Archive for June, 2011

June 18, 2011

Xsocks: Trekking Expedition Short & Trekking Silver

by backpackingbongos

A week or so before I set off on the TGO Challenge, Webtogs got in touch to see what I would like to test next.  My Challenge gear was already sorted, well-tried and tested, essential for a long trip.  There was however one essential bit of kit that I needed before setting off, one that is easily overlooked in the drive to buy the more expensive stuff.  This being the humble sock.  My old Smartwool ones were looking a bit tatty with holes appearing in the heels.  Webtogs sent me a pair of Xsocks Trekking Silver and I purchased a pair of Trekking Expedition short the day after.  With a 180 mile walk they were going to get a thorough testing!

Before I go on to review them I need to mention the footwear I used on the TGO Challenge.  I took a risk and wore a pair of unlined Inov-8’s, the first time I had worn unlined trail shoes on a long trek.  The weather on this years challenge could be described as a bit on the ‘damp’ side and I was usually submerged up to my ankles in the wet stuff.  This needs to be taken into account when deciding if these socks are for you.

There are a huge range of Xsocks available and I found that making an informed choice just by looking in the internet was difficult.  Although the two pairs both had the word ‘Trekking’ in the title they are different beasts altogether.  By the end of the Challenge I ended up loving one and slightly disliking the other!

Both pairs are shaped for the left and right foot, with a L and R embroidered onto each sock.  Why don’t more manufacturers do this instead of producing a sock which is designed to fit both feet?

First the good………..

Xsocks Trekking Expedition Short

I was worried when ordering that these would turn out to be ankle socks due to the name.  No worries as they are the usual mid calf length.  Pulling them on the first thing I noticed was their fit.  It felt like they were designed for my feet, a good snug fit without being too tight.  There are no noticeable seams at the toe and they feel nice and soft.  The main body of the sock is thin with a slightly open weave to it, the heel and forefoot is made up of a denser material and there is extra padding for the bony bit on top of the foot.  Putting on my Inov8’s they somehow just felt ‘right’.

Within minutes on the Challenge my shoes were soaked as I walked through streams and plodded through saturated ground and bog.  After the initial shock of the cold water my feet soon warmed up and I forgot that they were wet.  After a couple of hours of walking on a dry track my socks were only slightly damp.  I have to admit to wearing this one pair for most of the Challenge, on a couple of occasions for three days straight without being washed.  At the end of the day when I was in my tent I would shorten my trekking poles, put them upright in the porch and pull a sock over the handle of each one.  They were usually dry in the morning.  After the third day they would become too stiff to wear for a fourth!

Because they do not soak up too much moisture I never got ‘prune’ feet which can be an upleasant side effect from them being wet all day.  All in all the best sock that I have found for wearing with unlined trail shoes.  They can even be worn for a few days without stinking out the tent too much.  Sadly they are now showing signs of wear and tear with the fabric getting a bit thin in a couple of places.  Also the thicker fabric on the heels have become a little rough on the outside, rubbing away at the insides of my shoes.  The heel of the socks now being speckled with the bright green lining.

All in all the best pair of socks I have found for wearing with lightweight trail shoes.  When this pair dies I will definitely be ordering another pair.

And now the not so good…………..

Xsocks Trekking Silver

These are altogether a more substantial sock than the other pair.  The sole is more padded with a softer thicker weave and there is SilverNODOR woven within it.  This is meant to keep your feet dry and prevent the growth of bacteria which should in turn stop those nasty smells.  The heel has more padding and there is soft layer of padding for the top of the foot.  When I first pulled them on they felt much more comfy than the others with a less snug fit, in general they also felt much softer, more akin to a brand new pair of Smartwool socks.

However once I had pulled on my snug fitting trail shoes they were no longer as comfy.  My shoes grip my feet like limpets, in this case they gripped my socks like limpets.  Because the socks were slightly looser than the Trekking Expedition short my feet moved around inside them.  I thought that this would be a recipe for a blister but on the trail this in reality did not cause much of an issue.  What was an issue was their ability to soak water up like a sponge.  The soles are thick so moisture just sat there next to my skin, soon causing the dreaded ‘prune’ feet.  They did not last a full day without being changed, even so they had taken on much more of an odor in that time than the others did in three days.

However they did make nice comfy bed socks and that was the purpose they served for the rest of the Challenge.  I am not dismissing them as they will probably be ideal in more conventional footwear.  I am sure I will get plenty of use out of them in the winter.  They just are not the ideal partner for unlined trail shoes in persistently wet conditions.

If you are looking for a sock that is a perfect partner to unlined trail shoes I can highly recommend the Trekking Expedition Short.

The Trekking Expedition Short cost £15.49 and can be purchased here.

The Trekking Silver cost £18.49 and can be purchased here.

All the technical info can be found there.

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June 12, 2011

Three bloggers find wild camping perfection

by backpackingbongos

“What do you think the temperature is?” asked Martin.  I checked the thermometer on my watch which had been left inside my tent, it was 3 degrees celsius.  The sun had not even dipped below the horizon and it was the second week in June.  So much for summer!

I had met up with Martin from Summit and Valley and Terry from terrybnd for a backpack around Wildboar Fell and the Howgills.  We were standing outside our tents high up on a shelf that cradles Sand Tarn, just below the summit of Wild Boar Fell.  The sun was sinking behind the Lake District, putting on a display that seemed to be designed just for us.  It was a perfect moment shared by great company.

A proper write-up will follow when I finally get round to finishing my TGO challenge posts.

Cheers guys for a cracking weekend.

June 9, 2011

A trio of bloggers head for the hills

by backpackingbongos

My pack is sitting here ready to go, inov8’s patiently by the front door.  I’m meeting up with fellow bloggers Martin and Terry tomorrow.  The rendezvous point in the evening is a tarn at 650 metres, nestled below the summit of a cracking hill.  A good yomp on Saturday hopefully followed by a high level camp in the evening, weather permitting.  Talking of weather there is a threat of thunderstorms, my least favourite type of weather possible when on the hills.  I have had a couple of very near misses in the past, one time actually being ‘in’ the thunder-cloud.  I therefore get a tad nervous when the rumbling starts.  However Terry has kindly agreed to strap his hiking poles to his head and act as my personal lightning conductor, which is rather sporting of him!

I fear that the write up of this trip may be a long time coming, two more TGO Challenge posts and one of last weekends trip to the Peak District first.  A spot of reviewing for Webtogs as well.  I will try to post a couple of pics on Twitter though as we go along.

June 6, 2011

TGO Challenge 2011 – Days 5 to 7

by backpackingbongos

Day 5 – 21.4 miles (17.3 walked and 4.1 by boat) with 1,320 metres ascent

Just for once on the Challenge I had to get up early.  The day before I had phoned Gordon Menzies to check my crossing of Loch Ness and he confirmed I was on the early boat, which leaves at 8.30 am.  I was relieved because I was keen to join Alan Sloman on his ‘Wake for the Wild’ which would be starting at 10.30am from Errogie.  I would need to get a few miles under my belt first thing in the morning to make it in time.

After a breakfast which was far too early to be able to finish I was soon packed and on my way for the march along the busy A82 towards Temple Pier.  My rucksack was once again heavy with the contents of the food parcel posted to the B&B.  On the positive side I was now kitted out in clean clothes which my landlady had kindly washed for me.  You cannot overestimate the value of clean pants after a few days!  The mile and a half felt endless as the morning traffic roared past but in reality took no time at all.  I walked down to the pier and spotted a bearded man on the deck of one of the boats and wandered over, the occupants inside giving me a wave.  I asked if he was Gordon, he confirmed he was so I removed my pack and sat on a bench to have a quick snack.  Whilst sitting there I was puzzled at to where all the other Challengers were, seeing as the boat was scheduled to leave in ten minutes.  I shouldered my pack, climbed aboard and descended into the plush interior.  “Can I help you?” was the response of those having breakfast at the table inside.  It suddenly dawned on me that I had made a mistake!  I was pointed in the right direction as I legged it to another pier where indeed there was a crowd of rucksacks and Challengers milling around a much smaller and less posh boat.  I wonder what the occupants of the other boat had thought of my uninvited arrival?

Anyway Challengers and rucksacks were soon settled into Gordon’s boat for the trip to the other side of the loch at Inverfarigaig.  Gordon is a lovely chap and the surprisingly long journey was enlivened by his stories.  A mention of ‘The wake for the wild’ was met with his opinions of wind farms and how they were slowly destroying the local landscape and how this could affect tourism.  It sounds like there are a few more to come in the areas surrounding Loch Ness.  What did surprise me was the reluctance of some of those onboard the boat to get involved in the wake, even though their routes coincided.  I had mentioned it to a few Challengers on the previous four days, unfortunately receiving a high level of disinterest, from the ‘We shouldn’t get involved in that sort of thing’, to ‘I don’t mind wind farms’.  Hopefully the responses I got do not reflect the average opinion of the average backpacker or lover of wild places.  If so we are doomed.

The pier at Inverfarigaig has seen better days and it is a bit of a balancing act to disembark whilst wearing a pack.  Gordon was quickly off to go and pick up the second wave of Challengers.

Whilst on dry land a pile of walking poles and rucksacks were sorted out.

I was soon on my own walking alongside the narrow ribbon of tarmac that runs trough the Pass of Inverfarigaig.  At a junction there was a sign proclaiming that the way I wanted to go was closed for the foreseeable future due to forestry operations.  I ignored it and continued through an area where there was clearly no work taking place.  We are brilliant at being efficient in the UK eh?

Stopping at a bridge to remove some layers I was caught up by a couple of other Challengers, having someone to talk to made the rest of the road walk much more enjoyable.  At Errogie there was no sign of either a coffin or Mr Sloman, so we continued on towards Farraline where an Audi driver did her best to take out as many Challengers as possible in one go.  Her car literally passed within an inch of everyone, I was disappointed that my poles were strapped to my pack as they would have been useful to remove a bit of her shiny paintwork.

My companions soon disappeared as I headed towards a group of people standing by the shore of Loch Mhor just as a boat arrived carrying a coffin.  Phew I had made it just in time!  A procession started on towards the buildings at Farraline where the plans for the day were run through.

And then the coffin was off heading towards Dunmaglass lodge.

I had an interesting chat with a lovely local woman who was clearly passionate about the area in which she lives.  It must be heartbreaking to live in such a beautiful area only to find out that it will soon be industrialised in the name of ‘green energy’.  Thankfully the route so far had been along a well-worn track but we had been warned that the route across the hills to the lodge was through deep heather.  Before tackling the rough stuff a halt was called to give those carrying the coffin a break.

Chris Townsend almost seemed to be posing ready for his photo to be taken!

Up across the hill the coffin went, a huge sweep of the Monadhliath mountains ahead, the intended destination for the Coffin and sadly later for 500ft turbines.

The descent to the lodge is across awful ground, with high untamed heather.  At one point I looked down and saw the biggest tick slowly working its way up my trouser leg, all red body and black legs.  He was swiftly evicted.  It took a while to navigate a suitable route to the lodge where we were met by a Police car blocking the driveway and two Policewomen.  They soon set about interviewing Alan Sloman, asking for information which they had already been provided with.  Note Alan’s defensive positioning of his hands!

Whilst everyone else stood and watched!

A good use of Police resources?  I will let you be the judge of that one.  What made me smile was the numerous signs the estate had erected, pointing us in the direction they wanted us to go.  They wanted to ensure that we did not damage the ground or disturb nesting birds.  Oh the irony from an estate who want to bury tons of concrete in the hills, bulldoze miles of track and erect huge turbines.

A brief stop for lunch where a few words were said over the coffin, filmed by a couple of TV crews who had come along.  In fact at just about every stop it appeared that Alan had a big fluffy stick pointed at his face.

And then it was off into the hills to the site where the highest turbine will be located at over 2500ft.

We walked through magnificent scenery, the only evidence of man being the ugly bulldozed track.  With each step climbed the view back towards the west got bigger and bigger, the horizon opening up with row upon row of peaks.  The Monadhlaith themselves being hauntingly beautiful in their apparent emptiness.  Just because the wildlife does not immediately jump out at you does not mean that it is not there, the place is teeming with life you just need patience to see it.  I personally find it crass that such a place can be ripped apart for personal profit.

The Coffin was placed at a spot just below where one of the highest turbines will be located.  A 500ft turbine situated at over 2500ft, surely that will blend in well with the landscape?

A toast was given and Janet Donelly read out this moving eulogy:

We have come here today because we are the lucky ones. We are lucky because we are the last generation who remember and who have had a chance to be inspired by the Scottish landscape and everything it represents.

Take a moment now to look around you – really take in what you can see because this may be the last time that you will be able to experience that extraordinary feeling that comes when we feel ourselves dwarfed by the magnificence and splendour of the unspoilt wild land around us.

As more and more swathes of the Scottish wilderness are pillaged in the name of sustainability, we mourn their loss as if they were dearly loved friends who taught us valuable lessons in life like the fact that there is more to life than 9 to 5, the daily grind and keeping up with the Jones’s. Up here we permit ourselves to escape just for a little while and allow the splendid isolation to lift our spirits as the realisation dawns that we are indeed just a tiny speck on this incredible planet.

This land is in our hands, in trust for our children and our children’s children and if the politicians and the fat cats have their way, they will look back on our stewardship of the land and hang their heads in shame.

The politicians would have us believe that there is no other way and nobody denies that something must be done to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and nuclear power but we contend that the destruction of the Scottish landscape for ever is not the answer.

The technology is flawed, the sums don’t add up and the claims of large scale onshore wind power station supporters just don’t stand up to scrutiny. Add to that the news that we – the taxpayer have paid nearly a million pounds to the turbine owners to switch them off at times of peak output and we have the makings of a first class farce.

It isn’t funny though – nobody is laughing – unless you count those on their way to the bank. Let’s call a halt to the desecration of our wild landscape and the knee jerk reaction that says ‘do something – anything and we’ll think about the consequences later.

John Muir said: “Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean”

I invite you all to look around you now and try to work out where you will go to wash your spirit clean when all of this is gone.

Could you all please raise your glasses – hip flasks – mess tins, whatever you’ve brought with you?

A toast:

To the wilderness – may it continue to inspire us, arouse passion in us and provide sustenance for our souls. May those who seek to destroy it hear the voices of those for whom it is an integral part of life and may it long be regarded as an asset rather than a resource.

The Wilderness.

A fitting tribute before everyone assembled went their separate ways, many returning the long way back to their vehicles, carrying the coffin back down with them.  Suddenly it was just myself and Alan left and he borrowed my mobile phone to do an impromptu interview with the Times.  The result being a piece in the paper the following day.  It appears on his blog here.

We walked to the end of the track where Alan continued on his TGO Challenge and I sat in a hut for a bite to eat.  The weather was beginning to change and quickly.  Thankfully the weather had been good for the whole day of the wake, but it looked like it may come back with a vengeance just as I was about to cross the 800 metre contour.  When I was about to leave the shelter of the hut three Challengers turned up who were looking to call it a day, they decided to stay the night there.  I set off on a compass bearing, suddenly alone in this huge open landscape.

If you are agoraphobic then the Monadhliath are probably not for you!  I am not sure that I would fancy crossing them in poor visibility as I would image it would be easy to get yourself ‘temporarily misplaced’.  Luckily the clouds were just above the tops as I crested the final peaty rise and started the long gentle meandering descent towards the Findhorn river.  Initially the going was rough and I found myself frequently sitting to rest my by now tired legs.  However I soon unlocked the secret to walking these hills, that being the watercourses.  The banks of the streams are usually nice and grassy, giving relatively easy going.  I was soon making good progress down the Allt Odhar Mor.

This in turn brought me to a track that descends the length of the scenic Allt Calder.  Next to the track I Spotted a lovely patch of cropped green turf and thought that it looked a most excellent place to pitch for the night.  After backpacking in the Highlands for many years I am well aware of the presence of ticks and have a little ritual I always perform before pitching a tent.  I crouch down and waft my hands over the vegetation on which I plan to pitch.  A good couple of minutes coming into contact with as much vegetation as possible, another tick obsessed friend and I call this the ‘tick test’.  To a casual observer it probably looks a little bit odd!  Anyway after a couple of minutes fondling the grass I looked at my palms and they were clear.  Brilliant I thought, I will pitch here.  I then noticed the back of my hands which were covered in loads of tiny ticks.  Hmmm maybe not, I washed my hands in the stream and moved on.  I repeated this a couple of times down the Calder with similar results, whilst at the same time becoming a bit tired and grumpy.  In the end I decided to continue to the Findhorn and walked the length of Allt Calder which apart from the numerous ticks was rather lovely.

A few tents were scattered around the bridge when I reached the sublime valley that houses the Findhorn.  I spied a patch of grass that was so short that ticks would probably avoid it, I did my odd little ritual and found it free from the pesky things.  I was soon in my tent, water boiling for coffee and feeling totally zonked out.

A stunning spot but the weather soon closed in with a strong wind blowing down the valley, carrying a light rain.  As usual my tent hardly budged in the increasing gusts and I spent a cosy evening relaxing with a good book.  I slept well in the knowledge that a short easy day to a remote bothy was to follow, I could have a well-earned lie-in!

Day 6 – 13.6 miles with 570 metres ascent

I woke bleary eyed at about 9.00am after a good long sleep.  All the other tents that had been pitched the night before had gone when I poked my head out of the door.  A strong wind still blew down the valley but at least the constant rain had stopped, replaced by the odd shower.  Making coffee, the three guys who spent the previous night in the shooting hut high in the hills passed by.  They said that it had been a wild night with strong winds and heavy rain, the hut proving to be a bit leaky.  They had been walking since about 6.00am and there was a comment about the fact I was still in my tent!  Filled with noodles and coffee I was soon packed and walking down the track towards Coignafearn old lodge, helped along by the wind pushing at my back.  Passing the lodge the public road was reached but it still remained a delight walking through this lovely remote valley.

The Findhorn was crossed by a sturdy bridge and I headed towards the ruins at Coignafeuinternich, where flattened grass showed that a few tents had been pitched the night before.  A good place to pitch as the small plantation would have provided shelter from the worst of the wind.  My vetters said that the Allt a Mhuilinn could be difficult to cross if in spate, but even though it appeared to have rained constantly for nearly a week river levels had mostly been ok.  I got across without getting my slippers wet and continued along the track that snakes its way into the valley.  Then the sunshine was almost instantly replaced by a heavy shower, appearing out of nowhere.  This would set the scene for the day, waterproofs on then off until I got fed up and left them on.

As usual for these parts the track continued further up the glen than marked on the map, leading to a bit of confusion.  I overshot my planned means of escape from the valley and ended up making a direct ascent of the 713m moorland lump of An Cabhsair.  Suddenly a grouse shot from under my feet and I missed the nest full of eggs by inches, thankfully I did not crush anything.  The guys from earlier that morning passed by as I sat for a while getting my breath back, taking in the extensive panorama.  The view reminded me a bit of Bleaklow, rolling moors in all directions as far as the eye can see.  The difference being that the scale of the Monadhliath is breathtaking, the hills are higher and the distances greater.  These hills roll on for miles and miles and the sense of space is almost overwhelming.  I really felt like I was in the middle of nowhere and miles from civilisation.  My sort of landscape.

My plan was to head towards the bothy located next to the Allt Spioradail for the night, however the day was still young.  It would be a waste of a sunny (although very windy) day to sit in a bothy so I decided to miss it out and stay high on the hills for as long as possible.  Instead I made for Carn na Guaille which was a small rise on the horizon, I regretted this decision after about ten minutes as the going was rough.  Bog and tussocks made for slow going and I was cursing until I spotted the grassy banks of the Allt Steallaig which took me eventually to a little hut next to the Allt an Tudair.  As I approached the hut the skies turned a menacing shade of black and it absolutely threw it down.  I legged it to the door and swore a bit when I discovered it was firmly locked!  Feeling rejected I sat in the lee of the hut and cooked some noodles, water dripping on me from the roof above.

The weather for the rest of the day was set, nice periods of sunshine followed by brief but vicious showers, pushed along by a rather keen wind.  I reached the Red Bothy and thought about pitching outside but the wind was far too strong.  The sleeping platform inside was already occupied so I decided to push on.  The surroundings were nice though and would make an ideal pitch in less windy conditions.

I continued on down the Dulnain stopping briefly to chat to a Challenger who announced he was just off to have a poo!  He was the last person I would see that day as I entered a magical world of grassy meadows, Scotts pine and Juniper.  The owners of Caggan have an enviable spot and the house looked smart and well cared for, I jealously passed by resisting the temptation to have a nosey.  The buildings of Eil on the map were now just a few low walls reclaimed by nature.  The mountains were receding behind me but the scenery along this stretch of the Dulnain was probably my favourite of the whole crossing.

I was keen to get pitched but the wind was still roaring down the valley, totally unimpeded.  A small stream was marked coming from the west so I decided to head for that.  When I got there I found a magical spot next to a thicket of juniper, it was still windy but as sheltered as it was going to get.  My tick test on the springy turf found none of the little beasties so the Scarp1 was soon up with me lounging inside.  With the sun shining it was lovely and warm inside and I was probably the happiest I had been during the whole challenge.  Looking back it was my favourite moment of the two weeks.  The weather was good, the location perfect and my spirits high.  I read, tweeted and spoke to my partner back at home.  Totally relaxed I had a great nights sleep.

Day 7 – 7.7 miles with 220 metres ascent

There was a distinct lack of the sound of rain pitter pattering on my fly sheet when I awoke, even the sun was still shining!  I was in no hurry to move as I had already covered a few miles of todays planned route.  I lounged around eating and drinking, feeling content in my surroundings.  As I sat there with a fairly empty head my eyes focused on a large black beetle that was slowly making its way from the juniper bushes to my tent.  It took a while but when it finally entered my porch I noticed something rather odd about it.  It was absolutely covered in what looked like ticks!  The little buggers had commandeered a vehicle to invade my tent.  The beetle was quickly evicted.  I have since looked on the internet and it turns out the suspected ticks could well be mites.  Not 100% what they were but the beetle appeared to be the loser.

Black clouds were slowly gathering once again on the horizon and I was keen to be able to pack away a dry tent.  I was soon on my way, walking the banks of the Dulnain river.  My plan had originally been to follow the river downstream to a bridge.  However water levels were reasonably low so I went for a wade instead, crossing with ease although the water was cold as it lapped my shins.  As I reached the dilapidated cottage of Dalnahaitnach the weather turned and the rain fell heavily.

I now just had an easy walk to Boat of Garten via General Wades military road.  Crossing low heather moors the sun was soon out again giving good views of the lower Monadhliath hills.

As I crossed the busy A9 I had a sense that I was leaving the west behind and entering the Eastern Highlands.  Half of the walk was over and I was relieved to have made it this far.  I had been lucky with the weather whilst crossing the Monadliath mountains, they would have been a bit of a test in bad conditions.  I had my fingers crossed that the second week would see conditions start to settle.

Passing through some woods on the way into Boat of Garten I passed this old cottage, it really reminded me of something out of Deliverance, all that was missing was someone in dungarees playing the banjo!

I was soon at the B&B that I had booked where another food parcel and a bottle of meths for my stove were waiting.  I was now building up a bit of a stock pile of food as my supplies were still going strong, I probably should have ditched some of it but somehow it felt wrong to throw away camping food.  I had emailed the owner of the B&B a few weeks previous to ask if they could get me a bottle of meths, as when I phoned all the listed shops in the village no one stocked it.  I was a bit embarrassed to find he had purchased it from the shop directly across the road, the only shop I had not phoned!

Clothes and body were washed and I did a bit of dozing and reading of the paper.  It was that evening that my arms and hands started itching a bit, at the time I really did not think much of it……………

June 1, 2011

TGO Challenge 2011 – Days 1 to 4

by backpackingbongos

I have to admit that the TGO Challenge has been my backpacking nemesis.  I completed the ‘half’ crossing in 2001 during the foot and mouth outbreak and returned for a full crossing in 2003, where it slapped me in the face.  After fours days of heavy rain it all got too much for me and I decided to call it a day and head home.  The Challenge has been at the back of my mind ever since but I never re-applied as I did not want to go through that sense of failure again.  However last October I found myself applying once more, would 2011 be the year that I got across?  Surely the weather would play ball this time?

I hardly slept a wink on the Wednesday night, my mind plagued with anxiety.  Had I forgotten to pack something important?  Would my trains the following day work out ok or would I miss my connections?  I was up at 5.00am the following morning to catch my first train on the long journey north.  Everything went smoothly and boarding my second train at Manchester I was glad to have spent that extra £5 to travel to Glasgow first class.  I wish that all rail travel could be like the 4 hours spent on that train.  Loads of room, nice and quiet with coffee, sandwiches and biscuits brought to my seat throughout the journey.

It was tipping it down when I arrived in Glasgow and I had a couple of hours to kill and no desire to go window shopping.  I loaded up with food and found a quiet spot in the bus station, keen that under no circumstances was I going to miss the bus to Shiel Bridge.  Waiting in the queue to board I was tapped on the shoulder and a woman asked if I was a Challenger.  She said that she was in disguise having been to a meeting that day, her kit waiting with her husband at Shiel bridge.  I had expected the bus to have been full of backpackers, where were they all hiding considering that I had chosen the most popular start point?  Frank from Germany joined the bus at the airport, easily recognisable with his Cuben fibre rucksack.  We sat and chatted about our routes and gear on the long five-hour journey.

The highlands passed in a blur of grey, heavy rain obscuring the views.  It was hard to imagine that a whole month had recently passed without a cloud in the sky, wild fires burning the mountains.  The rain was sheeting it down as I left the bus outside the Kintail lodge, I was glad that all those months ago I had decided to book myself a single room and start the Challenge in luxury.  The hotel bar was heaving with challengers who all appeared to leave promptly at 9.00pm, I ended up having a sociable evening with another ‘first timer’ who’s name has completely escaped me.

Day 1 – 12 miles with 670 metres ascent

I awoke to sunshine and a slightly fuzzy head, glad that the surrounding mountains had decided to reveal their summits.  As I fumbled my way down to breakfast there was a large gathering in the reception as Challengers called in to sign the start register.  As I sat and ate, lines of them walked past the window all heading in the same direction.  By the time that I had packed and checked out it was gone 10.00am and it looked like I would be the last to leave that morning.  This set a precedent for the rest of the Challenge, whether wild camping, in a campsite or at a b&b I would always be the last one to set off by at least an hour!

I walked down to Loch Duich on my own to dip my feet in the salt water, in the back of my mind I realised that I had an awfully long way to walk before doing the same thing on the other side of Scotland.

My original plan for the day had been to walk to Alltbeithe YHA via the Bealach an Sgairne with a possible excursion to the Munro A’Ghlas-bheinn.  However already the clouds were gathering and looking menacing to the west, so I decided on the easy option and headed into Gleann Lichd.  No sooner had I done so the heavens opened.

The weather played a game with me.  As soon as a heavy shower cleared I would stop to take off my waterproof trousers.  I would manage to walk a few hundred metres and another blast of rain would hit me.  In the end I gave up the one-legged balancing act and just kept the damn things on.  The sheep in the valley were quick to approach on the look out for a titbit.

Gleann Lichd is a beauty with a good flat low-level track which you can blast up quickly.  The mountains rise steeply from the valley floor and I soon felt like I was in the middle of nowhere.

Glenlicht house sits in an enviable position at the head of the valley and I sought shelter from the wind against its sturdy walls.  Sadly it is locked but there is a wooden shed that can be used for emergency shelter.  I chatted briefly to another Challenger who was clearly struggling under one of the biggest packs that I have ever seen, it towered high over his head.  He wobbled off whilst I stood for a while looking at the route ahead as it climbs 300 metres to a pass under Beinn Fhada.

I could not put of the inevitable any longer so shouldered my pack and set off up the well-engineered path, quickly gaining height the views behind soon opened up.

The path was a joy to walk, a few inches wide it only revealed itself a few metres at a time as it twisted and turned though the dramatic landscape.  All of a sudden I was face to face with a large spectacular waterfall, pounding its way down from the hills.  Its size can truly be appreciated when you spot the figures in the photo below just above the left stream.

The path soon left the confines of the gorge and entered more open country, surrounded by rugged mountains on all sides.  I began to start catching up with the Challengers who had left whilst I was eating breakfast and passed the time chatting.  Everyone it seemed was heading for Alltbeithe that night, would it squeeze everyone in?

It is years since I last passed Camban bothy, back then it was a bit of a hovel, somewhere to stay only in an emergency.  Recently the MBA have done a stirling job at doing it up and each room now comes equipped with bunks.  I stopped for a while to remove my shoes and socks which steamed in a corner whilst I ate a late lunch.  The key to wearing unlined footwear in wet conditions is to give your feet a chance to breathe at least once during the day.  Mine were definitely grateful for the airing.

Camban is in a truly spectacular setting and I was reluctant to leave it as I headed towards the fleshpots of Alltbeithe YHA.  The two bothy inhabitants had been lounging on their bunks all day, not feeling inspired enough to hit the hills in the changeable conditions.  I am sure that they had plenty of visitors that day as groups of Challengers passed through.

Another squall of rain pushed me towards the hostel, which sits on its own in the middle of nowhere.  I received a warm welcome from the warden who told me to grab a bunk in the building around the back.  To say that I was disappointed with what I got for the £22 which I had spent many months ago is a bit of a understatement.  The dorm is a glorified wooden bothy with bunks sleeping 10 people in a tiny room, it probably would have been more comfy back at Camban.  I claimed a rickety bunk and headed back to the main hostel building which thankfully is much more cosy and comfy.  The warden does a stirling job keeping things going in such a remote location, miles from the nearest road.  A very sociable evening was spent in the kitchen with large numbers of challengers keeping warm by the stove.  In fact it got so busy that it was like a strange game of twister trying to prepare a meal or hot drink.

Outside the rain absolutely lashed it down, the wind roaring down the valley.  As dusk arrived I noticed that the tops of the hills were now dusted with snow, the level of which kept getting lower and lower.  In the end I was thankful that I was not camping outside and I lay in my bunk listening to the weather rage on outside.

Day 2 – 11.9 miles with 550 metres ascent

I ended up having probably one of my worst ever nights sleep.  I sleep lightly and the smallest noise can keep me awake.  Somewhere in the darkness of the dorm was a snoring goliath, his nocturnal rumblings eventually drowning out the sound of the weather outside.  I almost considered smothering him whilst he slept but realised that an act like that may well get me disqualified from the Challenge and would probably come up on my next CRB check for work.  It felt like that as soon as sleep eventually came everyone else was up and about making a right old racket.  I looked at my watch and it was 6.00am.  Bastards.  I waited for an hour or so until most were on their merry way before heading to make breakfast.  What is it with Challengers feeling they need to be off at the crack of dawn?  It’s light until at least 10.00pm so plenty of daylight!

The hills were hidden in a mantle of grey that morning and the burns were full to bursting, the wind pushing curtains of rain down the valley.  I lingered as long as possible in the warm kitchen chatting to the warden until the inevitable could no longer be put off.  Thankfully the wind was behind me as I staggered off down the valley.  I was soon faced with an overflowing stream without a bridge, nothing for it but to wade through, the icy water stinging my feet.  Glen Affric however is simply magnificent.

Passing the cottages at Athnamulloch the rain finally stopped and the sun came out.  I was wet, tired and already hungry so stopped for a while to remove my shoes and socks and get a bite to eat.  Almost as soon as I had done so the rain advanced once more down the valley, its grey veils blotting out the beautiful hills.  Along the track above Loch Affric I put my head down and got on with the business of walking west and was soon at the end of the loch.  Here I met a couple of Challengers, one of which had already decided to call it a day and retire from the Challenge, the conditions being tougher than he had anticipated.

The firmness of the track was left behind on the path ascending alongside the Allt Garbh.  Initially it was a pleasure to be on a narrow path twisting through the deep heather, but it soon ended in a boggy morass.  It was a pretty awful kilometre or so, disappearing up to my shins in a watery peaty mess.  The scenery as ever was outstanding with stands of Scotts pines in the foregrounds and rugged mountains behind.

The path soon climbed and joined a track heading towards a scenic loch.  From looking at the map I expected the next couple of miles to be a bit of a boring trudge but the scenery was lovely as the track twisted and turned though small knolls.

A grassy ledge next to the loch was already occupied by an Akto even at this early hour as I passed by.  I was keen to get out of my waterproofs so pushed on quickly to Cougie where I had booked myself a bed and dinner for the night.  Cougie is often touted as a place you must visit on the Challenge with the hospitality being legendary.  I received a very warm welcome from Val when I entered the kitchen and I was soon sitting at the large table drinking coffee and eating a fried egg sandwich in the company of loads of Challengers.  A guy at the table asked me if I had a dog, strange I thought, do I smell like one?  It turned out that he recognised me from this blog, with good old Reuben the Staffy often featuring on my posts.  Sort of fame at last!  Sorry mate if you are reading this I have forgotten your name (along with just about every other challenger I met along the way).

I asked Val about the room I had booked and a look of horror crossed her face.  She remembered my booking but as she has been very ill recently she had not noted my reservation and her little bunkhouse was now full.  No need to panic though as I was soon found a place in her son’s house.  This was an interesting building which he had built entirely by his own hands, apparently it started life as a caravan and organically took shape from there!

In the end Val managed to tuck 14 Challengers into the many buildings around Cougie and everyone managed to cram into the homely kitchen for dinner that evening.  A very convivial couple of hours in the warmth of Val’s kitchen.  At the end of the evening she asked everyone what time they would like breakfast and would we be ok if it took place in two sittings.  There was a clammer as most people wanted breakfast as early as possible, 7.00am was the first sitting.  7.00am? not for me I’m on my holidays.  I gladly went for the second sitting!

Day 3 – 13 miles with 620 metres ascent

Most challengers were setting off for the day when I headed down for breakfast and I spend a pleasant hour in Val’s kitchen.  They do self catering in the little bunkhouse and I think that one day I will return when in the Highlands, a friendly place in a nice remote spot.

The matriarchs of Cougie………….

As the morning ticked along only myself and David were left hanging around, avoiding setting off into the rain.  We were both heading in the same direction so decided that we would walk together.  Both of our planned routes took us through the forest after Loch na Beinne Moire and down to the river Enrick.  However we had both been told separately by different inhabitants of Cougie that the path though the forest did not exist and should be avoided.  There was only one thing for it, a high level moorland route to Loch ma Stac.

An easy plod down the track to Hilton Lodge was followed by a climb through the forest on what had probably been a busy route to Fort Augustus earlier that morning.  Almost all of the inhabitants of Cougie the night before were heading that way.  The higher we climbed the lower the mist descended upon the surrounding peaks, until finally we were enveloped and then soaked by a fine constant drizzle.  Typically by the time we had arrived at the chosen spot to ‘go off-road’ visibility was down to a few metres.  A compass bearing was taken in the direction of Loch nan Eun and we squelched off across the rough invisible moor.  Surely it would be impossible to miss such a large loch in the mist?

Thankfully both compasses did not lie and a slight lifting of the mist gave us a bleak view of the loch.

It was pretty hard going walking along its shores but there was a bleak raw beauty to the place, a quiet remote spot well worth the effort.  The ebbing and flowing of the mist added to the eerie quality.

Loch ma Stac was less than a couple of miles away on the map but we both quickly realised that it would take some time to reach it.  The ground was doing its best in impersonating a really lumpy soggy mattress and the going was slow.

The ground looked like this for pretty much the entire crossing!

Finally the loch appeared after we crossed a low ridge, we walked and walked and walked but it never seemed to get any closer!  By now the roughness of the walking was getting to me and I was keen to pitch my tent and remove my sodden footwear.  I had heard that quite a lot of challengers have camped next to the loch in the past, looking at the mass of bog and tussocks I really could not imagine where.

Finally we reached the north end with its strange tower located on a small island.  By now the wind had began to pick up and it was clear that a camp on this side of the loch would be out of the question if we wanted a peaceful nights sleep.  A narrow causeway led to the tower which we were keen to explore.  There were places to pitch right next to it, sheltered from the wind but the structure looked like it had seen better days.  Neither of us fancied concussion, or worse from falling masonry so decided to seek a spot somewhere along the river Enrick.

Climbing an old overgrown track I gave a final glance towards the wilds surrounding Loch Ma Stac.  It is sad to think that such a beautifully desolate place may soon be covered in 500ft whirring towers.  Sure, the Balmacaan forest may not be the most widely visited spot in the highlands but can it not just be left for its own sake?

We were now keen to find a spot to pitch the tents for the night as once again the skies darkened threatening rain.  A mile or so along the track I spotted a large green patch among the rough heather, my fingers crossed that it was not boggy or infested with ticks.  It turned out to be perfect, flat, close to water and reasonably sheltered from the prevailing wind.  I got the Scarp1 up in a few minutes and was soon comfortable inside, making a hot drink.  David on the other hand was an Akto perfectionist and spent what felt like hours adjusting and readjusting his tent to get it taut.  He seemed mightily perturbed that my Scarp1 did not budge an inch in the breeze, whilst his Akto flapped around a bit!

It was good to be ensconced in my tent for my first wild camp on the challenge and I enjoyed laying there listening to the gentle pitter patter of rain on the fly.

Day 4 – 14.3 miles with 510 metres ascent

In the end the promised heavy rain and gale force winds failed to materialise although I woke up to the usual grey and damp conditions, a light rain falling on and off.  We had decided to camp reasonably high so that we were still in a position to do a high level crossing of the wild interior of the Balmacaan forest.  However with the clouds sitting on the hills and a rough introduction the day before, we were both of the opinion that it would be better to stay low.

We made good progress down the track next to the River Enrick, passing a signpost pointing towards a perfectly good path.  This was the path that supposedly did not exist!  Well our fault for listening to non hill-walking experts I suppose.  Shortly afterwards we came across a lovely dilapidated old building, we stopped and poked our noses through the unlocked door.  Inside was a gem of a bothy, clean and comfortable with a good supply of firewood.  We both cursed the fact that we were less than a couple of miles away the night before.  The bothy would have been a lovely place to spend the night.

Some pretty vicious rain showers followed us down the track towards Glen Urquhart, the sky first turning black, the advancing rain then blotting out the views in grey curtains.

The route into Drumnadrochit is a tale of many forestry tracks but thankfully it was not as dull to walk as it looks on the map.  Our paths crossed with that of many Challengers and was a sociable affair.  The only person I saw wearing shorts on the whole crossing was spotted removing a tick from his thigh.  He may well have just hung a sign around his neck saying, ‘Tick feeding station’.  You have to be a tick lover to wear shorts in the West Highlands at this time of year!

David who I spent a couple of days walking with is a Policeman from Devon.  We had a good lengthy chat on the way into Drum where he patiently answered my barrage of questions about Policing.  I have to admit to holding some so-called ‘anti establishment’ type views so I hope that this did not come out too much.  If it did David took it all with good nature!

I went about planning my TGO challenge by splitting the whole thing into four separate backpacks.  This made things much less daunting in my mind as basically I was just doing four long weekend backpacks tacked together.  Drumnadrochit signaled the end of the first backpack.  Here I was to be rewarded with a nice double bed all to myself, laundry, a meal in a restaurant and a food parcel.  You need to treat yourself on a long backpack!  The following day would mean an early start as I was booked on the first crossing of Loch Ness.  A quick pace would then be needed to join Alan Sloman’s ‘Wake for the Wild.  For years I have wanted to head into the bleak wild depths of the Monadhliath, I was finally going to get to realise my dream…………..

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