Recollections of Challenge '96

"Sweet is pleasure after pain" (Dryden)

With Derek on Mam Meadail
With Derek on Mam Meadail                           photo © Derek & Marian Emsley

Having walked many miles with Derek in various parts of upland Britain and backpacked the length of the Outer Hebrides and through the Cairngorms, I was unable to think of a good reason why I should not join him for the first time on his eleventh crossing now that I was freed from the shackles of work as a teacher. (I had heard rumours that Hamish Brown, the founder of the Challenge, didn't care much for the teaching profession and that was why the event was always held in term-time). No doubt such allegations are totally without foundation and when my entry was accepted and planning became really serious, I turned to Hamish's 'Scotland Coast to Coast' for advice and information.

In his introduction, Hamish says: "Walking across Scotland is... ..., simply fun"... ..."it is never easy; but it is fun" and "It should be enjoyable at the time as well as in retrospect!" There were times when I hotly denied the truth of the first assertion and times when I could almost be persuaded to agree with the second, but now I am at home, having given many verbal accounts and shown photographs to family and friends, I am gradually coming round to the opinion that in retrospect it was more enjoyable than otherwise.

We walked from Mallaig to St. Cyrus, not the toughest of routes but by no means the easiest. Many times along the way, as I met old friends and new I was greeted with the same question, in what seemed exaggeratedly bright and cheerful tones: "Are you enjoying it?" Sometimes I found it difficult to give a polite reply as often I was not "able to feel or perceive pleasure", this being the definition of 'to enjoy' in my Chambers dictionary. In fact, I was feeling quite the opposite: excruciating pain in my knees as I struggled down the boulder-field known as the zig-zags of the Corrieyairack Pass, numbing fear in my heart as I tried to summon up enough courage to step to the next stone across a swirling river, or grim determination as I noted in my log that I would not give up when there were only three and a half days to go before the finish.

At Kinbreak Bothy
At Kinbreak Bothy                             photo © Derek & Marian Emsley

But of course there were many more good moments and now that I recall them I marvel again at the power of the human spirit to block out past pain and hold onto the memory of past pleasure.

The walk through Knoydart was everything and more that I had heard and read about; its wild beauty was enthralling. Spring had still seemed far away in the south of England but in Knoydart I heard the first of many cuckoos and saw banks massed with primroses, celandines, violets, anemones and wood sorrel. The early path led us past wych elm with golden flowers and birches in soft, new, green leaf. There were ever changing views of Loch Nevis, shimmering blue in the sun, and the distant peaks of Rhum. I will not forget that day in a hurry. In fact, whenever we were walking close to flowers, trees and birds there was pleasure for me. I remember how we sat fascinated, having a bag rest near Edzell, watching busy tree-creepers at work in a couple of oak-trees. My log records that we saw buzzard, heron and curlew, heard woodpeckers and put up grouse. Though we were forewarned about the ubiquitous cuckoo, it was the oyster catcher which seemed to be everywhere, always excited and anxious and telling everyone about it.

On the Corrieyairack Pass
On the Corrieyairack Pass                             photo © Derek & Marian Emsley

We obviously had some wonderful wild camp sites, the most enjoyable beside the burn above Culachy House, at the beginning of the Corrieyairack. I had arrived exhausted at the end of a long day and could barely summon the energy to cook our usual pasta. I was ready to enjoy the peace of our solitary pitch but my tiredness was soon forgotten when our evening was enlivened by the appearance of a young shepherd, a native of South Uist, who blethered happily with us while his dogs worked his flock of ewes and lambs up the first zig-zags of Wade's road. Look out for Neil MacAskill in the next series of "One Man and his Dog".

We slept a couple of nights in bothies, both very convivial. The first was Kinbreack in Glen Kingie, reached after what seemed eternity but was probably less than half an hour, spent trying to find a virtually non-existent path. Our new Polish friend, Maciej, came out to meet us and carried my bag for the last kilometre. I hope that was not against the rules! I finally made it up the stairs to be greeted with a welcome Polish dram in my tea. Later we were invited to sample John Donohoe's best malt.

Whisky was a great reviver when I was feeling low though I must say that I was not exactly in dire need when Mike Daniels offered me a dram at 9.30 in the morning at Linn of Dee! I still accepted it.

Ruigh-Aiteachain bothy in snow
Ruigh-Aiteachain bothy
photo © Derek & Marian Emsley

The other bothy was Ruigh-Aiteachain in Glen Feshie. After an interesting day with lain Mac Mhothain including discussions of a political and historical nature and some delightful picnic spots, we stopped at the bothy for a brew and debated whether to stay there or camp further up the glen. Our minds were made up when lain said he was going to light the fire. Maciej gathered buckets of pine cones which blazed away merrily and I settled down in a proper fireside chair to write my log. My evening's enjoyment was complete with the arrival of Colin Crawford who had bought 'The Guardian' in Kingussie and I had my first fix of newsprint for a week. And my favourite paper, too! It was just as well we'd not camped as we awoke to a white world. It was comparatively easy to treat feet and get into layers of clothing in the shelter of the bothy and not have to struggle in the confines of the tent.

Everyone had to endure the same weather. At the beginning of the Challenge it was generally bright though a strong north-easterly blew almost continually. By the middle weekend, when we joined many aficionados on the Braemar campsite and in the Fife Arms, there had been a distinct deterioration and our intended route to Tarfside over Jock's Road and down Glen Clova had to be abandoned. Change of plan meant diverting to Ballater, then following the Mounth Road to Glen Esk. We were therefore deprived of our 'rest' day in Braemar and spent a good part of Sunday on a wet route march. While we were plodding along the South Deeside road, Arthur Stevens, on his year off, stopped and asked if we'd like a dram. There are no prizes for guessing my reply and half a mug of Grant's Standfast worked wonders for a few miles.

 Relaxing inside Ruigh-Aiteachain bothy
Relaxing at Ruigh-Aiteachain bothy
photo © Derek & Marian Emsley

If the 17 mile slog from Braemar to Ballater in steady, unrelenting rain was the worst day in the fortnight, the pain was more than adequately compensated for by the splendid hospitality of the Bank House in Ballater and the evening at the nearby 4 Highlander Restaurant. We both enjoyed an aperitif, a superb meal with wine and a malt with our coffee.

It was probably the therapeutic effect of that evening and the next very short day to camp in Glen Tanar, giving me plenty of time to rest, that set me in good stead for the following day's climb over the shoulder of Mount Keen, the closest I got to a Munro on the walk. I had tried not to gaze too long at the uphill track from down by the tent but it proved far easier than I had anticipated and we made good going. It was quite exciting to walk on the edge of great expanses of snow, in poor visibility, with just a few mountain plants amongst the rocks, another world compared with the green grass we had left some 2000 feet below.

I now have the symbols of success awarded to all Challengers: the badge, the shirt in my favourite shade of blue and the certificate, now hanging beside Derek's many records of past achievement on the wall of our stairs. My sole trophy means as much to me as his eleven do to Derek and I can add to my self-satisfaction the knowledge that I raised well over £200 for Oxfam from my friends and family, most of whom thought I was completely mad to have even considered taking part in the Challenge in the first place.

 Marian in Glen Feshie
Walking through Glen Feshie                 photo © Derek & Marian Emsley

When I came home I suffered even greater tiredness than I had on the walk and never having experienced such lack of energy consulted my GP who mildly admonished me for undertaking an activity he considered more appropriate to someone half my age. I didn't tell him that the average Challenger is forty-something and several octogenarians have recorded success. I might have added another quote from Hamish's book: "The sane and rational stay at home". It is unlikely that I shall do the Challenge again but I will look forward to more walks in magnificent Scottish scenery, remembering that for two weeks I joined the ranks of the mad and adventurous and do not regret the experience.

In those two weeks I often found myself trying to understand the lure of the Challenge year after year. It seems that for many people it is the fellowship that is so important. It literally stretches across the world. We first met Maciej, a Pole, in New Zealand. Derek was wearing a Challenge T-shirt and Maciej asked about the event. We managed to remember most of TGO's address and the rest, as they say, is history. Maciej and Anna were great companions and we hope that we will meet them again. An Australian friend may be enquiring about Challenge '97 so another nationality may be added to the list of the hundreds of people now linked by an event which is bigger than the sum of its human participants.

With Iain Matheson at Inverey
With Iain Matheson at Inverey                             photo © Derek & Marian Emsley
Up Mt Keen from Glen Tanar
Up Mt Keen from Glen Tanar
photo © Derek & Marian Emsley
Marian on Mt Keen
Top of the World - Mt Keen                           photo © Derek & Marian Emsley
Finishing at St Cyrus
Finishing at St Cyrus                                     photo © Derek & Marian Emsley

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