TGO Challenge Trip Report – Part 1

Mountain laurel Designs Duomid at Sputan Ban Waterfalls

Wild Camp at Sputan Ban Waterfalls, Day 1

The TGO Challenge: More than a Hike

Hiking across Scotland in the 2010 TGO Challenge this year was a great adventure and one of those life-list hikes that I’ve always dreamed of taking. But while the scenery is breathtaking, there is a lot more to the Challenge than its physical and navigational demands. It’s an initiation into an elite clan of hill walkers that spans the sexes, generations, social class, profession, and nationality.

As a first time Challenger, I felt welcome from the beginning despite that fact that most other Challengers have hiked in the event previously, five, ten, or even twenty plus times. The great thing is that each Challenger’s cross-country route changes, year after year, and is not wedded to following a well defined trail from beginning to end. Most routes cross untamed wilderness, made possible due to the public access laws in Scotland, which allow anyone to walk and camp freely on private land and the great Highland estates.

Of the 300 or so hikers participating in this annual event, about 140 choose to hike solo without a partner. Regardless, this is a very social event where hikers meet up as their routes converge near the east coast, and it’s not uncommon to hear about people who walk for a day or more with a fellow challenger who is having physical problems or is exhausted in order to help them complete their journey.

While my own journey was a solo hike, I also experienced the deep sense of camaraderie that comes from being a Challenger, meeting hundreds of new hiking friends on the final days of the Challenge in the pubs, tiny restaurants, group campsites, and fleshpots of eastern Scotland. In addition, I was able to finally meet many email and blogging friends that I know well from the Internet including Mike Knipe, Humphrey Weightman, Alan Sloman, Phil Lambert, George Griffin, Steven Horner, Andy Howell, Geoff Gafford, Shirley Worrall, Martin Banford, Cameron McNeish, Henry Shires, and Ken Knight. Meeting you all in person was grand and I hope we can do it again soon.

Mam Sodhail Ascent Attempt

Mam Sodhail at 1000 meters, Day 2

My Actual Challenge Route

In all, I traveled 171 miles (plus several detours) by foot over 13 days from the west coast of Scotland to the east coast, starting about 200 miles north of Glasgow at Shiel Bridge and ending in the seaside town of Montrose. I did most of my hike solo, occasionally hooking up with other Challengers for short stretches or to camp at the same spot.

We had unusually good weather with temperatures in the mid 20’s (C) with lots of fantastic camping along the way.  The terrain was not too difficult, but I put in some long days. There were virtually no bugs, except the normal deer and sheep ticks. There were however a lot of stream crossings and river fords along the way, but I didn’t get any blisters during the entire walk because I was wearing a pair of Inov-8 – TerRoc 330s which dried within a few hours of getting wet.

Along the way, I made some changes to the actual route I walked (versus what I had planned), ending up with this final route, broken out by day.

  1. Shiel Bridge to Sputan Ban Waterfalls  – 16.5 miles (805m ascent)
  2. Sputan Ban to Allt Garbh, Glen Affric – 9.74 miles (860m ascent)
  3. Allt Garbh to Allt Phocachian – 19.6 miles (967m ascent)
  4. Allt Phocachian to Blackburn Bothy, Corrieyairack Pass – 9 miles (493m ascent)
  5. Blackburn Bothy to Laggan – 18.1 miles (650m ascent)
  6. Laggan to Kinguissie – 11.75 miles (285m ascent)
  7. Kinguissie – Rest Day
  8. Kinguissie to Allt Eindart – 15.3 miles (595.7m ascent)
  9. Allt Eindart to Auchallater Ruin – 19.15 miles (395m ascent)
  10. Auchallater Ruin to Sheilin of Mark – 17.1 miles (1325m ascent)
  11. Sheilin of Mark to Tarfside – 10.77 miles (248m ascent)
  12. Tarfside to North Water Bridge – 16.1 miles (250m ascent)
  13. North Water Bridge to Montrose – 8.19 miles (97m ascent)

As a first time Challenger, it is recommended that hikers to do a low level walk like this one, with a limited number of high level ascents. That said, I did have a few high level days that were very exposed including the walk from Sputan Ban up to Mam Sodhail (day 2), Glen Affric to Glen Morrison (day 3), over the Corrieyairack Pass (day 5), and up to the summit of Lochnagar (day 10). The fine weather made these possible and enjoyable, but I dread to think what they would have been like in poor conditions.

Rainbow over Kintail Lodge, Glen Quiddich

Loch Duich Rainbow, Day 1

From Boston to Shiel Bridge

I spent the night before the beginning of the Challenge at Kintail Lodge in Shiel Bridge, arriving around noon after a 200 mile cab ride from Glasgow. I had flown to Glasgow from Boston via Dublin, which by chance, had been largely immune to closings due to the volcanic cloud over Iceland. That was luck since there was a real risk of a delayed start if my flight from Boston had been canceled.

Upon arriving in Glasgow, I was met by Alistair Macleod from the Kyle of Lochlaish Taxi Company, who shuttled me up to Shiel Bridge. While this was a more expensive way to get from Glasgow to Shiel Bridge, it guaranteed that I’d get there on my planned starting day if my flights were delayed by more than an hour and I missed the daily bus.

Alistair was a big man with a thick Scottish brogue and white tufts of hair growing out of his ears. Originally trained as an engineer, he told me a little about the history of the region as we drove past magnificent Loch Lomond, Ben Nevis, and Glen Coe on the way to the north country.

Driving up to Sheil Bridge with Alistair made me realize that there is exceptional walking within a hour’s drive north of Glasgow. Getting to Glasgow from Boston only takes about 10 hours, making this a realistic destination for a future 9 day hillwalking vacation.

Upon arriving at the lodge, I was zonked and could only think of sleeping. But I met a few Challengers in the lounge and decided to be social and have a pint with them before retiring. John Donohoe, my route vetter, was among them and was setting off on his 23rd crossing. We had a nice talk about the differences in long distance hiking between the US and Scotland and I then retired for a few hours before going down to the bar and having dinner.

Upon entering the Kintail’s pub, I was immediately hailed by fellow backpacking bloggers George Griffin (Londonbackpacker) and Steven Horner. We chatted up a storm, while I tucked into a wonderful mushroom and chicken Risotto. After that night, I was to meet George frequently along my route and he provided me with some very timely local knowledge and good company from Tarfside down to Montrose.

The Great Gas Challenge

I was also in the pub to meet another Challenger who was supposed to bring me a can of isobutane for my stove. Unfortunately, we failed to meet up that evening and I assumed that we had gotten our days crossed and missed each other. I left him a note on the Challenge sign-out register to leave the 230 gram canister he had purchased for me behind,  which he subsequently ignored, meeting up with me by pure luck on the evening of day 5 at the Monadhliath Hotel in Laggan.

Not having cooking gas for the first 4 days of the Challenge was a bit of a hardship, but I managed to get by eating the no-cook dehydrated meals provided by my food sponsor Packit Gourmet. I ate a lot of Cajun Chicken Salad, Energy Nuggets, Banana Pudding and Berry Trifle those first few days and remained quite well fed.

Scottish Rights of Way Society Signs

Morvich Hill Tracks, Day 1

Day 1: Shiel Bridge to Sputan Ban Waterfalls

I got up early on Friday morning, the first day of the Challenge, and left the lodge quite early in the morning. A total of 66 Challengers were scheduled to start at Shiel Bridge, but I didn’t fancy walking with a horde of other people. The truth is that I relish walking alone and was out of the door by 7am. One or two Challengers passed me by evening, but my route was distinct enough that the pack passed me to the south on day 2.

My goal on day 1 was to hike along the River Croe through Geann Lichd, and as far as possible along the northern shore of Glen Affric, to set myself up for summit attempts on Mam Sodhail (1181m) and Carn Eige (1183m) on day 2. These are two of the highest munros in Scotland. I had no idea what climbing them would entail or what weather conditions would be like at that elevation.

The weather was warm as I made my way through the small village of Morvich and past a caravan park before seeing the Scottish Rights of Way Society signs for Glen Affric. Members of the public are allowed to walk or camp on private land in Scotland making cross country hill walking across Scotland remarkably easy. Together with the fact that most unleashed dogs are remarkably non-hostile, this makes walking past rural farms and homes a low stress exercise when compared to the US.

In addition to free access, Scotland has well established tracks or rights of way that cut cross country and through the major glens and mountain passes. These tend to be old sheep herders paths, hunters paths or military roads dating back hundreds of years or longer. If you are thinking about hiking cross country in Scotland, I highly recommend you purchase the classic Scottish Hill Tracks: Walking Guidebook to Long Distance Walking Routes on Tracks and Rights of Way in Scotland for route planning. It’s a must-have guide for long distance walking in Scotland.

Five Sisters of Kintail

North Side, Five Sisters of Kintail, Day 1

Here are a few observations from my first day which would prove to be consistently true throughout my hike:

  •  It quickly became apparent that water was plentiful and that I wouldn’t have to carry more than a litre at a time. I had brought along a 1 liter water bottle that I purchased in the Dublin airport and it served as my water bottle throughout the hike. Despite assurances that the water was safe to drink, I purified it using Micropur Chlorine Dioxide tablets throughout my entire hike. I can’t taste the difference and it gave me some piece of mind, even though most of the other walkers I came across didn’t bother to filter or purify their water at all.
  • It was lambing season throughout my hike (late May) and all mommy sheep had little ones. Whenever, I’d encounter a herd, all of the sheep would bleat out “meh, meh, meh,” instead of “baa, baa, baa,” like they do in the states. I could swear they were saying the sheep equivalent of  “man, man, man,” as a warning of my approach. Maybe sheep, like people have accents, and I was just picking up on that.
  • The hills are remarkably steep but it’s hard to comprehend just how steep until you start to climb them. The lack of ground cover obscures the grade of the slopes.
  • This is a land of waterfalls. They are everywhere, slicing down the sides of all of the hills, but especially west of the Great Glen.
Above Allt Grannda Waterfalls

Near Allt Grannada, Day 1

After a few hours or walking, I came to Glen Licht House Bothy and stopped for a bite to eat, before proceeding past the great waterfalls of Allt Grannda. The path ascends steeply here surrounded on both sides by towering slopes, before descending to Fionngleann and Allt Cam-ban which scythes through the valley. You can hear the roar of its passage through the hills from quite a distance.

Camban Bothy

Camban Bothy, Day 1

Continuing on, I passed Camban Bothy on the southern slope of Sgurr a Dubh Doire (962m) near the western end of Glen Affric. Bothies are primitive buildings that provide hill walkers with shelter and are maintained by various walking organizations including the Mountain Bothies Association. There is a ruin just past Camban where I stopped for lunch and stretched out on the grass for a while to catch some rays.

From here it was a short distance to Allbeithe Youth Hostel, the most remote youth hostel in all of Britain, where many Challengers were to spend their first night out. I continued past it onto the northern shore of Glen Affric and started to look for a good spot to camp for the night. Unfortunately, I was faced with acres of saturated moss and bog, so I continued along to a ruin right next to a stream and waterfall, just below An Tudar Beag. There was a dry, flat camping spot here, although it was exposed to a brisk wind from the west.

Western end of Glen Affric, north shore

Northwest Shore of Glen Affric, Day 1

I pitched my Duomid, thankful that I had listened to the advice of my friend Martin Rye, who insisted that I bring a bomb proof shelter along on the Challenge. I had a quick bite to eat and crashed, satisfied after a good day of hiking, adventure, and solitude.

Day 2: Sputan Ban to Allt Garbh, Glen Affric

When I woke the next morning the peaks around me were covered with a fresh layer of snow but the sun was shining brightly. I ate a few Cliff bars and broke camp.

Today’s objective was to climb up a stalkers path to a Munro named Mam Sodhail, and see if I could ascend any other peaks on the adjacent ridges. After descending, my plan was to cross over to the southern shore of Glen Affric and pitch camp for the evening before heading onto Fort Augustus the following day for a resupply.

As I was packing up, three Challengers passed me by, a man accompanied by two women. The man’s name was Michael and we had a quick chat on the path as his companions raced ahead. I was to astound him a week later by remembering his name and the details of our conversation.

Traversing the Southern Flank of Sgurr na Lapaich

Stalkers Path to Mam Sodhail, Day 2

After a short walk, I came to the stalkers path at the base of Mam Sodhail and proceeded up, traversing the southern flank of Sgurr Na Lapaich (1036m).  This path parallels a mountain stream called Allt Coire Leachavie, which was gushing with snow melt and had one cascade after another. The rivers in Scotland are gems and one of its finest assets.

The hike up to the peak is only about two and a half miles and I made good time on the ascent, despite being rained on and snowed on during the climb. However, when I reached the final 100 meters of the climb, the ridge was covered in wet granular snow and the wind was blowing very strongly in the Corie. So strongly, that could feel myself being lifted by the wind from where I stood, raising concerns about getting frost nip on my unprotected face and about being blown off the summit.

Mam Sodhail

Corie Leachavie and Mam Sodhail, Day 2

I considered my options and decided that I did not feel safe climbing the final ascent alone without an ice axe given the steepness of the slope and slipperiness of the snow surface. Wearing trail runners, I wasn’t confident that I had enough traction on the wet snow kick deep enough steps to make an ascent. I turned around and headed back down. It was the right choice under the circumstances and I had an enjoyable walk back down to Glen Affric with tremendous views from Corie Leachavie.

Reforesstation in Glen Affric

Reforestation Project  and Deer Fence in Glen Affric, Day 2

I descended back down to Glen Affric, which is a beautiful glen that is in the process of being reforested by an organization called Trees for Life. At one time, much of Scotland was covered in trees as part of the great Caledonian Forest. There are various reasons for the destruction of forest habitat ranging from climate change, lumber harvesting, and an explosion in deer population, fueled by large estate owners whose income is financed by annual venison culls. The deer eat all young trees and it is not uncommon to find high deer fences surrounding trees grown for timber harvest or forest regeneration.

Allt Garbh on Glen Affric, Day 2

Campsite at Allt Garbh, Glen Affric, Day 2

Heading east, I crossed over to the south side of the Glen and hiked west until I came to a campsite recommended by my Challenge route vetter along Allt Garbh at NH 181 224. There is a nice flat grassy area here along a stream at the junction to the Cougie footpath.

Day 3: Allt Garbh to Allt Phocachian

Clearcut Forest on the Road to Cougie

South of Glen Affirc, Day 3

Not having stove fuel was getting old fast, so I decided to make a small route change and see if I could make it to Fort Augustus a half or full day early. My first destination of the day was a croft (small farm) called Cougie, south of Affric. From there, I planned to head southeast to Glen Moriston and Torgyle Bridge instead of my more westerly planned route to the River Doe, past Ceannacroc Lodge.

I broke camp and followed a very wet and boggy trail along the Allt Garbh, branching east toward a medium sized loch fed by Allt an Laghair. After stepping in mud that went up to the top of my gaiters a few times, I mentally thanked Chris Townsend for insisting that trail runners were the ideal footwear for the Challenge instead of traditional gore-tex lined leather boots. I made it through my entire hike without a single blister, despite very wet terrain and numerous stream crossings.

From there it was another 3 km to Cougie, a small croft, which advertised scones and tea along the path. Not knowing the significance of Cougie, I was unaware of the delights in store for Challengers who stop there for a meal or lodging.

As it turns out, 22 Challengers had dined at Cougie the previous evening and stayed in its bunkhouse or slept on its grounds, a Challenge tradition with 26 years of history. In comparison, my repast was modest: I payed two and a half pounds for a large pot of tea and two scones heaped with butter and strawberry jam, but this was a very welcome infusion of calories and good cheer.

Cougie Croft Cafe

Cafe Cougie, Day 3

From Cougie, I headed north east to the head of the track leading to Glen Moriston. Along the way, both before and after Cougie, I encountered clear cut stands of timber waste on one side of the road and stands of reforested baby trees on the other, a most distressing juxtaposition, further muddled by the profusion of new roads built to haul out timber and obfuscate the true path.

Luckily I had a small Garmin Gecko 301 GPS receiver which helped me discern when I had taken a wrong turn and eventually I found the correct path through Dundreggan Forest (which has no trees in it) to Glen Moriston and Torgyle Bridge. This route parallels another Highland eyesore, high tension electricity pylons, across a very windy grassland all the way to the river.

Timber Harvesting, Day 3

Eventually, the elevation drops from 500m to 100m at the crossing over River Moriston and the track passes by a classic red phone box besides a B&B. I decided to phone in to Challenge Control at this point for one of my 4 mandatory safety check-ins but couldn’t figure out how to pay for a call since the phone box wouldn’t accept any money or credit cards! Eventually, I gave up and decided that the phone box was a non-functioning relic. This isn’t far from the truth. Phone boxes have become incredibly rare in the United Kingdom due to universal penetration of mobile phones and can be difficult to find.

The day was waining at this point and I decided that it was time to find a place to camp. My route change had expedited my arrival into Fort Augustus, but I decided that I didn’t want to pay for a B&B and would rather camp a few miles outside of town in order to sleep in, arriving after the shops opened in the morning.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a good camp site with water and flat ground.  As a rule of thumb, the best sites tend to be along river and streams banks where the heather and tussocks give way to grass.

The Old Road to Fort Augustus, Day 3

From Torgyle Bridge, my route joined an old drovers path and then a military road that leads into Fort Augustus, traversing a mature forest. Unlike New England forests where you can easily find a stealth (wild) campsite, camping in the forests of Scotland is almost impossible.

Most stands of trees are densely packed together, having been planted by a land owner whose primary interest is monetary. The distribution of trees is so dense that these forests are impenetrable. In addition, the forest floor is seldom flat as the trees grow on grass-like mounds, linked together by a vast network of small water filled capillaries like some kind of weird Israeli-inspired hydroponic scheme. It’s downright eerie, like a witches forest.

Allt Phocaichan Campsite, Day 3

Eventually, I came across a stream named Allt Phocaichain about 6 km northwest of Fort Augustus and within sight of the wind farm outside of town. It wasn’t a perfect site, but the grass was flat enough for a decent pitch despite a prevalence of black slugs in the grass. I ate and quickly zipped into my bivy sack to avoid being slimed to death by a massed slug attack.

Clear cut outside Fort Augustus. Day 4

Day 4: Allt Phocachian to Blackburn Bothy, Corrieyairack Pass

The next morning I broke camp early and continued my journey to Fort Augustus passing through more stands of clear-cut. I don’t understand how this kind of lumber operation can be economically viable.

I arrived in Fort Augustus, situated at the southern end of Loch Ness and the Great Glen by mid morning and did a quick resupply in the combination gas station and grocery store in the center of town. I bought a can of isobutane gas for my stove which was a big relief and some cake and nuts to augment my backlog of hot Packit Gourmet meals and Ramen noodles. Next I called Challenge Control to report in on my first safety call and called my wife who hadn’t heard from me in nearly a week. (When calling the US from the UK, prefix the number with 001.) After I got squared away, I went looking for lunch. No resupply is complete without a pig out.

Fort Augustus is a tiny tourist town barely 3 blocks long with just a few restaurants, B&B’s and a boat tour operator. As I was reading a pub menu, I heard a voice calling me from a picnic table nearby, “Are you in the Challenge?” To which I replied yes, and proceeded to introduce myself to Jane Egg, who was munching on some wonderful looking fish and chips. She watched my pack as I went to the same, most  excellent chip shop, just up from the bridge in the center of town. It’s just past the butcher and they cook everything fresh on order.

Jane Eggsley

Jane Egg, Day 4

Like me, Jane was a first time Challenger and we subsequently hiked together in a loosely coupled sort of way for the next day up and over the notorious Corrieyairick Pass (770m) from Fort Augustus to the River Spey and Melgarve Bothy, camping together at Blackburn Bothy, mid-way over the Pass. She’s a keen sailor, hill walker, yogi, golfer, and tennis player with a lust for life, who retired in her late 40’s and is making up for lost time by doing all of the things she’d always wanted to do when working. Turns out we have a common friend, Baz Carter, who is a member of the same backpacking group as Jane, just outside of London.

The Corrieyairick is historically notable as an old military road built by General Wade in 1731 and was the site of a major battle in the Jacobite Rising of 1745. Few examples remain of it’s original cobbled surface, which is now heavily eroded, particularly along its southern descent to the River Spey.

After lunch, we blew out of Fort Augustus, resolved to hike up the Pass to Blackburn Bothy for the evening. This is pretty straightforward if you pick the right roads after reaching the Pink Castle called Culachy House. Unfortunately there are a few new ones that are not reflected on the OS maps due to recent construction, so after a few false starts, quickly diagnosed by my GPS, we got headed uphill on the correct path.

If you find yourself in similar straights, the squiggly lines on your OS map are switchbacks used to rapidly gain altitude. I couldn’t figure out what they signified until I was walking right on top of them. If that advice doesn’t help, try this: turn left and cross the small bridge when you get to the new peat bog excavation at the small Lochan before the ruin at NH 370 053. When you start walking steeply uphill, you’ll know you’re on the correct path.

Campsite at Blackburn Bothy, Corrieyairack Pass

Campsite at Blackburn Bothy, Corrieyairack Pass, Day 4

I arrived at the bothy, elevation 340m, first, followed by Jane about 30 minutes later. The Bothy has a nice stream running past it and is set down in a small ravine below height of land protecting it from the wind. I found a good pitch outside on the green lawn in front of the bothy building, while Jane decided to sleep indoors on the floor. We were joined a bit later by a young couple, also on The Challenge, who arrived just before dinner. Like me they slept outdoors on the front lawn.

We cooked dinner before crashing, where I discovered my new gas canister was incompatible with my stove, which requires a screw-on fitting instead of the common European bayonet style fitting on my canister. I had failed to check the compatibility in the store, but it’s the only brand they carried, so I would have been out of luck anyway. Still it was a bit of a blow since it meant my gas problem was still not resolved after 4 days.

Jane had brought along a giant Coleman fuel canister and was nice enough to let me heat up my water to make some Beef Stew and Polenta for dinner. The beef stew tasted good but the polenta was simply outstanding, and I went to bed with hot food in my tummy.

Top of Corrieyairack Pass

Top of Corrieyairick Pass, Day 5

Day 5: Blackburn Bothy to Laggan

The next day, I got a late start, heading out after Jane at 8am, but soon overtook her on the final ascent to the top of the Corrieyairick Pass. We were having great weather, with clear sunny skies, and jaw dropping views of the mountains in Glen Affric over 50 miles away. It was amazing to look back and realize that I had walked from there to here in just a few days, and I realized then that I was going to finish the Challenge successfully.

I plopped down here on the grass next to a small burn and resupplied my water. As I lay there, I realized that I was feeling complete contentment for the first time in I don’t know how long. I didn’t have to be anywhere or be doing anything and no one really had any idea where I was exactly. If this is what Appalachian Trail thru-hikers feel, sign me up.

 

Spey River Valley, Day 5

Spey River Valley, Day 5

After a few hours of walking, I completed descending the Pass and arrived at a small ruin and waterfall just before the Melgarve Bothy. I stopped for a proper lunch break and was joined by Jane shortly thereafter. With 8 miles behind me, I still had another 10 mile to go to reach the famous Laggan store in order to try to find a compatible gas canister. This tiny shop is stuffed to the gills with everything imaginable from whole foods to farm supplies, Scottish Malts, and children’s toys.

Garva Bridge

Garva Bridge, Day 4

The next 10 miles were tough walking over a single lane, black topped road on a hot day. I put my head down and started cranking out the miles at a 3 mph pace. When I reached Garva Bridge, I met two additional Challengers named Phil and Dave who had completed the Challenge 10 and 9 times previously. Notably, Phil had a portable luggage cart with wheels lashed to the outside of his pack, presumably to pull along his pack on long road walks like the one I was currently taking. I never did see those guys again.

The heat really flogged me that day, and I was pretty tired by the time I reached Laggan late in the afternoon. Unfortunately, the shop did not have a compatible gas canister, so I started looking for a good camp site for the evening. I was ready to drop, but Laggan is surrounded by sheep pasture with few good campsite options.

There is a for-pay campsite 4 miles further on in Glentruim, but it’s close to a major highway and I dreaded having to camp there.  While my pace was slowing down due to the heat, I continued walking until I came upon the sign to the well-known Monadhliath Hotel. I decided to see if they had a room and luckily got the last one they had available for the evening.

Then I had some trail magic.

As I turned into the hotel driveway, I heard my name called out by Nick, the fellow who I had arranged to deliver my gas canister back in Shiel Bridge. Despite my note, he had carried it for over 50 miles, and subsequently delivered it to me in the bar along with a pint of McEwan’s ale.

Nick and his father Hugh were walking the Challenge together and I spent a delightful evening with them in the hotel bar and restaurant as I recuperated from the day’s trials over a vension burger and chips, a seond pint, two glasses of Chilean Malbec and a dram of malt. I was feeling normal again by bedtime. Thanks gentlemen!

Day 6: Laggan to Kinguissie

After 5 days of walking, I was ready for a rest day which I had planned to take on day 7 in Kinguissie. My knees were feeling pretty banged up and I had a resupply package waiting for me in the post office there. To get there, I had a short 11 mile day ahead of me over the mostly flat terrain of the wide Spey river valley.

As usual, I left the Monadhliath early before the house had woken, just catching a glimpse of Nick on the way out, when he wished me “Good walking.” I saw he and his dad later in Braemar briefly, but not after that.

Phones Track

The Phones Track, Day 6

I picked up my route where I had left off the previous evening, walking another 4 miles over black top road to the Phones Track, another ancient Scottish Right of Way the runs from the Phones Lodge to Kingussie. It passes through lovely grass pasture, past a loch, and then fields of heather which are still burned in stripes by estate games keepers to provide young grouse with tender shoots.

About a mile after leaving the hotel, the quality of wild camp sites picks up rather dramatically after Cat Lodge as the road heads into the hills leaving the large sheep pastures behind. If you’re looking for a wild camp outside of Laggan, file that fact away.

As I passed the Mains of Glentruim, which is a farm, the road passes through a beautiful forest area before passing the for-pay campsite, crossing an old stone bridge and ending at the A9, a 4 lane interstate highway. To get to the Phones Track, you need to take a left before the entrance ramp onto the highway and continue north along the adjacent bikeway until you come to a paved path that branches to the right. Follow that up to the highway and you’ll see a sign on the other side that says Phones Lodge at the head of a jeep track. Cross the highway and walk up this road for a mile or so and you’ll come to the Lodge, which is a private home and the head of the track. From there, turn north.

I repeat these directions here because it’s a very confusing intersection and because these directions don’t match what my route vetter suggested. I tried that route first and it didn’t work, so I followed a pair of other Challengers, Tim and Kate, who I ran into and were headed in the same direction.

Ruthven Barracks

Ruthven Barracks Ruin, Kingussie, Day 6

Once on the Phones Track, its a pretty straightforward walk to Kingussie, except for the last little stretch into town where the path ends abruptly and you need to cross the A9 twice, over and then under, to find the road that runs into town. If you find yourself walking on the B970 to the east of the Ruthven Barracks, you’re on the right road.

Having left Laggan before 7am, I arrived in Kinguissie around lunch time, and proceeded to walk around town in search of the tourist information office (which I never found) and up and down all of the streets to find a nice B&B where I could put my feet up for a full rest day. I eventually checked in at a nice Inn called Columba House that had good food and a nice garden and chilled out. But that’s a separate story, so stay tuned to learn about my rest day and the final half of my TGO Challenge hike.

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25 Responses to TGO Challenge Trip Report – Part 1

  1. Peewiglet May 31, 2010 at 11:29 pm #

    Hello there, Phil!

    What a great writeup, and so speedily produced! I'm v. much looking foward to Part 2.

    It was a pleasure to meet you. I think our paths may also have crossed in Montrose as I was making my way to the station on the Friday morning, but since my brain was only functioning at about 10% so early in the morning it was some 30 seconds after we passed that the penny dropped. Doh…

    I hope to meet again on future Challenges :)

  2. Earlylite June 1, 2010 at 2:08 am #

    No worries. I saw your challenge photos last night. They are marvelous. I may copy bits of your route for next time.

    So, I'm on the plane to Dublin from Edinburgh on Saturday sitting next to a nice lady festooned with gold jewelry who claims she knows "Shirl", who'd also been hiking the past two weeks in Scotland doing a coast to coast. She's on her way to Tunisia, former fleet street editor, daughter goes to St Andrews.

  3. Peewiglet June 1, 2010 at 2:52 am #

    Thanks! I'm glad you liked the piccies :)

    Now I'm scratching my head, though. I wonder who that woman might have been. Not a Challenger, then? I did meet a woman at the Inveroran hotel at lunch early in the trip, but I thought she was doing the West Highland Way. Hmmm…

  4. Earlylite June 1, 2010 at 3:08 am #

    She was definitely not a hiker. Lives in Edinburgh. In her late 60's, reddish hair. Flashing smile.

  5. Andy Howell June 1, 2010 at 4:13 am #

    That route after Phones is always confusing !!! I've never been able to avoid having to walk some way on the main road :-(

  6. karen w June 1, 2010 at 5:48 am #

    wow, bro! looks like it has been a spectacular, true adventure.

  7. Peewiglet June 1, 2010 at 6:56 am #

    Hmmm… all I can think is that perhaps it's one of the two women that Lorraine McCall shared a flat with. I met them once, though it's several years ago.

    I meant to say that I was very confused by that path after Phones as well. I set off up one but had to turn back and take another. That's fairly normal for me. I'm reassured to hear that I'm not the only one who finds it confusing :)

  8. Mike Knipe June 1, 2010 at 7:25 am #

    The account is a bit like the challenge itself – pause for breath, then batter on till the very end….

    Nice to meet you in Montrose by the way. Ta for the pint.

    I couldn't find my tent afterwards…..

  9. Robin Evans June 1, 2010 at 8:13 am #

    Excellent write up. Hoping I can do the TGOC next year.

  10. ukmase June 1, 2010 at 12:13 pm #

    What a well written report, looking forward to part deux.

  11. Martin Rye June 1, 2010 at 1:53 pm #

    Great write up Philip. I see the camera got some great photos. Glad you all got good wether.

  12. Earlylite June 1, 2010 at 2:00 pm #

    The Lumix did very well and with all the daylight, the investment in polarizing filter was well worth it. Next purchase will be to add a wide angle lens. With 600 photos in the bank now, I probably won't be using yours that much anymore. :-)

  13. Helen W June 2, 2010 at 9:03 am #

    I have questions, but for now, I'll just heap on the congratulations and let you focus on settling down to home and working on your report and pix.

    ~ Given your new strategy of eating cold food, I propose a change of trail names—NoLite.

    ~ Of course you knew something had to go wrong. A stove failure is nowhere near the worst failure you could have encountered. Thank goodness it wasn't the camera. I've read 2 reports with Lumix problems this month—1 lost and the other dunked in the Gila.

    ~ I like your landscape compositions. Your tent is a very attractive contrast element and provides continuity to the story.

    ~ Wheels on the backpack sound good to me. I welcome the day we tow little rickshaws on well-developed trails instead of crushing our spines.

    ~ Delightful to hear about your experiences with other walkers. Travelers coming together to share stories and refreshments as they rest is a wonderful prehistoric tradition.

    "The lack of ground cover obscures the grade of the slopes."

    Later, I'd like to explore this remarkable concept with you.

  14. Earlylite June 2, 2010 at 11:26 am #

    Composition was very much on my mind on this trip. I'm glad someone appreciates it. Becoming a better photographer is on of my other challenges this year.

    When are you starting your E2E? Black fly season must be starting in VT soon….

  15. Windigo Doug June 2, 2010 at 2:06 pm #

    Great trip report as well as pics. This one will be added to my list. Noted that you went with the TerRocs over the RocLites. Any particular reason other than the added toe protection you've mentioned in the past ?

  16. Earlylite June 2, 2010 at 2:10 pm #

    Good question – the terrocs are slightly wider across the ball of the foot and I decided at the last minute to go with them over the roclites, but I don't think it would have mattered much either way. I also saw lots of people on the Challenge in the roclites.

  17. Evan Cabodi June 3, 2010 at 8:16 am #

    I especially liked the massed slug attack! Although without pics who knows if it really happened :)

  18. Tom Murphy June 3, 2010 at 7:07 pm #

    Congrats, cetainl more fulfilling than youe ME trip.

    How about a posting review how your gear choices went?

    I was impressed with the taut guying in all your pictures, did you add those clips halfway up or did the shelter have those already?

    Very happy for you.

  19. Philip Werner June 4, 2010 at 3:10 am #

    The ME trip was on my mind, definitely. The lack of flash floods contributed to my success in Scotland, no doubt. I will be doing a gear writeup sometime next week. Stay tuned, but my kit worked out exceptionally well. The Duomid does had extra tie-outs half way up – from the mfg. I may never use a tent or a rectangular tarp again!

  20. Earlylite June 4, 2010 at 3:13 am #

    Evan – I got those damn slugs before they got me, haha! Pictures of the slugs will be posted along with recipes for slug jerky! BTW, the Black Rock kit worked fabulously. Details to follow offline.

  21. Helen W June 4, 2010 at 11:21 am #

    "I’m glad someone appreciates [composition]."

    I'm sure everyone does, at least on a subconscious level. But most are bashful about expressing their opinions.

    ~ I'm stuffing my LT cache cans right now. Lots of little bags of nuts, drinks, humus mix, 10 distinct nutritional bars, and 28 different suppers. (That was a head-scratcher.) I'll have them planted in a week, and then embark with the next stretch of good weather.

    ~ Maybe we can share some deep thoughts on backpacking photography with the next moon. Until then, keep your gamma down and your saturation up.

  22. titaniumdude June 8, 2010 at 11:39 am #

    Excellent write up fellah. Makes me feel like I'm back there again. :-)

  23. Earlylite June 8, 2010 at 4:10 pm #

    thanks TD

  24. alan.sloman June 9, 2010 at 1:21 am #

    Hi Philip

    Thoroughly enjoying your trip report – wonderful writing – looking forward to the next part!

  25. Earlylite June 9, 2010 at 2:26 am #

    Thanks Alan – I'll also be posting my photo gallery on friday. Amazing pictures. Of the galleries posted so far on the message board, how did you manage to get your picture into so many of them, I wonder. :-)

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