The Great Outdoors Challenge and other things.

At the behest of Nobody You Would Know (those in the know will know to whom I do not refer…and those not in the know need not know and are probably best off not knowing…!) and my own nagging conscience I begin to pen/prod/pound out this long overdue post. The creative urges have been severely lacking of late. Has as my energy. Both likely due to longer hours at work and unnaturally early starts to my working day.

Anyway enough excuses.

Did I mention that I had applied for and have been accepted on The Great Outdoors Challenge? I know my wife is sick of hearing about it. As are those few workmates to whom I offer more than the negligible grunt of passing acknowledgement. So, I will expound upon it some more to you poor souls 😉

The TGO as it will henceforth be referred to here – and as it is known to those in the UK backpacking community – is an an annual backpacking event held in May. Aspiring participants must apply through the The Great Outdoors magazine in order to gain one of 300 places on the Challenge, a number adhered to in order to limit the impact of too many feet on the glorious countryside of Scotland. Once accepted onto the Challenge each person or group (up to 4 people are allowed per group) must plan their own route on foot across Scotland starting from – or at least signing out from – one of 13 start points on the west coast of Scotland. Each Challenger has 2 weeks to make the journey unsupported (barring the welcome shoulder of drinking partners…) to the east coast and sign in at Montrose. It’s not a race or a competition and the only prize is the Challenge itself. Those of you who backpack and/or have hiked in Scotland will have an inkling of what I mean by this. 

Originally my application was for myself to walk solo, thinking that Marcus my usual partner in crime and long-term best mate would be unable to get the time off work. However when he heard of my intention he vowed that if he didn’t get the time off for the TGO he would quit his job to join me! He was deadly serious about this.

So in went his application and just a few weeks later we were emailed by Challenge Control (the lovely Sue and Ali) to confirm that although we hadn’t made it onto the initial draw we had been accepted as a group of two in the top twenty on the Standby List so we were guaranteed a position! Apparently every year at least that many people pull out between the date of application and the starting date.

It has taken some time for it to really sink in.

After years of reading the Challenge reports on the backpacking community blogosphere and dreaming of joining those fortunates and stalwarts I am at last going to join them!

The real planning didn’t start until January. Judging by the posts on Social Media a lot of Challengers (particularly former Challengers) had already sent off their Route Sheets to Challenge Control. Some had even had their routes vetted and approved or sent back with advice on reappraisal of the chosen route.

Our own route I sent off to Sue and Ali, to be passed on to our chosen Vetter, on the 25th of January. On the 15th of February I received an email containing the Route Comments from our Vetter Alan Hardy. There were no necessary revisions needed but he did suggest some small alterations that, on looking at the maps closely again, I fully agreed with. Alan as with all the TGO Vetters’ is a very experienced backpacker with far greater knowledge of Scotland than I will ever possess. His comments were informative, kind and approving.

The route I chose starts from the most northerly starting point of the 13 possible signing out points, Torridon. I had initially planned on a more southerly starting point simply for reasons of time and cost but in the end I chose to make the journey up by train in two parts with an overnight stay in Inverness the day before the Challenge start date, taking the train to Strathcarron the following morning where we would get aboard the only bus service running to Torridon. Doing it this way means we will be signing out of Torridon Youth Hostel sometime after 2pm on Friday 12th May. Many Challengers make the journey up on the Caledonian Sleeper train so that they arrive at their starting point the day before the Challenge start. However, my budget conscience was trying to save money where it could. The outgoing travel costs are but a fraction of the overall outlay and as my wife and I have quite a lot planned for this coming year it has been necessary to cut costs where possible. For some the TGO is no doubt an annual holiday but we have 2 weeks booked in Tenerife in August, not to mention a 3 day trip to London for our boy’s 12th birthday, a couple of concerts in between and Izzy is going to Ibiza for 4 days a week after the TGO.

Nevertheless there have been certain things I simply had to buy. Honest… Well, the only truly necessary purchases have been a new waterproof jacket in the shape of a Montane Aero eVent smock which the wife bought me for Christmas and a pair of Inov8 Roclite 295 trail runners. The old Marmot Precip has seen better days and has been relegated to use for the commute to work. The LaSportiva Wildcats still have some life in them but it is doubtful they would survive 200 miles across Scotland.

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The Montane Aero Pullover on it’s maiden trip in Grindsbrook Clough. It worked brilliantly.

Between a few long weekends of overtime and a scrounge about in the loft for items to sell on Ebay I have managed to get myself some new Merino gloves, a Merino beanie and a new microfleece to replace my tired Berghaus microfleece. These were all bought from EDZ a Lake District based company. I believe all of their items are made in the UK or at least these bits that I have were. Having used them only once on a chilly local hike around the Lincolnshire wolds with Izzy I am happy with the quality of the materials and workmanship. They were certainly very reasonably priced and I can highly recommend EDZ.

Two things that I have been very lucky to acquire have been a GoPro 4 Black and a Nikon Coolpix l830 bridge camera. These were gifts from a very generous benefactor who shall remain nameless lest they take umbrage and demand the repeal of said Sponsorship! Both of these superb items of tech will be going with me to Scotland to record our Challenge. This has of course required more spending as I could not risk water damage to the camera, nor record more than 90 minutes of a VLOG or a handful of photos. So, a few SD cards and a waterproof camera pouch are also now adding weight to the Kit List (which I shall publish soon). Oh and a tripod for the camera too. How could I record a timelapse or two without one?

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A new tshirt, a pillow (another christmas gift), a new burner for my stove, some waterproof socks for in camp, digital maps for ViewRanger… Yeah I have been budget conscious…

All in all the wife has been very understanding!

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Back to the route. The whole route can be found here on OSMaps online.

Following the advice of one or two experienced Challengers I tried to make this first TGO a more sociable one, taking in some of the more popular meeting points. It is recommended that first timers try not to be too ambitious so I tried not to include too many long days or big hill days. My one regret is that I didn’t try to include some more wild camps. Of the 13 nights we will only be wild camping for 6. The other nights will be spent on campsites, a B&B in Kingussie and on the village green in Tarfside. If there is a next time I am tempted to wild camp the whole way.

That will certainly be an anti-social TGO and maybe more my style 🙂

More on the TGO may follow in the coming weeks. The promised Kit List will materialise at the very least as it only awaits the inclusion of some more new kit which is in the post! I also have a 3 or 4 day pre-TGO trip in just over a week that I shall write-up and Vlog on YouTube. It will hopefully be a good test of my new kit and my fitness for the Challenge.

Unbelievably it has been a year since I last had the Stratospire out. Her feelings need soothing…

Things other than the TGO

Since my solo trip to Wales back in September I’ve neglected trip reports for two overnighters: a local hammock hang with Marcus back in January and a recent trip to the Dark Peak.

The former was on an unseasonably mild day and night in some favourite local woods. This was the first time I had used the GoPro. It was not to be a a very good test as we arrived late in the day and were soon on our way to becoming inebriated! A cracking night with stars, the moon, a comforting fire, good music, much talk of the TGO, good food and of course plenty of alcohol.

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The sunset soon after making camp.

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One frame of a GoPro timelapse of the moonrise.

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GoPro photo of camp the following morning.

 

My short film of the trip can be found here on YouTube.

My most recent overnighter was a hike from Hope train station over to Kinder.

Marcus and I got off the train from home at a little after lunch time on a sunny Saturday. There was much talk of the TGO as we ambled our way up onto Hope Brink and along to Hope Cross. So much so that much of my GoPro footage was poor and I took hardly any photos with my phone.

Fair winds and sunshine saw us to the foot of Jagger’s Clough – a name some of you may recognise from a previous solo trip – the ascent of which brought to light a difference of opinion between Marcus and myself. I have discovered a penchant for the ascent of hills via river valleys, particularly narrow and winding ones, whereas halfway up Jagger’s Clough Marcus voiced his distaste of such ascents. Perhaps it was the unfortunate submergence of his booted foot in the bubbling brook (he really hates getting his feet wet so that you’d think he was of Southern stock rather than myself ;-)) or the lack of views farther ahead than a hundred yards or the slip-sliding of his overlong hoofed legs on damp, rocky, confined barely discernible paths that meander in and out of the waterway.

Perhaps he shouldn’t have let me plan every last mile of our route across Scotland in May…

We reached the head of the clough with a fair bit of huffing and puffing (mostly from my relieved partner I must add…) and proceeded westward along toward Ringing Roger.

We got a good stride on as we had some distance to cover yet before setting up for the night and the clouds were drawing in, the sun lowering too soon toward the distant bulk of Kinder Scout.

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The sunset was proving to be a gorgeous success.

I suspected we would be benighted before we reached my intended pitch for the night near Kinder Low. Before it got any darker we filled our water bottles from Golden Clough.

Soon after we saw a couple of younger guys wearing big packs going in the opposite direction, appearing in just as much of a hurry as ourselves.

“It isn’t until you see other people doing this'” Marcus remarked as the two receded into the gloaming behind us, “that you realise how mad we are to do what we’re doing.”

Mad? No never. We’d be mad not to do it. It can be a physical and mental challenge at times and the yearning for the comforts of home can cause you to waver on your course but it is always worth it. Just keep on and your rewards will be great.

The headtorches were out and on by the time we reached the head of Grindsbrook Clough. Marcus and I were both feeling a little tired in the legs and of the increasing headwind so we looked for a pitch near to Crowden Tower.

Miracle of miracles Marcus agreed on the first likely spot we came upon. He must have been feeling tired! Less than fifty yards from the nearest trail and on less than spirit-level flat ground and he didn’t even grumble…? I recall questioning him almost uncertainly in disbelief before I could stop myself. Don’t question your good fortune, Elt.

Tents up – Marcus had his new GoLite ShagriLa 2 out for it’s maiden voyage – we each went about our own camp admin, making a brew and dinner. Getting out of my soggy, peat-stained socks and trousers and into dry socks, merino long-johns with my waterproof trews over the top was a long but rewarding process. It must have taken 10mins to get my feet reasonably clean. Three weeks after the trip my feet were still stained around the nails. Yes I do shower and clean my feet almost every day. Peat is a bitch to get rid of.

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Sorry  people of a nervous disposition.

Venturing out into the chilly gusts and mizzle I made my way quickly to Marcus’ palace. We sat and wiled away an hour or two with some low music and chat. Some fine spirits may have been consumed as well as raised.

Remember what I said about it all being worth the challenge? I don’t mean the consumption and comfort of alcohol either though that is not all bad of course. Getting your shelter up, getting warm and dry, setting out your bed for the night, filling your belly with hot food and a hot drink. The knowledge of having everything you need here on a hillside in the beautiful countryside on a dark and blustery night. So you may not be able to actually see that countryside at that moment or even the following morning. It’s the knowing that counts.

These things make it all worthwhile.

Waking up in the early hours with a slightly collapsed shelter due to a malfunction of a temporarily rigged pole; with the cold and damp walls of the shelter pressed up against your back; the wind gusting and shaking your shelter like an angered spirit being all that you can hear; getting out of your mostly warm pit to don some protective clothing; pulling the door zip closed behind you only to shoot a look of startlement over your shoulder at that ghostly shape tugging at your waist only to realise you had inadvertently closed the velcro waist tabs of your waterproof trews around the cord of the hood cinch on your sleeping bag which was now flapping around behind you like a wild and all too fragile spectre in the wet and the dark!

Doh!

Lucky for me the bag was fine and only slightly damp. Once all the pegs and guys were tightened to my satisfaction I got back in out of the mizzle only to realise soon after what had happened with my jury-rigged pole. It had slipped off it’s footing and sunk into the soft peaty ground causing the whole shelter to sink by more than a hands-length.

Ah well. Back to sleep.

Come the morning the conditions were no better so there were no photos, only some video of me looking a little rough before breakfast and beating a swift retreat on the shortest route to the pub.

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Marcus in Grindsbrook Clough.

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GoPro photos.

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Grindsbrook Clough.

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I took some more footage on the GoPro on the way down Grindsbrook which can be seen on my YouTube channel if you fancy a look.  The video of this trip was not my finest but the conditions weren’t conducive to great filming or photography. Particularly once again due to inebriation and it’s after-effects. I’m not an alcoholic honest. These trips are like a mini-break for Marc and I.

Anyway we made our way to the pub… 😉

The Ramblers Inn in Edale to be precise where we drank of ale and ate of hearty food whilst we awaited the next train.

It had been a good trip.

Thanks for reading. If you made it this far…

Well done!

Until next time.

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