In just a few days I’m heading to Scotland to participate in an annual event where some 300 challengers attempt to cross the country on foot, each following a route they’ve designed themselves.
Each year The Great Outdoors Challenge is hosted by The Great Outdoors Magazine. It is a challenge, rather than a race. The goal for each participant is to walk from the west coast to the east coast across northern Scotland on foot in two weeks. No motorized transport is allowed, with the exception of taking a ferry across large lakes such as the famous Loch Ness. What makes this event especially interesting is that there’s no one defined route. There are many possible starting and ending points and you can choose any combination of trails, jeep tracks, forested glens, boggy moors, and remote highlands that you like.
Scotland is notorious for cold, wet weather, especially in May. This year is shaping up to be quite a challenging one with heavy snow still falling and steep icy snowfields remaining on the high peaks. At the moment, the forecast for Lochnagar, one of the high points on my route, is “snow turning to rain” with “severe gales”.
When I started reading trip reports from past challengers and poring over maps I got really excited by the idea of climbing snowy peaks (called “munros” in Scotland), visiting ancient castles, and nipping into a pub to enjoy such delicacies as haggis, black pudding (sausage made from pork blood), and oatcake — all on the same walk!
My route will start in the picturesque village of Torridon, some five hours north of Glasgow. I’ve chosen to jump right into high remote terrain where I’ll likely see very few other people, if anyone. I plan to find my way across trail-less highland to join the Great Glen Way then to catch a ferry across Loch Ness. Yes, I’ll be on the lookout for Nessie. The Monadhliath Mountains will be my next challenge and I’m looking forward to witnessing the impact of controversial wind-farms that many Scottish hill-walkers feel are destroying the country’s limited remaining wilderness. I’ll then traverse the mountains of Cairngorms National Park, stopping in the resort town of Aviemore for a warm shower and some fresh food. I’ll meet up with Sil in Braemar where we’ll enjoy a great pub meal together. Ready to try haggis, Sil? After a climb up and over Lochnagar (where I’ll have crampons after reading reports of hidden glare-ice), the rest of my walk will be much more culturally focused. I’ll make my way down Glen Esk to Tarfside and Edzell, stopping in traditional pubs for stout and meat pie and most likely sharing the experience with a number of other challengers. My final day will bring me to the high cliffs and rolling sand dunes of St Cyrus where I’ll walk along the beach to Montrose and a big celebratory dinner. All together, my walk will approach 320 km in length with nearly 9,000 m of cumulative ascent. What a great way to see a country!