Sunday, 11 October 2015

TGOC 2015, IV: The first ten million years were the worst

I stare in horror as a blizzard of down fills the inner tent. It had been a terrible night, a sweaty fight, fleeing Tracy's mauling clutches. I scoop handfuls of precious fluff, drop it back into the bag, zip her up carefully, and slip her into the stuff sack, to be dealt with later.


It's raining, and yes, we knew it would be. The heavy clouds are just feet above our shelters. But we're in the middle of sod all and there's a wonderful trackless day of bog, more bog, even more bog and heather ahead of us. It's a planned day of just over eleven miles with a mere 1350 feet of upness. Today we're heading to the proposed site of the Bhlaraidh wind farm on the southern lip of the Balmacaan Forest. It's our farewell to a backpacker's paradise, before it is buried under millions of tons of concrete, huge steel towers, whirling blades and hundreds of miles of haul roads.

The day ahead looks like this:


Full of the joys of the day ahead, we follow the burn downhill before turning left to head just north of east for the rest of the day. For a brief moment the clouds lift and I snatch a picture, looking west, of Phil with Sgurr nan Conbhairean behind, smothered in a cloud blanket. 


The next picture is of the view ahead. For the first half of the day we've strung together a series of small streams that lie in our general direction of travel. It involves some ups and downs, but generally we're handrailing some higher ground to our right, passing over the streams' mini-watersheds. It's all about 1500 - 1700 feet in altitude. Nothing could be simpler!


As the observant amongst the congregation will have noticed, to start with there's a wonderful deer track to follow, and we bowl along in magnificent style. I think to myself that at this rate I'll have time to mend my broken sleeping bag, have a leisurely dinner and fix the Middle East, all before inviting Phil over for a few snifters before bed-time.

After five hundred magnificent yards, the deer track veers south, following this particular stream over the lip of the high ground. Now we plunge into the bog and tussock that we so love and cherish. Yes we do! Honestly! Where there's bog and tussock there is wonderful wildlife: Newts, toads, slimey things and gloriously different bog plants, that every so often you get to inspect at very close quarters indeed, with your rucksack pushing your face deeper into this little piece of the cosmos.

Within ten minutes I realise my feet are squishing around in my boots. The Gore-Tex linings have failed spectacularly. Not a big deal, but a nasty surprise all the same. A few minutes later and there's a funny squawking noise from behind. Phil exclaims that he has a boot-full of water! We do see the funny side of this - yes - we really do. In my head I'm writing stern letters to Mr Salomon and he's jumping about, desperate to appease, organising teams of men, arranging helicopter drops of new booties to our lunch-time spot, with a fancy picnic, tablecloths, fine wines and nibbles as an apology. That'll do nicely, thank you.

Back in the real world the clouds drop lower and the horizon is obliterated. We're now in our own little half-world, plugging from one patch of slightly less boggy morass to another. Now the wind picks up and the drizzle turns to light, and then heavy, rain. 

Compasses are brought to bear. We know precisely where we are and where we want to go. It's just a matter of getting the job done.

Out of the corner of my eye I catch sight of a small herd of deer escaping over the low ridge to our right. They glide effortlessly over the ground as Phil plunges face-first into another gloopy bit. Excuse the slightly blurred photograph, but I couldn't hold the camera very still as I was giggling.


We had started walking about eight o'clock and it was now time for elevenses. I plonk my backside down upon the least boggy bit of Scotland that presents itself and start munching the last stale wholemeal roll. The cold rain moistens it pleasantly. I take a squint at the map ~ it's about time we did. The rain washes over the map case, clearing away the peat smears. This won't do. This really won't do at all! We've not yet reached the 'A' of Allt Tarsuinn... 


I had half expected to bump into Challengers heading south over Bealach Feith na Gamhna from Cougie, but that is now looking unlikely. They will be long gone. Oh well. "Adopt, adapt and improve."

We soldier on, broadly following the break in slope to the north of Allt Tarsuinn, where it's marginally less boggy and the side streams are easier to cross where they rush down the little slopes. Otherwise it's knee deep gloop where the streams hit the flatter bogland. You get to know little tips like this if you stick around here. Stay with us; it gets worse.  

After a considerable period of happy bog-floundering in the cloud, cold wind and very heavy rain I decide we have finally made the stream that heads south to the unseen northerly point of the wood to the right of us. I've been up to my balls in bog with both legs, happily on different occasions, and Phil is now uncharacteristically quiet. Just above us in the murk we can see a rocky outcrop to the left of a ridge pointing towards us. This all looks good. It must make us at about northing 172 or 173, and it will be Beinn Bha'n above us. (Look at the map, you idle swine, to see what I mean!)

Phil's bloody starving and won't go on until he has some scoff. We've got this hill and then the track to cross before clambering up Carn Mhic an Toisich and we are both now running on empty, and it's half past one.

I pile into my last egg custard tart, handfuls of peanuts, a Marathon and a Mars Bar. Phil passes me his hip flask. It breathes warmth into my chest as rain beats against the back of my jacket. I get a fit of Horse's Burial, tighten up my squidgy laces and we set off once more. We'll soon be crossing the Land Rover Track, the only solid piece of ground for a million miles around. After pitiful struggles, we reach the top of the hill. 

I wander in what seems to be the right direction until Phil shouts at me to turn hard left, as somehow I have veered slowly right. I make the correction and am then completely stumped at what appears below us to the left, in a gap in the cloud: An enormous sheet of water. But it should be a skinny little lake, surely?

We sit down. I eat another Marathon. Phil has a blinding flash of brilliance. He dives into his rucksack and pulls out his brand new (to him) GPS SatMuppet. This is a thing of beauty and bought from Mr Walker with an awful lot of Phil's beer vouchers. I had seen him play with it in his tent on the evening of the first day. 

Just for a moment, I am mightily impressed.

"Al. We're on the wrong hill."

To be continued...


  1. "Al. We're on the wrong hill."....Priceless!

    1. With rain lashing down and a bitterly cold wind, I can assure you it felt pretty damn priceless at the time...

  2. You are truly gifted in having the presence of mind to photograph the disasters (flying feathers), most people don't. Pictures of three inch leg gashes streaming with blood are much more interesting than endless pics. of unidentifiable hills. Thanks, my breakfast-time has been enhanced this morning. I'm looking forward to the next episode.

    1. I had been in that blissful state snoozing and sleeping for about an hour or so, occasionally looking through pictures on my camera. It was only nature's call that wrested me from my sleeping bag. I had the camera in my hand to take a shot of our shelters - which I then promptly forgot to take, being so aghast at my torn sleeping bag!

  3. The trouble with all waterproof membranes is that you have to keep them clean. How you do that with boots is beyond me. Maybe Phil’s SatMuppet has the answer.
    Looking forward to the next episode, would make a good movie.

    1. Hi Al
      I had only worn these boots for a couple of weekends and a short trip to the Lake District. The tread is virtually brand new! I chose them over my trusted Ecco Bioms because they are quite a bit lighter.
      Lesson learned. Don't buy fabric boots.Stick with a good leather boot with no bloody Gore-Tex rubbish.

  4. ...I know how that feels, the wrong hill...

    1. *titter*
      Indeed. And when you're feeling particularly knackered...

  5. Oh Lord, the sheer awfulness had receded in my memory to the extent that I have applied for next year's d̶e̶b̶a̶c̶l̶e̶ challenge.

    And there's worse to come ...

    1. Yes Sir. Your mind has a way of protecting itself from the full horrors of past misdemeanours.
      And yes. There is far worse and worserer things to come.
      Lord Elpus!

  6. Haha, great stuff. How many times has one been on the wrong hill. Looking forward to the next instalment.

    1. Thank you "Unknown"
      (Unknown's a new one to me - it says you are with-holding your ID on purpose. Are you aware of that? Perhaps you need to tinker under the bonnet)
      Being on the wrong hill is fortunately a rare occurrence. It does deflate your otherwise euphoric mood at being out in the bog, rain and cold, with sod-all visibility somewhat...

  7. The Satmuppet is a wonderful thing, and can also point you in the right direction through Hell, twigs and a ton if itchy stuff near Bearnock.
    Good stuff sir.
    Hell and bog & misery.
    And soon for some reason only caused by the minds ability to forget, you may well both be binge bog trotting again. Having foolishly applied amidst the amnesiac haze.

    And worse to come.
    Indeed, days 3 and 4 were pretty dire.
    That's why we did them all on day 3 and sat in the Loch Inn for day 4.
    Miserable that was I can tell you.

    1. I also recall that Satmuppet steering us into a herd of feisty cattle and a maze of barbed wire. I'm wary of the things. I used one on my LEJOG for the first time on top of Cross Fell, and it had me exactly 500m from where I was actually standing. There was another time, on another Challenge when it told me I was actually off my map!
      I mean!

    2. They do suddenly, and unnervingly, change their minds sometimes - I usually leave it locked on to the position for a good minute before I'll readily accept that it does in fact "know" where we are. Mind you, it's often the operator that causes the problems. On a recent trip to the Pyrenees I left it set for the OS grid, so the interaction with french IGN mapping gave some interesting moments before I twigged what was going on.

  8. Tee hee! I think I know how this day ends, but I won't spoil the story.
    I'm glad to see in an earlier comment that it wasn't your Ecco boots that leaked. I've been re-reading your reviews and am thinking of trying a pair.
    I had to sew my sleeping bag this year. It's a bit disconcerting waking up with half a duck in bed with you.
    Do crack on with your Challenge tale.... I need to know just how much worse it got!

    1. I can't recommend the Ecco Biom Hikes (with no Gore-Tex) more highly. They are absolutely superb - beautifully made from Yak leather and totally waterproof and incredibly comfortable.

      Quite what you were doing with half a duck in your bag we'll never know. It does sound sort of Cameron-ish...

  9. I wouldn't worry too much about being on the wrong hill. In my experience, compasses, like mirrors, are not what they used to be :-)

    1. I agree with that astute observation, Gibson.
      Beardless for a few weeks and the mirror is suggesting bloodhound jowls again. Either a new more expensive mirror or the beard. I think it's an easy choice. And compasses: Ha! What do they know, eh? My innate sense of direction found the lake, didn't it? Okay, it might not have been the correct lake...


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