It's nine o'clock on Friday morning. A queue of intrepid Challengers are signing the register in reception to officially start the 2017 TGO Challenge. Some have a very big day ahead and are keen to be off. Others, on the other hand, are still at breakfast.
More toast, Al?
Don't mind if I do, ta, Phil. Have we any more butter and marmalade? Ooh - thank you.
The south of Great Britain doesn't really do mountain ranges and peat bogs. Not like oop north. Oop there Challengers have honed physiques: The result of days on end racing whippets across the bleak moors. Reflected in the blighters' bathroom mirrors are images of muscular masculinity. It's the same for the girls. Whereas Lord Elpus and I see only saggy sadness in ours.
No. We prepare for our first day's march with a full British Breakfast. Followed shortly after by a lie down, to ready ourselves for the rigours of the day.
|START PHOTOS DON'T GET BETTER THAN THIS...|
That VeryVeryNiceMan, Mr Williams, (this will be abbreviated to VVNM in future, as it takes far too many keystrokes to describe the blighter) stares incredulously as Lord Elpus and I climb the hotel staircase as I lob Right then - Off to pack. Down in about an hour? in his general direction.
With a minute to the allotted deadline, a tap at the door heralds David's entrance. I'm in my shreddies, trying to fight a foodbag the size of a three year old child into my rucsac. I'll be down in a jiffy, Sir! I smile, as I continue the unequal struggle.
As you can see, the start photo didn't go quite to plan. I was rushed.
|CLICK TO ENLARGE. IT SHOULD OPEN IN A NEW WINDOW|
Discerning members of the congregation will recall that Lord E and I prefer a realistic first day. Realistic for soft, saggy and sad Southerners, that is. You'll see from the map (Click on it to make it handsomely huge and beautiful) that today we have merely twelve glorious kilometers and 740m of uppishness. That's proper Routebuddy uppishness, not those other dud software packages' estimates of nigh-on 2,000m, to torment our pathetic frames.
The scanned map, presented here in all its glory, has journeyed right the way across the barren wastes of Scotland. It's seen a few things. There are handwritten notes to jog my memory and help you relate more to the awful trudge we endure on your behalf. With it and this blog you won't need to go to all the fuss and bother of actually doing the damn TGO Challenge. No. With this fabulous pairing you can lower your lids for a few seconds and imagine yourself all the way across. So much easier, and no dirty washing to deal with afterwards.
|THAT VERYVERYNICEMAN MR WILLIAMS|
I've described the physical characteristics of both me and Lord Elpus. However (drawing a deep breath and bracing himself) that VVNM Mr Williams, even with his jelly legs, is an altogether different kettle of fish. This man is a giant. See the top photograph for proof. Not only in stature but in stamina, strength and sheer northern grittiness. For yes, we are walking with a Shropshire Lad, who trains in the borders, legging up the Long Mynd and clambering over Clee Hill. The bounder has a hideaway in the mountains where he spends long winter nights alone, amongst the shrieking wind and tussock. He can be best described as a right hard bastard.
|RUFTY-TUFTY MR WILLIAMS AND THE AWFUL NEW HYDRO TRACK|
Our party sets off up the hill, as they call bloody great mountains in Scotland, in a contemplative state. Each is wondering how they are going to cope this time. None is any younger and each has health issues that could stymie the whole affair. Fortunately, me being a bear with very little brain, these thoughts are fleeting. However, I know that David and Phil, who are far brighter and wiser, will be turning these thoughts over and over.
|PHIL POINTS BACK TO STRATHCARRON|
Surprisingly, we catch up with Croydon, Paddy & Gillian on one of those new Hydro Scheme roads that are currently being blazed throughout the length and breadth of the Highlands, destroying yet more of the wild quality that has been such a magnet for so many years. After a bit of a dither where the new road has obliterated the old stalkers path, we clamber up the side of the cutting and carry on our way, deeper and higher into the hill.
Another hour or so passes and Phil calls a halt, with 'Al, I'm going to stop now.' I wonder if it's to let the others carry on, as neither Phil nor I like walking in a column. I drop my heavy pack readily and ease myself down for a good rest and a few nibbles. But there was something unusual in the way he said that.
Are okay, mate?
Well, actually no, I'm not. I mean I am going to stop here. I'm not carrying on. I can't put my finger on it, but something's not right. Just not right. I can't risk walking into the middle of sod all for another day if things aren't right...
I've known Phil for some thirty years. There are times when we can josh each other out of an odd mood or bout of self doubt but it was the way he said this. His whole demeanor is different. I know that it is absolutely pointless trying to talk him round. I'm worried about him and I need to know that he's okay about this and okay to make the trip back down to Strathcarron. It's not far at all, but still...
We rest for half an hour, and with a magnificent show of cheer, he's back up on his feet and we're saying goodbye to each other. It's all a bit emotional. And Phil walks back down the hill.
|TWO RIGHT HARD BASTARDS|
For the next half hour as we're climbing into the hill, I'm looking back constantly to catch sight of him; thankfully he's making good progress. I finally lose him as he nears the road.
|THE VIEW NORTH UNENCUMBERED BY FOREGROUND CLUTTER|
We're an oddly quiet group as David, Mick and I make the lochan at the bealach over to Bearnais. I try to persuade Mick that he should come along the ridge with us, but he sticks to his plan to try and get as far as possible toward Bealach Bhearnais. The views hereabouts are pretty good, so from the ridge they should be superb.
|LOOKING WEST TO SKYE|
|CROYDON & ME C/O DAVID|
|DAVID & CROYDON AT THE PARTING OF OUR WAYS|
As we clamber up the side of the Creag a' Chacrainn we watch Croydon stroll jauntily down the path to Bearnais. Our clamber is wonderfully rewarding, with views to the north and west to die for. It's all off-piste stuff, but the ground is dry and the rock grippy. The ridge has lots of shaggy up and downs to keep life interesting. I'll let the pictures do the talking for a while.
|DAVID, WITH BEALACH BHEARNAIS CENTRE LEFT.|
|LONG ZOOM TO BEINN LIATH MHOR|
|VIEW DOWN THE RIVER TAODHAIL|
|LOCH AN LAOIGH|
|DAVID ON EAGAN|
|FUAR THOLL AND BEINN LIATH MHOR|
|THE SHOULDERS OF SGURR NA FEARTAIG FROM EAGAN|
|DROPPING TO OUR CAMP SITE, BAOBH BHACHAN DUBHA|
We make good time along the ridge and it's a great scamper down to the lochan. There are a few good places to pitch but the ground is very stony and it takes a while to get Trinnie anchored down securely. There's good running water just to the north and before long we're relaxing in the sunshine with coffee and a few snifters.
|OUR LOCHAN ON BAOBH BHACAN DUBHA|
|WITH HIS KNICKERS AROUND HIS ANKLES DAVID LOOKS FORWARD TO A BREW|
|THE VIEW SOUTH|
|ZOOMY ZOOMY SOUTH|
|THE VIEW NORTH|
I make the most of the balmy evening for photographs as the forecast for tomorrow is not so good. I'm quite tickled with our efforts today as we have made excellent progress, and have pitched up at an early hour, to have a relaxing evening. I'm feeling in great shape and demolish one of my larger evening meals, as it's the heaviest. It doesn't seem to make a scrap of difference to the size of the food bag.
|TRINNIE TRAILSTAR, IN HER ELEMENT|
|RUFTY-TUFTY DAVID, WITH CYNTHIA SCARP.|
|IN SHOCK, DAVID STUDIES THE MAP FOR THE FIRST TIME AND ASKS ABOUT THE BROWN SQUIGGLY LINES|
With Phil not being here, there's now an odd feeling of being on a completely different walk. I think I know David reasonably well, but there's going to have to be a lot more discussion about route selection. With Phil and me, we understand pretty much how the other chap is thinking about the day and the likely decision process going on in the other's head. This makes joint decisions a reasonably quick affair. David isn't so vocal, so I'm going to have to watch how he's doing, and also be clear and make sure to let him know if I'm feeling radgered.
Still, I'm a very happy camper as I drift off to Audrey's bosom in the magical fading Highland summer light. It's just a bloody shame Phil isn't here.