If you made it through the 7 part story of the Quest for the Shirt of Destiny, well done. Even more well done if you kept up with it, and could follow where we were at any point. I thought I should put something together that reviews this year’s Challenge in plainer, more everyday, terms, so here combined with the usual index to the individual days posts (see bottom of this post), are a few musings on the highs and lows of the Quest.
With a Mallaig start, the obvious thing to do was to follow the herd and cross over by ferry to Inverie and have a stroll through Knoydart. This would naturally put us somewhere around the bottom of Loch Ness giving us a few options for crossing the Monadhliath. Eventually, after a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, we opted for a fairly indirect 4 day route across the bit that I expected Paul to particularly enjoy. Well he was only doing this once anyway!
Our Monadhliah route was a big zig zag up through the Stronelairg wind farm, along Glen Markie and then joining up with my 2017 route from the Findhorn via the Red Bothy to Aviemore. Then originally expecting we’d do the Glen Feshie route, Paul surprised me by saying he’d quite like to have a crack at the Lairig Ghru. From Braemar, plan A was over Lochnagar from Callater and then to head by Shielin of Mark to Tarfside and thence down the Esk to Scurdie Ness, with the option of the ridge to the south of the Glen to add a bit of interest.
Although not the most intrepid route ever submitted on a routecard, after unexpectedly finding myself doing a two-person route solo in 2018 and struggling through illness to get to the end, I wanted two things above all from the 2019 route: firstly a route I wouldn’t mind doing solo if it came to it, and secondly to re-capture some of the magic of my first Crossing in 2017. So there was a fair amount of repetition of good bits in the middle, and importantly a bit more in the way of popular trade routes just in case I did find myself desperate for company on a solo walk.
After the customer service debacle with the sleeper in 2018, I swore I wouldn’t use it again, but when it came to booking travel nearly found myself having to bite the bullet simply for want of better options. Then I looked at the bus timetables. I know some would consider it madness to travel up by coach, but I found the London to Glasgow service essentially had the same timings as the sleeper train. Not one to shell out 200 notes on a bed that wouldn’t really get used properly, if I’d taken the sleeper train it would have been in the seated carriage. Having found the bus, I reasoned I might as well not get any sleep on the bus for £9 (yes £9) than not get any sleep on a train for £50. Yes, it wasn’t he most comfortable way of getting to Scotland, but I’ll endure a lot for that sort of saving.
The coach deposited me at 7am in the middle of a freezing cold Glasgow and after killing time finding breakfast I met Paul at Queen Street station for the train to Mallaig. An uneventful journey dropped us in Mallaig for lunchtime where we found our accommodation at the Clachain Inn didn’t actually exist (still not sure why). They’d made arrangements for us to have a room (for no extra) at the West Highland Hotel up the road. This turned out ok, as this was also the sign-out point.
Day 1: Mallaig to Inverie and Barrisdale
Rain was falling next morning as a big crowd of Challengers waited to board the ferry across to Knoydart. Cramped inside we soon steamed up the windows. A few characters we’d see again and again were there. We didn’t have much stomach for the bar (unlike some) though.
Deposited in Inverie, feet were dipped in the sea and a spread-out line of Challengers headed up the glen. Not being that fast, partly because we were deliberately taking it easy and partly because we aren’t actually that fast, we soon found ourselves towards the back of the pack. The slog over Barrisdale pass was just enough effort to warm us up for greater exertions later on, but modest enough for day 1. Frequent rests also gave us an opportunity to watch a lone figure trying to catch-up – this turned out to be Jason, whose walking partner Dave only made it 4 miles before retiring. We didn’t find this out until we camped at Barrisdale though. A cold and somewhat grey night.
Day 2: Barrisdale to Glen Quoich
Paul having met Jason a few weeks on a warm up walk on Dartmoor, it was natural for us to be a trio the next day. The slog over the narrow, heathery and undulating path on the south shore of Loch Hourn surely has to be one of the most tortuous bits of walking I’ve ever done. It was such a relief to get to the tea room at Loch Hourn, where it seemed any service could be had for a price. At this point, Paul was a bit quiet, but not so much that he didn’t put in a vote for doing the next bit on the road. Jason was behind schedule, having intended to get to Kinloch Hourn on day 1 (no chance), but now quite worried by getting to Invergarry for night 3.
The walk up the twisty road and down into Glen Quoich was really quite pleasant for a road walk. Few cars and some nice scenery. We dropped down to where the loch is, and Paul and I decided to camp there, while Jason pushed on to buy some time for the next day’s long walk.
Although we were quite near the road, and indeed with other car campers not that far away, this was easily the most stunning camp of this year’s Challenge. It seems it also helped save Paul’s Challenge. I found out later how close he was to jacking it all in on Day 2.
Day 3: Glen Quoich to Invergarry
Another nice day, and with no desire to recover our route by heading north to Wester Glen Quoich, we stuck with the road. More pretty good scenery on a relatively quiet road, and we got the chance to view the recent landslip. We reached the point where we would have joined the road on our planned route, and there found a group of Challengers (the collective noun for which is surely a “debauch” or a “sprawl”). A cocktail party was in full swing, of course, and we happily took a martini from Ali who was using up leftovers from a previous party on the Glen Shiel ridge. Best of all, here we found Darren Long, who I’d been chatting with over inReach for the last 2 days in an attempt to engineer a meetup as our routes coincide from here all the way to Fort A. And here he was conveniently lounging under a tree. Sue and John were also there, more familiar faces.
Spirits much improved, we set off again to cross into the forest south of the road, where the party fragmented in various directions. Darren, Paul and I made up a new trio, with Darren planning a camp spot a couple of km beyond ours. The walk through the forest, although easy, was also dogged by a lack of anywhere decent to actually put one tent, let along two or three. So we forged on, and as worry about finding somewhere started to set in, we made a call to the campsite at Invergarry to see if they had space, and they did. We rolled in there around 8:30pm and never have I been so glad to camp. 38km we’d done, mostly on hard surfaces. The look on Jason’s face was priceless.
Day 4: Invergarry to Fort Augustus
Really there was no question of us sticking with our planned route after the epic slog of yesterday. The easy road walk along the Great Glen was an equally easy decision. Paul seemed to have a bit of a spring in his step, and reckons that the big day on day 3 saved his Challenge. With the initial shock of what he was facing over, and finding it doable, he was now looking forward to the Monadhliath. With an easy day ahead, Paul, Darren, Jason and I stopped to break our fasts at the Invergarry Hotel, a place which was difficult to drag ourselves away from. The four of us had a congenial wander up the road and along the Great Glen Way for a lunchtime finish at Fort A.
Day 5: Fort Augustus to Allt Odhar
Another warm, nay hot, day and we spent most of it on dusty tracks leading up to the Stronelairg windfarm. Now I know many people would be aghast at someone voluntarily choosing to walk that way, but it was a straightforward way of getting to where we needed to, especially as there was lots of height to be gained. On some level at least, I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. It was hot though, and we had plenty of stops by the few streams that looked viable. Darren was with us as far as the point Paul and I turned off for our camp, with Darren heading for Chalybeate Spring. And Darren had his
parasol, no sorry extremely manly brolly, which he took great delight in brandishing to keep the sun at bay. Like you do when in Scotland.
So we slogged up this track all day, and then when we got near the reservoir, I sat on a rock while Darren and Paul went off to look at the eagle sculpture. I really couldn’t be bothered at that point. Did I mention it was quite hot. Past the reservoir, Paul and I turned off to the left to cut across rougher ground to find the Allt Odhar. We camped below a turbine. It wasn’t that bad really.
Day 6: Allt Odhar to River Eskin
Yep, another warm one. We hopped and lurched our way down the allt to Stronelairg Lodge to then climb up again the opposite side into Glen Markie. Wow. Delightful, stunning, awesome – quite a lot of adjectives apply here. There was no hurry in our steps as we absorbed this magnificent glen, and it was a shame to climb up out of it as the burn narrowed. I really wish our itinerary had fitted so we could have camped there. It will next time.
We took lunch with our feet in the Glenmarkie Burn. At the top of the burn were some nice waterfalls, a nice dried up lochan and some slightly less nice boggy ground to cross before a faint path became a definite track. We got past the bit where the River Eskin stops being engorged and the ground flattens out and there made camp. Another pleasant quiet camp.
Day 7: River Eskin to Red Bothy
In some ways the easiest day of the trip, navigationally speaking. Straight along the track past Coignafearn Lodge and along the road to Coignascallan. Here a decision as to whether to cross by the bridge and then thwack our way over to join the path up beside Allt a Mhuilinn, or take a safer option. We took the direct route across some farmland, had a slightly challenging crossing of the Allt and then through a short patch of wood to gain the main track, and more importantly my 2017 route. Which means I knew all the way to Aviemore from here. It didn’t stop us going wrong up a dead end track though. It did stop me taking the wrong turning like I did in 2017, and we headed for the top of the Allt Steallaig with purpose, albeit a bit tortuously with all the heather and peat. Paul was particularly taken with the colours to be seen on this moorland. We dropped down the Allt Steallaig, gained the Allt an Tudair path and were soon at the Red Bothy, where we camped by the river.
Day 8: Red Bothy to Aviemore
An easy half day. We trotted over to the Burma Road which turned out to be a lot easier walking up than I remembered. Consequently, we were at the top mid-morning. Paul had to be dragged away from looking at trees all the way down. At the bottom, we hopped across the Road of Death to follow the Speyside Way into Aviemore. And what do we find as we cross the railway – only a local couple come to watch the Flying Scotsman go past in ten minutes or so time. It would have been rude not to. So we did.
Back on the trail, a saunter into Aviemore and we were at the Old Bridge Inn pretty early, so we had lunch, dumped our stuff and headed into Aviemore for a mooch and a bit of shopping.
Day 9: Aviemore to Glen Dee
By now the good weather had deserted us and we were faced with a grey and wet day for the Lairig Ghru. Breakfast was taken from a petrol station and eaten cowering under the roof overhang of a nearby charity shop. That set the tone for the day really. We climbed up through the Rothiemurcas Forest, which was delightful as ever. Now exposed to the wind and rain, we slogged on and upwards, seeing very few people. Despite the weather, I did manage to get some pictures that I didn’t take in 2017, mainly so that I could paint them when I got home. We descended from the Lairig Ghru into Glen Dee and were caught by Ed Hyatt who we walked with, or rather tried to keep up with. He disappeared into the distance as Paul and I started looking for somewhere flat and dry to pitch up, eventually opting for a spot where the path crosses a tiny stream. The first wet camp of the trip, and once we were all settled it was a pleasant enough evening “in”.
Day 10: Glen Dee to Braemar
It turned out to be more of a slog than we expected getting from our camp spot to White Bridge. I think it was the knowledge that today was almost all familiar walking and much of that was on a hard surface, and it was nature trying to make me feel glad for that hard surface when it came. Of course, the other thing is the lure of the fleshpots of Braemar, and the largely tedious walk that stands in the way of them. We hit the track and slogged it out to Mar Lodge where we had the place almost to ourselves, just after the ranger had refilled the biscuits. I duly made up for last year when I missed out totally.
We wandered into Braemar, did some shopping and headed for the campsite. There we found a spare pod, so went for it. We still put the tents up anyway for an airing and to dry out. It was back to Gordon’s for dinner, a few jars in the Invercauld and back to the pod for a not too late night. Except Paul left his wallet in the Invercauld. And didn’t discover this until he was climbing into bed. The situation was happily rectified though.
Day 11: Braemar to Glen Muick(ish)
I woke feeling crap. Damp was in the air again and my asthma could tell. I was also tired and lethargic. And weighed down by a food resupply. So it was hard to get moving, made harder by breakfast at Gordon’s. When we did head off, we took the Lion’s Face path which, once we actually found the path, was ok. A short stretch of road and then it was the forest again. Feeling decidedly lacking vim today we were very much in get it done mode. We dodged showers as we headed up to Gelder Shiel and then took the direct but tortuous route through heather to regain the track. As that track hit the crest of a bealach, the rain came tumbling down and seemed to get heavier every minute. Thankfully, we’d decided to avoid our planned route over Lochnagar because of the weather – not so much it being too dangerous, more that there was little point as we wouldn’t see anything in return for the misery. We hurried down the track as fast as we could looking for somewhere to pitch. The vetter’s recommended spot above the trees looked great but was blocked by a stonking great tiderace of a river. We eventually huddled under the trees themselves while we decided what to do, and that decision was to pitch then and there. So we pitched on pine needles. And subjected ourselves to a night of death by a thousand drips.
Day 12: Glen Muick(ish) to Stables of Lee
Amid much dejection and discussion of routes out towards Ballater, we somehow hit upon a scheme that turned this around. Paul suggested that instead of trying for Tarfside in a single day, we break it into two, and make Stables of Lee our target for this day. That meant we’d end up having to ditch the ridge south of Tarfside, but frankly who cares at that point!
After a bad day when everything felt like too much trouble, it was a relief to have a shorter day in prospect. We dropped down to the Loch and visitor centre, used the facilities and climbed up the Allt Darrarie to a world of peat and heather. We decided to avoid the direct route by Shielin of Mark and try to follow the contours around to the track above Glen Lee. Except this proved more difficult in practice, and we must have walked a good km along the burn below Round Hill of Mark before finding a safe place to cross. That did lead us to an easy way up to join the track though and before the afternoon was very old we’d pitched up near the Stables of Lee. A chance to dry the tents, and everything else for that matter, and a good old fashioned laze about camp, did the world of good.
Day 13: Stables of Lee to Tarfside
Very straightforward indeed. We simply walked down the track until the track became a road, and the road became Tarfside. We stopped to look at a few things on the way, but we were at Tarfside for lunchtime. Early enough for bacon rolls and tea. Early enough to get a room. EACH. So we did. This was my first time at Tarfside so it was good to get a taste of it. From the tales of how many mouths were fed the previous day, I was glad to have missed the main bulk of people passing through. Interestingly, while I was there so were 3 of my 4 vetters – Graham, and Ann and Alvar. Some “feedback” may have been given on the quality of certain recommended camp spots!!!
Day 14: Tarfside to North Water Bridge
Ordinarily Challengers would follow paths by the Esk to Edzell, but not us, no. For us, the road was our friend. This was largely because Paul, a sucker for bits of stone put down as markers, wanted to “bag” all of milestones between Tarfside and Edzell, having encountered one yesterday and seen them marked regularly on the map. So we set out on our bagging quest. Truth be told, at that stage of the Challenge, it bothered me little that we were choosing the road. I don’t mind the road really. We rolled into Edzell, and found Ed in the Tuck Inn. Copious amounts of food and drink were consumed, before the 3 of us set out together for the campsite. Ed actually let us keep up with him this time. It also gave us a good chance to look at his X-Mid when we pitched.
Day 15: North Water Bridge to Montrose
A couple of hours of road walking lay ahead of us and we made short work of it. Paul and I headed for the beach and spent quite a while frolicking in the waves and generally recording the act for posterity. My X-Ultras which had been steadily falling apart all the way across, were given a ceremonial dumping in the nearest bin after we checked in at Challenge Control. We lazed about, checked into the Star Inn, went back to the Park and generally milled about with other Challengers, in that typically fashion of wanting to eke out every last moment of what remained of the Challenge.
A first class ticket back to London is the way to go, and I shared my carriage with John Burt where many stories were exchanged.
Home again, and it’s the unpacking that’s dreaded. It signifies very tangibly the end of a trip. But no more than the moment of walking into work. Paul didn’t even make it one day back at work before his “I’m only doing it once” was forgotten history. By the end of the week, he had next year’s route planned. Mind you, I’m not much better, I’ve got a complementary one planned.
A complementary one ? Yes, although I enjoyed walking with Paul enormously (and he’s probably the only person I can think of that I could walk for two weeks with), I was aware towards the latter stages of the Challenge the constraints that walking as a pair puts on you. Route decisions are joint and often a compromise, there’s little scope for doing your own thing. And for Paul, the unknown that is natural ahead of your first Challenge is gone and he can contemplate a route that is all his and in the knowledge that he’ll meet people. The strategy for next time, assuming we both get on, is to have routes that coincide for long stretches but to allow each other to do our own thing. For me this will mean I can put in the hills that I felt the absence of this year, with a fallback of a foul weather alternative that more closely matches Paul’s route. Personally, I like a mix of alone time and in company and this will be a way to guarantee it. The best of both worlds.
It’s probably obvious from the above, but for me Glen Markie alone was worth the walk this year. So much so that the next route also includes it. Much of the rest I’d either done before or was unremarkable in comparison. The best camp however was the one by Loch Quoich, simply because of the view. No other camp could touch it for views this year.
I also started to get a little tired of Braemar, and more particularly the circus that passing through sometimes can be. We were lucky that we were a day behind the bulk of the Challengers, but for me Braemar comes at the exact point that my motivation starts to wane and all thoughts are consumed by wanting to get the walk finished. It happened in 2017, in 2018 I nearly pulled out there, and in 2019, the Braemar Blues also visited. But with the need to re-provision somewhere, it is hard to construct the sort of route I like without including Braemar. I think next time I may try to make Braemar a simple pass through rather than an overnight stop. Maybe that will take the edge off it a bit.
The formula I found in 2017, I’ve largely stuck to ever since, not just for the Challenge, but for all my backpacking. My gear now only varies a bit due to the length of the trip and the expected weather. I reverted to using my Scarp again this year, as it is always a joy and I really missed it last year. But she’s started to wear a bit now, and I think I will look to use something lighter next time, leaving the Scarp for special occasions and winter use mainly. My ULA Circuit again did a great job of carrying what turned out to be quite a lot of weight. I decided not to skimp on food this year, and the effect was felt in my pack. I think I overdid it, and soon after returning from the Challenge, I went a bit UL and started paring things back. The biggest gear regret this year was leaving my Kindle at home – I really missed it.
|Day||What Happened||Distance (km)||Ascent (m)||Stuff Climbed|
|-1: Wed 8 May||Part 1: Beginnings – Travel to Mallaig||0||0||–|
|0: Thur 9 May|
|1: Fri 10 May||Part 2: Pursuit by a Giant
– Mallaig to Barrisdale
|2: Sat 11 May||Part 3: From Fjord to Forest – Barrisdale to Invergarry||22.02||681||–|
|3: Sun 12 May||38.02||566||–|
|4: Mon 13 May||Part 4: Civilisation – Invergarry to Fort Augustus||16.04||23||–|
|5: Tue 14 May||Part 5: The Grey Mountains – Fort Augustus to Aviemore||21.58||833|
|6: Wed 15 May||18.92||354|
|7: Thur 16 May||24.60||419|
|8: Fri 17 May||14.71||378|
|9: Sat 18 May||Part 6: The Red Mountains – Aviemore to Braemar||24.97||728|
|10: Sun 19 May||23.16||96|
|11: Mon 20 May||Part 7: Doom, Gloom and a Room – Braemar to Montrose||23.63||575|
|12: Tue 21 May||12.62||385|
|13: Wed 22 May||16.49||81|
|14: Thur 23 May||27.13||87|
|15: Fri 24 May||15.02||94|