TGO Challenge Journal #2

Monday 13/5

  • TGO Day 3: Dalness, Glen Etive, to Rannoch Moor
  • Distance: 21km

The first part of my route for the day had been visible for most of yesterday afternoon’s walk; Laraig Gortain, between Buchaille Etive Mór and Buchaille Etive Beag, leading to the well-trodden ground of Glen Coe and the West Highland Way. It’s the first real ascent of my route, though the biggest is still a few days away, when I reach Schiehallion.

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I stopped at the top of the pass for a cuppa and a long last look at Loch Etive, still technically the sea on the west coast.

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After two days on my own, just crossing paths with the group of Danish challengers a couple of times and occasional day hikers in Glen Etive, the WHW was almost shockingly busy with walkers. Heading the “wrong” way, it feels like pushing my way down the local high street on a busy shopping weekend.  I took advantage of local facilities with a long lunch* in the sun at the revamped Kingshouse hotel to recover.  It’s all very fancy, but then that’s the kind of girl I am.

*haggis nachos and a pint of coast to coast, 5/5 would recommend

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Leaving again was tough, with my pace slowing through the long hot day as I trudged across Rannoch Moor.  The Danes caught up and passed me by just before I reached Black Corries Lodge, planning to head up into the hills.  I kept on plodding on the track until 6pm and I’d used my last ounce of willpower and my motivational soundtrack to keep moving my feet.

I find a decent looking spot to camp close to a stream, but I’m still around 6km short of my intended end point.  It’s going to make the next day really tough, but I’m completely drained.  After pitching my tent I have a little swim and attempt to wash the peat from yesterday’s bog out of my trousers, before lying in the sun and reading my book.  Have I hit the wall on just day three?

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Tuesday 14/5

  • TGO Day 4: Rannoch Moor to Dall
  • Distance: 31km

The sun is shining again as I emerge from my tent, and I feel so much brighter than I did yesterday evening. A good night’s sleep, though instead of being woken early by cuckoos, I heard the sound of deer snuffling around and a grouse croak just after daybreak.  It’s the fourth day of my challenge, and I’m starting to think of my daily routine.  Wake up, eat, walk, rest, eat, walk, find somewhere to sleep, eat, rest.

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Walking is my life now.  I don’t have to worry about the usual issues of daily life, or working with the rest of the ship’s crew, and can be totally selfish.  My only task is to get from A to B, to keep moving forward.

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And today I do, finishing the distance I should have done yesterday, following the electric lines across the moor, then pushing on along the road from Rannoch Station (powered by a couple of coffees and a huge wedge of cake from the Station tearoom) and down the south side of Loch Rannoch to get to a good point for the following morning.  It was a long slog on the road, especially in the sun, and it was a relief to find a shady spot to pitch my tent by the end of the day.

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Wednesday 15/5

  • TGO Day 5: Dall to Braes of Foss
  • Distance: 24km
  • Ascent: 1065m, Schiehallion

I’d been a bit concerned about adding many munros into my TGO route, especially at the beginning.  Just a month ago, felt like I was getting out of breath on the short, steep hills of the Devon coast.  But it felt like a bit of a cop-out to come north and not climb at least one proper mountain.  After looking at maps to plan my route, I settled on crossing Schiehallion, almost right in the centre of Scotland.

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It’s one that I hadn’t walked up before, and has a fascinating story, whether you’re a fan of the wee folk, or a bit of a geography geek.  I think I’d put myself into the latter category.

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Not many people walk up from the west. A farm track leads up to the base of the ridge, with that famous pyramid view rising above you, then it’s a steep ascent through the heather to the start of the boulder field. Not a breeze to stir the warm air. One false summit, then the top comes into view. Almost there. And suddenly so many people.

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The view from the top is outstanding, and fills up my heart. I can pick out my route all the way back to Glencoe. I walked all that way. I did that.

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And now I’m here on a mountain top. Exactly where I should be.

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TGO Challenge Journal #1

Friday 10/5

  • TGO Eve – Oban

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I arrived in Oban late on friday afternoon, having shared the drive up from Dartmouth, via Leighton Buzzard and Biddulph, with John.  While I was preparing to cross Scotland on foot, carrying everything I needed on my back, he’d decided to take the opportunity to plan a Highland road trip, crossing my route several times.  I took advantage of his plans, so rather than post re-supply packages to hostels and B&Bs on my route, I packed them into the car, and we’d meet up along the way. 

Knowing I’d be seeing a freindly face now and again was reassuring, but my sense of apprehension was huge.  I picked up a few last snacks and rearranged things in my pack, again, and mulled over what was to come.  Will I be cold?  What if I get lost? Have I brought enough?  Have I brought too much?  Can I actually do this?

I’d already had to change my plans, switching my start from Lochailort to Oban, and extending a couple of days distance to make sure I could fit the Challenge into my leave from a new job.  My fitness levels also played heavy on my mind.  For the past six weeks I’d been living onboard Irene, a traditional sailing ship, and unable to walk any farther that the length of the deck.  I’d had one afternoon off to walk from Brixham to Dartmouth on the south west coast path; was that enough to prepare?  (No) Am I good enough? (Well, we’ll see)

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Now all I had to do was walk the 270km to reach the east coast.  Easy, huh?

 

Saturday 11/5

  • TGO Day 1: Oban to Loch Etive (Inverawe Country Park)
  • Distance: 25km

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After a bit of last minute reorganisation (read: faffing about ) I finally signed the register at the youth hostel around 10am; one of the last names on the list left unchecked.  Most of the Oban departures had left the previous day, so I’d be following their tracks out of town.  If I could find my way out of town, as that depended on picking up a footpath somewhere behind a house near the top of the hill.

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I crossed the road to make my official start from the beach, with my toes dipping in the water.  Yesterday’s glorious sunset was a sign of things to come, a warm sun and clear blue skies remained as I climbed the hill to McCaig’s tower, picked up the footpath and headed for the golf course.  My nerves from earlier in the morning soon dissipated, and I was feeling confident as I headed away from the coast.

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The hardest part of the day’s navigation was following the right road in town to make sure I found the footpath over the hill.  For the rest of the day I followed the minor road through Glen Lonan to Taynuilt, headed through the village, then crossed over a suspension bridge to Inverawe Country Park.  From here I picked up the track alongside Loch Etive and found a suitable spot to pitch my tent and listen to the birds.  I watch the sun go down, thankful of the absence of midges.

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It felt like a great first day.  No problems with my feet, through my hips and shoulders were not yet used to the weight of my pack, and I could feel the start of a bruise on my left hip.

Sunday 12/5

  • TGO Day 2: Loch Etive, near Glennoe, to Glen Etive, near Dalness
  • Distance: 25km (distance walked in flip flops: 7km)

I woke in the early dawn to the sound of a cuckoo calling in the tree above my tent, and found a skin of frost around the vent by my head.  Time check, almost 5am.  I pulled a pair of gloves on, pulled my hat down over my eyes, and tried for another couple of hours sleep.  The little bit of smugness at the lack of midges disappears quickly when I discover several ticks in my tent.  I shook everything out and hung my tent over the tree vacated by the cuckoo while I checked my body.

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After breakfast and a coffee, the sun was high enough to melt the frost on the tent, and I packed quickly to get on the way.  The first couple of hours were easy going, following the track along the east side of the loch until it disappeared somewhere between a beach and a bog.  I crossed paths with a group of Danish challengers, though they forked off into Glen Kinglass not long afterwards.  The day got hotter as I slogged on through the tussock alongside Loch Etive, so when I found a river with a deep pool I stopped for a lunchtime swim.  It’s such a beautiful spot, I find it hard to leave.

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A long trudge to the head of the loch faded out into a slog through the bog around Kinlochetive, at times falling thigh-deep in the wet earth, sapping all my physical and mental energy.  I try to skirt around the edge of the bog, thinking that it would be drier under foor the higher up the slope I went.  That’s physics, right? So wrong.

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By the time that I reached the road in Glen Etive I was pretty much done, and felt close to crying, but still had five and a half kilometres to go before my planned overnight campsite.  The Laraig Gartain, the pass between Buchaille Etive Mor and Buchaille Etive Beag, had been taunting me from the moment I hauled myself out of the bog.  It just hadn’t been getting any closer however far I’d walked towards it.  It loomed over the whole afternoon.

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A coffee break and a chat with day hikers in the carpark at the head of the loch perked me up, and I kicked off my wet boots to finish the day walking along the road to Dalness my flipflops.  I pitched my tent with a Skyfall view, and treated myself to the fanciest of the meal pouches I’d packed for this stage of the Challenge, before retreating to my sleeping bag for the night.

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Read the next instalment of my Challenge journal here.

Taking on the TGO Challenge

In May each year, like a flock of migrating birds, three hundred or so backpackers take part in a coast-to-coast trek across Scotland.  The TGO Challenge takes participants from across the globe through what can be some of the wildest and most beautiful landscapes in Europe.

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Looking down into the Great Glen from the Monadhliath.

What is the TGO Challenge?

The Great Outdoors Challenge is an annual self-supported hiking event across the highlands of Scotland, from the west coast to the east.  Created by mountaineer and writer Hamish Brown, the first event was held in 1980, and it has grown to become one of the best known backpacking events in the world, drawing participants from across the UK and Ireland, and as far afield (and as foreign to the Scottish Highlands) as Nigeria, Oman, and Barbados.

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Where the idea began; a little bit of inspiration I picked up in a second-hand bookshop on the way.

Unlike other multi-day hiking events, the TGO doesn’t define a route for participants to follow.  Rather, route planning is part of the challenge, giving hikers a unique flexibility to cover the geographical area and set various objectives for themselves.  A maximum of fifteen days is permitted to cover the distance, which is usually averages around 290km (180 miles).

Challengers sign out from one of around a dozen settlements on the west coast, between Torridon in the north and Portavadie in the south, and end their trek on the eastern seaboard anywhere between Fraserburgh and Arbroath (though a cairn and plaque at Scurdie Ness lighthouse near Montrose claims to mark the “official” end point).  Routes can be low-level, follow defined trails and paths, take in a number of summits, avoid the road network as much as possible, be completely cross-country, or any combination of the above, and experienced vetters are able to provide advice.

The Challenge is non-competitive, but in addition to the skills needed in planning a route, participants also have to be competent in navigation, including map and compass work, self-reliant in remote and upland areas, and able to handle the famously unpredictable Scottish weather.

My TGO Route

Since receiving confirmation of my place in the Challenge in November, I’ve been poring over maps and guidebooks to work out the route I want to take.  My intention is to start from Lochailort, a small village on the Road to the Isles between Fort William and Mallaig, and make my way to the fishing village of Gourdon, on the south Aberdeenshire coast.

Joining the dots between the two coasts will be around 290km (180 miles).  There will be a few ups and downs on the way too.  It will be a test of my stamina and endurance, not to mention my ability to pack light and the qualities of “suck it up” and “get on with it”.

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My planned finish point on the east coast of Scotland.

I have, I think*, an advantage over most challengers, in that I’ll be able to finish the event by dipping my toes in the sea on the east coast at the end of my parent’s front garden.  All within reach of a hot bath, comfortable bed, plenty of cups of tea, and a washing machine; exactly what I’ll need after two weeks trekking across Scotland. (if I’m really lucky, someone might also do my laundry, but I’d better not push it at this stage of the plan).

*I’m also pretty certain that my dad will send me up into the loft to sort out all the boxes that have been there since I went to university the moment that I arrive.

Planning and preparation

The potential for “four-seasons-in-one-day” weather means that my equipment and clothing has to be able to cope with the full range of conditions from horizontal sleet to (just whisper so you don’t jinx it) warm sunshine.

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Route planning on ViewRanger.

I don’t imagine that in any way I’ll be a lightweight backpacker, not with my fondness for junk food (haribo; I’ll mainly be surviving on haribo, and possibly peanut butter) and collecting shiny rocks, seashells, and antlers that I find.  However, I need to get my kit together and work out how I’m going to manage to walk with it all.  This is an experience I want to be able to enjoy, not one to be endured.