A group of brave Challengers assembled at Torridon hostel the day before our start.

We dipped our feet in the sea-loch, to mark the start of our crossing.

And we checked out the weather forecast. Hmm, it was not good. We might have a dry hour, but it was a matter of when the rain would start, not if; and the wind would batter us too.

We all planned to take the stalker’s path over to Achnashellach and stay over at Gerry’s hostel in Craig, just along the road. It would be prudent, we thought, to stick together.

Five brave Challengers at Torridon: myself, Andrew, Kate, Gabby, Carl

Thursday 12 May 2022: Torridon to Craig, 14 miles

Well, it was dry on the road mile out of the hostel, but Carl and Gabby were a bit behind. Carl was a multiple Challenger, but this was his partner Gabby’s first, and she was not a regular Scotland walker. We saw less of them as we headed up the stalker’s path from Annat towards the first crux, the stepping stones north of Loch Domhain, but waited; thereafter though, they straggled further behind, and we began to lose touch.

The four of us who were left soon spread out too. It was apparent that Martha, a Canadian (not in pic above), was essentially an athlete and could easily outdistance the rest of us. That left Andrew the taxi organiser, Kate and me. There were a few years between us, not many, but slowly we spread out by age. The last Kate and I saw of Andrew was as he took the path into Coire Grannda that marked the final ascent to the summit of the path.

So it was just the two of us that hunkered down just below the bealach, out of the wind, for the food we had brought up from Torridon. But not for long – a sudden wind switch blasted into our faces; I’d just about stuffed a tuna sandwich into my mouth before it was clear we should move on, down into Coire Làir.

Carl and Gabby cross the stepping stones

Kate heads in to Coire Làir

I’d had some previous with Coire Làir. I’d skirted it on the Cape Wrath Trail in 2013, in perfect and benign conditions, and the remembered my joie de vivre at reaching the cairn that marked the junction with the CWT and the path out of the corrie. When we reached it, I made Kate take a picture of me second time around. The contrast, you can tell, could not have been greater.

All smiles in 2013 …

… and I thought I was smiling in 2022!

At least, on reaching it, the difficulties were over, though we weren’t above sheltering for a while in Achnashellach station. There we met another Challenger’s partner; she’d been along for the day, but had had enough already. Couldn’t blame her.

At Gerry’s, the four of us waited for news of Carl and Gabby. It finally came at 9. They had camped at Loch Coire Làir – great respect, they had found a pitch and successfully pitched their tent. They withdrew the next day, part of an unprecedently-high withdrawal rate in the early days of the 2022 Challenge.

Friday 13 May 2022: Craig to Allt na Criche, 11 miles

Thank goodness, a much more straightforward day, or so I thought. A good path led along the Allt a’Chonais, over a low watershed, and by the River Meig to Glenuaig Lodge. The only issue then was crossing the Meig to gain access to Gleannan Allt an Amise, which would lead us south – all four of us were heading the same way – towards Loch Monar.

The weather was still rough, though the continual rain of yesterday’s hill walk had given way to showers. At Glenuaig Lodge – where we sheltered for a while in the tiny hut that serves as a bothy – we even met a group of three who forsook their mountain bikes to climb the Munro of Maoile Lunndaidh south of the river. I can remember them beckoning us across a crossing point they had found. But we won’t need that, we thought.

It was a group of six Challengers now, picking up a couple more who had spent a rough night in the hut. We padded along the river, knowing there were two fords marked on the OS map. We didn’t fancy the first. Nor the second. We went back, and forth, but – in truth to no-one’s surprise – the river was in spate after all the rain.

There’s three things you can do, presented with a Highland river in spate. You can wait for it to go down – overnight, if you’re lucky and it stops raining. You can cross in threes or maybe twos, arms interlinked. Or you can just give it a go, facing down the force, hoping not to slip, or that there is no deep pool. Go in, and hypothermia is a risk, if drowning is not.

Andrew gave it a go. Mid-thigh deep, he made it. One of those we’d picked up went next, safely. Martha too, but only with nimble, probably heart-in-mouth, footwork two-thirds of the way over. I’m next.

In the hut at Glenuaig Lodge

Martha crosses the Meig

It’s not for me. I knew it would not be for Kate, slighter and smaller than me. Tomorrow would be another day, we could have another plan, and we pitched up.

Saturday 14 May 2022: Allt na Criche to Loch Monar, 15 miles

Kate and I looked at the river. It was not quite so angry, but still strong. I was meant to be in Cannich that night, Kate in Struy; for either of us, a long day. Maybe accept we would both be a day behind and look to pick it up later, so we set about planning a Plan B. My big issue was not having a spare evening meal for the extra wild camp, but Kate gallantly had sufficient to share.

That meant heading down the glen to where we could find a phone signal, or a land line. Both of us were due to phone Challenge Control that day, and we didn’t want them panicking.

The first two houses we tried were almost certainly holiday homes with no one in, but the third brought us luck. The most efficient way of dealing with things was for me to phone home with a portmanteau message, for not only did Challenge Control need to know, so did the Cannich campsite, the Loch Ness ferryman, and Ault-na-Goire.

Probably the sensible thing to do would have been to backtrack a little and head up Coire Mhòraigein, but I didn’t want to turn round, so we went on to Inverchoran and took Gleann Chorainn instead – a few miles longer, but not hard going, and the weather was much quieter with a few bits of sun peeping through. Both routes would have converged at Loch na Caoidhe, from where we found the path by the River Orrin, and over the Sgairdean na Caoidhe, surprisingly rough.

Kate in Gleann Chorainn

Things were better down Coire Domhain to Loch Monar. The only issue was to find a pitch. We hummed and hahed until we found the place that I’d identified from Geograph during my planning, and settled in.

Sunday 15 May 2022: Loch Monar to Cannich, 17 miles

Blue skies greeted us, and we looked forward to a clear day on the trail, Kate straight down Glen Strathfarrar to Struy, me to Cannich, with a few off-piste miles to link into Glen Cannich.

A glorious morning above Loch Monar

The bridge over the River Farrar

Challengers at Bealach a’Bhaca

My only worry was whether the bridge shown at NH 262 383 was still extant. It was, and will be for some time, a sturdy pedestrian suspension bridge high above the river. The map shows no link path through Bealach a’Bhaca, so I was rather surprised to see a very obvious land-rover track heading up the west side of the glen heading south. Far too good to miss I thought, even if I might have to leave it later.

As I climbed, it was obvious that there was a footpath on the east side as well, and when the LRT tracked too far west, realised I would have been better off over there. (I later found, from Challenger Scott, that I was not the only one to do this.) But it was only a few hundred yards across the rough stuff from track to path, not far up which I met a group of three Challengers resting.

I didn’t stay with them long. If there was a path up to the bealach I soon lost it, but on the descent could see an unmapped hydro track, again to the west. Quick decision: stay, as I had planned, across the untracked moor to Loch Carrie, or take the new track, which surely must lead firmly to the road in Glen Cannich?

I took the hydro track. They’re not nice things, far too heavily engineered for their surroundings, but it was downhill, and when I reached the road took a good long break. Soon after I set off I saw the three Challengers ahead, having taken the moorland route. But it was all road walking from here and I caught them up before Cannich.

The camp site at Cannich

The camp site in the village felt like positive civilisation. Plenty of other Challengers here of course, and I got talking. Challenger Kevin advised me to book in at the pub if I wanted to eat there. They said they couldn’t take just one, but could I join another Challenger’s table? Kevin’s I said, and that’s how it happens on the Challenge.

Monday 16 May 2022: Cannich to Ault-na-Goire, 18 miles (plus four boat miles across Loch Ness)

Guaranteed straightforward walking on the Affric-Kintail Way to Drumnadrochit, then road / boat/ road thereafter. Alas it started raining soon after leaving camp – nice big breakfast in the café though! – and didn’t stop till Drum.

This part of the Way is mostly through forestry, one two-mile road section (soon to be bypassed, at the cost of a mile detour – hmm), but it doesn’t get too high and is mostly well signposted. I’d expected to meet a few other Challengers as most of the dozen-plus camped at Cannich were heading this way, but met only one. It is, frankly, nothing to write home about.

On the Affric-Kintail Way above Cannich

But in Drum I met up with Jonas, a Challenger from Norway, and we staggered into the Ness Deli together, finding another couple of Challengers already there. We lingered a couple of hours over soup etc, during which Kate and her new companion Paul came in from Struy, and most sadly, two minutes after the deli closed at four, two others whose look as they were turned away was one of hearts being broken.

Gordon knows Loch Ness backwards

Jonas and I were ‘booked’ on the 5 o’clock ferry and we left in good time. This is run for the Challenge by Gordon, who has been taking Challengers across Loch Ness from Temple Pier to Inverfarigaig for many years. It’s a touch disconcerting to adapt to his ‘look no hands’ means of steering, but he’s good value, with plenty of tales that he must never tire of telling, pointing out his short-trousers childhood in an archive photograph of John Cobb’s ill-fated water speed record on the loch in 1952.

Once across, it’s a simple walk on quiet roads to Ault-na-Goire, where Janet Sutherland has also been welcoming Challengers for many years. That evening, two big tables share tales of Challenges past.

Tuesday 17 May 2022: Ault-na-Goire to the River Findhorn, 18 miles

When I put in my 2020 Challenge application, I envisaged two days for crossing the Monadhliath. When I revised my route for the 2022 edition, I stretched this out to three. Despite a fair amount of hill walking in Wales in ’21, I wasn’t certain of how my fitness would hold up.

But setting out from Ault-na-Goire, I still had a day to make up, courtesy of the shenanigans at the River Meig. I didn’t want to have to reschedule everything from accommodation to the train home, and with a good stable weather forecast for the next few days decided to go back to my 2020 plan.

Though the Monadhliath may have a fairly fearsome reputation of bog and moor, I knew my route was one of the principal Challenge corridors across the range, with a good number of tracks and not too much of the trackless stuff. Indeed out of Ault-na-Goire there were six road miles. I met Kate again on these, and shared a few minutes at the bridge over the River Nairn where I finally left the road with her and Challengers Trevor and Alex, who were bucking the trend by camping every night.

The aim from the track that leaves the road is to follow it to the top – I met a young stalker on the track who was intensely interested on what all the walkers were doing – cross peat and heather into Glen Mazeran and follow it down. With good visibility, it wasn’t difficult to find the shallow depression that gives the shortest route, and thankfully the peat was firm despite the recent rain.

My three-day plan was to camp a few miles down the glen, but now I had to go a few miles further. There is one golden Challenge rule about Glen Mazeran, which is not to pass the estate lodge. As I walked down the track, two other Challengers – one was Scott, who I had met at Torridon but started a day after me from there – had crossed the bridge where I had originally planned to camp and signalled me not to pass any further. I found out later that they didn’t know about the bridge at Laggan, and had instead taken a longer way around, through forestry. It’s easy mistake to do this, for on the 1:50,000 OS map the bridge is part-hidden under a big letter E.

A lochan in the peat, on the crossing to Glen Mazeran

Looking over to the bridge in Glen Mazeran where I’d originally planned to camp

I was soon crossing the River Findhorn wondering about the best place to camp. I’d been warned that the further down the glen you go, the greater the chance of finding cattle. I put my tent up beside the track on a rough piece of ground. Coming back from fetching water from the river, the cattle were waiting for me. But quiet and docile they were, so no problems.

Wednesday 18 May 2022: River Findhorn to Aviemore, 16 miles

I didn’t get above 2000ft too often on the Challenge, but on this day I would do so twice, including the one sole summit – the remainder being high passes. Again, there are good tracks, save for a mile or two.

The summit of Carn Dubh ‘Ic an Deoir, with gate

The day started with a relentless climb on the track to the summit, Carn Dubh ‘Ic an Deoir, at 2453ft / 750m. It’s a long way from any other higher hill, but this part of the Monadhliath is such a plateau that the nearest 600m contour is even further, so it doesn’t qualify as a Graham despite everything. And given that the track goes to the very summit, it probably doesn’t deserve to.

While climbing I wondered if last night I should have stayed at Gamhainn bothy, half way up. I’m glad I didn’t bother; it was securely padlocked, with no obvious pitching ground around. My thoughts turned to the electric fence that I’d been warned about on the summit. Well, there is one, but there’s a gate too. Given the choice of a shocking climb later or a gate now, you use the gate.

The gate route led me over easy ground to start with, then a bit more heathery, but only for a mile or so until I picked up another track. This led past a small but open bothy to another, larger bothy, Red bothy, also open; here, on my original schedule, I would have stayed the night. Indeed I learnt it had been quite full of Challengers the night before, and the last – including Challenger Neil, who I was to meet a few more times – were still hanging around.

The unnamed bothy between Gamhainn and Red bothies

Red bothy, on a terrace above the River Dulnain

From the bothy there’s a famous track, the Burma Road, up and over to Aviemore. At the summit, a path leads off to Geal-charn Mòr, a Corbett that I had seen from the Speyside Way a month before and fancied picking up, but my shortened schedule made it a bit too much of an ask. And one of my trekking poles had broken on the climb – I hoped I could get it fixed in Aviemore.

Cairngorm panorama from the summit of the Burma Road

Pole apart, I was moving pretty well by now, and was at the Balavoulin in Aviemore before 4. Neil was heading to that pub too, so I had someone to share dinner with.

Forward to Aviemore to Aberdeen