We, speaking as challengers, do different routes, we do different styles of Hmm (Unsupported) crossings. So what happened to me does not necessary represent what might or would happen to anyone else who decided to take on the challenge for the first time.
Even if our gear was exactly the same, the weather, the altitude of your route and camp spots, the exposure or lack of it maybe, would not be representative and therefore what works fine in one circumstance or one route, may not do so in another.
On the other hand the challenge encounter’s quite an array of differing conditions in such a short space of time and in some respects is a pretty unique event.
All types of rain, downpours, heavy showers, light showers, constant precipitation, mizzle, soaking undergrowth, hail, snow, hill fog, white outs, marsh and bogs, peat hags, swollen rivers, wind fierce and gusting, calm, sunny, humid, hot, sweaty, freezing, ice, condensation, steep slopes both up and down, long ridges, road walking, expansive rock fields, LRT’s and ATV tracks, footpaths, bothies and the list goes on. But all this shows the variability of just what you can expect and what to plan for with your kit and most of all, getting your mind set prepared.
The first timer
who puts pen to paper and signs that cheque is in for a real treat although leading up to that first step into the oggin, somewhere on the west coast of Scotland can be fraught with doubt and palpitations of the heart and a sickening feeling in the stomach.
Just getting to the start point for some will be a journey on its own and needs planning to ensure that local transport is running. Don’t be afraid to email bus companies in remote areas as schedules can change quickly, breakdowns happen and seats can be at a premium.
So i am putting this post together for anyone with backpacking experience, taking up the TGO Challenge for the first time, and definitely not
for the first time backpacker. This was
my first TGO Challenge, and prior to going i had lots of queries and a few slight apprehensions.
My backpacking history does include many 2-3 week long backpacking trips around the world but my knowledge of areas like the Monadliath and the Cairngorms are very limited. I have done the Cape Wrath Trail, the Rob Roy Way and most of the West Highland Way as well as a few Munro’s, so i am not a complete novice to Scottish conditions, supply problems and transport frailties.
This post is what happened to me, my crossing, and my gear, and is meant to give enthusiasm and not fear and trepidation, and hopefully answer some of those niggling questions that a first timer has in the back of the mind. But remember, we can and do overcome anything with PMA.
The main thing is to be open minded and enjoy whatever the challenge throws at you. Not everything goes to plan, like weather, route finding or blistered feet just for instance. Many things go wrong, kit goes wrong, as do the best laid plans. The weather can be mean and tiredness can play a big part in the proceedings and it’s worthwhile noting that it takes a few days for your body to get accustomed to carrying the sack weight and doing the miles, the inclines and the descents. So don’t overdo the first few days of your route but I cannot emphasise enough the importance of good route planning, well in advance of setting off.
Fellow blogger JJ
and I started the Challenge 2014 from Torridon. I had gone up to Fort William a few days earlier on a bit of a jolly. Then i booked the bus which took me to Kyle of Lochalsh. If you book this online and early enough it costs £6 or £22 on the day. Then instead of waiting for the train from the Kyle to Strathcarron i spent the money i had saved on the bus fare and got a taxi. I met JJ at the Inn and proceeded to walk over the top to Torridon via an overnight camp up from Coulags.
We used the hostel in Torridon, booked well in advance, which is modern and big.
We posted parcels of supplies there 2 weeks in advance. When we checked in we were told no parcels had arrived for us.
Can you imagine how bad we felt!
Four days worth of food and fuel and maps, missing, and just 14 hours to the start of the challenge and no resupply open.
We sat in the dining room having a cup of tea and discussing the problems. Numerous challengers came forward and offered help, some offering their spare food, others contemplating buying an evening meal in the hostel to free up a dehydrated meal. We could also buy some food in the hostel but it was solid food and heavy but at least it would get us going.
Then about 1hr later, Jules (Nice lady warden) checked out the office area and found 2 parcels. Panic over. But what about the fantastic camaraderie. Thank you all so much.
Then the hostel which had been relatively calm, became like a bee hive. A rambling group, many in numbers, arrived and took over the whole place. We felt as though we were in the way. They completely took over the whole kitchen area and 75% of the dining room. I watched a number of challengers just stood there bemused as the worker bees filled pigeon holes, commandeered the work surfaces and the hobs, re-aligned food stuffs already in the fridges to make way for there own honey, brought boxes and boxes and boxes of food and wines and beers, and i could go on but i’m sure you get the drift. They didn’t give a toss for anyone else. So rude.
We started the Challenge in the sun, we had it for the morning and just into the afternoon. We made a navigation error which knocked us back 30 or 40 minutes and then it rained, no, poured and it was constant. Over the next 3 days rain played a huge part in the story.
I kept quite dry (but damp from sweat) for a couple of days and i only wore a base layer under my shell top, a Rohan Ultra silver tee L / S. When it got damp i knew that it dried really quickly and stays comfortable even when damp.
My shell jacket which was a prototype smock from Brenig kept the worst of the elements at bay. And at no point was the inside wet through although some wicking did appear at the front of the hood and the hem seams as we progressed.
The DWR didn’t last long which was a bit of a shock. It beaded well for about 3 hours of rain and then it wetted out. The good thing though was that it didn’t go through.
The problem, as is usually the case with the majority of waterproofs, once a shell wets out the breathability reduces drastically and that then causes condensation and the result is wet inner layers. The wet then wicks back to the body which then stops wicking the body sweat out. Result, your wet and probably cold and getting miserable.
When this happens “WE” tend to say the jacket leaks and is useless.
I didn’t suffer too badly with wet inners and i certainly was never “Wet through to the bone” as the saying goes.
But, why do waterproof manufacturers not use PWR's instead of DWR’s? Surely this is what should be happening. I guess they (PWR’S) are probably bad for the environment and so manufacturers cannot use them in Europe.
My eVent over trousers on the other hand, Rab Bergan’s, gave up after 2 days of rain and on the 3rd day i had wet inner trousers. Fortunately Rohan bags dry exceptionally fast. The Bergan’s were not brand new and had been re-proofed prior to the challenge. I should have bought a brand new pair but my experience of the Bergan’s suggests i won’t buy another pair of them. Lots of challengers swear by the Berghaus Paclite’s and so i will more than likely give these a shot before they are replaced by a new model that doesn’t work as well.
Gerry’s independent hostel.
In challenge week Gerry’s can be completely full (as are most overnight spots) so book early. The dorms can get packed but under the trying circumstances Gerry does his best to make sure that independent foot travellers can find a place to rest. Now where have i heard that before. Oh yes that’s what YHA’s were all about, once. If your not keen on sleeping in a crowded dorm then Gerry’s is not for you.
You can also buy a limited choice of tinned food at Gerry’s. Not a vast selection but enough to keep you going if your short on anything.
Gossip, sometimes listening to what other folk say can be a bit off putting. I was told that the River Meig was in spate and that crossing it would be out of the question. When we got there it was fine and no problem at all. We could have made a route change because of gossip, so be open minded.
My shelter on the crossing was a Mountain Laurel Designs Duomid. This choice was one of my late decisions and I almost took my TarpTent Moment.
In hindsight either would have passed muster but i was pleased with the additional room that the Duomid offered.
The Duomid proved to be a good choice, fast to erect, faster than any other shelter I have owned. Sheds wind very well and caused me no real problems, even on very uneven ground.
I keep reading that with the Duomid having a large footprint that it can be awkward to pitch. This is absolute rubbish IMO, the sleeping section takes up no more space than an Akto, so first thing to do is sort out on the ground where you want to lie and set up the Duomid around that spot. It isn’t so important that the porch area is uneven.
And for anyone considering getting a Duomid or for that matter any other tent, stay clear of the colour Yellow. It attracts all types of bugs. Believe it or not the best colour for a tent or any outdoor gear is indigo blue because insects hate indigo colours as much as they love yellow.
Prior to the challenge i sprayed my inner with Permethrin spray from Ellis Brighams.
I set up my Oookworks inner (its yellow by the way) so that the bathtub groundsheet was taught and rigged to be attached to the outer. This allowed the inner to float and didn't need pegging out. It worked a treat and a number of people had a look at that aspect as well as the Duomid in general.
I did find joining the zip clip at the base of the doors and the press studs quite awkward from the inside. Maybe it would be better to locate them on the inside as well.
I could have left the inner at home on this challenge as the insect situation was absolute minimal.
I set the pole height at 58" and adjusted it to suit ground conditions.
Sleeping. My bag of choice was a PHD minim 500 down bag with a dri-shell outer (again yellow/gold). A perfect bag although the zip snagging on the inner baffle was a real pain. I asked other challengers who used PHD bags if they had any problems and they all did. So come on PHD sort the problem out.
Numerous challengers go with a lightweight 1-2 season bag and then carry insulated jackets and trousers and booties to compensate. It’s an individual choice but i say take a bag which will cope with conditions down to -5C.
My mat was a short length Thermarest Neo Air. I had no problems with it. It actually stayed inflated. I have numerous mats of various weights and warmth ratio’s but the lightweight Neo Air was all i needed on this trip.
Footwear. The rain certainly found the weakness in my Merrell Chameleon mid boots. They leaked every day it rained. My feet were always wet. The boots were comfy and I never had a single foot problem. I also used green Supafeet insoles. I did wonder if by taking the Superfeet insoles out of the boots every evening to aid drying and then replacing them had worn the membrane. Its just a guess but its possible. Leaking or not, i would definitely use these boots again.
When I finished walking for the day, my first job was "feet". I dried them and then rubbed foot powder all over them. I left them for 1/2 hr, and then wiped them clean. I then rubbed in my own foot lotion which contained Peppermint and Menthol and to which i added 5 drops of Eucalyptus and Tea tree into the tube. I think this system worked very well and one i would suggest is taken up by first timers. It also kept my sleeping bag smelling nice and prevented any skin bacteria.
My usual choice of hiking socks are Bridgedale Trekkers. They have served me well. However i noticed a little bit of wear on one sock and my second pair were even worse. I had a new pair of X socks Trekkers and decided to take these instead, as well as a pair of Bridgedale liner socks, i am now a complete convert to X Socks. Comfortable, strong, very quick drying and after 250 miles they show no sign of wear.
Lanocane anti chaffing gel also worked well in those tender areas and is something I always use now.
A last minute change to my gear was to wear Rohan bags trousers. I chose these mainly for their light grey colour, messages on the Challenge forum raised the point that ticks were prevalent. The grey colour would show up any insects better. I also sprayed them with Permethrin. They worked very well and dried extremely fast. I had no regrets wearing them and in two weeks i only saw one tick although others saw plenty. Be aware that Permethrin can change the colour of fabrics darker. Make sure you carry a tick remover. Mine is a modified Tick Key.
When walking with Mike and Marion Parsons (OMM) for the day, they obviously spotted my OMM Villain 45 rucksack and i said "i didn’t like it". However i didn’t get chance to expand on what i didn’t like. Its not true that i disliked everything.
In short the Villian 45 + 10 is not in my opinion a long distance backpacking sack. It becomes more annoying the longer the trip.
The problem mainly lies in the fact that its just one long slim compartment and a lid. Usually the things i wanted were always in the middle and so had to unpack half the sack to get at it. Now i tried swopping things around but it doesn’t work. You just cannot say what items you will need to get at next. Whether it be food, first aid, foul weather gear and so on.
The sacks shoulder straps are very good indeed and have just the right amount of padding for the load carried. The sack material is tough Dyneema and the workmanship is excellent. I have never used a more waterproof sack which i also sprayed before leaving with ThunderShield. The side mesh pockets are a little too small and too short. I had items fall out and one of the shock chords snapped. The additional gear rail is just about ok, it's a tad small but in any event i would prefer a fully attached elasticated mesh pocket like on the GG Marriposa. Although i do understand the rucksacks concept of being able to remove items to make it leaner for competitions and so that has to be taken into consideration.
The lid is hopeless. It’s ok as long as your kit is within the main sack but as soon as it starts to creep up into the extension collar then the lid doesn’t fit. The lid doesn’t float or adjust and so cannot move up with the load. Why have an extension collar and a fixed hood. It just doesn’t make sense. I found this most annoying and especially when you just wanted to lie items of wet gear under the hood but not in the sack. I hope the latest version of the Villain has addressed this fault.
In the end it was my choice and i chose the wrong one. I should have taken my Mammut Creon Lite sack. Many challengers use Osprey Exos 48 or 58 and the latest model with the improved shoulder straps are excellent. I think Osprey should sponsor the Challenge considering how much of their gear is being advertised.
Keeping your gear dry is essential. I know this statement sounds obvious but on many occasions i have been with backpackers who have not taken the simple steps to ensure that at the end of the day they have dry gear.
The majority of rucksacks are not waterproof and so for me both a liner and a cover is mandatory. Now some backpackers will tell you that a rucksack cover is not needed as it can blow away. Well that’s easily resolved with simple restraints. Also keeping your rucksack dry keeps the weight down. Just like a wet tent it adds weight when wet and so does a wet rucksack. I also like to bring my rucksack into the tent at night so the drier the better. A rucksack liner also is needed as secondary protection.
Believe it or not but much of the wet creeps into the sack via the point where the shoulder straps are joined to the sack.
This was one of my worries prior to the challenge but I can reassure any first timers that depending on how you plan your route, food is not a problem.
Obviously if you want a challenge where you want to stay away from civilisation for the most part then this paragraph will be of no help to you and you will probably want to locate some secret food drops prior to the start.
Here is what we did.
- Torridon. Food available at the hostel or at the village store. Plus the pub/hotel. We cooked our own food.
- Gerry's hostel. A limited supply of food available. Used our own supply.
- Wild camp. Used our own dehydrated food.
- Cannich. Cafe on camp site does good food all day including breakfast from 7.00am. A packed lunch could easily be put together. The pub does excellent evening meals.
- Ault na goire. The home of the Sutherland's across Loch Ness. These fine people do evening meal and breakfast for challengers at a good price. You need to pre-book. If you decide to stay in Drumnadroichit instead then there is a vast array of eating places but even the co op and the post office is very expensive. IMO.
- Glen Mazaran, our own dehydrated food.
- Aviemore. Many good places to eat and at reasonable prices. We stayed at the bunkhouse at the Old Bridge Inn. The attached pub/restaurant is a bit up market for what a backpacker requires and is expensive. Be warned.
- Derry lodge. Our own dehydrated food.
- Braemar. Numerous places to eat and includes a great reception at The Old Bakery and The Fife Arms. Our route included a brief stop at Mar Lodge where challengers can stay the night indoors or can camp. Food is available.
- Lochcallater lodge. Always a great welcome for challengers. Simple food available as is breakfast. Also a barbaque night depending on what day you pass through.
- Sheilin of Mark. Own dehydrated food.
- Tarfside. Great welcome at St Dunstan's for challengers. Snacks,evening meal and breakfast all available. There is also a museum/retreat a mile outside Tarfside which does a great breakfast. They also come round and take evening meal orders and deliver them to the campsite. This depends on which day you pass through so check the notice board. We used our own food in the evening but went to the retreat for breakfast. Showers can be taken at St Dunstan's for £1. Just ask the staff.
- North water bridge. Nothing available here. We used our own food. On route we passed through Edzell where food is available at the local shops or hot food available at The Tuck Inn cafe.
- Montrose. I camped here and went for a curry with numerous other challengers. There are many food outlets including large supermarkets, cafes, pubs and hotels. On our route from North water bridge to the coast we passed through the village of Hillside where meals are available at the large garden centre.
I used a Trail Designs Caldera cone with a 12 - 10 meths stove combined with a 600ml ti pan from Evernew. This was perfect set up for all my needs.
Meths is not available everywhere and is certainly less common than gas. However I ordered one 500ml bottle from the pharmacy in Drumnadroichit and I had a bottle in my food parcel in Braemar. I had plenty and even gave some to other challengers. Meths was available in Aviemore, Braemar, Edzell and Drumnadroichit on my route.
Gas was also widely used and available pretty much everywhere. I spoke to numerous people who said that they only took 1 x 250gr cylinder with them and it lasted the trip because of the availability of purchased meals on route. Note that a 4 season mix gas is recommended.
I walked the challenge with JJ as i wrote earlier. We have known each other for a few years and have done some short backpacks together as well as plenty of day walks. There are both good and bad reasons for walking with others and so if you decide to walk with a partner or two then you have to way up carefully,
1. if you both can put up with each other for the challenge duration.
2. If your mind sets have similar expectations.
3. You need to be flexible in your outlook as you always have to take another view point on board.
Some people would rather walk alone and on the challenge you would be very lucky to achieve this totally.
The challenge is meant to be a sociable event anyway and our route was exceptionally sociable. On numerous occasions we walked with other challengers and to be honest I found it extremely rewarding, entertaining and a great way of learning new things. We are never to old to learn.
There are folk from all walks of life and all backgrounds and countries. They are enduring the exact same trials and tribulations as yourself. Some have little experience whilst others are quite at home in the worst. Helping your fellow challengers along the way became quite a talking point during the evening camps.
Oh yes, I must not forget to mention the need to carry some sharing whisky. Even if you don't drink yourself, it would be rude not to partake. A good quality malt is preferable.
Some people I met along the way that went that extra mile for us challengers deserve a mention.
Jules, the warden at Torridon Syha. Gerry at the hostel in Achnashellach. The warden at Cannich camp site, the cafe staff and the pub landlord and staff at Cannich. Gordon Menzies who runs the small ferry across Loch Ness. The Sutherlands at Ault Na Goire. Donal the manager of the pharmacy in Drumnadroichit. The staff at Mar lodge, The Old Bakery and Fife Arms at Braemar. Kate at Rucksacks Braemar. The campsite manager at Braemar. Bill and helpers at Lochcallatter lodge. The staff at St Dunstan's and the Retreat at Tarfside plus all the locals who put up with the invasion every year. The staff at the Tuck inn at Edzell. Everyone at the Park Hotel including all TGO challenge organisers and volunteers. Fellow challenger Martin Banfield who kindly did a food drop off for me in Braemar and gave me a lift home. And of course JJ, who allowed me to crash in on 8 previous years experiences.
And I hope I haven't forgot anyone else who went that extra mile.
I was surprised at how expensive the challenge can be. Because our route was a sociable one i always seemed to be paying out. Food, beers, camp sites, hostels, final dinner, bits and bobs, journey costs to start point and from the finish etc. The costs soon starts to mount up. Cash tills are available in most of the villages we passed through although you may have to ask a local as to where it is located. Oh and don’t forget the sharing whisky, have i mentioned that.
The big doooo.
If you are fortunate enough to complete the challenge and get that feeling of achievement as you dip your boots in the North Sea, you then have to sign in at the Park Hotel in Montrose. Here you will be congratulated and be given a certificate, 2 badges, a buff and a tea or coffee. Unfortunately all the sharing whisky will have been consumed.
Challengers who want to, and I encourage all 1st timers to attend, is the dinner. I won't spoil the fun by going into detail of the evening here. Its a good night apart from the meal itself which IMHO is utter rubbish. How the organisers have put up with such poor over priced dining for so long is beyond me.
But don't be put off, do attend and enjoy the evening.
What would I do differently?
I didn't take an insulation layer or mid layer. I took 2 base layers instead.
I would in hindsight take an insulated jacket, like my PHD Minimus or more likely my TNF Zephyrus.
I would take a pair of Vivo barefoot shoes or my O1M’s and not the Hi Tec Zuuks.
I would buy new waterproofs and boots close to the start date but not so close that I hadn't tried them out.
I would wild camp most nights and try and keep the cost down.
I would book in at the Park Hotel or one of the numerous other hotels for my arrival in Montrose. Yes it does make the previous statement seem odd but this would be my treat to look forward to.
I would take proper maps and not print off's so that if my route has to change then I can do so with few problems. This is just my opinion and i know many would disagree.
I took a Satmap active 10 GPS with full mapping software. A GPS of this type really isn't needed although some software on your phone is very handy. There are many apps that will give you accurate grid references even if you don’t want to have mapping software like Viewranger for example.
I took chargers for my camera and phone. I would leave these behind.
Reason: I only switched my phone on where i knew there would be a signal and only for the absolute minimum of time. The full new battery would have lasted the duration. The trouble now is that the latest smart phones have gone over to non replaceable batteries so the option of taking a second battery has been lost. This is a retrograde step i think.
(A charger will probably be required if you do use the phone as a GPS.)
Reason: I took 2 batteries for my camera and i only changed to the second battery on the last day. One thing i found with my camera was that if i took panoramic shots my battery power reduced quickly and so on the challenge i didn’t take any panoramic's.
I would take/use a rucksack with numerous pockets and not an alpine or climbing sack which by design is generally a single compartment with a lid pocket. My Mammut Creon lite or Osprey Axos being good designs would be my preference.
So although i havn’t covered every aspect here, i think from a first timers point of view there is enough to be getting on with. Don’t forget to use the TGO Challenge message board and ask away your questions. There are hundreds of years of experience at your fingertips.
Have a good crossing.