Smokers’ corner at Ault-na-goire, with Janet Sutherland
This put me on the edge of the Monadhliath, by way of another Challenge institution, Ault-na-Goire. This homestead has been hosting Challengers on their field for many years, cooks for them, and holds resupply parcels too. I just had to try it out.
The Monadhliath hill group – ‘grey mountains’, it means – is perhaps the least-regarded of all the Grampian range and for that reason I had to give it a go. Originally I planned just a couple of days from Ault-na-Goire to Aviemore but padded that out to three late in planning, the better to reflect my increasing years.
The Spey-to-Tay gap followed by the A9 and Highland main line has a string of settlements that provide a natural half-way point for almost every Challenger. Aviemore is by far the largest of the group on the Spey and something of an outdoor mecca, and for me it was convenient.
My route onward depended on where I wanted to finish. This was always going to be Aberdeen, the only Scottish city I had never visited. (Little did I know that Dunfermline would be granted city status on the day after I left Aviemore!) It has a nice beach too, and I like a paddle after a Challenge.
So now the issue was how to get from Aviemore to Aberdeen. I wanted to visit Tomintoul, the highest village in the Highlands. I’d already visited the highest village in Scotland, Wanlockhead, on the Southern Upland Way. It’s a fairly straightforward day-and-a-half from Aviemore, via Ryvoan bothy, though I’m grateful to a prolific Challenger Louise for her suggested route post-bothy.
Tomintoul, museum and pub
Then it really starts to get tricky. It’s easy to be tempted down to the Deeside Way, a trail principally on an old rail track all the way from Ballater to Aberdeen. I know Challengers did this, but didn’t want to be one of them. The Ladder Hills had a nice path through them, and from there I could reach an interesting village called Tarland.
The Ladder hills
Resolved to stay north of the Deeside Way until the edge of the Aberdeen sprawl, I worked out a way to the heather-clad Hill of Fare and then looked to drop down to Peterculter, only nine miles from the city. The Way would do from here, and the beach beckoned.
Clever Challengers are ready to adapt their plans. Check out my day-to-day pages to find out what actually happened …
Day-by-day: Torridon to Aviemore
Day-by-day: Aviemore to Aberdeen
I planned a few more nights in the tent than in 2019, so that meant more food to carry. But I don’t think there’s anyone on the Challenge that carries everything with them on Day One. The trick is to send resupply packages ahead.
I reckoned I could make do with just two resupply points, Ault-na-Goire and Tomintoul. I never had more than three days’ tent (or bothy) food with me. It worked, but only just – I needed the kindness of a stranger to help me out, as you will see. An important lesson.
I sent a third package, with clothes decent enough for a six-hour train journey home, to Challenge control in Aberdeen, something else that almost every Challenger does.
Surely that sign should be pointing the other way?
Getting to Torridon isn’t straightforward. There’s one bus a day that connects with the train at Strathcarron, but it’s not a big bus, rightly gives locals a priority, and there’s the risk that you’d be stranded there alongside a few other Challengers with bulky packs. I met one Challenger who deliberately chose to walk in from Strathcarron, but they had to partially re-use their route on Day One proper, so that wasn’t for me.
Happily Challenger Andrew – a 14-timer – posted some time before the Challenge that he would organise a big taxi from Inverness. It would work out at just over £20, outstanding value, and me and five others signed up to join him.
We ended up dodging a bullet. One of us seven tested positive for Covid the day before the Challenge, and quite rightly pulled out. If they’d not tested, or worse thought they could get away with it, we would have shared a long taxi ride across Scotland with the virus circulating freely … and six Challengers would have had to pull out a few days later.
Every Challenger, regardless of finish point, has to report to Challenge Control in Montrose. From an Aberdeen finish, that’s not a problem, for there’s a good and direct train service.
Facts and figures
205 miles of walking in 13 days with 27,798ft of ascent. Average day: 15.8 miles, 2,138ft. Highest elevation: 2453ft at Carn Dubh ‘Ic an Deoir.
Seven tent nights en route, three pubs, one bothy, and one bunkhouse, with a hostel and an AirBnB at each end.
Two food parcels sent ahead, plus clothing to Montrose.