Martin Rye, Grant Sible and I have been planning our Scotland coast-to-coast backpacking route for the past month. We’ll be walking together as a team in the 2013 TGO Challenge this May, an annual backpacking event, where 300 hikers hike from the west coast to the east coast of Scotland during the same 15 day period, along their own self-defined routes. This will be Martin’s fourth Challenge hike, Grant’s first, and my second. I thought I’d share some of the highlights of our route with you, including a few of the major peaks we hope to climb.
Planning a trip like this is a significant undertaking because there is no direct route or blazed trail that you can follow from the west coast to the east coast. Instead, we need to thread our way cross-country through three different mountain ranges: the Western Highlands, the Monadhliath Mountains, and the Cairngorm Mountains, following existing footpaths or hiking cross-country when there are none. Further, the route plan must be flexible enough to provide alternate/safe detours if the weather is bad, have enough resupply points so we can hike light and fast, and ensure that we finish the 200 mile hike within the 15 days allotted for the event. That’s a challenge!
Martin and I have been doing most of the route planning together, since we’ve both been on The Challenge before and know the lay of the land. This has been a challenge in and of itself, because he lives in Northern England and I live in New England. Thank god for the GPX coordinate interchange standard, which has enabled us to plan our route using our favorite UK enabled route planning tools (Martin likes Grough Route, I prefer Mapxy QUO) and exchange files via email and Google shared documents.
In addition to digital mapping software, there are several books that I use as references for trip planning in Scotland, including Irvine Butterfield’s classic, The High Mountains of Britain and Ireland and Scottish Hill Tracks, published by Scottish Rights of Way and Access Society. I also make use of several web sites including Munro Magic, Walk Highlands, and Geograph Britain and Ireland, in addition to local knowledge provided by friends and online message boards.
When reading maps of Scotland, it’s important to understand that the areas filled with pink lines don’t have any trees or significant vegetation on them. The blue line on the map above is our planned route and the flags are GPS waypoints – useful for planning – but I don’t believe any of us plan on using a GPS for this hike except in an emergency. We’re compass and map men – it’s much more challenging and personally satisfying that way.
Our start point for this year’s crossing is a small village named Torridon on the west coast of Scotland. From there, we plan to zig-zag south and east for 4 days and about 120 kilometers(72 miles). If the weather is good, this should be a pleasant and scenic ramble, although we hope to bag a few major peaks along the way including Sgorr Ruadh and Mam Sodhail.
These are both Munros, over 3000 feet in height, and among the tallest peaks in the UK. While 3000 feet may not seem high, many of Scotland’s peaks start at a low elevation close to sea-level so there is a substantial amount of elevation gain required to summit them. If you factor in weather conditions, the degree of exposure, and the high winds that Scotland is known for, undertaking any climb here must be planned carefully. Being early May, there will probably be a fair amount of snow on the peaks and I will probably bring an ice axe.
After 4 days of walking, we plan to arrive at the famous Castle Urquhart on the shores of Loch Ness. From there, we will catch a ferry to the other side – this is the only form of motorized or wheeled transport permitted during the Challenge – and continue on the east side. Here we will encounter the Monadhliath Mountains which I have seen described as a featureless plateau, but which actually has a few peaks on it. Martin has us bagging a Corbett in the Monadhliath, as part of his campaign to expand my peakbagging horizons beyond Munros: a Corbett is a separate mountain that is at least 2500 feet in height.
From there, we walk to the Aviemore, the first sizeable town on our route and the gateway to the Cairngorm Mountains. Rather than traverse this range through the Lairig Ghru, the famous Cairngorm mountain pass, we hope to climb above it along Lurcher’s Crag and summit Ben MacDui, the second highest mountain in the UK. I don’t know if the weather will cooperate, but if it does, this section of our hike should be spectacular. This part of the route is Martin’s brainchild.
Descending by way of Derry Cairngorm, we will approach the town of Braemar from the northeast, stopping in for a rest day about 2/3 of the way into of our journey, at mile 125. Braemar is a popular meeting point for many of the hikers on the Challenge, who descend from the hills on an appointed day for a wild celebration in the town’s hotels and pubs. It’s a time for old friends to meet and new friendships to be kindled, before the “fortified” hikers disperse into the hills once again.
I think we’ll miss the big party by a day or two, but resting in Braemar will still be a welcome respite before our final push through the southern peaks and into the agricultural belt bordering the east coast. I think Martin has us covered though and we’re going to meet some friends, including the legendary Alan Sloman aka The Big Grey Man in the hills south of Braemar for a dram.
From Braemar, we will head south passing through lovely Glen Callater and skirting to the west of Lochnagar, a magnificent peak that I climbed on my first Challenge hike in 2010. After bagging a few more Munros, we’ll exit to the south passing over Broad Cairn. Staying high, we’ll skirt Glen Clova to the northeast passing The Laird’s Chamber, Loch Brandy, and The Goet before finally dropping south out of the hills towards the town of Edzell and the sea at St. Cyrus.
This route from Braemar to the sea is largely my creation and one that I hope will preserve the buzz of the Challenge for as long as possible after our rest day in Braemar. During my first Challenge hike, I found the final 2 days of my hike difficult to bear as we walked down from the big hills to the forests and roads along Glen Esk that lead into Edzell and suburban Montrose on the coast. Instead of hitting the restaurants and fleshpots of Edzell and North Water Bridge, we’ll be taking a roundabout and more rural route to the south that I hope prolong the incredible sense of freedom that one feels in rural Scotland.
I am excited by our route and think it’s a good balance between low elevation walking through the glens with the option to climb high if the weather is good. The next stage of our planning process is to get it past the route vetters who review Challenger route plans to make sure that they incorporate the necessary safeguards and foul weather alternative routes that you need to have in your back pocket when hiking in Scotland. At just under 200 miles, we have a hell of a hike in front of us, but Martin, Grant and I are looking forward to The Challenge.