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.
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.