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.

Scottish Landscape Photographer of the Year — Paul Webster

It’s not unusual to see the work of Walkhighlands featured here in these pages. For over a decade Helen and Paul Webster have built up one of the most genuinely useful businesses aimed at supporting outdoor people exploring the Scottish Highlands. If you want a walking route — high, low, hard or gentle — or a place to teach for a book accommodation, Walkhighlands should be you starting place.

The Walkhighland’s website has become something of an online magazine with news and features. The site also has a major focus on photography with articles not he art supplemented by Paul Webster’s stunning photography.

When they are not in the office, Helen and Paul are out walking their routes and creating new ones.  Paul always has his camera with him and records the Highlands in all their splendour, at all times of the day and in all weathers.  Even at home I can vouch for the fact that Paul strolls around the house with huge lenses attached to his Nikons. No squirrel is safe from one of Paul’s snaps.

To call Paul’s photos snaps is a bit of an insult.

If you want to spend some time reconnecting with the Highlands (particularly those of us who live in the flatlands to the South) get on over to the site.

Walkhighland’s Paul wins Scottish Landscape Photographer of the Year

Iolo William’s Snowdonia — BBC TV

Even more of our UK mountains are now being featured on the BBC . This latest series focus on Snowdonia in North Wales and — if you haven’t seen it yet — is well worth watching.

In this series Iolo Williams will be exploring Snowdonia in each of the four seasons; episode one focused on Spring.

Like the Grand Tours of Scotland this mini series mixes walking with history and a focus on local wildlife.  The photograph is stunning and there’s an interesting focus here on the successful reintroduction of Pine Martins to the national park.

If you only really know the most popular parts of Snowdonia this series will give you a good insight into some of the quieter areas of the park — both high and low.

Iolo’s Snowdonia Home Page

Those TGO Route Vetters ….

A few days ago I got my TGO route notes back from the TGO Vetters. These are the folks who review each route, suggest modifications, route alternatives and make sure you know about things like disappearing bridges and so on.

It is always fascinating to see what the betters say about your route. This route is very similar to the I put in last year and it came back with a no changes necessary tag. So, far so good — until you start reading the vetter notes.

My vetter this year is the legendary Bernie Marshall, or ‘Super Legend’ as some of us know him (see the journal of my first TGO challenge).  It is, of course, the job of the vetter to put the fear of God into you. What seems like an innocuous route — or a stroll around the park — suddenly becomes a great challenge, which I suppose is what it should be!

Now, as this is my tenth crossing I have put together a route of my ‘favourite bits’. So I’ve walked this route before either on the Challenge or on other trips to the Highlands. Memory is an odd thing. You think you remember things well but seen through the eyes of the letters you begin to wonder whether this is completely different country!

A particular speciality of Super Legend is to point out dangerous streams tat have to be crossed, when you can’t remember streams at all!  He gets you pouring over the maps. Oh, yes, there’s a stream!  And be careful of the snow and ice on routes where you haven’t previous encountered such hazards.

It is another reminder that in Scotland you can have four seasons in one day. ‘This group can be very difficult to cross in wet conditions’. Well, surely it was wet last time I was there? Surely, it can’t get wetter or boggier than that?

If nothing else the letters do make you think again and to be aware of the alternative routes available to you even if they have not been used for a Foul Weather Alternative.

It is a reminder that in the Scottish Highlands nothing is as it seems or nothing is necessarily how it was.

I’m reminded of a walk down Glen Affric a couple of summers ago. I had spent a couple of nights at theatric hostel Munro bagging with a mate. On our last evening a storm came in. The wind and rain lashed the little wooden hostel all through the night. Surely, the rain would let up? Well, no it didn’t. In the morning we looked you of the windows and our gloom and depression returned as the rain kept falling. In the hostel were a few walkers who were going our way, walking down the glen to the car park. The warden was a little worried about a couple of these folks and said he would come with us, at least until the head of the Loch where he kept his car parked. I appreciated his concerns for his walkers but thought it was a bit overkill as we were just to walk along a good path.

How wrong I was. Each little channel of water that flowed across or under the path had become a torrent. On a couple of occasions we simply couldn’t get across the flow of water to reach the rest of the path. We had to splash uphill along the water flow until we found a safe place to cross. One or two of the other walkers looked pretty terrified. A journey that is usual straightforward, even in bad weather, suddenly became long and very hard.

So, thanks to Super Legend I’m looking again at those streams. You know n certain conditions, he might right!

Outdoors Photography @ The Photography Show

The Photography Show at the National Exhibition Centre will be held, for the 5th time, in March. Bob and I will be there to cover the show for the Outdoors Station. We are working with the Press Team at the show too ensure that we get access to the gear that you want to know about!

It’s a few years since I have been at one of these shows and I have to admit I’m a bit out of touch with recent developments in photography. I’m really looking forward to this.

If there’s anything in particular that you want to see then just let us know as we’ll try to ensure that we can cover it. And, hopefully, there will be some interesting photographers to talk to!