On the saddle between Aonach Mor and Sgurr Choinnich Mor
The TGO Challenge is a unique backpacking event that takes place every May and involves crossing the Scottish Highlands from coast to coast. The letters of acceptance for the TGO Challenge 2012 have just been sent out to those successful in the draw for places so many people will be poring over maps and guidebooks as they start planning their routes. 2012 will be my 14th Challenge. As yet I haven't decided on a start point, let alone a route, though the latter will involve many hills, as always. Here I've posted a feature I wrote for TGO on the 2008 Challenge to give a taster as to what the Challenge - or indeed any long walk in the Scottish Highlands - can be like.
TGO CHALLENGE 2008 – THE CHALLENGE OF THE CAMP SITES
Thinking back to previous Challenges as I set out this year on my 12th I realised that I categorised them according to dominant features, usually weather related. The hot, the cold, the sunny, the wet, the dry, the windy, the snowy, the tent free (bothies most of the way), the sociable. What, I wondered, would this year bring. The answer was to be surprising. It was the Challenge of the Camp Sites. Now camp sites are important on every Challenge for me. I’m not one of those backpackers for whom the overnight camp is just a necessity. I take great pleasure in wild sites and in being able to stay overnight in the hills. For that reason I don’t plan very long days - they average around 15 miles - as I want to have time to enjoy my camps. There are memorable camps on every Challenge but on some the weather had forced me into the tent for longer than I’d like while on others my route hasn’t been the best for scenic sites. This year however the route, the weather and wonderful camps all came together.
The start was not encouraging. I left Lochailort on a humid evening with the clouds low over the hills and camped after a few hours beside Loch Beoraid. Some early midges seeking first blood drove me into the tent. Rain fell during the night and I woke in the morning to mist around the tent. Shrouded in damp cloud I plodded up Sgurr na Coireachan. Unexpectedly, as I approached the summit, the world changed. I came out of the dense mist to sudden space and light. Dark peaks were rising out of the cloud-filled glens all around. High above more clouds swirled, parting briefly at times to reveal patches of blue sky and to allow bursts of sunshine to escape. The walk to Sgurr Thuilm was magical, the solid ridge seemingly suspended in the air above the insubstantial drifting mist. I had intended on camping down in Glen Finnan but I was reluctant to descend back into the mist so instead I pitched the tent not far below the summit of Sgurr Thuilm with a fine view back to Sgurr nan Coireachan, the first fine camp. Heavy rain again fell during the night and again the morning was misty. Compass work was needed to cross the ridges to the east and climb Gulvain. Dark clouds made the thought of Glensulaig bothy tempting but the view from the saddle below Meall a’Phubuill was too good to pass by and I camped amongst the peat hags with a view back to the long dipping ridge of Gulvain. Two heavily laden walkers passed by. Challengers obviously. Di Gerrard and Ngomo Charles Karugu were heading for the bothy. Maybe see you tomorrow, I said. In fact it would be Montrose before I saw them again and I met no other Challengers the whole way across. This could have been the solitude Challenge, except that there have been others when I’ve met no one at all (never intentional – I just seem to pick unpopular routes!). Looks like rain, they said as they departed. Black clouds were pouring in from the east. Within minutes heavy rain was hammering down. After an hour it ceased, leaving a lovely refreshed evening. Later I heard that Challengers further east in the Grey Corries were caught in a big thunderstorm, the edge of which had just brushed my camp.
The Druim Fada ridge, much the best way to reach the Great Glen from the west, led to the Caledonian Canal and a hot and enervating Fort William where I spent the best part of a day browsing in shops and nibbling in cafes. I wanted to climb Ben Nevis but not in this heat. Although I’d climbed the Ben on other long walks I’d never done so on the Challenge, turned away at different times by snow, wind and cloud. Late in the afternoon I set off, my pack the heaviest it would be with six days supplies inside. Dozens of people were descending. Many just gave me strange looks (some directed at my sandals). Others commented on the lateness of the hour and warned me there was snow on the summit. “I know”, I replied to the first, and “good” to the second. The latter met with surprised looks. But it was the snow that had me climbing the Ben in the evening. Looking at the snow-capped mountain from the Druim Fada the day before I’d suddenly realised that the snow meant a soft bed for camping and a water supply. When snow free the summit of the Ben is a huge boulder field on which pitching a tent would be extremely difficult and sleeping comfortably even harder. There is a small, dark, smelly and rubbish-filled shelter but the idea of using this had always struck me as unpleasant.
By the time I reached the summit the last day walkers had long descended and I was alone. I pitched the tent on deep snow near the trig point then wandered round the summit plateau watching the hills all around slowly sinking into night. Across Glen Nevis the Mamores turned a rich red and gold. Beyond the dark cliffs of the north face Loch Eil shone in the last sunlight. A raven wheeled overhead and a snow bunting hoped about on the snow, hoping for crumbs. A half moon rose and the first stars glittered. All was calm and silent. The snow made for the softest and least bumpy pitch of the whole walk and I slept well, waking to a gusty east wind, drifting mist and a hazy sun. When I finally left the cloud had sunk down into the glens and bright sunshine shone on the Ben. I’d had the summit to myself for 14 hours. After crossing the Carn Mor Dearg arête I looked back at the vast magnificent north face of Ben Nevis and marvelled that I’d camped on the summit. It was the high point of the walk, both literally and emotionally.
On the summit of Ben Nevis
In Gaick Pass
The night on Ben Nevis was one of the finest wild camps I’ve ever had anywhere, enough on its own to make this year’s Challenge special. Combined with the other excellent wild camps it explained yet again why I keep coming back. Every Challenge is unique and every one has something exceptional and memorable about it. I wonder how I’ll remember next year’s.
By Loch Treig