“Many thanks for your application for the 38th Great Outdoors Challenge. We are delighted to inform you that you have a place on the 2017 Event,” appeared at the start of an email I, and over 300 others, received one day in early November. It threw me into an immediate panic. I’d half expected for my application to be laughed at, half expected to lose out in the jostling for limited places. But I found myself “in”, and I really had to get on with planning.
This is the first year that the application window came around and I felt genuinely like I might be able to do the Challenge. So I gave it a shot and found myself in. A couple of the Challenge “family” sent me messages to welcome me too.
Many Challengers have described the TGO as something you do once and then are hooked. I’m sure that may be the case, but I decided from the outset to approach it as a one-off event. A longer all-in-one-go walk than I’ve ever done, a walk through completely unfamiliar terrain, a walk I may get 2/3 of the way through and just want it over, a walk which could be two weeks of long days in shit weather. In short a Challenge. If it becomes a new obsession then so be it. I’m equally open to completing the Challenge and never setting foot there again, if that’s how it pans out.
This strategy of viewing it as a one-off then influenced my planning in a couple of ways:
- If I’m only doing it once then I want to cram as much in as I can and make it special.
- If I’m only doing it once then I want to make sure I manage to complete it.
At first glance these two objectives seemed to be contradictory, but I soon realised that I could cunningly craft a route that mixed in both interest and straightforward sections I could just get under my belt. Indeed, by the time I’d finished my route plan, even the easier sections seemed to have enough interest in them that on no day (maybe apart from the final slog to the east coast) would it feel like a chore. Route planning itself didn’t really hold any fears for me as I much prefer to plot my own routes anyway: this was just a bit bigger than normal. What did concern me a bit though was that there was no way I could hope to absorb all of the collective experience that’s out there. Yes, okay there’s the message board, and people offer advice freely, but you need to know what questions to ask. It was quite conceivable that I could plot a route that just misses out on something really great, be it scenery or a social opportunity. If this were to be my only go at the Challenge, I wouldn’t want to miss out on such things.
I soon realised that I was going in circles in the quest the make my route perfect in terms of enjoyment, but at the same time conservative enough to get past the vetters. So in the end I simply ignored the noise and just used my usual iterative planning process. Nevertheless, when I sat back and looked at what I’d come up with I was pretty pleased. Not knowing how the route would be received by my vetter, I wrote it up and sent it off, and then waited on tenterhooks for the response. I expected the vigour of my vetter’s laughter at my efforts to register on the Richter scale and to feel the tremors all the way down in Essex.
So, this weekend my route came back from vetting, and I almost fell off my seat with surprise. The covering email said that my vetter “rather enjoyed it”. Moreover, my route came back without any required revisions to the route itself, which I was told was quite an achievement given the fact that I’d been assigned to one of the more exacting vetters. What I did have to do was correct a spelling, add some figures for one day I’d inadvertently left off and reorder how I’d written up my FWAs. So basically just admin points. I’ll take that.
Of course my vetter also wrote me a long letter jam packed with advice and suggestions for further enhancement. A couple of ways I could cut out a bit of road walking and a really useful set of thoughts on my route across the Monadhliath. Nothing wrong with my main route across the Monadhliath, more some ideas to keep me on it rather than my overly cautious FWA. In the end I adopted pretty much every one of my vetter’s ideas and my route is that little bit better for it, primarily in terms of flexibility if conditions are poor.
It took me a while to write the changes up and replot the bits I needed to remeasure, but it’s done and the sheet is back at HQ. With my core route essentially approved, I’ve also booked my accommodation for the nights I’m in “civilisation”.
Overview of the Route
I’m starting at Dornie and the atmosphere of the Eilean Donan castle, and making my way along Loch Duich to Morvich to pick up the Affric Kintail Way which I will follow all the way to Drumnadrochit for Monday 15th. I’ll then get the ferry over to Inverfarigaig and embark on the Monadhliath.
I head up into the Monadhliath, pick off the Corbett of Beinn Bhreac Mor and head down into Glen Mazeran, then I climb back up the next plateau to the Dulnain and pick up the Burma Road with a side trip up Geal-charn Mor. I then divert slightly to Lochan Dubh before dropping into Aviemore on Thursday 18th. From Aviemore I head to Glen Feshie through the forests above the B970, taking in Loch an Eilein and Loch Gamhna on the way. Then it’s the trade route up the Feshie and Geldie Burn to White Bridge, Mar Lodge and Braemar sometime during Sunday 21st.
By now I’ll probably have encountered a few fellow challengers, and that’s only due to increase as I head to Lochcallater Lodge and then over the Munros of Carn an Tuirc, Cairn of Claise, Tolmount and Tom Buidhe to the Cheese & Wine Party at Fee Burn on Monday 22nd. I’ll probably have company for my descent into Glen Prosen via the Munros of Mayar and Driesh and a few more minor tops. My route then mainly follows roads to Forfar, then Letham and the Red Castle at Lunan Bay, finishing Thursday 25th. That then gives me a whole extra day at the end as contingency.
Of course, the weather’s unlikely to go all my way, so I’ve got some FWAs too. Crudely my plan for the Monadhliath is to tough out the main route as far as possible, using the cover of the stream valleys and camping early/late as needed, but with a diversion north to the A9 and General Wade’s Military Road as a last resort. For the Cairngorms, it was a real struggle to come up with something that didn’t involve a lot of road walking along A roads, but I found something that would do. I’d head south down the A93 and then use the Cateran Trail to get me to the lowlands and the trudge through the final road bit.
With it all done, and now just waiting for my amended route sheet to be given the thumbs up (or another set of corrections, more likely!!), I can now start getting ready for the whole thing. It’s fair to say that the planning, far from being a chore, has massively increased my enthusiasm for getting on with starting the walk. But first, I need to shake off the winter lethargy and get the legs moving again. And next year (?) maybe I’ll start the planning earlier….