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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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.

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

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!

Scottish Highlands on the BBC

This has become something of a dead week for the flu virus has hit the household hard. Still, it has offered the opportunity to catch up on some TV stuff that I’d missed. If you are currently planning your TGO Challenge route, or Munro bagging trip, there’s quite a lot to inspire.

Grand Tour of Scottish Lochs

This series follows Paul Murton travelling by canoe around the Highlands. There are four in the series so far which look at Knoydart, The Rough Bounds and some other great places.  Each of these programmes mixes local history, interesting interviews and stunning photography. If your planning a TGO crossing from Malaig seeing the walk up and through to barrisdale looks rather dramatic when seen from the air!

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b094ndf8


Highlands — Scotland’s Wild Heart

Another series (though I have only watched one episode). Highlanders, looks at how humans are now working to protect and to re-introduce wildlife. I really enjoyed this. beware, this features an interview with Paul Lister!

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03pjc9p

 

Both of these series will help you get in the mood for walking in the Highlands!

The Desecration of the Scottish Hills

Well, it is that time of the year again — the TGO Challenge time. The end of October sees the deadline for TGO Challenge entries and for many the next few months will be spent studying maps, past Challenge route journals, identifying camp sites and booking accommodation. My entry is in and I have too consider whether to simply use last year’s route (as we didn’t get to the event in the end) or to create a new one. Creating a new one might seem a bit of an unnecessary task, but route planing is  great part of the whole experience. And yet, I approach route planning with nowhere near the excitement that I did years ago. 

Cameron McNeish recently bought an article to my attention which pretty much sums up how I feel. The piece was a blog from Parkswatch Scotland:

The Proliferation Of Hill Tracks And How To Stop It – An Example From Drumochter

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This one photo — taken from the article — just sums up everything that feels wrong. And it is now pretty difficult to cross your favourite terrain without experiencing this on one or two occasions.

A few years ago fellow blogger and TGO Challenger Alan Sloman was ranting about the same issue and declared that Scotland was Dead (or something like that). He is prone to this kind of dramatic statement but, of course, he was raising a very important point. If this continues that the Highlands will simply begin to loose its allure for many hill walkers.

These kinds of development have blighted my last two Challenges.

In 2015 Kate and I took the easy route into Glen Mazarin, walking the gentle lanes to approach the Glen rather than approaching from the main boundary ridge which is my favourite route. We passed the works entrance to the Dunmaglas wind farm. As we walked down gentle lanes on a gorgeous, sunny, morning we are constantly shaken by heavy good vehicles. As we took to the hills we climbed and viewed the access road to the construction site. It was a dramatic but ultimately depressing sight.

The problem is not simply one of wind farms. Increasingly, estates are driving new tracks over land that for the estate owners has little utility value. For walkers the tracks not only blight their walk but create navigational hazards. The temptation to follow a new path when you find it — assuming you know where it is going — is great. I wish I had a £10 note for every time I’ve met someone who followed one of the tracks and then regretted it.

In 2016I took the newish hill road from Fort Augustus to Glendoe. This road — it is really more than track — was built to facilitate the construction of the new Reservoir in Glendoe. The road is a mixed blessing. It does get you into the hills pretty quickly and allows you to cover a lot of ground. But it also gives you a horrible insight into how our hills might look in years to come.

I’m not against wind power or hydro power, far from it. But the issue of sensitivity when planning is key. Some like seeing turbines gently rolling in the wind. Some don’t. But for me the turbines are the least of our problems. The access roads cut though the hills to build the farms will last forever. The concrete bases of the turbines will surely I’ve longer than the turbines themselves. These concrete foundations will stand as a latter day henge. In centuries to come will visitors stand and wonder at the these strange standing objects?

A horrible insight into the future is gained at the top of the Glendoe climb.  Here a large works site had been cut. The temporary buildings on the site have now gone but the concrete foundation  to the site remains, like to some oddly abandoned supermarket car park. As you walk on you pass by many remnants of the construction work. Over time the reservoir itself will fill and grow. But there is no obligation to return the ground to its original condition. It doesn’t have to be like this. The estate at Loch Ossian was constructing (last timeI was there) a series of new, small, hydro sites. Display boards explained to us the benefits of the project but also critically assured us that the landscape would be restored when construction had finished. This estate. of course, makes much of its income through tourism. They want their hills to continue look nice!

So, route planning is not quite the exciting experience it was. Now I am studying maps to try and avoid these scars. All of my Challenge crossings have started from Northerly start points; I had been laving the Southern ones until I got older. But many my revised route might look to do something completely different this year and maybe the highest hills might even avoided.

If the hills themselves are loosing some of their charm then the TGO Challenge event itself has much more to offer, the comradeship of walkers and the privilege and waking through an ever-changing landscape.  But I’m not almost of the view that my best trips to the Highlands will be shorter trips simply because they can be planned to avoid these scars.

So, follow campaigners like Cameron and Chris Townsend and follow organisations such as Parkwatch. As a society it is time we became more facilitated. Yes, we can support renewable energy but we can insist that this commitment is not inconsistent with ensuring the landscape is both protected and returned to pre-development conditions whenever possible.

Scottish Track Surfaces — Is it Just Me?

An exchange with @trickygreen (in the comments section) has raised an issue that I have thought about writing about. Actually, the issue is a feature of my TGO Challenge Journal (which is now almost finished).

@trickygreen raises he wearing of trail shoes on the West Highland Way. Now, I have not walked the West Highland Way but I have done sections of it. I really dislike walking on this surface mainly because (own the sections I know) they are strewn with rather too large stones which are unpleasant and some times uncomfortable to walk on.

On this TGO Challenge I set out to create a route that minimised tarmac walking. I walked along a number of tracks that I have walked in the past. On more than a couple of times i found myself looking forward to a stretch of a walk only to find the track surface to be quite unpleasant.

I suppose a lot of these tracks have been improved or ’maintained’ to be better able to take heavy weight vehicles.

Is this just my imagination or route planning?

While I’m on the subject of feet, I’ve had a number of emails about the achilles/Plantar Fasciitis issue. There will be a bit of a focus on this in my TGO Journal (which is nearly finished) but ….

… the change inches back to the Inov-8’s has made a big difference. The Plantar pain has completely disappeared and I’ve been walking pain free all summer. Looking back, it seems that the the built up sole unit of the Brooks Cascardias were a bit of a disaster for me. On the Challenge the only really difficult day I had was the long road walk from Braemar to Ballater, where the achilles began to complain rather loudly. I shan’t be doing this stretch again (at least not for a while).

The 295’s have done well although I noticed last week that the sole on my left foot has collapsed inwards. I’m still hill walking with these shoes but my impressions that I won’t get as much life out of them as I did with the Terrocs. Those with more sensibly arranged feet might not have this kind of problem, but it is something to consider!

Paying Homage

Carron Fish Bar

Sometimes you just have to pay homage to the great inventions!

This chip shop is in Stonehaven. It hit the news recently as it was feared they would not be able to advertise themselves as the home of the deep fried Mars Bar.

I snapped this early in the morning after a fun Scottish Breakfast and thankfully the chippie was closed!

I was introduced to these delicacies by a Glaswegian nutrionist about 20 years ago. She convinced me that the deep fried Twix bar was superior and we went out and tracked one down (they will usually deep fried anything). It was surprisingly nice!

One Day All Benches Will Be Like This

Great Glen Bench

Now, this will no doubt appeal to many walkers. This bench has a built in table. The first genuinely useful innovation I have come across for a long time!

Monochrome Challenge

Some photos seem to look better in Black and White while others are best in Colour. Are are some monochrome pics!

Dalballach Ruin, Glen Banchor

Balballach ruin. Easy to see why this was built here.

Cairn Ewen

Gordon Green, Frederick Maillard and Kate Foley on the Monadliath boundary ridge.

Descending to Gleann Lochain

Descending from the ridge.

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The ferry from Mallaig

Lee and Tony No Guiness

Lee and Tony in the Park Hotel. The Guiness had run dry and Tony was on cider. One of the collectors!