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 it didn't disappoint in this regard. I nonetheless headed out towards Bynack More.

Low clouds over the Cairngorm mountains

The trail up to the plateau on Bynack More was very well done. However, as I ascended the weather deteriorated, and on the shoulder of the mountain the rains came in earnest.

Excellent track up Bynack More

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