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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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!

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.

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!

TGO Planning: The Importance of Sleep

Today I am pondering the importance of sleep. I’ve not thought much about this before but this came up in a conversation with a walker who hopes to enter the TGO Challenge next year.

We know that —  for a number of new entrants to the challenge — this walk will be their first multi-day trek or hike. While folks are planning routes and thinking about transport to their starting point it is worth them thinking of sleep.

This may be just me but I really hate walking long distances when I am tired and haven’t had enough sleep. Of course, there is often no way of avoiding this. Lie in your tent at night and a gentle pattering of rain can be a lovely thing; it seems to rock you to sleep. But a night in a full on gale is not a pleasant thing. It’s even worse if this is followed by a horrible day’s weather and more high winds the next night.

So, I like to consider sleep as part of my event and route planning!

It’s worth thinking hard and long about your accommodation just prior to the Challenge. Expense allowing, book yourself into a decent hotel or B&B the night before walking and also consider if that might be needed on the journey up to your starting point. I have traditionally used the Caledonian Sleeper Train to journey up to Scotland — on the Challenge and off. But this isn’t always the best preparation. The motion of the train can every pleasant. But other journeys can be less so, especially if you are sharing a berth! On my off Challenge trips up North I like to start walking the moment I have got off the train and all too often I’m walking when miserable. I’ve learnt that, for example, it is best to have a leisurely breakfast in Aviemore than to simply set out immediately into the Cairngorms.

Some people cope with these problems, let’s be honest, through drink. That doesn’t always work for me, especially waling the next day.

If sleep is important to you consider options before you start talking and also, perhaps, options for a proper bed along the way. Otherwise experiment with earplugs and sleep masks before you leave for Scotland!