Another blast from the past! Mine & Phil Lambert’s walk
This is my account of my tenth Challenge.
GOC2005 was going to be my 10th and Phil’s 5th official crossing of Scotland. I say ‘official’ as we had both managed complete crossings the year of the Mini Challenge but they don’t count. We had walked the Challenge together before and had both walked it solo. Neither of us had ever had to drop out on the walk; never underestimate the Challenge as it can be tough but if you prepare properly, it’s an absolute blast.
I was travelling moderately light, with an American lightweight pack, a titanium stove & pot, Anquet printout maps, a one man tent and my own dehydrated food that my wife had prepared for me in advance. Phil went more for comfort, with a monster ‘very comfortable’ pack and a two man palace of a tent. His only nod to weight saving was to forget the maps for the first five days of the walk! He did, however, have the tide tables for Loch Moidart which could have proved very useful had it rained a lot…
We had picked a fairly sociable route as I had chosen quite a lonely one for a solo crossing the year before. We had both sent three food parcels off to B&B’s across Scotland to ensure that would never need to carry more than four days food and so keep pack weight down to a sensible minimum.
Two weeks prior to the Challenge we had taken the sleeper from Euston for a three day daunder through the Highlands on one of our PreWalkDaunders with a whole bunch of friends, just as a final test of equipment and fitness.
Our practice walks however, had started back in October, when the application form had been sent off to Roger Smith.
Mountains are pretty scarce in the wilds of Cambridgeshire and Suffolk so our training had been more concentrated on the social aspects of the walk; meeting most Sunday afternoons in the Three Blackbirds, before leaving the warm, convivial fug of the pub to set off into the cold Winter air for the physicality of a muddy slog around the fields for a few hours.
DAY 0: THE JOURNEY UP
From Home to Acharacle: (623km as the crow flies!)
Perhaps it was down to his lack of match fitness but on the journey up to the start point, things soon went down hill fast for Phil. In his haste to enter Sainsbury’s in Glasgow for a few cans for the rail trip to Fort William, he tripped over the disabled ramp and promptly disabled himself, resulting in a torn calf muscle.
With Phil undeterred at the thought of hopping across Scotland and with me sporting a sharp new Glasgow haircut (Lionel Blair doesn’t have his haircut like this! - ‘He does if he comes here’...) we hobbled onto the smart little train to Fort William. The train was crammed full of rucksacks, brand new fleeces and Gore-Tex. Tall tales of past trials and tribulations were passed on by the old hands to the first-timers to further unnerve, and the scenery flashed past the windows at breakneck speed.
Before we knew it, we were at Fort William, having cadged a lift from Barbara and were soon to be found in the bar at the Loch Shiel House Hotel, Acharacle, resuming our training.
By ten o’clock, as the polling stations were closing their doors all over Britain, we pronounced our training to be finally complete. We were ready for whatever the Mountains and Glens of Scotland could throw at us.
DAY 1 – FRIDAY 6th MAY
Acharacle to Ceann a Chreagain; (20km / 450m ascent)
I woke to find myself on top of the covers, still in my ‘hotel trousers’, but in pretty good shape, so after a sheep-dip bath to revive myself, headed down to breakfast to meet Phil for a pretty good ‘Full English’ – sorry – ‘Highland’ breakfast.
He was still hobbling and slightly concerned about his training injuries but I thought that his ailment would probably heal more quickly than my haircut so promptly put his concerns from my mind, like a true friend. He had shared his concerns and so by now must be 50% of the way to a full recovery.
After taking start-point photos, we ambled along with Barbara Sanders, Becky (who was walking with Barbara for a few days) and Maggie Hems.
After taking start-point photos, we ambled along with Barbara Sanders, Becky (who was walking with Barbara for a few days) and Maggie Hems.
BARBARA, PHIL, (HEAD DOWN, POORLY LEG) BECKY & MAGGIE
We had a boat to catch from Dalelia to Polloch. This boat had been the subject of much discussion on the Challenge Website over the preceding months and its route had been carefully selected to cross Loch Shiel rather than travel along its length. This boat had meant that we had avoided a lengthy road walk to Strontian or a wet clamber over Beinn Resipol (which, it had to be said, had avoided the cloud for most of the morning.)
Barbara & Becky had organised it so that as soon as we arrived at the pier the boat whooshed up to meet us. We piled onboard and were soon skimming along the waves across loch Shiel to Polloch.
The boatman – a friend of Becky’s - would only take ten pounds for the trip ‘to cover the cost of the fuel’ and also carried our packs off the boat in his wellies as we teetered across the rocks to the beach.
I never cease to be delighted by the generosity of the people that I meet on the Challenge.
We parted company with Maggie after leaving the boat, as she was heading up to Glenfinnan. We strolled round the headland and down to the village of Polloch to have a brew and a spot of lunch at a picnic table and popped inside a crafts hut / visitor centre as a hefty shower bubbled up from no-where. Then we ambled off down the road until we parted company with the other girls, who were headed up Glen Hurich.
It was a lovely warm & sunny day and the views back were delightful.
We left the road at the top, tightened up the boots and were soon contouring beneath the crags of Druim Glas.
A bit of a struggle down the very wet hillside and our first night’s campsite was in view – Ceann a Chreagain.
It was a beautiful sunny evening and we soon had our little plastic Wendy-houses up, the socks drying, a brew on and the Ardbeg was being passed tent to tent. Phil thought that his leg had done jolly well that day, and was certainly no more painful than at the start of the day. So we toasted his leg, my haircut, the boatman, the Glasgow barber, the Great Coordinator… well into the dusk until the flask was finished.
DAY 2 – SATURDAY 7th MAY
Ceann a Chreagain to Inchree; (19km / 170m ascent)
That was a cold night – I woke to ice on the flysheet at about two in the morning, needing a pee. Once outside the starlight was wonderful – virtually no moon and so the stars were as bright as diamonds.
A good lie-in but the sun was not going to appear over the ridge for a while so I decided to carry on and have breakfast rather than wait for the sun to melt the icy tent. Porridge, cheese and biscuits, hot orange, coffee and a couple of breakfast bars. That should get the food-bag down in size! Phil is notorious for his late starts, but he was pretty good this morning and we were away at a reasonable time and making our way up the glen to Lochan a Chothruim. We had a little river crossing on the way – a little gushy stream that was fantastically cold but refreshing then an early break to dry out the tents in the cool breeze before we headed off down Glen Gour.
PHIL, UPPER GLEN GOUR
I had heard so many stories of Glen Gour over the ten years I had been doing the Challenge – virtually all of them of the ‘Here be Dragons!’ type. I had allowed a whole day out of respect for these stories.
How wrong could they be! But I am so glad I allowed a day to enjoy it.
Glen Gour was a true delight. Dancing streams, roaring linns, wonderful rock architecture and a streamside path that came and went as you needed it. Flowers and new growth all around.
Loch Linnhe was soon in view and we picked up a good track to speed us on our way passed the old dishevelled dam and the road.
LOOKING DOWN GLEN GOUR TO LOCH LINNHE IN THE DISTANCE
We have a simple rule to help us on our Challenges – never pass a pub or tea-shop without calling in, and so we knocked back ice creams from the village shop at Clovullin sitting on the step in the hot sunshine.
It was only a short step from there to the pub at Corran and we decided to miss a few ferries in the pub with Mike Daniels and Di Wooffindin.
We popped in to the pub at the other side of the ferry but decided to only have the one as we were looking forward to a good meal later at Inchree. Our B&B was wonderful and the meal later at the restaurant was first class. Phil’s leg was holding him up fine and so we drank to his leg.
DAY 3 – SUNDAY 8th MAY
Inchree – Loch Eilde Mor; (26km / 650m ascent)
After a wonderful breakfast we set out for Lundavra after first taking in the little track that roller-coasts you above the waterfalls and then through the Glenrigh forest. Looking back westwards we could see Glen Gour getting a snow shower.
LOOKING WEST FROM INCHREE
As we strolled further up the track we saw big black clouds in every direction but above us, with huge curtains of hail and snow trailing beneath them. Phil explained that the Germans have a particular expression that explained how we were feeling – known as Schadenfreude. Some other blighter was getting a pasting – but wonderfully it was not us!
We had another brew when we broke free from the forest by the perfect little stream that runs through a little piece of Paradise – Lundavra.
It is not possible to tell you how beautiful this place is – the farmer is known to be reluctant to let walkers through during lambing time – but Phil & I agreed that in the unlikely event of us winning the lottery (tricky as neither of us plays it, so roughly the same odds) this would be the one piece of real-estate we would buy in Scotland – then we would stick up notices telling everyone to keep out! (only joking.)
Having said all that neither of us had the wit to get our cameras out and take a picture – so you will just have to go that way yourself next time!
Lunch was taken where we joined the West Highland Way – in a bit of a messy spot full of discarded fruit skins and general thoughtlessness. The chaffinches enjoyed our company and we enjoyed one of those fierce looking showers for a couple of minutes while we had another brew.
As we made our way south and then eastwards on the WHW we met dozens of WHW’ers all looking a bit glum and footsore. Polite conversation was made but Schadenfreude kicked in & we had a fit of the giggles and had to walk on. What is it with these people? Why so glum? The weather was great, the scenery fantastic and we still had loads of Scotland to discover! It must have been their blisters…
ABOVE: LOOKING EAST ON THE WEST HIGHLAND WAY. BELOW: LOCH LEVEN & PAP OF GLENCOE
We trundled along quite nicely, taking in another brew at Tigh na Sleubhaich (when it promptly got all blowy and cold again – only happened when we stopped) then ambled along the track to the Mamore Lodge Hotel – where we bumped into Di & Mike again. Three excellent pints of something Dark from an Island and we felt suitably re-trained and before too long we were camped up at Loch Eilde Mor enjoying the sunlight playing on the mountains.
LOCH EILDE MOR
Phil produced a nice red to wash down my lamb hotpot (many thanks to Lynnie for spending weeks with the Sunday lunch drier.) We took a crash course in Phil’s whisky bottle, for educational purposes, and to lighten Phil’s load, and slept like lambs in another sub-zero night.
DAY 4- MONDAY 9th MAY
Loch Eilde Mor – Corrour Cottages; (28km / 720m ascent)
I had planned this morning’s walk quite a few times in the last ten years, but it had never quite fitted in with the overall walk of each particular year and so I hadn’t yet been this way. It had always looked to be a good walk on the map, promising good elevated views. I am so glad we came this way! The morning’s walk was a stunner.
The day started well with us scraping the ice from the tents quite early as this was to be quite a big day, so that they would not be too sopping when we next had to pitch them. Our first delight of the day was a pair of Red Throated Divers on the loch. We then we climbed on the fairly good path on our way up to Meall na Cruaidhe.
PHIL & BUCHAILLE ETIVE MOR
The views this morning were top-drawer with stunning panoramas opening up the higher we climbed. Buchaille Etive Mor, Sgor Eilde Beag, Sgurr Eilde Mor, The Aonach ridge…. Mountain after mountain after mountain peeling off into the distance. Far away we could see Schiehallion looking like a tiny volcano.
This really was paradise.
The path wound its way down and around and eventually dropped us off at Loch Chiarain Bothy where we had a brew and an excellent lunch. After a little while it was great to be joined by Bernie & Pauline Marshall (the first marriage that actually took place on the Challenge!)
PHIL WITH SGOR EILDE BEAG & SGURR EILDE MOR
THE AONACH RIDGE
Above & Below – View across the Blackwater to Lairig Gartain and Phil Lambert
ME, LOCH CHIARAIN BOTHY
The afternoon’s walk started nicely along Loch Chiarain but once over the watershed and into Gleann Iolairean the track descended into a quagmire of off-road motorcycle tracks that totally destroyed the wilderness experience.
We stopped for a snack & boot break at Loch Treig to gird our loins for the climb back up to Corrour station. We scampered alongside the railway track and in no time at all were sitting down munching chocolate bars in the waiting shed on the platform. Just the ritual weighing to perform on the Station scales. Phil’s weighed in at 40 and mine at 33lbs. Not so bad as we still had three days’ food on board.
Loch Ossian YH with Ben Nevis in the distance
LOCH OSSIAN & BEALACH DUBH
About a week prior to setting off on the Challenge one enterprising chap (David Albon) posted a notice on the Challenge Message board having negotiated with Corrour Estate for a cottage for one night. All he need was three people to share. I had bagged two of the places like a shot and Alan Keegan was very quick to bag the fourth. So we set off for the far end of Loch Ossian in search of the cottage and our benefactor. Towards the end of a longish day the track is a bit of a trudge, but the thought of a hot deep bath, fluffy towels and a bed were more than enough to get us there.
We arrived tired but happy into the warmth of the cottage and a chat with David over a good meal.
Then Bernie & Pauline re-appeared having mulled over the conversation we had had at Loch Chiarain about beds, towels and baths and room was made over to them to luxuriate in the splendour of the cottage.
A good deep bath later and after lots of sock washing I fell into bed and was already fast asleep when the others welcomed Alan Keegan in at a quarter to eleven, exhausted after a long day.
DAY 5 – TUESDAY 10th MAY
Corrour Cottages – River Pattack; (20km / 530m ascent)
We bumped into David Skipp and Steve Parker who had camped at the loch-side and they told us how cold it had been that night.
Phil & I were in no hurry today and so we let everyone steam past all in a rush. I had found a really nice rock to stand on next to the path and was quite happy to just stand and stare at it all. Just take it all in really. It was wonderful just to be able to stand there and let the spirit of the place wash over me. Phil got fed up with this eventually and prodded me onwards with a well placed walking pole, and so we sauntered along the streamside taking in every extravagant bend, just to add to the delight of the walk rather than to cut all the corners in a horrid headlong rush to Montrose. I wanted this walk to last forever.
We eventually caught up with Bernie & Pauline and stopped for a very social brew and a little training and were then joined by Alan Keegan who looked as fresh as a daisy after his exploits of the day before. Amazing at 77 years old!
I knew that the stalkers path that we were to eventually meet up with to pop over the bealach was absolutely first rate (It goes as far as Ben Alder Bothy) so I persuaded Phil to cut across the peat far earlier than normal and cut up to the path at a higher point – Well – I enjoyed it anyway! (Sorry Phil!)
Uisge Labhair and Bealach Dubh
The Stalkers path
LOOKING BACK TO LOCH OSSIAN & PHIL
We slipped into Culra bothy for a brew after passing three excellent guys who were repairing the footpath over the bealach. They had natty little motorised wheelbarrows that looked just the job for hauling rucsacs over heavy going ground.
LOOKING BACK TO BEN ALDER
After getting the bothy stove going (it always amazes me that people can sit in there for hours without lighting the fire!) with the judicious use of a Butane/ Propane mix, Phil and I left, leaving the Reverend sketching in his book and the others starting on their suppers as a lone camper was erecting his tent outside the bothy.
Phil and I walked lazily over the last four miles, over the bridge and on to the River Pattack to stop.
LOOKING SW FROM OUR CAMPSITE @ RIVER PATTACK
DAY 6 – WEDNESDAY 11th MAY
River Pattack – Dalwhinnie; (19km / 480m ascent)
The night had been another freezing one, so I really was glad I had taken my down jacket. We had noticed that every evening, the few fluffy clouds that had been around in the day invariably melted into nothing as the sun set. We could not fathom out how that worked!
In the dim & distant past I had read that Dirc Mhor was a site not to be missed, and so in the run-up to the Challenge I had tried to find out as much as possible about it. Various theories existed – the best supplied by John Donohoe – that it was a deep slash in the hillside caused by an angry dragon’s tail who was annoyed to find no decent pub in Dalwhinnie.
Now – we could have taken the very nice track alongside Loch Ericht and been in Dalwhinnie before lunch for some re-training exercises, but Phil said that as it was my tenth, he was up for it – so Dirc Mhor it was.
So, we wandered down the River Pattack, past the site of an old village, than past the falls (very impressive) and then up the Allt Beinn Eilde. This involved climbing not one, but two deer fences with combination locked gates in quick succession. The padlocks only had 4 dials each and so we toyed with sitting there for a few happy hours in the sunshine and changing the combinations for the Monarch of the Glen Estate who were so welcoming to walkers… but we both had lives and so put that off for something to idle away the hours at the next visit.
Phil and his tent after a cold night.
PHIL ENROUTE TO DIRC MHOR WITH BEN ALDER, CARN DEARG & AONACH BEAG BEHIND
After bumping into scores of deer round the back of Beinn Eilde, who looked genuinely surprised to see us, we clambered up and over the moor for a mile or so to the south east entrance to the Dirc Mhor. It was baking hot and the gorge really was an amazing sight. It leads you in gently at first in a little dry valley and then the cliffs soar upwards on the right and then you enter the chasm.
Here there is a huge jumble of rocks – all sizes and shapes, choking the gorge floor. The mosses and plant life bridge all the gaps between the boulders so it is almost impossible to know if your feet are on something solid or a carpet of fresh air.
You take four or five steps along and down and then have to clamber up big boulders to progress forwards. With the packs on we felt incredibly unstable and there was this nagging fear that at any moment your foothold would vanish into fresh air and your leg would disappear into the void. It was a really unnerving experience. After a quarter of an hour of this we had progressed about 50 m along the gorge. It was a nightmare!
It was hot; we were knackered and massively apprehensive that this was going to get worse.
Enough was enough, and so when I noticed a grassy exit from the gorge on the left hand side, Phil readily agreed that Dirc Mhor could be done another day when we had day-sacks instead of the packs.
It was a relief to get into the breeze again at the side of the gorge.
But what now? A closer look at the map showed that the cliffs curled back around at the north exit of the gorge, so we decided to drop down to the Lochan na Doire-uaine and try to get through the valley there. Now, Phil did say that he thought the contours were a bit close together, but I thought ‘what the heck, it cannot be worse than what we have just left…’
We got down to the Lochan and after getting a good way along it realised that the cliffs went sheer, straight into the water. Back we went to the boggy end of the Lochan where we re-grouped, had a spot of lunch, a brew and a boot break in the sunshine. Things felt better now, so we clambered through the peat bogs to the other side of the Lochan and noticed that the cliffs on the north side of the Lochan also looked as though they dropped straight into the water. The cliffs on the north side of the Lochan were not even marked on the map. It dawned on us that this was another Dirc Mhor – just lower down the hillside than the one on the map. We sat and postulated on how on earth all this was formed.
So – with no way past the Lochan we decided to go north over the moor and around the un-named hill marked 589m. It was a bit of a slog but it was a beautiful day and we had time on our side.
On our way round this hill, we chanced on a peculiar past happening. Phil first discovered the discarded First Aid Kit, and then we found a tarpaulin, a full set of tent pegs, a full food bag, lip balm... And so it went on. We were nervously expecting to come across a tatty old Gore-Tex coat with skeletal remains, but must have missed it. Perhaps he too had tried to find a way through Dirc Mhor!
Above – the ‘Mini’ Dirc Mhor & Lochan na Doire-uaine Below – Dirc Mhor from the North-east
THE TWIN EXITS OF BOTH DIRCS AT THEIR NORTH EASTERN ENDS
The little valley heading east away from the twin Dircs was an absolute delight – stunted birch trees, the occasional oak, lush grassy patches and a bubbly stream for company. (Phil & I never talk much!) Then we found a rather horrid, very white LRT, all bouldery that led us down towards Dalwhinnie and the Loch Ericht Hotel which was basic but friendly and the holder of my second food parcel.
Over supper we talked with John Jocys and Viv Pike and he very kindly listened to our epic adventures in Dirc Mhor (which got wilder and rockier with each telling). Since the challenge, John’s son Nick, who is studying geology at university, has come up with a couple of theories as to how the Dircs were formed.
A good evening was had at the hotel. Has anyone else noticed how the service you receive in Scottish hotels has been transformed this year? We were looked after by a couple from Slovakia at the Loch Ericht, who were charm personified. (The Fife Arms later on in the walk was also amazingly blessed with Eastern European staff, whose sole purpose was to make your stay a pleasure!)
After leaving the restaurant downstairs, we repaired to the upstairs resident’s lounge for further training and another telling of our heroic struggle with the Dragon’s Dircs!
DAY 7 – THURSDAY 12th MAY
Dalwhinnie – Allt na Cuilce; (22km / 400m ascent)
A fairly late start with a decent breakfast under our belts and refreshed supplies - a nice bottle of Tallisker – and we were bimbling up the aqueduct in the morning sunshine. We peeled off to Loch Cuaich for our first stop. For some reason I wasn’t firing on all four today, so I took my time over the stop and had a few glasses of water. Walking along the loch I still felt well below par and so we stopped for a very early lunch as soon as we had left the loch behind, alongside Feith na Braclaich.
I made this an even longer stop with a couple of brews, a favourite ‘cuppa soup’ and lots of home made dried fruit (strawberries, bananas, pears, apples and plums). I figured that perhaps I was over-trained and needed to step back a little and get some vitamin C, fluids and a kip into this knackered old frame.
An hour & a half later and I was up-for-it again, and so Phil & I set off up to the bogs of the watershed – and what bogs they were too! Phil prodded the ground in front of him with his poles, took a swing back and launched himself across a particularly black wide bit to see his poles plunge in up their handles with him following them! Up to his goollies in black sloppy peat! I was desperate to get my camera out of its pocket and case, but he would not stay there for me. What sort of a mate is that?
Once over the watershed, the little valley nurturing Allt na Feinnich was lovely. It reminded me of the White Peak valleys back in England. We bounced from bank to bank across the gurgling splash and then came across something I had only heard about – a large muddy shallow hollow used by stags to roll about in. I couldn’t imagine the wife being too impressed if I was to appear covered in mud and slop telling that I loved her on a Friday night after the pub!
Next came a bit of a mistake – we noticed that a path came up from Bhran cottage into the valley, so we hauled ourselves up the hillside and slogged our way alongside the deer fence at the top of the wood to meet it, through tussocky boggy moorland. Why? There was a lovely little stream down below with green grass on each bank… Ho Hum…
Anyway, we made it to Bhran Cottage, nipped over the bridge and found a spot to have a lie down and giggle over our crass navigation / lack of hill sense. It was still sunny and warm so we ambled off south east, passing a whole lot of guys in camouflage with rifles who were taking pot shots at targets towards the direction of Gaick. I was glad we were taking a different route.
Before too long on our rather pedestrian ramble we were hailed by the Very Reverend with two rather older hangers on – Gus McKinnon & Norrie Wood. So that meant we now had four ULA-P2’s and four Akto’s between us. We strolled up the valley and Phil & I decided to stop at our destination while the others carried on walking into the evening.
I had to admit to having done enough today, so we decided that perhaps a little training was in order with the Tallisker, which I am sure steadied my hands for the shot below of sunset looking down towards Glen Tromie. The clouds did their magic again tonight with one huge black cloud that came down over our tents that then slowly lifted and melted into nothing. Just before retiring we found a small animal trap which had caught a weasel in it. I just hope the keeper thought it was necessary.
SUNSET FROM ALLT NA CUILCE
DAY 8 – FRIDAY 13th MAY
Allt na Cuilce – Braemar; (43.3km / 850m ascent)
You may look at the figures above and not believe your eyes, dear reader, but it is true! It was not quite what was planned but it happened – and here’s how!
We both woke quite early and Phil told me how during the night he was having a pee when he noticed a whole lot of lights on the other side of the glen with roaring engines and shooting going on – lamping – must have been the guys in the camouflage – I suppose it takes all sorts… I had slept blissfully through this, but later on in the walk we were to hear that John & Viv had had a narrow escape as one of the monster trucks had narrowly missed their green tent that they were asleep in, in the headlong rush to go killing things. There are some scary people out there.
So- Phil was knackered and my feet were tired of bog hopping – neither of us had any blisters but we just fancied a break from wild stuff. Our original route was to nip up though the head of the valley and pick up the very headwaters of the Feshie and follow it down to the Geldie. I had lost my enthusiasm for this plan this morning and mooted the alternative of heading north east toward the Feshie where we could wade it and join the trade route to Braemar, still stopping where we had originally intended, at the bottom of the Geldie. Happily, Phil agreed and so we were off quite smartish up the hill.
It was another beautiful morning and when we picked up the track through the woodlands it was just about perfect – cool breezes, warm sunshine and peat beneath our feel the consistency of cooked chocolate cake – warm and soft. It was perfect for tired feet. The track lead down at a wonderfully gentle angle through the woods on a carpet of moss – There is no better walking than this.
Before too long at all we had caught up with Norrie & Gus – The very Reverend Father having just left for the day. They had found a delightful camping spot at Lochan an t-Sluic. We delayed their start a little more by getting them to put the kettle on for another cup of tea while we had a lie-down in the sunshine. There is nothing like an unexpected Challenge brew.
PHIL ENROUTE FOR LOCHAN A T-SLUIC
All good things come to an end so Phil and I left the old devils packing up and sauntered off down the track to find a spot to wade the Feshie, where we promised to return the compliment of the brew for Gus & Norrie.
Lying in the sun with the kettle on, we were hailed by Morpeth (Pete Shepherd) and his good friend Mick. We offered them a brew, but he answered ‘Naylad – weajustagootgawin!’ or some such other Geordie expression – he had his teeth in too! Mick looked forlornly at the kettle but was brow-beaten back onto the track by herdsman Morpeth. Others passed by too but all declined our offers – what’s the rush with these people? Norrie & Gus are gentlefolk and took pleasure in taking tea with us.
NORRIE & THE FESHIE
We toddled off and made for our morning coffee stop past the sylvan beauty of Glen Feshie. Feshie really is a lovely place - it seems to swallow challengers so that you have it all for yourself. We soon made Ruighe nan Leum for coffee and spotted a notice hammered on a stake into the ground – saying something about the Cairngorm Partnership and the landowner ‘improving’ the track in upper Glen Feshie in order to get more deer out to preserve the environment.
Well – What a mess. What a disgrace!
Four wheeled drive vehicles have obviously been mashing the poor peaty soils into oblivion, criss-crossing the old narrow walker’s path, causing ghastly quagmires. There is no attempt of any sort to control where the vehicles should go and it all ruined completely the wilderness experience of Upper Glen Feshie. Has this wily landowner also obtained grant aid from Westminster / Europe / wherever in his bid to totally destroy this environment?
He should be taken out and put up against the wall and made to explain himself to the thousands who have ever taken the simple pleasure of walking through this wild tract of countryside. Ownership is not a good enough an excuse to vandalise and desecrate this wilderness.
Enough of my rant – but I was incredibly upset (and still am.)
However, we bowled along at a really good pace and bumped into John & Viv, Mick & Morpeth, and Bernie & Pauline at various times over the rest of the afternoon, taking tea and sharing whisky, biscuits and real cheese!
It wasn’t long before we had reached our evening’s stopping point at the bottom of the Geldie, but Phil’s Leg was holding up remarkably well and so I was persuaded to take a few steps further to make it to White Bridge, where it was only a short days walk into Braemar the next day. It seemed like an excellent plan, so we bowled along further. It was still early when we got there, so Phil suggested that we should make the Linn of Dee, from where we could have a lie-in and still be at the pub for opening time on Saturday. That seemed an even better plan. Enroute to the Linn of Dee we bumped into His Holiness the Very Reverend Father and Tom & Eddie (Gavin Meldrum & David Hamilton) already camped up for the night. We shared tales and drams and moved smartly on in the warm early evening air.
It was at the Linn of Dee where Phil’s true plan finally made it up to the surface. – ‘Al’ – he went – ‘Its Five past Eight – We could be in the bar at the Fife Arms by quarter past ten supping fine ales in the company of one of the finest top shelves in Scotland’.
At Twelve minutes past ten in the dying light of a Scottish summer’s day, I was at the bar ordering four pints and four packets of peanuts as Phil was checking us in at Reception.
Just as I was paying for them, up strolled Michael Gray who announced that today he had just compleated his Munros! So now we had a special reason to celebrate!
What a wonderful day.
DAY 9 – SATURDAY 14th MAY
Today was spent lounging about, having fish & chips and welcoming all the new arrivals into Braemar. It was good to see Max Strunck and Trine Nykjaer from Denmark – who we had first met at Stansted Airport. They were having a great time. We heard for the first time of the large numbers who had dropped out in the first few days. It must have been all those storms we had seen.
Food parcels were collected and new socks bought at Braemar Mountain Sports (why do people complain about this excellent establishment? It has all you need, with coffee thrown in too!)
All in all an excellent day – but I don’t remember much about it!
DAY 10 – SUNDAY 15th MAY
Braemar – Lochcallater Lodge; (9km / 240m ascent)
This was a difficult day – we started with good intentions at the trendy new café on the way in to Braemar from the Linn of Dee, and went through the menu of fruit cordials, excellent coffees and lovely snacks with all the Sunday papers to wade through.
We only popped in to the Fife just to see who had arrived. A wonderful five hours later we were staggering up the golf course road with carry-outs on our way to Stan’s at Lochcallater Lodge.
Somehow I got caught up in a deer fence. But we made it relatively unscathed to Stan’s to be met by Stan & Bill and their amazing hospitality. I had missed them the previous year so I had a bit of ground to make up, which I wasted no time in sorting out. All the usual suspects were there – including Croydon (Mick Hopkins) Morpeth & Mick, Maggie Hems and Skippy (Dave Skipp)
I have no idea what time we got to our beds, but we had sung and drunk together in one big happy family of Challengers.
DAY 11- MONDAY 16th MAY
Lochcallater Lodge – Shielin of Mark; (21km / 1000m ascent)
We woke up quite late feeling remarkably perky and Stan & Bill were already up & about with the big black kettles singing away on the stove and fireplace. Coffee is always good and so is my ‘Oatsosimple’ to bed everything down. Then nip back upstairs and pack while downstairs S&B were cooking bacon, eggs, sausages, mushrooms and baked beans. This was a feast and we all piled in and then helped with the washing up. It was past ten o’clock when we left, but hey, this wasn’t a huge day after all.
Our plan for the day was to nip over Carn an t-Sagairt Mor, Cairn Bannoch, Cairn of Gowal, Sandy Hillock, Broom Hill, Ferrowie, The Witter and camp at the Water of Unich. Sounds a lot – but it is only 22km with 900m.
All went well until we were on top of C a t-S M, then huge black clouds started to roll in with hail behind it.
PHIL ON THE WAY UP CARN AN T-SAGAIRT MOR
We took our pictures at the top and turned our backs to the wind to walk along the ridge towards Cairn Bannoch. It was easy walking, but getting quite blustery & very cold and then hail & snow started to come in. I took a look back towards Braemar – where it was all coming from – but it didn’t look great.
ME, CARN AN T-SAGAIRT MOR, CLOUDS LOOMING
Was it a good decision or a wimpy decision – I am not sure – but I persuaded Phil that we should take our FWA (foul weather alternative) and head on down to Glass allt Shiel. A little further down we met up with Morpeth & Mick, after herding a flock of dotterel about, and they provided a brew in the snow.
LOOKING DOWN TO DUBH LOCH & EAGLES CRAG & BROAD CAIRN
The trip down past Dubh Loch is quite spectacular, with wonderful water-slides and wild scenery and big black cliffs all around. It was a day to linger over, and so Phil & I plodded slowly down playing tag with Mick & Morpeth. There are a few boulders to clamber over and then a bit of a boggy bit along the loch side, but then a lovely path all the way to Glas-allt-Shiel bothy.
Apparently Charles & Camilla like this spot too – I can see why – it’s a haven in tall, dark, soft trees with a wild Loch Muick alongside. The bothy itself is a bit of a gloomy affair downstairs and after a couple of brews Mick & Morpeth and Phil & I stepped out on our way to the Shielin of Mark. It was a lovely evening again and we felt like a walk.
At the Spittal of Glenmuick, Phil & I sauntered down to the visitor centre for a sit down on a chair and to check out some birds we had seen on the trip (they always have pictures of all the birds on the walls). Then we daundered up the Allt Darrarie on the excellent path and hopped over the top to land smack on the chimney of the Shielin. You sort of ‘feel’ your way there.
It was only ten past eight when we got there and the weather was still fine if a little chilly, so we bundled into the bothy looking for a bit of a social, only to find three bodies in sleeping bags all fast asleep!
We shut the door again a bit disappointed by this lack of camaraderie, and looked about for someone to chat to. There was a tiny little tarp job barely a foot high off the ground (must have been Bob Cartwright!) who said ‘Hi’ at least, but then only Mick & Morpeth who were out & about. The rest of the tents (about another ten) were all zipped up and snoring like blazes, so Phil & I splashed over the stream and put our tents up in splendid isolation to cook our dinners and share the last of the flasks. All in all, an excellent day!
DAY 12 – TUESDAY 17th MAY
Shielin of Mark – Tarfside; (19km / 330m ascent)
This was to be a doddle of a day but even so we left earlyish (about 7:45am) to be on our way to Tarfside. We whizzed along and were soon on top of Muckle Cairn – a great vantage point at this end of the Challenge, as you can see Mount Keen, the Lochnagar hills and all the hills over to Clova. With a little imagination you can make out scores of Challengers heading like Wildebeests from every direction towards Tarfside in their quest for bacon butties, baked potatoes, beers and jolly ladies to get scrubbed-up for!
We positively scampered down the freshly burnt heather slopes of Muckle Cairn down to the Stables of Lee. We were going like express trains! We made Tarfside for lunch and managed to bag a single room each, so by the time the rest of the Challenge arrived, we had showered and our washing was dripping dry on the line. The ladies looked after us admirably. Thank you, the Towers and Anne Maden.
LOOKING BACK TO LOCHNAGAR WITH PHIL ON MUCKLE CAIRN
After the Hostel we nipped in to the Mason’s – just to be sociable – a great evening of entertainment.
John, Norrie, Bill, Joe (Roy) and Trevor in the Masons
John Dodds & Croydon
DAY 13 – WEDNESDAY 18th MAY
Tarfside – North Water Bridge; (26km / 260m ascent)
Another lovely day starting with bacon butties (Phil only just woke me in time before the bacon was to run out!) and mugs of coffee. We settled up our tab which had run to two pages and did a bit of washing up before we toddled off into Tarfside.
The playing field had been pretty full of tents and most were being packed up and stuffed back into overfull rucksacks. It’s strange that when you have time on your hands to pack the thing properly it always looks as though its done twelve rounds with Joe Bugner – squished in all the wrong places with anoraks, shoes and fleeces bursting from the lid.
We ambled along in no particular hurry, enjoying the tranquillity of the place.
No maps were needed (None were needed in fact since Glen Feshie as I had been over this ground before), but each time I come this way I notice something new or different.
We passed Cortina Cottage – each time the Cortina is a little bit more dishevelled but still amazingly rust-free for a Dagenham dustbin. The cottage is slowly slipping into the same state of disrepair as the car, but I find it faintly re-assuring, as I am certain the occupants see the same Challengers walk past each year and cannot help noticing how they get older and more worn out with each passing year.
We stopped at the usual streams for our usual brews, comfortable with the silences we share with each other – we all know it’s almost over for another year but we amble along prolonging the pleasure. There is a lot of talk about what I shall be doing this time next year as I will have to take a year off. There are promises of postcards from The Fife Arms while I will be holed up in a restaurant in Tuscany with the Lynnie! I shall be supping Chianti and Barolo instead of Ardbeg & Tallisker.
Still – there is still Edzell to enjoy and before too long we are all sitting down in the café knocking back the lager and fish & chips before we head off to the Panmuir Arms for a few drinks before the plod down the Airfield road to the campsite. We stay a little longer than expected as we bump into Peter Lumley of the DQMI brigade (Didn’t quite make it) and have a good chat over a beer.
One last job before we leave the village – to get the carry-outs for the campsite. The girls at the village shop have seen most of us before and pick up the conversations where we left off last year.
We swing down over the suspension bridge and head off for the Airfield Road. I always love this road as I do enjoy the look of despair on my walking companions’ faces as they realise that they cannot actually see the end of the straight! Just before the end of the road it started to rain, which was a bit of a disappointment as it could hamper the party atmosphere at the campsite.
The campsite is bursting with Challengers, but the mood is subdued because of the weather, so Phil & I sit in his tent with a bottle of wine and some cheese and biscuits after a good meal, then its back to the tent to bed.
DAY14 – THURSDAY 19th MAY
North Water Bridge – St Cyrus; (13km / 190m ascent)
We leave reasonably early, and we set a cracking pace and so we soon haul in Challengers who set out before us. The weather is overcast but fine and we take huge enjoyment from the even pace we set ourselves. The Den of Morphie flies past without a break in step (a real swine the first time I came across it ten years ago) and we positively fly up the Hill of Morphie.
All of a sudden we are there – on the cliff top, looking down at the beach. The tide is not too far out and the path down the cliff is newly repaired and quite splendid. We whizz down the cliff and are soon shaking hands in the North Sea and taking photos of each other.
So, it’s back up the cliff path and off to the pub for a celebratory pint – well coffee any way, as we had walked so quickly we were at the pub well before opening time!
A quick lunch and then we jumped on the bus with a load of other leathery faces and bulging rucksacks. New friends are chattering away, but every now and then the bus falls silent, as it dawns on everyone that the walk is now over.
Phil Lambert – St Cyrus
ME, ST CYRUS
The Kinnaird Room at the Park Hotel is all smooth efficiency, with Roger doling out the certificates, Patricia making teas and coffees like a trooper and JD doling out the shirts and sweatshirts. I never have the right words with me to thank Roger for making all this possible, but I hope that grinning like an idiot gets it across.
I sit for a while reading the comments book, not yet wanting to find my room – as then the walk will be over. In the buzz of this room stories are flying back & forth of slips, mishaps, mis-locations – all the fun of the Challenge. Names and addresses are being exchanged – firm friends have been made all over Scotland.
I realise that I am listening to excited descriptions of everyone’s walks and am making mental notes of ‘must see’ places to include on my next Challenge. Time to call up Lynnie – it’s our wedding anniversary tomorrow, and her birthday – it will be wonderful to actually be home to celebrate it with her!
Besides – I need a little beauty sleep as Phil & I still have the last bit of training to do at the bash tonight!
ME @ ST CYRUS
This was easily my best Challenge so far! Phil puts this all down to me walking with an excellent companion and I cannot argue with him. I would especially like to thank Phil for tripping over Sainsbury’s ramp in Glasgow and for having a dreadful cold for the first nine days of the Challenge. Without this combination he would have walked me off my feet.
Best piece of gear?
- Winner by a mile - my Paramo Velez jacket (my second now) – sensationally well made, incredibly comfortable and infinitely adjustable for wildly different weather conditions.
- Next best? – Anquet maps print-outs – saving a huge 2lbs in weight.
- The pillow and the down jacket – worth every ounce!
In reality, all my gear performed excellently and I would not leave home leaving any of it behind.
Highlights of the trip?
- The morning walk from Loch Eilde Mor to Loch Chiarain Bothy
- Dirc Mhor day
- Glen Tromie to Braemar.
Lowpoints of the trip?
Helpful tips to prospective Challengers
- If it looks like a big day ahead, get up early and finish when you are ready to. Never walk when you are exhausted.
- Do not be a slave to the clock – Time should be measured by how you feel.
- Always be prepared to change your route if it all gets too much. It’s a holiday!
- Take care of your feet. Most Challengers who drop out do so because of blisters. Have at least two or three ‘boot breaks’ a day – with feet drying in the air, socks re-fluffed.
- Always, always call Challenge Control when you are supposed to, if you want to do the walk again!
Kit List: (All up weight with three days food – 33 lbs.)
ULA P2 rucsac
Ortlieb Waterproof Document bag – with
Cash, Chequebook, Bankcards, Route card & telephone numbers, Air tickets, Passport (for flight check-in), Canon Digital camera & charger, Mobile phone
Anquet maps on A4 paper & Small Garmin GPS in small Ortlieb waterproof document case
Compass & whistle
LED Head torch & 3 AAA batteries
¾ length Ultralight Thermarest
Rab Premier 500 Sleeping Bag
Small Ajungilac pillow.
Ten year old red Hilleberg Akto tent (thick pole) & 10 golden TNF pegs
Tent pole aluminium repair sleeve & small length of Duct tape.
Titanium - cooking pot, kettley thing, mug & spoon
Pot grab cloth
Nail Brush (for washing up and cleaning boots)
Titanium Primus Gas stove & windshield
Full fuel canister (bought in Glasgow)
Small ‘Leatherman’ with corkscrew
Washing kit & small Pack towel
First Aid kit including sunscreen
Sunglasses in sturdy case
Water bottle attached to pack
4 Litre Platypus water bag
Food bag, Rubbish bag, Dirty clothes bag & Fresh clothes bag
2 pairs thick walking socks
4 pairs liner socks
Lightweight fell running shoes
Scarpa Delta leather boots & Customfit ‘Superfeet’ insoles
Small Nikwax waterproofer
White cotton handkerchief
1 pair windproof Capilene Marmot briefs
1 pair Capilene briefs
1 Patagonia lightweight vest
1 Lowe Alpine Powerstretch top.
Mountain Hardware Powerstretch tights
Homemade Powerstretch / Velcro ankle gaiters.
V Lightweight ‘Hotel trousers’ (for the self conscious wearing tights)
Paramo Velez smock jacket (no hood)
Mountain Hardware XCR Gore-tex jacket
Mountain Equipment Down jacket
Lowe Alpine Mountain cap
Turtle fleece neck gaiter
Leki Titanium walking poles
Loo Roll & Wetwipes
Lightweight toilet trowel
Dozen Multi-Vitamin pills (to make hot orange at breakfast)
75 cl. Sigg Whisky bottle (filled with Ardbeg)