Derek Emsley's 1983 Challenge

This was the thought running through my mind as I walked through Glen Callater on Jock's Road approaching the last of the major passes I had included in my Ultimate Challenge 83. Never having walked this part of Scotland before, that steep rocky descent from the Tolmount into Glen Doll on tired, aching bones was a formidable sight to say the least. It certainly brought home to me that however much you prepare for such a walk with the study of maps and guide books beforehand, the reality of the physical problems can never be appreciated until you see them on the ground.

My Ultimate Challenge, like everyone else's, I suppose, started many months previously in the comfort of home with a few ideas and some maps. I am familiar with the Western Highlands but had not visited the central or eastern areas over which my route would have to go. There were first of all some basic questions which would have to be answered. Should I at 54, making my first attempt, go solo? Should I go for a fairly fast crossing or use the time available to the full? Should I attempt to put together four major passes in these circumstances?

These questions were soon answered and I think for logical reasons. I have a fairly slow pace but keep going for long hours. In Scottish weather conditions I do not enjoy hanging around camp either in the morning or evening using only a lightweight tent. It therefore made sense to go solo with a daily average of 20 miles over a period of 12 hours or more. Mallaig had always seemed an attractive start point to me if only to sample a small part of Knoydart. The idea of linking Mam Meadail, The Corrieyairack Pass, The Larig Ghru, and Jock's Road, although tough, was too attractive to make any other route worth consideration.

I knew that weight carried would be the key to success or failure. My aim was to get my dry rucksack down to as near 30lbs as possible. I planned only one supplies pick-up in the form of a parcel to be sent ahead to the Post Office in Kingussie. A load of 30lbs is a very difficult target to achieve and changes had to be made. It would have been nice to have carried two cameras, one for black and white, and one for colour slides, but black had to be discarded in the interests of my back. I had planned to use the trusty Trangia cooker but by switching to the Globetrotter 2lbs was saved, though with the resulting inconvenience. Other items which I classified as desirable but unnessary, such as my gaiters, were discarded. Food was limited to the old fashioned Springlow dried meals, packets of soup, cheese, butter, bread rolls, and my favourite fruit cake. Enough food was carried to allow for one day's delay both before and after Kingussie. Spare clothing consisted only of one shirt and one set of thermal underwear, but a good supply of socks. Experience had taught me that the Saunders GC2 tent would suit me perfectly, combining space with lightness and the ability to stand very rough conditions. The backpacking sleeping bag, though on the heavy side, had served me well in the past. This left me with a dry load of 33lbs, a weight which was going to be exceeded as the sack and its straps became soaked with rain for much of the journey.

Friday May 6th turned out to be a very reasonable day, sunshine with scattered cloud as I passed through Knoydart, making walking a pleasure and underfoot conditions very good. I had planned an overnight stop at the head of Loch Nevis, but at 4pm decided to push on to Upper Glendessary, where I knew a good camp site existed.

Saturday turned out to be a very different day indeed. It was raining when I set off at 6.40am, and it rained pretty much of the day. I had looked forward to this part of the walk as I know Glen Kingie and I find it attractive. In spite of the weather I still found it a pleasant place to be and carried on quite happily to camp the night some two miles beyond Tomdoun beside Loch Garry.

Sunday saw me through Invergarry on the road to Fort Augustus and the uphill side of the Corrieyarick Pass. I camped high on the Corrieyarick Hill amongst the snow. It was a cold night but I was happy still to be in front of my route card. I had read of the wonderful views from the pass but visibility was so poor that while it was possible to see dull outlines of those views, it was too cloudy and misty to appreciate fully what this pass undoubtedly has to offer.

On Monday I completed the Corrieyarick down to Laggan Bridge and pushed on to Newtonmore in showery conditions. My intention had been to camp throughout the journey, but with wet feet causing me considerable problems, something I had never experienced before, I felt it wise to make a stop at the MacDonald Lodge Hotel. What a splendid evening that turned out to be. I was made very welcome and had a bath, a nice meal, and a few beers with my hosts at a very reasonable cost. I consider that this decision was one of the best I made as I was able to attend to my feet and this paid dividends in latter days.

Tuesday morning saw me in Kingussie collecting my parcel of supplies from the Post Office. This was a day when I again learnt the lesson not to trust OS sheets when on Forestry Commission land. I had intended to take the back road to Feshie Bridge and then cross Feshie Moor to Loch an Eilen. In spite of checking every junction on the Moor I ended back on the road. However I made camp that night beside the Cairngorm Club footbridge, a very pleasant site, although a little noisy by the river.

With the Larig Ghru ahead I made a very early start on Wednesday morning, moving off at 5.55am. This was another decision that paid off handsomely. A stiff climb up and beyond the Sinclair Hut before hail on a strong wind made life quite unpleasant. Had I started later I might well have sheltered in the hut, and with conditions as they were stayed there for the whole of the day. It was not to be however, and I plodded on through hail, snow, and rain to reach Inverey. I was lucky that night, when enquiring for a pitch, to find a private bothy, and for 50 pence I enjoyed a fire and room to move about in.

And so on Thursday I was on Jock's Road where I started this article. It was a dirty, wet day, with fairly extensive snow cover over the top, and visibility affected by cloud. This was the only time I found the compass necessary. I had broken my spectacles some days before and it was quite a problem trying to hold down the map in the wind, hold half of my glasses to one eye, and somehow set the compass. The course I set however brought me to that path with its rocky descent. This was my seventh day of walking and I was beginning to feel a little tired but determined now to keep ahead of my plan. That rocky descent seemed endless as I made my way to Glen Doll, and even the track through the forest was hard going, although I knew that at the end of the track was the road to Montrose. I made Clova that evening, tired and wet, and decided that this was another night when a hotel would be wise. I'm sure that a bath, some food, and a few more beers assisted me over the remaining two days.

And so to Friday the 13th, an ominous day for the superstitious, but not for me. The weather however tried its very best. It poured the whole way to Brechin, the rain getting heavier if anything as I neared the end of my last full day.

Just nine miles to go on Saturday morning and it was dry. The thought that today would be "a piece of cake" was soon dispelled as I realised just how tired I had become after eight days. My first sight of Montrose and the church spire was at 8.50am, but it was to be 11.15am before I signed the completion register at The Park Hotel.

Would I do it again? This question has been put to me time and again since I returned. I don't know the answer. I completed the toughest low level crossing that I thought I could manage within the time I could spare, and in the spirit which lay behind the challenge's original conception. Who knows? One day I may see an even more interesting route that takes my eye, and planning will start all over again.

There were times during the crossing when I thought "that Hamish Brown has a lot to answer for, it was him who thought up this form of self torture", but on reflection it was a walk I enjoyed overall, and which I have appreciated more since my return. Finally, I am sure, like many solo walkers, I was impressed when phoning control, with the sheer efficiency of Terry Smith. No matter when you called she always seemed to know where you should be, how far in front of schedule you were, and never failed to transmit the feeling that in spite of the number of participants, your personal welfare was of paramount importance.

Derek Emsley.
U.C.83. No. 169.

Click here to return to TGO page