Once more the Challenge beckons, as it corrupts and subverts my freedom of will. Almost from the first steps taken eastwards from Dornie in May 2017, I knew it wasn’t going to be a one-off. 2018 was intended to prove 2017 wasn’t a fluke – as it turned out, it was pretty hard going. Now 2019 is the hoped-for redemption, both for me to put last year’s illness issues behind me, and for Paul to actually make the start line this time. All through last summer during a period of hand to hand combat between me and the asthma which led to very little actual hiking, there was instead much virtual hiking which resulted in 3 outlines of future Challenge routes. It’s fair to say I’m not done yet.
And so it came to pass that having offered to let Paul plan as much of the route as he wanted this time, we once again used one of my fantasy routes as the basis of our joint effort. But Paul did manage to talk me out of a significant part of the route which goes perpendicular to the normally travelled direction, and involves a lot more ascent. Reined in again to the philosophy we agreed last year of looking at the hills rather than necessarily being on them, we’ve ended up with something that fell naturally into the intended distance and ascent range, gives us decently spread re-supply points and guarantees some interesting terrain. Ok, some of it has been done before, but they’re also the bits I could happily do EVERY year.
The vetter had quite a lot to say about the route, giving us 3 pages of closely typed text. Fortunately, this was mostly intel about where to cross rivers and fences and some navigational tips in a few key places. It only took a few days to turn the ideas around and get the routecard signed off. So here it is…
Phase 0: Getting there
Planning how we would get to the start in Mallaig was one of the hardest aspects, with Paul travelling from Devon and me from Essex, the journey times make it a very full day to get there. After 2018’s sleeper experience I swore I’d not use it again this year, but nevertheless at one point it looked like I might be forced to as the best balance of cost and time. Ultimately, though I decided to be a #buswanker for the princely sum of £9. I can not sleep just as easily on an overnight bus as I can not sleep on an overpriced train. Paul is flying and we’re then meeting for the local train into Mallaig. This should gives us plenty of time for a mooch around before an early night.
Phase 1: Mallaig to Fort Augustus
As many Mallaig-start crossings do, we’re getting the ferry over to Knoydart and following the glens to Barrisdale and Kinloch Hourn. From Glen Quoich we then cross over to walk above Glen Garry and a walk into Fort Augustus on day 4. This seems like just the right balance of distance and things to climb over to warm us up nicely for a more remote section.
Phase 2: Fort Augustus to Aviemore
As the Dartmoor Boyz it would be remiss of us not to incorporate the nearest thing to Dartmoor to be found within the Challenge Boundaries. I did a 3 day crossing of the Monadhliath on my first Challenge in 2017 and loved it – this time we’re taking 4 days and walking along its long axis – from Glen Doe to Stronelairg (we decided to just tolerate the wind farms), Glen Markie and along to the Findhorn where we pick up the route I followed in 2017 over to the Red Bothy and then skipping merrily along the Burma Road into Aviemore and a critical whisky restock.
Phase 3: Aviemore to Braemar
We chose Aviemore as the halfway point for one reason and one reason only – to give the obvious access to the Lairig Ghru. OK I did it 2 years ago, but this is one of those parts of the route that reflected Paul’s avowed intent to do the Challenge once – and so we’d better make it a good one. To add a small bit of variety, I tweaked the exit from the Lairig Ghru by making us follow the Dee down to White Bridge rather than take the short cut by Derry Lodge. Then it’s the trade route into Braemar (mental note: don’t count on getting meths in Braemar!). Of course if conditions aren’t in our favour, then we’ll be on our FWA of Glen Feshie, although this will add nearly a day on, putting us behind for the next stage.
Phase 4: Braemar to the coast
For the start of this section, the bit of last year’s route that I unceremoniously dumped when Paul pulled out. So we’re going via Callater over Lochnagar and down to Spittal of Glenmuick before heading for Glen Lee and Tarfside. After 2 years avoiding Tarfside, I thought it was about time I saw what all the fuss is about. From there we’ll either follow the Wirren ridge or take the easy option of the valley to emerge into the lowlands for the final trudge to Brechin or Edzell and the end. The plan is to hit the coast at Scurdie Ness, but if we take the easier (or quicker if we’re in the position of needing to make up time) option it’ll be pretty much straight into Montrose.
I’m looking forward to this route more than last year’s. Of course there’s less new ground than last year, but the bits I’m revisiting are bits I know I like. The timings and overall pattern of this year’s route feel a lot closer to 2017 which worked really well. I didn’t feel the resupply points we chose last year really worked that well, and led to me carrying huge amounts of provisions from the start. This year should be better.
This year should also be better given we both look like we’re going to make the start line this time. Last year I suffered from not having company when I could have used it, the one notable exception being the middle Sunday walking from Braemar to Ballater which at the height of my illness I couldn’t have done otherwise. With some likely lonely bits on the route, it’ll be good to have company. Our double act worked well on the Two Moors Way. Paul is one of a very small number of people I could contemplate walking with for this amount of time.
It’s been a funny run-in to my 3rd Challenge. None of the excitement/trepidation of my 1st and none of the overriding urge to escape work of my 2nd. My current contract is going fine, and whilst I’d obviously rather be out in the hills, it’s not something that comes with a desperate longing to be elsewhere. So this year it feels like the pressure is off to some extent, and I can simply look forward to the Challenge when it arrives and make the most of the time when I’m on it.
As mentioned in my last post, training has involved a lot more running and consequently I think I’m fitter, if not any leaner. Running also seems to have given me tools to look after my asthma better – asthma (previously undiagnosed) which nearly destroyed my Challenge last year. So I’m starting this year’s walk fitter than on either of the two previous occasions.
Much of the pre-walk angst has been invested in kit preparation, therefore. But as of last night, it’s all in my pack or on its way to accommodation in Fort Augustus and Aviemore. It’s now simply a matter of waiting.
Food is SO important on the Challenge. OK there’s lots of banter about whisky and beer and assorted debauchery at the key gathering points, but in reality on the day to day of the backpack, it’s food that is important. No opportunity is lost to pig out, no tea room is left unused. Bacon acquires Holy Grail status. There are days when all I look forward is to getting my tent up and getting on the outside of my dinner. Last year in particular, when I really struggled. Food was a huge morale booster last year.
As a result, much of my kit focus has centered around those two parcels. I was so determined to not put myself in the position I was in last year with one, very iffy, resupply in Dalwhinnie and nothing else until Braemar. Last year I started the walk carrying more food than I’d have wished, and this year we’ve deliberately planned the route so that there are two stops before Braemar. After Braemar, well things tend to evolve of their own volition anyway. In effect the pattern of 2017 has been re-established.
Both years on the Challenge, my trip diet has been based on homemade and home-dehydrated food, in the form of pre-made up meals in year 1, and simply bags of ingredients in year 2. This latter approach worked really well and made it much easier to adapt to what I found in the shops. The absolute apex of this being the makeshift Thai curry I made camped in Glen Feshie when I really needed an injection of morale (a few familiar faces also helped massively at that point).
An inventory of dehydrated stocks recently showed I’ve got a few leftovers, but for simplicity and safety I started afresh, making up a big batch of mince with onions and tomatoes last weekend. 3.74 kg of mixture dehydrated down to 0.71 kg of ACME Meat Mix and is theoretically enough for every night I’m camping. I won’t need this every night though, and plan on having big meals. This was followed by two batches of ACME Mixed Veg (carrots, beans, leeks and peas) which yielded about 260 g after dehydration, and kidney beans yielding 100g. The astute will notice that this suggest my meals are going to be quite repetitive and based on beef, but such meals are always what’s most satisfying on a long trip anyway. I’ll supplement this with cooked meats (especially chicken) when I shop. All of these are taken with pasta, bulgar wheat/rice or mash. A pack of Idahoan has gone into each parcel as a treat.
What makes these meals come alive is the 100g bag of “Meal Magic”, which contains small baglets of beef stock, mixed herbs, chilli powder (used sparingly due to the toilet situation!), salt and pepper, and Thai seasoning. Simply adjusting the combinations of all of the above means no two meals are the same.
Whilst some of the intensity of flavour does get lost in the dehydration process (and because I don’t then compensate with additives like commercial dried food does), it still tastes like the original home-cooked meal, and especially sat in a tent cowering from lashing wind and rain. Indeed it’s sufficiently good that I even look forward to my wild camp dinner.
Breakfast is ACME Porridge Mix, which consists mainly of Ready Brek (well Tesco Super Smooth Porridge), a sprinkling of real oats, coconut milk and dried fruit. Each of these comes in at about 100g. These are made up in advance as it’s too fiddly getting the proportions right at camp. Each box also has a portion of Shreddies (sorry, Tesco Malt Wheats) as a treat. The dried coconut milk is sourced at my local oriental cash and carry (Hoo Hing in Romford) and can be used in breakfast, my makeshift Thai curry and if it comes to it, in a cup of tea. It’s my secret weapon, along with Carnation squeezy condensed milk.
And that’s it. Snacks (ie Tunnocks and Mackies crisps) will be stuffed in the pack whenever I’m passing a shop. Epic quantities of tea will be drunk, and I’ll be watching the Laphroaig levels carefully (I don’t want the debacle of running out on the first night like happened in 2017, and if I see any thirsty-looking Dutchmen coming I’ll have to quietly hide).
With only minor variations and updates, my kit isn’t hugely different to what I took on my first Challenge, the key elements being:
|Shelter||Tarptent Scarp 1 (probably without crossing poles unless the forecast becomes even more wintery)|
|Bag||Cumulus Quantum 350|
|Mat||Thermarest Neoair Xtherm|
|Stove||Stormin Cone and Alpkit 900ml pot. Pocket Rocket as backup (needed it last year when I couldn’t buy meths in Braemar)|
|Hydration||Hydrate for Health bottle, Sawyer filter and pouch. Squash’d to alleviate boring taste of water|
|Tracking||Garmin inReach Mini|
|Footwear||Salomon X Ultra Mid|
|Base layer(s)||Chocolate Fish merino, New Balance running top (doubles as light mid layer)|
|Mid layer(s)||Paramo Bora Fleece + windshirt|
|Outer layer||Rab Firewall jacket with Berghaus Deluge overtrousers|
|Trousers||Mountain Hardware Nima|
|Pants||Alpkit merino (2x Embers merino in the parcels)|
|Socks||1x Lorpen, 1x Darn Tough (1x Lorpen and 1x Smartwool between the 2 parcels)|
|Insulation||Montane Prism jacket|
|Head||Merino buff, Tilley hat, Paramo mountain cap, As Tucas beanie|
|Hands||Rab stretchy gloves, Decathlon liner gloves|
|Bathroom||Baby wipes, travel soap, small towel, folding toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, Gehwol, bogroll, specially “designated” tent stake, assorted pharmaceuticals|
|Tech||Pixel 2 phone, Panasonic Lumix TZ90 camera, Suunto Ambit 2 watch, Anker battery pack, Sandisk MP3 player, Mi Band 3 fitness band** plus assorted charging leads, camera attachments etc. Undecided about Kindle|
|Art||Notebook/journal, a few pens, W&N professional watercolour sticks, waterbrush|
|Maps||A4 sheets printed on Toughprint paper|
|Other||Treadlite wallet, whistle, clothes peg, headtorch, various minor odds and sods I can’t be bothered to list|
** More thought has had to be given to my tech this year, due to participating in a Northumbria University study about backpacking tech. This has resulted in having to wear the Mi Band 3, and would have added an inReach Mini if I hadn’t already had one. My phone is also heavier with the addition of some extra apps, and I’ve had to reinstall some mapping apps that I’d stopped using in order to meet the needs of the study. All of this extra tech activity on the Challenge has caused me to mull over cutting back elsewhere and in particular leaving the Kindle at home. This year I won’t be solo so less likely to have quiet nights in, and its main use is on the journey to/from Scotland. If I get desperate I can access a film or book on my phone if I really feel the need.
I’ve cut back slightly on the art gear this year, to reflect how much I actually used it on the walk (ie not much). I’m mostly a studio-based artist anyway and am too impatient to sit mid-walk and paint and yield results that do it justice. Especially with a walking partner breathing down my neck. So I’m confining myself to sketches and journalling and taking photos to work up into paintings in the studio.
I still have a few Cairngorm Glen A4 (16″ x 12″ in mount) prints left, by the way…
What does it all weigh, I hear you ask ? I weighed it by the simple expedient of picking it up to see what it felt like. It’s officially liftable, so its weight is fine. That’s as precise as I’m going to be.
Now I just have to sit and watch the clock….