A quarter century ago I studied in Edinburgh – Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence. To compensate for the nerd inside I joined the Edinburgh University Orienteering Club and participated in a lot of orienteering events all across Scotland. I still hold fond memories of that time. Last year I read a trip report about the TGO Challenge – an annual event with roughly 300 participants who cross Scotland on foot from the Atlantic to the North Sea. Wow, that sounded like a lot of fun, so I sent out an application and started right away thinking about a route. While I waited for the confirmation that I would be accepted into the challenge, I drew up a route across the Scottish Highlands that avoided asphalt roads almost altogether. My route was almost 240 miles long and would ascend and descend around 45,000 ft with endless miles through boggy moors, many creek crossing and over a dozen Munro ascents. Munro is a class of peaks that are over 3,000 ft high. That might not sound a lot for people who hike here in California in the High Sierra, but going from sea level to 3,000 ft in Scotland is about the same as a Sierra climb between 9,000 to 12,000 ft.
When I got accepted into the Challenge, I was assigned to a vetter and had to submit my route to him for approval by a certain deadline. My vetter, a well-known hiker in Great Britain, goes by the trail name “Mr. Grumpy”. He declined my initial route, was very skeptical of my choices and warned me that a first timer in Scotland should stay mostly in the Glens (valleys), avoid the river crossings (especially with the late snow melt this year) and not climb all the Munros (especially with all the remaining snow). I sent him the link to my trip report about the Sierra High Route to give him a better understanding of my skill level and we began an email exchange which resulted in several revisions of my route that all made a lot of sense and improved it. Despite his name it was a pleasure to work with him and I benefitted from his vast knowledge of the Scottish Highlands.
In Scotland I purposefully pushed several limits and tested gear in adverse conditions. Scotland gave me the opportunity to be in really bad weather with the chance to walk out of situations back into civilization if necessary. To me these adverse weather conditions were part of my challenge and I embraced them to prepare for other adventures where I’m far away from civilization and have to rely on my gear and my skills. I add this here so you can put the following trip report into the proper context. Other challengers who walked through the Glens (instead of hiking up into the clouds and high winds), who walked on trails (instead of crossing boggy high moors), who didn’t climb up mountains through the snow in driving rain, who stayed in bothies (safety huts) or even B&Bs along the way instead of under a tarp, had a vastly different experience on the TGO Challenge.
Day 1 – Torridon to River Carron (Distance: 15.7 miles, Ascent: 4,248 ft, Descent: 4,176 ft)
The last three days I traveled from San Francisco in California to Torridon on the west coast of Scotland. On the train from Inverness – sitting in my reserved seat - I have conversation with my seat neighbor who also has a reservation. Like me he is participating in the challenge and also starting from Torridon. When I introduce myself it turns out that I’m sitting next to my vetter, Mr. Grumpy. What a surprise! We have a very interesting discussion during the train ride and he gives me some final advice for my challenge.
The morning greets me with wonderful sunny weather. Everything looks picture perfect and I start the adventure with a big smile in my face. I purposefully started right away with an off-trail segment although there was the option of hiking along a trail. I wanted to get right from the beginning a feeling for my average speed when going through tussocky wet ground with several creek crossings. One of the first things I learn is to tie my shoes tighter. The ground often wants to keep my shoe.
Picture 1: Little gorge along Abhainn Thrail
Picture 2: Lochan Neimhe with Beinn Eighe and Sgurr Dhubh
Besides that it is easy going and I advance at my usual cross-country speed. By lunch time the sun is gone and the sky is overcast. By the time I start to climb my first Munro it rains for the rest of the day. When coming up to the saddle between two Munros I decide to climb Beinn Liath Mhor instead of Sgorr Ruadh as I had originally planned. With the rain and slippery ground the more gradual ascent to Beinn Liath Mhor seemed safer and I was still in “getting used to the terrain” mode.
Picture 3: Beinn Liath Mhor on left and Sgorr Ruadh on right
Up there on my first Munro I met John Muir. You can imagine my face when he introduced himself with that name. It turns out he came from the same village in Scotland as John Muir’s dad. He had visited California and met the Muir descendants here in Napa Valley. After we parted ways I continued my hike to the River Carron where I found a nice pitch along the river. Finding a tent pitch in Scotland is often a major undertaking. The ground is mostly one or more of: tussocky, boggy, wet, heather, uneven, rocky, steep. But here I had a picture perfect grassy even spot next to water. The only question was – How much would the river rise over night if it continues to rain? The pitch was roughly 5 ft above the river and looking at debris along the banks it looked like it had not risen that high in quite some time. So I pitched my SMD Cuben Haven and cooked dinner under the tarp in the rain. By the next morning the water had gone up by a little over two feet and I cooked breakfast under the tarp in the rain before getting back into my wet socks and wet trail runners.
Day 2 – River Carron to Loch Monar (Distance: 20.9 miles, Ascent: 6,355 ft, Descent: 6,053 ft)
Now that I had a better feeling for the terrain I was ready for a slightly more serious day. Like every morning I would ask my wife at home via my Delorme inReach to send me the local weather report for the stretch ahead. Here is what she sent.
Very poor visibility rain/snow feels like -7 degrees wind gusts up to 39mph
Knowing every day the weather conditions I had to expect was very important to me. It prepared me mentally for what was ahead and allowed me to look into alternatives when necessary.
The forecast sounded like a lot of type 2 fun – it would be fun to talk about it afterwards, but not while doing it.
When walking up to a pass named Bealach Bhearnais I came across the Scottish version of a bridge. These two wires didn’t look inviting to me and I rather waded through the creek than using that bridge.
Picture 4:“Bridge” with sign saying “You use this bridge at your own risk” across Allt a Chonais
From the pass I started my ascent of the three peaks I wanted to do that day – Sgurr Choinnich, Sgurr a Chaorachain and Bidean An Eoin Deirg.
Picture 5: Ridge along Sgurr a Chaorachain
It seemed to be relatively straight forward ridge walking until I came to the spot where I needed to move from the ridge with the first peak to the connected ridge with the second peak. The first ridge ran west-east, had a big overhanging snow cornice on the north side and was basically snow free on the south side. When I came to the spot where I thought I needed to cross over to the other ridge, I had no visibility and could only see the snow cornice that I needed to cross to get to the other ridge. I spent almost half an hour triangulating, pacing back and forth to make sure I stepped in the right location on the cornice. I was very relieved when I reached the top of the snow and could see the beginning of the other ridge in the fog. I would encounter a similar situation after the third peak when trying to get on the ridge that would lead me down to the lake – Loch Monar. Again I took my time before stepping on the snow – I didn’t want to take the fast elevator down. At the second peak I cooked lunch inside a cairn that gave me cover from the howling cold wind. Once I was down at Loch Monar the sun came out and I took a two hour nap warming up under my tarp before I continued for a couple more miles. On that last stretch I met two Mountain Goats, before I put up my tarp up.
Picture 6: Mountain Goats near Loch Monar
The wind kept blowing all night long pretty hard, but the SMD Haven handled it well as I had pitched it into the wind.
Day 3 – Loch Monar to Loch Mullardoch (Distance: 12.8 miles, Ascent: 4,882 ft, Descent: 4,865 ft)
The weather forecast I received this morning didn’t look good either. It said
Bad news Heavy snow/Sleet
Nevertheless I got ready to go up on Rubha na Spreidhe, Sgurr na Lapaich and Carn nan Gobhar. The visibility was very poor and on top of Sgurr na Lapaich I could only see white – white ground, white sky.
Picture 7: Fog coming from Rubha na Spreidhe to Sgurr na Lapaich. Shortly hereafter I couldn’t see anything
It made it hard to find the right ridge off the mountain. I took my time to find it and first took the ridge towards another Munro (Sgurr nan Clachan Geala) before turning around and finding the correct spot to drop down the mountain. Once I was sure of my direction I glissaded carefully down which was fun. Once I was out of the snow I walked down the hillside to Loch Mullardoch and was once again surprised to experience how much water a steep hillside can hold. Every step I would sink into the ground and every step the ground wanted to keep my shoe. The wet steep ground made it also a very slippery affair with a couple of slips. The wind was relentless and I looked for a while to find a pitch in a little forest along the lake. All night long I heard the wind howling and by 4:30 am it started to hail on my tent.
Day 4 – Loch Mullardoch to Loch na Beinne Baine (Distance: 21.1 miles, Ascent: 3,210 ft, Descent: 2,397 ft)
By 5:30 am the hail had turned into snow. It was snowing at lake level, the hills that were snow free yesterday were dusted in snow and the mountains that showed yesterday the typical patterns of snow on one side and no snow on the other were completely covered in snow. The weather report I received from my wife said
78 mph wind gusts with heavy snow & Very poor visibility feels like -14 degrees C. Any chance you can take a day off? Worse day!
So it was time for my FWA. The organizers of the TGO Challenge require that participants provide for every day a FWA (foul weather alternative) that stays below 500 m, because the weather above can be quite ugly. The last two days I had already dealt with low visibility, high winds, rain, hail and snow in the mountains. Both days were most likely days for using my FWA, but I wanted to test my gear and skills. Looking at the wind speeds and all the snow I didn’t want to risk it. The wind would just blow me off the ridge. So I decided to skip Carn Eige (and the other Munros I had planned for the next two days) and walked a very relaxed 9 miles along the road to Cannich while it was snowing on me most of the way. Once down in the valley the sun was shining. It was amazing to see the difference in micro climates within a couple of miles in different valleys. At 9 am I went into a café in Cannich where a couple of other challengers were having breakfast. They were surprised to hear that I already hiked 9 miles in the morning to get there and that it was snowing up at Loch Mullardoch. They all left to walk to Drummnadrochit to get the ferry across Loch Ness. Several tried to convince me to come along, but I wanted to walk all the way across Scotland and not even use a ferry. I stayed for several hours in the café and dried all my clothes while my solar charger was re-charging batteries. In California it is easy to keep all my electronic gadgets (GPS, satellite tracker, Steripen) going, but over here in Scotland it was more of a challenge. So I waited in the sun until I had two pairs of AA batteries fully re-charged. It was a very relaxing morning and in the afternoon I got going towards Tamich and up into the hills. There is a high-voltage power line that runs across the hills to Ft. Augustus. The well-built trail made for good progress, but once I reached a certain altitude I was back in the chilling high wind and rain. Both together made it hard to walk. I was so glad for my ZPacks rain gear (jacket, pants, mitts) which kept me warm and relatively dry. Walking in these conditions without rain mitts would have been close to impossible or at least extremely miserable. Even with the gear it was cold enough. By the time I almost reached the top of the first ridge between Tamich and Ft. Augustus, I was worn out by the cold high wind. I looked for a break from the wind and found an old window-less building that was most likely left behind when the power line was constructed. I started to cook a warm dinner in the wind shadow of the building and out of curiosity tried the heavy rusted metal door. It opened and to my surprise there was a room with 5 bunk beds. 4 were broken down, but I needed only one. My decision was made, I would stop right here. I moved in immediately and although it was completely dark in there, it was also completely wind free which was very welcome on that day.
Picture 8: Looking back to the mountains I planned to be on that day
Day 5 –Loch na Beinne Baine to Glen Doe (Distance: 17.2 miles, Ascent: 2,817 ft, Descent: 3,871 ft)
In the morning it was snowing and everything around me was white. Hhmm, was this becoming a pattern? I got out of my bunker and hiked down into Glen Morriston where I had a little break at the river before hiking up the next ridge over to Ft. Augustus. This was a lovely hike through a little forest along the “Old Drove Road”. I almost had to laugh when I saw the sign at the beginning of the road.
Picture 9: Beginning of the Old Drove Road in Glen Moriston
Given what I had experienced the last couple of days out in the highlands, this seemed like a “Walk in the Park”. It was fun and relaxing to follow the trail into Ft. Augustus. The sign must have been written by lawyers. In Ft. Augustus I had an extended lunch, looked for Nessie and watched boats getting lifted from lock to lock in the Caledonian Canal on their way from Loch Ness to Loch Lochy. At the end of the afternoon I decided to camp a little distance outside of Ft. Augustus and hiked into Glen Doe for the night.
Day 6 – Glen Doe to Ruthven (Distance: 33.1 miles, Ascent: 5,861 ft, Descent: 6,150 ft)
Sunrise in Scotland is very early and almost every morning I was woken up by birds at 4 am. Sunset is late around 9:30 pm and there is enough light to hike at least until 10:30 pm. Today I started walking at 6:30 am after an extended breakfast and still reached my planned destination at the Chalybeate Spring 12 miles away by 10:30 am. Originally I wanted to camp there before climbing up into the mountains. I took a look at all the snow up in the mountains, thought about the high wind and the rain and made the decision to keep going. I knew I would have to get over the mountains and that it would be another 20 miles to Kingussie where I would re-supply. I made the decision to keep going and combine two planned days into one. Hiking up into the weather and walking along the ridge over the tops of Carn na Criche, Cairn Even, Carn Odhar na Criche, Carn Deag, Carn Ban, Carn Ballach, Meall a Bhothain, Carn Sgulain put my gear, my skills, my physical and mental stamina to another test.
Picture 10: Can you see the rabbit in the snow?
It rained, hailed and snowed on me, while the wind was often blowing everything horizontally into my eyes. The visibility was very poor and navigation between all the hills could potentially have become confusing, if it would not have been for all the rusted posts that marked an old boundary right along the ridge line. The wind was so cold that I had no desire to stop anywhere for breaks. I would just keep going at a steady pace to stay warm. I reached Kingussie in time to buy re-supplies at a local grocer and then went into a restaurant for a dinner and warmed up. At 8 pm I decided to walk a short distance outside of Kingussie for camp. I went to an old ruin at Ruthven where I pitched my tarp in its wind shadow.
Day 7 – Ruthven to White Bridge (Distance: 24.1 miles, Ascent: 5,684 ft, Descent: 5,266 ft)
Today I would go into the Cairngorm Mountains. Knowing about the high snow year and late snow melt in Scotland I had planned for the lower southern mountains and didn’t plan to climb the highest peak (1,309 m) but stay in the 1,150 m range. This day was a glorious day.
Picture 11: Woods of Glentromie
I got good visibility and enjoyed all the incredible views. Going over Carn Ban Mor and Monadh Mor I reached Beinn Bhrothain from where I enjoyed for the first time the incredible view mountains can offer.
Picture 12: View when walking up to the top of Beinn Bhrothain
I spent some time there soaking it all in before I descended to the River Dee. There I met a whole bunch of challengers. Most had come through the Glen Feshie and some came via Lairig Ghru to camp at White Bridge. All in all there were 8 tents and I got my first taste of the other side of the TGO Challenge. I had been alone in the mountains for the last week and barely saw anyone. Many challengers enjoy the social aspect and camp together every night – quite often at a bothy or they stay in a lodge or a B&B. I enjoyed the conversations.
Day 8 – White Bridge to Braemar (Distance: 13.3 miles, Ascent: 953 ft, Descent: 991 ft)
In the morning the tents were all white with frost. The night temperatures had dipped to 27F. I was warm and cozy in my WM UltraLight under my SMD Haven. I left before the other hikers and met someone down the trail who just broke camp. We hiked together to Mar Lodge. He kept going while I got a tour of the lodge. The lady who gave the tour told me that they expected that evening around 30 challengers who would stay there and have a dinner of fresh venison that the game stalker had just shot for her.
Picture 13: Ball room at Mar Lodge. Guess how many antlers you are seeing …
After the tour I continued to Braemar and decided to pitch my tent in the campground so I could get a shower and wash all my clothes. Afterwards I walked to the castle and had dinner with a couple of other challengers.
Picture 14: Lambing season started late this year
It was fun to listen to their stories. Five of them belonged to the same family – grandpa and grandma (85 and 81) were on their 21st Challenge. Their daughter (59) and her husband and their granddaughter (32) were going with the grandparents. It was very inspiring on many levels.
1) I hope I can still hike over 200 miles when I’m 85
2) I hope my wife still wants to come along with me on my 21st JMT or whatever trail I’m hiking.
3) I hope some of my children still want to go hiking with me when I’m that old (I’m afraid I’m already now an old grumpy man and don’t know how I will be by then)
4) I hope my grandchildren (once I get some) will have an interest in hiking and will want to go on long hikes with me.
Day 9 – Braemar to Loch Muick (Distance: 15.9 miles, Ascent: 3,793 ft, Descent: 3,610 ft)
By now I was two days ahead of my schedule and tempted to stay with all the other challengers in Braemar for the reception that was planned that evening. Challengers who were already there planned to stay another night and many others would come that day. Moreover the weather forecast predicted torrential rains and no visibility on top of Lochnagar where I wanted to go. When I got up in the morning it wasn’t yet raining and I decided to go. By 11 am I had climbed out of the forest into the open and it started to rain. As always that was coupled with a punishing heavy wind. When going up a snowfield to Carn a Choire Bhoidheach in very low visibility I couldn’t even find the cairn on top at first. I had to search a while before I found it. I continued up the mountain towards Cac Carn Mor and Cac Carn Beag against the heavy wind and rain. The wind was so bad and I had very poor visibility while walking towards a cliff that I decided 60 meters below the peak to contour around the mountain to get out of the wind.
Picture 15: All I could see most of the time
Once I did that, things got better. The wind and rain were hitting me only from the side/back and once I made it across some more snow I reached a well graded trail that led me all the way down to Loch Muick.
Picture 16: Once I’m below the clouds I can see Loch Muick
Right there at the Lake is the Royal Bothy (the royal family owns all the land around there and they have a pretty comfortable bothy at the lake). In the back is another small building that has a bothy that is available to the public. When I opened the door I was greeted by three locals who had a roaring fire going. Wow, that was a nice surprise. I got out of my wet clothes, hung them above the fireplace and cooked my dinner. They were there officially to maintain the stove (thus they were allowed by the rangers to drive up in a car) and they had brought coal for the stove. They also had brought a wide variety of beers, Scottish malts, sausages and bacon to have a “nice weekend away from the wifey” as they called it. It was fun talking with them for the rest of the evening. Their Scottish accent coupled with their constant intake of alcohol made it harder and harder for me to follow their stories the more the evening progressed. By 11 pm I decided to crawl into my sleeping bag in the loft upstairs while they kept talking downstairs at the fire. One other challenger joined us late in the evening. He too had gone over Lochnagar. The amount of gear he was carrying was unbelievable. His pack must have been three times my pack. He was with the British Army and used mostly army issued gear. He did the challenge on official assignment and got paid for it. Talking to him was also very interesting, but after a while the other three people in the bothy didn’t want to hear any more about politics and wars, so we changed topics.
Day 10 - Loch Muick to Tarfside (Distance: 18.6 miles, Ascent: 2,317 ft, Descent: 2,881 ft)
This day was very relaxed. First I went through the high moor toward the Shielin of Mark bothy. It is in the middle of nowhere without any trails and can be hard enough to find without the added challenge of low visibility. Look at the photo – can you see the bothy in there? It was so eerie to walk through the area. Not a single sound, no bird could be heard and wavering fog everywhere made it almost unreal. My kids would have thought of many ghost stories when hiking through there.
Picture 17: Shielin of Mark – Can you see the bothy in the fog?
I cooked lunch in the bothy and continued to Loch Lee. Once there, the weather was sunny and I enjoyed the rest of the hike to Tarfside.
Picture 18: Ruin of church and grave yard at Loch Lee
Four other challengers were already at St. Drostan's. The church opens up rooms for challengers and cooks food for them as a fundraiser. I didn’t stay in a room and camped instead a little away in an open field, but came back for dinner and enjoyed sharing stories with other challengers. The organizers mentioned that they expected over 100 challengers during the next two days. They would eat in shifts at the one table that fits 12 people at a time and not be able to enjoy such a relaxed dinner with being served seconds as we did.
Day 11 – Tarfside to Garlot Hill (Distance: 17.9 miles, Ascent: 3,467 ft, Descent: 2,911 ft)
This day I climbed my last mountain – a so-called “Corbett” – Mount Battock. Corbetts are mountains between 2,500 and 3,000 ft. From the beginning I could see that the top was in the clouds and once more I would encounter no visibility coupled with cold and wet. Nevertheless I went for it as it was my last mountain in Scotland. So up I went over Craig Soales, Mount Een, Bennygray and Wester Cairn to Mount Battock.
Picture 19: Mount Battock is hiding in a cloud
Up there I enjoyed two pieces of fresh fruit that I had purchased at St. Drostan's the night before. From there I walked down to the Water of Dye where I found a nice geocache at the intersection with the Water of Charr. I continued on to Garlot Hill where I set up my tarp for the last night. It was pretty windy up there on the hill. When I pitched it into the wind I did so as always with just six titanium shepherd stakes. That setup had served me surprisingly well all across Scotland. I never needed the additional MSR Groundhogs and guylines that I carried. When the wind direction changed in the middle of the night and hit my SMD Haven from the side, I got concerned the high wind could pull the stake at the vestibule that was in the wind and collapse the tarp on me. So I got out of my warm sleeping bag and put an additional guyline from each pole to the side with an MSR Groundhog. Afterwards the sound of the wind on the tarp sounded way different – everything was taut and I could sleep relaxed.
Day 12 – Garlot Hill to Dunnottar Castle (Distance: 22.5 miles, Ascent: 2,188 ft, Descent: 3,084 ft)
My last day to the North Sea was supposed to be a relaxed day of walking through the Fettoresso Forest. At first I had to cross a major construction site for new wind turbines. Walking on trails between super-sized trucks that carry many tons of dirt or rock at walking speed was “interesting”. After I crossed the construction site, the hike became really relaxing and I started to have this mixed feeling of anticipation to see the North Sea and sadness to know it would all be over. I hiked along being in my own thought when I saw another person ahead of me. Once I caught up, I startled that person and I said “sorry” but the person seemed for a moment even more afraid. I introduced myself and asked for his name. The person just stared at me and didn’t say anything. That was weird. What would a roughly 80 year old man without a daypack do in the middle of the forest? I tried to talk to him and asked several questions. He didn’t/couldn’t answer any of them. But from time to time his face would light up a little and he would tell me stories from before the war. He seemed disoriented and would randomly stop or walk. I decided to stay with him wherever he went and tried to get a conversation going. It was very one sided. At random times he would stop and talk about the time before the war, his wife or his son, but he would never answer my questions – where he lives, what his name is, what his telephone number is, etc. When talking about his son Bobby he answered my question for Bobby’s father’s name with “Robert William”. I wasn’t sure whether Robert really referred to Bobby, but that was all I could get. I didn’t carry a phone with me and who knows whether there would have been reception in the forest anyways. So I used my Delorme inReach to contact Challenge control in Montrose. Here is my first text to them and their first reply.
Can you please check with police in my current local area for missing elderly person? Male, 80+, beige jacket, NY baseball cap. Possibly named Robert William
Can you tell us more - are you with him? Seen him? Found a body? Talking to him? Calling Stonehaven police now
I stayed with him until he was eventually found by a private search party. When he was re-united with his wife I learned from her that he has Alzheimers for the last five years and loves to walk. She said it is what keeps him going. It made sense that his most used word during our “conversation” was “dream walk”. He stopped frequently to point across the landscape and would repeatedly say “dream walk”. She was glad that he was fine and that he enjoyed his walk with me as a “dream walk”. After this episode I continued on to the North Sea, dipped my toes in the North Sea at the beach in Stonehaven, ate at the Old Harbor and continued along the cliff to Dunnottar Castle. That was a really beautiful finish for this great walk across Scotland. After an extended tour of the castle I took the bus to Montrose to officially sign out with Challenge control.
Picture 20: Dunnottar Castle and the North Sea
Walking 233 miles across Scotland from coast to coast and climbing over 45,000 ft along the way was very special for me. I re-visited Scotland a quarter century after studying there. The trek gave me the opportunity to test my gear and extend my skillset in weather situations that I barely experience here in California. I achieved all my personal goals on the trek and found more than I asked for along the way. The social aspect and camaraderie between the British hill walkers who undertake the coast to coast crossing of Scotland is phenomenal. The first final dinner (of two) with roughly 180 participants was amazing. There were so many people who come out every year and who have done it for 5, 10 or even 20 years. People make fun of each other with the unique kind of humor the British have. Most people seem to know each other for long times and they have many stories to share. It was amazing to hear them - right after their crossing – talk about plans for next year. Many people asked me whether I will come back for another Challenge. I think I will – most likely with my wife – that time there will be less Munros and more castles, less solo climbs and more social interactions with other challengers, maybe less camping and the occasional bed and breakfast instead. It certainly will be fun – that seems to be a given with every TGO Challenge.