You know when you’ve waited and waited for something, and when it actually comes, it’s a little bit of an anti-climax ? That.
This is not to say I didn’t enjoy the Challenge – merely to say that I built up such expectations of this one that they were never all going to be fully met. But there were other things that contributed, of course: chiefly the weather, especially early on; the choice of route; and I have to say it – the staggered start.
But this all sounds a bit negative, and the reality is that this year’s Challenge was the usual mixed bag of ups and downs. All that really changed was how I felt about them at the time.
Let’s take them topic by topic…
Let’s get this one out of the way at the start. Clearly the Challenge was cancelled outright in 2020 – I remember as everything was going pear shaped in the world generally, I was actively willing the event to be binned. Which it duly was.
2021 was a trickier thing though. With an automatic place because of the cancellation of 2020, I found myself having to weigh up the desperation to get out on the Challenge with the practicalities of doing so. Ultimately, travel was too problematic; there were too many people being dickheads for me to feel safe; it was to be held in midge season; and work was a problem anyway. It was a relatively easy decision to defer my place until 2022.
The 2022 event was, thankfully, held without most of the constraints that would have been there for 2021, but there was still one key difference – the staggered start. This was largely to accommodate the huge number of people with places: a much swollen entry list due to deferrals from the past 2 years. It was totally understandable that this was the solution decided upon – clear the “backlog” so we can be back to normal thereafter.
Clearly the stagger also provided some benefit to the local economy – it spread out the wave of Challengers meaning that each place had more chance to attract our business – and also lessened the chance of us overwhelming businesses, especially as many might not be fully back on their feet. I don’t see what else could have been done.
I still hated it though. And even I say this as someone who doesn’t really enjoy big groups or lots of people.
As a participant, the main problem was that the chance of encountering other Challengers was much reduced, which sucked much of the vibrancy and joy from the event this time. This was made worse in my case as we were Friday starters – so from the outset we were behind everyone who started Tuesday – Thursday. Add to that the fact that by design our route would take us through certain pinch points a day later than everyone else, even in a normal non-staggered start year.
The result was that we saw very few Challengers to interact with:
Day 1: Gordon and Jenny on the north shore of Loch Beoraid (and they were heading west, not east). We also saw Andy from Ultralight Outdoor Gear on the train from Fort William that morning.
Day 3: Scott Kinghorn in Cona Glen
Day 5: Rolf, a fellow Lochailort starter at Kinlochleven.
Day 10: Sabine at Blair Atholl campsite, and again at a distance as we passed where she was camped at Bynack Lodge. Then Jon at our camp spot that night.
Day 11: Half a dozen people in Mar Lodge, then an indeterminate number milling about Braemar.
Day 12: A handful in The Bothy.
Day 13: Lee at Bridge of Muick
Day 14: Immo at Aboyne camp site, and a couple at Feughside.
Day 15: None until we got to Montrose.
The mere fact that I can recall all of these shows it was a far from normal crop. I’m not counting people we saw at a distance who may or may not have been Challengers, or who we later learned were.
But I must emphasize, I’m not here to moan about the way the Challenge was organised this year. What else could have been done, in any case ? I’m merely noting how this played out. I know our experience wasn’t unique.
Although the weather was a key factor in many people’s Challenge experience this year, I’m not going to moan about it. We were at the tail end of the really bad stuff, so this is one area in which being late in the stagger worked in our favour.
I will note two things though. First the worst weather coincided with the toughest part of our route, just enhancing the misery and making everything harder. Second, this was probably the windiest Challenge I’ve done. Even when the rain abated, and the weather was fine, there seemed to be a constant wind. On the last night’s camp, I had to abandon my pitch as I couldn’t get the tent up to my satisfaction because of the wind.
I can probably summarise my thoughts on the route by revealing that I apologized to Darren before lunchtime on day 1. For his part, Darren did admit that he barely looked at the route before “signing off”. As a late addition to the team of Paul and me, it was always our route rather than Darren’s. He made a few suggestions but nothing which resulted in major changes. But this isn’t a criticism of Darren, or blaming him for lack of input to the route. We’ve walked together before, and we know what each other is like.
I think the sheer desperation of getting back out on the Challenge probably helped us collectively to take our eye off the ball a bit.
Ultimately, the first couple of days of the route were a poor choice. It was madness to descend to Loch Beoraid rather than take the ridge route, or even take the road like Louise did on day 1. To think that I chose Loch Beoraid as an easier first day than clambering along a long rocky ridge!
We knew it was a bad idea on that vertiginous descent into the glen. We had it confirmed when we met Gordon and Jenny going back. We realised how lucky we’d been when we talked to Rolf in Kinlochleven.
Having said this, Chris Vardy who was a fellow Friday Lochailort starter, and due to finish at Dunnottar on the same day as us (and who we somehow never saw), tells me he did take the ridge, and ended up descending to Loch Beoraid anyway. Even he felt the pull of the Black Hole.
Ultimately, we did make it safely out of the Black Hole, and moreover exactly as originally planned, allowing for a few hours difference in timing. We crossed the river at the exact place planned; we took the planned line around Ruighe Breac, and into Gleann Donn. The plan actually worked – it was just a lot more stressful and miserable than we’d expected.
After that things improved. I quite enjoyed the walk down Cona Glen and to the Corran Ferry. Day 3 was a good day. This had been one of the route changes during planning – we were originally going to head for the other ferry with a view to staying in Fort William that night, until we realised that it would be a Sunday and the ferry wouldn’t be running. Scott, who we walked with on Day 3, did go that way to camp before the ferry and hit Fort Bill early on the Monday. It might have worked for us, but would have made our route longer overall, which itself would have been a problem.
I didn’t like day 4, or specifically the bit of day 4 after we hit the West Highland Way. This was mainly because of the aforementioned wind which was right in our faces for pretty much that whole stretch. The fact we were also going against the tide of people just made it feel even more like we were fighting our way along the trail. This is not to say that’s a bad section of WHW, but other than a convenient and easy to navigate way of getting to Kinlochleven, it didn’t really add any enjoyment to our walk in those circumstances. I think that section will be a lot better when I walk the actual WHW!
Day 5 should have taken us from Kinlochleven past Loch Eilde Mor etc to the bottom of Loch Treig and then onto Loch Ossian, but we decided on the day to go via Blackwater reservoir instead. This avoided a bit of climbing out of Kinlochleven. I actually quite enjoyed this diversion – I’d originally mapped it out as a possible alternative route, so it didn’t feel like we were off-route. A great day’s walk with an early stop at a nice spot.
Falling massively short of plan on day 5 did make day 6, and the following days, harder though. The route itself was fine, it was just the fact that we weren’t far enough along it. This led to the decision to straighten out days 7 and 8 using the road by Loch Rannoch.
At the time, neither of us were in any mood to force ourselves on the zig zag, road-avoiding, bog fest of a route we’d planned. By taking the road we didn’t feel we lost anything substantial. Footwise was a different matter though, at least for Darren. He was suffering from day 3 onwards with the effect of wet feet then being made to walk on hard surfaces. The road was the last thing he really wanted to do, but under the circumstances it was the best way of getting back on track. I was lucky enough to be free of foot issues, however, and I clearly have a lot more tolerance for road walking than Darren. Consequently, I absolutely loved the two days on the road. I simply put music on and powered through it. Sometimes, there is sheer joy to be found putting one foot in front of the other, and this was just such a time – after the hard start, it felt like we were owed some easy walking.
Quite early on in the Challenge, we talked about ditching our day 10 route over the tops between Fealar Lodge and Braemar. We were both content to do Glen Tilt and then the trade route into Braemar. That was still the case when we left Blair on the morning of day 9. I loved Glen Tilt, and think Darren did too.
Day 10 was neither here nor there, being the well-trodden path into Braemar. Fine, it’s just something you do.
By the time of our re-plan in Braemar, we’d both reached a conclusion that for the Challenge sticking to the glens was in many ways much better than packing a route with high stuff just because you can. Consequently, we readily ditched our planned route over the eastern Cairngorms, apart from Lochnagar. We kept that on the plate in the hope that the weather would be in our favour, and if so it would be silly to not do it. In the end, this was the 3rd time running that I’ve NOT done Lochnagar – it just wasn’t worth it for the views and conditions we’d have.
This being the case, our main priority was to get to the coast – not necessarily quickly, more just to make sure we got there. Darren’s feet still needed to be eked out. A plan of shorter days with plenty of rests, and importantly a lot of predictability, was what we wanted. It wasn’t difficult to decide to take our FWA through Ballater and Aboyne, and to then base the rest of the walk on extending that. This also meant we could keep the Feterresso on the table, in case we still felt like it.
The Deeside Way was perfect for this purpose, the only criticism being the hard surface and the relative monotony of some parts. But on the positive side, this phase of the route gave us that relaxed Challenge experience that is so often the feature of the last part. Lots of stops, lots of cafes, and undemanding distances.
I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I love the Feterresso, and happily revisited it even though I was last there 2 Challenges before. I was really glad we kept that bit in.
We got to the end having racked up nearly 338km of walking, against a plan of 344km if we’d exactly stuck to our original route. That would probably have grown to more like 360km when allowing for the fact that actual always turns out to be more than planned on digital mapping. Although we didn’t do quite the distance planned, this was still my longest distance Challenge by some 10km.
One of the reasons we chose Lochailort for our start this time was the ease of getting there. Paul was very tight on annual leave, so it needed to be somewhere straightforward, which in practice meant on a railway line or major coach route.
Now there are obviously a lot of other start points that fit this requirement. Lochailort was a bit of a compromise reached after discarding starts that Paul or I had already done, or didn’t have any particular pull towards. It was a classic nobody wins-nobody loses compromise. The result was the route described above.
So because of the constraints we’d put on getting there, it was straightforward travel-wise. Paul flew up from London on the Thursday morning, having stayed at his mum’s place. Darren and I got the coach from London to Glasgow, costing the princely sum of £11. Each.
The idea was that we would all then meet in Glasgow and travel on the lunchtime train to Fort William. That was before Scotrail intervened. Darren and I got a message from Paul when he got up (very early) to travel to the airport. Our lunchtime train was cancelled. This wasn’t a huge issue for Darren and I as we could get the earlier one, our coach would be in well in time. Paul wouldn’t make it, which left him on an evening train or a coach in the afternoon.
This all worked well for Darren and I, although it put us in Fort William a lot earlier than we intended. But then we just did in Fort William what we would have done in Glasgow – buy gas and find a pub. For Paul it was a lot less pleasant. He arrived after 6pm to be greeted in the cold and wet. I’m sure the strains of his travel arrangements contributed to some extent to his decision to not take the start.
We completed the journey to the start the following morning – a short half hour or so train ride direct from Fort William to Lochailort, the same ride we took in 2019 to get to Mallaig.
Coming home was less time constrained, our requirements being largely driven by simplicity and price. Getting a coach was a lot more hassle homeward, and slow. I’ve always tended to try to get a cheap train ticket for the journey home. And usually it’s a first class one as the price is ok. Not this time. The price difference was ridiculous, so I got a cattle class one. The journey takes most of the day, but is at least straightforward – the train takes me direct from Montrose to King’s Cross.
This is essentially the exact same approach I took in 2019. The overnight bus works only because I’m not starting walking straight away – I have at least one night to catch up missed sleep before the Challenge begins. This will likely be the way I continue doing it for the forseeable future. But, don’t get me wrong, that is a hellish journey by coach – but I’d rather endure 8 hours for next to no money than pay a fortune on the train.
Accommodation and Services
This was a matter of striking the right balance between cost and sanity. A night in Fort William at the start, and in Montrose at the end is pretty much unavoidable, so the aim for the walk itself was to minimise the number of nights of paid accommodation, and to place them strategically in the schedule. The idea being that they fall at 3-4 day intervals and tie in with re-provisioning points. This is always the way I’ve done the Challenge.
We settled on a hostel in Kinlochleven on night 4, a camp site in Blair Atholl on night 8, and a pod at Braemar campsite on night 10. These all worked well, although bearing in mind my Braemar experience this year, it would have been better to have had somewhere in Ballater on night 11 instead.
All of the arrangements worked fine. We did add campsites in Aboyne and Feughside in the latter stages too. Recently I’ve really been enjoying staying on campsites in a way I haven’t before.
For future Challenges, I won’t do anything substantially different (except for Braemar) – I’ll still pick accommodation based on re-provisioning (principally in terms of parcels) and at a suitable frequency to charge all of my devices up. Other than that I’m happy in my tent.
This time I sent parcels to Kinlochleven and Braemar. And parcels home from Kinlochleven and Ballater.
The lessons of 2019 weighed on my mind all through the pandemic years. Although that year’s Challenge went fine, I still left it with some improvements I wanted to make. I wanted to slim down my gear generally, and be a lot more ruthless with what I took.
I’ve been partly successful with this, but as usual I found when packing for the Challenge that extra items crept in. These always seem so reasonable when you’re looking at a longer trip.
This time I ended up sending home more gear than ever before, a sign of how I’d still not quite got it right.
First, I wanted to take a lighter tent, and specifically one that was easier to separate the inner and outer when the fly is wet, than my Scarp – which although perfectly manageable just seems like a faff. In my fantasy, I would take a Lunar Solo, or rather a double skin version thereof. Over the intervening time between that Challenge and this one, I turned over a few tents in the quest for something like a Lunar Solo, but double skin.
Ultimately that sequence of buying and selling tents led to the Tipik-tentes Pioulou XL, which is what I took on the 2022 Challenge. The Pioulou had a pretty stiff test on the trip, and with only minor niggles, passed with flying colours. Two of those niggles were battlefield damage caused (I presume) by me – a small hole near the bottom of one door, and the complete rip out of a tieout point I’d sown to the bathtub only a few days before the trip.
The other niggle was the difficulty of pitching it with its back into the wind. The catenary cut of the rear seams became very pronounced under wind pressure, and it all looked very concave. On morning 2 I found a large puddle sitting on top of the fly, so pressed in had it become.
Much of this was improved by gradually working out how best to pitch it – I’d only used it for four nights in much better conditions before taking it on the Challenge. But even so, the tent still seemed to perform best taking any wind on an end.
Ultimately, though, the tent did well in coping with what was thrown at it, and fully fulfilled that desire I had in 2019. The funny thing though, was that I didn’t detach the inner once.
The key change from 2019 was a new pack – an Atompacks Mo 60 instead of the ULA Circuit. When packing I did initially put it in a smaller pack, so that when I transferred it to the Mo, I’d already been a bit ruthless and could keep as much of the extra volume as possible for flexible resupply capacity. It worked up to a point.
My sleep system was something I trialled on my pre-trip to the Lakes the week before. I took a thin 3mm EV30 Evazote pad and supplemented this with a Klymit Inertia Xlite inflatable pad for a bit of upper body padding. Way lighter than just taking my Thermarest as I’ve done before. As usual I also took my Cumulus Quantum 350 bag and an inflatable pillow. This all worked fine.
For cooking I opted for gas, with a Soto Windmaster stove. I overdid the pots and pans though. My core pot was a Vargo Bot, but because of the way I was using it, I also wanted something I could just heat water in, so took my Trangia kettle too. I also took a frying pan, but felt that I was forcing myself to use it when the time came.
The Vargo Bot had two main purposes – soaking food overnight and eating from, instead of the mylar pouches I usually use. On occasion it was also useful to carry water for morning coffee. I never used it for boiling water or cooking in directly though.
It all worked well, but wasn’t what I’d call an efficient system in terms of minimising the amount of pots and weight. I’m still experimenting.
As usual, I took my own dehydrated food, keeping it as a set of ingredients rather than pre-made meals. This allows me to combine as whim takes me. As usual, by catering for enough meals for the trip, I found I had some spare – as I never manage to take into account those days when I eat in a café or simply don’t want much dinner.
The big change was breakfast. I’ve scrapped pre-made porridge and gone with overnight oats. This is where the Bot comes in. Oats, fresh fruit and Nido with water added to soak overnight. Sometimes, yoghurt replaced the Nido. What I didn’t do was try pre-soaking my dinners (although I’ve tried that on a subsequent trip, and it worked well).
For lunch, wherever possible I tried to have a proper lunch – using flatbreads etc with various fillings. And apples. I tried to avoid just relying on cereal bars like I usually do.
Overall my food strategy worked well, with a few areas to refine further.
Clothing was an area I never felt I’d got quite right this time around.
I really tried to minimise what I took in this area, but the Challenge is one of those trips where you do find yourself taking some just in case items of clothing.
My main baselayer was a Montane Dart bought in the sale the week before. This was pretty much perfect. I also took a sun hoody which could double up as an overlayer. This got sent home.
On my legs I had a pair of Decathlon running tights and a pair of shorts over them. This just works for me.
Where it didn’t really work was in the midlayers. My Rab VR Apline jacket was far too warm, and my Rab Firewall jacket was only bearable when it was full on raining hard. What I needed was something to handle the wind, shrug off very light rain, and importantly to be able to dump heat. It wasn’t until I got to Braemar that I found a solution, walking out of Braemar Mountain Sports with a Mountain Equipment Switch vest. Essentially a gilet with a front packed with Polartec Alpha. This proved just right to handle the wind on my core. It wasn’t what I went in for, but I’m happy it’s what I came out with.
After my first Challenge when I learned that 2 pairs of underwear is too few, I’ve always taken 3, but this year found that 2 can actually work after all. Maybe I’ll just leave that there and say no more on that subject.
On my feet was a pair of Salomon X-Ultra 4 shoes. A recent buy as my X-Ultra 3 were starting to lose structural integrity. They don’t feel as generous in terms of width, meaning this may be my last pair unless Salomon extend their wide fit to the non-waterproof versions. Ultimately, they did the job.
This is one area that’s actually increased since 2019. Mainly because of camera gear as I decided to film the walk this time. I also took my tablet, which seems like an extravagance when I could use my phone, but which was ultimately worth its weight and bulk in terms of morale boost.
I took a bit of a risk by taking a pair of recently acquired MBC Carbon Monopod poles with me, rather than old faithfull Pacerpoles or my Black Diamond Trail Pro. These were quite cheap so worth a punt, but have actually performed quite well. They extend to 160cm which means a single pole can support any of my pyramid shelters, which after experimenting with joining two together, was how I pitched most of the time. The top of the pole also unscrews to reveal a standard camera thread meaning it can be used as a monopod.
This was one year where the Challenge part of the event’s name really came to the fore. This was undoubtedly the hardest start I’ve had due to a combination of the weather and a crap plan. Losing a team member before the start line added a further complication.
But for all that, we got through it. Certainly for the first 8 days we felt pretty much constantly behind schedule, and even when we got ourselves back on track we then slipped back again the following day.
After 3 Challenges with reasonable, if not good, weather, I was certainly due a nasty one, and find it hard to moan about that fact. I knew it would come sometime.
That night at Loch Chiarain may haunt me for a while though. It was probably the worst night I’ve ever had to endure in a trekking pole tent. The fact that my tent took it, was a huge encouragement. This was certainly a turning point in the Challenge – the weather was never quite so bad after that, and our success was more a matter of being able to do the distance each day.
I think what made everything feel harder was the fact it was the first time back after 3 years. We put so much expectation on the event, that it was never going to quite match up. So when things went awry, morale tumbled more than it perhaps might have in another year.
This year was also a prime example of overplanning and overthinking. With 3 years effectively to prepare for the event, I still wasn’t happy with all of my gear decisions. I over-catered the food, I sent too much stuff home than I should have needed to. I sought perfection, and as the saying goes “perfection is the enemy of good enough”.
For all the challenge of the Challenge, I didn’t personally come close to surrender. I was more concerned that progress might make that decision for us, or that I’d lose Darren. I was even quite pleased with myself for beating the curse of Day 11. This is the day leaving Braemar usually (day 10 for most other people), and my mood has always taken a bit of a dip then. This year, though, not so much. I think the general disappointment of Braemar this time meant that leaving it was less mood-affecting. Plus we were setting off feeling a bit more energised from our replan.
Amidst all the struggle, rain, wind, foot problems, schedule issues, crazy route and underwhelming civilisation stops, there were some highlights.
Walking down Cona Glen on day 3 was the first day when it felt like the Challenge. At that point it was just nice to have a clear track to follow. The day out of Kinlochleven was really nice, albeit curtailed and then marred by the overnight weather. Rannoch Moor was just nice full stop. The roadwalk alongside Loch Rannoch was a massive shot in the arm. Then there was Glen Tilt, which had been on my to do list for ages. And finally, it was great to revisit the Feterresso and finally make it to Dunnottar Castle at the second attempt.
And yes I will be back for number 5…I’ve decided to treat myself to Kilchoan start next time…