The Challenge done, I wake in my Stonehaven B&B with a lazy day ahead. I’m at the station in good time for the train to Montrose. As it pulls into Montrose, I realise this is the train that a huge swathe of Thursday people are getting – the platform is a solid mass of blue Challenge t-shirts. I stand on the platform, having exchanged places with the Blue Army. The crowd now settling into the train reminds me that something doesn’t feel right. And it hasn’t felt right for much of the Challenge.
I make my way to the Park Hotel to sign out and collect my goodies. I linger as long as possible so that my next move can be to check in at my hotel. That done, I set off on a quest for lunch and then kill the rest of the afternoon simply hanging around at the Park.
The dinner, albeit much smaller than the big Thursday one, still has around 60 people there. And the people I would probably regard as my closest Challenge friends are all there. It’s great, but I struggle to make much of a night of it, before turning in.
I return to work after the bank holiday weekend, and only last a couple of days before I collapse and momentarily black out at work. My cough has got so bad that I can’t draw breath properly while I’m doing it, and I come around to find myself sat on the office floor surrounded by concerned colleagues. I’ve not been back into the office since. Medical advice has of course been sought. It now appears as though, as suggested by Louise, I may have asthma or my existing hayfever has become aggravated to pretty much the same thing. Apparently, a lot of hayfever sufferers are getting coughs this year. And I did expose myself to a hell of a lot of tree pollen on the walk. Either way, the treatment is largely the same, and it’s now a matter of seeing if it clears up with a course of medication or looks like being a more long term condition.
Work won’t let me go back as yet. I think I may have spooked them by falling over. At least this gives me plenty of time to write up the Challenge. It also gives me plenty of time to look at maps, and I find myself having already mapped out my next Challenge route. I guess this means I’ve not gone off the idea yet. But before I think any more about a next Challenge, I need to get myself back to the point of going out for a hike and camping again.
Reflections on this year’s Challenge
For me, this year was a bit of an anti-climax after the novelty and thrill of last year’s Challenge, it being my first one then. I guess it’s always going to be hard to reach the same dizzying heights when the first one went so well. I contributed to my own downfall this year though.
For one thing, I made the route deliberately harder. I felt after last year that I’d been over cautious and in hindsight it was too easy (the odd day excepted). So I made it longer and planned in more ascent. Paul’s tweaks to the route didn’t fundamentally alter these characteristics. Last year’s just felt more epic.
Days 9 to 12 aside, I’ve largely been left to my own devices on this year’s route. I knew it would likely be a bit lonelier than last year’s, if only because I picked so many popular segments in 2017, but I didn’t expect it to be quite so solitary as it turned out to be. When planning I didn’t give it any thought – after all, I’d be doing it with Paul and whenever we’ve done a long walk together, we have met no one, it’s just been the two of us. And we’re still talking. The truth is that when it came down to it, I missed my walking partner, and really wished he’d been able to make it.
I’m resolved that if I do another Challenge (and at the point I walked into Stonehaven, it very much was an “if”), it will have to be planned to give a better balance of company than I had this year. That’s not to say I won’t plan solitary sections, but they need to be balanced. I need to assume I’ll be solo – even if I have a partner, who’s to say I won’t be in the same position as this year and find myself solo unexpectedly? My route simply needs to work whether I’m accompanied or solo.
One positive thing I do take from this though is that having struggled with my head on a number of past long distance trips, it’s pretty obvious that the Challenge offers the necessary antidote, if I can only make sensible judgements about how to use it. Company is a powerful tool, and this year I was fortunate to have it at my most vulnerable moments. In one very superficial sense what the company largely provided was relief from boredom, but that boredom could so easily have made me chuck in the towel, given the state I was in. But of course, company provides more than just relief from boredom – it’s support, ideas, humour, opportunities and so much more. You just don’t necessarily realise it at the time.
This year, clearly, illness played a huge part in how things went. It drove my decisions about route; it determined my levels of freshness/tiredness and hence clarity of decision making; it focussed my mind on the objective of getting across; it put into perspective the degree to which I care about bagging hills along the way (ie not that much); it very much determined my decisions about when to stop and camp each day.
Should I have pulled out ? I’m not sure. Physically, I was still capable of doing the walking, and conceivably could still have done the more demanding days on my main route. I specifically chose the lighter option when it came down to it, more as a precaution than any perceived inability to make it. At that point I was very much in “get it done” mode, so if making it a little less demanding helped guarantee getting it done, that was alright with me. I do know that if I had pulled out, I would very likely be sitting here regretting the decision and feeling that I could have made it. So I think I made the right call. I don’t think continuing necessarily made my illness worse – it actually got worse once I got home. Although clearly it did delay the treatment of it a bit.
In terms of route choice, I definitely made the start too hard. My initial days, at which point I was carrying some items of food that wouldn’t get eaten until day 9, were too long for the load I was carrying. My first 4 days this year totaled 102km compared with 86km last year – and every single one of those 4 days was longer than the corresponding day last year. The pressure on my feet, coupled with the warm conditions wasn’t a good recipe. But I got through it, and I’m pretty sure that some better foot discipline early on would probably have seen me ok.
I’ve already said that bagging hills on the route is something I don’t really care about, and this was evident in how quickly I discarded them when I needed to. I still think it’s nice to go high on occasion on the crossing, but for me hills need to be straightforward. I have no interest in compleating a Munro round, but I do sort of feel I should do a token Munro on each crossing. As long as it’s straightforward to tackle in full backpacking mode and easily bypassed if need be, then fine.
The other thing I will try to fix for next time is the way I carve the route into sections. A 5 day section to Dalwhinnie, which had a crap resupply, wasn’t good. Braemar and Ballater one day apart being my next resupply. I need to space them better – more like in 2017.
Reading the above you could be forgiven for inferring that the whole trip was a long, tedious struggle with no upside. You’d be wrong though. There were a few highlights:
- Rannoch Moor – although the trudge following the telephone posts was a bit of a chore, the moor itself and the surrounding scenery were stunning. Scenically, the camp at Tom da Chloiche was easily the camp of the trip. I’m still wondering though, what it would have been like if I’d climbed the Black Corries for a high camp – possibly even better.
- Glen Etive – actually although it coincided with my first bout of sore feet, I quite liked the glen. The camp at Lochan Urr with a view to the Buachaille was quite memorable, and I even enjoyed the road walk following the River Etive.
- Glen Feshie – what can I say, it’s brilliant. My only regret was not doing the whole glen. That will be rectified some day.
- Fetteresso Forest – most people moan about the Fetteresso, mainly because of ticks or simply the boredom or navigating challenge. I like a good forest though, and quite enjoyed it. I’d happily do it again and have spotted some better camp spots than the one I used this time.
On top of this there were times when there was enjoyment to be had simply from putting one foot in front of another. Generally, I like forest walking provided it isn’t full of unnecessary undulations, and there was a decent amount of that. The moorland I crossed this year felt more like an obstacle to be got past rather than something to be enjoyed in its own right. That’s why next time I’ll be going back to the Monadhliath.
My gear choices this year were largely guided by the lessons from last year:
Clothing: this meant swapping the Paramo jacket for a “proper” hardshell (which turned out to be irrelevant with the negligible amount of rain we actually had), and taking an extra pair of underpants (you’ll be pleased to hear, dear reader, that this was successful). I had a few other minor changes from last year, but nothing of any significance – more reflecting the natural evolution of my walking wardrobe.
Shelter: this year I took the Duomid in preference to the Scarp. Either would have been fine on either year. I think though that in the generally warm conditions we had this year, the Duomid edged it as the right choice. I simply didn’t need the robustness and snugness of the Scarp, but if I had taken it I’d still have been happy as I absolutely adore that tent.
Cook system: last year I took an Alpkit Brukit and a 230g canister that got me all the way to the North Sea. This year a Stormin Cone and 500ml of meths got me to about day 11. With no meths in Braemar, it was lucky I packed my Pocket Rocket as a precaution. A 100g canister easily got me to the end. Of course I could probably have got meths on my Dalwhinnie/Kingussie resupply which would have got me to the end.
Everything else was pretty much as in 2017 and was just as effective. I think I’ve pretty much arrived at the formula for all of my backpacking trips as I didn’t do anything substantially different on the Challenge to on any other trip.
As last year, my backpacking food was predominantly home-made and dehydrated. In 2017 this consisted of meals I’d made up, some of which went in resupply parcels. This year, rather than assemble whole meals, I took bags of dehydrated raw ingredients – mince with tomatoes and onions, vegetables, stock cubes, herbs, spices, slat, pepper, a selection of grains, porridge, dehydrated mixed fruit. I supplemented this with cooked meats, bread and snacks when I encountered a shop. I also took trail mix made out of cereal and sweets.
My secret weapon this year was dried coconut milk which I found in my local oriental cash and carry. This went in my porridge each morning, or on some occasions I used it with my trail mix as a muesli. The coconut milk also enabled me to make a quasi-Thai curry one night. There was also enough of the powder that I could have used it as backup to my usual squeezy condensed milk if I’d needed to.
All in all, my food strategy this year was a resounding success. A few tweaks to the herbs and spices, and maybe the addition of a packet Thai curry mix would improve things further. Certainly the raw ingredients approach is great – it enables me to vary the quantity of food to match appetite and to build in some good variety in the meals. Because it’s not vacuum-packed though, I do have to make it quite close to the trip to ensure it keeps well.
Walk Stats (with 2017 for comparison)
|Distance walked (km)||327.22||314.67|
|Days of walking||13.5||13|
|Average daily distance (km)||24.24||24.21|
|Average daily ascent (m)||400||498|
|Overall gradient (%)||1.65%||2.06%|
|Other hills / tops bagged||3||1|
**note distance and ascent are from signing out until dipping my feet in the North Sea, and therefore, don’t include any extra-curricular walking around town in an evening or any final walk from the east coast to sign-out. I’ve not counted nights before signing out or after signing in in the accommodation figures either.
This year I went for camping, and in particular wild camping, more than in 2017. For me camping is the best bit of backpacking. Other than the convenience of a bed when staying in a town where I’m resupplying, I could quite happily have camped every single night. Clearly if the weather had been less friendly, I might have felt differently on this point. But hey, I even enjoy a night “in” in my tent when it’s lashing down outside.
The route – Actual (red) v Planned (black)
In every case this year, my deviations from the planned route were to seek easier options, either by a shorter route or to cut out hills I no longer felt the need to climb. I was happy with all of these decisions under the circumstances.