I love long walks, especially when they take you right across a country from one coast or border to another. That’s the idea behind the TGO Challenge. Design your own route starting on the west coast and finishing at the North Sea, get advice from experienced Scottish hill walkers, and start walking. This isn’t my first country-crossing journey on foot but it is my first time hiking in Scotland and I was very grateful for the wise advice on such things as where to find beautiful camp spots and where I might want to avoid wind-farm construction.
I started in Torridon, a quiet and remote village some five hours north of Glasgow. The most practical way to get there is by taxi. Thanks to Willem and Leendert for arranging the ride! I met the “flying dutchmen” along with Nicole and Lindy in Inverness and we all enjoyed the scenic ride through the Scottish countryside.
As my first time hiking in Scotland and participating in the TGO Challenge, I wanted to make this a very special experience. I chose Torridon because it is so remote and because the scenery is so spectacular. This would let me very quickly get up into seldom-visited parts of the Highlands, places tourists rarely see. I had some “must-sees” for this crossing too: Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle, the Monadhliath hills (where massive wind-farm development is dramatically changing the landscape), infamous Aviemore and the charming village of Braemar. While the first part of my trip was remote and challenging, I wanted the second part to be much more social. The Challenge itself is full of history with walkers re-uniting each year to share stories, celebrate, and sing songs. To get a feel for this more social nature of the event, I had my route follow what’s almost become a pilgrimage of walkers heading down out of the hills to the steep sea cliffs and long sweeping beaches of St. Cyrus.
But let’s start in Torridon…
Willem, Leendert, Nicole, Lindy, and I arrived the evening before the official start of the Challenge and we all stayed at the Torridon Youth Hostel. James from Base Camp Food had sent a package of dehydrated camp food and I was very happy to find it waiting for me. Thanks James!
Day 1 – Sea to Summit
Torridon to Pollan Buidhe
09:00-19:00 (10 hours), 29 km
I woke up to blazing sun and clear blue skies. This is Scotland?! I’d expected rain mixed with sleet and hail and more rain. What a nice way to start the journey. After signing the official Challenge register, I was on my way.
I chose to make my first day a big one: 29km long with 1,500m elevation gain. You generally want to start off nice and easy when beginning a long trip like this but I felt that trekking the Manaslu Circuit in Nepal with Charles the month before prepared me well for some bigger days (despite almost being crushed in the earthquake).
My objective for the day was Sgorr Ruadh, my first munro (a peak over 3000 feet high). The weather leading up to the Challenge had been unusually inclement. In fact, a huge blizzard dumped snow all over these mountains just a week earlier. So, I was a bit concerned about going up high. I’d brought microspikes for some extra traction on slippery or icy sections.
The hot weather must have melted away most of the snow, at least in this area, because I encountered only patches. But I could see other bigger peaks and ridges still burried under windswept cornices. I followed the established track up through the glen to the base of Sgorr Ruadh. It looked viable to ascend directly via a steep south-west facing slope but I chose to continue around to the north side. I’m glad I did, as I’d later discover that the hills here are not what I’m used to at home in the Canadian Rockies. Anything not covered in rocks is slick and muddy. Even when you see grass that looks nice to walk on, it’s just a thin later on top of slick mud. I’d gladly ascend a steep slope like this back home but here in notoriously wet western Scotland you’d find yourself slipping and flying down hundreds of feet. So, I’m glad I continued to the north, were I found a rocky ridge that took me right to the summit.
The scenery really is spectacular. The unexpectedly warm and sunny weather only made it feel that much more special.
After a nice long break for lunch, I descended down to the little village of Achnashellach. My vetter for the Challenge, Roger Smith, had suggested staying at Gerry’s Hostel if the weather were particularly bad or if I felt tired. “Staying at Gerry’s is an experience that everyone should have at least once” he wrote. But it was early, the sun was still shining, and I was feeling good, so I continued on. Perhaps, I’ll have to return for that Gerry’s experience.
From Achnashellach up into the hills I followed a wide jeep track, my first of many on the crossing. Such a change from the rocky paths and the snowy ridge scramble I’d been following earlier in the day.
As I trudged up the road, clouds gathered and it began to spit rain. This is more what I expected of Scottish weather. But it didn’t last long. As soon as I had my tent up, the rain passed and the sun briefly returned before setting on my first day of a great journey.
Day 2 – Finding Magic
Pollan Buidhe to Orrin River
06:45-20:15 (13.5 hours), 30 km
I woke to a cold, crisp morning. Frost covered the ground and my water bottle had frozen stiff. Yet, the sun was up already at 5:30am, softly illuminating the grassy hills.
My plan was to walk along River Meig, eventually crossing it on a bridge quite a distance downstream, then backtracking to a path that would take me to Loch na Caoidhe. Given how much it snowed and rained in the weeks leading up to my arrival in Scotland, I was quite surprised that the river was running low. Crossing was easy. I almost considered hopping from rock to rock, but my shoes were already soaked from walking over mushy ground, so why not just walk across. Refreshing, cold water 🙂
I arrived at Loch na Caoidhe, still quite early in the day. I’d planned to make camp here. I’m not sure what it is, but I find it difficult to stop while the sun is still shining and there are so many hours left in the day. There’s just so much more to see and explore. Nicole and I had been playing leap-frog for much of the day and she felt the same way. Mostly, she expected a big change in the weather and wanted to get to a bothy (for my non-Scottish friends, a bothy is a mountain shelter ranging anywhere from a simple concrete shed to a semi-luxurious hut). So, I continued past Loch na Caoidhe walking into the evening. I wasn’t sure where to stop when suddenly I spotted a bridge over a burn followed by a beautiful green clearing and an old ruin illuminated by the setting sun.
I enjoyed cooking a hot meal just outside my tent, one of the luxuries of backpacking in a land without bears. There was something magical about this spot. Maybe it was just the golden warm glow of sunshine against the crumbling old stone next to me. Maybe it was the feeling of fulfillment you get after a good long day of walking through remote country. I gazed up to see the sunset. But what I saw in the sky was a little more foreboding: high streaky clouds whipped and sculpted by strong winds. What would the next day bring?
Up next, Part-2 of the TGO Challenge.