Header Image - snow covered corries

Sunday, 11th May, was finally here and my first Ultimate Challenge was about to start. What have I let myself in for? I thought, as I tightened the laces on my well worn boots in the porch of the Lochailort Hotel. My insides were churning at the thought of the distance to Montrose, what the hell was I doing here, alone? I should be grateful as this years Challenge was nearly cancelled due to the Chernobyl disaster and the possibility of radio active fall out polluting the Scottish burns.

It was a grey, wet, misty morning, with just a solitary cuckoo yodelling away in yonder wood for company, as I set forth along the road, heading for the heather clad hills and Loch Beoraid beyond. I was free again, away from the hubbub of city life and the shackles of the office desk.

Bob and Ray In Glen Nevis
Bob and Ray             photo © John Hutchinson

At the inlet to Loch Beoraid was my first obstacle, water! This as it turned out would be a problem for many in one way or another on this year's Challenge. The burn was in spate, a study of the map revealed a long hard detour round. After much pacing up and down I found a place to cross, trying to remember what I had read on the subject, I gently edged across. SPLASH, it was too late, I was beginning to feel like dirty clothes in the laundry, wet and agitated, as I headed into the loch. After climbing out and getting dried, I galloped over the bealach into Glen Finnan, when BANG, I was 'knocked down' by an injured fawn. I don't know who was startled the most; after my heart had stopped racing I had a look at the deer's broken leg and there was very little I could do, I left it to fend for itself (I didn't have the heart to kill it). Nobody had warned me about being run over by deer. What adventures, and this was only my first day!

It was at Glen Nevis Youth Hostel that I met my first Challengers, my old mate Bob Dawes, on his seventh Challenge, with Ray Stokoe. Bob is one of the many great characters who is associated with the Challenge, he'll take the mickey out of you one minute and give you his last dram of malt the next.

The plan of action, as I left the hostel, was to tackle The Mamores but as I reached the two croft hamlet of Achriabhach, the rain was coming down like stair-rods, the wind was blowing and the tops were covered in grey clag. I remembered the old climber's saying: "There are old climbers and there are bold climbers, but there are no old bold climbers." So, with this thought, I continued to plod up a very wet road, feeling a little cheated by the weather. My spirits were lifted again as I caught the magnificent raging torrent of white water roaring down the narrow gorge below Steall. This was one advantage of a very wet Challenge, it certainly brought out the best in waterfalls.

Ray on Steall Bridge
Ray & Steall Bridge     photo © J. Hutchinson

I was aroused from my thoughts by a cacophony of song (Ghost Riders in the Sky), a little way ahead, performed by Messrs Dawes and Stokoe. "Give the cats a chance", I exuberantly yelled, which amazingly had the desired effect, only to be replaced by shouts of abuse. I continued the day's walk with them and after much splashing about, with good humoured banter; we arrived at Staoineag Bothy looking like three wet dish-mops after having a hard day in the sink. Ray, being a coal miner, soon had a roaring fire going, thanks to two old plimsolls left in the wood pile by Ken Smith, the Derbyshire tramp who winters each year in the bothy, if the bothy book is to be believed.

Next morning dawned clear and bright, with a dusting of snow on the surrounding hills. After a much hurried breakfast, not wanting to waste any of this perfect day I skipped off down the track, like a new born lamb. A buzzard soared high above in the crystal blue sky, searching for prey in the grey crags below. As the morning passed by, so too did the blue skies, by the time I had reached the rocky shores of Loch Ossian, the clag and the drizzle had returned again. After much deliberation, with map and compass in hand, I plodded up the mist shrouded flanks of Carn Dearg. I toiled away, for what seemed an eternity, before bumping into the summit cairn, with a sigh of relief. I was so exhilarated at climbing my first Munro of my high level route, that I was soon over my second, Sgor Gaibhre, and down to Ben Alder Bothy below.

Culra Bothy
Culra Bothy               photo © John Hutchinson

The night at the bothy was spent peacefully sleeping, without any sight or sound of the reputed 'resident ghost'. The morning was like the previous, clear and bright, as I strode up towards the Bealach Dubh, with more than a dozen grazing deer for company but once again, by the time I had slogged up the heather plagued slopes of Beinn Eibhinn the cloud was down and for a change, a flurry of snow. With map, compass and two sets of footprints, to mark the way, I trudged gingerly through knee deep snow over Aonach Beag and onto Geal Charn. With a quick check of the compass, the footprints appeared to be heading to my final Munro of the day, Carn Dearg. How wrong I was! After a short while I realised I was off course and conditions were deteriorating, with snow falling heavily. A look at the map revealed what appeared to be an easy descent to Culra Bothy, below, but I ended up in an avalanche prone gully. CRASH, I was hanging upside down, with my right leg acting as a very good belay, where it had punctured the snow; it certainly works wonders for constipation. After much cursing and swearing, I procured myself from my predicament, none the worse for wear except a dented pride.

Dalwhinnie Distillery
Dalwhinnie Distillery              

The next afternoon I was feeling very pleased with my fitness and enjoying every minute of my first Challenge, despite the weather. I marched up the main street of Dalwhinnie, roughly the half-way point of the crossing, for that well earned pint. Dalwhinnie is a strange sprawling village, as it always reminds me of the old ghost towns, as seen in the cowboy films. You can just imagine the tumble weed blowing across the road, from Loch Ericht dam on a windy day.

After a good overhaul at Mrs MacDonald's, with a bath, comfortable bed and replenishment of supplies, I was off like a racing snake up the track of Allt Cuaich aqueduct. Very soon I caught up with two other 'webbed feet' Challengers, who had stopped to have a brew. We got chatting and I thought there is something familiar about the soles of their boots, then the penny dropped, these were the characters that had led me astray on Geal Charn. After a good laugh and a joke about it, I wended my way towards my next objectives, the Corbett, Carn Dearg Mor and Glen Feshie beyond.

A pleasant evening was spent at a full Ruigh Aiteachain Bothy, with many more wet Challengers drying out in front of the red hot fire. We singed a glove, a balaclava and burnt a hole in a sock, as we exchanged many amusing stories of The Challenge so far. By now, after so much rain and drying out in front of smoky fires, I was beginning to smell like a mobile kipper factory.

Ruigh-aitechain Bothy
Ruigh-aitechain Bothy              

As I looked out of the bothy door, next morning, there were fifty or more deer, chewing their way up a very wet, misty glen. Today, was supposed to take me up onto the western Cairngorm plateau but what should I do? Chris Peart another solo Challenger, was also pondering his route, so we decided to join forces and headed upwards. To justify this sheer lunacy, we kept telling each other, it will be drier underfoot on the plateau, it wasn't. We had to ford a knee deep burn, walking over from Tom Dubh to Monadh Mor, incredible at 3,000 feet. By the time we had battled our way through gale force winds and driving rain to the peak of Monadh Mor, enough was enough. After discussion, I decided to descend, through a very wet Glen Geusachan, to the most famous mountain refuge, in Scotland, Corrour Bothy, whilst Chris, a keen 'Munro Bagger', pressed on over Beinn Bhrotain to camp at White Bridge.

Devil's point and Corrour Bothy
Devil's point and Corrour Bothy (very small!)

On arrival, at the bothy, a solo backpacker was in residence, who gave me a most welcome cup of tea and a chocolate biscuit. After a while the hoards started arriving, first a dozen screaming kids from Inverness, plus three teachers, then two young lads, followed by a mixed group of eight students from Edinburgh. This was taking me back to my student days of, how many people you can squash into a telephone box, as the bothy is very small. Luckily, or should I say thankfully, the school party camped, leaving twelve of us to sleep, intimately together like sardines in a tin. The lad next to me ended up with my elbow in his eye, as I am a restless sleeper, but it was all right as he was a medical student and not on The Challenge.

Next day was a gentle stroll down Glen Luibeg in bright sunshine and as I lunched beside a glistening River Dee, it was beautiful to see a vivid green woodpecker fly into an adjacent wood. Later that day I saw a pair of young dotterel playing, in the afternoon sun on the rocky summit of Morrone, a Corbett, above the sleepy village of Braemar.

The Postcard
The Postcard                             photo © John Hutchinson

The following morning dawned bright again, was the weather going to be settled? The forecast said not. It was a pleasant saunter through Ballochbuie Forest which forms part of the Balmoral estate, with many other Challengers for company to Gelder Shiel Bothy. The weather forecast was correct; it was pouring down with rain, by the time we got to the bothy, the next day's assault of seven Munros on the Lochnagar range looked in doubt. My walking companions for the day departed, leaving me all alone in the bothy, they were staying the night at Johnny Robertson's in Glen Muick. After about 5 minutes there was a clank of the letter-box and a postcard dropped to the floor, with a picture of Ruthven Barracks on one side and good wishes, from my fellow Challengers on the other. Later that evening the bothy door burst open and Chris Peart, was standing there with bottle in hand, after completing his one hundredth Munro. Well you can't let a man drink on his own, can you?

Chris Peart
Chris Peart © J Hutchinson

As predicted, the weather was worse next morning, so a hurried journey through Glen Muick to Glen Doll youth hostel, a former shooting lodge in Glen Clova, was the order of the day. One consolation was to climb my twelfth top, the rain lashed summit of Conachraig, giving me enough tops for a high level crossing. After so many miles of 'paddling', my feet looked like tripe and my boots were beginning to look much the same.

Today was going to be a long hard day as I trudged down the road, leaving the delightful little hostel behind, towards my last hill, Ben Tirran. It was on Ben Tirran that I was greeted with the fiercest of weather, a total 'white out' and was I pleased to reach the safety of the glen below. Now all that remained was the inevitable road bashing down to Montrose.

Dalhousie Arch, Edzell
Edzell - The Dalhousie Arch

After an overnight stop in Edzell I walked with Dot and Ian Crooks, a young couple from Blackburn, who successfully completed their fourth Challenge. It is amazing how road miles are easily covered with pleasant company, conversation and gifts of biscuits to keep you going. I felt as though I was walking on air as we marched into Montrose, residents were congratulating us and talking about how tough The Challenge would have been this year with the endless rain. One or two folk kept well away looking at us with furrowed brows of disbelief, or was it the smell of sweat and toil! Then it was into The Park Hotel, to congratulatory cheers, for the free cup of tea and biscuits; it is amazing what a Yorkshireman will endure for something free! Also to meet 'The Voice of Control', who kept us going through desperate times, my vivacious friend, Barbara Dawes, who wouldn't let me finish until The Challenge was complete.

That evening as I soaked in the bath it was time for reflection. Yes, it had been a fantastic Challenge, despite the weather and modified route. I always remember, previous participants, Bob Dawes, Sue Oxley and especially Bernie "57" Heinz telling me: "You're missing out if you don't do The Challenge." These people were correct, because I thought it was just another walk, how wrong I was! It is more than just a walk, for starters there is wild magnificent scenery, flora and fauna, hospitality, but most of all comradeship of all the participants. You couldn't wish to meet a friendlier bunch of characters anywhere in the world! See for yourself, give it a go, like I did, you won't regret it.

© John Hutchinson 2008