May 24, 2015

TGO Challenge 2015 – Days 1 to 3

by backpackingbongos

I initially felt pretty smug sitting alone in the first class train carriage. It had only cost a few quid more than standard and I was enjoying the extra space along with the complimentary food and drink. I made sure that I got my money’s worth. The smile however was wiped off my face just outside Penrith when there was a points failure. We sat without moving for over an hour and I became anxious that I would miss my connection at Glasgow for the Oban train. The hour and a half I had given myself in Glasgow shrank to twenty minutes and it was a frantic dash between the two stations.

It was a tight squeeze on the Oban train and it was difficult to avoid playing footsie with the young woman sitting across the table from me. There were a few Challengers in the carriage and the journey passed quickly with chat whilst enjoying the scenery as the train slowly chugged its way towards the west coast.

I had picked a hotel pretty much next door to the signing out point at the Oban Youth Hostel, a fair distance from the train station. As is usual in the Highlands my room was overpriced for what I got (I was in the Oban Best Western) and I slept badly to a cacophony of slamming doors and the sound of snoring from next door. I had the usual pre Challenge nerves mixed with excitement. I couldn’t wait to set off the following morning and head towards the east coast.

 

Day 1 – 27 kilometres with 550 metres ascent

Day 1

(Click map to enlarge)

It was nearly 10am by the time I signed out, well behind the main pack of Oban starters, most of whom appeared to sign out bang on 9am. This mean that I spent much of the day walking on my own. One thing that always surprises me is just how early other Challengers manage to be hiking by. I do like a lie-in in the morning and throughout the whole Challenge I was rarely walking before 9.30am.

I quickly dipped a toe in the water opposite the Youth Hostel and set off along the road.

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A significant part of the day was spent walking through Glen Lonan along a minor road. Road walking is something that I usually try to avoid at all costs. However the road was quiet and the scenery pleasant. Best of all it headed in an easterly direction and the climbing was minimal. Gorse perfumed the verges and Highland coo’s grazed the fields. I caught up with a couple of Challengers I had chatted with the evening before, eating lunch with them on a bridge. Otherwise it was a solo yomp.

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The cafe in Taynuilt provided a second lunch before I set off to find the track to the swing bridge across the River Awe. This is a great structure, providing a bit of bounce as you walk across the middle section.

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I have to admit that I was tiring as I started along the track on the east side of Loch Etive. My pack was heavy with five days food and enough fuel to last me for two weeks. With very little fitness training before setting off my body was complaining. However the scenery more than compensated, the eye being drawn down the loch to the mountains in the distance.

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The spot that I had chosen to camp was already occupied by several tents, one of the disadvantages of being a late starter. Instead I carried on for a mile or so and climbed up onto a wooded hill as recommended by Robin from Blogpackinglight. It turned out to be a superb spot, flat, dry and sheltered. I avoided camping close to any trees that looked like they were close to retirement, tough as they all looked ancient and were covered in moss and lichen.

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I finally felt that I could relax, the travelling and first day were behind me. It was now simply a case of putting one foot in front of the other for thirteen more days without falling over.

 

Day 2 – 25.5 kilometres with 550 metres ascent

Day 2

(Click map to enlarge)

Something visited my tent at some point near dawn, there was the sound of snuffling coming from the side that my food was stored. I shouted ‘go away’ and whatever it was did.

My original route plan was to climb a couple of Munros to the south of Glen Kinglass. However it was evident that the ridges were still covered by snow. I did not fancy tackling them in trailshoes and without ice axe and crampons. My low-level alternative was just as attractive in the warm sunshine anyway. It would also give me the opportunity to build up some fitness (and lighten my pack by eating some of the food).

Loch Etive was splendid and I took my time on the roller coaster of a track as it rose and fell and twisted along the loch shore. I’m going to have to return for a hill bagging expedition of the pointy peaks on either side.

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Glen Kinglass was also beautiful but it went on and on and on. Walking for hours it felt like I was not getting any closer to the lodge. The feeling of remoteness was rather spoilt by the solid track and the wooden electricity pylons marching their way up the glen. The warmth along with the hard surface soon led to hot spots on my feet, despite wearing trailshoes.

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Finally the lodge was passed and the track started to climb towards the watershed. The views over the Black Mount hills were spectacular as the path gained height. Patches of snow on the higher slopes shone bright under the blue sky.

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I had planned to camp next to Loch Dochard but everywhere I looked was either tussocks or bog. However it was good to sit for a while by the still waters and gaze out over the mountains.

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I soon passed a Golite SL3 pitched in a spectacular spot on a bluff looking out over the glen. However it was being buffeted by a strong wind and I was aware that the weather was due to change for the worse during the night. I decided not to join what was likely to be another Challenger and continued down the glen.

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Finally a flat and well drained spot was found close to where the Allt Ghabhar bridge used to be. With the early evening sun and a gentle breeze it was a delightful pitch. I was glad to get my shoes off and tend to my feet that felt battered after another long day mostly on hard surfaces. They were looking forward to getting stuck into the wet bogs later in the trip.

The first part of the night was spent with the door open, looking out to the hills to the west as I lay comfortable in my down bag.

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Day 3 – 18.5 kilometres with 190 metres ascent

Day 3

(Click map to enlarge)

The rain came as forecast in the night, a thick drizzle that sounded worse than it was. In the grey morning whilst still laying in my bag I heard a ‘Good morning’ being shouted from close by, possibly the occupant of a red Hilleberg that had been pitched next to the Allt Suil na Curra the night before.

There is nothing worse than getting up in the rain to find the en-suite for the morning ablutions. I set off into the forest and bumped into the Challenger who had been occupying the SL3 the evening before. He confirmed that it had been an exposed spot (it was nice and still when he had pitched in the afternoon). Back at my tent I had a couple of coffees and breakfast before forcing myself to pack up and head out for a day in the rain.

To start with the rain was soft as I made my way towards Victoria Bridge. I was due to phone in when I crossed the A82 but was unsure if there would be a good enough signal. Luckily I came across John and Sue who I had first met at Mar Lodge during the 2013 Challenge. They were heading to the Bridge of Orchy Hotel to pick up a parcel. They kindly offered to let control know that all was ok when they phoned in there.

The rain stopped for a while as I walked along the north shore of Loch Tulla, a wood at its eastern end giving shelter for lunch. A kilometre walk south along the A82 was probably one of the most dangerous stretches of the whole two weeks. It’s a fast stretch of road and vehicles thundered past.

The rain returned with a vengeance along the track to Gorton bothy. The wind picked up and my world shrank to a small window through my hood as water fell from the sky in great gusty sheets. The last hour to the bothy was endured rather than enjoyed.

The occupant of the red Hilleberg from the night before was already at the bothy and we were soon joined by another Challenger who I had passed on the track. It was tempting to stay the night in the bothy as conditions outside were pretty horrendous. However I am a solitary creature, especially at night and it was clear that many others would be heading the same way. I therefore decided to go out and pitch close to the bothy. I got the Scarp up, fetched water and was quickly inside stripping off soaking clothing. I was soon dry and warm and decided that I would not venture out until morning. I watched another challenger pitch some ultralight contraption that simply flapped around in the wind. I was glad that I had the solid walls of the Scarp between myself and the weather.

The rain hammered upon silnylon all night.

May 6, 2015

Off on the TGO Challenge 2015

by backpackingbongos

My rucksack is packed and my shoes are by the front door. Tomorrow is the long train journey to Oban.

I may do a bit of blogging on the trail from ‘Backpackingbongos blogging on the move’ you can find it here.

I have also created a Social Hiking map thingy where you can view other Challengers as they move their way across Scotland. Link to that here.

Bye for now.

May 3, 2015

Gear for the TGO Challenge 2015

by backpackingbongos

I thought that it would be good to briefly deviate from my ‘no gear’ blog policy for a bit and do a post on what will be accompanying me on this years Challenge. Still no spreadsheet though!

Packing

My pack will be the Aiguille Mountain Dru 50L + 10L. I have been using this since last Autumn and so far have been impressed by the way it carries. It’s a basic sack made out of old-fashioned bomb proof materials but still weighs in at less than 1.4kg. It has a floating lid which I like but no side pockets. I have therefore added a lightweight Granite Gear one to the side compression straps. Items needed during the day will fit in that and the lid pocket. A MLD Shoulder Strap Pocket on either side holds a 500ml water bottle and my Spot2 tracker device. I do like a good waterproof stuff sack so there are various sizes and models for clothes, food, sleeping bag, electronics etc. Probably overkill and extra weight but I know what goes where and whats in each one.

Aiguille produce their packs in a workshop in Staveley with a retail unit on site. It’s good to buy from the UK for once rather than overpriced packs from the US which are then subject to customs charges.

Sleeping

My sleeping bag is the PHD Hispar 500. Despite a recent wash it is past its best and the down no longer lofts as it should. It is fine as long as the temps don’t drop much lower than freezing.

My pad is the Therm-a-Rest Prolite regular. After using an Exped Downmat over the winter it felt a bit cold and uncomfortable when backpacking last weekend. It’s my only other mat though and don’t want to splash out on a new one.

Shelter

It’s my third Challenge and the third time I will be taking along the Tarptent Scarp1. It’s reasonably light, easy to put up and proven in wind and rain. I will not be taking the crossing poles this time though. It was warm and sunny on Friday so I spent time giving the seams a bit more TLC with some diluted Silnet.

Cooking

I have used a Jetboil Sol Aluminium for several years and really rate it. It is quick and easy to use and frugal with gas. I sometimes like to make a coffee and cooked lunch and this does so without much effort. To see me through the two weeks I’m going to take two 230g bottles of gas. The first opportunity that I will have to restock gas will be Braemar, one canister won’t last me that far.

I have a homemade pot cozy to save on fuel.

Clothes and footwear worn

After spending a year in leather boots I have decided to go back to using trail shoes. This time I will be wearing Salomon Fellraiser. They did a 40 mile backpack last weekend and I had no issues with blisters or sore spots. Who knows what they will be like on Scottish mountains and bogs for nearly 200 miles.

Socks will be Xsocks Expedition Short, they fit me well, are warm and dry quickly.

Trousers are Montane Terra pack Pants, a lighter version of the popular Terra pants.

Shreddies are Finisterre Keel Boxer. The Merino keeps me fresher for a bit longer!

Base layer is the Rab Meco 165. I have worn this on every backpack over the past year. Love it.

If cool I like to wear a 100 weight fleece rather than an overpriced softshell, they are also good under a waterproof shell. I’m taking an ancient North Face one.

Waterproof top is a Rab Myriad Jacket. I think its OK rather than brilliant. It is let down by not having an external storm flap. Water resistant zips are rubbish in my opinion. Very breathable though.

Waterproof trousers are Rab Xiom Pants. Not the best I have ever used, legs feel damp in heavy rain as not brilliantly breathable. Not splashing out on anything new yet.

Clothes Carried

Another pair of Montane Terra pack Pants, I like to have something clean for civilisation.

Another pair of Finisterre Keel Boxer.

Two more pairs of Xsocks Expedition Short.

A warm Arc’teryx fleecy base layer to sleep in (no idea of the model).

Finisterre Zephyr Long Johns to sleep in.

A Sherpa beanie for my head.

Finally I am taking my PHD Yukon hooded down jacket to ensure that I am toasty in camp.

Odds and Sods

My camera will be my trusty Lumix G3.

I always backpack with a Kindle and a Powergen battery charger.

Five 1:50k OS maps and two print outs will get me across the highlands. I’ll post the maps home as I go along.

Poles are Black Diamond Trail Trekking.

First aid kit is homemade.

There are loads of other bits and pieces but I think I have included the main stuff. No idea what it all weighs yet, I will find out on Wednesday when I pack it. There is nothing that I want to leave behind so there is not much point in worrying about weight at this point. Still deciding whether to take spikes though.

May 2, 2015

Stronelairg – 5 snowy days in the Monadhliath pt1

by backpackingbongos

I had spent a couple of weeks meticulously planning a route through the Monadhliath for the Easter weekend. Mileage and ascent had all been taken into account to give me some realistic TGO Challenge training. However whilst just south of Glasgow on the drive up I changed my mind. Instead of starting from Loch Killin to the east of Loch Ness I decided on the easy option of a Garva Bridge start. It cut out a large chunk of driving, however it did mean heading into the hills without much of a plan. The Monadhliath are perfectly suited to this sort of aimless wandering though. As it turned out the change of plan was a good one. The high plateau was buried under deep snow making walking slow and tough. The long days I had planned would have been almost impossible.

The reason for a visit to this underrated part of the Highlands was to see a large area of wild land before it is buried under tonnes of steel and miles of new roads. Time for a stravaig through the site of the proposed Stronelairg wind farm before it is too late.

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Map of whole route – a bit of a slackpack in the end!

There is room for several cars just before the historic Garva bridge. Strangely, although the Stronelairg wind farm has been consented SSE (the developer) have not done a great deal of thinking how they will connect it to the grid. A recent proposal is to build a large electricity substation close to this spot, right on the boundary of the Cairngorms National Park. Add this to the giant pylons for the Beauly Denny line plus new pylons to the wind farm and you have one ugly environmental fuck up.

If you ignore the towering pylons and the huge scar of the access track it is still a beautiful spot dominated by the towering snow-clad peaks of the Glenshirra Forest. Crossing the Spey I passed the last person I would see for five days. He was operating some sort of surveying equipment, no doubt a plan to build something else tall and monstrous.

I was glad to leave the industrialisation behind as I climbed alongside the Feith Talagain, the track soon becoming a narrow trod through the snow-covered heather.

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I had to continue up alongside the river for a while before I could find a suitable spot to cross dry-shod. It was then a case of putting my head down and gritting my teeth on a tough climb through soft snow. This was not made any easier by carrying a heavy winter pack. At least the scenery gave me plenty of opportunities to stop and gawp whilst I got my breath back.

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After the long drive and a slow ascent it was getting late by the time I reached the Corbett summit of Meall na h-Aisre. The air was crystal clear below a thick layer of cloud, the sun shining through in a halo of light. The snow was crisp to walk through at height, the cold wind nipping at bare skin. I looked down at the area I would be walking over the next few days. A vast high snow-covered plateau, the west coast Munro’s providing a jagged backdrop. It was sad to think that a wind farm the size of Inverness could soon be filling this wild land, the earth torn up for the many miles of access roads that will need to be built.

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I descended north into this vast bowl, keeping east of the snow-covered and invisible Loch nan Sidhean. As I got lower the snow got softer and I would often find a leg disappearing up to the knee and occasionally up to the groin. It takes a bit of effort to extricate a fully buried leg when one remains above ground and with a pack on your back. Swearing seems to be the best way of getting out. I gingerly crossed the outflow of the loch which was buried under a drift of snow, snow bridges would be a common feature of the following few days.

I began to lose hope of finding a patch of ground that was either not covered in snow or frozen so solid that pegs would not penetrate. Finally a lumpy patch the size of a Trailstar was discovered and I wasted no time in erecting my shelter, fetching water from a mostly frozen stream and diving inside to get out of the wind.

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I spent much of the night cursing the fact that I had brought the Trailstar, rather than a four season tent with a full solid inner. All started off well but after dark the wind picked up. This was initially ok as the wind was from behind and the Trailstar is bomb proof in wind, even when pitched high like I had it. The problem started when the snow began to fall. The snow came in the form of tiny sand like grains, the wind blowing it through the gap along the bottom edge. This would whip around and settle on the netting above my head, body heat melting it. I lay there dreaming of a nice cosy tent. There may be a Trailstar with Oookworks inner for sale soon.

Morning came with big fat wet flakes of snow as the temperature rose, this finally falling as rain. I had considered heading east to the headwaters of the Allt Cam nan Croc, a spot I had passed previously and which looked idyllic to camp. However with low cloud and deep soft snow the cross-country walk there would be more ordeal than pleasure. Instead I decided to head for the more sheltered confines of Glen Tarff.

The Allt Creag Chomaich was partially frozen in many places and completely covered in snow in others. I dismissed any thoughts of attempting to cross it, instead following the east bank to the security of the new hydro road.

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I had seen the scar of this road in a previous visit but this time it was covered in snow, the surrounding landscape hidden under cloud. At least it prevented me from lurching from snow filled hag to tussock and I made reasonable progress through the eerie landscape to the new reservoir. This was also half-frozen, the wind pushing the ice floes towards the eastern shore.

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I peeked through the windows of a building near the dam, the kettle, heater, table and chairs looking very inviting. The locked and very solid metal door prevented access and I had a snack shivering in the damp and cold instead.

The route down to the headwaters of the Tarff was as tricky as it looked on the map when you added in wet snow and low cloud. I slithered about for a while before finally picking up an old stalkers path into the shelter of the glen.

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There I set up a basecamp as I decided that I would leave most of my gear the following day and head for a nearby hill. It was a damp and gloomy evening with a fine drizzle in the air. However I spent a much more comfortable night without snow filling my shelter!

The following morning I just packed some spare warm clothing, food and maps and set off down the glen on a narrow but well engineered path. It is obvious that it is now little used and it won’t be long before much of it is reclaimed by nature. Much of the snow had melted at this lower level, the burns crashing noisily down the hillside. Glen Tarff is a magnificent place, hidden and well off the beaten track of the nearby Corrieyairack Pass.

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I climbed up the steep south western slopes of Carn Chuilinn, the summit being easy to find even in the snow and mist. A simple case of keep climbing until you get to the highest point. The walk east across the plateau however was anything but easy. With low cloud and the ground covered in snow my mind would play tricks, what I thought were towering cliffs would be a few boulders close by. It was difficult to judge distances and tell where the sky ended and the ground began. It did not help that the high plateau was dotted with numerous Lochans. All of them were completely frozen and most covered in snow. I was anxious not to accidentally walk across any of them. It was a very challenging hour or so and that was with the assistance of GPS mapping on my phone!

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It was with relief that I managed to locate the outflow from Loch Carn a Chuillin, nervously crossed by a snow bridge. The river was in spate and would have been difficult to cross otherwise. Walking down back into the glen the sun put in a welcome appearance, a good omen for the following day when I would set back off across the plateau and hopefully a high level wild camp.

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April 27, 2015

Geoff’s Lands End to John O’Groats

by backpackingbongos

On Friday my friend Geoff will be setting off north on a long journey between Lands End and John O’Groats. A shiny red bicycle will be his mode of transport for the thousand odd miles. He will be travelling solo and unsupported, carrying his camping kit along the way. I don’t cycle but I reckon that means he will be heavily laden. He’s also something like 17 in dog years too………..

His blog will be worth a follow and I’m sure that he will be tweeting his progress as he makes his way up country. Cheer him along the way.

http://farnotfast.blogspot.co.uk/

@GeoffCrowther1

He’s fundraising for Cancer Research so if you fancy digging in your pockets you can do so here.

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