Crossing Scotland on Bleeding Stumps – Steve Smith’s 2009 TGO Account
(An extract from this first appeared in TGO Magazine, October 2009.
This first appeared in full in The Over The Hill Club Magazine)
The TGO is an annual self supported coast to coast across Scotland walk
It’s the Friday evening before the TGO and I’m sat in my favourite Marlborough coffee shop. A text comes through from my sister and we arrange weekend visits for our ninety two year old Grandmother.
“Just out having a curry this evening,” she adds.
To outdo her I reply, “I’ve just ordered eight curry dishes to take on the TGO and I’m having a coffee waiting for them to be cooked.”
“What at an Indian take away? Do you then dehydrate them?”
“Yes and yes.”
“You are joking aren’t you? Tell me you are?”
“No and no.”
“Have you ordered rice?”
“No, I managed to do that bit myself.”
“I thought we’d already sorted the visits.”
Like all things culinary I’ve left it until the last minute and there’s no time to cook anything so I’ve dragged myself, under very little protest, to the Raj in Marlborough. Through language difficulties and our opposite meaning of shaking and nodding our heads, I made the order. They apologise for keeping me waiting and give me a couple of bottled beers. I figure the language barrier might make me sound rude trying to explain that I can’t drink so I take them.
It’s the evening of Wednesday May 6th, the food is dehydrated and my bag is packed. I’m online double checking my train journey from Bedwyn station to Strathcarron. It requires the first train out and the last train in with five changes. I’m debating whether I should print off a compensation claim form to take with me when the doorbell rings. It’s a neighbour and, in my role of helping to run the ‘Bedwyn Trains Passenger Group’, she says “Do you know what’s happened at Little Bedwyn?”
“Well, the line is blocked a woman and her dog have been killed on the crossing.”
Amongst the “isn’t it terrible for the family” and “it’s somebody’s wife, daughter or sister” I’m thinking “I hope this doesn’t mess up my journey.”
After the door is shut narcissism subsides and I think of my friend Susannah, who lives by the crossing. I text her to see if she is okay, I’m thankful for the text back but she says it’s pretty awful.
Later I check the trains, they report the line blockage, due to a fatality has been cleared but there are scheduled engineering works for the rest of the night. My heart sinks; I’ve had experience of this before. Although reported to clear at 0300 there’s often an overrun which causes the first train to be cancelled. With nervous anticipation I don’t sleep well and find myself at 0430 checking online. There’s nothing useful so I ring the helpline number. It’s voice activated and we struggle to get my start station into the system, then it’s the destination of the first leg, Paddington. It starts off with “Did you mean Cuddington?” We then go through a series of options which, after I’m not sure what got said, culminates in “Did you mean Pluckley?”
I give this up and wander down to the station and press the helpline button and they know as much as I do. If I’d left it all to chance I’d have had the same result as, by the time I leave the house for the second time, I can hear the 0607 pulling into the station. The journey goes well with changes in London and Glasgow, I meet with Alison Ogden and Sue Oxley at Perth and we journey on together to Strathcarron. The weather varies from sun to cloud then descends to lashing wind and rain. Alison is lucky to be on the challenge - a torn cruciate knee ligament and a cartilage operation less than two months before, have curtailed her preparations. I’m impressed by how her knee holds out in the run across the railway bridge as we struggle against the wind and rain, doing nothing to break us gently from the warmth of the carriage to the rigours of the challenge. A wet and sorry mob land in the hotel, some checking in, some just buying a drink, or two, before pitching their tent. Routes and plans are exchanged, my eyes light up when, amongst the tales of dire weather forecasts, I hear of a previously unknown bothy that might suit my Friday night.
On Friday May 8th we set off in the dry towards the bothy at Bendronaig Lodge. I feel slow, the weight of the pack, off my back for two years, pulls heavy on my left shoulder and the poorly distributed weight needs little excuse to kick into my lower back. I lose Ali and Sue as I rest to repack. With large items now stowed transversely it feels easier but the rough incline has me wondering about my ‘get fit on the challenge’ philosophy to preparation. It starts to rain and I catch Ali and Sue at a beautifully restored bridge crossing the River Ling.
“How do you know it’s restored?” asks Ali as I enthuse over the job that has been done, “it could be new.”
“Not with rivets that size,” I reply.
“I guess you have to be male to know about rivets,” she adds.
I’m unsure whether this is praise or mockery but am happy to plod on in company. It’s a wet group that arrives at the bothy after some three and a half hours of walking. People pour in as, having just experienced more rain on this challenge than in the entire previous one, a roof and walls are welcome. I’m happy to rest, my jacket is leaking. Our oldest comrade arrives; Jack Addison, aged 73, who soon announces his intent to press on. Only myself plus Ann and Alvar Thorn declare our hand and decide to cut the day short with a night in the bothy. The ensuite loo, complete with paper, bucket to flush and toilet duck is too tempting. Ali and Sue feel the bothy is too far to the west (there’s no pleasing some people) and elect to make this only a rest and press on to Loch Calavie in the hope of positioning themselves for some Munros. I have my eye on an afternoon walk up Beinn Dronaig but not before lunch and rest.
“I’m cold,” complains Sue sat huddled in her coat.
“You could chop up the firewood for us later,” I suggest.
I get a scowl and then Sue tries to cheer up engaging in conversation with each person that arrives which unfortunately becomes a series of gaffs.
“Bad hair day,” as a woman arrives.
“What’s your name?”
“Gordon Green,” replies the man with a full head of long white hair.
“Let me guess your age, most people on the challenge are about ten years older than they look.”
It was just one of those days where the foot was firmly stuck in it.
I strip my pack to the bits required to do a day walk up the Corbett and set off. I set my insulated, waterproof hat on my head and find my recent number two head shave (a brave and long thought out decision) has the disadvantage of making my hat feel loose. Soon realising I’d forgotten my trekking pole I return and, amongst curious glances, reclaim it and head up the rough craggy slopes of Beinn Dronaig. I find it easier going without the weight though appreciate frequent rests to peer back towards the bothy and admire the snow capped peaks with angry cloud above them. My ascent is entertained by periods of rain blowing in followed by snaps of blue sky and chill wind to blow the water off me. As I reach the bealach of the undulating, rocky summit plateau the wind picks up and I get to see out towards the Mullardoch hills whose peaks are picked off by a strip of snow.
As I approach the summit a hail storm strikes my void between the clouds above and below me. I’m grateful for the guidance of light snow marking out otherwise indistinguishable paths then for some shelter at the top.
View to the Mullardoch hills
The first part of the return is a hundred meter drop back into the hailstones, pelting and sandblasting my face as I escape their domain.
Back at the bothy I’m pleased with my efforts. To have sat out the day in the bothy would have left me feeling stuffy and unfulfilled with this remote Corbett left unconquered.
Alvar had tried to get a fire going but the stove just smoked the room so we were warmed only by a succession of gas stoves heating the evening meals; Curry for me. Five challengers sleep the night and the morning begins with the rustling of plastic bags and the flaring of stoves. I slowly gather my things, barely looking forward to the day ahead which appears to be one of grotty weather. I set off towards Loch Calavie on good track but am soon slowed by a deteriorating path which becomes a bog hop on the approach to Pait Lodge. I am slow, it takes five and a half hours to get to this lodge, an oasis of construction and garden in the boggy wilds and shores of Loch Monar. I decide, through a conspiracy of fitness and weather, not to ascend An Cruachan and instead cut up Allt Rabhachain to a bridge that Ann had recommended. The advice is good and I reward myself with munching some lunch in the heather. I’m passed by Phil Turner, setting an impressive pace as I ponder the rough walk through the bealach to collect the path towards the hydro works below Beinn Dubh an laruinn. I find the going tough, each step, each ascent is a strain as I stagger under the weight of eight days food. I use each stream to try and wash my boots and gaiters from all the peat gathered in the bog hoping and sinking. I cut a sorrowful figure descending the glen and rue the rain that comes down hard on my approach to the camp. Only the arch of a rainbow cheers me and there’s just enough let up to get the tent up. I’m glad to be inside, snug as the rain pelts the outer skin. I wonder where Ali and Sue got to and am a little surprised to be camping away from any other challengers.
Sunday 10th I wake and dress in to the wet socks of yesterday. My feet feel sore and ready to blister, I patch up as best I can. It was too wet to get out my tent and clean my teeth and I’m glad to clean up this morning and rid myself of the taste of curry. Tonight I’m heading for the Struy Inn so the evening meal will be a change.
The day is nice and I make slow progress in the sun. I see Ann and Alvar set off from their camp and pass Terry Leyland as he packs up. I look back to the route I’d covered yesterday, snow capped peaks and high cloud give invitation to the missed mountain, you have to catch them on the right day.
My feet get wet as they squelch into Glen Strathfarrar, the bridge at Inchvuilt requires a climbing move to overcome the locked gate and by the time I hit the road I can feel blisters coming on. I stop to pad them up and find blood. I do my best but it’s painful. I catch Ann and Alvar, having stopped for an hours lunch I realise that I’m slow. It becomes a route march down the glen and my heart sinks when I pass my 2001 parking place, to capture a couple of Munros, and recall the length of time it had taken to drive up the glen to that point.
A single pine tree, alone on an impressive mound, becomes my focus as the road twists and turns towards it. I’m glad the glen is not straight. The walks in Glen Clova and along the side of Loch Ericht, are straight, boring, long and in the latter case a dam teases you by forever being on the horizon. Here there is a pretty twisting glen to enjoy.
I arrive at Struy Bridge after an eight and a half hour trudge. I’d not marked the exact location of the inn; I guess a right turn and am pleased when my resting place comes into view. Though my heart sinks a little when I find it locked up and note saying it does not open until five thirty. I flop onto a bench, pleased for a rest and am eventually rescued by the hotelier.
“I’ll get the wee lassie to open up,” he says. The ‘wee lassie’ turns out to be a very tall Polish girl with the most amazing black hair. She shows me to my room, I check the blisters and find a scene of gore on my right foot. A red grape appears to have taken root between my big and second toe. Like an aging car, where surface rust rarely implies a good underneath, there is a horror story on the underside. A large blister has popped leaving a raw area, on the ball of the foot, about the size of a fifty pence coin. I limp my way to the shower to get it as clean as possible and soon find a new danger. There appears to be two settings, freezing or third degree burns. Surveying it I’d not be surprised if it had cleaned the very first challengers to ever pass this way. I soon discover the trick which is to control it by the stopcocks on the inlet pipes. I find a balance, clean up then patch up and limp my way down to the bar. I order food and am soon joined by Alistair and Lynsey Pooler, at twenty eight and twenty seven they look so young and do well to reduce the average challenge age. Alison and Sue join us, looking tired but elated to have achieved the four Munros to the north of Glen Strathfarrar.
The conversation flows and for Ali and Sue so does the wine. The purchase of a bottle, to decant into plastic platypus, sees them off to bed with the rest of us limping that way too.
Breakfast is a fine affair. The hotelier, realising we are all on the challenge, sits us together and it’s a feast of fine food and conversation. We depart to pack, where I bargain with every item to see if I can throw it away to reduce weight, and off we set.
“I need to walk with you today,” I say to Sue and Ali.
“Well, this quicker road walk as a foul weather alternative. I forgot to print the maps.” Though it’s not foul weather today, in fact quite nice, the forest tracks looked very boggy and we need to be at Drumnadrochit for five in the evening to catch a pre-booked ferry across Loch Ness. I sense a quietness about Ali and Sue, I’m not noted for my speed walking so know I have to raise my game to not slow them down. The roads are steep, hot and unforgiving to my blistered foot and Ali’s knees. We pass through hamlets, Kiltarlity we rename as ‘Kill a Tity’ (I tried for ‘Lik a Tity’ but get outvoted) and rest by a chapel. The entertainment begins with an inspection of my foot followed by Sue’s wet pack.
“Looks like your platypus is leaking,” says Ali.
A general inspection follows and we find what looks like a leak near the neck.
“This isn’t good,” says Sue. She’s not kidding, without a watertight container the challenge is nearly impossible. “This could be me out of the challenge.”
“I’ve got a spare,” I say and am immediately a hero. Once the spare is in place, as much water transferred as possible by the careful hand of Ali (a self claimed expert in decanting urine samples), and we are set to go. I don’t mind the small risk that my platypus will spring a leak and curtail my challenge. The TGO is all about helping one another out by selfless acts.
“Thanks for that,” says Sue, “my spare is full of wine, I’d not want to have wasted that.”
Setting off, and somehow feeling that I’ve been duped, I keep my cool by frequently dipping my cap in clear puddles. The water drains down, running between top and skin, cooling the uphill sections.
We pass lamas alpacas and the cutest ponies. I feed them longer grass and they look sorrowful as we depart.
We turn on to the Great Glen Way for the final leg to Urquhart Bay, which protrudes from Loch Ness to the shores of Drumnadrochit. We stop at a picnic area for lunch. It’s nice to sit at a table and enjoy the sun. I’m low on water so refill from the tap in the loos. It looks uninviting as I poor it and emerge into the sun with a plastic bag that looks like something you’d find hanging on a hospital bed.
The walk between the trees is gorgeous, light shining through dappling the path in sun and shadow. Trees bend against the blue sky and a chorus of birds share our delight in the day. Sue keeps us paced but I bargain for a two minute break, which turns out to be a longer one as we sit on a viewpoint overlooking Loch Ness.
By now the muscle, which connects my right leg to my bottom has strained. It’s painful, especially on uphill bits.
“I could massage it for you?” says Sue. I await the punch line.
“With my boots,” she adds.
“And what state of dress would I be in?”
“Naked,” says Sue.
“It’s rumoured that one normally has to pay good money for that,” I add.
We make the ferry at five past five. We realise we are on the second boat load so rest, bask in the sun and chat to other challengers. I’m grateful to Ali and Sue, for Ali’s navigation and Sue’s pace got us here in time. There’s not a chance to walk into Drumnadrochit - I’ve not visited it for many years. The last time there was a sign for “Official Loch Ness Monster Museum” and “Original Loch Ness Monster Museum”; one wonders if there was some competition.
The crossing is in the subtle evening glows of light, about ten of us crowded onto the boat sailing for the eastern shore and the hamlet of Inverfarigaig. As the western shore shrinks, the eastern shore grows and what were faint outlines become clear to the eye and what was clear to the eye dwindles into a pinprick of memory. We alight onto the derelict jetty and plod our ways to B&B, pitches and for us the friendly confines of the Sutherland’s hill billy ranch at Ault na Goire. We approach apprehensively and enquire if the rumour of pitches were true. We are welcomed in, fed tea and biscuits then directed to the field. In glorious evening sun we chatted with Shirley Worrall, Peter Shepard and many others. A sink and a welcome loo make it all mod cons amongst eccentric sculptures involving old bicycles and Dyson vacuum cleaners.
The Sutherland Homestead
I don’t get much sleep. The welcome cups of tea went down a bit too well and caffeine pumps through my system forcing sleep to snatched moments between periods of trying to get my aching body comfortable on my thermarest. An early hour’s call of nature has me admiring the heavens, millions of stars lighting those that choose to sleep away from the lights of the cities. I sense a frost in the air and crawl back to the welcome warmth of my sleeping bag. Life is simpler in a tent, just the bare necessities of survival with the attendant list of jobs to sustain a twenty first century lifestyle left far behind with their significance. The TGO is a travelling community, leaderless comradeship with just a few basic rules in which to flourish. I’ve always been unsure of what love means but somehow the TGO fosters that spirit; at the very least it’s one definition.
The calls of animals and the roar of neighbouring gas stoves serve as an alarm clock and I start to get going. A frost has settled on the tents and we wait for the sun to clear the high trees and dry the worst off the tents. In the meantime we all sing ‘Happy Birthday’ down Alison’s mobile to her fifteen year old daughter, Madeleine. Alison is younger than me and has a fifteen year old daughter, the years creep by and one barely notices until a little reminder, and an aching body, awakens us to a world getting younger.
We get going at a quarter to eight. I feel slow, lacking the hearty breakfast and time constraints of yesterday. We are in a long procession of people, funnelling from where they rested their heads towards Errogie and the splendour of the Monadhliath Mountains beyond. I soon need to rest and ask Ali to check my foot. Sue turns away as she sees the gore, fortunately this is all in a days work for Dr Ogden and she patches me up with an appropriate dressing, supplies me with a spare and off we set again. I feel slow, am slow and don’t mind Ali and Sue getting ahead. I sense I’m becoming a burden, yet don’t mind the space opening up but sense some concern each time I catch them at a rest stop. I find myself in a second party, chatting to new people as we find ourselves, unintentionally trespassing through a beautifully manicured garden with the destined hills beyond. A woman emerges from a grand house and, before she can say anything, I’m apologising on behalf of us all. If there was wind in her sails it is taken away as we explain our mistake and she suggests helpful route advice. Catching the front runners we choose to ignore said advice and find ourselves in an even more beautifully manicured garden. This time there’s only a gardener and from him we receive a cheery wave.
At a junction in the path I feel beat with tiredness. I’ve already decided to tell Ali and Sue that we should separate as I’m holding them up. I’m just about to make my magnanimous gesture when Ali, who’s obviously been in conversation with Sue, says “Is it okay if we go on, Steve?”
“Yes, no worries,” I say. So I bid them and Phil Turner farewell and settle for a rest. My right foot has been painful with each step so I take some Ibruprofen, drink lots of water and graze on nuts and raisins. I’ve avoided chocolate bars this year, dietary advice on C28 from Jenny Wheeler (and a follow up email a month or so back followed by confirmation text on day one) did not let me dare pack any chocolate. I could kill for a Mars bar right now. But the healthy Steve, who at this point can barely move, sets off again and forces his legs along the track. I’m soon passed by Peter Shepard and companion as I follow the steady pull towards the Corbett of Carn na Saobhaidhe. I lose myself in a work problem, passing the additional tracks to the wind generator – a solitary structure requiring access roads and power lines. It switches my mind off from the fitness struggles as my mind plays through ideas, possibilities and scenarios. Like life the purity of walking, the purity of the mountains makes everything simpler. The solution comes to me and even the lack of timesheet to record the event is not a bother.
As the map indicates the tracks imminent demise I catch sight of a group of three huddled over a map. Realising it’s Ali, Sue and Phil I catch them and ask, “What happened?”
“We stopped for lunch and dried the tents.”
“I’ll accompany you to the top then let you off the leash again.”
Accompanying to the top becomes a tortuous bog hop over the final slopes to the bealach between Beinn Bhuraich and Carn na Saobhaidhe. Super fit Sue and youthful Phil leave Ali and I standing as we work our way with tender knees, and tender feet, to the higher ground. I rest often, allowing Ali to catch up, though I sense she’s happy to make her own pace. I find it hard going and am glad when the south westerly climb becomes an easier south easterly final ascent to the Corbett’s summit. I expect to spot Peter but he’s long gone, though strangely he did not pass Sue and co, so instead I rest around the high, breezy plateau of the summit cairn.
Only Sue hears me say ‘cheese’. Phil Turner and Ali Ogden to the left.
The deal to separate is not required as we all descend at equal pace to the Allt Odhar and its short, yet impressive, waterfalls.
“You’re a new man,” says Sue.
“Something clicks in with me,” I reply. “Sometimes I’m on a roll other times I’m just so slow.”
We follow the river downstream to Dalbeg, where I rest by the closed up bothy. Peter is camping and comes over to say hello.
“We were shouting to you from the track to the wind turbine, did you not hear?”
“No,” I reply.
“That was the way to the Corbett.”
For the life of me I could not see how, and a later inspection of the map makes me none the wiser (or certainly no further informed).
I press on for the bridge south west of Coignafearn Lodge, an evening appointment with MA Harper awaits me. Having said goodbye to Ali, Sue and Phil I lose myself in thoughts as I follow the comfortable track along the river; still heading downstream I’m glad of the gentle descent but wary that this requires more ascent tomorrow. As the bridge comes into view, and the lodge building, new yet Victorian, fills the glen beyond, I spy my three comrades of the day sat resting by the bridge.
“We can’t lose one another,” I say.
“We miss your sparkling company,” says Ali.
I sit next to her and trim my nails.
“You are showering me with bits of nail,” says Ali.
I pitch my tent, alone after ten hours walking and admire the evening light as the sun drops below the hills to a deepening blue sky. With no sign of MA I slip into my sleeping bag and have a restless night as each time I turn my body reminds me of my aching hips.
I snatch just enough sleep and wake to Wednesday May 13th dawning another glorious day. I make a slow start; heating breakfast in the same pot I cooked curry last night. The smell of gas reminds me of the static caravan holidays of my childhood. Rain soaked South Coast sites, making model airfix kits to try and take the mind off the tedium. Muesli and dehydrated skimmed milk is not the most appetising and I won’t claim that a curry twang sets it off any better. After I scrape the last of it into my mouth I set patching up my feet then packing up the tent. It’s the bit of camping I like the least, the bit of camping that will always make my preference a bothy. Or as my friend, Gisella puts it “Camping is a B&B without ensuite.”
I take the climbing track, south. Looking back along the track, running parallel with the river, I see a fellow challenger. I wait awhile in case it’s MA but as the figure draws closer and the distant movement grows legs and arms I see it’s male. I press on, making reasonable time and making use of the tracks. Oyster catchers and cuckoos keep me company; the sky is a promising shade of blue and the burns emit a mass of noise that can be listened to intently or phased out at will.
As I rise I find the wind cooling. I rest awhile and the male challenger catches me up. His map shows more tracks than mine and I memorise them for my walk to the Corbett of Carn an Fhrerceadain. I skip a tempting bridge, continuing on the track until I have to boulder hop the Elrick Burn. Then it’s a rough, ascending walk following an ever diminishing stream until all that remains is the sound of water pouring through underground sumps. Then it’s a drop to a shelter with the stream once more my loyal companion. I peer into the structure, a table crowds the room and I only guess at its purpose. A rest then a track has me ascending to a window to the right of the Corbett. I go well past it before the track turns back and leads me to its summit. I rest, phone in to control and, at a little after one in the afternoon, I’m pondering my descent to the Insh House at Kincraig. I could follow the ridge then drop almost on to Kincraig, drop in to Kingussie for a meal or aim for Balavil then take the old A9 route to Kincraig. This latter option becomes my plan and downfall in terms of time.
Firstly I get the wrong track and traverse east across heather and peat to pick up the right track. I shelve thoughts of doing the same again and continue on the track to Balavil. I’m slow, it’s tough going and I don’t make the road until half five. It’s then a gruelling road walk, my feet reminding me of their blisters, the long day so far and unforgiving tarmac becomes a battle with them. I count the kilometres off against my watch, every few minutes re-estimating my time of arrival in Kincraig. Cars are forgiving; mostly I’m given a wide berth, a few people smile and wave. It’s seven when I reach the village; almost the first building is a hotel serving bar meals. I’ve been going twelve hours, unsure just where the time has gone. I’m hot, dehydrated and tired. I fall inside, prop myself at the bar and order two pints of orange juice and lemonade. The barman becomes distracted, a food order to take to a table, a phone call to answer, a local to pass time with. Doesn’t he realise the gravity of the situation! My head is tipped forward, more slumped in fact. He then pours me my two pints and like John Mills in ‘Ice Cold in Alex’ I savour their sight, slug one back then take my time over the second. A third follows before I feel recovered enough to order food.
I feel ill with the wait, it must be dehydration as it’s that three am alcohol swimming feeling of “why did I do it.” The three courses of food are welcome, I don’t feel I could have walked another yard, I’m sore and tired. I check the map over two coffees and realise I’ve another mile and a half to walk. This feels cruel, the bar stops becoming the welcome end to my day and is relegated to a mere rest stop. I shoulder the pack and plod slowly and begin to seriously wonder if this is the end of my challenge. My right foot feels really bad, it’s been painful with each footstep today and another hour on it is not going to help. Cars pass me, headlights on. The cool of the evening descends and I keep checking my watch, counting off any kind of marker that I can see. The walk is in two stretches, I’m grateful for the first turn then the walk down the side of Inshriach Forest and the final welcome view of the B&B. Sue and Ali should be there I think. Actually I’m not thinking at all for when I walk up the long drive, ring the doorbell I’m met by three concerned faces. The owners, Nick and Patsy Thompson, and Ali are all by the door. In an instant I realise my lack of thought.
“We’ve been worried about you. And I’ve just reported you as overdue to Challenge Control,” says Ali.
It sinks in rapidly. I should have phoned from Kincraig and reported my recovery at the local hostelry. It’s twenty five to ten.
“If I had my time again I would have phoned,” I offer. I think I get away with it. Ali phones Challenge Control and reports my safe arrival. Patsy offers me the floor to collapse on to remove my boots, a room with a bath is supplied and I crawl off to refresh and recover.
With rinsed out clothes draped on radiators I pull myself between the sheets. I ache from head to toe. Pains shoot from my hips to meet those on their way up from my feet. I feel I’m out. Too tired, too blistered.
I wake in a different mood. That will to keep going and some hours of sleep just tip the balance back in my favour. It’s a short day today, no rush. Ali comes in and dresses my right foot and gives me a prescription for antibiotics; just in case it gets infected. It’s our last day together today as my and their routes diverge. I make use of their re-supply box and post back everything I can. Spare hat, gloves, used up maps, book, radio, spare top, undies, hankies and just about everything else I can think of. A cooked breakfast, a gesture of £20 to the Thompson’s covers our three parcels heading south and we are out the door. That’s the easy bit because between the door and the road is a long drive with one or two rather inviting picnic tables. The three of us slump at the first and wave the Thompson’s goodbye as they depart for their day.
Once every excuse to rest has been exhausted we set off. It’s still painful to walk, the first few paces making me wonder ‘how on earth’. But after a few minutes a stride is found and the pain becomes a less tiresome companion.
I notice a horn tucked into Sue’s pack. “What’s that doing?” I ask, “I thought you were telling me I was carrying excess weight.”
“Phil Turner gave it to me,” she replies.
“Phil gave you the horn then?” I chip in. There’s silence. The world stands still while I prepare for a reaction and prepare my response for every reaction. Fortunately there’s a laugh and I’m off the hook.
We make the pretty walk to Feshiebridge, taking the forest track I bargain for a rest. With Ali and Sue both being dog lovers my humorous negotiating is circumvented by a team of husky dogs, chained to individual stakes, resting as their owners, a middle aged couple, sort their mobile support unit, in the guise of a long wheel based van, and wheeled cart. They bark our entrance, slowly calmed, one by one, by their owners and our stretched out hands. Ali and Sue embark in long conversations on dog ownership whilst I take the chance of a rest. My contribution to the intellectual conversation is restricted to the following:
“Do you compete with them?” asks Ali.
“Yes,” replies the man.
“You must do well to keep up,” I chip in.
Ali raises her eyebrows; it’s lost on the chap.
We set off, enjoying the forestry tracks in a day with little cloud, freshness in the air and a richness of blue in the sky. Ali and Sue are in a deep conversation about buying their own B&B. Even the respective labour divisions of their husbands are discussed. My only contribution is to request disposable razors in each room. We bump into another dog owner, I realise how useful they are as I take another rest. It’s hard to get going again as, after each stop, my right foot is very painful to get moving again. I’m also troubled by a multitude of smaller blisters, but the TGO is about tenacity and the human spirit. The check in at the end of the challenge is the walking wounded.
At Drake’s Bothy we pause to rest, chatting to some cyclists. The familiar voice of the Reverend David Albon comes from the entrance to the bothy. Ali and Sue greet him with hugs and kisses, I offer a polite handshake. We lunch then set off for a camp pitch that David knows. Some careful navigation of forestry tracks is required, the crossing of the Cairngorm Club Footbridge then about a miles walk to meadow grass on the bend in the river by a close group of Scots Pine trees. It’s a beautiful setting, the hills behind us glow in the light, the water of the river glistens, high trees gently bow and swish in the light breeze. We pitch our tents for conversation and slowly sort our things. Tomorrow the forecast is not so good for a few days, I use the phone signal to try and book in for Saturday night at the Fife Arms in Braemar. They can’t confirm the booking until the next day so I leave them my parent’s number, assuming I’ll be out of signal range before office hours.
MA, who has had car troubles, bikes into meet us, stays and chats awhile. We then prepare our meals in the warm evening sun. David, like all blokes, thinks dehydrated takeaway is an excellent idea.
“The trouble is you’ve got curry every night,” says Ali.
“And your point is?” I reply.
Ali then points out that I don’t attach the security tabs on the central hoop of my tent.
“What happens if I don’t?”
“The guy lines don’t work unless you attach all the hoops.”
“That’s something I now have to worry about. Ignorance was bliss.”
The conversation goes on in to the evening. I recall my walk of yesterday and my state when I arrived at the B&B. What a difference a day makes.
Friday the 15th dawns overcast with drizzle, the forecast likely accurate. I say goodbye to my departing camp mates and make a slow start, it’s just fifteen kilometres to Corrour Bothy, over the infamous Lairig Ghru. Tumbling streams and Scots Pines accompany the gentle forestry ascent, my body copes better and the softer ground is kind to my feet. A light rain starts as the skies grey and the clouds hang low on the mountains ahead. As I rise the temperature drops, the wind picks up, the clouds descend and the rain meets me with gusting lashes. I meet others passing the other way, brief words are exchanged about the conditions offering little hope of improvement. My jacket starts to leak. I rue not having donned my fleece, now too windy to contemplate opening the pack for it. The wind cuts into my chest and I have the persistent feeling of having just jumped into a swimming pool.
Our tents dwarfed by the trees
The conditions are not the worst I’ve experienced, in my younger days I was the archetypal southerner who’d drive to Scotland and loiter into the mountains whatever the conditions. At times I’ve not been able to stand on summits, a crawl being all the elements would allow. Today is poor though and I have to stand and brace the wind and rain, all efforts going into staying put than moving forth. Lulls allow progress into the headwind. What a difference a day makes…
I fear hypothermia, the wind and rain are ripping the warmth from my body. I’ve experienced it once before, sat soaked and sorry at a Munro summit cairn. Again with no fleece the wind and rain had sucked the heat out of me. My co-ordination had gone, my reactions tired and slow and a little voice, deep from inside, slowly woke me and got me off the mountain. Today I plot and plan, I grip the map in my soaked glove and, with the aid of my altimeter, count down to the high point of 2750 feet. I keep mentally alert, dreaming of home yet wonder if home I’d remember my gratitude or miss being in Scotland.
Over the summit and after some descent a little shelter is offered. The wind is still in my face, I’ve passed a hail storm on the summit, but it’s now bearable as the worst of the weather is funnelling over the high pass between the steep Munro slopes that guard the Lairig. I’d planned this TGO to take in areas that I’d not previously done. This includes Glen Strathfarrar, the ferry across Loch Ness, the Monadhliath and the Lairig Ghru. These conditions are awful, I’m having no fun and make a mental note to make a diary entry for October marked ‘Don’t apply for the TGO.’
My hands go numb under the soggy gloves, making a call of nature impossible to attend to. The descent feels long, over five kilometres until the roof of the bothy comes into view. It’s welcome, the gable end having appeared in every rock face like a mirage in the desert. I cross the bridge, admire the attached toilet block, enter into the porch then the main building.
“Hello,” I say.
“Hello,” come the Belfast accents.
“Are you on the TGO?”
“No, what’s that?”
I explain and they comment on the larger number of people they’ve seen. The two brothers, Stuart and Andy, are snatching a week in the Highlands before Andy’s return to Afghanistan. They are kitted out in army gear, my pack is draining water so I go to lift one of their packs to save it from the puddle. I can hardly lift it, the weight is unimaginable. We while away the time, the futility and hopelessness of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I hear first hand accounts of what the politicians would rather not hear.
My day has taken six hours, it’s three in the afternoon. I’m aware the bothy may be busy later so cook now. My parcel home included as much food as I could do without, so this is my last food of the day. I use the nails driven into the walls to hang wet gear, bag the one raised sleeping platform after Stuart and Andy mention they plan to camp. I explain the bothy is likely to get busy, Andy goes out and sets his tent.
“That’s the last we’ll see of him,” says Stuart.
Over the course of the next five hours twelve more challengers arrive into the tiny confines of the bothy.
“Trust you to take the best bed,” Maggie Hems charm has not deserted her as she greets me for the first time in two years.
“I simply got here first,” I explain.
Frank Row with Lesley and Lawrence Dark arrive. Frank elects to camp but after an hour reappears asking for rescue. The central pole of his tent had bent down in the wind. His companions dart out and his tent is rescued. It stops Stuart from thinking of camping and he decides to stay in the bothy.
Fiona Bennett, Marion Mitchell, Fran Mellors and Marie Donohoe arrive. Glad to be out of the growing storm yet in good spirits. Stories of the pass are exchanged. I venture out to the loo. A wooden structure attached to the southerly gable. By now the roof of the main building is making ominous rattling sounds. A couple of times we’d all just stopped and looked at one another as a ferocious gust had blown through and tested the workmanship of the MBA. I fight the loo door open and close it. The loo is a hole on a raised platform. My right leg just a few inches from the door which is held only on a standard handle latch. The door blows open, smacks my bare leg and I begin a wrestling match with nature to close it. The wind is so strong that all I can do is hold it off my leg. Its power is equal to my power to close. It’s the first time I’ve ever felt the need to fight off the wind while sat on the loo. Eventually there is a pause and I manage to close the door and hold it fast with my right foot. This does not make the job in hand any easier yet my modesty and fear of being beaten to death by a wooden door, are protected.
Back in the bothy Fiona offers chocolate. I’m grateful for the fine Green and Blacks as by now I’m hungry and have no food spare. Vicky Allen her aunt, Barbara Johnson and cousin Kathy Powell arrive. Barbara is eighty, on her tenth crossing and appears in the doorway in a very sorry state. Soaked through, exhausted she’s been caught out by a day that started mildly then a storm that increased by the hour until the safest course of action was to keep going to the bothy. Fiona, Marion and Fran go to her aid. Barbara has reached an age where her reserves are low, we can all dig deep and find the energy to keep going – all Barbara’s have been spent getting here. Her clothes are changed and I watch the situation with worry. Never having used a foil blanket, in my desperation to lose pack weight, I’d sent mine back from Kincraig. I ask if anybody has one, Leslie has a fine one and that is draped over the barely lucid Barbara as she is offered a hot drink. She vomits and I wonder if I need to walk on for help. Fiona, Marion and Fran do an excellent job. By now I’ve pushed my gear to one side of the sleeping platform so I can share it. The place is booked for Barbara and she is lifted up. I take her right hand, Fran her left as we try and get warmth into her. A tin of Heinz tomato soup was in the bothy when I arrived and that is heated. Whilst doing so I’m given the job of talking to Barbara to keep her awake.
“Where did you start?” “How many crossings have you done?” “Where will you finish?” are all met with a whisper of an answer. The soup is ready, Barbara takes sips then vomits again. Though by now her voice is stronger and her temperature is getting back to normal. We think it’ll be okay.
Koos Schellevis is the last to arrive, making fourteen in all in the small room. He’s dripping wet and is shown the toilet to change in. He looks nonplussed, I don’t blame him. It feels a cruel gesture. He leaves his things in the porch and takes the last place by the door. Leslie gives Koos some food, and I embarrassingly ask if she has some spare. A bread roll and a piece of cake are very welcome.
We settle for sleep, many sit up as there’s not enough floor space for laying out. I manage to sleep well, the platform being shorter than me means I have to bend my knees. This acts as persistent check on Barbara as each time I move I disturb her and am relieved to feel her move.
The long wild night is replaced by the dim glow of dawn through the tiny bothy window. People start to move and everybody is very polite and considerate when moving round one another. Kit had been disbursed to the four corners of the bothy and it’s a major operation to reunite people with their belongings. Stuart, not on the TGO and the youngest person in the bothy, is a true gent. He’d slept sat up (a generous gesture and one I’d not made) and uses a powerful torch to guide anybody searching for a lost item. Koos, with his dry Dutch manner, says “careful” after every trip or slip.
Barbara sits up and speaks, “Thank you everybody for saving my life. This is my tenth and last crossing.”
“This is my first and last,” adds her daughter, Kathy.
I get going at eight, out into the rain again, unsure if I have a room in Braemar or whether it’s the campsite. I need a room to sort my gear, feet and get dry. I soon catch up with Barbara and Kathy, with Vicky just ahead. She asks me my name, in the melee of the wild night we’d not been introduced. As soon as I mention it she reels off my adventures as written up in previous accounts. I’m touched yet slightly embarrassed that I can’t recall the adventures of others as some remember mine.
Ahead on my own it’s a squelch to the short double back to Luibeg Bridge. I recall my Munro exploits to this area - a fifteen hour walk that had me making a late evening bid to return to Braemar Youth Hostel before closing time. Today I’m not against the clock, just against myself. I count the distance off, passing small patches of trees before the track through the forest and the drop to Mar Lodge. I cross the well kept grounds and emerge on the road to Braemar, sparing myself the tiresome and feet wearing tarmac between the Linn of Dee and Victoria Bridge.
I check my texts and find I have a room in Braemar. This lifts my spirits and I make good progress and bump into Jenny Wheeler as she makes her way east to Mar Lodge after a shopping trip to Braemar. It’s good to see her, it’s been two years. We chat for awhile, exchange stories and I hear of how her new boots hospitalised her in Fort William with badly blistered toes. She praises Mar Lodge and I wish I’d called in for at least a cup of tea. I confess to having had chocolate the night before, she forgives me the one slip.
“Time to move on from the rabbit,” I say as our conversation comes to an end. She catches my gaze and says “Thanks for pointing that out Steve!” as we both observe the decaying corpse that we’ve been standing by.
Braemar takes its usual form, checking into the hotel, showering, hanging the tent over the shower rail, milling around, chatting to people, sharing stories. My foot inspection shows swelling and tenderness and has me visiting the chemists and making use of Dr Ali’s prescription.
Baring my sole - The state of my feet
I phone into Challenge Control and speak with Alan Hardy. He’s done a usual quick crossing and is manning the desk. He is so fast I wonder if he’s ever phoned in and answered it himself. I ponder what it must be like on Challenge Control. There are over three hundred people heading your way, trying to keep tabs on them all, concern at those overdue. I wonder if it feels like wartime Bomber Command, counting the planes home with worry about those that are not answering.
I have supper in the hotel with Russ Manion. He’s on his tenth crossing, celebrating by wearing a kilt which, with his long white locks, sets him distinctively apart. We are the only two TGO guests in the hotel, long gone is this the throbbing hub of the challenge. A switch to the ownership of a tour company has this hotel catering for those seeing Scotland from a coach.
“You were one of the first with a Laser Lite,” says Russ in his smooth fireside voice. Again I’m flattered by the memory of another.
“I don’t fancy putting it up again.”
“What’s your route to the coast?” he asks.
“I don’t feel up to the high ground or the road walk.”
“Have you thought of Gelder Shiel?”
I had to admit my lack of knowledge so he promises to bring maps to breakfast. I spend part of the evening in the bar, catch up with sleep then rise before six to sort my kit.
Russ is true to his word and shows me the route to Gelder Shiel. It looks like a fine route out, just within my capacity of being tired to the bone and my feet which appear to be bleeding at the slightest additional knock. I just have a kilometre of map missing, between my printed area of Braemar and OS Sheet 44. I draw in the extra.
The last few days remind me that the non competitive nature of the challenge means that people are there for you and you for them. This too goes for outside the two weeks a year for it’s an often said thing that when you have a problem it’s the challenge folk who are in touch first. Somehow the TGO is what we yearn for - a community offering freedom, support. It brings out the best in a world that can encourage prosperity by the worst of behaviours. The news on my hotel room TV reports a terrible illness sweeping the land which causes people to delude that their members of parliament are dishonourable.
I’m in no hurry to set off and instead relax in the hotel lobby. I see the standard residents, grey, pale and overweight wobbling down the stairs. They are no older than many of the challengers but their life path so different. Ali, on her first challenge, realised that the TGO folk are the people she does not see in her surgery.
I wander around, Jenny sees me and I shyly show her my purchase of chocolate. I have lunch, visit an outdoor shop to buy one extra evening meal - I’m one short to last me to the coast. The first one I see is dehydrated vegetarian curry, I elect to try something different so choose pasta in tomato sauce.
So easy if one had a car
It takes an hour and forty minutes to the Invecauld Bridge, a welcome turn off the A road away from traffic that sees the walker as an intruder. I navigate the forest in rising temperature. I sit, contemplate, free from all worry other than what’s in my pack and the few days ahead. The skies are good again, fluffy white clouds intermingle the blue sky. Scots pines are either side of the track but with room for heather, luscious grass and light to pour through.
Out of the trees, on high ground I walk below the towering cliffs of Cnapan Nathraichean. I turn and look back and bid the Cairngorms farewell, gracious in the gentle calm - innocent to the storm of forty eight hours before.
I make good progress on the track and ahead is Lochnagar, a long mountain towering from the plains. I arrive at the bothy, a simple building on the opposite side of a track to an attractive lodge. Vicky, Kathy and Russ greet me at the door. Barbara is asleep inside. I choose a bunk, cot like making keeping ones possessions together an ease. Shawn Grund, an American and the youngest challenger, joins us. Barbara at eighty the equal oldest means we have an age range of fifty nine years below our roof. We are also joined by the spirited Anna Tertel from Poland. Both she and Shawn are making solo crossings having planned from foreign lands.
Compared with Corrour Bothy the space is luxurious. Many camp and use the bothy to cook and chat. It’s a peaceful atmosphere in a beautiful setting with the sun sinking to a low glow over mountains and travelling burns. Behind the bothy is the loo, a back window allows us a view of those opening its door. To a person there’s the same reaction – an eager face, pleased not to have to pooh and bury in the wilds, opens the door, pauses, draws in eyebrows, drops chin and reels back. I choose to hold on and not pay a visit.
I get a fitful night of sleep; the bothy’s layout offers comfort and reassurance as companions lie a few feet away. The stir starts a little before six, people dress, stoves go on and I stay put. It’s a short day today, over to the next bothy the Shielin of Mark. I listen to conversation, Vicky’s entrance to ensure Barbara and Kathy are making progress for the day ahead. I lay through the chat, the packing, the breakfasts as the many that have camped make use of the bothy’s chairs and tables. I’m last to rise, pull my things together, breakfast on Jacob’s Cream Crackers then set forth. I’m suckered by a useful looking bridge and find myself on a rising mountain track; I return and pick up the right path, following the stream then branching across a boggy mush to reach the landrover track that heads south then east to the head of Loch Muick. Lochnagar has her head in the clouds as I recall a long gone day of multiple Munros. It starts to rain as I bump into Russ and others. They rest and I set off, Anna a little behind me. We play rest and catch up for awhile before we walk together. I struggle a little with her accent, as I’m sure she does with mine. She’s good fun, strong minded and, judging by the size of her pack physically very strong too.
The rain is tiresome, I feel damp on arms and chest as we drop down the track, through a brief pine forest and reach the visitor centre at the Spittal of Glenmuick. Unstaffed we make use of the dry confines and the drinks machine does a roaring trade as sixty pence after sixty pence is exchanged for hot chocolate and soup. I’m pleased to be out of the rain, stay as long as I can, make use of the clean loo then set off up the steep south easterly path that follows an impressive river in a deep gorge.
It rains, it drizzles and I keep my spirits up with thinking how lucky I am to still be in the challenge. I thought I was out at Kincraig but now it all appears to be coming together, even if a little damply. I catch Barbara, Kathy and Vicky. They urge me to go on but I want to stay with them. They’re good company which I enjoy but also the terrain is rough, the day is short and there is security in numbers. As we emerge from the gorge, break out on to open land it’s just a mile to the bothy. Yet this is no ordinary mile, a mile can be short and mile can be long because said quickly no account is taken of the terrain. And this is tough ground, few routes are fitful through the peat hags and bogs and then there’s the matter of the bothy being out of sight. Situated in a dip you almost stumble onto its roof before you see it. Barbara is slow, her age having caught up with her over the last year and it feels a good idea to keep on a compass bearing to ensure we hit the bothy and don’t waste unnecessary steps. Keeping on a bearing is impossible so Vicky and I ‘box’. This involves agreeing on the bearing, one person staying rooted while the other walks forward, avoiding bogs and hags then drifting back onto the bearing. The rooted person then waves them left or right to get them perfectly aligned, then goes forward, passing the other, who is now rooted, and getting ahead is then waved onto the bearing. We do this half a dozen times until I see the bothy, just a dozen or so meters off bearing. I wave Barbara and Kathy, who have been making their own route using myself and Vicky as markers, to my left.
The bothy is welcome, yet dingy and damp in comparison to the fine one of the previous night. There are two raised platforms. Anna joins us and ponders whether to go on. The river, usually an easy crossing, is high, swollen as it gutters the water off the high ground. Vicky is concerned and surveys the bank.
“There’s a possible crossing a little upstream,” she says. I’m trying to dry Barbara’s Kathy’s and my jackets in the breeze between showers. I leave the jackets to hang on a line and wander up.
“You see that island, I think you can easily wade to it. It’s then a short knee deep crossing. Though I’m worried about Barbara being able to withstand the current.”
I peer at the proposed route, it’s not enticing, nor is a long walk north to avoid the crossing and risk finding an even worse swollen river. I decide to take the head in the sand ‘worry about it in the morning view’ and return to gather the jackets as the rain blows in again.
Anna is still debating whether to stay or go. I make her a platform out of an old door and two benches. This does it for her and she decides to set off with Russ, Mick and a few others. Vicky and I go to watch. Mick crosses, throws his poles back which I gather for Anna. She makes it but looks rather wet. The rain blows in again and without jacket, I return to the bothy. Vicky returns and reports them all safely across.
The evening starts to slip by with supper and arrivals falling between those staying and those attempting the river crossing tonight. Jenny arrives and camps, so does Bernie Roberts and a few others. Maria and Stuart Scott arrive late, eat but decide to make use of the last of the light and cross.
Shawn, having climbed Lochnagar and arrived after us, makes use of the final sleeping platform. Last night, at Gelder Shiel bothy, somebody read from the bothy book “Walked in with twenty kilograms of coal to find no fireplace.” That has to be the hamlet cigar moment of all bothy nights. Tonight is more typical - a fireplace but no fuel. We make attempts with some pre-cut peat but all that burns is the methylated spirits we try to light it with. It gives a few moments of hope, then like the preverbal Christmas pudding flickers and dies. “Lovely fire,” we all say with irony as we edge forward for warmth from the imaginary flame.
Kathy and Barbara share a platform, both for warmth and consideration to not use up two. Barbara having spells of quietly resting then chatting sits up in her sleeping bag, wearing her hat she touches Kathy arm through gloved hand and in a soft mesmerising voice begins to recite the ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee by Robert W. Service’. We all fall silent and listen as the rain drums on the bothy roof, the wind gentle wisps and howls and the bothy feels oh so cold.
There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.
Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows.
Why he left his home in the South to roam ‘round the Pole, God only knows.
He was always cold, but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell;
Though he’d often say in his homely way that “he’d sooner live in hell.”
On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way over the Dawson trail.
Talk of your cold! through the parka’s fold it stabbed like a driven nail.
If our eyes we’d close, then the lashes froze till sometimes we couldn’t see;
It wasn’t much fun, but the only one to whimper was Sam McGee.
And that very night, as we lay packed tight in our robes beneath the snow,
And the dogs were fed, and the stars o’erhead were dancing heel and toe,
He turned to me, and “Cap,” says he, “I’ll cash in this trip, I guess;
And if I do, I’m asking that you won’t refuse my last request.”
Well, he seemed so low that I couldn’t say no; then he says with a sort of moan:
“It’s the cursed cold, and it’s got right hold till I’m chilled clean through to the bone.
Yet ‘taint being dead—it’s my awful dread of the icy grave that pains;
So I want you to swear that, foul or fair, you’ll cremate my last remains.”
A pal’s last need is a thing to heed, so I swore I would not fail;
And we started on at the streak of dawn; but God! he looked ghastly pale.
He crouched on the sleigh, and he raved all day of his home in Tennessee;
And before nightfall a corpse was all that was left of Sam McGee.
There wasn’t a breath in that land of death, and I hurried, horror-driven,
With a corpse half hid that I couldn’t get rid, because of a promise given;
It was lashed to the sleigh, and it seemed to say: “You may tax your brawn and brains,
But you promised true, and it’s up to you to cremate those last remains.”
Now a promise made is a debt unpaid, and the trail has its own stern code.
In the days to come, though my lips were dumb, in my heart how I cursed that load.
In the long, long night, by the lone firelight, while the huskies, round in a ring,
Howled out their woes to the homeless snows—O God! how I loathed the thing.
And every day that quiet clay seemed to heavy and heavier grow;
And on I went, though the dogs were spent and the grub was getting low;
The trail was bad, and I felt half mad, but I swore I would not give in;
And I’d often sing to the hateful thing, and it hearkened with a grin.
Till I came to the marge of Lake Lebarge, and a derelict there lay;
It was jammed in the ice, but I saw in a trice it was called the “Alice May.”
And I looked at it, and I thought a bit, and I looked at my frozen chum;
Then “Here,” said I, with a sudden cry, “is my cre-ma-tor-eum.”
Some planks I tore from the cabin floor, and I lit the boiler fire;
Some coal I found that was lying around, and I heaped the fuel higher;
The flames just soared and the furnace roared—such a blaze you seldom see;
Then I burrowed a hole in the glowing coal, and I stuffed in Sam McGee.
Then I made a hike, for I didn’t like to hear him sizzle so;
And the heavens scowled, and the huskies howled, and the wind began to blow.
It was icy cold, but the hot sweat rolled down my cheeks, and I don’t know why;
And the greasy smoke in an inky cloak went streaking down the sky.
I do not know how long in the snow I wrestled with grisly fear;
But the stars came out and they danced about ere again I ventured near;
I was sick with dread, but I bravely said: “I’ll just take a peep inside.
I guess he’s cooked, and it’s time I looked;” . . . then the door I opened wide.
And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: “Please close that door.
It’s fine in here, but I greatly fear you’ll let in the cold and storm—
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it’s the first time I’ve been warm.”
There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.
There’s silent reflection, Barbara has lifted and lowered her voice to the rhyming flows, lifted and lowered her hand to Kathy’s arm as the poem flickered between speech and narration. I’m amazed anybody could commit such a long poem to memory. The best I ever did was a playground limerick about a young lady from Leeds who swallowed a packet of Suttons finest.
Tuesday 19th dawns after a night of rough sleep. It’s starting to feel like the challenge is coming to an end; today will be the last of the mountains as we cross to Tarfside via Muckle Cairn and Glen Lee. First we rise and breakfast. Barbara offers me a triangle of Dairylea - welcome with my dry Jacobs crackers. Just the smallest of otherwise taken for granted things feels so different on the TGO. I shall never forget this piece of Dairylea, it’s up there with the excitement of going to the theatre or seeing a great film for the first time. Everything is relative and in a society where food is taken for granted what gives us a thrill is getting bigger by the decade. Rollback to the basics and the small things become big things, they shine through with the people that come with them. I finish packing, including the daily routine of setting my curry and rice to re-hydrate. This involves emptying the dried flakes into my cooking pot, filling it with water, covering with thin plastic, pushing the lid on, taping over the steam hole then securing in a plastic bag.
Postulations long aside there’s a river to cross and seven of us to do it. I go first and, on Vicky’s advice, unclip my pack so if the worst happens I can free myself from it. The first part is easy, made with ankles above water. I pause on the island, spot a submerged rock and move as quickly as possible. I scramble up the bank and find that my gaiters have held tight. I look back and realise I have to be the anchor man. I slip back down the bank, perching myself on a peat hag that’s determined to reflect my every movement. One by one the crossing is made, I realise the benefit of my long legs as my suggested instructions for the last bit are of little use. I offer a hand to those that need a little encouragement. Barbara is escorted and we manage to lift her out onto the bank.
A rest of draining boots and changing socks follows before the damp trudge up Muckle Cairn in the company of Barbara, Vicky and Jenny. Barbara tells me of her exploits, trekking in the world in her senior years. She then recites a poem her son, Frank Johnson, wrote from his home in Australia on the day of president Barack Obama’s inauguration:
I sat and watched his speech today
This man who will lead the USA
and though I was a world away
I had to brush a tear away.
He's given all of us some hope
Not just the usual old soft soap.
The world is on a slippery slope.
Is this young man our safety rope?
He called to us, the teeming throng
to listen to his stirring song.
Now come my people let's be strong.
The course we take is steep and long.
Six billion people heard that man
The sceptics wondered if he can
affect the change in uncle Sam.
The crowd roared YES, OH YES WE CAN!
“Your memory is amazing,” I say.
“There are lots more where that came from,” adds Kathy.
River Crossing (Photo Jenny Wheeler)
Barbara, Jenny, Vicky and Kathy empty their boots
I love the company and we join with Ian Shiel who, in his true gentlemanly style, trades his trekking poles with Barbara’s as his are much better for the descent into Glen Lee. A river crossing has Ian as the anchor man as we cross through the funnelled rush of the waters draining from the mountains. Ian, the son of a sure footed shepherd, has us all over in no time.
It’s raining and Barbara and family urge Jenny and I to walk on ahead. I feel a little unsure but the track is now good so it’ll just be a slow plod into Tarfside for them. Jenny and I know that by now there’s no chance of a bed at the hostel but elect to go on to spend more time enjoying the social scene. As beds can’t normally be booked ahead Russ has been tasked with asking if one can be reserved for Barbara.
“I do hope mum has a bed,” says Kathy.
“With Russ’ charm I’ve no doubt they’ll hold one for her,” I add.
Lunch on the porch! (Photo Jenny Wheeler)
It’s good to walk with Jenny, great company and somebody I can lose myself in conversation with and forget the foot pain. We think about a lunch stop and, given the rain, we sit in the porch of a derelict house. Glass and dead mice have to be evicted before bottoms can be parked.
“Is that your lunch?” asks Jenny as I unwrap a single piece of flapjack.
“I’ve reduced my rations to keep the weight down.”
Jenny takes pity on me and I’m offered pita bread and peanut butter which is delicious.
We reach Tarfside, in what feels like a longer and wetter walk than five years ago, and pitch our tents on the village green. Retiring to St Drostan’s Hostel we drink the tea and eat the cake supplied by Ann, Janet and Carole. As ever the ladies do a sterling effort amidst the chaos of people arriving and what must be a pungent whiff of unwashed walkers.
Given the number of tents about a third of the challenge are here this evening. You spot a face, think hard and recall you spent a few hours walking with them just a week ago. Others call hello and you stop, think and remember when you last walked. Val Haddon and Mary Brook are all smiles and it takes me a second to remember that I walked with them into Tarfside on this very day of the challenge five years ago. Old acquaintances becoming renewed acquaintances trigger feelings of guilt as I feel I’m abandoning the people I’ve walked with over the last day or so. Alas I worry needlessly for everybody is deep in conversation with others. Tales of wild nights, wild drinking and the bizarre and peculiar one meets along the way. News of the wild night in Corrour bothy has travelled far and wide and is being restored brick by brick as so many challengers pass through the natural funnel of Tarfside. With most of us there we become legends and are referred to as ‘The Corrour Fourteen’. We discuss T shirts and reunion events.
Tarfside Meal (photo Jenny Wheeler)
It feels good, a buzz, and we all eat at the hostel before drifting back to our tents and in Barbara and Kathy’s case a welcome room in the hostel. Jenny and I have pitched next to one another. A sorry looking Sue and Ali are a few yards away, Ali’s knee is playing up and Sue’s dog, sick back at home, is causing her concern. I try for conversation but realise the timing is not right and slink back to my tent.
Tent sorting and chatting follows, Jenny goes off to the loo and a few minutes later I see she is being helped back to her tent.
“Steve, guess what I’ve done,” she says. Her face looks pained and distressed.
“What?” I ask, concerned.
“The wooden ramp out of the ladies loo was very slippery. I went flying and landed heavily on my back.” This could be serious for Jenny. She has osteoporosis, three slipped discs and, due to associated nerve damage, can’t lift her right foot. She drives a modified car, is amazing to be on the challenge and to not allow adversity to get in the way of the life she wants to lead. But if a slippery ramp out of ladies loo has ruined her crossing this would be unjust in the extreme.
Myself and the chap, John, that’s helped her are very concerned, she also has a badly bruised and cut arm. We help her to her tent where she slowly sorts herself out. I spy in the distance a council grit bin, borrow Jenny’s bright orange trowel and set forth to help prevent another accident.
I’m waiting for the calls of “you don’t need a trowel for these loos, Steve” but I’m spared it. About a dozen trips between the grit bin and the ramp (there is no suitable bucket to hand) has it more or less safe. I return and see Jenny is very uncomfortable but she says she’s taken some strong pain killers that she is waiting to take effect. I ask if she needs to visit hospital but she assures me that rest is better. Having been hospitalised once already on this challenge I’m sure she’s reluctant to add to her visits. I promise not to wear ear plugs and she promises to shout and wake me if she needs help in the night. She gives me an energy bar which I enjoy in my sleeping bag.
Sleep comes slowly, a distant car sound system is blaring away as local youths share their pleasure with all who’d rather sleep. Though I count my blessings, it’s not raining. I must eventually drift off and come to a little before six. The tent feels damp and I struggle to get myself moving. I look at the cream crackers for breakfast then look at my cooking pot. As I ate at the hostel the curry and rice, that I set to re-hydrate twenty four hours ago, is still there. It’d be a waste – wouldn’t it? I put on the stove and likely become the first man to ever purchase a curry in Marlborough and have it for breakfast in Scotland.
Jenny and I set off a little before seven thirty, deep in conversation we miss each bridge that crosses to the pretty tracks on the south side of the River North Esk. Instead we remain on the road realising, each time too late, that we’ve overshot a crossing point. Cars, buses and lorries give us space until a large Vauxhall comes round a bend towards us. Tilted at speed he honks and shakes a wild fist gesticulating us to walk single file. We return to our peace and let him speed on to wherever his life is taking him.
Jenny shows me how she manages her right foot. Unable to lift it she lifts her leg, to clear the foot of the ground, and manages to drop it down with an almost imperceptible limp.
“How is the back?” I ask.
“I used a hand mirror this morning to check the bruise on my coccyx.”
“That’ll be a rear view mirror,” I quip then realising I need to not be so flippant ask, “What was it like?”
Dead rabbits litter the road. It’s as if they’ve been dropping out of the trees. Not one or two but an exceptional crop interspersed with the occasional bird (which could be excused for dropping out of its tree). They are in varying states of decay and we ponder the quantity.
We pass Millden Lodge and, with the realisation of another missed bridge, we turn back.
“Don’t let me hold you up, Steve. You can go on and I’ll meet you at Edzell.”
“No, it’s okay,” I reply.
“I worry I am too slow for you.”
I think ‘perfect pace, keep it up’ and we venture back and walk into the grounds of Millden Lodge, cross the bridge only to find it gated and locked on the south shore. Covering the same ground again we try for the bridge just north of Haughend.
“I think we’ve missed it again,” I say.
“Let’s try this track,” replies Jenny. It leads towards the river then loops back. Jenny gives me a GPS reading and we’ve overshot. We climb down to the banks of the river and make a determined northward charge along the riverbank. After ducking overhanging growth, circumventing undergrowth, twists and turns we see the bridge. Slightly dilapidated yet serviceable enough for our purposes we emerge amongst a strange array of wooden barrack like buildings. We are now on the beaten track and in celebration rest awhile whereupon we have a pre-Edzell lunch break which involves me eating more of Jenny’s pita and peanut butter.
We take more care over navigation and manage the tracks that cut the corner off the road into Edzell. Proud of ourselves we indulge in a game of inventing acronyms for the three letters of each car number plate that passes us. We award bonus points if they are relevant to the TGO.
“Tired Scottish Walkers.”
“Blistered Sore Feet.”
“Jenny’s Sore Back.”
In Edzell we stop at a familiar café where I lose all sight of healthy eating and order deep fried mushrooms followed by a kaleidoscope of ice cream. Sat opposite Jenny, a vegan I worry about what the deep fried mushrooms will do to me. As for the ice cream – that blue sauce was delicious. Once lunched we shop for evening food, make use of the Post Office where upon a lapse of concentration has me leaving my bank card in the machine. Fortunately the next customer spots it and with Jenny still in the shop it is returned to me. Outside an elderly gent, accompanied by his wife, arrives on his bright red three wheeled tricycle.
“That’s a fine machine,” I say.
“I’m unstable on two wheels now, so I bought this,” he replies.
“Great basket too,” says Jenny admiring the white framed basket that I secretly wonder if his wife rides in.
We mill about some, chat with Kahy, Barbara, Vicky, Bernie and many more. We then set off down the track between the Post Office and the garage. We’d missed Mrs Trike setting off as part way down the dropping track we come across her trying to push the bike downhill. It’s tilted towards her, riding on just the front and one of the back wheels. She’s having trouble controlling it.
“Do you want a hand?” I ask.
“Oh would you, I’m having some trouble with it.”
Jenny takes her in conversation as I take over steering the fine, bright red machine. At the bottom is a T junction in the path.
“Where do you live?” asks Jenny.
The lady points to the other side of the river and for the first time I observe her closely and realise she is very elderly, likely in her nineties.
“Did your husband come across the footbridge?” asks Jenny.
“No, we came round on the road.”
We wheel the trike to the left then onto the footbridge. It barely fits, just a half inch either side. By now Jenny and I are pondering the wisdom of this.
“I think we should turn back,” says the lady. We do so and back on the path a long line of challengers pass us and I’m heavily ribbed for my new mode of transport.
“There’s an old chap in the High Street looking for his trike,” says one.
Once the crowd has past it’s the three of us left.
“I think I should wait for my husband here.”
“Do you normally bring the trike this way?” asks Jenny.
“No, we don’t,” she replies.
“Let’s go back to the High Street and find your husband,” I suggest.
“Yes, yes I think we should do that now.”
We set off, slowly with Jenny holding the old lady in conversation. At the foot of the slope the elderly gent appears. I don’t know if he’s more pleased to see his wife or his trike.
“Thank you,” he says, “I’ll push it on from here.” I look at him, look at the trike, look at Jenny. She kits him out with two walking poles and I push the trike. It’s slow and I need them to be able to keep me in sight as I fear they will worry that I’m making off with it. We make it back to the High Street amidst a conversation of her explaining her reasons and him, unable to fully appreciate his wife’s confusion, saying what trouble she’s put this nice young man to. At the top I swap the trike for Jenny’s poles and he takes my hand to shake.
“God bless you, you’ve booked your place in heaven.” I look into his elderly eyes, observe his height and build and see my grandfather who we lost last year, just a month before his ninety third birthday. He even takes my hand as Grampy did, shaking my right, covering it with his left.
I return to Jenny and we are pleased for our good deed of the day.
“He must have cycled that in on the main road,” says Jenny.
I ponder this, “yes, he must.”
“I’m full of admiration for him to want to keep going but it must be dangerous,” she replies.
“You sense they shouldn’t be out on their own, especially in charge of a tricycle.”
We make for our route and I explain that we are possibly about to pass the bull with the unfeasibly large testicles.
“Believe it or not these are the biggest pair of nuts you’ll see on the TGO,” I explain. Alas he’s not there, his field empty and my chance of further schoolboy humour in tatters.
We pass through farmland tracks, avoiding the straight road to our left with its speeding traffic. Beyond is the disused airfield with associated hangars. Then there’s the bull, quietly munching in the field. I point him out with glee. Actually I point out nothing more than his pendulous assets but Jenny gets the idea.
We decide that the farm tracks are getting too complicated, the ground too boggy and head towards the road. Bert Hendriske is on hand to drive away nosey bullocks and help open heavy gates. On the road we are joined by Shawn and we wonder on his take of our number plate game.
“Helping The Seniors.”
Shawn is quietly spoken, and there are gaps in conversation as we play our game interspersed by chat about his university life and plans. Then quietly he joins with our game, coming up with acronyms to while away the monotony of the road.
The Crimewatch CCTV footage showing me having just mugged an old guy for his tricycle
At the North Water Bridge campsite the volume of tents grows in the evening sun. I count over fifty, Shawn had counted sixty seven at Tarfside. There’s the chance for wandering and I’m called to two groups to explain the story of the red tricycle. Back at the tents Kathy joins us for a chat, then Alison and Sue.
It’s sunny as I wake, not able to believe this is the last day of the challenge and tonight will be a hotel room and the celebratory meal. Tomorrow will be the train ride home and home is where somehow survival feels a little harder. More chores to distract, phones to shrill, emails to answer, bills to pay and more than one pot to wash each night.
I hear Jenny moving, call out and we have an out of sight conversation. I head for the washroom and make use of the hot water. Dave Skipp is using the sink next to me.
“Steve, mate I’ll tell you. People actually use this campsite for their holiday, right next to the A90. I don’t know what lives they live but if this is a holiday they must live by the M8 in Glasgow.”
Packed up we set off for St Cyrus following the familiar road walk to the foot of Hill of Morphie (or Hill of Morphine as I indulge a fantasy) where we rest.
“Thanks, Jenny,” I say as she hands me chocolate and a banana.
“Thank you for seeing me to the end.”
The mutual appreciation society lingers (especially as the chocolate was bought specially) until I spot a discarded Kit Kat mug behind a post. I pick it up and clean it off. It’s a fine red one.
“We’ve had a break and a Kit Kat Mug! I’ve got lots of chocolate mugs,” I say, “but not this one.” I wrap it well in my pack and we set off for the final three miles.
“How are the back and foot,” I ask.
“Fine and you?”
“My foot is still killing me but otherwise okay,” I reply. I think of another ‘Ice Cold in Alex’ analogy where the truck breaks a spring on the final ride in.
We get to the top of the cliffs and survey the pure sand stretching between the land and the blue, blue sea. We can see south towards the lighthouse and on to Montrose. It feels along way since Strathcarron.
We make our way to the beach, Shawn is with us now and Jenny paddles her feet. I survey my options and decide to do it. I strip to my undies, run into the sea, hesitate, hesitate again then duck under for a second or so. A couple of strokes to say ‘I swam in the sea’ and I’m running back up the beach.
Jenny and me propping one another up
We shake hands with Shawn and both congratulate him wholeheartedly on his achievement. “Shawn you chanced by the TGO on the internet, applied, planned your own route, kit and transport. Arranged for time off university and came and did it unsupported. And you are only twenty one. That’s incredible.”
He smiles, shyly then says “I’ll regret it if I don’t.” Strips to his underwear and runs into the sea.
Sun, sand sea and Shawn (photo Jenny Wheeler)
We walk back up the long cliff path, a car passes.
“SBY, Shawn, Shawn…” I say reading off the letters of a car that passes us.
“Shawn’s Bloody Young,” says Jenny and we get a broad smile from our North American colleague.
We eat at a café then head for the bus. We just miss one then realise it’s an hour wait to the next. This is fortunate as Shawn has left his wallet and passport in the café. I order a taxi. A big red one arrives with room enough in the boot for a big red tricycle, if such a thing were being carried (the rumour going round is I have it stashed and am cycling to the coast). We arrive at the signing out spot, The Park hotel, Montrose. We prepare for the ribbing of arriving by taxi but we are spared. We make our way to the Kinnaird Room (up a flight of steps it feels just that way) and receive our handshakes from Roger Smith and Alan Hardy, our badges, certificates, a bright red celebratory T shirt and a small bottle of malt whisky (which lasts as long it takes to bump into Croydon).
So I’m happy (far from seeing red despite the T shirt, taxi, tricycle and Kit Kat mug), relaxed but just a little sorry this is the end. Jenny is booked on tomorrow’s meal so we say our goodbyes for now. She’s been great company. I wash and cleanup in my room then mingle around Montrose and its proliferation of charity shops. Back at The Park I feel guilt with dividing my time, not wishing to appear rude when needing to flit from one to another. There are so many familiar faces to talk to yet so many that you also never meet on the trail. As if people swing from route to route on mass.
The time for the dinner comes and I sit with Shawn, Barbara, Vicky, Kathy and Maggie. I look around the room. There is so much noise, so much contrast and a sea of red shirts with the occasional sunburned face to match. I watch people leaning forth, turning to their left, their right for conversation. Some wander between tables, catching up and taking photos with people that mean so much. Shawn with his backward baseball cap and black body warmer makes the TGO commemorative shirt look cool. For some reason I feel this is my most memorable crossing, the one I sense I’ll miss the most, the extremes of weather offered a variety and despite my own hardships I feel I’ve enjoyed this crossing the most. As this is my fifth crossing I must have past the one thousand mile point somewhere on the trail.
I await my vegetarian option and, in true Park Hotel tradition, I’m left waiting and waiting. A bowl of pasta arrives, just a bowl no salad or extras. It looks like five minute pasta with a cheap sauce. Before I can say “you’re having a laugh” the waiter disappears knowing he’s having a laugh. I tuck in to what I could throw together in five minutes.
“I feel I’ve been done, this must account for about ten pounds of the cost of the meal.” Everybody nods in agreement. As I finish it pudding arrives, sat at the end of the table I slip the bowl of profiteroles onto my lap and cover it with my napkin. As a waitress does the other side I catch her eye and say, “I did not get one.”
“Did you not?” she asks.
I shake my head and she pops a bowl in front of me. I eat it down then, with deft hand, switch the second bowl up.
“Steve,” says Vicky, “you’ve just shot up in my estimation.”
Sat next to Barbara I ask, “Is this still your last?”
“Yes,” she replies with a definite voice, “I’m too slow to do it again.”
“Will you do it again?” she asks me. I nod and make a mental note not to make a mental note to make a diary entry for October marked ‘Don’t apply for the TGO.’ The TGO community is too good to miss.
I look over to Kathy, “Your first and last still?”
“At Corrour I said so, but I think Vicky would like me to do it with her now Mum is retiring.”
I smile. “And there’s this fantastic comradeship,” she adds. And we look around the room.
© Steve Smith
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