The Loneliness of the Long Distance Walker – Steve Smith’s 2006 TGO Account
(This first appeared in The Over The Hill Club Magazine)
The TGO is an annual self supported coast to coast across Scotland walk
Thursday May 11th 2006
"It's a she wee." Alison Ashton is responding to my query of what the device next to her trowel is. It's a sunny day in Glasgow. I know what trowels on hikes are for.
"It acts as a penis for women," she adds.
"Where do the batteries go then?"
"It's for peeing through."
"Oh." I'm trying to absorb this.
"You don't know how hard it is to squat."
"No. Have you tried it out?" I ask.
"Yes, at home."
"What you mean you stood at your loo at home?"
"What did the children say?"
"They were out." This was said with some emphasis.
"They didn't comment on Mummy leaving the loo seat up now? And which way round does it go, this scoop affair," I'm ignoring Alison's right to remain silent, "does that go at the front or to the rear?"
I must have gone on about it for quite awhile when Alison added "I wished I'd not told you now."
I was of much the same opinion.
We'd met up with Sue Oxley and join the TGO gathering and greetings on Queen Street station. Alison catching her bus, Sue and I the Mallaig train with me alighting at Lochailort. As we cross the glorious Rannoch Moor, with the hills out basking in the sunlight, we spot the point, near Loch Ossian, at which we’ve arranged a rendezvous for Wednesday.
I paddle my feet in the sea loch, sign the register and set off walking on the short road leg before turning into the hills. My first uphill slog takes me to the long hassock, tussock and hillock boggy walk across to Glas-charn, a 633m mountain. The weather though a little wet, does not hamper me and I’m pleased that my new toy, an altimeter, ascends at the same rate as myself. I'd never appreciated how useful it could be, not only a count down to the summit but it reduces the need to pace (or estimate the distance travelled) when wishing to change course on a slope.
The view out towards the Atlantic
The descent takes me to a small stream before the ascent of Sgurr an Utha. At 1500, thinking my knees have had enough I perch my tent at 430m on its westerly slope. The weather has cleared for a nice evening and my open tent flap reveals a view down a glen. A rocky mountain ahead, a loch to its right and folds of hills guarding the head of the loch. The heathers and grass are a deep mustard colour, flattened by the recent melt.
I start the day by resetting my altimeter to the reading when I finished walking yesterday. Then the two hour pull, in good weather, up Sgurr an Utha. Heavy going with ascents, bogs and bumps to navigate. I take in the views out to the sea, towards the Cuillin Hills. Towering beautifully, their menace hidden from all but those that dare to cross them.
The view from Sgurr an Utha
I then make the steep drop down to Allt a Chaol-ghinne where I meet fellow challenger, David Boyd. He's had a tough day crossing the absent path alongside Loch Beorald.
We descend to the bothy at Glenfinnan where I leave David resting as I set off north east to the bealach, my aim to then ascend Streap and take in the mountains east to Spean Bridge.
At the bealach, after a long old pull, plans change. Streap looks impregnable from this angle and my own fitness is sending me a warning signal to stay low. My low level alternative involves back tracking and heading out via Glen Finnan.
I'm demoralised my lofty expectations have been halted. The thoughts of throwing open bothy doors late in the evening with tales of grand adventure, have been set to one side.
My eye casts to the very top right of my map. The slither of yellow road and the tiny hamlet, Strathan. I know my way from there to Spean Bridge. In better spirits I descend a little and camp. It’s a low level route for a few days yet better than back tracking.
On each step of the descent of Gleann Cuirnean, following its burn, Streap looks more menacing. There does not appear to be an angle on view through which it could be breached. The decision to change route is the right one although the long road walk down Loch Arkaig will be a tiresome alternative.
I reach the little hamlet of Strathan and play a game of dodge the bog as I fight my way to the road. Passing what was once the old school house for the glen, now nothing more than a shut up tin shed. Here I meet fellow challengers Stuart Brown and James Spittal who I shared lunch with at Blackburn bothy a year ago.
I start the long road walk, the weather is good, the loch is fine yet I’m disappointed by the amount of rubbish strewn along the loch side. Beer cans the modern graffiti, saying ‘I was here. I got drunk here and am so stupid I left these tins behind.’
A car draws up, offering me a lift. I explain the challenge and get a good luck wish. I catch up with the La Borwit’s. Gretchen, their granddaughter, is this years enlistment. Her achilles is sore, I hope she makes it.
I bump into David Boyd again. It’s a long walk and we talk about many things.
“What I need, Steve is a wife waiting at the end of each day. With a camper van.”
“What about lunches?” I ask.
“Yes, that too. Lunch. She could pull up and have my lunch ready too.”
“And supper?” I ask.
“Yes, supper too. Just when it’s time to end the day.”
“If only Carlsberg made wives?” I suggest.
I camp at 1600, after seven hours. The spot is not so great, on the side of a hill in farming land. Though nobody to ask permission and no fences crossed. I spend a dull, long evening. With worrying about getting run over by some farm vehicle sleep comes very slowly.
I wake in the early hours, rain pelting against the tent. Only the BBC World Service to keep me company. I don't sleep again and come 0700 pack my rucksack and brave the rain to dismantle the tent. Hastily shoved into the pack I'm off walking, hood pulled tight. I pass the end of the loch and its sign saying not to dump rubbish. There was so much in the glen that a couple of carrier bags, full of empty beer cans, leant against this sign would have set the scene off a treat.
I soon realise that my over trousers are on back to front and the pack is so badly arranged that I either have it pressing into various parts of my back or hanging off one shoulder. Not until Achnacarry can I sort myself out, then by courtesy of the telephone box. Hurrah for the old K6, sadness for its demise. The phone disconnected, the directory mouldy and decayed. A lack of cleaning gives that oh so familiar K6 whiff, so familiar of a Saturday morning.
I set off again and I'm passed by two logging lorries, neither acknowledge my hasty retreat into the verge. An old man on a mission in his VW Polo looks nothing but ahead as I dive out his way. Only an old lady in some red hatch manages to raise a hand of acknowledgement. There again it could have just been an age related twitch, I should not get my hopes up.
I plod on, struggling. I should stop to eat yet the Little Chef in Spean Bridge beckons and sets my focus. After three hours of clouded hill tops, dripping self and tar sealed roads do I reach the Commando Memorial. I know not to trust the Spean Bridge sign, it's still a trudge yet the Little Chef fantasy is what keeps me going. On the last bend into town a sign grabs my attention - "All Day Food". This will do. As I approach, dreaming of fried eggs on toast, do I read the small print - "12 noon to 9PM". Now call me Mr Picky but "All Day Food" really does mean 24 hours, possibly a 7AM start to be fair. But all day is not a noon start.
I'm tired, hungry and grumbling. I pass my hotel, The Spean Bridge Hotel, and set forth to the last building, The Little Chef. I barely make it to the table. I feel exhausted and slump. I take out a menu and can barely focus. The print swimming in front of me in a dyslexic haze, everything looks odd, double. I think I’m seeing things on the menu. The waitress approaches and by dead reckoning I fancy she wishes to take my order. I mutter something about being vegetarian and could she point out what dishes I can have.
"They're the ones with the wee green men next to them." Thank Christ I think, I really was beginning to worry.
I eat well and set off back to my hotel.
"I've a booking. Steve Smith," I add. She scours the booking list, taking just the amount of time to cause your heart to sink.
"Nobody of that name. When did you book?"
“A few weeks back and I arranged to send a parcel,” I reply.
She looks at her feet, "Sorry we've only got a parcel for a Mr Smith."
"That's me then."
"But you are Mr Stephenson."
"No, Steve Smith." It takes a couple more seconds to convince her and she produces a key.
"You're in the annex." My heart does sink. An annex is all to often an euphemism for a very long walk. She attempts to show me on a diagram how many corridors, stairs and how much open ground I need to cover. I think she realises the game is up and leads me through the maze of different eras and styles of additions until we break cover to the car park.
"It's over there, in the corner and up the stairs," she adds (I've just knocked a painting off the wall with my pack).
"Behind the hut?" I enquire.
"Hut! It's a chalet."
"Call me Mr Picky," I add, "but that is a hut.”
I decide it's time to solo this out, time to not try my luck or her patience any further. I find the door, ascend the stairs (18ft by the altimeter) and open the door. The bed is unmade, the bathroom a mess, bin full and half a cup of tea in the cup. I drop my pack and wander back. She's settled back in reception. "The room is unserviced."
"Thought it might be," she replies, "it's a bit early for you to check in."
It's 1130 and I bite my lip as I'm about to say "Call me Mr Picky but aren't I already checked in?"
"When will it be done?" I ask instead.
"Hard to say, they are doing the rounds. Could be hours yet."
"Do you have any other rooms?"
We then enter into a staring competition. Who will break first I'm not sure. On one hand I could offer to wait, on the other hand she could offer to find the cleaning staff and ask for a change in order of room cleaning. We look at one another, both holding out. She breaks first, I thank her and head back. Slumped in the armchair the cleaner arrives in minutes. I'm impressed, he diligently and efficiently cleans the room, changes the bed and scrubs the bath, empties the bin and tea cup. It's left spotless. We exchange regal nods of approval. Twenty minutes later I've trashed the place.
The bath was excellent, welcome. The shower rail perfect to hang the tent over. I check myself over. Those who read my 2005 article will recall my horror of the tick burrowing into what we will now call the "he wee". Fortunately I'm spared. I doubt Alison will have the same problem with she "she wee", yet I resolve to ask. I check my upper half, my shoulders are erupted in septic spots from the pack straps. A problem I'm prone to. These are beauties. The type that, as a teenager and if on ones face, one would spend a happy hour in front of the bathroom mirror with. That's the great thing about the teenage years, if you don't get spots then you are out with girls, if covered in spots those long evenings can be whiled away in front of the mirror instead.
Talking of which (and this is poor linkage but I wish to get this in) has anybody else noticed that TGO magazine has hit a late adolescence? It's suddenly discovered girls. Even down to discussing what the best knickers are should a girl wish to venture out into the hills. I mean, girls in hills - who'd have considered such a thing? All those equipment manufacturers making false beards to allow women to disguise themselves in hills are now out of business. (Incidentally, in case anybody is confused, I'm being ironic).
I start, after a monster breakfast, at 0900. Initially things are very slow along a small public road. Trees shroud my path, full of the falling rain. I branch into the glen towards the Lairig Leacach. A slow pull up the track, I’m struggling with the huge amounts of food, lasting me to Braemar. I jettison my water, thinking I can gather more later, to reduce weight. It helps, so does extra medication for asthma.
I bump into Colin Tock and he asks me my views on organising the challenge. A route vetter who does about 30 reviews a year. I enjoy the chat. A Land Rover stops, an elderly gent gets out and, without us needing to ask, describes his life on the hills. Berating those that move the stones or leave the bothy messy. He goes on a little, retired from hill farming but now in charge of checking the water supply fed from the hills to the houses, below.
"Is all the local water passed by you?" I enquire.
Jeff Rowe joins us as he continues on about the beer cans left in the bothies.
"I told them if they felled all the trees," (it's the forestry turn), "that the water would be undrinkable for days. They said it would be fine. Well bugger me it was undrinkable for days."
None of us takes him up on his offer. I once did get a kiss from a girlfriend on top of Driesh but nothing like this. It's then about young men not wearing ties. Apparently he never ventures out the house without one.
"I guess it's a generation thing. Not meaning you are old like," adds Jeff.
This breaks the flow and I accompany Jeff. A fit 63 year old himself, yet not 63 in mind or body.
We walk on up the glen, the mountains coming in and out of cloud. As we pass Cruach Innse it clears. We are tempted and spend four hours bagging it. A long slow pull but I've pumped myself with drugs to help my breathing. The views from the summit are good. Snow still in the Grey Corries across the glen. The track now far below. We give the next mountain, Sgurr Innse, a miss, a menacing looking affair like a spot risen from a face. These wild places capture your heart. Where life is truly lived.
We make it to the bothy. Graffiti on the door dates back to 1937, giving permission. The later stuff has me feeling scorn. Jeff brews tea then moves on. His company was good. I'm now alone, writing by torch light as it's dark inside. I wonder if I wish for company. As time ticks by one begins to own the place, almost a feeling of resentment should anybody else arrive. With the fading light I set a candle in the window to welcome any walker. I'm pleased when the bothy door swings open in the late evening and enters Graham Brookes. It's good to have somebody to chat to.
Cruach Innse and Sgurr Innse
I set off down the glen, to camp and meet Sue Oxley where the track, after passing Loch Treig, passes under the Corrour to Tulloch stretch of the railway. It's tough going and I mean that in many senses of the word. Diarrhoea has set in, my pace is poor as is my navigation which has me peering into a 100 foot drop to the Allt na Lairige. The diarrhoea got there first but my nerves were a little frayed for awhile too.
It takes me five hours to do what should have been done in three and I'm almost in tears when I turn a corner and see how far my destination still is. I'd arranged to meet Sue to do an evening hike up Beinn na Lap. She arrives one hour after me (having walked twice as far, starting around the same time). I set off with her but feel weak, and uneasy. One normally needs to find a secluded spot every other day in the wilds, today so far it's been seven times. I make my excuses and return to the tent. Unable to eat an evening meal I try some cereal.
Sue returns happy to have done her Munro and pleased to have got a phone signal. Explaining to her husband that he should open the laundry package she posted at his peril. Now I always thought it was the norm to send such things to an ex.
She says a storm is blowing in. Within an hour we are hunkered in our respective tents, being buffeted and blasted by wind and rain. It's a real gale. I'm desperate to relieve myself but hold on and on. I hear a motorised engine and peer out. Two guys on a caterpillar vehicle are heading up the hill. It looks like madness in these high winds and rain.
I can't sleep and it's 0100 when desperation gets the better of me and I don waterproofs and head out. I'm violently ill, both diarrhoea and vomit. High on the hill a powerful light is moving around. Who would be out on a night like this? Then I remember the two guys. I retreat to the tent in agony. Constant stomach cramps have me groaning. A couple of hours later I venture out the tent again to be ill. This is about as welcome as Albert Pierpoint a pair of scales and a tape measure. The light is still moving around on the hill, mixing with the wild and lonely shadows, lashing rain and howling gale.
I root through my first aid kit to see if there is anything to make me feel better. The kit has been added to over the years but never turned out. I find plasters, safety pins, creams, no sign of anything for stomach bugs, blister second skin, more creams and a condom. Oh how I rue the irony of the last thing I need right now. I rue further as I discover its use by date has long expired.
At 0600 I get up and discover that Sue and I are now on an island, our tents due to be flooded within minutes. We rapidly have to help one another get our tents down. It's just too windy to be able to do alone. I explain how ill I've been and I need a hotel room with ensuite. Sue said she heard everything above the howling wind, including my groans of agony. She was relieved when she heard me vomiting, knowing I was still alive.
Our next challenge is to get off the island. This proves hard, what were trickling streams when we set up the tents are now raging torrents. Our only hope are the three iron bars of a derelict bridge. Each three inches wide I balance my way across knowing one slip would land me in this raging torrent. Sue, with shorts and sandals, prefers to wade and hang onto one of the iron bars. It looks perilous.
"I'll be glad to be out this swirling brown stuff," she shouts.
"Hmmm, I know the feeling," I ruefully shout back.
When she is halfway across the current starts to take her. I see her body rise as she clings to the rail. I lean forward to reach out, shoving my lower right leg deep into the water. But she manages okay, regaining her own balance and arrives at my side laughing at our bizarre encounter.
"This is not going to be a night I'll forget," she says.
"Never had a woman say that to me before," I add.
With that the mood is set and we make for Corrour Station making the most bizarre puns. The ground is so wet the only way out is to walk up the railway track.
Sue sorts her things in the station shelter and sets off. I'm relieved to be getting out. I'm joined by two teachers and a group of adolescent school children from Edinburgh. They are polite as we chat, waiting for the train. For some of the time they’re in part as they act out the scenes, shot at this station, from the film Trainspotting.
Catching the sleeper up from London I travel, in luxurious seats, to the nearest place with medical help, Fort William. The school kids alight at Tulloch and wish me well.
I find a hotel. The receptionist takes one look at me and asks if I need a doctor.
“Just a room, for two nights? I need to lay down.”
I’m booked in and struggle to my room. The walls are bright yellow, the sheets are pink. The counterpane and curtains a matching tartan. Nausea returns.
I rest up for a number of hours, thankful for the ensuite. Imodium improves things and I’m able to hold down some soup. I stroll around Fort William, checking out the map section in WH Smith reference library for alternate routes out.
I get commiserations from Challenge Control and a call from Alison.
“Steve, if you get going on Saturday you can still do your original route.”
“Do you reckon?”
“It’ll be long days. Corrour to Dalwhinnie, Dalwhinnie to Ruigh-aiteachain. Ruigh-aiteachain to Braemar then Braemar to Clova. But it might be possible.”
“I was thinking perhaps walking out via Kinloch Rannoch.”
I later get a text, relayed via Alison, from Lorraine McCall, saying that the Kinloch Rannoch route was thought to be the quickest, yet hard on the feet.
I manage to eat more. Slowly rehydrating and rebuilding my strength. Unsure of my route I purchase a road atlas and tear out the pages for the road walk out from Kinloch Rannoch.
I've been having a battle with the decision, whether to cross from Corrour to Dalwhinnie, staying as low as possible, or to walk to the road leading to Kinloch Rannoch. The latter would entail a road walk out for six days. As I alight the train, and start walking at 0825, I've still not made my mind up. Over the last 24 hours I've swayed between one and the other. It's not until I pass the quaint Loch Ossian Youth Hostel that I make a decision, Dalwhinnie. My aim therefore to meet Alison and Sue in Clova on Tuesday night requiring 86 miles of walking and 11,000 feet of ascent in 4 days. This is a challenge within a challenge.
I make good pace along the side of Loch Ossian, passing the fabulous rhododendron bushes I get to the end of the loch in 1.5 hours. I look for the path and start to panic that I might inadvertently walk up Strath Ossian. With careful map checking and sifting through the myriad of paths and tracks I gain confidence that I’m bound for Dalwhinnie.
The Uisge Labhair is flowing fast and its many feeders are difficult to cross. Twice I have to ascend high and to find crossing points. The bealach forever feels in the distance, yet I set a good pace and, unlike the remains of the crashed WW2 plane that lie up there, I make myself over it 4.5 hours from setting off.
The remains of a WW2 Plane
Down the other side the path is good, much work done on it. I get to Culra Bothy at 1415 and pop in, hoping to also get a signal to call the hotel at Dalwhinnie to book a room. No luck on the signal but the maintenance officer is staying and a log burning stove explains the pleasant smells I'd been getting wafts of. It's snug and warm, gorgeous in fact. He's pleased I'm a member of the MBA and makes me a welcome cup of tea.
I depart at 1440 and decide to follow the tracks around Loch Pattack, longer yet it looks better than the path. This, like a game losing wrong turn at chess, was a bad move. After 45 minutes I discover the track flooded, impassable. I soon find the alternative, via peat hags, have me swearing, cursing and blaming everybody but myself. It feels like an endless maze of swamp, tuffs and filthy slopes of peat. I eventually realise that the game is up and have to back track to the bothy to take the path. I feel so annoyed, angry and emotional. I say ‘fuck’ about twenty times a minute, all the time gained by my earlier pace lost by a single wrong turn. My lower legs are filthy from constant sinking in the peat, it's been two hours of walking in treacle.
This two hours has cost me. It takes, in all, 11.25 hours to the hotel. I know 9 is my usual limit. To add to the pitiful day the last two, the lost two hours, are in a downpour and I discover that lightweight kit comes at the price of being not so waterproof.
I can not get a signal so arrive at the hotel very wet with no booking. Initially they have no room, but look on me with pity and open up another room. I'm pleased yet I ache and my heart is racing at 66bpm.
The hotel owners, under new management, are so good to me, I am sorry to be leaving. My feet are blistering more, the walk up Loch Ericht was hard. I plaster up and set off at 0930 via the leat, and its path, towards Loch Cuaich. Looking back a wonderful rainbow hangs across The Fara, setting off the snow that has fallen in the night.
From Loch Cuaich I close navigate around every piece of high ground; making the journey longer but less of a climb.
I'm not as quick as yesterday, instead this is more of a plod. I follow the loch's feeder burn with my compass angling towards the right of Clach-mheall Dubh. This is a delightful little passage, likewise the estate bridge at Bhran, crossing the Allt Bhran is very beautiful.
I then make the hard slog above the Allt Bhran. With long drops, heather and an intermittent path I rest often, at one time almost sitting on an adder, it slithers away from me. It's then an uphill pull to meet the track to take me into Glen Feshie. I urge myself on, needing the bothy, unable to face the tent. My feet are painful, my right heel especially.
I fancy the River Feshie would be too deep to cross, unlike two years ago when I crossed with John Jocys. This time I have no company, just pressing on alone. As I turn into the glen I'm met by the most delightful scene imaginable, smoke from the bothy chimney. There will be warmth to dry my wet things. Who is there I try to imagine, a party of walkers? Surely I must be the most westerly TGO participant remaining?
I have to go past the bothy to cross the river by the dilapidated bridge 1KM further up. I arrive at 1845 to meet Colin Pritchard, having set out on the Monday I'm the first challenger he's met. I thank him for the fire, I'm so grateful. I'm amazed at his route, high level he'd travelled so far and high in his time. Able to run up and down Ben Nevis in under two hours he's a league ahead of me. I congratulate him on his route so far.
"You've not seen my feet yet," he replies. At about this time I'm removing my right sock. We both look astonished at the red slug attached to my right heel.
"Forget my feet. My goodness," he continues.
It was mighty impressive. I puncture it to release the blood and lymph, nothing happens so I apply gentle pressure with my fingers. It's like a garden sprinkler system, everything in reach gets a dousing.
We talk about our lonely walking, I mention the loneliness of the long distance walker. Colin gets my reference straight away and we discuss the films of Tom Courtenay.
We drag camp beds down from the upstairs and arrange them to sleep by the remains of the fire. As we doze off Colin says "I think it's you that's the most westerly challenger."
"You're on the west side of the bothy!"
I wake about 0300, very cold. The fire is out. I go upstairs to get some blankets, climbing the ladder through the hatch in the floor. I miss my footing and have to throw myself against the lip of the floor to rescue myself. So nearly a 6ft drop, so nearly out the challenge again.
I leave a little after 0800. Having popped and dressed blisters. Colin and I helping one another to those bits that one can not reach. My feet are sore, yet workable. It's day three of my catch up, the longest at 25 miles. I make good progress, picking off the bridge near the watershed, Geldie Lodge then the Linn of Dee. My right foot feels sore and after about eight hours I slip my boot off and inspect it. The dressings and padding are dripping with an unpleasant red and yellow mix of body fluids.
My very unattractive right foot
All day I walk alone, just the footprints of the wave of challengers ahead of me remind me I’m still part of the greater thing. I was heartened to see all the names in the bothy book, especially the La Borwit’s. Gretchen was still making progress, her achilles tendon at least getting her this far.
The final road walk to Braemar is hellish. I go via Mar Lodge but it does not detract from how depressing and draining the walk is. I keep counting grid squares, timing myself and predicting my arrival time; adjusting continuously. The weather varies, the hills on view are fine. My feet ache, every press down on my right foot feels like stepping on a bed of pins. The River Dee in fine form flowing its way towards the sea; encouraging me with it.
I get to Braemar at 1845 and arrive exhausted at the Fife Arms. Barely able to take any more steps I'm first told that there are no rooms. I don’t know if it’s the dour side of the Scottish humour but seconds later she’s found me one. She apologises for there being no bath, I'm happy to just have a room. I ask about dinner in the restaurant and am looked at as if I've asked for the impossible.
"It's too late for that." It was not even 1900.
The apology for the lack of bath turns out to be a mute point, there's no hot water. Though believe me I am so grateful for this room.
I wake at around 0500 feeling extremely odd. I've been muttering in my sleep, my mind competing with hallucinating drugs, and keep coming in and out the land of lucidity. It's sheer tiredness, my body aching alongside my mind. This four day catch up is a gruelling test. I visit the ensuite and realise I can put no pressure on my right foot. The second toe is swollen and the heel is equally complaining. I wonder if I’m out of the challenge.
I manage to sleep for another two hours and feel good enough. Patching up my feet, I've lost count of the blisters, though more than a British Leyland paint job. I gingerly take my first steps. I can just about do it, it feels like walking on a bed of pins. I make it down to breakfast, busy because of an elderly coach party in. To a person they look in better shape than me. I set off at 0915, hobbling towards the Loch Callater track, aiming to make it across to Clova.
I meet Stan driving down the Loch Callater track, looking about as bad as I feel yet for different reasons. I stop at the bothy, 1150. My right foot hurts with each step but I press on and make my way through to where the Jock's Road path runs out during the last sharp ascent.
I'd had word from Roger, at challenge control, that Alison and Sue would definitely be waiting for me at the Clova Hotel. This is the tonic to keep me going, a precious incentive to keep me focussed. I knew if I could just get to Clova that I’d have moral support for my last two days.
The weather varies from sun, to rain, to hale to sleet, to snow. I get some impressive views back towards the hills above Braemar. I make it to Crow Craigies, over 3000ft. The weather clears and I peer down Glen Doll and just above I catch sight of the sea, 45 miles in the distance. I'm overcome, overwhelmed. My body aches, this catching up so painful. I can't believe I can see the sea. My eyes well up, seeing the sea just means so much. Never ever, ever give up. Ships are safest at harbour but they are designed for the high seas. No person can realise their dreams, find their potential or fully know themselves by staying in harbour. I repeat to myself, over and over “There’s the sea. The sea.” I can’t believe it. A man must break his back to earn his day of leisure. This was reward in itself. This moment made the days of pain more than worthwhile. It would have been so easy to have pulled out when I was ill, nobody would have blamed me. Yet I’d have always had that nagging thought that I should have given it another go.
From here the descent to Clova is long and tortuous. Jock's Road into Glen Doll has my feet yelping at each press on the ground. The forest walk dank, long and tedious, the final 4 mile road walk painful on the feet. I feel so tired. It's nine hours into the day already. I swagger in the pouring rain, the hard road sending shockwaves through my feet. I fall sleep whilst walking, with my eyes shut I stagger into the centre of the quiet, single track road, coming too with a dazed jolt. I start to count off landmarks, rewarding myself with sips of water. If I can just get to that clump of trees, then that building. I break it down into chunks.
It takes me until 1910 to get to the hotel. I'm hoping Sue and Alison have got my text asking for them to get me a room. I stagger into reception, restaurant guests staring at this sodden mass.
I start to ask if I have a booking. I hear footsteps running. It's Alison. She does not care how wet I am, I feel her arms go round me and I get a huge hug. Then Sue hugs me too. They give me permission to be very proud of myself! 86 miles in four days is a long walk.
“Let’s get you to your room,” Sue says.
I turn to the receptionist, “what do I have to do to check in?”
She takes the form back, “I think just the key will do.”
Sue and Alison help me to my room. I shower and meet them and order supper. The stories of our last days pouring from us. I have to swallow hard. I appreciate them waiting, having got a day ahead of themselves, so very much.
On their day off they climbed Driesh and Mayar and say they kept looking west towards Jock's Road observing the weather I was walking through. They'd been in touch with Challenge Control, this rendezvous was made by message passing through Control as phone signals became poor. Knowing they’d be there was the biggest thing that kept me going. They tell me my story has got around, the guy catching up after two days off sick. I’m deeply moved by all the messages I’ve received. Texts, relayed phone messages. Roger, Pauline, Robin and Alan in Challenge Control keeping me going. Fellow challenger John Jocys coming on the line to give me encouragement. Texts from my Mum and Dad. So many people urged me on.
The day starts with a knock at my door. It's Doctor Alison with her medical bag. My feet are dressed with the correct dressings for open and closed sores. I stand up, it feels good. I can exert pressure on my right foot.
There’s a different air at breakfast. Sue and Alison truly mothered me last night (and I truly revelled in it) but I’m quietly aware that we have about 35 miles to make it to the coast. They tell me of the route, straight up 2000 feet of ascent. It’s the quickest route.
“Are you okay with that?” they ask.
“Yes, I’m in your care now. I’ll do whatever you tell me to.” It's taken everything I had to get here. From now on all I wanted was to follow in their footsteps.
“Now if you’d only said that yesterday,” jokes Sue.
We set off at 0900, Sue is a strong walker and I find myself ascending at 400m per hour up Green Hill. Here it's misty and close navigation, which I take no part in, drops us down and then the long descent to the road to Bridge End. I find the road tiring, exhausting. Hard on my feet. It's a three hour power walk. Sue and Alison fancy Brechin, I can only promise to get to the next milestone.
“Every mile we walk today is one less tomorrow,” says Alison. Sue repeats this later, so does Alison. Elementary mathematics has not escaped me yet I sense an underlying plot to keep me going. They deal with me in a business like way. We’ve still a long walk. I sense they are in cohorts, if they allow me to dwell, offer too much sympathy about my aching body I might give up.
Yet it’s a long way for all of us. We keep on another's spirits up by a long discussion of Enid Blyton books.
"The Infamous Three," Sue calls us.
I point out the unfortunate acronym.
"We are the TITs," yells Sue.
About an hour from Bridge End I pull up. I'd been getting stitch in my side, my feet ache but now my calf muscle, where it attaches to the achilles tendon, pulls tight. It's a hobble from there on to Bridge End. I lean to my left to reduce pressure. Alison and Sue get ahead. Suddenly I'm soaked, I'd not noticed the top coming off my rehydration pipe. I follow the trail of water back to pick it up. Now out of water I press on and meet Alison and Sue at Bridge End. Alison straps my calf muscle, I can proceed at a slow pace. A quicken and I yelp, slower and I'm okay. We're now in remote farm land, no place to camp, no B&B. It’s nearing 1800.
I fantasise about each dwelling offering B&B. Only to be thwarted as we reach a sign-less dwelling.
I start to lag behind. Most the day I was determined to keep pace but now I’m slow. I start to get chest pains.
“Alison, I’m getting chest pains,” I call out. I’ve no wish to take chances.
“Whereabouts?” she calls back.
“High up, above the breast line.”
“Does it hurt more when you twist?”
I do a test, and call back that it does.
“It’s just muscular then,” she reassures me. Not a stride is lost in this conversation.
We make it over the twin hill forts at Caterhun and we see the sea. We shout with joy and look back to the hills basking in the evening sun. The mist, snow and rain of earlier behind us. We are walking into the nicer weather of the coast. Now ten hours into our day. A cyclist pulls up, out training.
"Where are you heading?" he asks.
"Brechin we hope," adds Alison, "but Steve here's pulled his calf muscle."
He gives us his address. "I can put you up. I've lots of room."
As he pedals off we confirm with one another if what we heard was true. There's no stopping Alison now. She goes ahead to buy some wine, Sue helps me through the next two hours, her own head dropping with tiredness. Again I fall asleep whilst walking, stumbling into some tree branches.
We arrive around nine, after a 25 mile day, at the address offered. A beautiful Victorian Manse with matching grounds. Simon and his wife, Jill make us supper, add in pudding, wine and damson gin. Then we are each shown to our beds. There was us thinking we'd be having rehydrated food, in a tent with mere water to wash it down.
The modest bothy in Brechin!
We are given porridge and toast for breakfast. As we make our way down the long drive we look at one another.
“Did that really just happen?” asks one of us.
“I think so.”
“Doesn’t feel quite real, does it?”
Carlsberg do make people you meet on the road.
We get to the coast, in a gentle sunny breeze in four hours. Hugs and photos on the beach at Montrose. Alison and Sue apologise for slave driving me the last two days. It needed to be done, all my emotional energy went into getting to Clova. I’d not be here without them.
Montrose beach - Sue and Alison having just made it over from the Atlantic to the North Sea.
Checking in at Challenge Control news of my plight had got around. People approaching me to say well done.
This has been very tough for me, my toughest challenge yet. I like that it's about survival. Like that one appreciates the small things. A loo is a luxury, a bath and a good meal an unimaginable dream. All the things that just happen in our daily lives have to be planned and fought for on the challenge. But it’s the word ‘challenge’ that sticks with me. Not just because it is a challenge to get across Scotland but there are so many challenges that are met along the way. It’s having the resources, the determination and the help to get through them.
© Steve Smith