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Sunday, 26 June 2016

TGOC 2016: Day 2: Gaorsaic, Gniomhaidh and Affric

I used to be appallingly bad at drinking enough on long walks and suffered from heavy legs, lack of 'oomph' and headaches as a consequence. However, since my brother Dave gave me one of his kidneys I've made a conscious effort to stop all that nonsense and look after myself considerably better. And the difference is quite marked. In the past, the start of Day 2 on a Challenge, even after an evening of rehydration, would see me below par. Today I am absolutely full of beans. 

I'm up early, looking forward to our day. Summer early mornings in the Highlands are well worth climbing from your pit to enjoy, albeit if only briefly. This morning it is bitingly cold. Our tents are in deep shadow and a northerly breeze cuts like a knife. 



FROST-SAGGED SIL-NYLON. FRANKLY, I'M AMAZED NO-ONE NICKED PHIL'S POLES.

Taking a few snaps, my fingers are aching with cold within minutes and so I dive back to the warmth of my bed to prepare breakfast.

HEAVY FROST OUTSIDE. HOT COFFEE & ORANGE AND BREAKFAST BARS IN BED

As the sun breaks free from the hills and flares from between the clouds, I'm outside again, snapping away, hoping that my little camera can capture just a smidgen of what is about me. It is stunning out here. An Akto zip is dragged skywards and Phil joins me. We pass the flasks to each other. Full lung inflation is attained. I'll let the pictures tell the story of the next hour or so ~ one of the happiest hours of my Challenge.

THE MORNING HALLELUJAH CHORUS.

TRINNIE TRAILSTAR IN HER ELEMENT

FROST MELT

A WARMING MEERKAT

BREATH-TAKING

Reluctantly, we perform our ritual of morning magic, stuffing away our entire life support system into the little bags on our backs. We check the ground fastidiously. No sign of any henge. No naughty nuts or rascally raisins hiding away in the heather. 

And we're off. We head off to collect the blazed path that cuts through Bealach na Sroine, scamper along it and then... And then we find the most perfect of paths. 

She is marked on the map, curving around the bulk of Meall Dubh on a sharp break of slope. The OS says it lasts about a third of a mile. Here she is below, in all her finery, just after we have joined her. She rises gently and lets you enjoy her sinuous curves. This is no beaten path; This little beauty has been built with love and care. Once in awhile, the slope above engulfs the narrow trod, but it takes little effort to pick her up again a few yards later. 

WE 'TOOK THE ONE LESS TRAVELLED.' BEALACH NA SROINE

You're never in doubt as to where she is headed - that little break of slope - those stepping stones way over there - that large boulder. I have followed these girls all over the Highlands, as far south as Oban and as north as Cape Wrath. They are built with poor weather in mind - you will be safe if you stay with them. You almost imagine your way along them. And sure enough we follow her for a mile and half, safely down through the lateral moraines and down into the vast bottom of Gleann Gaorsaic.

ROUNDING THE HILL AND THEN THROUGH THE MORAINES

DROPPING INTO GLEANN GAORSAIC

It will be a huge loss when these paths are no longer walked. Already the mapping only shows where paths are clearly defined on the ground, but soon they will be gone. They were built for purposes other than walking across Scotland. In some cases they were clan paths, linking the glens together. In others they were for stalking. But whatever their purpose in the past, it's dreadfully sad that nature is taking them back as they offer some of the best walking and views that the Highlands have to offer.

For your next TGO Challenge, take a good look at the map for some of these stub-paths. Follow them and you'll follow hundreds of years of history, and for a lot further than the Survey would suggest. 

BEINN FHADA FROM THE VASTNESS OF GLEANN GAORSAIC

We reach the comforting bottom of the vast Gleann Gaorsaic and have a very long, leisurely break, utterly pleased as punch with ourselves. One hundred percent Smug Mode. The glen has a reputation for ghastly sodden trudges through tormenting tussock - this is my fourth visit and I have to say it is at its finest. The recent dry spell allows for slightly better than the usual stumble. Not much, mind.

As we lie here we watch a couple of Challengers on the far side of the glen work their way along. Sadly, they seem to be about fifty feet or so above the line of a faint path that we can see with all the advantages from our position, but they cannot. However they fairly scamper along and we don't see them again. After about an hour or so (we are avoiding eye contact) I begin to wonder if Phil is ready to move. I'm certainly not. It's wonderful slobbing about doing sod-all in this magnificent spot.

CHALLENGERS CROSSING ALLT THUILL EASAICH, GLEANN GAORSAIC

Phil must be a bit of a mind-reader, as he doesn't look like he wants to move either. Ignoring each other for as long as possible, it slowly dawns on us that those Challengers disappeared from view absolutely ages ago, and they had started their progress up the glen from way behind us... Oh God. We both stir simultaneously, quite shocked that the other is also packing the remains of elevenses away as well. And so we march off once again. We take a look at crossing the river but it's deep and wide here and so simultaneously we both say "You know, I think we'll do that Corbett another time."

PHIL. LOOKING NORTH DOWN GLEANN GAORSAIC

We decide we'll have a slow plod up the western side of the glen; the eastern side being the usual route if you're heading to Alltbeithe. It is quite tough going in places, with wonderful gloopy sections and a few clambers in and out of tricky peat bogs. In fact it's very hard work for this pair of slack-packers. The great views are those behind you to the north. Phil acts as a bit of foreground interest and I direct him either left or right to make a better composed photograph. I'm not sure that he enjoyed this...

LOCH A BHEALAICH, GLEANN GAORSAIC

SIMPLY GLORIOUS

I hope that you too agree that this is utterly fabulous. Go there. Make a resolution right now to see this place. You may curse me for the bog and perhaps a few blisters, but you will send me love and sweet thoughts for ever-more for the glorious experience of this beautiful wild place.

ALLTBEITHE YOUTH HOSTEL & GLEN AFFRIC, FROM GLEANN GNIOMHAIDH

Happily, the bloody hard work of the bog trotting comes to an end as we collect the path down from Bealach an Sgairne. And now we absolutely whizz along and before you can say "Daa-aad, how much further is it?" you are staring down at the oasis that is Alltbeithe. That is, after Phil has made a rather nice cup of tea in Gleann Gniomhaidh and we snooze for a while in the sunshine... This is my kind of walking!

FULL OF TEA & CAKE, LEAVING ALLTBEITHE, GLEN AFFRIC


PHIL, LOCH COULAVIE, GLEN AFFRIC

Taking the northern track around Loch Affric (by far and away the most scenic route down the glen!) we come across the Allt Coulavie cutting across our path quite late in the afternoon. We're not far from our intended camping spot. Phil boulder hops across the quite lively and bouncy burn and I attempt to follow him. I have no idea why, but I thought I was following his line when I just could not work out how on earth I was to get from this to that rock without hopping from one foot to the same foot midst leap. I was completely nonplussed, and stand there like a twat trying to work out how to do it. To slip now would be pretty ghastly. Phil stares at me patiently, occasionally proffering help, but I realise I'm a hopeless case, and retreat to the bank I had started from, walk back down to the track's ford and change into my river crossing shoes.

By the time I'm back in my walking shoes we must be a good twenty minutes later into the now early evening. Whoops! 

CORRIMONY WIND FARM, LOCH AFFRIC

And then we turn to carry on. Phil notices them first. To our complete horror we notice the Corrimony wind turbines flailing away, caught in the early evening sunlight on the far side of Loch Affric. 

Glen Affric is a National Scenic Area and Highland Council allowed this desecration to take place. The members who allowed this excrescence to be built, the landowner who trousered millions of pounds for the ground rents and the local community who actually supported the planning application (for they were also to trouser community bribes and, I understand, a small share of the profits) should each be named and shamed. I want to know who each and every one of them is, so I can place their photographs in the public car parks in Glen Affric so that the thousands and thousands of visitors who come here every year - some from the far flung corners of the globe, can spit in their eye and hate them as much as I do. They disgust me.

CORRIMONY WIND FARM

Moving swiftly on, as it is becoming a little later than we expected, we drop down the side of a rushing burn, quite a way from the track all the way down to the shore of Loch Affric. It involves a little bush-whacking in places but my word it is worth it! We camp on a a little delta formed by Allt Coire Leachavie and so we are set up with Loch Affric to either side of us, with ancient Caledonian Pines behind and the loch stretching away to our front. We sleep on nibbled soft turf. The gentle breeze keeps all the bitey things at bay. All in all, it is utterly perfect.

PERFECT PITCH

That's two nights in a row now. We're getting the hang of this backpacking lark. Good night, Campers!

EVENING, GLEN AFFRIC

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

TGO Challenge 2016: Pt II: Day 1: A perfect route?

With over thirty Challenges between us, Lord Elpus and I think it's vital to start a Challenge well - in the right spirit, if you will. If you start well the chances are you'll get through the inevitable low points with more of a spring in your step.

You want adventure? Yes please, but we're not adrenaline junkies, so just a few sprinkles. Good views? Most definitely; Let's not get stuck in any trenches. Wild and off-piste? Oh yes! But again, not too much as we still have another thirteen days to struggle through. Away from it all? What, on the first day? Why not, Sir! 

Picky? Perhaps.

We had plumped for Dornie as a starting point back in October. Over the next few months half a dozen routes to the Great Glen were sketched but none was satisfactory. They were either too stretching, too dependent upon good weather or worse, a combination of the two. Finally, on a particularly unpleasant night in January, with time running out to submit our route and with sleety rain splattering against our study windows, we sat into the small hours, determined to solve the puzzle of the perfect first day. 

Fuelled by Highland Park in Lincolnshire and Talisker in Berkshire, with Ordnance Survey maps spread out over our desks, we finally cracked it. We settled on a route that should be fabulous in fine weather and do-able, if a little challenging, in foul. It also suggested that we might have this little piece of paradise all to ourselves. 

PHIL, DORNIE HOTEL

There are very few rules on the TGO Challenge, but one states participants should sign the register at the start points after 9:00am. Having breakfasted handsomely, we dutifully sign at just gone that magic hour and set out, noting that one very learned gentleman had signed before 1:30pm the previous day (Thursday) but had recorded his signing as 9:00am Friday. I'm sure he thinks he is jolly clever. 

And so to our route. Here it is, set out below. You can click on it to make it larger. [Indeed, if you right-click on any of the images on this blog you can open them in a new tab or window and blow them up to a very large size. Stick around; You can learn things here!] It's the actual map I printed out for the walk. The red dots show our planned route, the blue circle is where we thought we might camp and the green dots are the route we actually took after assessing things on the ground.

OUR ROUTE FOR DAY 1

The minor road south east from Dornie is a little minx, snaking her way upwards with some grand views. This is fortunate as it provides rest stops for the clinically unfit to fumble around for cameras in order to regain something approaching normal breathing. We have her company for about three miles.

LOOKING OUT TO SEA. EILEAN DONAN BOTTOM LEFT

ZOOMY ZOOMY TO THE SKYE HILLS

LOOKING ALONG LOCH DUICH, INLAND

ZOOMING IN ON MORDOR

And so we start our stroll into the heart of the Great Molar. If you have another look at the map, you'll see what I mean by that description. The starting track becomes a path which then becomes a trifle sketchy but by reading the ground carefully we follow the line well past that recorded by the Survey. We are definitely in "smug mode."

LOOKING WEST FROM ABOUT EASTING 942 IN COIRE DHUINNID 

NO CAPTION REQUIRED

Rather than following our route all the way up Coire Dhuinnid to the lochhan, we follow a little stream that gives easy progress, taking pictures of the fabulous views out to the west. They just get better and better. This is all trackless walking now, and a complete delight. Scotland has had dry weather for a couple of weeks prior to the Challenge and the ground has a dry crust overlying the bog beneath. 

PHIL, WITH SCENERY TO DIE FOR.

ZOOM ZOOM.

THE LIGHT IS FABULOUS

Magically, a new view springs up to the north east. The scenery shifters are now working over-time as mountain after mountain is raised into view.  Phil declares a lunch stop. The views out to the west are now history and we feast on 'Tuna with a Twist' sandwiches and the route ahead. Can you ever dig out the last of the tuna in the corner of the packet? 

A NEW VIEW! OUR FIRST GLIMPSE OF CARNAN CRUITHNEACHD TO THE EAST

VIEW FROM OUR LUNCH STOP.

Route-finding is a doddle in this weather, but with all the lumps and bumps I wonder how tricky it could be with the cloud around your ankles and pelting rain refilling the bogs. But that is not our problem today and we drink in the fabulous views in every direction. 

VIEW THROUGH THE LITTLE BEALACH AT EASTING 961

ACROSS COIRE NAN GALL TO CARNAN CRUITHNEACHD

THE SAME AS ABOVE, BUT BETTER OF COURSE, FROM PHIL.


I LOVE THIS PLACE!

Our next objective is to round the northern ridge of Beinn Bhreac to make the bealach. In an attempt to stay high I lead us into slightly tricky ground, but only for a short while as we make wonderful grippy-slabby rocks (not shown on 1:50s but do appear on 1:25s) that make progress a joy once more. You'll see this on the map at the start of this post.

BEINN BHREAC SKYLINE

PHIL'S PICTURE OF AN ENORMOUS ERRATIC, AND A BOULDER ON THE RIDGE LEADING UP TO BEINN BHREAC

BEALACH BETWEEN BEINN BHREAC & CARNAN CRUITHNEACHD, WITH DISTANT NORTH WESTERN CORRIES OF BEN FHADA

And now we have new views through the bealach to the south. And what views! This is top-drawer stuff and we are both grinning like Cheshire Cats! 

LOOKING BACK TO THE ERRATIC & CARN LOCH NAN EUN. PRIMORDIAL BONES PUSHING THROUGH SCOTLAND'S SKIN

We are just half a day out of a busy start point and we have this all to ourselves. The walking has been fabulous - easy strolls along a road, followed by a straight-forward climb up a track and path, and then a careful but progressing walk on the wild stuff. There are mountains and mountains in every direction, blue skies and fluffy white clouds. This is Scotland at its most ridiculous best.

BEALACH BOULDERS AND BEYOND

There follows a bit of a grunty climb up an open hillside to the south of Carnan Cruithneachd that reminds us both that we are indeed softy southerners. There are quad bike tracks to assist, but generally the going is firm and the slope eases as we near the top. We both take a lot of stops, with no pretence of taking pictures, as by now it's warm work and we're getting quite tired. I've led us slightly too high so as to stay on easier ground, and once at the top we pick out a great spot a little nearer Bealach na Sroine than we had planned, with a stream fed from a small lochan, which promises good running water and great views.

THE MOST PERFECT CAMP AND THE VIEW NORTH EAST

And my God! What views! We have the tents up in a jiffy and we spend the next hour passing our flasks to each other. Phil has a Speyside number that is quite delightful, whereas I've stuck with Talisker for the full lung inflation experience. 

180 DEGREE PANORAMA

A VERY LONG HAND-HELD ZOOM NORTH EASTWARDS TO,  I THINK, AN SOCACH & AN RIABHACHAN

The views are to the north west, and we spend a while trying to work out which hill is which, but come to the conclusion that it really doesn't matter. We are here, right now, in a fabulous place. The weather is kind, the views fabulous and we have completed one of the most magical first days we can remember on any of our Challenges. 

This is as good as it gets.

THE LAST OF THE MAGICAL EVENING LIGHT

Friday, 17 June 2016

TGO Challenge 2016. Part I: Transitioning

It takes nineteen hours to travel from my front door to a hotel on the north west coast of Scotland. With each passing hour there is a subtle shedding of an urban life in Southeast England. 

CLOUDBURST, THE M4 HEADING INTO LONDON FROM THE TOP OF A BUS 

In torrential rain, I travel a congested computer-controlled urban motorway. I'm aware of overhead gantries, tarmacadam, crash barriers, trucks and cars. People are invisible. Then there are the huge monoliths of the city - temples to retail, and buses & taxis. There are people on pavements but the predominant impression is of colossal urban mass. Pedestrians are abstract figures.

KENSINGTON

A stroll from Hyde Park, up Piccadilly, Shaftesbury Avenue and though gentle Bloomsbury invites contact at street level with tourists from the world over, the very well-heeled and then the manicured modern-day students. All seem happy, most are smiling, but eye contact is rare. Yet none are more happy than this Challenger, laden down with a rucksack, heading for the Bree Louise, Euston, for a pie and a few pints, to meet up with old friends. 

BREE LOUISE, EUSTON: RAY & PHIL

BREE LOUISE, EUSTON: GORDON

Leaving the pub perilously close to the Caledonian Sleeper's departure time, we scramble aboard, dump our packs in our berth and head to the bar. All the seats are taken but at the far end of the carriage we are invited by a very smiley chap to sample Tomatin whisky. Six bottles of whisky. It is to be a long night. 

TOMATIN WHISKY TASTING ON THE CALEDONIAN SLEEPER

Halfway through we leave the crush of the bar and find seats with Vic & Nic Slawski, and Thom Sandberg from Minneapolis, USA.

THOM SANDBERG & PHIL

Thom has come prepared for the Challenge; His jacket's red silk lining is actually a map of the world, featuring Minneapolis and his route across Scotland. However, there is a problem; Thom's boots are in Oxford. He could well be the first Challenger to stroll across Scotland in his sneakers.

THOM MAY WELL BE WALKING ACROSS SCOTLAND IN THESE SHOES...

Somewhere in the proceedings we lose count, and when finally the excellent free Tomatin stops flowing we resort to buying our whisky. 

The early morning bus ride from Inverness to Dornie is hellish. My scalp hurts and Phil complains of a mysteriously injured leg. The friendly staff at our hotel sort out soft drinks, and after an alfresco gentle lunch we retire for a recovering afternoon snooze and cups of restorative tea.

5:00 AM VIEW FROM OUR DORNIE HOTEL BEDROOM WINDOW

This is our view from the hotel at 5:00am the next morning. A soft mackerel sky, a sea loch and complete silence. The contrast between the first and last images of this post could not be more complete.