I spent 10 years from 1968 to 1978 stravaiging around the Scottish hills. I was away most weekends climbing or walking and travelled all over the Highlands. Then things changed – family and work – the usual suspects – meant I had less time to get away. I moved away from Scotland for work for almost 20 years and, at best, I managed one or two weekends a year in the Highlands. Things improved a bit when we returned to live in Scotland in 2006 but work still seemed to suck up most of my time.
Then in 2011, I was diagnosed with cancer. I won’t go into the unsavoury details but it surely changed my outlook on life. The old maxim that no-one ever said on their deathbed that they wished they’d worked longer hours is absolutely true. I reined back on work and retired early in 2014. I decided to try the TGO Challenge – something I first heard of in the 1980s and had always fancied doing.
I did my first Challenge in 2013 and returned for the following 2 years. I’ve missed a couple of years (daughter’s wedding in 2016, birth of our grandson in 2017) but plan to be back in 2018.
My route planning for the first 3 years was based around revisiting old haunts from the 1970s such as Glen Pean, Glen Feshie etc. I planned some long days and my approach was to get my head down and bash out the miles – partly, I think, because I wanted to prove to myself that I still could. I got a lot out of these but I don’t think I spent enough time just enjoying the landscape and chatting to other Challengers.
This time, I have decided to do it differently. I’ve planned a route that doesn’t have 30k+ days and I plan to take more time just doddling along. I’ll enjoy the camping and will have time to wait for the light if there’s a good photographic opportunity. In the 1970s, I hung out with Munro baggers but, being contrary by nature, decided never to get into the top-ticking that they indulged in. So, I have no idea how many Munros I’ve climbed but I know that I’ve done all that I care about doing. If it’s good weather I may include some hills but I am not bothered about this one way or another.
The natural way to think about Challenge routes is in four parts – the West, the western middle (basically between the Great Glen and the A9), the eastern middle (Cairngorms) and the east.
I’m starting at Shiel Bridge, which has been the most popular TGOC start point. I’ll go north to begin with to the Falls of Glomach (I have never been there), descend to Glen Elchaig and camp near Iron Lodge. On day 2, I’ll go along the north shore of Loch Mullardoch. I believe that it’s quite rough and may be something I live to regret. However, in that area, it’s the place I know least well so I’m looking forward to it. Then an easy walk to the hostel at Bearnock and to Drumnadrochit.
The Western middle
I’ll take the boat across Loch Ness and camp at Ault na Goire. It’s one of the social meeting places of the Challenge and I really enjoyed my visit there in 2014. From there its across the hills to Glen Mazeran (I’m not looking forward to the wind farms) and then down the Dulnain to camp somewhere east of Nethy Bridge.
The Eastern middle
We have friends who live in Nethy Bridge so hopefully I’ll be able to have a shower and lunch and then into the Northern Cairngorms to Ryvoan bothy. From there, it’s over to Glen Avon and a camp near Lochbuilg Lodge. Then, down Glen Gairn to arrive in Ballater on Saturday.
I’m taking a day off on Sunday to attend a family birthday party but I’ll be back in Ballater on an early bus from Aberdeen on Monday morning, I’ll have a short walk over the hill to camp at the Shiel of Glentanar. On Tuesday, I’ll head for Tarfside over the shoulder of Mount Keen. I have never actually seen the view from Mount Keen so if it’s clear, I’ll probably go via the summit but it is a bit of a trudge.
From Tarfside, I absolutely wanted to avoid the horrible Northwaterbridge camp site. I hated camping by a busy dual carriageway in 2014 and decided never again. So, I’m going east to the Water of Charr then to a final camp in Drumtochty forest. Finally, minor roads from there to Johnshaven for the inestimable lobster soup in the Anchor.