TGO Challenge 2017 route

We now have an approved route for our backpacking trip across Scotland! All 291km (181 miles) of it!

We have planned to do this over 14 days, with 10 nights camping, two of these being on a campsite while the rest will be wild, and 3 nights in hostels (to dry out!). We aim to walk an average of just under 21 km (13 miles) per day, with 30.1km as our longest day and 11km being the shortest.

We have decided to start our route from Shiel Bridge, so our first three days will take us through an area that is totally new for us both: Glen Affric to Drumndrochit on the banks of Loch Ness. Here, we will have our first night indoors before taking a ferry across the Loch and traversing the northern edge of the Mhonadliath range via Glen Mazeran, before descending the Burma Road to Aviemore. We chose this route as we haven’t explored any of this region except for Aviemore; we have heard that Glen Affric is lovely and reading reports of some of the other routes across the Monadhliath put us off, as we didn’t fancy endless eroded landrover tracks, wind farms and power lines. Glen Mazeran also appeared to be recommended as a nice place to spend the night.

TGO MAP

Starting at Shiel Bridge in the west and finishing in Montrose in the east.

From Aviemore, we intend to walk via Glen Feshie and White Bridge to Braemar. I have never been down Glen Feshie; Chris has but it was during his ML assessment and therefore he didn’t really take it in.

Our longest day will be between Braemar and Ballater; we have driven this section and it was beautiful, so hopefully this will distract us. Then we’ll have a short day to recover, before taking in Mount Keen. There were a fair few alternatives for crossing the southern Cairngorms, and we originally wanted to go via Jock’s road but this required a long foul weather alternative. We therefore decided to go over Mount Keen, as it was simpler for planning purposes and is a munro that would otherwise require a lot of effort to bag. We will then descend to Tarfside, followed by a final camp in North Water Bridge before hitting the beach at Montrose. This means we don’t have to worry about transport from our final destination to Montrose for signing out and the celebration dinner!

We’re very excited but also a little nervous as neither of us have done anything like this before, so we’re expecting it to be very challenging. It has also required a lot of planning, organisation and preparation, so we’ve decided to try to raise some money for two charities while we do it: Scottish Mountain Rescue and Bliss. Please have a look at our JustGiving pages and support us by supporting them!

Cambusbarron climbing

On Saturday, we managed to get out into the sun and squeeze in our first outdoor climbing of the year!

Cambusbarron West Quarry (Fourth Quarry) is our nearest climbing crag and on such a beautiful day it was a lovely place to be.

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Sven leading  Still Better than Peak (VS 4c), the obligatory first climb of all our visits, and Chris ready to climb.

This crag catches the sun, dries relatively quickly and has some nice views from the top. The rock is dolerite and can be loose at the top, particularly after the winter, so helmets are definitely highly recommended! Many of the climbs are steep and it can be intimidating for less confident climbers. There are good anchors at the top and we’ve taken lots of friends and family to try out an exhilarating abseil. In the summer, you just have to watch-out for midges among the trees: we’ve had to pack up and run away very quickly, when the breeze has dropped.

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Chris happy to be out climbing again, belaying at the top of Cha (S 4a), Jessica and Chris on Not Easy Contract (E1 5b)

You will often find a few members of the University of Stirling Mountaineering Club there, but despite the gorgeous conditions, we had it to ourselves. Access is very easy, just a five minute flat walk from Old Drove Road in Cambusbarron (Stirling), the start of which gives fantastic views across to the mountains, making it a nice venue for a quick after-work climb.

Nevis Gorge and Steall Falls

Following our day out with British Mountain Guide Andy Cave, we decided to take a wander up to the Steall Falls in Glen Nevis. It was raining and we had wanted to make the most of the hotel facilities in the morning, so this short walk was ideal. From Fort William, you take the road all the way to the end of Glen Nevis where there is a free car park. A good path leads away into the dramatic gorge, however it is rough and at times the ground drops away steeply, so care and good footwear is needed.

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View up the Water of Nevis from the path

After winding through the forest, with the river rushing over rocks below, you come out into an open valley. The huge Steall Falls are immediately visible pouring down the hillside ahead. The path leads off east down the valley, but you can turn right towards the river to get a bit closer. A wire bridge crosses the river, which is not for the faint-hearted. A hut is situated on the other side and a boggy walk to the base of the falls is possible, but according to Chris wasn’t worth the muddiness, as the views are actually better from the river.

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Steall Falls in the cloud

Harry Potter fans might recognise the landscape from the film Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, when Harry battles the dragon.

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This bridge requires a lot of concentration (it is also right at the end of the walk and it’s therefore not essential to cross it!)

This is a brilliant walk for groups of friends or families wanting quick access to some wilderness and spectacular scenery, the rocky path might add an extra little sense of adventure.

Distance: 3.5 km / 2.25 miles

Ascent: 220 m

Time: 1.5 hours

#makewintercount

About a month ago I received an email from the British Mountaineering Council informing me that I had won the #makewintercount competition that they had been running all winter with Lowe Alpine. I was astonished! This grand prize consisted of two nights in a hotel and a day out with British Mountain Guide Andy Cave for two people. Chris and I were obviously thrilled.

We spent a week or so wondering where we would be going, before finding out that we would be based at the Isles of Glencoe Hotel, which looked wonderful. Andy got in touch with us and we gave him our experience and what we hoped to get out of a day with a mountain guide. We then watched the weather forecast extremely closely for the week before the trip, excitedly trying to guess what routes we might be able to do.

We escaped the Glasgow rush hour on Friday evening and made it to Glencoe before Andy, who was driving up from England. From the hotel reception we could see the pool, and to reach our room we walked through the lounge and dining area, which had a lovely atmosphere. Our room was far beyond our expectations: large, with doors opening out onto Loch Leven.

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View over Loch Leven from our bedroom door

Upon meeting us for dinner in the restaurant, Andy also gave us two new Peak Ascent rucksacks, provided by Lowe Alpine as part of the prize. The food was delicious and we spent a very pleasant evening getting to know Andy, discussing our options for the following day and making our plans.

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My first try at making and using coils

We usually have very early starts when going out on the hills, so we had expected we would miss breakfast on Saturday, but Andy assured us there would be plenty of time, which made Chris happy. Having packed our new rucksacks, we set off just after 8.30am to Glean Spean. It was warm, with freezing level above the summits, so there was not going to be much ice. Andy had suggested climbing a little-known ridge in the Creag Meagaidh hills, which he knew well, and where there would be a suitable route whatever the conditions. Here, Chris and I could get ourselves up, with Andy demonstrating new techniques and providing guidance. This suited us perfectly, as although it would have been fun for Andy to lead us up something difficult, we had decided that we wanted to use the day as an opportunity to develop our own skills and gain the confidence to try more technical winter terrain by ourselves. Chris has some winter climbing experience but I have only walked in winter, and although I have been on a couple of introductory winter skills courses, when we are out together, we generally avoid steep ground.

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Andy showing Chris methods for getting us safely over short steeper sections

We had a leisurely start, with Andy showing us some of the gear he uses, before setting off along the forestry tracks on the north side of the A86 east of Tulloch.

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Andy ahead and Chris with the coils as we climbed a snowy slope. Note his shiny new Lowe Alpine Peak Ascent rucksack. It’s a great colour!

After a small river crossing and a sandwich pause, we emerged from the forest and headed west towards the steeper slopes. Visibility wasn’t great, so we made sure to get a few navigation and decision making tips. We headed for the east ridge of Beinn a’Chaorainn, trying to choose the least boggy route. Once properly on to the ridge and with less grass between the snow patches, we stopped to put our harnesses and helmets on and get our axes out. As the ridge got steeper, Andy showed us how to move together and to make coils with the rope to give the other person confidence and support against small slips. Chris usually leads whenever we are out in the mountains, whether walking, scrambling or climbing, so having Andy with us, gave me the opportunity to lead a bit and practice some rope skills myself.

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Getting used to moving together

Andy gave us a good range of helpful suggestions for moving on steep, but not overly dangerous, ground without having to stop and climb pitch by pitch, which will be really useful for us in the future. By staying on the ridge we also avoided any risk of avalanches; we could see the debris of these in the coires either side of us.

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Having fun!

Once onto the the flatter ground near the summit, Andy told us how it can be useful to keep the rope on in poor visibility; by keeping a good length of rope between you, the person behind can catch the other if they fall through a cornice! He also demonstrated that it can be advantageous to calculate the bearings and distances you will need to use after topping out in order to keep away from the edges and the cornices, before you start climbing, not when you reach the top.

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Nearly at the summit: protecting ourselves from the risk posed by invisible cornices

We used bearings and timing to navigate from the summit in the cloud, walking one in front of the other, rather than together, to help keep ourselves accurate. Then we headed down the south ridge until the cloud started clearing and we got some lovely views of the mountains to the south.

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Summit selfie!

We made our way back down to the forest as the sun was getting lower, dousing the landscape in a beautiful light, and followed a stream through the forest to the track which took us back to the car.

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Mountains just appearing through the cloud

Happily we made it back to the hotel in time for another very large and delicious dinner. After dinner Chris and I said goodbye to Andy, who would be leaving early on Sunday morning, and had a final drink on the sofas by the fire in the lounge area.

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Descending in the sunshine

In the morning, Andy had indeed left before we were up, but we stayed to test out the pool and the sauna, before consuming an enormous breakfast from the buffet.

It was a brilliant weekend and a fantastic prize. We learnt loads and Andy gave us lots of recommendations for places we should visit and routes we should try. We left full of new confidence and inspiration to get out on even more adventures.

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Post-mountain dinner (photo credit: Andy Cave)

Thank you very very much Andy, Lowe Alpine and the BMC!!!!

Turning back: Beinn Bhuidhe

The weather forecast was pretty bad for last weekend but we are aware that during the TGO Challenge in May, we will have to walk whatever the weather. We therefore decided to try to get out anyway. Not knowing many decent long circular low level walks (please send us suggestions if you know of any!), we decided to try for Beinn  Bhuide, which includes a very long walk-in along a flat track from the head of Loch Fyne. We were hoping that by the time we started ascending, the weather might have cleared up. We also knew there was easy parking for the campervan for both Friday and Saturday night.

It was an extremely dark and wet drive up on Friday night and sounded just as wet when we woke up on Saturday morning. Having finally beaten the struggle to get up, we headed off in all our waterproofs up the track towards the Fyne Ales brewery (Achadunan brewery on the OS maps). It is a long trudge along the bottom of Glen Fyne and many people cycle it. The river was very high and flowing seriously fast, as were all the channels coming off the hillside: it was an impressive sight through the mist.

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The River Fyne looking scary

Eventually, you come to a gate, where a sign asks bikes to be left, and you walk through some hazel woods. We passed a closed up lodge, Inverchorachan, and started to climb, following a path from just the other side of the second gate through the deer fence. The path was quite steep and muddy, but leads up the south side of a gorge, where the stream was raging just on our right. We could see the water tearing off pieces of the bank and throwing up the stones at the edges: it was pretty spectacular.

Before the gorge widened out, there was one particularly tricky but short section, that definitely requires hands on rock. It’s probably not too much trouble in the dry, but is definitely something to think about in the wet if you aren’t confident with that sort of thing.

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The stream above Inverchorachan was very impressive and we were pretty wet.

Beyond this, there was a big waterfall coming down the head of the valley, and the sun actually came out for a few minutes, allowing us to eat a sandwich in the dry and admire the scenery.

Having dried out ever so slightly we set off again, trying to follow the path that was occasionally visible between the snow patches. The sun didn’t last long and the drizzle soon had us putting our hoods and gloves back on. The ground was quite eroded by water and soon became steeper again as we moved up on the left of the large waterfall. The snow was slippery and the ground wasn’t frozen meaning progress was fairly slow.

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Once up onto the next flatter section, the path crossed several streams. The first just required a minor detour, but the next was definitely not possible at the usual crossing point, so we followed it upstream to try to find somewhere safer. The wind had picked up and it started raining heavily,  quickly soaking us again. Having seen the sunshine,  I felt more demoralised than I had before drying out. We struggled along the steep stream bank, passing a fork – meaning we now had two streams to cross rather than one – and eventually found a suitable spot. It was very fast and deep, preventing us being able to place our poles in it for balance, but was easily jumpable.

As we started back down the other side looking for the path and somewhere to cross the next one, we were both starting to think this was not going to be an easy summit. We were now walking away from our destination, which was totally in cloud, and all we could see were a lot of steep hillocks rising into the murk, which in poor visibility was going to be a nightmare to navigate. We managed to cross the next stream but we had lost a fair bit of time and it was now around 1.30pm. We sheltered behind a rocky outcrop, had some food and discussed our options. We were still 1.5km from the summit. There were more streams that might prove impossible to cross. There was a steep section ahead that would be tricky in the horrible melty snow. There wasn’t going to a be a view. We had a long walk out even from where we were, and importantly, if we headed back now we’d be down in time for a beer at the brewery! We had some hot squash and turned around.

 

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It took a while to get down the steep sections but we didn’t encounter any problems. The weather also continued to tease me into taking my waterproofs off before raining again 10 minutes later. The track out along the valley definitely feels long on the walk back but some dancing Highland cows and the biggest herd of deer I’ve ever seen provided some distraction.

And we did indeed make it to the brewery in time for a drink and a venison sausage roll.

 

Details

Distance: 21.5km if you make it to the summit (we walked about 18.5km)

Munro summit: Beinn Bhuidhe  (948m)

Region: Argyll

Time: 7 hours without reaching the summit in unpleasant conditions (7-8 hours usually)

Comments:

Don’t be afraid to turn around if you’re not having fun! Yes, it’s good to get to the top but you are also out there to have a good time! Also, take a bike.

Blowy in the Black Mount: Stob a Choire Odhair & Stob Ghabhar

Recently I had the opportunity to climb two new munros with a friend from work. Stob a Choire Odhair and Stob Ghabhar were the munros of choice and as the forecast was looking good, apart from the wind (but more on that later),  we decided to get a nice early start on Saturday morning.

A short approach from the carpark at Victoria Bridge, near Bridge of Orchy, leads you to the base of the first munro, Stob a Choire Odhair.  A path north, just after a green hut on the main landrover track is the direct way onto the mountain. This good path becomes a relentless plod, especially as the last kilometre and a half is very steep. You are rewarded however, with some terrific views over Rannoch Moor to the north east and Glen Etive to the west. As the wind started to pick up, we huddled down behind the rocks on the summit for some food and a cup of hot squash.

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View of Rannoch Moor

As we descended the west ridge towards Coirein Lochain the wind eased; this was mainly due to a mountain being in the way, and we had an opportunity to really take in our surroundings. We were walking through a corridor, with white hills in all directions, as well as spectacular views of inhospitable land making us feel very small indeed.

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Looking back to Stob a Choire Odhair

As we ascended the north bulge of the Aonach Eagach (not the famous Glencoe ridge) it was hard work due to the very soft snow lying on top of wet turf and scree: uphill swimming I think they call it.

As we hit the top of the Aonach Eagach, that wind, wow! It was ferocious as it pounded us from all angles meaning we took our time crossing the west ridge connecting us to munro number two, Stob Ghabhar. The strong winds meant only a few minutes were bearable on the summit, plus the time for a summit selfie, obviously.

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Elliot on the ridge

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Windy Summit

As we descended the broad west ridge of Stob Ghabhar, the wind continued to accelerate, driving our feet through the snow as we leaned into each strengthening gust. Blocks of snow were lifted high into the air just as the spindrift would spiral around us, temporarily causing a white out.

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View down the west shoulder of Stob Ghabhar

As we dropped down the SW side of the mountain, we were happy to be sheltered from the wind. From there, a bit of bum sliding took us down the slope which would lead us south to the main track, along the river and back to the car, finishing off a very memorable day.

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Looking back at our day

This was a physically demanding day due to the strong winds and snow conditions, but it was also a great one. A big thanks to Elliot for his company and suggesting the route, I hope we can get out again in the future.

Details

Distance: 17km

Time: 8 hours

Accent: 1189

Munro summits: Stob Ghabhar (1090m), Stob a Choire Odhair (945m)

Comments

This is a really nice day out: two munros with a funky ridge to navigate as well. Be prepared to feel every meter of accent though.

Also, in winter conditions you must be well prepared in terms of planning and equipment. My ski goggles were my favourite piece of kit: with the strong winds and spindrift they really were essential. Make sure you have a pair.

Whiteout on Beinn Tulaichean

We hadn’t had a proper day in the hills since Helvellyn in the Lake District at the start of the year, so we were determined to go out last weekend. The weather forecast didn’t look too bad but we couldn’t take the van, meaning that we needed somewhere not too far from Stirling (I get grumpy at horrendously early weekend starts!). We settled on Beinn Tulaichean and Cruach Ardrain near Crianlarich in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park. These hills can be climbed either from the north or from the south; we decided on the latter (because that was the first route we saw!).

The route starts at Inverlochlarig, which is at the end of a very windy but pretty road off the A84, past Balquidder, and along the banks of Loch Voil. There is a good car park (free) with a shelter and a bench inside, providing an ideal spot for getting ready when it is pouring with rain – this was not the weather that was forecast!

We set off fully waterproofed, along the road, over a bridge, to a stile on the right, signposted for our hills. This slightly boggy path leads up onto a landrover track that runs up Inverlochlarig Glen. We followed this for less than 1 km then started thinking about heading up the slope on our left. There was no obvious path, it was sleeting and the cloud was pretty low so we couldn’t see far anyway. We left the landrover track just before coming to a gate and picked our way up via the easiest looking route.

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It was a bit murky and warm as we left the landrover track

The sleet soon turned to proper snow with big, fat, soggy flakes and started to settle, despite the ground not being frozen at all and therefore really wet. The visibility also dropped considerably. Our aim for the day quickly shifted from climbing two munros, to seeing how far we got and cooking lunch on Chris’ stove.

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It started snowing properly

Having climbed a fence, we were struggling to find a way up and around a steeper section. The wet snow was just compacting under our boots and sliding down the grass, making walking up very difficult and resulting in me lying on my stomach in the snow a few times. It was also incredibly warm: there was no wind and despite only wearing our base layers and waterproofs, we still had to take our gloves off to try to stay cool. At this point we met a father and daughter who were coming down, having sensibly backed off higher up as they didn’t have crampons and the visibility had gotten really poor. We followed their tracks up until they stopped, at which point it did get steeper, so we got our ice axes out and carried on carefully. We made it to a flat area that we had seen on the map and stopped for first lunch.

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Lunchtime. Total whiteout conditions by this stage.

I gave Chris a MSR windburner stove for his birthday in September but he has only used it a few times, so rather than take sandwiches as we usually do, we had decided to try out two meals that we might want to use whilst on our TGO Challenge. The first was  sun-dried tomato and garlic flavoured couscous with Matheson’s smoked sausage. The water took about 2 mins to boil and was poured onto the couscous and sausage and left for three minutes. The result: deliciousness! Tasty, super fast and definitely one to use again.

We packed up and carried on into the whiteness; up some even steeper ground that was quite fun and onto a narrower ridge. Here the ground was very confusing and not at all what it appeared to be on the map, which made for some challenging navigation for Chris, as by now we couldn’t see further than 10-15m, although it had stopped snowing. Eventually, having almost bypassed it, we climbed up some rocks and onto the summit; we dug around at some lumps of snow and uncovered a cairn so it must have been the summit right?

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Where’s the view? Are you sure this the summit?

Having eaten some chocolate, drunk some hot squash and laughed at the fact we could be absolutely anywhere, we decided that rather than struggle navigating down to the saddle between the two munros and making our way down to the landrover track from there, it would be easier and much quicker to follow our tracks back the way we came.

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Following our tracks back down

Once back at our flat area again, we had a second lunch of smash and smoked sausage, which was also a huge success and the first time I have eaten smash (besides the spoonful I was given to taste a fortnight ago when Chris bought it). So we now have two very fast, light and filling meals that we can use on our trip making this a very successful day!

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The first break in the cloud

The temperature had dropped a bit as we made our way down, but eventually the clouds started to break and we got a few glimpses of the hills around us. Once under the cloud,  where there was less snow, the descent was pretty difficult as it was still extremely slippery and not much fun, but it was nice to get a bit of a look at our surroundings, which turned out to be pretty nice, as we made our way down the last section and back out to the car.

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Inverlochlarig Burn

Details

Distance: ~9km

Ascent: 809m

Duration: 6h

Munro summit: Beinn Tulaichean (946m)

Comments

As we didn’t see anything, we can’t really comment on the views, but from what we could tell at the bottom there wasn’t much of a path, so in poor weather good navigation is necessary.

Always bring the appropriate equipment: despite how mild it was when we set off, we still carried our ice-axes and crampons. Also, always be prepared to adjust your plans: we very quickly chose not to bother with the second summit and decided our aim was not to gain a summit at all but to test our stove meals instead, something we could do at any altitude and in any weather. The pair we met had also changed their plans, backing off because they didn’t have the necessary equipment. The hills will be there another day!