My Original Route Plan:
Friday 11 May 2012:
Strathcarron – W end of Loch Monar (19 km, 761 m ascent)
Saturday 12 May 2012:
W end of Loch Monar – Maoile Lunndaidh – Toll Breac Odhar (15.5 km, 799 m ascent)
Sunday 13 May 2012:
Toll Breac Odhar – Cannich (29.7 km, 680 m ascent)
Monday 14 May 2012:
Cannich – Loch na Beinne Baine (16.3 km, 508 m ascent)
Tuesday 15 May 2012:
Loch na Beinne Baine – Fort Augustus (20 km, 405 m ascent)
Wednesday 16 May 2012:
Fort Augustus – Glen Markie (25.6 km, 925 m ascent)
Thursday 17 May 2012:
Glen Markie – Red Bothy (31.6 km, 520 m ascent)
Friday 18 May 2012:
Red Bothy – Coylumbridge (15.4 km, 372 m ascent)
Saturday 19 May 2012:
Coylumbridge – Mar Lodge (32 km, 691 m ascent)
Sunday 20 May 2012:
Mar Lodge – Spittal of Glenshee (26 km, 506 m ascent)
Monday 21 May 2012:
Spittal of Glenshee – Clova (33.4 km, 1295 m ascent)
Tuesday 22 May 2012:
Clova – Hunthill Lodge (20 km, 741 m ascent)
Wednesday 23 May 2012:
Hunthill Lodge – Brechin (20.3 km, 346 m ascent)
Thursday 24 May 2012:
Brechin – Scurdie Ness (16.3 km, 148 m ascent)
Friday 25 May 2012:
Montrose – Inverness
Total: 321.1 km, 8697 m ascent
Actual: 326.8 km, 8790 m Ascent
Just like last year, I made some changes to my original route. But this time, no major changes were necessary, I mainly walked a bit further on some of the days and I omitted one of the Munros.
Clicking on a date will take you to the report of that particular day, although that does not always correspond with the location given in the above plan.
Strathcarron – Caochan Ghilleasbuig
24.9 km/872 m/09:45 hrs
The taxi I had ordered the night before, took me to the train station with plenty of time to spare for the 09:00 train to Strathcarron. I had reserved a seat with a table, and the two passengers at the table to my right were obviously Challengers as well, as they were looking at maps and discussing gear and routes during the whole journey. I kept looking over to them, trying to make eye contact to join in the conversation, but they ignored me completely. I didn’t mean to be intrusive, but it would have been nice to chat to them, after all, they were the first Challengers I met this year.
At Strathcarron, four passengers got off the train, and a few minutes later we all met again at the reception of the Strathcarron Hotel to sign out. After putting on my gaiters and exchanging a few words with Barry and the other two Challengers (it turned out none of them were walking in my direction), I was on my way. By now it was 11:00, and I was two hours behind most of the other Strathcarron starters who had spent the night before at the hotel or had camped nearby.
In light drizzle I walked down the road a few hundred metres to Achintee, then followed the signposted path uphill to Bendronaig Lodge.
Further up the hill I met Vanessa and stopped for a quick chat. She was on her way to Bendronaig Bothy as well, but suggested that I should walk on and not wait for her because her knees were giving her trouble, especially on the downhill sections. I said that I never had any knee problems since I started taking Glucosamine a few years ago (later that day I would remember this conversation…).
And so I continued on my own, past Loch an Fheòir.
An Ruadh-Stac and Maol Chean-dearg.
When I arrived at the Bealach Alltan Ruairidh, I got the first view of Bendronaig Bothy, and I could see a walker far ahead on the track below, heading towards it.
From the bridge over the Uisge Dhubh, I saw the first glimpses of sun for today.
But on my way to the bothy, the next rain shower followed very quickly.
A patch of blue sky – yesss!
When I approached the bothy at 14:15, I saw four walkers just leaving it. But inside I found Louise whose blog I had been following, but we had never met in real life. So I had a half hour lunch break with nice company, but then I continued on my own again as Louise wanted to wait for Vanessa. They were both planning to camp near Pait Lodge, as did some of the other walkers who had just left. Apparently once again, no one was walking the same route as me (makes me wonder why I always seem to choose unsociable routes on day one?).
Bendronaig Lodge (left) and Bothy (right).
Shortly after, I came to this wobbly bridge across the Allt Coire na Sorna, but I made it across safely (and very slowly).
Loch an Laoigh with Bearnais Bothy just visible in the centre.
Soon I could see my next target, the bealach between Beinn Tharsuinn and Bidein a’ Choire Sheasgaich (or Cheesecake, as it is better known).
I stayed on the track up to the ford across the Allt a’ Choire Sheasgaich, there I turned right and followed the river upstream.
It was rough going on steep ground covered in heather, grass and bog, but the scenery was nice, with several waterfalls on the way.
Looking back to Loch an Laoigh.
A few minutes later…
Compared to the morning when I was walking in almost constant drizzle, the afternoon was much more interesting. The weather changed every few minutes, I had everything from rain, snow and hail to sunny spells.
Approaching the bealach.
I reached the bealach at 17:00, crossed the dry stone wall and… suddenly my left knee started to hurt! I have no idea what caused this, and as I had said to Vanessa in the morning, I never have knee problems (sometimes I even run down easy, grassy slopes with a large backpack).
It got worse on the way down the other side, and I slowed down a bit, because the last thing I needed was a sore knee on day One of the Challenge.
Steep crags on Bidein a’ Choire Sheasgaich.
More rough ground on the way down Bealach an Sgoltaidh.
But now the sunny spells became longer, and the rain showers shorter.
Lurg Mhòr and Meall Mòr.
And then I got the first view of Loch Monar…
… but it wasn’t long before it disappeared in the next rain shower.
I had reached my planned destination for that day, the west end of the loch. From the distance, I had also spotted two tents pitched on the other side of the Allt Bealach Crudhain, so I forded the river to go and talk to the campers.
They were two Challengers from Belgium, first-timer Bart and Nicolas who was on his 7th Challenge. The sun was shining while I was talking to them, they had found a good camp site and I was tempted to pitch my tent as well (as I had planned anyway). But it was only 18:30, the weather had become really nice and somehow I found it too early to stop for the night.
So I said my goodbyes and walked further along the north shore of Loch Monar, there was even a track for a few hundred metres.
Looking back to Bart’s and Nicolas’ camp site.
The track soon petered out, and it was rough going again, with my knee complaining. But the fantastic views distracted me from the pain…
… well, at least for a few minutes!
Looking back to the west end of the loch, there was an almost surreal light shining on it.
More interesting light effects.
Sheepfolds on the north bank.
The Loch Mullardoch hills on the other side of the loch, with Pait Lodge in front.
Pait Lodge (zoomed).
I tried to find a camp site, but there was either no running water nearby, or a stream with lots of waterfalls which would have been too noisy.
I forded the Allt an Longairt, and found a suitable pitch shortly after.
It was sheltered behind a little embankment, and just beside a small stream, the Caochan Ghilleasbuig. I even managed to pitch the tent dry, at about 21:30. Later it rained a little bit, and it got windier, but it wasn’t too bad.
As I was right opposite Pait Lodge and I knew of several Challengers who had planned to camp there, I tried hard to spot any tents, but of course I couldn’t, it was too far away.
I had dinner (coffee, soup, Chicken Korma, hot chocolate and chocolate biscuits) and went to sleep. I woke up after midnight, there was a storm outside and my tent was shaking. The same again at 03:00, this time I went outside to tighten the guylines.
Although this first day had started a bit dull and grey, the views and the weather had constantly improved and altogether it had been a good day. Almost the exact opposite of last year’s day One!
Caochan Ghilleasbuig – Ardchuilk
17.9 km/364 m/06:30 hrs
The morning started off windy, but when the sun came out, it quickly became very warm in my tent.
Sunny and sheltered camp site.
I left shortly after 09:00, and after some wandering about I even found the path that’s marked on the 1:25000 map, it was much further up the slope than where I had been looking for it.
View back west along the loch.
The Loch Mullardoch Munros.
Pait Lodge in the distance.
I reached the outflow of the Toll Breac Odhar around 11:00.
Now I had to make a decision: to climb Maoile Lunndaidh or not? My original plan had been to climb it via its S ridge and Creag an Dubh-thuill, and descend via the SE ridge. But I had ruled out that option already, because it would have meant to carry the big pack all over the hill.
I could have still climbed the Munro from here, ascending and descending by the SE ridge and leaving the rucksack by the sheep pens, but there still seemed to be a substantial snow cover on the summit, and the last part of the ascent looked quite steep on the map. After last week’s experience on An Teallach I didn’t want to waste my energy by climbing up, only to find out that I couldn’t get to the top. Apart from that, my knee had been sore again and altogether I wasn’t feeling very energetic.
The decision was made: I was going to have an easy day instead (I knew I would probably regret this at some point – Maoile Lunndaidh is one of the remoter Munros and I had deliberately left it for the Challenge).
So I had a long break by the sheep pens, where I would have camped if I had done the Munro.
I sat there for an hour in the warm sun, and even boiled some water for a coffee – that must have been my longest break ever, and only the second time I made a brew on a walk!
While I was having my coffee and a cheese roll, a hillwalker arrived from the Monar Lodge direction, he was on his way to climb Maoile Lunndaidh and almost persuaded me to join him. But in the meantime the sun had disappeared and it looked as if the hill would soon be covered by the clouds.
I wished the other walker good luck, hoping that he would still get some views from the summit, and then packed up and finally got on my way again. The path was getting better all the time, it was dry and all the streams had solid wooden footbridges across them.
Shortly before Monar Lodge the path leads through an interesting little rocky gorge.
Rocks in the gorge.
Some distance behind me, I had noticed another walker coming along the path, and at Monar Lodge he caught up with me.
It was Bill whom I had met at Clova last year, where some of us had an enforced rest day because of “Stormy Monday”. We walked along the road in Glen Strathfarrar together, talking about last year’s and this year’s Challenge – but mainly about gear!
When we passed the dam at the road end, I was surprised to find it totally dry, on my last visit the water shot out of it with an immense power.
Just before Ardchuilk, we saw two tents pitched near the road, but we decided to walk a bit further. At Ardchuilk, we walked around trying to find a suitable camp spot, but although the area was grassy, dry and flat, I found it a bit too exposed. With the weather forecast in mind, I expected a stormy night and wanted something more sheltered. While I was still faffing about, Bill walked across the bridge and turned left.
After a while, I followed him, but turned right, because that’s where I would be heading the next morning. Eventually I found a nice, sheltered pitch on an island in the river.
I thought I’d better go back and let Bill know where I was, but in the end I couldn’t be bothered, he would probably figure out that I had walked in the other direction and would be ok.
From my camp site I had a good view of tomorrow’s first target, the Allt Innis na Làrach. I could see an obvious landrover track on the right hand side, but I was supposed to walk up a path on the left.
I had an early dinner of coffee and soup, then Chicken Chasseur and an apple. It was the first time I was trying Fuizion Freeze Dried meals.
… and after.
Not quite as nice as it looked on the website, but in this case looks really don’t matter. But I wasn’t too impressed by the taste either, somehow I had expected more, considering the price of the meals. Anyway, I had another three varieties to try on this Challenge, so they would get another chance.
Weather-wise, it was storm and rain on and off during the night.
Ardchuilk – Cannich
16.2 km/481 m/05:15 hrs
It was still raining, and quite windy, but not too bad when I left at about 09:00.
Although I was tempted to walk up the landrover track on the right hand side, I stayed on the left, as advised by my route vetter, and soon found the path.
It was muddy and slippery, and more like a stream in places.
It was a long slog to the Bealach a’ Bhaca, the wind became stronger higher up, and I was cold and wet. Especially my hands were freezing, but I didn’t want to put my gloves on because I wanted to keep them dry (a bit silly, I know). But I knew that as soon as I would be down in Glen Cannich and out of the worst of the weather, I would warm up quickly anyway.
The first glimpse of Glen Cannich.
In several Challenge reports I had read about the navigational difficulties that others had at this point, resulting in pathless, boggy and steep descents to the road.
But I had got a very good route description from my route vetter, Peter Goddard: “The path goes gradually up on the east side of the Allt Innis na Làrach. From the top keep slightly SE, enter the forest plantation via a gate and then a track brings you down to the road about 1 km east of Liatrie.”
Soon after passing the bealach, I spotted a track further down.
And this track took me directly to the gate at the corner of the deer fence – the description had been spot on!
Once past the gate, the track lead all the way down to the road, it was boggy, but not steep.
Shortly before 12:00 I reached the road in Glen Cannich.
In the glen it wasn’t as cold as on the bealach, but the wind was still buffeting me around. Thankfully, the wind and rain came from the west (= from behind).
After a while, my left shin began to hurt, it felt like shin splints. I could even feel a painful lump at the front of the shin, and I experimented with loosening the laces on my shoes and adjusting the gaiters. At least today was only a short day, and I was hoping that a few hours of rest would be enough to recover my legs.
At 14:30 I arrived in Cannich, and headed straight for the shop to buy some food for the next few days. Although I found it a bit strange that from the distance it looked as if there were no lights on in the shop…
… and really, the shop was closed! I couldn’t believe it – I had sent an email to the shop several months before, enquiring about the opening times on that particular day, and had got the reply that in May the opening times would be 08:30 – 19:00 Mon to Sat, and 10:00 – 17:00 on Sundays! So much for my early start the next morning.
I looked at the menu of the Slaters Arms, then walked over to the Glen Affric Hotel.
In the bar I met Marian and Mike, who were stopping there for lunch. I had only walked in to have a look at the bar menu, but got talking to the owner who was behind the bar. I mentioned that I was planning to camp, but was wondering if the camp site might be flooded with all the rain that had come down since last night.
He assured me that the camp site would be ok, but also mentioned two “almost finished” bunkrooms upstairs. That sounded very interesting, and he explained that the rooms were in the process of being refurbished, and would cost £ 15 a night. That was fine with me, I didn’t even have a look at the room and agreed to his offer. I put my soaking wet rucksack in the corner by the fireplace and walked to the phone box down the road to make my first call to Challenge Control, as I couldn’t get a signal on my mobile.
When I came back, I was shown to my room, had a shower, got changed and went downstairs to the pub. There I found Denis, Jan and Chris and joined them for a cider at the bar. Later a very wet Louise and JJ arrived, they only stayed for a late lunch break and to warm up a bit, then they left for the 5* Bearnock Country Centre Hostel (I was only slightly jealous!). When it was time for dinner, I had lasagne, apple cake & custard, more cider, a caffe latte, more cider, and so on 🙂
Some musicians turned up and started playing, more and more Challengers arrived (Piero and Biagio, Bryan, and many whose names I can’t remember), as well as some locals. It was a really good pub night, and reminded me a bit of last year’s evening at the Glen Hotel in Newtonmore.
Cannich – Torgyle Bridge
28 km/677 m/08:30 hrs
Today I couldn’t start early anyway, because I had to wait for the shop to open at 08:30, so I had a leisurely breakfast in the kitchen, chatting to Denis who was also staying in one of the bunkrooms. Then I did my shopping, which consisted of some brown rolls, Brussels Paté, a Chicken Salad sandwich, Chocolate Chip Biscuits and a bottle of Volvic Apple. Back at the bunkhouse, I finished packing, spoke to Denis again, started discussing rucksacks (and other gear)… and in the end it was 09:45 when I left.
At first the sun was shining while I walked past the camp site, across Comar Bridge and then along the road to Tomich. Near Tomich it started to rain, and I briefly thought about having a coffee at the hotel, but decided against it. At Guisachan I was confused about which path to take, and while I was looking at the map, I noticed two walkers with big rucksacks coming towards me. They were Challengers Jean and Harry, who had stayed at the Tomich Hotel and had taken the wrong path at first as well. We talked for a few minutes, then they headed east and I headed south.
After a few hundred metres I left the main path and followed this signpost into the forest.
In the meantime, the sun had come out again and the walk up the zigzagging forest track was quite pleasant.
Only when the track left the forest, I realised that the track had turned into a major construction road with heavy traffic all the way to Glen Moriston (and beyond, but I would only find out about that the next day).
When I had planned my route, I expected to be walking on landrover tracks as shown on the map, I wasn’t aware of the huge impact that the Beauly-Denny Power Line Upgrade would have – if I had known it, I would have planned a different route.
Just before the highest point of the route I was stopped by one of the workers who seemed to be in charge, and my first thought was that he was going to send me back all the way down to Tomich. But he only warned me about the dangers and asked me to be careful.
View back to the Glen Affric hills.
Loch na Beinne Bàine, where I had planned to camp. A bit desolate looking, let alone the constant flow of construction traffic right past it! It was only just after 14:00 anyway, so I kept walking, hoping to find a camp site in Glen Moriston.
Soon it started to rain again, combined with a strong wind. Maybe I would have still enjoyed walking through this bleak landscape if I had been alone. But every few minutes I had to step aside to let a huge truck or some other vehicle get past.
Loch Cluanie in the distance.
The (rather depressing) way down to Glen Moriston.
Eventually the track ended at the main road just west of the phone box at Torgyle Bridge. I crossed the bridge and walked along the River Moriston, looking for a camp site. Unfortunately, the whole area was infested with big black slugs, and it seemed to get worse the further I walked. So I turned back and settled for a pitch nearer the bridge.
I managed to pitch the tent in the sun, but later it started to rain again. For dinner, I tried another one of my Fuizion meals, this time the Seafood Tagliatelle. Again, I wasn’t overly impressed, the prawns didn’t rehydrate well and tasted a bit rubbery.
Today I had only had a slight pain in my left shin, but I took an Ibuprofen anyway before I went to sleep.
Torgyle Bridge – Fort Augustus
11.5 km/314 m/02:45 hrs
Again, it kept raining on and off all night, and I had to pack away a soaking wet tent in the morning. I walked past Torgyle Bridge and turned left at the first junction, signposted for Fort Augustus.
What followed, was another boring walk along construction roads, but at least the weather was nice. From a clearing in the trees I could see the track I had walked down the day before.
Looking back to the Glen Affric hills.
I got so bored that I even started taking photos of half-finished electricity pylons along the way…
But then I found something interesting: Vibram FiveFingers footprints! Was there actually someone doing the Challenge in these??
On the last downhill section I met Challengers Kirsten and Willy (both wearing “normal” shoes!), and we walked the rest of the way to Fort Augustus together. They were both heading to the camp site, while I went to the Tourist Information and the shop first.
My route for the next day would take me up Glen Doe, where there had been access restrictions for a long time (the large reservoir and hydro power station up in the glen had been finished in 2009, but then the repair of a collapsed tunnel had taken several years.) When I had planned my route during the winter, there were indications that in May the normal access to Glen Doe would be restored. But in the weeks running up to the Challenge, it became clear that the end of the repairs had been delayed again, meaning I would probably have to make a major detour.
I had read on the Challenge message board that a new road had been built to access workers’ accommodation in Glen Doe, and that this road was open to walkers. However, an email to the Tourist Info asking for more information about this had not been answered.
Although the staff at the visitor centre were very helpful today, they couldn’t find any information about the location of this new road. But they printed out the MWIS weather forecast for me, which was actually looking quite good for the next two days.
After some shopping (rolls, cheese, muffins, chocolate) and my second phone call to Challenge Control I walked to the Cumberlands Campsite, where a food parcel was waiting for me. On the way I met Kirsten again who had decided against camping and wanted to continue to Blackburn Bothy.
Just outside reception, which is located in the Stravaigers Lodge Hostel, I was caught in a hail/snow shower and suddenly camping didn’t seem so attractive anymore. I decided to ask for a room instead, and got a twin room to myself for £ 25.
The dining room/lounge.
I made my bed, unpacked my rucksack, had a shower and washed my hair (and flooded the bathroom because I couldn’t switch off the shower properly :oops:). Then I washed some clothes and put them in the drying room, together with my tent, groundsheet and shoes.
After that I had a coffee and muffin in the lounge, chatting to a young couple who were cycling LEJOG, but had to give up due to a knee injury. I had a look at the camp site to see if there were any Challengers, but there was only one large family tent and an Akto (but the owner was not in sight).
So it was off to the pub! In the Lock Inn I met Challenger Mark and his non-Challenger friend Jason who was joining him for a few days walking. I had a pint of cider while they were eating their bar meals, the portions were huge and the food looked very nice, but the menu of The Bothy next door had looked even more tempting.
After a while I left the pub to have dinner at The Bothy – mushrooms in blue cheese sauce, Chicken Balmoral, and white chocolate & orange cheesecake.
I had intended to return to the pub afterwards, but I felt so full I could hardly walk, so I just took some photos of the locks and went back to the hostel.
Lock on the Caledonian Canal.
Boat on the canal.
Back at the hostel, I had another coffee, went to bed and read a bit until I fell asleep.
Fort Augustus – River Eskin
34.4 km/1140 m/12:45 hrs
I left the bunkhouse at 08:15 and walked along the road towards Glen Doe.
Looking across Loch Ness.
There was no indication of that new road which was supposed to be ok for walkers, so I just followed the main road to the entrance of the Hydro Scheme, about 1.5 km before Glendoebeg. It was warm, the road goes uphill, and with the contents of my food parcel (almost two kg), and my shopping from Fort Augustus, my rucksack was the heaviest it had been since the start of the Challenge. I was really hoping I would be allowed to walk up Glen Doe instead of being forced to make a detour.
A security guard stopped me as soon as I approached the entrance of the construction site. I explained what my plans were and showed him my route on the map. He told me that I could walk anywhere apart from the start of the track and the end of it, near the dam itself. To avoid the entrance, I had to go back a few hundred metres, enter a gate beside the road and follow a path around the fenceline of a forestry plantation. After that, I would be able to join the main road up the glen.
That was fine with me, after all this was only a small detour, although I couldn’t really see the danger in walking up the road from the start. It certainly looked a lot safer than the construction roads I had been walking on for the last two days, jumping aside every few minutes to let huge trucks go past…
At the other end of the forest, from here I could start walking up the Glen Doe road.
About an hour later, I passed this wooden hut. It has two rooms, one of which was locked, while the other one (unlocked, and furnished with a table and bench) would have made a nice spot for a lunch break, but it was too early for that.
View up the Allt Doe.
Looking back along the glen, the Glen Affric hills in the distance.
There was hardly any traffic on the road.
Lochan na Stairne.
The view east.
Around 13:00 I arrived near the dam.
Opposite the dam was an even larger settlement of portakabins, sheds and temporary buildings than at the entrance down the road.
I knocked on the window of the small blue cabin at the entrance, and a young security guard came out. He was very friendly (and extremely bored, I assume), and we chatted for a while about the Challenge, his job and the fact that we are almost neighbours, as he lives in Inverness as well.
In the end, he allowed me to walk right through the site :mrgreen:, but asked me to be alert to any passing traffic.
I stayed on the wide track as long as possible because it made for easy and fast walking, but at some point I had to leave it because it led in the wrong direction.
Wilderness, at last!
And almost immediately I found myself in the middle of a killer bog…
This meant slow going, hopping from peat hag to peat hag and making long detours. When I reached the Allt na Craidhleig, I tried to stay close to the stream because the ground was a bit drier.
Eventually, I came across a path on the north bank of the stream and I could speed up a bit – but in the meantime it had started to rain.
At some point, the Allt na Craidhleig becomes the Allt Odhar.
When I approached Stronelairg Lodge, I saw a group of day walkers coming down Glen Markie, but I couldn’t speak to them as they had long gone when I arrived at the lodge.
The lodge itself is a rather interesting looking, derelict building.
I had a very late “lunch break” just after 17:00, sitting on the bridge across the Glenmarkie Burn under some trees to shelter from the rain.
After that I walked up Glen Markie in the drizzle, at first there was even a faint path, but it soon disappeared.
I passed a lot of potential camp sites, but at just after 18:00 I found it too early to stop, so I continued up the glen.
Some pretty waterfalls on the way.
After a while, the drizzle turned into snow, and I decided to walk a bit further than I had planned, over the top of Glen Markie and down the other side.
The glen narrows towards the highest point, and the lochan at the top fills the whole width of the glen, so I had to retreat up the steep hillside, trying to follow some narrow, slippery deer tracks.
Shortly afterwards, I saw a shed or bothy on a hillock opposite, and I briefly thought about having a closer look to see if I could maybe spend the night in there. But it seemed to be windowless and didn’t look very inviting, besides I thought it would probably be locked anyway.
The Allt Coire an t-Sreatha.
The snow became heavier, and started to cover the ground. It was now almost 21:00, the visibility deteriorated quickly, and in this weather I wouldn’t have much daylight left to look for a camp site.
The stream became the River Eskin, which is flowing in a narrow gorge – no chance of finding a bit of flat, level ground…
Looking back upstream.
Finally, at 21:30 I found a spot to pitch my tent, it was very close to the noisy river, but at this stage I wasn’t fussy anymore. The way I felt, was very similar to the first evening on last year’s Challenge. Although I normally enjoy walking solo, this was one of those moments when I would have liked some company. I had dinner and went to sleep around midnight.
Surely, it would soon stop snowing – the weather forecast that I had been given at the Tourist Info in Fort Augustus, had been quite good after all!?
River Eskin – Red Bothy
25.9 km/516 m/09:00 hrs
I first woke up at 05:15, didn’t notice anything unusual and fell asleep again until 06:40. Now, completely awake, I did notice something – the inner tent and the flysheet were almost touching my face. Still nothing to worry about, that always happens when the tent gets wet and saggy and I don’t get up during the night to tighten the guylines.
But the inner tent felt solid when I touched it, besides it seemed unnaturally dark for this time in the morning. I opened the door and couldn’t believe my eyes: The ground and my tent were covered with about 10 cm of snow 😯
I had never camped in the snow before (the LaserComp is not really suitable for winter conditions), so I quickly took some photos, shook the snow off the tent and got back inside. I didn’t feel like having breakfast, and just wanted to get away from here.
While I got dressed, I suddenly remembered the new Trekmates Amphibian socks I had brought. As one of my equally new (Goretex) Roclite boots had already failed on day three, this weather was the perfect occasion to wear waterproof socks.
To take down the tent, I had to wear my SealSkinz gloves as well, because some of the guylines were frozen to the tent pegs. The result were soaking wet gloves within a few minutes – so much for “waterproof” gear…
The landscape looked bleak and desolate and the visibility was low, still I felt dazzled by the complete whiteness around me.
While I was following the River Eskin downstream on a track that was clearly visible, even though it was covered in snow, I was glad that I had walked this far last night. I wouldn’t have liked walking along the narrow deer tracks on the steep side of the glen in these conditions.
Dalbeg looked like it could be a bothy from the distance, and I was hoping it might be unlocked and I could have breakfast in there. When I came closer, I saw two tents pitched outside.
Unfortunately, the bothy was locked, and although I had tried to be as quiet as possible because I didn’t want to disturb them, the inhabitants of the tents stuck their heads out.
It was a family of three Challengers, and I found it really nice to speak to fellow human beings, especially after yesterday which somehow felt like the low point of this Challenge for me. They were heading to Kincraig today, while my destination was the Red Bothy by the River Dulnain.
Looking back to Dalbeg.
When I arrived at Coignafearn Lodge, again I was hoping to find a sheltered place to sit down and have something to eat, but I could see a Landrover parked behind the building, and I didn’t want to be caught “trespassing”…
Half an hour later, I passed an Akto pitched under some trees beside the track – possibly a Challenger having a lie-in?
The next building was Coignafearn Old Lodge, and walking past it felt like leaving the wilderness and entering civilisation again (there is also a car park at the end of the public road).
But soon I would be heading into the wilderness again, pathless across these snow-covered hills.
I was getting quite hungry by now, but I couldn’t find anywhere to sit down and have a proper break. In the end I stood under some trees by the road and had “breakfast”, I can’t remember exactly what I had, but it wasn’t much, probably just a small bag of salted peanuts. After that I crossed the bridge over the River Findhorn.
By the ruins at Coignafeuinternich I saw some remains of snow where apparently two tents had been standing the night before.
Then I wasted about an hour, trying to cross the Allt a’ Mhuilinn with dry feet. First I walked upstream and made several attempts, then I tried it downstream by the island. I finally managed to get across near the outflow into the River Findhorn. It would have been a lot faster to change into Crocs and just wade through, I suppose.
On the track at last.
Walking along the Allt a’ Mhuilinn.
The track along the stream goes a good bit further than is shown on the map, so I stayed on it until after the bridge across the Allt Mòr. There I took a compass bearing to the spot height at 714 m and walked uphill, through knee deep heather and slippery, wet snow.
Higher up, the going didn’t get much easier, the heather was shorter, but the terrain was a mixture of snow, bog and peat hags.
At the top, I took another bearing to the track that leads to the Red Bothy. Not much change on the way down…
Eventually I found the track, and I made quick progress to the bothy.
In the bothy, I found Bart and Nicolas whom I had met on the first day near Loch Monar. They were planning to stay there overnight and I decided to join them, the bothy seemed a much better option than my soaking wet tent. A few minutes later Tanya and David arrived, they stopped for a chat, but wanted to camp a bit further along the way to Aviemore. I mentioned a potential camp site to them (by the bridge across the Allt Fionnaich), which I had seen on a previous walk and had kept in mind for the Challenge, because it was the last sheltered spot before the exposed Burma Road.
After hanging up my tent and spreading out the rest of my wet gear, I made my dinner, and although I had nothing to eat since the peanuts in the morning, I was struggling with another one of my Fuizion meals. I did eat it all, but I just didn’t like the taste of it.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t make a fire because the only firewood available was lying outside and totally wet. We re-arranged the furniture a bit (there are even two rocking chairs!) and used one corner of the bothy as sleeping area. My sleeping mat was near the outside wall and there was a constant draught through the wall.
It took me ages to fall asleep, but suddenly I woke up and saw strange lights outside one of the windows. They were orange and flashing, and at first I thought it must be other walkers approaching the bothy (using the red light mode of their headtorches). But no one came in, instead the lights moved on to the other window, stayed there for a while and then disappeared. I looked around me, my bothy mates were fast asleep, but I was wide awake and, to be honest, a bit worried!
In my mind I was going through the different possibilities – if it wasn’t walkers, what could it be? It had looked like the hazard lights of a big vehicle, like a digger? Certainly not in the middle of the night. A farmer in his Landrover? But a Landrover’s lights are not flashing orange… Eventually I managed to fall asleep again, but I woke up several times during the night because it was freezing cold. But no more scary lights, thankfully!
Red Bothy – Coylumbridge
17.6 km/416 m/04:15 hrs
My bothy companions left at about 08:00, while I was still taking my time packing my rucksack. My tent, gloves, waterproof socks etc. were still damp, but today would be a short day anyway, so it didn’t bother me that much.
When I was ready to go, I noticed the bothy book on the table by the window and had a quick read of the latest entries. Apparently Louise, Denis, Mike and some others had stayed the night before, and they had somehow managed to get a fire going and had enjoyed a nice bothy evening. I wrote a short note about our stay as well (not forgetting to mention my “scary lights” experience!) and left the bothy at 08:20.
There was a bit of fresh snow outside and it was quite chilly, but I quickly warmed up as I walked. I saw Tanya and David’s TrailStar still pitched at the camp site I had suggested, and Bart and Nicolas walking far ahead on the Burma Road.
The cloud level was low, and I could only get a few glimpses of the Corbett Geal-charn Mòr.
At the top of the Burma Road.
There was no snow on the descent, and it felt a lot warmer as well, as if I was entering a completely different weather system.
It was exactly 12:00 when I arrived in Aviemore, perfect timing as the Italian restaurant La Taverna had just opened. I got a table by the window, which was very handy because I could spread out my wet gloves and liners on the radiator, and they were dry when I left. I had a tomato and mozzarella salad, followed by penne al salmone and tiramisu – after all that I didn’t feel like walking anymore, but I didn’t have to go much further anyway.
After lunch, I used the internet access at Active Outdoors to check my emails, bought some food for the next few days at Tesco and a small gas cartridge at Ellis Brigham. Then I phoned Challenge Control from a phone box, using some small change that I had left.
Everything was fine, after chatting about my snowy camp in the Monadhliaths and the cold bothy night, I heard that the weather was supposed to improve and just when I was going to put the phone down, I suddenly remembered to ask “So it’s ok to walk through the Lairig Ghru tomorrow?” The answer was a horrified “NO!! It’s covered in deep snow!” And before I could reply, my money had run out and the conversation was cut off.
My first impulse was to call back from my mobile, but then I decided against it. The situation reminded me of last year’s Challenge, when we were told to stay put at Clova during “Stormy Monday”. But last year I could afford to lose a day and still arrive in Montrose on Thursday – this time I had booked accommodation in Spittal of Glenshee and Clova, and to be there in time, I had to get to Mar Lodge tomorrow.
It had been raining while I did my shopping, but on my way to the Rothiemurchus campsite the rain stopped and the weather became quite nice. The couple who run the campsite were extremely friendly and helpful when I mentioned my dilemma about tomorrow’s route. They knew of a few Challengers who had walked through the Lairig Ghru, but most had made detours via Glen Feshie or the Lairig an Laoigh.
They even phoned the Cairngorm Ranger Service for me and let me speak to one of the rangers. He confirmed that there was a substantial snow cover, but after explaining my situation, he suggested I should “give it a go”.
I checked in and went to pitch my tent in a lovely area between pine trees, and spent a long time in the excellent shower block. It consists of several bathrooms with a shower, toilet and washbasin in each of them.
When I finally returned to my tent, Tanya and David were just pitching their TrailStar nearby. I asked them about their plans for tomorrow, and we discussed the different options. The detour via Glen Feshie would be much longer than the direct way through the Lairig Ghru and would definitely take two days. I would need a map for that because I didn’t know the way from Coylumbridge to Glen Feshie through the maze of forest tracks and paths. The route along the Lairig an Laoigh was actually the FWA I had submitted for this day (with a camp near Derry Lodge instead of Mar Lodge), but there was the problem of two potentially difficult river crossings (they might even be impassable, considering the snow melt) – the Fords of Avon and the Glas Allt Mòr.
I returned to the reception to check the weather forecast for the next day and to see if I could buy a map that had Glen Feshie on it, just in case. There were no maps for sale, but the warden offered to sell me his own Explorer map for £ 5. With the map, I walked over to the Hilton hotel bar and had the most expensive pint of cider ever (£ 4.10). The bar and the lounge were very busy, but I didn’t see any other Challengers. After studying the map and realising how long the Glen Feshie route was, I decided that, if the weather was good the next morning, I would just go for my original route.
I had walked the Lairig Ghru a few times before, so at least I knew what to expect. But I didn’t take this decision lightly, because I didn’t feel comfortable disregarding the advice from Challenge Control. (Interestingly, later I read in another Challengers’ blog that they were actually encouraged (!) to walk through the Lairig Ghru.)
Back at the campsite, I spoke to David again, who said they would try the Lairig Ghru as well. Ian, another Challenger who was camping nearby, was planning to do the same, and he also knew of at least one more (Harry, I think). I wouldn’t be the only one – that was good to know and it made me feel a lot better about my decision.
Coylumbridge – Mar Lodge
32.3 km/899 m/11:15 hrs
The night had been a bit chilly, but after putting my jacket on top of my sleeping bag, it had been ok. In the morning I had another chat with Ian, and I finally left the campsite at 08:30. It was overcast, but warm.
Soon I passed two gates with somewhat alarming signs on them 😯
Cattle?? In the Cairngorms? And I thought that was one of the areas where I could feel perfectly safe… But as I expected, there were no cattle to be seen – phew!
The Cairngorm Club Footbridge.
There are some nice camp spots in Rothiemurchus Forest. My route vetter had actually suggested I should camp somewhere around here, in order to shorten the long walk to Mar Lodge. But I didn’t want to miss out on the luxuries of a hot shower at the campsite and a pub nearby.
Rothiemurchus Forest is well signposted.
Approaching the Lairig Ghru, I passed a group of workers who were upgrading the path. I asked them about the conditions higher up, they didn’t know but told me that they had seen many walkers during the last few days heading up and none of them had turned back.
So far, the going had been easy on good paths, but then I reached the snow line, and the soft snow was about knee-deep.
After a while, I saw three hillwalkers in the distance coming towards me. They had stayed in Corrour Bothy last night and were on their way to Aviemore. This came in handy, because they could follow my foot prints and I could follow theirs – although the line they had walked was a bit erratic.
A Ptarmigan in summer plumage on one of the few snow-free patches.
On my way across the boulder fields, I took my time because I never knew how far I would sink into the snow, and a twisted ankle was the last thing I needed. Although I tried to step into the footprints that were already there, a few times they didn’t hold my weight and I sank in thigh-deep.
The Pools of Dee.
Thankfully, I didn’t fall into one of the streams that were hidden under the snow.
I expected Tanya, David, Ian or Harry to catch up with me at some point, but I didn’t see any of them all day. I thought they might have changed their plans after all or they had a very late start.
At 13:30 I reached the end of the boulderfields, it had taken me five hours from the campsite. After that the walking became a lot easier, but soon my old problem flared up again – my left ankle started to hurt.
Looking back along the Lairig Ghru.
The Devil’s Point.
Corrour Bothy (zoomed).
View back, with the bothy in the distance on the left.
Shortly after Corrour another walker caught up with me (a non-Challenger), and we walked together until Derry Lodge, where he was planning to camp. He knew that the Luibeg Burn was not in spate, as he had forded it in the morning on his way to Carn a’ Mhaim. That saved us making a detour to the bridge further upstream, and we got across easily using the stepping stones.
I passed Derry Lodge at about 17:30 and was surprised to see only a few people around, I had expected it to be a lot busier with Challengers and other walkers, it was a weekend after all. Past Derry Lodge, the track along Glen Lui seemed endless and boring. My ankle hurt so much that I could hardly walk by now, and I was even thinking about camping somewhere near the track.
But Mar Lodge was too tempting, I was looking forward to some company and maybe a drink or two in the Gun Room, which had been turned into a café/bar during the Challenge.
This time there was even a welcoming sign by the road – I remembered how I had been wandering about desperately last year, looking for the entrance to the building…
I finally arrived at the reception at 20:00, paid £ 5 for camping and was told by Jane that we could also sleep in the Stag Ballroom. (Months ago, I had tried to book a bed in one of the rooms, but due to a large function taking place this weekend, Mar Lodge was already fully booked. But we could still camp on the premises for a small fee.) I had a look around and decided to stay inside, it would be nice to sleep somewhere warm for a change and it would save some time in the morning, not having to pack up my tent.
There were several tents pitched outside, and the ballroom looked a bit like a refugee camp (the photo was taken in the morning, when most Challengers had already left).
After rolling out my sleeping mat and bag on the floor between two tables, and spreading out some damp clothes and socks over the heating, I started making my dinner. I didn’t think it would be a good idea to fire up a gas stove inside a wood panelled and carpeted room, so I went outside and assembled my stove and windshield around the corner of the building, to boil some water for a dehydrated meal. Then I walked to the front of the main building to get a mobile signal and made an unscheduled call to Challenge Control to let them know that I had made it through the Lairig Ghru in one piece.
While I was eating my dinner, I chatted to David and Freddy. David passed on greetings from Michael, a Challenger from Germany whom I “knew” from an internet forum and we were hoping to meet during the Challenge, but he and his walking partner Juergen seemed to be one day ahead of me.
In the end it was too late to go to the Gun Room which was only open until 22:00. I was very tired anyway, and although it felt a bit spooky to have a couple of thousands of stag skulls hovering above me, I had a decent sleep – even with being woken up occasionally by a really bad snorer, and a smoke alarm that started beeping sometime in the early morning. Freddy however found the snoring so unbearable that he left the room and pitched his tent outside in the middle of the night…
Mar Lodge – Spittal of Glenshee
26.3 km/559 m/09:00 hrs
When I left at 08:20, there were still quite a few tents pitched outside the Stag Ballroom.
The weather was gorgeous, sunny and warm, and I was looking forward to today’s walk.
I crossed Victoria Bridge, walked along the road to Inverey and turned south into Glen Ey, where I was greeted by a friendly local.
Beinn Iutharn Mhòr.
At Altanour Lodge I noticed another walker approaching from the opposite direction, and when he came closer I recognised Colin, a familiar face from last year’s Challenge. We stopped for a chat and in the meantime three others caught up with us. They were Heather, Sue and David who had also camped at Mar Lodge last night.
After exchanging stories about our adventures so far (and the usual gear talk), we finally parted ways: Colin was on his way to Braemar, the Munro-bagging trio were going up An Socach, and I was heading towards Loch nan Eun.
On my last visit here in March I had walked back along the Allt Cac Dubh after climbing Carn Bhac and Beinn Iutharn Mhòr. The ground had been very boggy and, trying to follow the winding stream, I had to climb up and down its banks.
This time I stayed high up the flank of Beinn Iutharn Bheag, where the going was much easier as I could follow deer tracks through the heather most of the time.
For a short moment I could even see Heather, Sue and David heading along the ridge of An Socach after leaving the summit.
Soon after, I reached Loch nan Eun.
The loch with An Socach in the background on the right.
View down Gleann Taitneach from Loch nan Eun.
Colin had warned me earlier about the steep descent alongside some waterfalls on the Allt Easgaidh. But the scrambling down some wet rocks was not as bad as I had expected.
Looking back to the head of Gleann Taitneach.
View ahead to Glen Shee.
Approaching Spittal of Glenshee.
I arrived at the Spittal of Glenshee Hotel at 18:00, checked in, and settled into my room. This time even the shower was working, and after washing some clothes, I had a shower, washed my hair and – what a luxury! – I could even dry my hair with a hair dryer I had borrowed from reception 🙂
Then I made my obligatory phone call to Challenge Control and went to the pub. Unfortunately there were no other Challengers around, actually there were hardly any guests around. My dinner of Haggis Tower, Chicken Roulade and Apple Pie was really nice, but I found the pub a bit boring on my own and I soon went back to my room to have an early night.
I had a great sleep in the very comfy bed, and it was so quiet outside that I could even leave the window open. Bliss!
Spittal of Glenshee – Clova
32.8 km/1412 m/11:15 hrs
After my experience in March this year, I had not booked breakfast this time and just had my own porridge/cereal mix and two cups of tea in my room instead. I was also keen to have an early start (by my standards!), because one of the hardest days of the Challenge lay ahead.
I left the hotel at 07:20 and started off following the Cateran Trail. After crossing the A93, I climbed a stile and found this sign attached to a fence post:
Oh no…! But at least on the first few kilometres, there were no cows in sight – just sheep.
Looking back to Spittal of Glenshee.
It was a very idyllic scene, with rolling green hills all around me and Ben Gulabin in the background.
But this soon came to an end when I spotted THEM – a large herd of cattle, blocking the path. I had to make a huge detour through several (cow-free) fields, climbing over high walls and fences. This was quite awkward with the big rucksack, and I ended up with a few bruises on my legs.
When I left the farmland and reached open moorland, I felt safe at last and could start to enjoy the walk.
Creag Leacach in the distance.
The loch has got a nice sandy beach at its east end.
Past the loch, I continued in a SE direction over a bealach and down into Glen Beanie, first pathless and then on a grassy track.
View back up Glen Beanie.
At the end of a plantation, I took a shortcut over The Drum and reached the Glen Isla road near Presnerb. After following the road for about 2 km, I crossed the River Isla via the bridge at Fergus.
On my way up along the Fergus Burn, I met a hillwalker who had just climbed Badandun Hill. I was quite impressed, as she had done all the Munros and Corbetts already and was now doing the Grahams. After chatting for about half an hour, I continued on the track towards Craig Lair.
Halfway between Craig Lair and Mid Hill, a track leads off to the east. It continues further than is shown on the map, and I followed it as long as possible. But eventually I had to leave it and cut across to join the path that comes up through the forest from Glen Finlet.
The heather bashing on the way was not as bad as I had expected, again I could follow a deer track (or was it even a path?) for most of the way.
On the top of the Glack of Balquhader I found this “deer cemetery”, enclosed by a small fence.
At the summit of the Glack of Balquhader.
Mayar in the centre.
The Kilbo Path leads up through the forest on the right hand side, but from the distance it looked much easier to climb directly up the grassy hillside.
When I crossed the stream below King’s Seat, I didn’t realise that this was the last water source I would come across that day…
On the other side of the stream, I found this track that made the going even easier until I reached the actual Kilbo Path.
When I reached the top of the Kilbo Path, I could see snow covered Lochnagar and the White Mounth hills in the distance.
At this point I had to make the decision between climbing Driesh and walking along the ridge before descending to Clova, or descending the Kilbo Path and walking along the road to Clova (like I did last year).
It was only 16:30 and the weather was great, Driesh was the only Munro I had left to do in this area and although I had realised by now that I had hardly any drinking water left, I decided to give it a go.
The ascent to Little Driesh, the Munro itself lies behind it on the left.
The ascent was very steep, and halfway up I had to sit down for a little rest. In the meantime I was caught up (and overtaken) by Heather, Sue and David, who had come from the direction of Mayar and were looking incredibly fresh although they had probably climbed umpteen Munros since I had last seen them in Glen Ey!
Looking back to Mayar.
The Shank of Drumfollow ridge, the Kilbo Path is just visible as a diagonal line leading down into Corrie Kilbo.
I reached the summit of Driesh at 17:00 – my only Munro during this Challenge and my No. 219 🙂
Descent and re-ascent to the Hill of Strone. By now I felt exhausted and dehydrated, but thankfully I came across a tiny stream on top of the Hill of Strone. It was enough to fill my Travel Tap, and it made me feel better almost instantly.
The head of Glen Clova.
Interestingly shaped cairn on Cairn Inks.
Instead of following the fence line, I took a shortcut to the left, descending into Glen Clova.
The last section of the descent was steep and slippery, and took me longer than I had estimated. The last few hours, I had been fantasizing about a pint of cider, and I couldn’t wait to get to the hotel. I also had to be there in time for dinner, because I only had one dehydrated meal left, and I needed that for tomorrow night.
When I finally reached the road, I almost ran the last few metres, because I was so worried I might not get anything to eat (I knew that they stopped serving bar meals quite early, but I couldn’t remember at what time). I arrived at the Clova Hotel at 19:30, it had taken me 2.5 hours from the summit of Driesh.
At reception I was informed that they would stop serving food “shortly” (later I read on a sign that last orders were at 19:45). I had been booked into a room in the bunkhouse called Cairn, a tiny room with two bunk beds, and I got the last bed, a top bunk.
I didn’t have time to make the bed, so I just put the sheets and pillow cover that I had got at reception, on top of the bed. There was hardly any room to unpack my rucksack, but I found the bags with my clothes and toiletries, had a quick wash and put on a clean top.
Then I went over to the pub, which was full of Challengers, but I managed to get a seat at one of the tables. As it turned out, there had been no need to rush, because it took ages to get a drink and to order some food, but I was so relieved to be able to sit down and relax! I had a prawn cocktail, spinach and garlic mushroom lasagne and apple pie – and a pint of cider, of course 🙂
I also finally met Michael and Juergen, the elusive German Challengers who had been a day ahead of me all the time. After some more cider and a really nice evening I went back to my room at about 22:45. My three room mates were already in their beds, and I was as quiet as possible. I got my head torch from my rucksack, switched it on, but nothing happened.
With the spare batteries I went into the bathroom to change them, but no luck, the head torch wasn’t working. Just what I needed at this moment! I needed some light to make my bed, so I left the bathroom door open just a tiny bit.
I didn’t think it would be a good idea to have a shower at this time of night (I felt bad enough for turning up in the room so “late”), and went to bed straight away. The windowless room was far too hot, I suspect the heating might have been on, and there was no fresh air. Although I was lying on top of the bed covers, it was still so warm that I couldn’t get any sleep for hours. I would have liked to open the outside door a little bit, but I didn’t dare to… At some time in the morning I finally managed to fall asleep. The worst night I had in ages 😦
Clova – West Water
25.7 km/808 m/08:30 hrs
I got up at 07:00, had a shower and got ready to head over to the hotel for breakfast. There were quite a few tents pitched in the field opposite the hotel, some Challengers had just asked the farmer the previous night and he had given them permission. If I had known that, I would have camped as well, at least I would have had a much better sleep. But I had booked the bunk room well in advance, I probably couldn’t have cancelled it anyway at such short notice.
The Full Scottish breakfast (minus the bacon) was great as usual, and it proved so popular that some guests had to be turned away and asked to come back later.
Breakfast room – the calm before the storm…
I waited until everyone else had left, and at last I had enough space to unpack and re-pack my rucksack properly, by spreading out its contents on one of the beds. I had the outside door wide open, and even at this time in the morning it wasn’t only warm, it was hot already!
After smothering myself with sun cream, I was finally ready to go just before 10:00. Before I left, I had a last look around the hotel and took some photos. Somehow I didn’t want to leave, it would have been great to stay and just sit at one of the tables outside in the sun all day – I don’t know what it is about the Clova Hotel, I just love the place 🙂
I climbed up the good path behind the hotel…
… and reached Loch Brandy an hour later.
Loch Brandy from higher up the path.
After a wee breather by the cairn on top of Green Hill I continued across the wide plateau towards Ben Tirran (The Goet). There were still a few large snow patches along the way.
A few hundred metres before the summit, I was overtaken by Ian and another Challenger whose name I can’t remember… At the summit of Ben Tirran, I stopped for another short break and a chat to Ian and his mate – and completely forgot to take a summit photo. But I had reached my Corbett No. 32!
From the summit we had a good view to Mount Keen (zoomed).
I took a compass bearing to Black Shank and soon found the track leading down to the Water of Saughs. From the distance, I could see several Challengers having a break by the shed at Shieling of Saughs.
There is a landrover track, almost a road, leading all the way through Glen Lethnot, and I found this section quite boring and featureless.
Looking back up the glen.
All along the glen, small groups of other Challengers and myself were leapfrogging each other. The scenery became a lot more interesting after the rocky outcrop West Craig.
A small path zigzags down the left hand side of the rocky “nose”, and I enjoyed this – wilder – part of the walk much more than the boring track before.
Looking back to West Craig.
A short time later, I reached a car park and the start of a tarmac road. I had planned to camp near Hunthill Lodge, but when I got there I didn’t think this would be a good idea, as everything was fenced in.
I had no choice but to keep walking along the road, and after a while my feet were extremely sore again. I was desperately looking for a camp site, but just couldn’t find one. Anything that looked like a suitable pitch, was in sight of the road, or part of an enclosed field. Maybe I was too fussy, but I am not used to camping so close to civilisation. A few times, I descended to the river to have a closer look at a potential pitch, but what had looked ok from the road, turned out to be too lumpy, too wet or too noisy.
From the distance I saw a flat, grassy area beside a foot bridge across the West Water – it looked just perfect! But when I came closer, I found a “No camping” sign attached to the bridge. First I was thinking of ignoring it, but it was still broad daylight and I just couldn’t face being asked to move on by a farmer or someone else who might see me there.
So I walked on and on, I was in agony by now and just wanted to stop walking for today. At last, at about 19:00, I found a large meadow a few metres below road level, not visible from there. It was covered in rabbit holes, but I found a flattish bit just large enough for my tent.
On my way to collect water, I noticed another tent down by the banks of the river, it belonged to one of my last night’s room mates. After dinner, I had an early night again, and this time I had a very good sleep.
West Water – Brechin
16.1 km/205 m/04:00 hrs
I woke up because the sun had been shining on my tent and it was becoming far too hot inside for my liking – I can hardly remember when that happened the last time!
My tent neighbour left at 08:00, but I took my time and got on my way 1.5 hours later. It was road walking again along the West Water, but today I was wearing Crocs and although my feet still hurt, it wasn’t as bad as the day before.
The farms in the area have interesting names.
I had a break at the picnic area between the White and Brown Caterthuns, two iron age hill-forts.
They are only a short distance from the road, but instead of visiting the forts, I was happy with just reading the information board at the entrance.
It was so hot by now, with no shadow in sight, that I put on the cheap pop up sun hat that I had bought just before the Challenge. I must have looked quite silly wearing a huge white hat and Crocs, but I didn’t care!
The rapeseed fields looked great in the bright sun.
There was hardly any traffic, and although it was a road walk, I found it quite enjoyable.
I arrived in Brechin at 14:00 and met Ian and his mate who were looking for a pub. So was I, but I had already found the Caledonian Hotel which was closed and as I had not come across any other pub, I headed to the campsite first.
There was no one at reception, but I found the owner working on the site, paid £ 5 and went to pitch my tent in the area he had directed me to. Surprisingly, there were no other tents around, and I chose a pitch that I thought would be in the shadow in the morning.
After a shower and change of clothes I went to the Bridgend Bar around the corner from the campsite. Although it looked a bit dodgy from the outside, it was actually quite nice and I got a friendly welcome by some locals. After only one pint of cider I felt slightly tipsy – I blame my empty stomach and the hot weather
Then I went into town to do some shopping and withdraw cash, and to have dinner at The Stables Lounge, where I had deep fried brie with cranberry sauce, followed by lasagne and another cider. I found Brechin itself a rather depressing place, somehow run-down with many closed or derelict shops and buildings in the town centre.
Back at the campsite, I bumped into Doug and Richard, the two kilted Challengers I had met last year. They were on their way to the pub and invited me to come along, but I felt I had enough cider for today and just wanted to relax. I spent the rest of the evening in my tent, reading, drinking coffee and eating chocolate.
I also got a text message from Mary from St. Cyrus, who had shared a room with Dunja and myself at the Sail Mhor Hostel in Dundonnell three weeks ago. She had got in touch with Challenge Control to get my mobile number, and wanted to meet me at my finish point Scurdie Ness tomorrow. What a nice surprise! 🙂
Brechin – Scurdie Ness
17.2 km/127 m/04:30 hrs
Again, I woke up because it was getting too hot in my tent, so I got up and had a cup of tea with Doug and Richard at one of the picnic tables. I left the campsite at 09:30 and walked along quiet roads to Kinnaird Castle.
River South Esk.
The private road to Kinnaird Castle.
I enjoyed walking through the park, and in the shade under the trees the heat was bearable.
A “temple”, one of several follies in the park.
Rhododendrons in bloom.
But when I arrived at East Lodge, I got a nasty surprise: The gate was closed!
I knocked on the door of the gatehouse, but there was no answer. Then I walked around the building to see if I could climb over the wall enclosing its garden, but it was too high. There was also no way I could have climbed over the gate or the fence.
After a while, I discovered a little box with a keypad on the side of one of the gateposts. On the off-chance of guessing the correct code, I started with trying 1-2-3 and pressed Enter. And – like magic – the gate made some creaky noises, and it opened!! 😀
It seems so unlikely that I got the code right with my first attempt, that I can only imagine that there is no code at all, and any combination of numbers would have opened the gate?!
I continued walking along country lanes, and suddenly a “man in a van” stopped beside me to tell me that there had been an article in the local newspaper about the Challenge, and he wished me good luck.
After passing Maryton, I sent Mary a text message saying I would arrive at Scurdie Ness in about an hour.
Boats at Rossie Island.
I walked along the Ferryden road, and suddenly everything seemed to disappear in a fog rolling in from the sea – the famous “haar” that I had heard about, but never seen before.
I couldn’t even see the lighthouse, but I knew it couldn’t be far away now. When I turned around, I saw Mary running towards me 🙂 It was really nice to see her again, and so we walked to the lighthouse together.
The Challenge Cairn.
Scurdie Ness Lighthouse.
We walked back to Ferryden, and Mary kindly gave me a lift to the Park Hotel. I went to the Kinnaird Room to sign out, and to receive my (green) Challenge T-shirt, badge and certificate.
After some tea and biscuits and chatting to new arrivals, I walked to the campsite, pitched my tent (right beside Mike’s, which was extremely careless, considering his snoring!) and met lots of Challengers I had not seen for days, or even since last year, like Geoff.
Eventually I managed to get to the shower block, have a shower, wash my hair – and dry it under the hand dryer, and put on my new T-shirt. Back at the Park Hotel, the bar was already full, and it was nice to see Denis, Piero and Biagio, Bart and many others again.
This time I could also enjoy the dinner (unlike last year, when I could hardly eat anything because of my upset stomach) and have a few drinks. After the dinner there was more chatting to Gordon, Bill and others. But as I had to catch an early train in the morning, I didn’t go to the bar afterwards, instead I walked back to the campsite, together with Michael and Juergen.
Montrose – Inverness
After all the sunny weather over the last few days, it was a bit of a shock to wake up to thick fog on the campsite. Visibility was down to a few metres, and the flysheet of my tent was soaking wet.
I quickly packed my rucksack and walked to the train station, with a detour to Tesco to buy some sandwiches, fruit, orange juice and water for the journey home. While I had breakfast in the waiting room at the station, a few Challengers arrived, but most of them waited outside on the platform. Somehow I was glad about that, because I felt sad that it was all over again for another year, and I wasn’t in a sociable or chatty mood.
Meanwhile, the fog had lifted and it had become another sunny, hot day.
My train was on time at 09:13, and after changing trains at Inverurie I arrived in Inverness around lunch time. After some food shopping at Morrison’s beside the train station, I got a taxi home – and that was it, the Challenge 2012 was over!
Altogether, I enjoyed this one more than last year’s, mainly because I felt so much better, physically. I did have some problems with my ankles and knees, but that seems to be an ongoing thing, and I am somehow getting used to it as it comes and goes – I suppose it’s to do with age! But at least I could eat and drink normally, that was quite an improvement to the last few days in 2011, when I was mainly living on plain crispbread and tea, due to an upset stomach.
I found the weather in general better than last year’s, apart from the snow in the Monadhliaths it was actually quite good, especially the second week when it was absolutely gorgeous. “Stormy Sunday” wasn’t really that bad, at least where I was at the time. In a way, I must have been quite lucky with my route choice, because I didn’t have to make any changes due to the weather, and my route didn’t even involve any river crossings. I know from reading other Challenge reports that some were not so lucky…!
Still, I am not totally happy with my route planning. I should have done more research in advance, as I was not aware of the extent of the groundwork operations along the Beauly-Denny powerline. If I had known, I would have tried to avoid two and a half days walking along construction roads.
I deliberately chose a rather long route through the Monadhliaths (instead of just crossing them), because I had avoided them for so long and, after reading blogs and Challenge reports about the area, I thought it was about time to get to know them better. But just when I got there, I had the worst weather of the whole trip, and couldn’t really appreciate them.
I had also wanted to spend more time in the west this time, and I knew that I would soon be lagging a day or so behind most others. That also meant that I didn’t have time for a full rest day, which is ok because I found that a few short (half) days in between are usually enough for me to recover. But I also had to give Braemar a miss because I just couldn’t fit it into my route, and I think that was a mistake. Next time I will definitely include Braemar in my plans again – and I can’t wait for 2013 😀 (Fingers crossed that I get a place!)