I put my two walks of 2017 and 2018 to good use in planning my first TGO Challenge. 

A long section, from Glen Affric to Braemar, was to all intents and purposes identical. My start point though was different, Shiel Bridge instead of Strathcarron. It saved a day, and took me through rather less demanding territory.

After Braemar, the plan was to climb Lochnagar, the dominating peak of the eastern Cairngorms. Alas the day was rather driech, so I opted to use my foul weather alternative, keeping lower but still ending up at a bothy 2000ft high, Shielin of Mark.

From here it was literally downhill all the way, into Glen Mark and Glen Esk. I passed through Edzell, where I had ended in 2017, to my finish at the wonderful bay of St Cyrus.

Below, I’ve written less about those stretches I had walked before, but there’s plenty that’s new.

Friday 10 May 2019. Shiel Bridge to Athnamulloch, 15 miles.

I took the morning bus from Inverness to Shiel Bridge and stepped out to a rather drizzly day. The official start point, where I had to sign my name in the register, was at the Kintail Lodge Hotel. Here, I could see that many others had already set off – Shiel Bridge is one of the most popular start points – but one other Challenger, Pete from Nottingham, was hanging around. First post-signing activity of course is not to walk but to dip one’s boots in the sea. Second, was to have a coffee at the stores just down the road.

The Kintail Lodge Hotel

Before the climb up Glenn Lichd started in earnest, we had parted company. It’s a feature of the Challenge that one meets, leaves, sometimes re-meets plenty of Challengers across the two weeks; it’s not infallible that a through-hiker with a large pack is a Challenger, but it’s a pretty good guide.

I didn’t stop much on the climb, other than a quick look at the private bothy of Glenlicht House, run by the Edinburgh University Mountaineering Club and dedicated to two climbers who lost their lives in a storm on Ben Nevis back in 1955, and a short pause at the col. The day was downhill now, Camban bothy not far away, a busy place too, with many Challengers (some of whom had had a longer day than I) planning to spend their first night there.

Challengers at the col

Camban bothy

If that was busy, Glen Affric hostel, a couple of miles further on, was positively heaving. Like so many places across the Highlands in Challenge fortnight, it’s geared up for the event, and the soup kettle was working overtime – far too good an opportunity to miss. The hostel was a revisit for me, having stayed there on my cross-Scotland walk.

But on again, down the glen to Athnamulloch, better known for Strawberry Cottage. On the route I picked up my way in from Maol Bhuidhe bothy the year before. For the next seven days, I would be in familiar territory.

My wild camp at Athnamulloch

Saturday 11 May 2019. Athnamulloch to Coire Dho, 14 miles.

The hydro station at Allt Garbh

What had changed since last year? Not much. The hydro project at Allt Garbh had been completed. I’m not sure what I think about these schemes, cropping up now across the Highlands; yes, eco-friendly power generation, up to a point, but at risk of harm to the natural flow of the water, with repercussions to the ecology, and new unsightly tracks to help service the sites (not so much here, but very noticeable on the River Ling on my walk in to Maol Bhuidhe last year).

South of Allt Garbh last year, I’d spent some time floundering about after taking a wrong turn, the path being nowhere near where it was mapped. This time, I’d remembered a crucial left turn to my previous right, and all was well – I could see another Challenger some distance away, however, having a similar flounder, poor sod. At Loch nan Gillean, an unfriendly place last year, I picked up another Challenger, Mervyn, and we shared the couple of miles to Cougie.

Welcome to Cougie!

Cougie is one of those places that makes a special effort for the Challenge. Scones, soup, toast, sandwiches – beer and wine if you wanted it – and yummy evening meals for those who were staying over. For me, a lunchtime treat, swapping stories with the other handful who were there at the time.

Many Challengers head to Glen Moriston from Cougie, and I was one. Mervyn and a couple of others left for a path southwards, but it soon peters out, with a couple of trackless boggy miles before another path reappears.

My route was longer, but took in the wonderful track south-west to Coire Dho. I enjoyed it tremendously, as I had the year before.

The path to Coire Dho

Sunday 12 May 2019. Coire Dho to Fort Augustus, 15 miles.

A very routine day, much of it on tarmac or forestry tracks. Just like there was a short-cut but rougher alternative south of Cougie, at Torgyle Bridge I found another couple of Challengers who were trying a more direct route south from there. I can see a couple of possibilities: follow the power lines – hardly fun – or take a track from Inverwick through forest to the open, untracked hill. I do not know which they chose; all I know is that I was down by half past three, while when I was in the pub about three hours later, I saw them through the window, staggering in to the village, looking very tired and not a little disheartened.

Monday 13 May 2019. Fort Augustus to Garva Bridge, 18 miles.

Back over the Corrieyairack Pass. It’s one of the routes that Challengers from many different start points find themselves heading over, and there was quite a steady stream today. Again, I pulled in to the bothies at Blackburn and Melgarve for a break and a chat [since then, the private bothy at Melgarve has been locked and is no longer available for public use, a sad loss], before rolling up to Garva Bridge. Remarkably few tents here; one was Mervyn’s.

Summit of the Corrieyairack Pass

Approaching Melgarve

Tuesday 14 May 2019. Garva Bridge to Newtonmore, 17 miles.

Tarmac all the way to Balgowan, nearly nine miles, and on a warm day with wall-to-wall sunshine. What kept me going was the thought of ice cream at Laggan Stores, and very welcome it was too – I sat in the sun here for over an hour. Mervyn had arrived before me and had badly needed to rehydrate – indeed, rather than take the back country route through Glen Banchor, he continued along the A86 to Newtonmore.

At Dalnashallag bothy – another long break – I met up with Geoff, and once more I had a companion for a few miles. Since I had been here a year before, I knew the way, and I think he was well impressed!

Geoff at Dalnashallag

Sue Oxley

Newtonmore is host to the Challenge nerve centre, at Newtonmore hostel, where I was booked in. Challenge administration is run by Sue Oxley and Ali Ogden, who met on the challenge in 2006; each year, one takes part while the other leads a small team that monitors challengers’ progress, and 1000 other tasks. Sue was the stay-behind this year, and it was good to meet up with one of the indispensable people behind the event.

Wednesday 15 May 2019. Newtonmore to Glen Feshie, 16 miles.

Long sunny periods again. Stock up at the Newtonmore Co-Op; I really should have known better than to include Oreo bars in the heat. Coffee in Kingussie, again, after the dispiriting trudge by the A86. Then, though, a significant variation from my route in ’17, taking the Badenoch Way through the nature reserve to Drumguish rather than sticking to the road.

I knew I hadn’t quite got the crossing of the Allt Mòr quite right in ’17, and this time took the sensible alternative of the track. To the north of the cottage at Baileguish, I could see a school party doing what I presumed was practising stream crossing, though when I later met their teacher I got the impression they shouldn’t have been anywhere near there.

Baileguish, with the school party beyond

The River Feshie

And so on to Ruigh-aitechan bothy, in ’17 a building site, in ’19 as state of the art as a bothy can be. It would be crowded tonight, with both Challengers and the school party converging, as many in tents outside as on sleeping mats inside. But as before, I pressed on a couple of miles to a wild camp in the upper glen.

Wild camp in Glen Feshie

After my possibly foolhardy thrutch over the eroded former path in ’17, I took the wise precaution, after pitching, of looking for the proper path. I soon found it; remarkably overgrown in places, given the volume of traffic it takes, but I could sleep soundly knowing that I had the right alternative lined up for tomorrow.

Thursday 16 May 2019. Glen Feshie to Glen Dee, 13 miles.

The first of two easy days. I had a chance to look round what would become the Red House bothy, before making camp beside the Dee in pretty much the same spot as two years before. Rather surprisingly, I didn’t see a soul until after I’d pitched, for this Feshie-to-Geldie route is, like Corrieyairack, one of the main Challenge funnels.

The future Red House bothy

Friday 17 May 2019. Glen Dee to Braemar, 8½ miles.

In ’17, I had continued on beyond Braemar, but this year I’d planned the half day, not least in case I needed to catch up time from earlier delays. Just before the enchanting walk through the Morrone Birkwood, I met up with Markus, a Challenger from Austria. He much prefers walking in Scotland to his native land (fewer waymarks!), and as well as repeat Challenges had set up the 200-mile Wester Ross Trail.

Markus in the Morrone Birkwood

Saturday 18 May 2019. Braemar to Shielin of Mark bothy, 17 miles.

The weather had, if not broken, declined to the dreich that Scotland does so well. For the first time since I’d started, the cloud was over the hills. Decision time. I’d planned to head over Lochnagar and then drop down to Glas Allt Shiel bothy, but there would be no joy in it today, albeit with little wind no great risk either.

So I wimped out a bit and took my ‘foul weather alternative’. All high or difficult Challenge days have to have an FWA, for clear safety reasons, or just as a ‘feeling weary alternative’. Well, today’s FWA fitted into neither category really, but it kind of made sense. Yes, I would miss out on a Munro bag, but I’m not a collector, and I wouldn’t have the heady gasp of 360 degree views. Instead, I could put on a few extra miles, and finish all the remaining rough ground between me and the coast.

Again, I shared an hour or so with another Challenger, Pete, as far as Gelder Shiel bothy – like Glas Allt Shiel, it’s owned by the Queen, for we are now in the Balmoral estate. There’s no wild camping on the estate, which poses a bit of a logistical conundrum for Challengers, but the bothies undoubtedly help. Though it was only early afternoon, Pete was staying at Gelder Shiel, taking a half day like I had done the day before. But I soon headed out into the mist and drizzle.

There was a bit of up, then down through a bit of eden-green woodland to the Spittal of Glenmuick. There was a tiny visitor centre here, staffed by a woman and her rather bored daughter. Mum was fascinated by what I was doing, and being an outdoorsy type herself, wanted to know everything about my gear, especially my tent. Quite a fun half hour.

Heading back uphill, there’s a good path by the Allt Darrarie at first, but it peters out in its upper reaches. From here to Shielin of Mark bothy, it’s only a mile, but through peat hags with no path. Not much visibility either, so for the only time on my Challenge, it was compass work. Aim just to the bothy’s right, so that when I reached the eastbound Water of Mark I would know to turn left. Not the hardest navigation ever, but it’s still got to be done, and the bothy looming out of the mist was a good feeling.

Woodland on the way to Spittal of Glenmuick

Trackless ground to the Shielin of Mark

Saturday night in a bothy, even a trackless one 2000ft up? Busy surely? No. There was one other Challenger, Elton, and he preferred to camp rather then use stone walls. A couple of non-Challengers rolled in, but weren’t staying. So, a quiet night in a super place.

Shielin of Mark bothy

Sunday 19 May 2019. Shielin of Mark bothy to Tarfside, 12 miles.

My planned route by-passed Tarfside village, to a wild camp on moorland to its south, but so many people said ‘you must go to Tarfside’ that I did.

Getting there was no difficulty – though an overcast day, the cloud was off the tops, useful for the first two trackless miles. Soon though it was good tracks all the way down Glen Lee. I was cracking along, and made the village by 2.

It’s home to St Drostan’s Lodge, a religious retreat which for a few days each May became a Challengers retreat instead. ‘By Challengers for Challengers’ was the slogan, with food, drink and, for the lucky few, accommodation. I’d expected to pitch up on the village green. ‘You can have a room,’ they said. ‘What about St Peter’s?’ (All rooms, of course, named for saints.)

‘They’ were Alvar, Ann, Graeme, Marion and Patricia, Challengers in their own right. I was one of three or four other Challengers, and we were all made welcome, looked after, fed and watered (and beered, I think). A much better experience than a lonely night in scruffy moorland.

St Drostan’s Lodge …

… and its volunteers

Tuesday 21 May 2019. Tarfside to St Cyrus, 10 miles.

It rained quite heavily overnight, but I’m almost never an early starter, and by the time I left the tent was dry – good news, for it would not be unpacked until I returned home. And beneath my feet, almost all the way, was tarmac, with never a difficulty.

In the village of St Cyrus there’s a helpful Old Bakery coffee shop at the bus stop. Not for now though; first, down Beach Road to the clifftop, down hundreds (it felt like) of steps to the beach, and across the sands for the ceremonial dipping of feet plus selfie. But I felt great, and wanted to share my elation. Who was around? Only one couple, but they would do. Kindly took my picture too. Then, it was back to the coffee shop.

The beach at St Cyrus

Journey’s end!

The bus stop matters. All Challengers have to make their way to the Park Hotel in Montrose, to sign out as they had signed in many days before. For me, this was only a 15-minute bus ride, with then just the final navigational conundrum of exactly where in Montrose the Park Hotel was.

Almost every Challenger sends a parcel of fresh clothes etc to the hotel. There’s a chance to shower here, even if you’re not staying – its lawn is just one of many town locations peppered with tents, I hear. But for me, it was just a chance to swap Challenger tales, get a meal, and then make my way to the station, for the sleeper train home.

Two of the best weeks of my life, without a doubt.