Saturday, 4 June 2016

The Great Outdoors Challenge: Shiel Bridge to Stonehaven

The Great Outdoors Challenge is an annual long-distance backpacking trip across Scotland. It is organised by the TGO magazine, an excellent U.K. publication on walking and backpacking. Entries are limited to around 300 participants, and the goal is to walk from one of several starting points on the west coast of Scotland to the east coast. Participants, or challengers as they call themselves, map their own routes from west to east. There are a number of guidelines, but the only real rule is that you have to walk the entire way.

This year was my second Challenge, and I started at Shiel Bridge, a hamlet on the west coast of Scotland. I pitched my tent at the local campground, and headed to the pub at the hotel. There I met a Scottish/French backpacker who was doing the Cape Wrath trail I believe. I also met Thom Sandberg, whose excellent blog also recounts this year's Challenge.

The next day I headed up Glen Licht.

I fell in with another challenger, Ben, who lives in Baltimore and is a photographer. We separated a bit before the youth hostel in Glen Affric, and then, after a terrific bowl of lentil soup and a roll at the hostel, headed up the Glen together. It was windy, and we pitched in a flat area adjacent to the river. I tried to tuck my tent in behind a little grass mound.

I slept poorly that night. I got to sleep fine, but the wind dropped and so did the temperature. In addition, I worried about ticks (have found one on myself earlier in the evening), and was itchy from midge bites a few days prior (after a hill race). It was well below freezing. I subsequently learned that I could shift the down a bit in my sleeping bag so that it is more on the top of the bag, and where it provides more warmth. I wore a balaclava, but could have used a down hoodie.

The next day I walked along Loch Affric and then Loch Beinn a Mheadoin. I talked with David and Holly, first-timers from Wisconsin, who were doing the Challenge as part of their honeymoon. They ended up taking a different route in the afternoon, and I set up an early wild camp near a river.

I was tired from my broken night, and the arch of my left foot was sore - perhaps from going a bit longer than planned on the preceeding day. A camp on my own allowed me to have an early night, and snore if I wished.

The next day I was on the road early, and stopped for a coffee at the Tomich hotel. After this I decided to stay on the road, as opposed to going through the hills (as I'd intially planned), as it was a long pull to Drumnadrochit.

The road walk featured a large climb nonetheless, but on the other side I regained the Affric/Kintail way. This is a newly signposted route that follows forest tracks. I fell in with Tom and Kerry, friendly and worldly challengers from northern Virginia. We walked together to Drumnadrochit, and I checked in to the hostel there.

After a shower, I went to the grocery store, and then enjoyed a hearty meal in a restaurant in Drumnadrochit. Later, I caught up with Tom and Kerry, and then another couple from Wyoming, Matt and Lindley, at a hotel pub.

I returned to the hostel, and slept fitfully.

Day 4

I woke early and walked quickly to the jetty on the other side of town. The ferry left early, and I didn't want to miss it. At the Jetty were Tom, Kerry, and a handful of other challengers.

The trip across Loch Ness was enjoyable. There were great views of Castle Urquart, and the boat captain was chatty.

On the opposite shore, I walked with the group for a bit, and then just with David and Holly, into the hills. The Monalidiath Mountains were being developed for wind farms on their eastern side, and I followed the dusty lorry track upwards. Eventually, I came to the end of the track, and at a hunters shelter, set my compass for a crossing of the trackless high ground.

The Monalidiath Mountains are rounded and relatively featureless. I wouldn't want to be crossing them in a gale, but enjoyed using my compass to navigate across the peat bogs.

Eventually, I descended and followed a track to River Findhorn. I was weary from my lack of sleep, and from a day in the hills, and found a good spot to pitch my tent near a stone wall. I cleaned up, ate, and turned in early.

Day 5

After breakfast, I headed up the track through Glen Findhorn.

I then crossed the river, and followed a track into the hills.

The track eventually ended, and again I relied on my compass for navigation. This time, however, there was a bit more uncertainty, and the track I'd been following ended in a slightly different place than shown on the map. I knew which direction I needed to go though, and continued across the high ground. I then descended to a hunting hut, and brewed a cup of coffee. Tom and Kerry showed up shortly thereafter, and we walked together down to the Red Bothy on River Dulnain.

It was 3 p.m., but the rain was coming on, and I decided to stay in the dry bothy rather than pushing on another 7 miles to Aviemore. I offered Tom and Kerry the use of my fuel (theirs had run short), and this sealed their decision to join me. We had a fire, and a chatty evening, before turning in.

Day 6

I walked with Tom and Kerry over the Burma Road. Tom had been trained in the U.S. military (officer school), so it was interesting to hear about his training and experiences with navigation (he was expert in this regard).

We reached the outskirts of Aviemore, and Tom and Kerry checked into their accommodation, while I headed to the Mountain Cafe to get a table for the three of us. We enjoyed the excellent fare there, and then they went to do laundry, while I resupplied at Tescos.

I then head up the road to Glen More. I was able to book into the youth hostel there while I walked. Upon arrival, I shared a glass of wine with a fellow Challenger and his wife before check in.

Pack explosion at the Cairngom Lodge Youth Hostel

After a beer or two and dinner, I headed to my bunk to read and then drifted off to sleep

Day 7

The forecast was poor, and, unfortunately, accurate. I nonetheless headed out towards Bynack More.

Low clouds over the Cairngorm mountains

The trail up to the plateau on Bynack More was excellent. However, as I ascended to the broad, arctic-like plateu on Bynack More, the weather deteriorated. Descending from the shoulder of the mountain, the rains came in earnest.

Excellent track up Bynack More

I pushed on. It was a driving rain, and I encountered one of the Challenge control staff on the hill. He asked how things were, and I indicated that I was pushing on to the next bothy to shelter.

I descended to the Fords of Avon shelter. There I met a Challenger from the youth hostel, Ian (I think), who was sheltering there for lunch. I joined him, and warmed up with a pot of ramen soup. Ordinarily, I don't really eat ramen noodles, but on a backpacking trip - and particularly on a cold, rainy day - they are particularly welcome.

Eventually, we pushed on along the wet track along the Riven Avon. We reached the Faindouran bothy, which was still have work done to it internally. However, it was dry, and out of the wind. Actually, there were two buildings at Faindouran, and the one that I picked might have been a former horse stable. I swept up the dust from the newly-laid floor, and decided to settle in for the evening, even though it was relatively early.

Later, three Challengers arrived, two from Edinburgh and one, Wilf, from down south. We arranged ourselves within the bothy, and turned in early. In the middle of the night I made a trip outside, and the moon was bright.

I tried to dry out at the Faindouran bothy.

Day 8

Wilf and I headed up Glen Avon.

The brown hills of Glen Avon

Eventually, we reach the Linn of Avon. Here, the sun was out, and we dried our feet and socks, and made coffee. A swim is the fast moving water was tempting, but it was still cool out. To our right was the rocky outcroppings of Ben Avon, and I made a mental note to return here sometime with my son to explore these.

Linn of Avon

We turned and head south, and lunched on a small beach at the end of Loch Builg. I showed Wilf my strategies for lunch - tuna and tortilla wraps.

As we walked on, the afternoon slipped by, and we decided to pitch on a field by the ruins of Daldownie. It would have been possible to push on towards Ballater, but this was another 9 miles at least, so we decided to call it a day. Estate vehicles drove by on the nearby track now and then, but they seemed happy with us pitching there. It was an early night, and I found myself drifting off to podcasts.

Wild camp near River Avon

Day 9

Wilf and I packed up, and headed towards Ballater. We passed the time talking about his work, and it was interesting to hear about his experiences as a police officer. We arrived in Ballater around lunch time, and had a fish supper and a pint at the pub, before resupplying at the Co-op store. Wilf kindly let me share his double hostel room, and we enjoyed excellent pizzas at the nearby pub. There, Challengers rolled in, and Thom and Kerry arrived later after a big day.

Day 10

Wilf having breakfast at the hostel in Ballater

Wilf and I had separate routes planned from Ballater, and I headed out to join the Deeside way. It was a quiet Sunday morning, and I chatted with an older lady who told me that she'd lived in Ballater for more than 25 years, and had never seen flooding as bad as the floods of the previous winter.

The Deeside way on a nice morning

A fishing hut near the River Dee. My pack is on the bench.

At a bridge over the River Dee, I caught up with Thom once again. The bridge appeared to be at least 15 feet above the water, yet still was damaged from the winter flood.

Damage to a bridge over the River Dee from the recent flood

I walked with Thom to Aboyne, where he had lunch and I joined him for coffee. It was great to chat to such an positive, creative guy. Thom told me about his book, and later in the summer, I received a copy of Lost Land of the Lyttles.

We parted ways in Aboyne, and thereafter I crossed the river and continued East. I met a friendly Canadian Challenger who had just retired, and then continued on my own. In a wood, I debated stopping at a good flat spot to pith my tent, but continued on. This was a mistake, as it soon began pouring. I continued, and even with the umbrella I was soaked from the waist down. There simply wasn't anyplace to get out of the rain.

Finally, I came to a forestry section, and pitched in the trees. Once the tent was set up, I soaked up the water on the tent floor with my sponge, and inflated my Therma-rest. I filtered some water from a muddy rivulet, and made ramen. Inside my tent, I got in my bag. All things considered, I was warm, dry, and fed. There were wet clothes under my rain fly, and they would not be pleasant to put back on, but that was tomorrow's problem.

I pitched in the pouring rain, but the tent kept me dry through the night

Day 11

It was head down time.

I was up, packed, breakfasted and on the trail by 6:30. The rain had stopped. My shoes and socks were soaked, but there was nothing for it. I followed a bike path for a bit, and then dodged traffic on a surprisingly busy B road until I reached a track which led into the Fetteresso Forest.

Up the Foggy Road...

No fog on this day

I was doubly careful with my navigation in the Forest. At forks in the road, I'd set my compass and choose the road heading in the correct direction.

In the Fetteresso Forest

It was an enjoyable walk, and towards the end of the forest I listened to a few of my short history podcasts.

I left the forest, and began making my way to Stonehaven. I adopted a 55 minute walk: 5 minute rest ratio, and kept this up, eating the miles.

The end is in sight.

Eventually, I entered the outskirts of Stonehaven, and made my way to the beach.

The finish at Stonehaven beach

It had been a good push to Stonehaven, on my reckoning more than 20 miles. But now the work was done, and I caught a bus to Montrose and Challenge control, and then the train home.