In 2020, when the Challenge was cancelled (or postponed, deferred, rescheduled, or your euphemism of choice), it was a huge relief. With things still spiraling out of control, the last place I wanted to be was Scotland.
To be precise, actually the one place I DID want to be was away from it all in the middle of Scotland. Where there were few, if any people; where the mind could recharge from the relentless assault of things to worry about; where the hamfistedness of official responses to the crisis wouldn’t matter; where the wearying conflict between acting for the common good and personal entitlement and inconvenience would dissolve.
But there was no way I was going to go through the drama of getting there. And with so many things that could scupper it at a moment’s notice – no it was a fool’s errand. At least from the other end of the country.
It was such a shame, as after 2019, a gang of four of us who’d gelled had planned an intertwined set of routes that would balance individual desires for solitude with the camaraderie of the squad, and in varying combinations through the event. Thus those that didn’t want to go high didn’t have to, whilst those that did had ready-made companionship on the days when the weather dictated otherwise.
Our route(s) for 2020 started in Shiel Bridge, with Darren and I favoring ticking off some Munros, Paul preferring the serenity of the glens, and Jason between the two. We all had slight variations on the final finish. It was a set of routes that gave everyone what they wanted. No wonder it was doomed to failure.
By the time 2021 came around, we’d lost Jason to a vague plan to do the Scottish National Trail instead. I was still hopeful that things would open up in time, as well as the passage of time making all those other previous obstacles much easier to contemplate. The move of the date to June posed a problem.
I had no desire to walk in a permanent personal midge cloud, and Paul wasn’t going to be there to act as decoy (they much prefer him). Work was winding down, and taking time out a mere couple of weeks before it finished wasn’t great timing. And there was still a set of restrictions, both public and those imposed by the event, that sucked a certain amount of potential for joy.
No, I’ve waited this long, hold fire for another year.
A New Plan
The application process for 2022 came around, and whilst it was just a formality due to a guaranteed place, there was still that tiny sense that it might still not happen.
Against this background, enthusiasm for the Shiel bridge route waned a lot – it just didn’t feel good enough, or fresh enough, to make up for 2 years of no show. Aided by one of our loose party actually turning up for the 2021 event and doing it. [Karma sorted this out, as he took great delight in recounting how hard but rewarding it was at every opportunity during this year’s event].
A new route was required, and early thoughts were of Oban. Paul was interested in having a crack at the route he never got to do in 2018, and I was fine with that provided we mixed it up a bit. But by the time of actually planning it, enthusiasm had waned for Oban too. Partly because, for me nothing would make up for the lack of Challenge over the last 2 years except for Kilchoan.
A long process of negotiation ensued – balancing out ease of getting to (for Paul, with very limited leave days available), worthwhileness of the route, and wanting to retain some aspects of the southern route we’d already considered. Somehow, I forget how, we ended up with Lochailort. The sort of start you do only when you’ve exhausted the obvious (ie good) ones. On number 4. What the hell was wrong with us?
A late addition to the team saw Darren come back on board. For the first time I’d be in a team of more than 2. The previous strategy of separate but inter-connected routes was dead.
The route would take us from Lochailort, over to Loch Beoraid, east to Corryhully, then Glenfinnan, Cona Glen and the Corran Ferry. Then Glen Righ to join the West Highland Way south to Kinlochleven. After that up to the bottom of Loch Treig and down to Loch Ossian. We’d then zigzag our way east to Blair Atholl, before heading up Glen Tilt for either a high level route into Braemar, or the trade route down the Dee.
We also hoped to finally get on the top of Lochnagar at the 3rd attempt, and we’d finish with the Feterresso Forest before dipping our feet again at Dunnottar Castle. Mapped at 344km, the longest route yet.
The biggest threat to the plan was football: West Ham were (somehow) having a good season and sweeping all before them in the Europa League. Paul signaled early on that if they went all the way, he wouldn’t be joining us, or at the very least would need to fit in watching the final – depending on his ability to get tickets. From the outset, I steeled myself to likely do it without him.
With West Ham in the semis, Paul announced that he did indeed have tickets for the final. But still this was West Ham… And so it proved. It took him a day or two to mourn before he switched attention to the Challenge. At least he wouldn’t now divert to a TV mid-Challenge: the cup was dead to him now, or at least the attraction of getting his head kicked in in a very Rangers pub had waned.
Darren had also been a bit enfeebled when we spent a few days backpacking in the Lakes in September 2020, so I worked on the assumption that could be the case again, and that I might actually turn out to be the fit one.
I had no such worries myself: the return of Parkrun saw me hitting running goals I’d not thought possible, and in the lead up to the 2022 Challenge, I smashed the 30 minutes mark for the weekly run. A target I’d loosely set as “one day”. A bit of a fright from a routine healthcheck (the one where they tell you to eat better, exercise and lose weight), just took things up a level. Having finished work in June 2021, it was amazing how physically and healthwise, things just started to click together: This is the carcass I’ve got, and somehow I’ve got to make it last. Just get on with it then.
I had no concerns about being in the groove backpacking-wise. My long term project to walk all the National Trails, coupled with an intention to backpack as often as I could, now that I had the time, saw to that.
Gear was also in a pretty stable state. The lockdown gear buying frenzy had abated. The disposal of the ill-advised purchases was largely complete, but I had a few items I hadn’t properly tried out. I have a general rule of not taking gear on the Challenge that hasn’t already been proven, except for minor or very predictable items.
The Creeping Surprise
Gradually the days tick down to the Challenge. With loads of time to plan and prepare, it all gets used. An obsession with everything being perfect. No Challenge for 2 years, this one has to be just right. Too much time to faff about. A last minute flurry of purchases. Parcels.
Then it’s on me.
I head into London on Wednesday 11 May a bit surprised it’s actually here. Surely I’m just going off on a normal trip, a routine that has by now become established.
The realization begins to dawn in the Traveller’s Tavern: Darren shambles in. A fruity beverage later and we’re lining up to board the coach.
The usual hellish zombie unsleeping night, but for £11 to Glasgow who’s to complain ?
The tranquility (?!?) of a dimly lit coach humming its way up the M6 is shattered….
Paul has flown up (or rather is waiting to) and physically can’t get the earlier train. But Darren and I can. We’ll lose our time to kill in Glasgow, but at least we have the option of an earlier exit.
Getting off the train in Fort William brings further realisation that the Challenge might actually be happening. This leaves us with a lot of time to kill in Fort Bill, which we achieve by buying gas (phew!) and drinking (at London prices – ouch!)
Cold, windy and wet is Fort William. We’ve seen the conditions the early Challengers set out in, and enthusiasm levels are on the floor. On my part, it’s so cold there that I seriously doubt I’ve got my layering strategy right – if it’s this cold in town, how bad will it be on the hills ?
We go to meet Paul from the bus station (in the cold and rain of course).
In our hostel room after dinner, the first indications that not all is well. Quietly Paul suggests that he might go home…