We all knew it was coming. It had been forecast for quite a few days: Winds over 100mph (some said 130mph, on the tops); hurricane force winds. The folk manning ‘Challenge Control’ in Montrose were advising everyone to take their “Foul Weather Alternative” routes or just not to go anywhere that day.
At this point I will introduce you to my mate, Dave. Dave & I had gone to school together and as lads had spent large chunks of our youth wandering about being a nuisance in the hills of Britain and Corsica. He and Bob Butler had been my walking mates for as long as I can remember. Indeed, Bob, Dave & I had applied for the Challenge together back in 1995 but at the last moment Dave had had to pull out because he was a sick man. (He has always been a sick man, as most of his friends will attest.)
Dave was thinking of taking up the Challenge once more, and so was persuaded to join me for the last few days on ‘a bit of a saunter,’ from Braemar to the coast: “Nothing too taxing.”
So he duly arrived by coach in Braemar on the Saturday, flipped up his tent at the campsite and joined in the revelry at the Fife, then on to the Moorfield for Bingo Wings and then up to Lochcallater Lodge for the party for Sunday night. The boy did well; so well in fact that, he was just about last man standing at well past 3:00am on the Sunday night.
We awoke on Monday morning with the hurricane just winding up nicely, roaring up Glen Callater and slamming into the lodge. I think Dave managed breakfast.
The lodge was filled with talk of today’s routes with the majority deciding to brave Carn an t-Sagairt Mor and then down to Dubh Loch and Glas-allt-Shiel. Their ‘bale-out’ route would be to drop north down the Feindallacher Burn to the Ballochbuiue Forest and then round to Gelder Shiel. This was also our FWA. However after a brief con-flab with Andy Walker, I knocked this on the head. If the weather was like it was where we were now at around 500m I really didn’t relish the prospect of it at somewhere around 800m in a wind-funnel.
I persuaded one or two others to join me in my plod back down to Braemar, where we could re-group at the Fife Arms for a spot of second breakfast. Looking at that decision now, it was a pretty shrewd one. By the time we got to Braemar the weather was dreadful and we were almost blown through the doors of the hotel.
We had almost dried out after pots of tea and shortcake and standing with our bums to the fire and so eventually set off for the dash along the A93 to dive into the forest at Invercauld Bridge. It was still pretty windy with just the occasional wallopy shower from behind but it was apparent that we were very much in the eye of the storm. We snaffled a lunch in a rare piece of sunshine sitting on a grassy bank, tidying away just as the eye passed on, leaving the meat of the storm to come charging in at us.
At this point we bumped into the braver party from Stan & Bills – who had indeed come down the Feindallacher Burn, having been blown and knocked about and shot-blasted with hail in the process. They were quite subdued but had done really well, having had quite an adventure by all accounts.
By the time we reached Connachat Cottage the storm was really up; the pines were roaring and the burns were in full spate, bouncing down hillsides at a furious pace. There came the moment when we lost the shelter of the tress and the full force of the storm hit us. It was an incredible sensation. With just a small gap in your Paramo hood to peer through, the world was a violent place and the wind was truly a physical beast as it crashed into you; every step a major effort. The rain smashed into your wet weather gear and you looked up only to check direction. It was fantastic!
We had a brief halt at the lean-to shelter about a mile and a half before Gelder Shiel and realised that from here it was head-first into the storm. Nothing for it but to get it done.
We tumbled one by one into the bothy. It had been ferocious out there! Inside was all serenity and peace and Hein Hogenhuis drying out his wet weather gear.
It can only have been 3:30 or so in the afternoon but the decision was unanimous; we were staying put as the storm was just incredible. Besides, we were now in good striking distance of Tarfside for tomorrow, to be back on schedule with a longish day of walking on a straightforward route. So we picked bunks and were very careful to keep the place as dry as possible and clear of our gear as we were expecting quite a few more Challengers in that day to stay.
One of the first chaps in was Richard, who to everyone’s amusement was carrying 20kg of ultra-light gear. He still had nine Real Turmat meals left in his rucksack... But let’s not take the piss as Richard was to prove to be our saviour tonight!
The rest of the crew from Callater Lodge arrived and very soon the bothy resembled Scott’s hut in the Antarctic. There were thirteen of us – eight in the bunks and five on the floor. Table space was limited and so we all budged up and made room for each other, taking it in turns to dash out to take our lives in our hands to fetch water.
And then the Fire-Starter arrived. Now I’ll start out straight away and say that you just won’t meet a nicer bloke than Tony and he’s an important chap in the Backpacker’s Club; he tests gear and the like. But it was quite late when he arrived and he did look particularly bashed about by the elements yet he still insisted on trying to get his tarp set up outside ‘somewhere in a bit of shelter’. None of us could imagine anywhere remotely sheltered and so we suggested that he haul his kit inside and we would make room for a little one. But Tony was made of stern stuff and crashed out of the bothy. No-one expected to see him alive again…
Half an hour later he crashed back in through the bothy door, spectacles askew, with various bits of kit slung from his body but with a bit of help, we got him stowed inside for the night.
With everyone apart from Richard and Tony bedded down, he started to get his kit together to prepare his meal. It was obviously important to pour petrol all over the table first as a primer for his stove, but once that was cleared up and the myriad of rustly plastic bags were liberally strewn across the table, Tony was once more ready to pump up the pressure of his ancient Whisperlight. Except that by pumping, he produced an arc of petrol once more, spraying all over the bothy… which he then tried to ignite.
By this point his petrol fumes had completely filled the bothy and everyone was sitting bolt-upright in their sleeping bags waiting for the inevitable ‘WHUMP’ as we were all surely to be incinerated in one gigantic conflagration. Thank God, Richard managed to save the day, stepping in before the fatal match was struck…
20kg of Ultra-light Gear and a huge dollop of common sense and kindness soon had Richard help Tony with one of his ultralight meals cooked on Richard’s stove. Our heartfelt thanks go out to Richard. He prevented a towering inferno.
With our nerves at their Djangly Edge, we slipped back into sleep through the rest of the storm. I was wondering what Dave was making of all this. Quite a day!