advice on tackling?

Let us know what you are interested in.