This past May, I had the opportunity to do my very first international hike. I was completely excited and honored to participate in the 40th annual running of The Great Outdoor Challenge aka TGO Challenge in Scotland. It’s a self-supported, Scottish west coast to east coast backpacking adventure taking you through some of the most remote parts of the Scottish backcountry. Challengers are not allowed to get any assistance such as motor vehicles once they begin the challenge. Camping in the backcountry is a large part of the experience, but if you plan your route out right you can stay in hostels, B&Bs or hotels along the way.
Speaking of routes. Each challenger designs his or hers own route. The route can consist of road walks, established trails and off trail crossing private properties. You can also hike as a team, but no more than 4 members per team. Also challengers have two weeks to complete the challenge and must check in with mission control (TGO Challenge coordinators) as the reach certain points along their routes. This is to insure the safety of all challengers.
This year I was apart of a four person team that involved some names you probably recognize from YouTube, Darwin and Bigfoot. If you don’t already follow these guys then you should. They have a wealth of knowledge and are a huge asset to the backpacking community. The Blackalachian also joined for a good part of the hike.
Our friends over at Zpacks and a couple of their guests were also there and we spent most of the time hiking together in some sort of fashion. Even though we were two groups of four, we all only camped together one night. We all had different hiking speeds and styles so it was a treat to get us all together in one location for any length of time.
Our hike began on the banks of the Atlantic Ocean in the coastal village of Mallaig. A small fishing port on the west coast of the Highlands of Scotland. We had typical Scottish weather for our start, cold and wet. But by the end of the first day that would change for a while.
The weather during the first week was unseasonably warm and dry. At times it felt like I was hiking out west like in Arizona or California. This type of weather definitely made hiking through the peat bogs a little easier. And our route coupled with the great weather gave us a lot of opportunities for great views.
As for our route, we began in Mallaig after we signed the official registry at the West Highland Hotel. We all dropped back down to the banks of the ocean, touched the water and began our journey east.
Our route then took us by Tarbet and along the banks of 310 m (1,017 ft) deep Loch Morar, the deepest Loch in Scotland. The first night a few of us stayed at the Oban Bothy while the others wild camped. Bothys are old abandoned houses that folks can camp in while they are out in the wilderness. Some are maintained while others are not.
The next day we all continued east through a valley as we followed the River Pean. This gave us an opportunity to stop at Glenpean Bothy for a break. We finished our day with a 13 mile road walk along Loch Arkaig and we made camp on a lot along the banks of the Loch. This was the only night that both groups would all be in the same place for camp.
The next day we continued east as we made our way through Achnacarry, Gairlochy and traveled along part of the Great Glen Way on our way towards Fort William. We took a break at Neptune’s Staircase, a series of locks that boats must travel through in order to get into Loch Lochy. Neptune’s Staircwase is located in Banavie which is just outside of Caol. We did our first resupply at a Co-op (a small grocery store chain) in Caol. They had everything we needed to continue our journey east.
We ended our day at the Ben Nevis Inn, located just outside of Fort William. It was more like a hostel type setting with a very nice restaurant and bar. Plus the inn was nestled at the foot of Ben Nevis, the tallest Munro (mountain) in the whole United Kingdom (1,345 metres (4,413 ft) above sea level. That would be on our agenda for the next morning.. Munros are mountains in Scotland with a height over 3,000 feet, and are listed on the Scottish Mountaineering Club official list of Munros.
The next morning we made our climb up Ben Nevis. It was cold, windy and still had plenty snow on top. What an epic summit! On top there was a small structure used to house personnel who would observe the weather on the mountain back in the day. Ben Nevis is a very popular mountain. Once an active volcano that collapsed in on itself. Nearly 125,000 walkers hike up to the summit every year.
After summiting Ben Nevis we continued our journey east through Allt Criche. Along our route were several concrete faced tunnels going back underneath the mountain. ADIT No9,10 and so on are carved in the concrete on the face of each tunnel. Each tunnel had a 24″ pipe coming out of them and the tunnel openings were gated off by iron rod gates. These tunnels were used for drainage and ventilation for a main mining shaft. There’s a gold mine near Fort William that these may or may not be connected to. Either way, very cool find.
Our route then took us through Fersit, along side Allt Cam, Loch Pattack and Loch Ericht. We took a break at the Snack Shack in Dalwhinnie. The food there was absolutely amazing. It was nice to sit down for a while and get a warm good meal.
After our break, it was time to push for a few more miles. We hiked along a river for a bit till we made it to Loch Cuaich. We were planning to camp there and had even set up our tents, but we began experiencing extreme wind gusts which were blowing the tents down. So a few of us decided to push on to a lower elevation just outside Kingussie.
The next morning we pushed on into Kingussie and had breakfast at a little coffee shop called the Sugar Bowl as we waited for the others to catch up. The food was amazing and the owners of the coffee shop were super friendly. While in town we also resupplied at the local Co-op.
Kingussie was the last town we would hit before entering the Cairngorms National Park. It would be one of the most remote areas we would be in during our whole trip. Both Matt Favero aka Details and myself stayed at the Ruigh Aiteachain Bothy. Recently restored it was by far the nicest Bothy we stay at while in Scotland. But the next morning we would make our push through the Cairngorms. The forecast was for weather to move in. So we weren’t sure what to expect.
The next morning as we got up on the plateau we were met with fierce winds and much colder temps. Our plan was to hit the 4 tallest peaks in the Cairngorms, but we could see rain in the distance and chose to take the bad weather route and make our way out of the mountains. But by the time we got back down to the valley the skies were clear and sunny…. go figure.. So we decided to go ahead and push our way in to Braemar and take and extra zero as we waited for the others to catch up.
Braemar was absolutely the most beautiful town we went in. The locals were very friendly and there were plenty of places to eat and grab a few souvenirs. The Princess Royal and Duke of Fife Memorial Park in Braemar is the home of the oldest running of the Highlands Games. Even the Queen has been know to attend these games.
After the rest of the crew caught up and a few days of R&R in Braemar. We all continued our trek east to Ballater. Another town with opportunities to resupply and get local lodging. But before we made it to Ballater we had one more Munro to summit, Lochnagar. Ranking only 20th tallest Munro, Lochnagar stands at 1,155 meters (3,789′) above sea level.
Our route took us up the western side of the Munro which was steep and treacherous. As we approached the summit, a light rain and low cloud ceiling had moved in which made our visibility very limited. In fact there were several moments I couldn’t see the other guys who were less than 50 yards from me. But once we got to the summit it was time to celebrate. We had earned this one……
After a very brief celebration, we all began a quick descent off Lochnagar and continued our journey to Ballater. Once there we got a room at the Glenaden Hotel and resupplied at the local Co-op. The next morning was gonna be a gonna be a special treat as we would begin our next leg of our route on the DeeSide Way.
The next morning, before leaving town. I purchased a couple pastries to have for breakfast and to carry with me to eat later that day. But these just weren’t any pastries. There were made by Chalmers Bakery which has a Coat of Arms displayed at the business. This means the monarch (Queen Elizabeth II) grants the business to supply the Royal Household with goods or services. This also entitles the business to display the Royal Arms on their packaging and stationery by way of advertising. In short, Chalmers Brakery makes pastries for the Queen and the Royal Family. Now that’s cool!…….. While I was in the shop I also met Pamela Chalmer, the owner of the bakery.
If that wasn’t cool enough we left the beautiful little town of Ballater via the DeeSide Way. It’s a “Rails To Trail” path which runs around 41 miles from Ballater to Aberdeen. We would find ourselves hiking the full length of this trail for the next couple of days. But this day was gonna end on a very wet note. Before we could make it to Banchory. It began to rain very heavily. It would be the only time we would hike in heavy rain though.
Banchory was a nice town with plenty of options for lodging and resupplying. The locals were friendly and inviting. A few of us stayed at a The Stag. A small hostel positioned above a bar much like the Glenaden Hotel that we stayed at in Ballater. We were looking forward to the next morning. It was going to be a little dryer and it would be our last day on trail. But I had no idea what this next section had in store for me. In fact it would change everything for me for the next couple of months.
The next morning we all got back on the DeeSide Way and headed east. Early on that day everything was good. It was just another day on trail. But as we approached the little town of Peterculter I began getting a cramping sensation in my left tibialis anterior muscle. I simply thought I was dehydrated and needed to drink something. We still had eight miles to go to the coast and our final destination.
So after a short break we pushed on. I noticed immediately that something wasn’t right. It hurt with intense pain with every step I made. So I backed way off my speed and limped the rest of the way. The guys noticed something was up and hung back to finish the walk with me so we could all finish together. I can’t even begin to tell you what that meant to me. Details, Bigfoot and Darwin made the decision that they were not gonna finish this epic hike without me and we’re there when it mattered most. Now that is true character.
But after those eight painful miles we all made it to the Lighthouse Girdle Ness. We all walked down to the banks of the North Sea and took our pictures and videos. What a feeling of accomplishment. This felt so different than any other thru-hike. I just walked coast to coast across Scotland, completing my first TGO Challenge and my first ever international hike. Oh, and to add to that I just completed the DeeSide Way as well. Wow!!! Even in immense pain, I was filled with so much joy.
Now since the other guys wouldn’t get there till the next day. We went into Aberdeen and got a hotel room for the night and rejoined the others at the light house the next day for the official group photo and make our way to Montrose to sign the official completion registry. It was great seeing some of the other challengers that we met along the way there and knowing they had a successful completion too. And hanging out for the banquet and hearing all the stories was certainly a treat.
I’d like to thank all the folks who put this amazing event on. From the veters and mission control to all the other volunteers. It was nice knowing if something went wrong, they had my back. So thank you!!!!!! I’ll certainly be back to participate in another challenge again someday.
What an incredible hike.
LET’S BE TOURISTS
Getting to tour all the villages, towns and cities along the way was as much fun as the hike itself. We traveled my plane, trains, buses and automobiles on this trip. Seen amazing sights and architecture. Scotland is stunningly beautiful from coast to coast. Every town and city had something to offer. I made sure to eat local foods like Haggis and drink local beers. We made stops at Dunnottar Castle, The National Wallace Monument, Stirling Castle and more. Every location was filled with beauty and tons on history.
The videos for the TGO Challenge Series are at these links:
TGO Trailer: https://youtu.be/Z_lmMvvHG0k
Episode One: https://youtu.be/Z5H0ns-e6jo
Episode Two: https://youtu.be/ozHeiv1s5Dw