TGO Challenge 2019 Torridon - Montrose

My 2019 TGO Challenge crossing started with a flight from Geneva to Edinburgh. A few minutes later I was standing at Edinburgh Gateway station wearing almost all my clothes and a woolly hat as the rain poured down blown along the platform by a minor gale. Fortunately the weather perked up a bit as the train took me northwards through Perth and into the hills, whose higher tops were white with snow from Drumochter onwards.

At Aviemore I grabbed a fish supper then walked to Coylumbridge Hotel where I had a room booked for the night. Morning showed that even more snow had fallen overnight on the Cairngorms and I wondered if I should have brought touring-skis rather than running shoes for the trip.

Fresh snow on the Cairngorms.
Aviemore station.

Back into town then up to Inverness on the train from the lovely old station. The first person that I met that I recognized was Jim Davidson and we ended up passing the afternoon together meeting various Challengers and several interesting characters including a ships cook who taught us how to pronounce Mallaig properly and a man who was off to see Doug Scott lecture in Nairn. He had an idea to put to Doug on how to climb K2 in winter - do it summer and leave marker poles all the way up to help the winter climb. I’ve heard worse plans. He explained that he was bi-polar and surprised me by knowing the word ‘parapente’ and having lived in Chamonix too for a bit.

I’d arranged to share a taxi to Torridon organised by Trevor Morgan and found him and his friends Heather, Tim, Chris and and Kate Kowalska in a pub near the station. The minibus whizzed us to Torridon through increasingly wet weather and dropped us at the Youth Hostel which is situated in one of the most beautiful bits of Britain.

I pitched my shelter in the surprisingly busy campsite. The site is run by the local community with simple toilets and showers and and a voluntary payment system. I first came to Torridon with my parents and family when I was about 9. In those days you camped further along the loch at Inveralligin which had a little field, a wooden loo, a burn, a pier and never anyone else. One day we walked along the little road to Diabeg and were sailed back by a man in an open wooden boat.

Tom na Gruagaigh on Beinn Alligin was the first bigger hill that I ever climbed so it is always a special place for me to visit and has some brilliant climbing summer and winter.

Walking along to the Torridon Inn to meet the others it was still raining enough to need full-waterproofs but the rain eased to leave a washed-clear sky. The others were finishing dinner when I got the there and I caught up with soup and a pudding and a beer. We all walked slowly the back along the the road enjoying the fading light and lovey views. Someone asked me whether Loch Torridon was a sea-loch but since we were walking coast to coast they could probably have worked it out!

Day 1 - 25km. Torridon - River Carron.

It was a properly chilly night and I slept with the tent door open to let as much air in as possible to stop condensation. The tent was still soaking when I got up to a perfectly clear morning. I packed up, taking numerous attempts to get a picture of a very trusting robin that kept landing beside me. I signed out at the hostel and the trip was finally underway and although it felt strange to come to Torridon just to leave it straight away it was good to head into hills that were almost new to me.

Torridon Youth Hostel.
Old graveyard, Annat.
Upper Loch Torridon.
Beach at Annat.
Beinn Alligin and Loch Torridon.
Track leading to the hills.

After visiting the beach at the head of Loch Torridon I turned up the well marked path that leads onto the hill. A feature of this area is how many well made stalkers paths there are meaning that there is little of the bog-hopping that you often get on Scottish hills. The path initially climbs up through low sandstone crags lying on a tilted ramp to a good viewpoint from where I could see the others as specks walking along the road.

Although the day had started clear, cumulus clouds where quickly building hinting at later showers but it was a good temperature for walking. My plan for the day was to head over Sgorr Ruadh then down to Glen Carron to camp just beyond the hostel at Craig somewhere.

Brilliant walking leads up, often over bare ochre coloured slabs of ancient sandstone, a thousand million years old. The first real feature is Loch an Eoin with its tiny islets but before this you can’t help gazing up at the mass of Maol Chean-dearg and to stop and gaze back at the magnificent Torridon hills Beinn Alligin, Liathach and Beinn Eighe.

The rocky road to Montrose.
Bealach na Lice and Sgorr Ruadh.

Soon I got my first proper view of Sgorr Ruadh over the Bealach na Lice and met a woman mountain biking down the rough path. From the col the path drops down quite steeply for a bit then ascends across the hillside to the Bealach Ban and turns the north-west shoulder of the hill to reach the beautiful Coire Grannda then up to the col between Sgorr Ruadh and Beinn Liath Mhor. Higher on Sgorr Ruadh under a darkening sky it started to pelt down with pellet snow. This was dry enough to bounce off me at first though eventually I ended up quite damp. The summit rocks were still snow covered but not too slippery and a few, very easy scrambly bits added interest.

Descending the other side of the hill I needed to be more careful as the ground was quite wet and the thin snow cover hid some of the holes between the rocks. After a while I reached the broad col between Sgorr Ruadh and Fuarr Tholl but crossing this to the path that I could see on the far side seemed to take ages. It briefly snowed with big, fat flakes but mostly was just a bit damp and dreich. I passed below the fine Mainnrichean buttress and turned down the hill path. After a bit I reached the nascent River Lair and stopped for a longer rest. I had been up this way in winter many years before working with clients of Martin Moran who has sadly just died in the Himalaya. I’d almost no memory of the ground or the day but remember the traverse of Liathach that I took them on the next day in excellent conditions.

From here the path plunges more steeply down towards Achnashellach station. Once down in the forest a track leads inland and down to the main road. I hiked along this for a few miles and was very glad to leave the traffic behind and turn off onto the track just after Craig. It was still only 16.30 and if I’d had more energy I would ideally have liked to continue up to camp by the Allt a’ Chonais to ease tomorrows approach. As it was I was happy to stop when I saw a very sheltered spot by the bridge over the River Carron. The showers had stopped and the sun was out was out but it was quite shady under the tall trees. I made some food then lay down expecting a very quiet evening but a few hours later I heard footsteps and a voice calling “hello?” and Trevor and his friends turned up and camped around me. It was good to have company and to hear about their day. They were wondering what had happened to Kate as she had disappeared on them but we were sure that she would be fine.

Beinn Damph.
Sgorr Ruadh and Fuar Tholl.
Coire Grannda and Sgorr Ruadh.
Sgorr Ruadh and Raeburn's Buttress.
Beinn Liath Mhor
Beinn Damph and Loch Torridon.
Summit boulders, Sgorr Ruadh.
Descending towards Fuar Tholl.
Tomorrows hills.
Mainnricheann Butress, Fuar Tholl.
Track above Achnashellach.
River Carron camp.
Wire bridge Allt a' Chonais.
Sgurr Choinnich.

Day 2 - 24km. River Carron - Loch Monar.

It was another frosty night and I slept with all of my clothes on. Morning saw sun filtering through the trees and after breakfast and chatting with the other I shook the water off my Solomid shelter and set off up the track. A few people had already crossed the bridge, some on bikes, heading for the hills on what should be another quite fine day.

Further up the track I met Dave and Oliver a father and son team who were heading to Inverness. They had stayed the night at Gerry's Hostel which sounded as weird as ever. Then on up the glen until my route turned south-west up to the Bealach Bhearnais by the decrepit wire ‘bridge’. My aim for the day was to traverse Sgurr Choinnich, Sgurr a Chaorachain and Maol Lunndaidh (don’t ask me to pronounce them properly) and I headed up to the Bealach Crudhain a bit further west than I wanted to be but needing water from a trickle that I could see. After a stop I met a figure coming down from my first two hills already. It was Pat who was on an amazing sounding route and heading towards Fort William via most of the Munros. We both laughed at why we weren’t following the obvious and tempting glens eastwards, before heading off in opposite directions on our own journeys.

Bidean a' Choire Sheasgaich (the Cheesecake).

It was a beautiful day. Bright and sunny one moment then dark and atmospheric the next. With showers of graupel again and views for miles in all directions as I gained height on the rocky ridge. Like yesterday the snow wasn’t a problem and added to the beauty of the day. After the top of Sgurr a Chaorachain I turned north and plodded down through ankle deep drifted snow that softened the descent.

Sgurr a Chaorachain

A good alternative route from Sgurr a Chaorachain would be to follow the fine ridge over Bidean an Eoin Deirg and down to Loch Monar. One of the many good things about doing the Challenge is that it allows you to traverse hills completely in a way that you might not be able to on a day walk.

Maoile Lunndaidh.
Bidean an Eoin Deirg and Lochan Gaineamhash.
Fuar-tholl Mor
Looking back from Maole Lunndaidh to Sgurr Chaorachain on the right.

On down past Lochan Gaineamhach in a very fine setting to the Drochaid Mhuillich then a steep, grassy pull up towards Carn nam Fiaclan which very kindly being a plateau eases off well before the top. The sky seemed vast with really distant views towards both coasts. I detoured slightly so that I could peer down into the impressive corrie of Fuar-tholl Mor from a little promontory. After taking pictures I turned across the plateau towards top of Maol Lunndaidh and was was heading towards a couple of women well wrapped up against the cold and carrying ice-axes only to trip over a stone into a crumpled heap. One of the women said “I thought you were you base jumping!” and I replied “ I nearly was!” though I think she meant me standing on the edge of the corrie rather than falling flat.

Without the small cairn it would be hard to tell exactly where the top of the hill is it’s so even. I turned south-east to find the long ridge leading down towards Loch Monar, gradually warming up as I dropped altitude and was sheltered from the wind. Lower still I angled down across the peaty corrie towards the path marked on the map beside the Allt Toll a’ Choin. I was dubious that this would exist but it turned out to be another good, little stalkers path leading down to the lochside. Near the bottom I had to climb slightly to reach the bridge over the Allt a Choire Fhionnaraich (they don’t do short names around here…) just as a figure arrived down the side glen. It was Kate Kowalska who I hadn’t seen since the the taxi. She’d put in a big day to catch up on her route after an impromtu variation the day before.

Down to Loch Monar.

There was one tent pitched in the sheepfold and we waved at the owner and two more closed shelters pitched on a little island in the river but we continued closer to the loch and pitched in the dry grass beside the rocky stream.

It was quite breezy and cool but a lovely evening and tired after a good day I pitched my shelter and started to prepare some food. I’d already noticed how flammable the grass would be but dull with fatigue I lit my meths stove on it’s base and relaxed back. Suddenly there were flames in the open doorway and I sat up and patted them out quickly with my hand but not before the flames had nibbled at the bathtub floor of my tent and melted three little holes in my mattress. It could have course have been a whole lot worse.

I finished cooking more carefully and later by headtorch tried to repair my Neo Air mattress. I couldn’t get the patches to hold well enough and ended up sleeping old style on my rucksack.

In the night even though it was cold again it was beautiful to gaze out of the tent door at the stars and bright moon and the snow covered hills above the dark loch.

Loch Monar camp.
Loch Monar
Sgurr na Diollaid is the pimple in the background.

Day 3 - 29km. Loch Monar - Cannich.

I woke early - probably because of the cold and not wanting to risk another conflagration or wanting to stand outside waiting for water to boil on a rock I decided to walk to Glen Strathfarrar and stop for breakfast along the way.

The other tents were still zipped up as I left. It was crystal clear and so perfect. There is a good little path above the loch whose waters were much lower than I think they would normally be. I passed another frost covered shelter pitched above the loch and then passed through the rocky defile before Monar Lodge and eventually joined the little metalled road down the glen.

At last someone was awake and I said hello to Alan from near Aberdeen and wandered on. Before Braulen Lodge I stopped for breakfast beside the ford. I’ve always been fascinated by fords. Whilst I was sitting there a pickup truck (unfortunately not a Ford) crossed the water and the driver gave me a wave.

Defile before Monar Lodge.
Near Monar Lodge.
Glen Strathfarrar and Sgurr na Diollaid.
Sgurr na Diollaid.
River Farrar ford.

Glen Strathfarrar is a beautiful and almost unspoilt place that I’d only looked down on previously from Sgorr na Diollaid. It has loads of good camping spots and a few people were camped along the way.

Eventually I walked down through some fields to the old suspension bridge that crosses the river and leads to the Allt Innis na Larach and over to Glen Cannich.

At this point I met up with Dave Pickles and we walked up the track to the right of the burn the time passing quickly as we chatted about different things like nationalism, motorbikes and Brexit (aargh!!). On the opposite bank we could see vestiges of an old stalkers path cutting up the hillside but at the bealach it seemed best just to follow our noses across the hillside and down to the newly extended track that leads down into the forest and on to Glen Cannich.

This is one of the places in Scotland that still has remnants of the old Scots Pine forests. Glen Cannich is also very special but I would have been glad of a bike to roll down it as it was getting very warm indeed and my feet were aching. I’d expected the long section from Loch Monar until the Cairngorms to feel relatively easy but in fact the heat walking down into Cannich and the two days crossing the Monadliath's left me feeling baked, boiled, grilled and fried.

Bridge and track leading over to Glen Cannich.
Glen Cannich

Above Cannich the road suddently steepens and winds quickly down into Cannich. I could hear gales of laughter coming up from some sort of event at the school. I stopped at the shop for ginger beer and a sandwich and sat at the shady bench outside. It was so warm and sunny that it felt like Costa del Cannich with most people in light summer clothes.

My brother Ewen handily lives in Cannich so I headed round to the house. It was great to sit on a comfy chair and drink tea and then get showered and shaved and my dirty clothes washed and to catch up on their news. Ewen didn’t get home until evening as he’d been out with the Dundonell Mountain Rescue Team searching for a walker missing to the north of Torridon, who has still not been found.

Carrie who is Ewen’s partner had been catering for the Glen Affric Duathlon and had had a couple of Challenge folk in for food and drinks and she fed me left over cakes.

You don't want a lift in this...
Affric-Kintail Way near Shenval.

Day 4 - 27km. Cannich - Ault-na-Goire.

Next day was fair again and I set off just after the kids left for school and feeling a bit underslept after a late but fun night. Passing through the campsite, then along the road section of the Affric-Kintail Way, using the soft grass verge as much as I could. Hopefully the planned off-road alternative will be ready before too long. There was a steady stream of people heading towards Drumnadrochit and for a good while I fell in with Mike and James Knipe. Instantly recognisable in their sports kilts. Coming down towards Drum we took a muddy track to avoid the daft looking uphill path re-route.

In Drum I needed to shop and had to double back to the new supermarket to get some supplies and a coffee. There were lots of people to chat with sitting outside the pub and after a while Jim and I walked along the road to Temple Pier where Gordon Menzies’ ferry would take us across Loch Ness. Gordon hadn’t been receiving my texts but I still got a place on the five o’clock ferry.

The ferry takes you down and across the loch (and surprisingly, 1 km further west than you were) with lots of patter from Gordon, a close view of Castle Urquhart and flying ducks chasing the slices of bread that the skipper tosses to attract them. At the tumbledown pier at Inverfarigaig a couple of us disembarked to help offload the rucksacks, some of which were fairly light but others weighing a ton.

From the pier a little road winds up a deep, shady and craggy valley for a few kilometres until a track leads left still quite uphill to the few houses at Ault-na-goire where Janet and Alex Sutherland give Challengers a warm welcome with tea and cake, letting us camp in their field and providing dinner and breakfast if you wish. Their house is in an idyllic setting with views out to the nearby Monadhliath hills and a quirky collection of outbuildings and old road signs.

Big tree and tree fellers.
Loch Ness ferry, Drumnadrochit.
Temple Pier.
Inverfarigaig pier.
It's what it says! Loo at Ault-na-goire.
Road section before turning into the Monadhliath's beyond the hill right of centre.

After pitching we were called in for dinner in two settings which must have been a lot of work for Janet but was greatly appreciated and sitting around the table and chatting with everyone was a highlight of the trip. It was noticeably warmer overnight in the tent with frost now a thing of the past.

Day 5 - 29km. Ault-na-goire - Strathdearn

After an excellent breakfast Alex serenaded us off by playing “Over the Rainbow” on his fiddle. Many of us were heading the same way now, north-east along the road until turning into the hills again at the River Nairn and there were plenty people to chat with strung out along the way.

Sitting on the riverbank by the bridge at the turnoff was a little group of people so I stopped too before the climb up the track and out onto the hill. At the top of the track was a very smart but locked heather-roofed lunch hut. The only need for shelter today was to get some shade from the bright sun which by now was beating down on us. I stopped again and brewed some tea and was joined by Adrian and Louise and Dave. Adrian and I joined forces and hiked over the hill on dried out peat-hags though there were still a few very wet bog holes to avoid and on down the other side.

Dried out peat hags.
Monadliath's and distant Cairngorms.
Glen Mazeran.

The Monadliaths give you huge views. We could see right across to the distant and snow-covered Cairngorms and down into Glen Mazeran. We stopped briefly by a little bridge and then waited as we saw Louise steaming down the track towards us. The Monadliaths have been blighted by the proliferation of windfarms but even these massive structures are lost in the sheer size of the place. This route to Aviemore is really Monadliath-lite as it gives you the great views and open spaces but apart from two short sections across the peat and heather is all on good tracks.

Further down, in lovely Glen Mazeran Louise and Adrian split off to camp at a fine spot by the river - I could have happily spent another day passing more slowly through this section of the walk. Just after the leaving them I passed a tractor working on the track and the driver hopped out, dramatically waving his arms and shouting. He was just wondering whether Adrian and Louise were lost and I missed my chance to have a bit of fun by telling him that they were fine and just camping.

After passing by the wooded hill of Cnoc Thulagain I avoided Glen Mazeran Lodge by crossing a rusty old bridge and passing some estate houses with barking dogs. Finally on the little road through Strathdearn I found some shade and sprawled on the grass verge. I was surprised when a bus came came past. Probably the school bus but even in this relatively remote glen there is transport to be had. The glen is dotted with buildings but hardly overdeveloped. I crossed the bridge at Dalmigavie Lodge and passed an incongruous new tennis court and further on a lovely little chapel by the River Findhorn.

Baked by the sun I arrived at an ideal flat, grassy area by the river and just beyond the start of the track that I needed to follow the next day. I couldn’t wait to get myself into the water to cool down a bit but the rocks were covered in green slime and I almost went flying. Still it was fantastic to cool down and I spent the late afternoon making tea and eating, sitting comfortably in the rocks by the river. Dave who had been at Ault-na-goire turned up as I’d expected and we pitched our shelters on the sheep-cropped grass.

After talking for a bit I turned in and with the door wide open watched and listened as the many birds looped and dived over the river; mesmerising and peaceful it lulled me to sleep.

River Findhorn.
Carn Dubh 'Ic an Deoir.

Day 6 - 28km. Strathdearn - Aviemore.

Morning saw me slowly wakening, lying in bed awhile before rousing myself to get going. I packed and said goodbye to Dave making tentative arrangements to meet up for a beer in Aviemore that evening. Up the track that winds it way to Carn Dubh ‘ic an Deoir I met a young ghillie who was up early and out checking traps. Curiously the top of hill has a fenced off trig point. Then down through the heather to join the track that passes another little lunch bothy and runs alongside a burn with a little rocky gorge and some good camp spots. I turned left and went down and along the River Dulnain, bypassing the Red Bothy and stopped for a break by the bridge at the start of the Burma Road track that leads over the hill and down towards Aviemore and named as a humorous reference to what a trudge it can be.

It did feel like a trudge today as it was now very warm and although it’s not really very far I found myself measuring off my progress by the few trees that grow beside its upper slopes. Near the col I dumped my bag and walked on up to Geal-charn Mor, which felt like a chore at the time but rewarded me with more vast views to the south towards Ben Alder and Creag Meagaidh and out over the Cairngorms that now had little snow left on them.

Downhill now but with very hot and aching feet. Speyside was looking very green indeed and I gratefully entered the shade of the forest and on down to the very pretty Lynwilg. By a big house next to the little distillery there was a flat topped wall with a big drop down to the stream that I lay on for a while cooling off and resting. Then on along the verge of the road, not very pleasant with the heat and passing traffic (you can avoid most of this by crossing the railway and following the track) until I reached the busy delights of Aviemore.

River Dulnain and the Red Bothy.
Burma road and Geal-charn Mor.
Overcrowded Britain.
Speyside and the Gorms.
Downtown Aviemore.

I stopped at Cobb’s Cafe in the centre and quenched my thirst with cold ginger beer and tea. I’d booked a room online from Cannich and when I’d revived a bit I checked where it was only having noticed vaguely that it was somewhere near the Winking Owl (the “Winkie” is a well known pub at the north end of the town centre). A nasty shock, it was 1.8kms away (Aviemore? That’s more like Carrbridge!). In fact it was beyond all the Aviemore pavements and down a track but once I’d got cleaned up and rested and drank lots of tea I decided that I’d probably make it back into town for dinner. My feet weren’t just hot I had two blisters which is rare with trail shoes, probably because my new socks were now as abrasive as sandpaper. I wandered back into town walking on grass as much as possible as I always do and out to the Indian restaurant at the far side of town. The restaurant was almost as hot as India inside but served up a really good meal and cold beer so I was happy. On the way back I called in to the bar at the Cairngorm Hotel but there was nobody there that I recognized.

River Spey.

Day 7 - 10 km. Aviemore - Allt Druidh.

Next day I had a very short day planned and so could dawdle along and resupply in the Aviemore shops. I had breakfast at the excellent cafe in the new Tiso’s store. My first pair of climbing boots (that I never grew into) came from the original, tiny Tiso’s shop in Edinburgh 48 years earlier.

After food shopping and buying another emergency repair kit to keep my injured mattress going I had a coffee and then slowly walked out of town and over the River Spey along the road to Coylumbridge as I’d already done on the Wednesday that I arrived. The Old Logging Road track along here makes a very easy and pleasant walk up to Glenmore but I turned right at the campsite and walked through the lovely forest, over the Cairngorm Club footbridge and up to the fine camping spot beside the Allt Druidh a little further on. The weather today was cooler than it had been but still plenty warm enough. There was one tent already pitched and I had a quick chat with the owner and went and pitched my own shelter just beyond. Soon Bernie who was also on the Challenge arrived and Ed the owner of the green tent came over and fed us beers that he had cooling in the stream and the three of us sat on the grass and blethered the afternoon away.

A group of D. of E. youngsters had also turned up and were herded away from us by their minder. They looked to be having a good time but it was amusing to notice how the boys couldn’t manage to chat to the girls but could manage to swing around in the branches of the trees in a probably futile attempt to impress them.

Bernie and Ed enjoying a beer by my tent.
Lurcher's Crag.
Charred tree.
Lairig Ghru and Braeriach.

Day 8 - 26km. Allt Druidh - Gleann Laoigh Beag.

It was another mild and calm night down here. In the morning I was away early as I had quite a long day to come crossing Braeriach and Cairn Toul. The path climbs up through thinning forest and I passed a gnarly old pine that some fools had set fires against, scorching but fortunately not managing to kill it.

Pitched in the maw of the Lairig Ghru was a little white tent which turned out to belong to Jo, the first Japanese person to do the Challenge. He emerged dressed in a Patagucci down suit and we talked for a bit and shook hands. He was off over the hills towards the Shelter Stone.

Jo's tent dwarfed by the Lairig Ghru.
Cairn Toul, Angel's Peak and the Lairig Ghru.

From here there is a long climb up the ridge of Sron na Lairige. It was quite chilly with a gusty wind blowing but with the view opening up all around to compensate. Far ahead was a figure with a red rucksack. After Sron na Lairige the ridge dips and turns and narrows as it climbs up to Braeriach. The mountain is sculpted and eaten into by great corries with the deepest one An Garbh Choire cutting three kilometres into what after Braeriach now feels like an elevated, undulating plateau.

I’b brought water up with me but I needn’t have bothered as there were quite a few shallow streams of snow-melt to drink from that would eventually become the River Dee after they have tumbled over the cliffs and flowed down into the valley. The day had warmed up but there was still great gusts of cool air followed by still spells when I would feel too hot. After crossing Einich Cairn and Carn na Criche and nearing the conical hill of Sgorr an Lochain Uaine (Angel’s Peak) I had the bright idea to contour round it then dump my pack and walk back up to the top. This worked fine except I managed to walk back down, way past my bag and had to zig-zag back up again to find it nestling amongst the granite rocks.

One of the sources of the Dee.
Angel's peak and Cairn Toul.
Sgor an Lochain Uaine / Angel's Peak and the high plateau.

Cairn Toul is a bouldery wedge that was quite enjoyable to climb up, balancing on the boulders but ground like this soon stops being a pleasure if you are tired. I could see for many miles and especially over to Morrone by Braemar and distant Lochnagar which was on my route for the days ahead.

On the unnamed hump after Cairn Toul I met a friendly German couple whose lime-green tent was pitched down by Corrour bothy. Down from here some handy snowfields softened and speeded up my descent. To climb up to the Devil’s Point which was my last top of the day, I again left my bag in the rocks and here met Paul, the man with the red rucksack. We laughed about the fact that I’d been tailing him remorselessly all day. He headed down to the bothy whilst I nipped up to the top.

Lochnagar and Glen Lui.
Lochnagar and Glen Lui (zoomed).
Corrour Bothy.

Down at Corrour Paul’s socks were airing on his walking poles. He was having a brew and some food. I was dying for a cup of tea but was too low on fuel to brew up so I kept going, crossing the rusty bridge over the young River Dee and onto the Lairig Ghru path. My feet were aching now after a day off boulder hopping. Then into the first re-planted trees and waded through the Luibeg Burn below the bridge.

I came on an ideal grassy spot next to an old Scots Pine and stopped for the night. I sat on the roots of the tree that made a fine seat and ate my dinner then lay down in the tent. There were a few footsteps of people coming down off the hill but no one else stopped. Before too long and surprisingly as it was such a sunny evening, the forecast rain began and continued through the night though I slept quite well.

Looking back at the days hills.
Gleann Laoigh Bheag camp.
Glen Lui.

Day 9 - 16km. Gleann Laoigh Beag - Braemar.

I was quickly away in the morning as I knew I would get tea at Mar Lodge. At Derry Lodge people were mostly packing up with a few people walking along the track down Glen Lui in the light rain. I chatted briefly to a young American lad who had come over the hills from Kingussie.

Mar Lodge was full of of people having tea, munching on biscuits and chatting away to each other. There was no rush and it was very pleasant to sit there. Eventually I roused myself and walked over Victoria Bridge then along the road and into Braemar arriving a whole lot fresher than when I’d got there two years before after crossing the hills from Glen Feshie.

Victoria Bridge, Mar Lodge.
The River Dee ( a bit bigger now!).

I headed straight to the Bothy Cafe at the far end of town. I’ve known Karen Bruce who owns the cafe for many years and she bravely came over and gave me a hug and we caught up on each others news. I joined a few others at one of the big tables and had some soup and a sandwich and tea and chatted to the group that gradually changed as people came and went. After a brief shop for supplies I found myself back there again for coffee as I was waiting to get into the room that I’d booked at the Moorfield Hotel. Paul created the biggest laugh by pulling out the big saw that he'd been carrying and waving it around.

At four I walked up through the Games Park, which had sprouted an impressive new pavillion and up to the hotel where I was given the same room room as I’d used two years before. I went through the usual hotel ritual of cleaning myself and my gear, which takes quite a time and then resting and drinking tea.

Early evening I headed back into village to get some fish and chips from the Hungry Highlander before meeting my other brother Alan and his partner Uraiwan, who had driven up from Ballater to meet me, outside the the Fife.

The Fife Arms Hotel has just undergone a major renovation but I was surprised how similar the new version looked to the old one. Right down to the faux-nicotine stained net curtains in the bedroom windows. We had a look inside. It was doing a roaring trade but the kitsch decor and dead animals in cabinets and on the walls showed that money and good taste don’t always go together.

We went round to the bar at the Invercauld where the friendly barman gave us some free crisps and explained that the Invercauld would be done up too but aimed at a different clientele so there’s hope that it may be a bit more down to earth. The bar slowly filled up with Challengers and eventually after a few beers we decided to go for a short walk by the River Clunie before saying goodbye to them and heading back up to the Moorfields.

New pavillion, Games Park, Braemar.

Day 10 - 27km. Braemar - Allt Darrarie.

Next to me at breakfast the next morning was Russ Manion who had given a warm and funny speech at the Thursday evening dinner in Montrose the year before and next to him the La Borwit’s who are still walking across Scotland at an age where I will be glad just to be walking.

Walking along the back road by the golf course and the Clunie Water, the weather was cloudy and a bit humid but not too bad at all. Then across the livestock bridge by Auchallater farm and up Glen Callater towards the Lodge. I passed two lads who were looking fit but the worse for wear after making the most of last night in Braemar. Then I stopped for a bit at Callater Lodge for tea and a dose of Bill’s stories before slowly making my way up the path towards Lochnagar. This climbs up then turns the top of Carn an t-Sagairt Mor and round to the top of the crags of the Stuic. From here I walked up to the top of the literally pointless Munro of Carn a Choire Bhoidheach then gradually up on to the misty top of Lochnagar itself which is characterised by pimply granite tors. I’ve walked and climbed on Lochnagar many times before, in fact it was the second largish hill that I’d climbed after Beinn Alligin when I was twelve on a walk from Blair Atholl to Glen Doll with my dad. I’d not been up there for years though and realised that the last time had been with Karen Bruce when we had walked down by Glas-allt Shiel on a very sunny day.

I tried to get a view of the cliffs but most of them were hidden by the mist though it still looked very atmospheric. The path down towards Glen Muick has had a massive amount of work done on it and is now more or less a stone staircase until you reach the rubbly track.

Down through the trees at Allt-na-giubhsaich and across the flats of the glen to the Ranger Station at Spittal of Glenmuick. This has a couple of vending machines and I sat on a bench and had a cup of tea and wearily read some of the interesting environmental and historical displays. Although it’s well done it does give the strong impression that the Cairngorm National Park Authority is a PR group for the shooting estates.

After this good rest I walked up into the little glen that holds the Allt Darrarie. This is a fine spot with lots of rocky pools in the tumbling burn. I knew there were places to camp along this and stopped at the first one that I found. It was a mild evening and again after eating I lay and looked out of the door of the tent until I drifted off to sleep.

Loch Callater Lodge.
Loch Callater.
Cac Carn Beag, Lochnagar's summit.
Dark Lochnagar.
Glen Muick from below the Meikle Pap, Lochnagar.
Glen Muick and the Allt Darrarie.
Allt Darrarie.
All Darrarie camp.
Shielin of Mark.
Extreme bog-snorkeling potential?
Glen Lee.
Glen Lee.

Day 11 - 21km. Allt Darrarie - Tarfside.

You tend to wake early at this time of the year as it starts getting light before four a.m. and I was away quite quickly in slightly damp weather. I passed two more shelters after the stream branched left and then followed my nose up a grassy line through the heather and down to the little, isolated bothy at Shielin of Mark. There was a group of about eight tents here still all closed up but someone emerged from one of them as I walked through and we said hello. From here I headed up towards Muckle Cairn passing another green mid tent that I found later belonged to Chris. I could see now that someone who must have packed up at lightning speed was following me up the hill.

Over the rounded hill of Muckle Cairn and down easily on a path and track to Glen Lee passing the Stables of Lee on the way. Upper Glen Lee is beautiful with quite impressive crags and a fine waterfall and very easy going along the track. At the end of the loch I stopped at the comfy bench that I’d used in 2017 and along came Marcus Petter from Austria who was the man that I’d spoken to at Shielin O’ Mark. We’d just a passed a Landrover and quad-bike and Marcus had noticed two live ravens with them that were likely to become bait in a ladder trap.

It was good to talk with Marcus and good to see his enthusiasm for the highlands when, like me he has the whole of the Alps on his doorstep to explore. After a walking together for a bit we separated and I followed the little track up and over the grassy pass by the Hill of Rowan and its monument. I met a group of a walkers out for the day (I’m ashamed to say that I assumed from their grey hair that they must be on the Challenge!).

Loch Lee.
Invermark Castle.
Down to Tarfside.

Finally down the god path that leads into Tarfside and a quick turn left at the gate to get to St. Drostan’s where I got a warm welcome as in the other years. It was good to see everyone there and I was pleasantly surprised to see Marion and Graeme Dunsire who I knew were on the Challenge this year but they had hurried across so as not to miss out on helping at Tarside. Two bacon rolls and loads of tea slid down so easily as I sat and talked. More and more people were arriving and after a shower I went down to the camping field and pitched my shelter at the back with Shap as my neighbour.

Dinner took three or four sittings which is a huge effort from the volunteers but soup and chilli and great Bakewell cake was night and day better than the dried food that I’d had the night before. After dinner we moved along to the Mason’s Arms for beer and a variety of malt whiskeys which were such good value it would have been a shame not to drink them.

River North Esk.

Day 12 - 42km. Tarfside - Montrose.

That night it rained heavily but had eased off by early morning and I shook the drips off my shelter and stuffed my gear into my bag and walked along to St. Drostan’s for breakfast.

I had planned to walk out via Charr Bothy for a change but was much more motivated to walk directly out to Montrose in a day as I’d done the year before. I hadn’t done any very big distances this year so it felt right to finish with a very slow marathon to the coast.

The rivers were now in a spate after what had been a very dry crossing despite the rain over the final few days. The Blue Door route was reportedly closed due to a landslip so after crossing the North Esk on the bridge leading to Dalhastnie I stayed on the west bank eventually meeting up with Pete on a muddy section just after the Rocks of Solitude. We walked in to Edzell together and he told me about some of his past trips across Scotland which I really enjoyed listening to. I got in to the Tuck Inn at Edzell just before noon. Their chef was off so their was only take-away meals on offer but they were happy for us to eat them in the cafe, so I had a pot of tea and a white pudding supper. Unlike eating at home it feels as if you are feeding a furnace when you walk so far everyday.

A quick shop for some chocolate and a fizzy drink to take with me and I wound my way over the suspension bridge that crosses the river and on to the very long straight that leads to North Water Bridge. Even this early there was someone putting up their tent at the campsite. I sat for a while to rest my feet, on the stone wall on the far side of the old bridge just as I’d done the year before. Then on an on along the road until I crested the final rise and could see the sea that had several ships anchored in it and the town of Montrose.

It still takes a while to get there turning on to the little roads that come out in the Borrowfield estate ( a housing rather than shooting estate now, though probably just as wild at times). It takes a bit to get used to the traffic again and the amount of boy racers here is always noticeable so there must still be some oil money around. I crossed the end of the golf course and reached the sea at a little sandy cove. After taking a few pictures I headed in towards the Park Hotel. A clap of thunder from a black cloud over near North Water Bridge heralded more rain and by the time I’d paid to camp in the hotel’s grounds and put my shelter up it was raining quite heavily. I signed out and had a coup of tea with Sue and the other people looking after control.

Then a shower and drinks and food in the bar along with Mick and Gayle and a few others. I spent the next day, Wednesday and a bit of Thursday hanging out in Montrose and catching up with some of the people that I already know like Lynn and Gavin and meeting some great new people like Tim and Douggie who had laughed their way across Scotland.

It had been another fine walk and the night I got home my partner Cath laughed when she caught me looking at maps of Scotland and planning the next one.

Lamb chops (I'm just kidding ...).
North Water Bridge.
The end - Montrose beach.

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