Steve Smith’s 2007 TGO Account

(This first appeared in The Over The Hill Club Magazine and won their writer of the year award 2008)

 

The TGO is an annual self supported coast to coast across Scotland walk

 

It’s a week before the TGO. I’m sat at my kitchen table in a state of realization. You see I don’t cook. Never have. I just heat things up. Cooking to me is heating a jacket potato and pouring a can of beans over it. A balanced diet comes with pouring yogurt over chopped banana. In 1983, when I went to start my degree, I was sent away with a cookery book. It ended up many years later, unopened, in a charity shop. Years after this my Great Aunt asked me “Do you have a cookery book, Steve.” Sensing I was about to receive some family heirloom I tried to deflect it with, “It always says on the packet what to do.” Auntie Joan was in stitches; somehow this was the funniest things she’d heard in eighty years.

So here I am, a week before the TGO and I’m reading the instruction booklet of the dehydrator my generous parents bought me for Christmas. I’d asked for it but now I’m seeing the flaw. You can’t stick a jacket potato and baked beans in, nor yogurt and banana. No, you actually have to cook things then dehydrate them. There’s recipes for all sorts. I feel cornered. Mum is bound to ask how I got on with it. I look for inspiration. On my kitchen table I spy a flyer for a home delivery Indian takeaway, mobile phone and wallet. I don’t even have to get out of the chair. The Indian voice answers and I put in a rather large order of main dishes.

“Rice?”

“No,” I reply.

“Nan?”

“No,” I reply.

“Pepsi?” I hear suspicion in his voice.

“No,” I reply.

“You have credit card.” I’m really sensing some suspicion.

 

It’s Wednesday May 9th and I’m waiting for Mary Spurr at Heathrow, flying in from Canada to do the TGO with me. With rucksack full of dehydrated Indian curry we board the short flight to Glasgow where we rest the night before taking the train to Fort William then the coach to Shiel Bridge. I wanted to take Mary across Rannoch Mor, one of the finest rail journeys in the world. I enthuse over it, hoping to see a look of delight on her face.

“I think this is the same route I did in ninety eight when I took the train from Glasgow to Mallaig! It was lovely,” she offers.
I feel deflated. I’m wishing to show Scotland off to her. I hunt around my pack and pull out my reading material for the trip.

“What’s the book?” Mary asks.

“It’s on calculus,” I reply. I catch a look.

“Both integral and differential,” I offer as if I need to explain its merits.

“You told me to pack light,” she says.

“Well it’s not that heavy. I’ve wanted a chance to read it for sometime. It’s an old text, written by Sylvanus P. Thompson, published in nineteen ten. I managed to hunt a copy down on e-bay.”

There’s silence, a hole. I can see she’s pondering this.

“It was only ninety nine pence,” I add.

“You mean there were no other bidders.”

“Yes, that’s right.”
I get a bemused look.

We talk more about the TGO. Mary had not had a chance to get fit or fully understand the extent of what she’s letting herself into.

“You will suffer pain,” I say.

“You almost say that with glee, a badge of honour. A badge of war.”

“Well you will. I never said it was without pain.”

“But I didn't think it would be a requirement."

“Good point. I also didn't tell you about rain or bogs. You see Scotland and walking are synonymous with rain and pain. If you go to Cyprus you'd be unlikely to mention that you were going for the sun - it would be obvious. So with Scotland it's rather assumed that it'll rain and you'll encounter bogs and pain on the TGO. Sorry if I forgot to mention it.” I return to my book.

In Fort William we have a six hour wait for the coach to Shield Bridge. I’d not booked on the earlier coach in case we’d had delays. But Mary’s flight and everything since has been bang on time. We resign ourselves to sit it out, buying food, gas and having lunch. We meet Ken and Nina Stimpson who tell us they are on the earlier coach. We are inspired to give it a try, Fort William claims to be the outdoor capital of the UK. In fact I find the place rather boring and I look forward to spending six hours wandering around as much as Mary would relish reading a book on integral calculus. A TGO tip is when walking in a pair bring reading material both can share.

We decide to try for the earlier coach, to beg to bring our tickets forward. We have brief time for Mary to check the Internet and for me to go and buy the lunches for the next three days. I dash to Tesco with Mary’s parting words of not wishing for chocolate. I grab flapjack, fruit bars and some chocolate. Back with Mary I’m trying to convince her.

“Chocolate is great energy food. High calories for the weight. Very efficient.”

“It just sends you on a high, crashes you to a low then gives you spots and fillings,” she retorts.

We go to the bus station where I volunteer Mary to sweet talk the driver. We have to wait for the inspector, we throw ourselves at her mercy and she tells us we’ll have to wait for the departure time and if there is space we can switch. We watch with anticipation as other people board, hoping for two spare seats. The time approaches and the bus is being readied for departure. We await our fate – Fort William for another four hours or an early ride to our hotel.

“Okay, there’s room for you,” the lady inspector says as the bus driver takes our packs to load.

“Can I say something,” I say.

“Yes,” she replies.

“We love you.” She smiles and the driver asks if we feel the same towards him. Mary confirms yes, I remain silent. There’s a coach ride ahead, I don’t want any misunderstandings.

 


 

Friday

 

We wake to glorious views down the loch and check our kit in the bay window of the bedroom. I show Mary the international distress signal to a helicopter, letting them know it’s not just a friendly wave. I tell her the correct procedure for attracting attention with a whistle and ask her to tie hers to the outside of her pack. It’s an impressive teacher’s whistle.

We make a leisurely start after breakfast. An initial stroll to the beach of the sea loch where we gather a pebble each and paddle our feet in the usual TGO traditions. Mary has brought a pebble from the shores of Halifax, Nova Scotia (New Scotland). She throws it into the sea here to mark the start of her crossing and we set off up the main road before branching onto the minor road past Morvich and the slow climb towards Belach an Sgairne. We pause for many rests, we both struggle a little but I’m impressed by her speed. We take in the mountainous views, the forest opposite in deep commercial green with just the odd birch intruder in a lighter shade.

 

Mary at Alltbeithe with Jenny Wheeler in the background

 

There’s high cloud and a little rain. We pause by Joan and Bryan Crick, resting with Peter Lumley. I like Bryan’s tales and take on life, Joan jovially trying to silence him. We chat briefly before crossing the river and taking the climb through the bealach where we soon pick up the path I joined in 2005 after coming up via the Falls of Glomach. From here on we are in path, bog, path. Mary’s fabric boots soon leak and she feels uncomfortable. I worry if this will get her down on the Challenge. I offer chocolate, predicting her response. She settles for flapjack. We make the hostel at Alltbeithe in seven hours where a good evening follows chatting to Jenny Wheeler, Barbara Peers, Margaret, Chris and Peter Lumley.

Barbara is proud to carry a hairdryer and no tent.

“If you carried a tent you’d keep your hair dry,” I offer. The point is lost. She asks us our route and I mention it including the Lairig Ghru.

“You’re not taking Mary down the Lairig Ghru are you?”

We retire early to our bunks in the annex. I feel some strain from its confines, losing pieces of equipment to discover they’ve got tucked down elsewhere.

 

Saturday

 

We wake early and move into the main hostel lounge where we gather our gear, repack and set off. Barbara soon passes us on her seventy year old legs. We, in our forties, are mere youngsters on the Challenge.

“You've got a good pace!" says Mary.

“Oh it's just having long legs. I merely sit on top of them," she replies.

 

Bryan and Joan at Cougie

 

We start well on the tracks, enjoying the moody clouds hanging around the peaks, the beauty of Loch Affric and the peace of the wilderness. Mary does well but I have to reassure her this is a 20KM day, just 2KM further than yesterday. She takes it in, mentally preparing.

We meet with Bryan, Joan and Peter. We start to join with their banter. I tease Bryan for his 2005 crossing where on this day he lost one of his trio and later lost Peter and finished alone.

“You do realize you are jinxed walking with Bryan,” I say.

“Thank you very much,” replies Bryan.

I struggle with the uphill alongside Allt Garbh; the weight of my pack pulling me back. We meander on the easier sections before a left turn and pull up then down towards the loch that barely exists on the map. Mary having to watch her footing on burn crossings, trying to avoid soaked feet where I can just splash through in my Scarpa boots. By the time we reach Cougie, Mary at the end of her energies, it's looking as if a 20KM day is the most she can manage.

Val does not have a room, our hearts sink but she sends us up to her son’s place. This wooden house started as a caravan, was extended and extended until the caravan was eventually cut free. We have a room under the eaves, welcome amongst tools, sawdust and the lifestyle of a bachelor.

We return in the pouring rain we just missed to Val’s kitchen for tea, cakes and sharing our day with other Challengers. Cougie is one of the Challenge institutions, homely, warm and still the family home where Val and John’s children and twenty six grandchildren still visit.

“Some people are so fast,” says Barbara who had made it in long before us, “I lead for the ramblers and there’s me with my asthma.”

Bryan starts with one of his long stories, Joan signals him to zip his mouth. There’s real banter between this couple but obvious genuine love.

We catch up with Peter and Jenny too.

After a fine supper, cooked and served by Val, Mary and I retire to Paul’s house. Before bed we sit and listen to music awhile as the resident bat does a circuit of the lounge. We are pleased the generator goes off at eleven, its noise cutting into the silence of the area. I sleep poorly, waking after just a few hours. Then the rooster starts in the early hours. It kills any hope of further sleep, I slip out to use the loo.

“Where have you been?“ Mary asks when I return.

“I went to strangle that bloody rooster,” I reply. At that moment it starts up again.

“Trouble was there was four of them and I only got three,” I add.

 

Sunday

 

With my poor sleep and Mary’s apparent 20KM limit we manage to phone a B&B at Torgyle Bridge, cutting our day back from a 30KM day into Fort Augustus.

We follow the easy track to Hilton Lodge then the uphill and cross country tracks, following the power lines, to Torgyle bridge. We look back towards our trodden route, the mountains in cloud yet sparing us of rain. I point out the pass we have come through to reach the hostel then Cougie. Following a fold between the hills which towered above us. We meet with Bryan and Joan. Peter has taken off on a different route wanting to try a shortcut. Bryan is a mix of concern and annoyance for his missing companion. We continue, enjoying the fabulous mountain views to our right. Peaks, snow and sunlight dancing through.

We arrive at Torgyle Bridge where we find Peter, forever a striver, having beaten us all. We are desperate for the B&B and excuse ourselves.

I’m always cautious with B&Bs. With hostels and hotels there’s an acceptance for drying boots and making a mess. With B&Bs you are entering another’s home, truly a guest house. We make do, rinsing out shirts and draping them over radiators, hanging rinsed out undies from a conveniently shaped lampshade.

A peacock struts in the grounds, its call competing with the rooster of the night before to deprive me of sleep.

 

Monday

 

I wake early and use the bathroom. I spy a bottle of ‘Skin so Soft’. This is the best midge repellent known. Discovered by chance, by foresters finding its properties repel midges. I have my own product in mind called ‘Midge so Dead’. I’ll breed midges in my own midge farm then immerse them in water and fill atomizer bottles. When the purchaser sprays some on they’ll be amazed at the instant success as dead midges will immediately be found on the skin.

Back in the room I explain to Mary we need to head for Blackburn Bothy on the Corrieyairack Pass. A night in either the bothy or tent.

“Is Fort Augustus too near to stop?” she asks.

“We need to do twenty K a day, at least. We can stop there and eat well. Then it’s the curry for supper tonight.”

“Will there be crockery at Blackburn?”

“Erm no.”

“What do we use?”

“We eat out the cooking pots.” I wait, worried that I’ve not really explained things so well. But it’s fine, she just needs to know.

We have breakfast with Jenny, a first time Challenger and solo too. She’s lucky to be on the Challenge having seriously put her back out whilst lifting her cat. These things can so easily happen. We chat about our days.

“We’ll also need to buy some more lunches at Fort Augustus.”
”Not chocolate,” Mary adds.

“It’ll help you,” I reply, “A good boost if you are struggling.”

Jenny, who works in the medical field, now gives a thorough explanation of the fallacies of using chocolate on the trail. She explains that slow release food is much better. I sense the expertise that I had professed to Mary is now in doubt.

We make our way up through the pylons above Torgyle Bridge. It’s a tortuous route, boggy and uneven. Mary’s boots quickly leak and it gets her down. We press on eventually cutting through Jenkins Park where we are greeted by the tarmac of Fort Augustus. It feels an affront, roads and massive tar sealed car parks. We’ve gotten used to the open country, paths, tracks, trees and rivers. It just feels so wrong.

It takes us another three hours to get to Blackburn. A long pull up the track, Mary does well. Although she is struggling, sometimes feeling unwell she does okay on the uphill sections. We arrive and I’m surprised nobody else is there. I was half expecting Bryan, Joan and Peter. We manage to get the tent up before it begins lightly raining. We cook and sort things in the bothy then munch through our home delivery curry; amazing the distances they will deliver.

Retiring early to the tent we ponder what to do, a little early for sleep but good to be warm and cosy.

“How about doing some five minute writing I suggest?” We both like writing, Mary takes copious notes of her journey.

“How does it work?” she asks.

“We pick a topic and both write non stop for five minutes. We then read to one another. It’s good for developing writing skills.”

“Okay. What topic? How about if we jot down all kinds of ideas on bits of
paper and then draw for a topic?" she replies.

“It needs to be a more instant topic that we can both leap into. Anyhow my hat is tucked into my pack for putting the bits of paper into.”

"Fine, fine, fine!" she says laughing, "Have it Your way!"
"Not like you're 'put out' or anything?” I drawl. “ I know, that’ll do the topic can be ‘Being Put Out’"

So we embark for five minutes on this exercise, each silently and intently scribbling away. Time's up. I go first, reading out my ponderings on all forms of being put out, including putting the cat out. It's Mary's turn. I hear repressed glee as she starts.

“Being Put Out. It's NOT that I'm 'put out!!' The Shit!! How come he gets to choose the topic? ALL I said was, ‘How about if we jot down all kinds of ideas on bits of paper and then draw for a topic?’ Well, that was quickly dismissed! We didn't have a hat at hand.... Like who needs a hat?! ‘Fine, fine, fine!’ I said, ‘Have it Your way!’ ’Not like you're 'put out' or anything?’ he glared. ’Okay,’ he went on, ‘The topic is 'Being Put Out’ .. .. .. ..’ and he went on outlining the rules, timing, and blah, blah, blah. But you know what?! He was just going on, making noise in the background as my mind raced off. ‘Being put out????,’ I thought, ‘It's NOT that I'm 'put out'!!
... the Shit!!’.”

I corpse laughing, as does Mary.

“I think I need to go and pee,” says Mary. I lay flat to let her climb over.

“Is it okay if I go in the porch?” she asks.

“No, it bloody well isn’t.”

“But it’s cold out there.”

“Same for me.”

“But you don’t have to squat.”

“I think,” I add, “we need a chat about tent etiquette. Peeing in the porch is not allowed.”

“How about peeing in the tent?” Mary asks mischievously.

“Nor the tent. Nor is rolling over in the night allowed. Excessive use of the torch or snoring.” I pause, “But farting is.”

“Oh I could have guessed farting would be allowed. Along with telling silly jokes I suppose.”

“Yup farting and telling jokes are allowed. They’re not silly jokes. And farting is funny.”

“Steve…” it’s said in a way that I sense the need to turn to face her, she looks earnestly at me, “I teach eight year old boys.“ I look a little hurt and Mary adds “You look just like an eight year old boy now, just like at breakfast when Jenny told you about chocolate not being a good trail food.”

 

Mary at Blackburn

 

Tuesday

 

We wake early, both feeling the cold. Mary more than me, she’s had poor sleep. She peers out the tent. “There’s been a frost.” It explains how cold we both feel. We emerge into the sharp air, yet enjoy the blue skies. The gas stove, heating water, gives us a little warmth in the bothy as we eat our breakfast and sip tea.

We set out for another long incline on the excellent track, we enjoy the mountains in the beautiful light of the morning sun. The odd snow slither setting off the high corries of the mountains. Looking back we see our passage of the last few days. A lone deer stands on the high pass, its ears and head silhouetted against the blue sky. We soon pass Joan, Bryan and Peter packing up their tents. Peter is in a bad way with his feet, Bryan is tending them. Joan is bantering with Bryan over his stories. We chat for awhile. Bryan asks us our route.

“Glen Banchor, Newtonmor, Feshiebridge, Lairig Ghru.”

“You’re not taking Mary down the Lairig Ghru are you?” asks Bryan.

“Well it’s the bit I’ve never done, I’ve only ever peered down into it from the surrounding Munros.”

 

Views from the pass

 

“You do like this girl don’t you?” asks Bryan.

“Yes.”

“She might not like you after the Lairig Ghru,” adds Peter.

“Well we’ll judge it when we get near. Glen Feshie is always an alternative.”

We press on, passing large puddles full of tadpoles. I spy a sleeping lizard, submerged and point it out to Mary.

“The tadpoles look like sunflower seeds with tails,” she says.

“I was thinking they look more like sperm,” I add.

“What was I saying about the mentality of an eight year old boy,” she adds.

We meet Bryan and Joan again near the summit of the pass and sit awhile. Bryan is worried about Peter but is a little frustrated at the differing pace being kept. We sit and enjoy the views and food.

As we descend the Corrieyairack we find great chunks have been washed away leaving it in a sorry state. River and path often becoming one.

We make it to Melgarve Bothy, originally our planned stopping place for the night before. We sit on old seats outside, looking at the hills opposite, ever changing in the sunlight. A glorious place to rest up and, though the first walkers to arrive having our head start from Blackburn, the stream of Challengers soon start coming through. Birds join us, knowing the tidbits of food surround walkers.

We get talking to Jenny and many others. I’m asked about our route again and mention the Lairig Ghru. There’s some silence.

“You’re not seriously taking Mary down the Lairig Ghru are you? There’s boulders the size of small cars.”

A few others join in and I concede that perhaps we’d go via Glen Feshie. I’d chosen this route to give Mary the best TGO experience. The Lairig Ghru was the one day truly for me.

Mary quietly says to me, “When you realized that the Lairig Ghru was no longer an option your bottom lip quivered.”

“Oh,” I reply.

“Just like an eight year old boy refused an ice cream,” she adds.

Bryan and Joan arrive, no sign of Peter and his bad feet.

“He's determined! He’ll would crawl in on bleeding stumps,” says Mary. I’m reminded of the Monty Python ‘it’s just a flesh wound’.

We press on and camp on a small piece of high ground above the road after Garva Bridge.

“What’s for supper?” asks Mary.

“Curry,” I reply and gently inform her that curry is the main meal of our nights of camping.

As we settle Mary needs to go for a pee. Each time I offer what I call ‘the pooh bag’.

“So what is this pooh bag, is it biodegradable?” she asks.

“Erm, no. It’s just what I keep the essentials in. Paper and wet wipes. Are you telling me that if I’d not explained this you’d have returned it to me with something hot and steaming in?”

 

Wednesday

 

We make an early start, 0620 and get to Laggan in two hours, passing Bryan, Joan and Peter on route. We rest, enjoy the views looking back the way we’ve come, make use of the public loo and village store. It’s a nice gathering of many Challengers. One wonders if one pongs with the walking, how shop keepers and accommodation providers cope with smelly walkers. As Mary walks back from the loo I can clearly smell the soap but nothing else. I now realize you only smell the smells that are not on yourself.

We set off up Glen Banchor. It proves boggy, hard and drizzling. We stop at the bothy for rest, damp and smelly – as are we. Mary really struggles from here on, she starts to fade and feels ill. She’s not slept well. The path is sporadic, her boots leak badly and the terrain is hard going. Light rain does not lift her spirits. We make it to Newtonmore and grab the first hotel room we can find.

 


 

Thursday

 

Mary is not well. She’s struggling. We walk into Kingussie with Rob, an American doctor. He offers some reassurance but we book Mary into the doctors. My heart sinks at a 1630 appointment. This would not make for a good day. We bump into Nik Lawcock and Andy Desmond. Mary braves the doctors, asking for an earlier cancellation. A nurse takes her blood pressure but can’t listen to her chest. She’s feeling real tightness. The nurse thinks it’s exhaustion. We go for lunch with Rob and I leave it to Mary to make the decision. Do we head for Rhuigh Aiteachain bothy now or wait for the Doctors appointment? Eventually, with lunch and rest, she picks up so we set off, not canceling the appointment until we are sure she is up to it. We transfer Mary’s sleeping bag, sleeping mat and share of the food to my pack. She is just left we the bare essentials – water and her clothes. I’m weighed down, my GoLite pack is not designed for this weight.

Mary picks up and we do well. At Kingussie Peter and George (from Holland) offered us extra food as their parcel they collected now represents oversupply. I took many of the bars of chocolate being offered by George. They’re keen to get rid of it as it was destined for the bin. As we pass Tromie Bridge we meet a group, having done this route before I lead the way. Dutch George asks if I’m sure of the way through a myriad of tracks. Privately I am.

“I am sure George,” I look him earnestly in the eye, “but if I’m wrong I’ll give you a bar of chocolate.”

He grabs my face with both hands and laughs. In the woods I’m a little unsure at a junction in the tracks, not marked on the maps. I make rare use of my new toy, a GPS, to confirm where we are.

We press on, losing the group of people that we have spent the last hour or so with. When we meet the tar sealed track down the edge of the Feshie I reassure Mary that we are doing well. She is doing a little better, the weight off her.

In the distance I catch sight of what looks like MA Harper and Mike Akin-Smith. It is and it’s great to see them both. I like their company and so does Mary. Privately I’m so pleased to see Mary lifted by conversation, it takes her mind off the struggles of the walk. She’d not been able to train in advance and had never more than day hiked. All things considered I felt she was doing well. We cross the new Landrover bridge and walk the east side of the Feshie. This is better than risking the dilapidated bridge near the bothy. As we approach Rhuigh Aiteachain the hills above are lit by the sun, the pine trees and the Feshie guide us in.

The bothy is surrounded by a shanty of tents. Mary and I claim upstairs places as it looks to be a wet night. In the cosy downstairs room Dave Skipp is getting a good fire going. Nik, Andy, Croydon, Peter Sheppard, Bryan, Joan, Peter, Fran and Allen Mellors enjoy the fire. It’s a nice evening and I’m glad Mary can see a true bothy night. I’ve picked this route with TGO highlights.

 

Mike, MA and Me.

The sky on the bothy approach

Approaching the bothy

In the bothy with Andy, Nik, Allen, Fran

In the bothy with Fran, Peter, Croydon

Dave Skipp and fire

 

Friday

 

We set off into the rain. Mary has asked if it is possible to get a bed for the night, reluctant to risk damp and cold with how she's been feeling. The only place possible is the Youth Hostel at Inverey. I warn her it’s a risk, a long day and perhaps no bed. She wants to press on. I’m being drilled into the ground with all the weight. Mary takes just the two lightweight pots and the stove. We walk on and she goes quiet.

“You okay?” I ask.

“I’m feeling ill again.”

I try something. I readjust her pack so all the weight is on her hips, none on her shoulders. We walk on.

“How are you now?” I ask.

“Better, I don’t feel unwell anymore.”

“I’m wondering, Mary. There’s something called extraneous cervical ribs.”

“What are they?” I’m sensing my pronunciation might have sounded a little gynecological.

“They are small extra ribs, high up. It’s known that a pack will cause problems. I think they press down and cut off vital blood supply and make you feel ill. I’m just wondering. It’d explain you feeling unwell and why you picked up when I shifted the weight off your shoulders.”

We pass through the often missing track, picking it up before the welcome junction with the Geldie where a Landrover track sees us through White Bridge and to the Linn of Dee. As does singing in the rain and the wind. It’s a lonely route. When we arrive at White Bridge we rest.

“There’s nothing here,” says Mary.

“What did you expect?”

“Well. I’m not sure. So many people mentioned it.”

“It’s just a landmark. Like Geldie Lodge on the map. That’s just a ruin.”

I think Mary is understanding the remoteness of the Highlands. She is an outdoors type but has never been through this kind of terrain before.

Looking up at the bridge I see a box with wires protruding from it.

“Looks like The Bridge on the River Kwai,” I say.

“I never watch war films,” replies Mary.

“Well, I rarely do too. I tend to restrict myself to ones with good stories like The Bridge on the River Kwai. Or just ones where our brave boys blast the hun out of the sky.”

Fortunately Mary sees my irony. It’s something I find myself explaining often. Foreign nationals sometimes think we really mean what we say.

We reach the hostel at Inverey and are initially told that there are two spare bunks but it’s in a room of four and we have to wait the arrival of the other occupants to see how they felt. Then we’re told it is fully booked anyhow. We resign ourselves perhaps to camping. I’m worried about Mary. She’d said she needed a warm bed. We’d pressed on to near 30KM, way beyond what she was used to. She feels that the walk into Braemar tonight would be possible but I doubt it. I’m concerned. A young Australian couple arrive, pre-booked for two the bunks in the room of four. They are clearly city dwellers and the look on her face is one of “I’m not staying here.” I think the outside loo and cold tap have put her off a little.

The Australian chap is asking the warden about a refund of his £30 if he moves on. The warden looks flustered and confused and retires to his upstairs office to check other people in.

By now a large group of us are sat in the lounge sipping tea. I make the Australian an offer which I consider fair.

“If he won’t refund you I’ll give you twenty pounds as a helper.” I want this bed for Mary and thought I could tempt him to not worry if he could not get a refund.

The room looks aghast at me. I’m surprised. It was a fair offer I felt. After all I’d be paying for the beds too, and an extra £20 on top.

I repeat the offer, trying to look earnest. Again the room looks aghast. I’m shocked at the shocked faces. Am I being too generous? Somebody pipes up that I’m being mean.

“Mean! He wants to move on and is worried he might not get a refund. So I’m offering to help him. What’s the problem?”

“You could offer him the full amount.”

“The full amount. But then I’d be paying twice over. Once to him and once to the Youth Hostel association.”

There’s a look of realization about the room. But nobody apologizes. They’d all thought I was trying to buy the beds cheaply when I was in fact offering to pay more. I feel very put out. Mary teases me that if everybody had mistaken me then perhaps it was the way I said it.

“Well I am put out. I’d not ever have considered a rip-off.”

I go and see the warden with the Australian chap and it is too hard to do a refund. But the warden says if I pay the chap £24.80 directly it’ll be okay if we stay under their names.

“Would I only get a twenty four eighty refund then,” he asks. “What about the credit card fee and the booking fee?”

I feel sorry for him. His partner is giving him a hard time over this booking.

“I’ll give you thirty,” I say.

So we leave the warden but I’m struck by a minor concern. Paying out cash on a verbal agreement with the warden, who often looks a little confused, would leave me vulnerable.

“Where is your partner now?” I ask. Wondering if she might be resting on one of the bunks I was about to unofficially purchase.

He looks me in the eye and firmly says, “She’s sat in the car.” I’m unsure if this was offered as a reflection on their relationship or to reassure me. She’d obviously point blank refused to stay here and he’d been sent back into get the money back. I feel very sorry for him.

Later Phil Lambert arrives complete with Dan Pawlak, a Polish guy, who has collected an antler and skull set. He has it strapped to his outer pack. It looks quite a site and Phil is using it to dry things out on.

 


 

Saturday

 

I have poor sleep; waking early we breakfast in hushed whispers then sort our kit as others stir. Soon the kitchen is busy as we make to leave. I peer out the window and see it’s raining.

“Mary, shall we hang on until the rain’s passed?”

“Steve, you’re not really the outdoorsy type are you,” says Phil.

We start the wet walk to Braemar at 0630. It takes just two hours. The highlight was looking back and seeing around a hundred deer, just off the road stood in line watching us. As is typical of deer they stared for awhile then the leader, a proud stag, led them off.

We find a café open and have a welcome hot breakfast, catching up with a few other Challengers. I’m worried about Mary, she is very tired. I’ve already said we’d walk out via Ballater, an easier route then going over Jock’s Road or Lochnagar. I try to cheer her up.

“There’s a few nice art shops in town. It’s where I bought one of my pictures of the Inaccessible Pinnacle.”

“Where’s that?” she asks.

“It’s on Skye. One of the Munros.”

“So you’ve not done it then.”

“Yes, I have.”

“So why is it called the Inaccessible Pinnacle then?”

“Well…” I’m floundering with the teasing.

We wander around, check into our hotel. Mary rests and I go out in search of maps to get us to the coast and to book a hotel for the next night. I realize that Mary needs some comfort to see her through.

In the map shop I rue as I purchase the maps as I have the very ones at home.

“No use to you there,” the assistant commiserates in practiced dour tones. At a another store I witness Rob, the American, asking a shopkeeper if he can draw cash out anywhere.

“The machine’s no working. You should have asked me before you bought your things then I could have given you cash back.”

“I did not realize,” he said.

“You should have asked first,” retorted the shop keeper.

“How was I supposed to know?”

I suggest to Rob he buy something else small to get cash back and quietly added that he’s just met a dour Scot.

 

A nice welcome in Braemar

 

I’m in a dilemma over the hotel booking for Sunday night. Not cheap at eighty five pounds but we have the choice of that, a 10KM walk, or to Ballater a 30KM walk. There are no alternatives on route. I book the 10KM walk, thinking Mary could use a half day. On getting back to the hotel she feels the 30KM walk would have been better. I take a judgment to overrule, thinking she looks pretty exhausted.

We eat with Phil and Di Gerrard. A lovely bistro place and fine food. Di is shortly to emigrate to Kazakhstan to marry her man from Kenya. She wonders how he’ll fare on the Challenge next year.

“We could get married on the Challenge,” she muses.

“That’s getting a bit old hat,” says Phil.

“What about giving birth on the Challenge,” I offer.

“That’d confuse Roger,” says Di.

“Three hundred start and three hundred and one finish,” I add.

“It could be just like a nativity scene at Callater Stable,” says Phil.

“Would we find three wise men on the Challenge?”

“You can imagine the scene,” says Phil, “the first thing the baby sees is Croydon peering down with his headlamp.”

After the meal we pop into the Fife Arms to catch up with people. We see many people milling around and in the Fife Arms. Sue Oxley, MA, Dave Albon, Humphrey Weightman to name but a few.

 

Sunday

 

We see Bryan setting off alone. We’d heard Joan had twisted her ankle. My prophecy of him losing his entire party again appears to have come true.

We kill the morning then pop into a café where we catch up with Dennis Pidgeon, Bernie Roberts and Russ Manion. I ask Dennis his route.

“To the Fife Arms,” he replies.

We set off up the short walk to Inver and its hotel.  We chat with Margaret and David before branching off the road at Invercauld Bridge where we take the forest track and enjoy more mountain scenery. We try some more singing, I’m pretty tone deaf.

“We’ll need to train your ear,” says Mary.

“I’ve already trained the left one to fetch me a beer each evening,” I add.

Mary likes the hotel, it’s a nice room.

“Does it go up to five stars?” asks Mary observing the three star rating sign.

“It does, I don’t,” I reply.

There’s a nice bar of soap, nicely wrapped that Mary bags. I have to use a cheaper version, taken from an earlier hotel.

 

Monday

 

When I wake I’m feeling achy and stiff.

“Do you feel like you’ve just been hit by a truck?” asks Mary. She immediately realizes what she has said. For in February I had the misfortune to be driving on the M25 when Mr Radisa Radovanoviic, having just driven his truck up from Serbia, mistook me for a piece of tarmac. Being sent into the crash barriers at 70MPH had not done any favours to my back or left knee. The stupid trucker. Indeed I’d wondered about the Challenge but fortunately the pack has acted as a splint. And there was Jenny who did far worse to her back by lifting her cat. It’s a strange world when fate takes a hand.

We set off in glorious weather to walk along Royal Deeside. Just a few wisps of cloud hang in a royal blue sky. It’s a very pretty walk, though hot on the minor roads. Just before the final stretch into Ballater we meet with Andy and Nik on an otherwise Challenger free day. We stand at the shrine at the Bridge of Muick built to the honour of Queen Victoria who once inspected a line of soldiers here. This was prior to them going off to be slaughtered in Africa. Well it actually said they laid down their lives for Queen and Country but I prefer to say it as it is.

Nik and Andy are in good form and Nik and Mary are able to confer that they both were walking with men whose humour hangs around the eight year old mark.

We set off and I say “There might be a shrine to my jokes one day.”

“There’s another one that died,” quips Mary.

At Ballater we take the old railway to Dinnet. We hope this will be easier but in fact it’s a little tedious. Mary takes a bit more of the weight back and soon goes downhill. Though she assures me she can manage.

We stay in another three star hotel in Dinnet, changing rooms to get away from a noisy kitchen fan that’s stopping Mary from resting. My worst problem is a scalp that has got bad eczema. After stepping from the shower I announce, “I’ve just done something I’ve not done since Christmas day.”

“What’s that?” I hear concern in Mary’s voice.

“Washed my hair with shampoo. I normally just rinse my hair with water.”

 

Tuesday

 

I wake and look at Mary. Her eyes are very sunken. “How did you sleep?” I ask.

“Not at all.” We talk it through, we are just thirty five miles from the coast. She is exhausted. I offer her a day off, offer her a 17KM walk to the next hotel. It’s no good. I can see she is finished. I’ve done all I can with varying the route and taking more weight, I’ve no more options left to ease it for her. If I try and persuade her it’d be bordering on bullying. I book her on a National Express down south, to my house and get her on the local bus to Aberdeen to pick it up.

I set off, just wishing to finish now. I stop for lunch at the Potarch Hotel and from there I feel very alone, missing Mary.

 

I camp in a glorious wooded glade near Moss-side. Just wishing the time away now. I want to finish, am excited about completing my fourth Challenge but it feels different now. I used to walk the hills alone, now I seek more company. I manage to enjoy the meadow grass, Scots Pines. During the night I hear animals moving around, the morning brings close calls of deer and pheasant.

 

Wednesday

 

I make an early start through Fetteresso Forest, close navigating and comparing the forest operations against a map I’ve only just purchased. I feel annoyed with the OS for selling maps they proclaim as new when they are so out of whack with the forest surroundings. I also feel annoyed with the estate that claims they will be shooting May through February. It’s a ploy to distract walkers.

I make it through and at Mergie where a former Challenger, Lorraine, lives. She invites me in for tea where I join Suus and Bert from Holland. It’s welcome company and the three of us walk into Stonehaven with Bert suffering from a sore ankle he picked up on the second day.  We make for the beach. I throw in my pebble, call Mary on my mobile and throw her pebble as we speak. She sounds tired and drained.

 

Thursday

 

I spend a leisurely day before the meal. I find out that Joan did make it. This is good news. I catch up with many other Challengers milling about.

As I set off from my hotel to the meal I spy Polish Dan walking in. This time minus his stags antlers and skull. I catch him up and find he has posted them home. He says he has run out of food for the last three days and was pleased to find some spare food at a bothy. I make conversation and ask him what he does for work.

“I work in a factory making sure that everything is in the right place for production control. Sort of stock control if you like.”

“And you ran out of food?” I ask.

“Ironic isn’t it,” he adds.

 

© Steve Smith
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