The Ultimate Challenge 1983

From Morar to Montrose 7th to 19th May 1983

6th Fri. We left Euston on the night sleeper at 9pm bound for Mallaig. We saw a few obvious UC'ers and chatted to a young lad, Neal. I went to bed at about 10:30 and slept well until about 6am.

Sron a Choin, Loch Morar
Sron a Choin, Loch Morar              photo © Peter Goddard

7th Sat. When I got up I managed to get washed & dressed before Mic on account of his having a really hard night! Coffee & biscuits arrived at 7:30 courtesy of BR and at no extra charge which must be some kind of record. The train stopped at Glasgow to pick up a few more passengers including a school master going to Fort William. He was very well read but insisted on letting everyone know it. Arriving at Morar at 11:30 we retired to the hotel for lunch and to sign out. I should have chosen the salmon steak, like Mic, as it looked very good and reasonably priced too. We left the hotel at about 12:30 and Neal decided to come with us as his partner had developed stomach trouble and would be travelling up to join him in Fort William on Tuesday. He had not planned on doing our route but decided that discretion being the better part of valour he would tag along. Over the next three days we all discovered that he had made a wise decision. The road and footpath over the next twelve km was very good and we averaged 4 kph to reach Swordland by 3:30. It had started raining at 2pm and having proved that Technix works we decided to camp.

The brand new Ultimate Dome went up in about 5 minutes and, after a few minor re-pegs, set well. In future and with a bit more practice we should at least be able to get the fly up in about 2 minutes. We had a light evening meal and watched the cloud come down. The previous three Challenges had had good weather. This one could be a little wet!

Glen Pean Bothy
Glen Pean Bothy                       photo © Peter Goddard

8th Sun. We woke up at 6am and had breakfast in bed. We struck camp and were away by 7:40 in overcast conditions. After about 200 metres of scrambling the path improved and we made better progress. We lunched early at 10:45 while the weather held. It was very warm and the difficult ground made progress slower and slower the further up the loch we went. The cloud got lower and the visibility was no more than 100 metres. We crossed the river at the head of Loch Morar at 1pm. Mic tried to cross in his shorts but the river level was too high. I stripped off, which neither Mic nor Neal believed, and wandered across. It was a good thing I had a plastic liner inside my sack as the water came up to my chest strap although it was not very cold, not that I was in for very long.

Mic and Neal did not fancy this method so they went up stream to find a way across. This put them about 15 minutes behind me so I dried off and dressed and then began to climb the shoulder into the valley past Oban Bothy. On the approach to Glen Pean Bothy the weather finally broke and the last 2km were very hard as we still had over 20 kilos in the packs. On entering the bothy we found Keith Abell, a three time Challenger, in residence with a good fire going. So, after drying out and eating our meal, which Mic assured me was dehydrated liver although I suspected a deyhdrated shoe, we chatted with Keith about what else but backpacking.

Two Scottish lads came in during the evening. They had broken all the rules about walking in rough country, wearing plimsolls and without a piece of waterproof gear between them, but they had caught their own dinner, a nice plump trout, although this was at the expense of a lost rod which fell of a sack on the walk in. By 10pm the weather had cleared so the omens were fair for the morning.

Mic fording river
Mic fording river            photo © Peter Goddard

9th Mon. This was to be a very hard day. We had breakfast and waited for the rain to clear, Mic and I were beginning to wonder what we had taken on. At 8:45 the weather had moderated a little so we walked up Glen Pean through the new forestry planting. Over the next two hours we had sunshine, rain, hail, snow, wind and everything else you could care to name plus 500 metres of ascent before descending into Gleann Camgharidh. We lunched under Mic's fly and discovered that I had left the tent pegs in the bothy, or so it seemed; a great start to the day! A few Anglo Scottish expletives echoed around the hills.

After another stiff-ish climb over a saddle we came down to another river crossing, I stripped off again to find the water came just up to my knees, I felt a little foolish. Neal then managed to throw both his boots into the river one at a time but by then our feet were so wet it did not seem to matter too much. The last five kilometres dragged but we were rewarded by a good pitch between two branches of forestry low down in Gleann Suileag. On turning out my sack I found the errant pegs had slid down between the sack and the liner so with that discovery and a good meal inside us the day ended rather well.

10th Tues. We started the day late at 7:45 with two river crossings. Rather than follow the planned route we climbed a stile into the forestry which brought us to a road and from there we made good progress into Fort William only stopping at Corpach for a milk and biscuit break. It was a long, long drag along the main road, about 12 km, but it got to the Fort by 12:30 and we spent 65p each on a well earned shower in FW station. It was amazing that after the road bash that I did not have any blisters just a couple of hot spots. When I came out of the shower I found Mic ensconced in the station buffet so we indulged in a cooked lunch while we made our shopping list. As Mic had blisters I did the shopping and discovered the new Nevis Sport shop with its attached restaurant but they only had one item from the 5 required; the restaurant seemed to be doing better business than the shop!

We left the Fort, and Neal waiting for his partner, at 3:30 and headed up Glen Nevis, by this time it was raining again and very windy, we passed two Challengers in some woodland and they told us they were making for the bothy that night. At the time we did not know which bothy they were referring to, it turned out to be Meananach, much too far for us even if we had known where it was. As we had planned to stop about 5 km before this we were sceptical to say the least when we looked at the map that they would be able to make it that evening. By 6pm I was very cold and I was suffering from the on-set of hypothermia, we pitched camp around 156683 and Mic got me into my sleeping bag with a hot meal inside me, by 7:30 I felt so much better that I wanted to carry on. I would only have lasted a few minutes and Mic knew this so we stayed where we were but after a 27k day I think I had a right to be tired.

Meananach Bothy
Meananach Bothy              photo © Peter Goddard

11th Wed. We broke camp at 7:20and had a short sharp climb up into the Nevis Gorge with fine views until the rain arrived. This was to be the story of the day as we put on and removed our waterproofs at least a dozen times that morning. We made the bothy for lunch at 12 and about 1:30 saw the two Challengers from the previous evening (David and Di Johnson). They arrived on the south bank of the river and told us they had realised that they would not make the bothy that night and had camped only a few hundred yards from us.

From 1:30 until about 4 we walked in alternating sunshine and showers but from then on the rain settled in and we gradually became saturated through to the skin, the only time on the trip. By 5:30 we arrived at Loch Ossian YH only to find it full of children from Loch Rannoch School so no dry bed for us. Their hospitality was good though; we dried out by the range while the kids made us tea and Scottish pancakes. All told nineteen Challengers arrived that evening looking for shelter, all to no avail, and some of them had been banking on a bed for the night. We were told by the school teacher that the warden had the previous day been turning Challengers away not even allowing them to camp! After a democratic vote Mic & I pitched the tent before the warden got back from the Fort and by the time he arrived there were too many tents for him to move us all on although tempers did get a little frayed. We were in bed by 10 looking forward to what the morning would bring.

Loch Ossian Youth Hostel
Loch Ossian YH              photo © Peter Goddard

12th Thur. Lay in and then breakfast in the YH and we collected our dry socks. We chatted to the teachers and a calmer warden. I bought a post card and wrote it to Avril, it would be collected the following day by the postman. We left by 10:30 as the weather looked like clearing. We made a gentle pull around the hill side and stopped for a few minutes at a memorial stone there we met two sets of cadets or Navy lads all in bright orange. The rain started again, each time it started we stopped and vice versa - we were in no hurry as we had decided on an easy day. We walked about 10km and stopped by an old boat house at Lochan Sron Smeur. Heavy rains blew through for a few minutes as we were about to leave then we walked along the loch side and at the eastern end we found a perfect camp site, flat soft and right on the beach.

Mic's feet were playing up and he had some nasty blisters. At 5:15 a game keeper arrived on an Argocat, he had been trying to trap foxes but he only got a cub the vixen getting away. He nicely says that we are trespassing but can stay just for the one night, we were going to be away early anyway. We had a nice meal and were in bed by 7:30.

Our tent by E end of Lochan Sron Smeur
Camp by Lochan Sron Smeur              photo © Peter Goddard

13th Friday. This was to be a good day despite it being 13th. We started by waking up at 4:30 which allowed us to be packed and away by 6:30. We contoured around below a small plantation and followed the river to Loch Ericht and on to the dam for a tea break. We then followed the track and then a footpath to Ruighe Ghlas (a ruin), we contoured round below Sron Bheag, from there on there were no paths; this is really rough and remote country. We were trying to walk due east but with so much wet peat bog this was quite difficult. We lunched below Sgurran Dearg while waiting for the rain to abate after what had been a fairly dry morning. There was more, tough walking in the afternoon We crossed a track at 618635 and bypassed Creag a'Mhadaidh by keeping to the 400 metre contour. From here we dropped into the Glen of the Allt Ruighe nan Saorach to Saunich, a ruined croft which would make a wonderful bothy. We pitched here for the night after disturbing about 50 head of deer.

After pitching the tent we brewed up and made dinner which we ate after knocking the Billie over and managing to retrieve most of it; I am still not sure how the little brown berries got into the stew! I plucked up courage to wash (my feet) but not my more delicate parts as the water was so cold. We are not going to bother walking to the pub this evening, 10 miles each way for a pint is a bit excessive! On the way here we passed right through Craiganour Forest without seeing a single tree although we could see Rannoch Forest in the distance across the loch. And so to bed, for an early start in the morning.

Loch Errochty
Descending to Loch Errochty by Allt Ruighe nan Saorach
photo © Peter Goddard

14th Sat. We rise at 4:30 and are on our way by 6:10. My socks have almost dried during the night, hung in the shelter of the old ruin and they soon warm up on my feet as we get walking. We walk gently down the glen to a foot bridge where we cross the burn; this is a beautiful glen possibly the best yet. We pass a bothy (Ruighe nan Saorach) and at the next burn take shelter in an old army radio trailer used as a shepherds hut as, guess what, it's raining again. We then walk through the woods to Loch Errochty Dam, down the hydro road to Trinafour and along the minor road to Old Struan. One bridge and two hours later our track turns into an unfinished by-pass for Blair Atholl, this makes for easy walking but the litter and mechanisation of road building is not a pretty sight still it does put us right at BA's back door. After buying supplies we book in at the camp site, phone home and treat ourselves to coffee & cake. After a shower we had a look around the local shops. On returning to the camp site we introduced ourselves to the occupant of the other dome on the site, the guy was another Challenger - he had been to Pitlochry to find a chemist with a good supply of items to repair his feet. We treated ourselves to a meal in the hotel and then joined in with the folk singing; it was after all Saturday night. It was a late night for us, bed at 11pm.

15th Sun. We had a late start this morning, 8:15, due to our late night. We left BA on a private road past Lude House then onto the hillside. We cut a fast pace as far as Shinagag on a good road cum track, half a k beyond Shinagag the track stopped so did we - for lunch in between the showers. We had been aiming to get to Daldu but thought that if we felt OK when we got there that we may go on a bit further and make up some of our lost mileage. At 2:15 we arrived at Glen Loch bothy, a 10' X 8' wooden shed (now dismantled)! Having been rained on for some time we stopped for a brew and to dry out a bit while waiting for the rain to stop. We waited until 4pm then walked on to Daldu but no further today as we had lost so much time waiting for the rain to stop. When we went to the house to ask permission to camp the shepherd invited us in for tea & biscuits and this lead to an interesting conversation about the overpopulation of deer in the Highlands.

Peter and Mic having a break
A break and a sit down                photo © Peter Goddard

16th Mon. We were up at 4:45 and away by 6, we were getting slicker by the day. It was a hard pull up the hillside to the saddle where we had a discussion about which direction to go, Mic was right as usual. There were plenty of deer and hare around as we dropped down a steep hillside to Glenlochsie Lodge. The lodge is a ruin but the old railway track bed is still visible and made for good walking. We stopped for coffee after the coldest stream crossing yet on the way to Dalmunzie House. Mic was very tired of climbing so we decided to go low level while sitting over a cup of coffee in a craft shop at the Spittal of Glenshee. We crossed the river, on a bridge this time, and had lunch at 12:30 while overlooking Glen Shee. A shepherd gave us direction by which we could parallel the main road while not actually touching it. These directions should take us to Glen Isla and by this time Mic had made up his mind that he wanted to stay low so we agreed to stick to roads and track from here to the end. We walked past Dalnaglar Castle to meet the B951 but the only camp site we could find was a poor one beside the road. We ate well and were in bed by 6:40, camped as we were by the side of the road we must have got some curious stares from passing motorists but we were too tired to care.

17th Tues. Little did we know that this was going to be one of our toughest days of the whole trip! After another early start we stayed on the B951 to pass through Brewlands Bridge where I posted Avril's card. By 8am we had reached Kirkton of Glen Isla and were about to walk off our map. I now know what Christopher Columbus must have felt like at the edge of the world, hope we don't meet dragons. Luckily we do meet a Youth Hostel Warden with an old 1" OS map, Mic had a quick look and off we went, into the unknown. After 5 miles, pardon me 8km, we turn left after another brief "discussion". Up until lunch we had done 21km, all on the road. We spent our lunch time sitting by a river bank overlooking Balintore Castle, a passing shepherd gives us directions towards Brechin via the back roads. I am KNACKERED, my feet have had enough, Mic recons that we have done between 16 & 20km since lunch and almost all of it on roads. On top of all this when we asked a farmer if we could camp by the river he says no - one perfect site gone.

Balintore Castle
Balintore Castle            photo © Peter Goddard

Finally a few k's further, while answering a call of nature, I find a sheltered pitch and we decide to take a chance even though it's a bit close to civilisation. For dinner we have soup and the Master Chef produces Turkey Marengo. It has been a very hard day on our feet, at least 40km and all on the road but it has been interesting. We had seen pheasant, rabbits by the thousand, red squirrel and a stoat, all within ten minutes. The best thing about the day was that it knocked off some kms so now we only have about 20km to Brechin and a final 12kn to Montrose from there. We are looking forward to the tea & bickkies at the Park Hotel.

18th Wed. Oh hell my feet ache again! We knocked off the 20km to Brechin in 4 hours after a late, 7:20, start, not bad going. We found a nice cafe in the town and ordered a large fry-up with plenty of coffee before booking in at the Northern Hotel. The receptionist told us of a Challenger who the previous day had appeared at reception on his knees, so we don't appear to doing too badly. After a rest and a bath we go for a walk around the town!

19th Thur. We had a good breakfast at the Northern after what had been an excellent meal the previous evening. We left the hotel at 8:30 and arrived at the Park Hotel at 11:30, a nice average of 4kph on the main road. We got a very nice welcome for Challenge Control but instead of being relieved at finishing I wanted to turn around and do it all again...either I'm daft or it's addictive.

P.S. This account was written in 2006 transcribed from notes taken during the '83 walk. The Ultimate Challenge of 1983 had 36 retirements, so far the (equal) highest number of retirees in the 27 year history of the event! At the time neither Mic (better known now as Quincy) nor I had ever back packed in Scotland for more than a few days and to say our knowledge of the Highlands was rudimentary would be an understatement. We carried everything we needed for 14 days including food which we supplemented by eating in hotels and cafes when we had the chance.

© Peter Goddard 2006

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