Home / Trip Reports / TGO Challenge / Backpacking across Scotland with Philip Werner in the TGO Challenge by Martin Rye

Backpacking across Scotland with Philip Werner in the TGO Challenge by Martin Rye

This tale started with an invite to walk in the USA with Philip in the 100 Mile Wilderness – in return, I offered to walk with him in the UK on the The Great Outdoor Challenge in 2013.

Plans hatched, routes plotted, kit packed, and the time came round to go. Grant Sible from Gossamer Gear was supposed to join us but got sick in country and had to bow out before we started. I traveled to London to get a train to Scotland, as you do.

I had never used the sleeper train before.  This trip had a few firsts.  In London I met up with Challenge fanatics Alan, Andy, Phil and many more. I ended up sharing a berth with Mark, a fellow Torridon starter.  The journey up was enjoyable –  pint or two shared, chatting about this and that.  All good fun.

At the Youth Hostel, Philip was waiting, walking in from Strathcarron, rather than dealing with local transportation. Getting to our start point in Torridon is a pain, but David Wood arranged for a taxi from Inverness for all of us. Now that’s out of the way, let’s get on with the good bit…The WALK.

Philip Werner at the Start of our Challenge in Torridon

Leaving Torridon

Liathach

Entering the Pass

First nights campsite

Day 1, 9th May

A good start was had with the morning sunshine, the views, the sheer ‘could this be an epic one?’ factor.  That was good.

I hoped to get up high among the summit ridges, up on some of what is the best mountain walking in the UK.  Philip was excited; I was fired up for this walk.  The route over the Ben-Damph Forest started good, got better, with the view of Maol Chean-dearg dominating the horizon as the gang of us headed for the Bealach Ban.  Here I decided I had just hit the jackpot, with the best single pass I have ever done. The view to Liathach here was beyond words to do it justice.  Vast, foreboding cliffs and all that flowery stuff fails to cut it, once you see its full scale. But it kept getting better as we pulled up to the top of the pass.

Then Philip was honest in saying he was tired – could we skip the tops today? Citing jet lag and walking to Torridon with six days’ food and supplies, so he had a case.  The rain came in; we went over the pass.  There was a mild sadness at missing the tops.   I commented to Sue Oxley (who promptly went up a Munro) that the pass was the best I had ever done anywhere in Scotland.  But our intended summit was clad in clag so we missed little in views anyway, in reflection. Once over we made for Pollan Buidhe to camp.

Mark Crosses a River

Scottish Valley

Philip Werner at a river crossing in Scotland

walking up the glen

campsite next to a burn

scotland sunset

Day 2, 10th May

The morning rain was not heavy and mist still hung down the hillside.  We met Mark walking down the glen.  He was a Torridon starter.  His route more or less followed ours today.  Mark had that first time Challenger worry about river crossings.  Philip and myself just waded across.  Mark at the start tried the wire bridges and sought to cross without getting his boots wet.  We corrupted him bit by bit, until he got right into crossing rivers with confidence after hanging out with us.

Shit weather led to our foul weather route over the Bealach Bhearnais, right in the shadow of Beinn Tharsuinn.  Ee kept high here, picking up the track to lead around to Loch Calvie.  Mark by now was a river crosser.  No worries – in and across.  He also discovered that my route was a shortcut to his route tomorrow, and avoided many of the rivers, so that he would save time, do less miles and skip river crossings.  If you go over the lumps of Cnoc a Mhoraire you avoid of lots big rivers to gain the track to Loch Mhoicean.  From there, we popped over the col to camp upstream of Loch Mullardoch.  A fantastic camp spot but a tad wet under foot.  Philip was beat by this day and soon to bed.  I looked out to the summits hoping to get up among them still.

3a 3b 3c 3d 3e 3f

Day 3, 11th May

The Affric hills are the highest land north of the Great Glen.  Wild, remote walking and some of the best in Scotland. I knew the area, knew the path over the high pass we took.  Mist sat over the tops yet again first thing as we packed and broke camp.  Philip felt it best we stick to the FWA.  Not an issue, as we had a long day today.  The first river crossing posed no trouble, but shortly after, Mark informed us that his camera was missing.  Missing was in fact washed down to the loch, as he’d lost it crossing the river.  We waited a while for him to go back and search.

Once he returned, we crossed yet more rivers and went over the Bealach Coire Ghaidheil. I had taken this path in 2006.  Now it was more washed out – a poor path to use compared to a few years ago.  Down below, 4×4 tracks told the truth.  Lazy estate staff who don’t walk into the hills now, let alone maintain stalkers paths.  Rob fae Craigellachie, during a phone call days later, lamented the lack of skills and fitness the new keepers have compared to the old.  My uncle (a keeper) calls the new generation ‘chicken farmers,’ who can’t even identify trees, let alone wildlife.  I learnt to read terrain from my uncle as a lad along with many other outdoor skills.  To watch wildlife and not to fear the dark night of the wood.  I wonder if young men learn that now?

Glen Affric was dull, wet and busy.  Day walkers hurried along the tracks here.  We hurried to make up lost time.  Mark went his way and we ours.  I took little in terms of photos.  Head down; miles walked.  We camped in a wood that night, across the river from Hilton Lodge. It had to do.  We needed to make up some more miles in the morning.

4a 4b 4c 4d 4e

Day 4, 12th May

We had a boat to catch, miles to make up, and needed to be away early.  We got going to Tomich, from where we picked up a pass over to the river Enrick.  Snow had fallen overnight.  It would have been deep in the Affric Hills, high up.  I was glad we had pushed on despite not getting to the planned stop the previous night. The snow was low down and the route we took had us with snow balling under our feet.

We kept up the pace, down past the Corrimony stone cairn.  Then along track and roads to Drumnadrochit.

Drumnadrochit served up food (plus I scored a Mountain House Meal for a promise of a glass of wine, in conversation with a Challenger – which I forgot to buy in Montrose, and yes I feel bad about it) more food and time to chill until the ferry crossing.  Challengers arrived in dribs and drabs.  
 
Gordon the ferry man arrived late.  We were the last crossing that day.  Denis Pidgin and others had, like me, stood around freezing waiting for the ferry.   It was touch and go as to whether we were going to be able to cross. Big waves and dicey conditions. Gordon was thinking of driving us around the Loch instead.  I must admit this appealed to me, as I am not that keen on boats, to be honest.  A small canoe with not far to swim to shore is my comfort limit. 
 
After what I will describe as a terrible, life-and-death crossing of Loch Ness (others might say choppy waters) I ended up wandering up the lanes to Ault-na-goire, talking to Denis about varied subjects and his back after his walk with Alan (Denis had another version of events of that tale).  I met him one morning in 2006, on the Challenge.  We’d drunk whisky, chatted, and then I’d gone over Jocks Road (pissed, to be truthful) while it snowed.  All good fun.  

We stayed with the Sutherlands.  Alec entertained us with tales of mountain adventures.  Denis with his tales too.  Philip, allergic to cats, missed it, as well as the fine meal we had.  He cooked outside with the nice American lady to whom I owe a glass of red wine for that Mountain House Meal.  
 5a 5b 5c 5d 5e 5f

Day 5, 13th May

John Hancock is often referred to as the man with the small pack.  If you’re a ULA fan-boy, you will have a disappointing time in any conversation you have with him, as he does not give a damn about base weight, UL and the like.  He simply works from the starting point of take what is necessary.  His necessary is just less than others’.  
 
I had never met him, but knew about him from social media.  We met leaving the Sutherlands.  He was more or less taking our new altered route.  John would in fact spend a few days with us, and in the end Philip and myself so liked him we wished he had stayed till the end.   The Challenge forges small parties for a few days here and there as your routes converge.  As with Mark before, we now walked with John.
 
The Monadhliath is wild and remote.  Well, it was, twenty years ago, and some rated it then among some of the finest backpacking terrain going.  Now to be honest it’s f@:&* up.  Wind farms and threats of more.  Unregulated tracks bulldozed into it.  We took the fast route over by Carn Odhar and down to the Findhorn River, passing large plant machinery working on the tracks.  High moors and sheer joy at times were still enjoyed.  It rained of course. Then, rain and damp had been the constant companions of our walk so far, so it bothered us little.  The wild camp that night was not bad.  Our pitch centred around the need for some to avoid the wind.   For me, getting to Aviemore mattered more as (like Philip’s) my socks were falling apart from the silt and mud rubbing them to pieces from the river and bog crossings we had done. 
6a 6b 6c 6d 6e

Day 6, 14th May

We had a plan.  You need a plan.  Ours was the fastest way to Aviemore.  Bacon rolls, curries and warm beds awaited.  So we crossed rivers, back-tracking when we could not cross where we hoped.  Found bridges.  Went up over hills, assuming we would save time, only to find the tracks had been extended beyond what was shown on the map.   Remember, the Monadhliath is slowly being f*%^@ up with tracks galore. 
 
The Red Bothy is named for obvious reasons. Here we met a challenger whose name I forget; but he came from Ely, so I instantly liked him, being pro-East Anglia (with the exception of Ipswich).  From there, the well-used trade route of the Burma Road led us into town.  Food, socks, and the like sorted us out. A fantastic curry with Alistair joining us made for a memorable evening.
7a 7b 7c 7d 7e 7f 7g

Day 7, 15th May

The tops according to my local contact where snow covered and not worth it.  Others a day or so later had little snow to contend with.  The Lairig Ghru it was then.  I knew the way.  Maps not needed today.  the weather was good.  John, Philip and myself ambled through the forest.  we talked about Maine.  John had lived and hiked there.  I missed Maine as he talked with Philip.  The forest, the vast landscape and wild lonely trails it has.  Maybe it was the fact I had warm sunshine in Maine was what I really missed. 
 
The Ghru had in places deep snow patches.  Its boulders and twisting trail must have been covered deep in the winter.  Cornices hung menacingly on the edges high up above us.  
 
The pass is in places a boulder field and slow going.  But once cleared we passed by the highest mountains of the walk.  Philip concluded it was one of the best mountain days he had done.  I was pleased about this yet if he had stood on the summit of Braeriach he would have been even more impressed. 
 
We planned to stay near Bob Scott’s bothy. The best for me in the Cairngorms.  On the way to it I got carried away and left the others trailing behind.  I pitched up and they found me by the bothy eventually.  It was the coldest night of the trip.  I cant complain as it is a great location and fine place to spend a night. 
 8a 8b

Day 8, 16th May

John left early going for the fastest way to Braemar.  Blisters and beat up feet needed urgent attention.  Any blisters and the like we had were contained nicely with a bit tape. We had planned Glen Quoich and over to walk by Allt an t-Slugain.  In the end we opted for the more direct, but still make-a-bit-of-a-walk-out-of-it route of down Glen Quoich and to Victoria Bridge. We lazed about eating pies and enjoying decent weather for a change.  A large shooting party passed us heading into the woods.   Seems some keepers can walk still.  Once they left the land rovers parked up. 

The final few miles to town along the road passed quickly and we arrived to find more bacon rolls and coffee.  The campsite was superb; familiar faces Mick and Gayle said hi.  We planned two whole rest days. A veritable feast of food and chilling out, reading and relaxing – after all it’s a holiday, is it not?

17th and 18th May – Rest Days in Braemar

It rained Saturday, lots, and to top it off it was cold.  I spent time down in the town in the hotel bar, reading and drinking.  Other times I chatted to challengers, and phoned home. There is not a lot to say apart from that the evening in the bar was a rip-roaring, raucous fun time, and all ended well.

Sunday was warm. My mate James arrived beat up, worse for wear but hanging in there, with an injury.  He’d got soaked the day before.  I told him I’d got mildly damp walking to the tent from the bar and promptly dried out in the warm campsite drying room.  I met other people who I had only chatted to on Twitter before, enjoying the down time.  Some seemed to think we would be late in making the coast by hanging around town for two days.  I assured them we would be fine. it wasn’t far to make the coast and we had plenty of time to finish.

9a 9b 9c 9d 9e 9f 9g 9h 9j 9k 9l 9m

Day 9, 19th May

We again altered our route,  taking the road to the Callater lodge.  The welcome was warm as ever.  Hot tea and a chat.  Stormin, Alan, Croydon and more all in there.  They left before us.

We soon caught them and passed them.  Alan’s internal was engine not what it ought to be (due to his upcoming liver transplant). Croydon was having a reflective sit, gazing out over the hills.  Most likely amazed that it was not raining and the mist was not down.  We chatted a while,  then took a direct line on to Carn an Saigirt Mor. We lingered till some mist did roll in, then picked up the pace to Cairn Bannoch.

I phoned Challenge control (you have to at some point) and Sue answered, asking was I up on the tops? I assured her that I was and was told to get on with it and have fun.

Mick (whose surname I forget) came along.  This Mick has done 17 crossings and a lot of other walks on top.  Again we chatted, then later waited around while he caught us up on top of Broad Cairn.  The problem we had now was time – too much of it.  We had struck a good pace and the plan to camp high by Loch Esk was now pointless –  so what the heck if we eat into tomorrow’s route. The bog and tussock of Sandy Hillock and Dog Hillock, then down to camp at 700m or thereabouts.  The highest camp, but also spoiled a bit when the inevitable mist rolled in.  But it had been a cracking day with wonderful, vast views to the far Atholl hills and beyond.  We also did three Munros, and some other hills that must be on some list or other.

10a 10b 10c 10e 10g 10i 10l

Day 10, 20th May

Philip has said that he learnt a lot about bogs and moor crossings by hanging out with me. He’s a very experienced walker but coming from Boston, Massachusetts, this kind of terrain is new to him. Moorland and bog hold zero fear for me.  I am totally happy in the mist on the moors.  Years of Pennine walks maybe. Anyway, the the day was still decent weather, bar the constant cold wind.

The bog and tussocks joined up to lead to Ferrowie, Lair of Aldararie, above Loch Brandy – where huge snow drifts hung on the hillside – and then to the Goet.  I wanted to hang out here. Gaze out to the not-so-distant sea and look back at the mountains.  Philip seemed to want to rush on, citing being cold.  It had been cold the whole trip, so why worry?   Ken arrived, having done 12 Corbetts on his crossing.  Most impressed, we chatted to him.  He also had the best bungee cord attached to his pack I have ever seen.

“I want some,” I replied.

What packs are those?” Ken inquired.

“Gossamer Gear ones. The pack was comfortable and turned out to be a good choice.

Glen Lethnot was charming, to be truthful, but by now we were on firm grouse-shooting moors and they are filled with traps to kill perceived threats to the odd grouse, and electric fences in abundance.  We found a good spot, as far as spots to camp go there; the last camp in the hills of the trip.  A final night.  I slept well.  We had two days to the coast, I thought. Turned out I was wrong.

11a 11b 11c 11d 11e

Day 11, 21st May

All good things come to a end.  The walk, despite the weather, was good, the company excellent.  So we again changed the route.  Electric fence terrain and the mood of the hour had us over the pass between Mount Sned and hill of Mondurran.  The wind was strong and relentless there.  Hoods on our hard-shell jackets were tightened up and we pressed on to get over and down.

Once down, the roads led to Brechin, past little villages and farms.  One man was repairing a wall.

“Did you walk down Glen Clova?”

“No – we came over the top of it.”

“No – did you walk down Glen Clova?” he shouts.

“No – we came over the top of it and wild camped in Glen Lethnot last night.”

He points in the general direction we are heading and states the obvious: “Glen Lethnot is up there,” looking puzzled.  At this point I become very bored trying to explain that some Challengers actually walk over the tops.

Brechin is often described as rundown and a dive. We don’t care (seems decent to me, based on past nights there) but we found that all rooms in town were full, the campsite apparently closed (we found out later that this was untrue – it was open, but rubbish according to accounts from those who stayed there). I phoned home to get the wifey to phone around too but everywhere she tried was full as well.

So, the road to Montrose, where the sign says ‘nine miles’ was picked up by us.  Our end destination changed.  Philip had to sort out Grant’s kit to post home and tidy up loose ends, so an early finish would help him.

The final road miles pounded our feet; then, the hard tracks had done the same on many days before.  By now I really hated my Inov-8 trail shoes.  Well, to be honest, hate is a kind word in terms of how I felt about them. I didn’t like the way holes had worn in the heel cups, and other things about them.

The Park Hotel had a warm welcome.  We got the badge and the t-shirt (which glows in reflective light from all the logos) that you always get on the Challenge. John has a great team building up, with smooth, efficient control of so many walking across Scotland. Sue will add encouragement to many to get their ass up some hills, no doubt, in the years to come.

Later, I walk to the beach, while some young German first time Challengers are doing the same. The Challenge ended again on a cold, windswept beach.

The Thursday evening event the next day was a good chance to catch up with others, to enjoy the event as it should be.  I could write a lot here about the great chats with great folks like Bob and his friends, and others.  But go apply, and find out all about it yourself.

Other Torridon Starters

Reflections

The Challenge this year (2013) was a damp, cold time, but despite that I had a decent walk.  The shared miles with Philip made it memorable and enjoyable.  I would have liked to have done more tops, hammered rock ridges, but there are other times to allow me to do that.

It was very sociable and I liked sharing with so many.  Some have said they found it not as good an experience compared to other Challenges they had undertaken. For me, it was great, as I sought to meet others more than on other crossings I have done, which led to a real appreciation of the social side of the TGOC – something I thought I had, but looking back I did not fully appreciate before.

But ultimately the shared views, the shared pain, rain, sleet, rain and Challenge with Philip, John and Mark at times added to the enjoyment, the learning, and ultimately my bring-home-to-keep memories, which are deep and rewarding.

16 comments

  1. So want to do this trip one day. Maybe in a couple of years.

    • You should start planning. Scotland wont disappoint.

      • What would you recommend as the best way for someone in the USA to apply, exactly? It seems that this is a hard event to get into, given the limits on participants and popularity. And I read that the official application form only appears in the October issue of TGO…? Any advice appreciated –
        thanks!

      • Start by applying. The only application form appears in TGO magazine. If you have a reasonable amount of backpacking experience and can find your way on a map, you’ll get in. They try to accommodate all first timers. If you don’t have experience, team up with someone who does and you’ll get them in….which is a good deal for both!

      • Thanks and yes, start by applying, I think I’ll do just that -:)
        Meanwhile I’ll pour through all your great reports from past TGOs & get to dreaming… years ago I was in Scotland for work and loved it – I scheduled my return flight home a week or so later than the rest of the crew just so I could wander about… ( how I’ve managed to see a bit more of the world than I otherwise could afford )
        I recall encountering snow rain & hot sun all within an hour on a hill scramble on Skye one mid summer day;& then a ferry to some lovely island off its coast for a long day walk. Then more than a wee dram at the bar followed by a perfectly delicious Haggis… which reminds me, after the TGO I’ll have to make time for a pilgrimage to Islay.

        all the best-

    • No trees louis. You’ll have to go to ground.

      • Good thing I just ordered a new tent. What would be some good prep hikes here in the U.S.?

      • As a first time challenger, you’ll probably stick to fairly well marked trails and drovers roads for most of the distance. If you head cross-country (off-trail, you’ll need good compass skills.but chances are you won’t do much of that). I guess what I’m saying is that most of the prep is not physical, but planning, since it can be difficult to resupply on the fly because the country interior is so rural. For training, I’d hike in mountain ranges with lots of peaks and mountain passes. The White Mountains have some similarities to Scotland, May is a good time to come when the peaks still have snow on them, which is what you’ll find in Scotland to during the challenge.

      • Yeah I would do a low route for the first time. I have hiked in cold and wet but no snow yet which is my biggest concern.

      • If you stay low, you won’t encounter snow. Good stream crossing skills will be much more important.

  2. This just makes me salivate more to go!

  3. Great article. I’d love to have some higher resolution photos (clickable?) so that I don’t have to squint. It looks like beautiful territory, but very hard to see from the small photos.

  4. Splashing through stream crossings? Are you changing your socks once you get to the other side? Are you wearing mesh trail runners so your shoes can dry while you walk?

    • There’s no point really. There’s so much water in Scotland that you can’t keep any footwear dry. I switched to mesh trail runners before my first TGO hike across Scotland in 2010 and never looked back. I simply walk across streams, shoes, socks, and all, and do so to this day. Complete freedom.

      I have however switched away from Smartwool sock liners because the gravel that gets into your shoes eats through thin wool socks very quickly (like in a day). I now wear Darn Tough hiking socks which stand up to the abuse extremely well. Haven’t had to change a pair yet and they’re still going strong.

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