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Saturday, 19 August 2017

TGOC2017 Days 13 & 14: Airlie Tower to Red Castle

It's a bittersweet start to the day; this morning we are leaving the hills behind, with a thirty mile walk ahead of us across some surprisingly pretty countryside on our quest for the east coast. We're splitting it over two days, with a Bed and Breakfast at Letham tonight.

CLICK TO ENLARGE

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We make a hash of finding the road through the woods at the bottom of the hill but there's no better way to get the blood pumping than a bit of bushwhacking. It's now a simple matter of putting one foot in front of the other and remembering our lefts and rights. The roads are quiet hereabouts and lined with trees resplendent in their fresh frock coats.



Switching on my autopilot I revert to my old friend, the skull cinema again. I love this Paul Simon song and now, with time on my hands I ponder the poignancy of these particular lines for this year's Challenge.

'And I don't know a soul who's not been battered
I don't have a friend who feels at ease
I don't know a dream that's not been shattered or driven to its knees
But it's alright, it's alright
For we've lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the road we're traveling on
I wonder what's gone wrong
I can't help it, I wonder what's gone wrong...'

And with the tune fading away we come across one of the many war memorials scattered throughout the British Isles, and beyond; Each man missed dreadfully by his family for years after. Every year our politicians stand respectfully at the Cenotaph and the very next day continue with their warmongering.








We arrive in Forfar for lunch and on the walk in try to remember Eric Morecambe's dream football result, to have been read out by James Alexander Gordon: "East Fife Four, Forfar Five".


A good lunch just off the High Street followed by cashpoint machines for the B&B and the cafe after our finish. Suitably fettled we're on our way again. Our next stop is a bench, promised to me by Lord Elpus, who has been this way on his long diagonal across Scotland from Torridon to Arbroath back in 2011. The plaque tells of an early Scottish tribal victory over an English tribe. Lord Elpus has more about it on his excellent account HERE. It's well worth reading, by the way.



Nowhere is serving food on a Wednesday night in Letham so after a few quick pints in the pub David magics a takeaway which we have in the kitchen. It's an early night tonight because tomorrow night there's going to be a party and we need to be on top form.

*****

In all my years crossing Scotland I'm ashamed to say I've never eaten a Bridie. This is put right this morning with the purchase of a steak bridie from the Keptie Bakery in Letham. Their bridies have won a gold award at the Scotch Pie Championship in 2014.

I have to say it was bloody wonderful, and I shall be seeking them out for evermore. It fueled me to the brim for the twelve or so miles to the coast.


There's a beautiful churchyard, well worth a stop, at Inverkeilor where the above photograph of Rufty-Tufty Mr Williams is taken. The day has turned out to be a scorcher and the shade is a welcome respite. 




Finally we stroll down the beach to the water's edge. The ruined Red Castle looks down at us as it has done for so many Challengers over the years.



A few words about Mr Williams. Phil returning to Strathcarron on the first day had been one hell of a shock to me. In one stroke the dynamics of the walk had changed. Neither Phil nor I knew David particularly well, and I'm sure David felt the same about Phil and me. We had bumped into him quite a few times over the years and he had always been a bright, smiley chap with a keen wit. We both had him down as made of the right stuff: Perfect Challenger material, in fact.

Over the two weeks of this Challenge and the preceding PreWalkDaunder, which he had organised incredibly well, I think I've only scratched the surface trying to get to know him. From the stories he has shared with me he's a massively principled, bloody hard-working bright guy. He goes out of his way to make everyone around him comfortable - a skill that seems to come effortlessly to him.

He's as tough as old boots typified by our walk to the Airlie Memorial Tower when I was doggedly hanging on. But most of all, he's great fun to walk with.

In his last blog piece on this walk, he says he's unlikely to come back on the Challenge. I wish over the next few weeks he rethinks that. The walk will be a poorer thing without him. The Challenge, as you'll have seen from this blog isn't just about grinding out long days against tight schedules. It can be riotous fun, wonderfully relaxing and a fantastic de-stresser for those who find responsibility thrust their way. Your only responsibility on the Challenge is to yourself, to make sure you have a bloody  good time.

And for that, David is supremely well equipped.




Thanks David, for being a top bloke and making our walk such a success. And please, think again!


Here are some tractors for Alan Rayner, found at Red Castle.






The pictures above are from the Challenge Dinner at the Park Hotel. Every single one of these characters is made of the right stuff. 


Monday, 14 August 2017

TGOC2017 Day 12: Fee Burn to Airlie Memorial Tower


or... A tougher day than expected

Overnight our moor has been scrubbed clean and then hurled back inside an industrial washer for an extra rinse cycle. It's morning and we wake to air that brushes silently along flysheets, the kettle's steam slips across the porch to freedom. Everywhere is complete silence.

THE FEE BURN THE MORNING AFTER A WILD NIGHT 

FABULOUS MORNING FRESHNESS 

Our storm-filled mossy mattress is slowly draining into the now bubbling caochan. It is a perfect Highland morning. Clean sunshine warms my chilled fingers as I fail to capture the feel of this place with my camera. I could happily spend the day right here, letting this place seep into my bones.



But the Challenge, our challenge to ourselves, insists that we move on. The route sheet states very simply that today is 24km with 750m of RouteBuddy ascent. We are to finish the day 450m lower down along this ridge, so that sounds good to me. It's all down hill...

FEE BURN CAMPSITE, BOTTOM RIGHT. [CLICK TO ENLARGE]

CLICK TO ENLARGE

AIRLIE TOWER CAMPSITE TOP CENTRE [CLICK TO ENLARGE]

You'll notice that David is wrapped up warm. Underneath all that black clothing he's wearing his beautifully soft, cream Liberty Bodice. It helps with his posture.

MR WILLIAMS, FACING AWAY FROM THE FEE BURN. 

Strolling up Mayar - it really is a stroll - we have a spring in our step. Compared to some of the monster days we've had on this trip, this day looks to be comfortable. I have visions of lazing around the Airlie Memorial Tower mid to late afternoon. I'm in a very happy place.

ZOOMING INTO LOCHNAGAR

All around the views are fabulous. This is what the TGO Challenge is about. This is why I come back year after year. This is backpacking heaven. David is also grinning; I've never seen him so grinny! We're on top of Mayar, our first Munro of the day, before 8:30 in the morning. We have the place to ourselves. In the far, far distance, at the very end of our ridge, we can just make out the needle that is our destination - the Airlie Memorial Tower.

RUFTY TUFTY ON MAYAR [928M]  1ST MUNRO OF THE DAY AT 8:30AM 

ZOOMING TO MT KEEN

We take lots of pictures. I have a strange flashback to my first TGO Challenge, back to 1995 with my tiny Pentax compact film camera with one spare roll of 36 pictures. That worked out at about five pictures a day.

CAIRN, MAYER

The video, below, was taken on Mayar. It's simply a 360 degree pan from the cairn. I've watched it a few times since I've been home; It makes me smile every time.


VIDEO FROM MAYAR


It's a fine stroll of just a couple of miles over to our next Munro, Driesh and the views to either side of our ridge are uplifting. The pull up to Driesh actually feels good - my legs want to push, they want the effort as the rewards are so splendid.

LOOKING INTO COIRE KILBO & GLEN DOLL

We take a leisurely second breakfast sheltered from the cold wind. A vacant perusal of the map throws up an oddity; To the south of us is Glenclova Forest, which is mildly confusing, as it is actually in Glen Prosen. Glen Clova is to the north of us. I wonder to myself if this is one of those deliberate Ordnance Survey cartographic cock-ups, designed to take out opposition map makers in court?

Any knowledgeable types who feel they have the answer, please leave a message in the comments section. Thank you!

SHELTER ATOP MUNRO DRIESH [947M] @ 10AM

Before setting off, we make out the Airlie Tower once again. Strangely, it seems no nearer. The going hereabouts is good to firm and we positively canter, to start with, down the eastern slopes of Driesh to the bealach above Corrie of Farchal. Then it becomes a very careful step by step lowering down very steep slopes. All quite unnecessarily so, if you ask my knees.

LOOKING EAST ACROSS CORRIE OF FARCHAL INTO GLEN CLOVA

Of course, this very steep slope down is immediately followed by an equally unnecessarily steep grind back up hill to gain the Hill of Strone. This, surely, is not what we ordered! Someone should take it back immediately and return with more gentler inclines. This is a beastly five hundred foot grind.

LOCHNAGAR ON FAR SKYLINE, AND ACHARN IN GLEN DOLL TO THE RIGHT

I resort to the old hillman's trick of taking photographs of the view to regain composure and wipe the sweat from my brow. The faint path misses out the cairn atop Hill of Strone but I can tell that David needs it (He's done all the Wainwrights, you know, almost twice...) and so we walk to the very top and touch the cairn. It's what Baggers do. From the picture below you can see that he is delighted. It must be on some list or other. In fact, we go to every single cairn today on this ridge.

HILL OF STRONE [850M]

The views from this ridge are far reaching, with May's donkey-brown hills stretching in every direction. However, beneath our feet there's a riot of colour that makes for soft footfalls. My skull cinema plays a loop of David Bellamy on his knees, burying his fingers up to his knuckles in the mat.

The Airlie Memorial Tower is still a very long way off. It seems to be walking at the same speed as us, away from us.

CARPET OF FLOWERS 

It's another very steep drop down from Cairn Inks to the bealach above the Clova Hotel. If you ask me, this is a very poorly arranged ridge. It's not yet midday but here we take a break. As you can see from the picture below, the Clova Hotel is within touching distance. In just half an hour and a gentle stroll down a soft hillside, instead of chewing slightly stale pita bread we could be enjoying a fine lunch and a few thirst-quenching pints. If Lord Elpus was here right now, there would be no more of this fierce up and down nastinesses...

LOOKING TO CLOVA HOTEL

However, David has the bit between his teeth. He's in Rufty-Tufty Bastard mode and I can see he wants this ridge. As we begin the three hundred foot clamber up Cairn of Barns, I look back wistfully to the hotel.

CAIRN OF BARNS [651M]

The next four kilometres are very hard work. The path peters out and we're forcing our way through heather, alongside wire fencing. We're tiring and just in time David stops me from heading down a wrong spur. At Coremachy, our vetter has suggested we head towards Elf Hillock to collect the path rising from Glen Clova. On the ground we don't like the look of this advice as the ground to be covered looks as rough as hell. We have an aerial view of the ground between us and the path junction we need a mile or so distant and so in preference we head down steep ground to collect the stream that heads to our destination. This is better. We're trackless and picking our way along a break of slope and stream bank to stay on drier ground. I love this stuff, but it is knackering. Driesh, a long way behind us now, seems like a colossal lump. She's an imposing hill.

On reaching the path we take a break. We're both tired and looking at my watch I realise that we have still over five miles to go with about 250m of ascent and so my dream of an early finish has evaporated. We also have to drop from the ridge quite a way to collect water for tonight's camp. Thankfully we're now back on good paths.

It's time to knuckle down and get it done. This last section isn't fun, which is a shame as I'm sure the walking is fine at any other time of the day. It's a long way down the side of the hill to collect tonight's water from the small trickle and a longer trudge back up to our rucsacs.
 
AIRLIE MEMORIAL TOWER. SMALL, OR FAR AWAY?

How David remains so cheerful is a mystery. He's a strong chap and I coattail him to the Airlie Memorial Tower. I'm just about all-in when we get here. We pitch in as good a place as possible. It's been a ten hour day and much tougher than I had expected.

AIRLIE MEMORIAL TOWER AT THE END OF A LONG DAY

But this is no time to be down-hearted! I empty my food bag and scavenge for happy food; chocolate and tasty things, and wash it down with a few glugs of Bowmore lung-inflator. That's considerably better. In fact, things aren't bad at all. I set about making dinner, a Real Turmat job. Happiness.

It's been an interesting day. This morning we were in the heart of mountainous country, camped up in a glorious spot, away from everything and everyone. Now, we're camped at the very edge of the coastal plain. This is dog-walking country and a place for family picnics.

Drifting off to sleep I spool back through the day. 'Bloody well done, Al', I think to myself. And 'I'm bloody glad that's over!'

Friday, 11 August 2017

TGOC2017, Days 10 & 11: Braemar to the Fee Burn


DAY 10, SUNDAY: BRAEMAR TO LOCHCALLATER LODGE

Back in the mists of time Lord Elpus and I worked on the thorny problem of the venue for this year's Cheese & Wine Party. Traditionally it is held in a remote spot, to ensure that only Challengers made of the right stuff attend, so everyone rubs along well together. In December of last year Lord E put the following invitation on the Challenge Message Board.

THE INVITATION POSTED ON THE CHALLENGE MESSAGE BOARD, 1ST DECEMBER 2016

As you can see, the party is scheduled for Monday night, high up on the ridge on the south side of Glen Doll. Right now, it's Sunday morning and we're about to check out of our B&B. It's our last chance to check on the weather forecast. Today we're heading to Lochcallater Lodge. However, tomorrow (Monday) the route is high and wild on the way to the C&W party.

The forecast at 9:50am this morning for tomorrow says the day will start with blustery winds and showers, strengthening in the afternoon, followed by gale force winds, rain and thunderstorms in the evening and night. These are pretty poor conditions for a Cheese and Wine Party.

We never know who is likely to turn up and first-time Challengers are told that they are particularly welcome as they are the lifeblood of the Challenge. Without first-timers, in very short order there would be no TGO Challenge. Based upon the forecast and the fact that I do not know the party-goers' experience of camping in dreadful conditions I decide to cancel the party on grounds of safety. The Challenge has an enviable safety record and I don't want to ruin it. I ring Challenge Control and ask them to let as many people know as possible and I also post a message on the Challenge Message Board.

At the moment our own plan for Monday is to nip up and do three of the four Munros and in the afternoon slip down into Glen Prosen and camp near Kilbo before the weather turns really nasty. We now have plenty of time in Braemar to let as many Challengers know as possible that the party is off.

We leave our B&B a little downhearted and head into the metropolis that is Braemar for coffee, cake, some retail therapy and a spot of lunch. This is very cheerful stuff and in no time at all we are both proud owners of new hats that David says are perfect copies of the Afrika Korps cap. Mine is a dusty blue, whereas his is desert sand. I'll leave that with you.

CLICK TO ENLARGE. [FOLLOWING 'SUNDAY FWA']

Having filled my new-this-year rucsac to the brim with pork pies, pita bread, cakes, cheese and chocolate bars I haul it from the ground and promptly tear the rear mesh pocket on the very fierce pointy wall of Braemar Mountain Sports. Tenacious tape does the job and so at least now she looks broken-in. Deep inside I'm silently heartbroken.

It's a pleasant stroll up the golf course road and then along the track up Glen Callater, which seems to get slightly longer with each passing year before Lochcallater Lodge hoves into view. What a fabulous location!

LOCHCALLATER LODGE, WITH THE MBA BOTHY ON THE LEFT

A SHELTERED SPOT

There's a fine complement of lightweight shelters already pitched next to the lodge and so we cast about further afield, away from the snorers to find a sheltered spot a hundred yards past the lodge. 

LOCHCALLATER LODGE KITCHEN, WITH MICHAEL IN COMMAND. NOTE: THE LODGE IS LIT BY GAS LAMPS

We spend a wonderful evening in the lodge, fed like kings by Michael Glass and the whole party is run like a swiss watch by Bill Duncan. Chaps are playing with their instruments in the kitchen and there's singing and entertainment in the sitting room cum bar.



I'm only ever a year away from the Lodge but at each visit old friends pick up where they left off like it was yesterday.

BECOMING COLD & GUSTY. RAIN ON THE WAY

LEFT TO RIGHT: IAN COTTERILL, THE PIEMAN, AND BILL DUNCAN


IAN COTTERILL'S PICTURE.  LOCHCALLATER LODGE. L>R: SABINE A COUPLE I REALLY OUGHT TO BE ABLE TO NAME , THEN JAMES KNIPE AND ME

A huge thankyou to Bill and Michael for their friendship and incredible hospitality. I know of no-one and nowhere else like  it.

***

DAY 11, MONDAY: LOCHCALLATER LODGE TO THE FEE BURN

From Callater Lodge the party drawn from all points west splits into myriad routes eastward. Some fly in the direction of Carn an t-Sagairt Mor and Dubh Loch others to Lochnagar, a few to Broad Cairn, another handful over Jocks Road, some cut through the hills to Ballater but our merry band head mostly south. That's an odd direction for people who are walking to the east coast, but there you are.

CLICK TO ENLARGE [FOLLOWING 'MONDAY 18KM, 830M']

CLICK TO ENLARGE [FOLLOWING 'MONDAY 18KM, 830M']

There are five happy souls on our route today - David and me, (Of course. We're still on speaking terms) a very capable and likeable Mike Jones from Wales, and Rosie & Dickie Fuell. Quite a few Challenges ago Dickie saved our skins in a beleaguered, packed Gelder Shiel bothy in the teeth of a hurricane. And he is to be a life-saver today as well.  


It's a walk up a land rover track virtually all the way to the top of our first Munro, Carn an Tuirc. Of course, there are grunty sections, as Landrovers can scamper up virtually anything. We, on the other hand slow to a steady crawl up those sections.

LOOKING BACK DOWN TO LOCHCALLATER LODGE

GRITTY, IF POORLY PROCESSED SHOT OF RUFTY-TUFTY BASTARD DAVID

This year Dickie is carrying a water filter the size of a diver's oxygen tank. He has lugged this all the way across Scotland. I know this because he certainly had it on Day 1 from Plockton, as Robin Evans availed himself of its life-saving effusions.  

Today is a long stretch of upland and after we had emptied our water bottles with the biggest drink a chap can decently take, Dickie very kindly pumped us litres of water to refill our bottles from a peat ditch. It was all done with very little fuss and remarkably quickly. If he comes across this post he may like to leave a comment, as from what he says the logic of carrying such a beast means you carry less weight, not more.

ROSIE & DICKIE FUELL

FIRST-TIMER MIKE JONES & DAVID, WITH MAGNIFICENT COIRE LOCH KANDER BEHIND

Knowing that the weather is going belly up and all rather quickly, I am in two minds whether or not to head over very rocky ground for our first Munro, Carn of Tuirc, as it's an out and back trip. But, because it's there and we're almost within touching distance, it seems rude not to. And so we do. Is it worth it? I'm not a bagger and the views are not that marvelous but it is a bit of fun. Fun. Ah yes. I remember...

MIKE JONES, ROSIE, DAVID & DICKIE ATOP MUNRO CARN AN TUIRC (1019M)

And now the clag sweeps in and it's quite a bit colder, and wetter. But we head back across the moonscape and head for the next blighter: Cairn of Claise a couple of miles away. Compasses are employed for the first time on the Challenge. Strangely, very few of us seem to be navigating. This often happens in groups! Still, very little can go wrong up here. The Baggers' paths lead you in the right direction.

MIKE & DAVID, MUNRO CAIRN OF CLAISE (1064M) WEATHER TURNING...

ROSIE & DICKIE, CAIRN OF CLAISE

This is a bigger blighter at 1064m (For the metrically challenged, that's almost 3,500 feet up) It's another jumble of boulders to get there but this time there is a tear in the clouds and there's actually a great view down into Caen Lochan Glen. 

A BRIEF, SNATCHED VIEW FROM CAIRN OF CLAISE, LOOKING SOUTH INTO CAEN LOCHAN GLEN

A small wall that leads to the cairn gives a modicum of shelter but we don't stop for too long as it's a bit nippy. But there's always enough time for a Leerdammer and pita sandwich, stuffed with dark chocolate.

DICKIE, ROSIE & DAVID. CAIRN OF CLAISE

At this point we finally head east for the first time today, down a long delightfully soft slope. We briefly drop beneath the cloud, with the views now only hampered by strengthening rain and wind. Back in Braemar we had decided to cut Tolmount out of today's schedule and it's the right thing to do as the weather is now not so great.

DAVID, HEADING TO OUR NEXT MUNRO.

It's now gone midday and it's pretty shitty weather, so I let everyone know that once we're over the other side of our next Munro, Tom Buidhe - an easy job at a mere 957m - I'll put Trinie Trailstar up for a bit of shelter so we can have lunch in some comfort. This certainly lifts my spirits and I hope others' too. 

Tom Buidhe really is a doddle and at the top, in the pouring rain we meet a real-live Munro Bagger in the flesh, and he very kindly takes our group photo with my camera. Then he fairly gallops away in the direction of Glen Callater, muttering something about mad dogs and Englishmen out in a midday storm...

UNPLEASANT WEATHER ATOP MUNRO TOM BUIDHE (957M)

THE SCENERY HEREABOUTS. EASY WALKING, DRY UNDERFOOT

It's an easy gambol down the slopes of Tom Buidhe and in the rain David and I have Trinnie up in a flash, whilest Dickie heads off with his filter and our water bottles to replenish supplies for lunch. That man really is a star.

You've never seen 'The Famous Five in a Trailstar', have you? That's probably because it's a bit of a squeeze, and even Enid, who apparently liked a bit of bodily contact might have thought that this was beyond the pale. However, we are out of the wind and rain. Halfway through lunch the wind and rain stop and blue skies appear. Still, it was a good break.

POST LUNCH, HAPPY, ABOUT TO HEAD FOR LITTLE KILRANNOCH

The next section, over Little Kilrannoch and Dun Hillocks is an absolute delight. I dawdle a little on this section as the sun is out, the larks are singing their little hearts out and navigation's an absolute breeze. This is perfect Challenge walking. Up high, great views, easy going underfoot, and mostly downhill.

MIKE JONES. DUN HILLOCKS

We are now in sight of the Fee Burn, our proposed location for the Cheese & Wine Party. David and I decide to go down and take a look at the site, as neither of us have been this way before. Aware of the forecast, Mike, and Dickie & Rosie decide to carry on over Mayar and then drop down to a valley, but we let them know that we may actually stop here. We say our goodbyes and head off down the Fee Burn, which is  bloody good walking.

DICKIE & ROSIE

By good fortune the Fee Burn is an absolutely brilliant spot for a Cheese and Wine Party. There's lots of good water and plenty of excellent spots to pitch shelters.

Both David and I are still concerned that some Challengers may not have got the news that the party has been canceled. This helps us make up our minds. We'll camp right here, so if anyone does turn up we can have a makeshift party. Our own shelters are pretty bombproof and so the forecast weather shouldn't be a problem for us.

THE FEE BURN (TAKEN NEXT MORNING)

This is possibly the best stop of our whole trip. We're in a reasonably sheltered spot on soft dry-ish flat turf with a gurgling stream beside us. At the moment the weather is glorious. It's still early afternoon and I have a wonderful late afternoon doze, polish off an enormous rather tasty meal and then slide into blissful slumber.

I'm aware at some point in the night that it is absolutely heaving it down - it's the noise that wakes me, but Trinnie is rock solid and so I slide back into Audrey's arms to get back to where we had left off.

All in all, a fabulous day, done.