Decisions decisions - on the TGOC

I might not do a blow by blow account, there are many others who do a fine job of that anyway, but here's one of a few ideas....

Making decisions under time or weather pressure - it's the dark art of any longer trip - anyone cash rich enough can buy themselves the latest and greatest gizmos, but its harder applying the kit and the people using it to the job in hand, especially if it's a moving target and conditions are constantly changing (i.e the norm in Scotland).  Stick, or twist?  That part of the process really is fascinating.
Newcomers to long walks will find this harder than those more experienced, some of whom told me they were able to walk sections of previous Challenges from memory when they met serious weather.  Then again, different people have different tolerances of comfort regardless of experience.  Anyway, after conjecture about the high abort rate, some sort of insight into our thought processes over the last two weeks might be useful or interesting to others...

In advance - the weather forecast suggested heavier, warmer gear than our previous trips to the west in May required, and we were proved right - in spades.  In the first week there was a day of torrential rain and gale force winds, followed by the usual showers but also knee deep fresh, wet snow to deal with, and suddenly the heavier insulated jacket, merino wool long johns and extra hat and gloves didn't look so over cautious after all.  It's an obvious thing to say, but do check the weather before you go.  I know of some very experienced people who may have done this, but didn't alter their kit selection in response...  The weather men told us it was going to get nasty, and forewarned is forearmed, is it not?

Hurricane Sunday - by a week in, 'that' Sunday, where a month of rain fell in a day, had attained mythic status amongst participants.  It was usually the first or second question when you met - where were you?

We were at the head of Glen Affric, about a km above the Falls of Glomach, which at 5am wasn't an overly friendly place to be.  Zero cover, way beyond treeline and mucho overgrazed.  We woke with the tarp flapping in the wind (driver error - I'd forgotten to put a knot in the back seam tie out, which I'd recently swapped for new cord).  The tops were out altogether, the second change of plan was to belay in the Glen Affric Youth Hostel at Allt Beithe.  We went in for a brew, soaked to the skin and tired of staggering about like drunks in the gale for a few hours - just like everyone else - but within a hour or so I knew we weren't leaving.  The rivers became impassable by about 2pm and a few more came over the pass from Strathcarron.  It was a great place to stay but meant that by end day 2 we were a good half day behind schedule.  Still, the right thing to do.  Thanks to Audrey the manager there for supplying lots of hot water and kind words too - she was brilliant.

Peak water also meant that our planned route over the Balmacaan might be in jeopardy.  Peak water in this context means drainage.  You need to factor that the water level may continue to rise after the rain stops, for hours.  The Balmacaan is off path, reputably boggy at the best of times and we were using the lakes to navigate, aiming off a series towards the Drumnachrochit track.... should we go or would it be flooded?  It was that or the A road all the way, with almost as much path-as-river action beforehand - not an enticing prospect.  Luckily the next day things cleared up enough to forge ahead, and although very soggy we were never more than ankle deep and pitched up by the dry beach at Loch ma Stac about 9pm, after a long day catching up on our lost time.  There was some swearing, and some wading, but yes it was safe.  The 'track' was actually the worst of it.

The 'magic' of the Monaliadth - mmm, still soggy.  Then the snow appeared.  After a seemingly endless track, we changed our plans at the top.  Navigate off the tops was our strategy here, and a good one I think.  People generally use the waterways in this part of the world as there are few paths, and we did that too - but we needed visibility in the wet snow and so aimed for the big stuff.  Get to the top, fall off to the glens.  This isn't always a good plan - in pointier hills in wetter conditions water run off can be dangerously rapid near the top too - but the ground here is broader and flatter, and in low cloud and snow very confusing.  The strategy worked for us given the conditions - it was hard going, and I am a not a hugely technical navigator, but map, compass and bearings got us over.  To any novices reading this: at least one of your team needs to be very competent with the tools and principles of navigation to do this walk.  No need for flashy, but competence and confidence - yes.  A GPS alone is not nearly enough.  In case you're wondering, I am the navigator in our team of two, but T is often more observant on the ground than me, so makes very valuable contributions.  Checks and balances.  There was one time when we could have used two compasses as the visibility got really horrible for a while, so that's a lesson for the future...

I'm not sure what we would have done if this hadn't have been possible.  Probably gone south and over the Corrieyairack pass from Fort Augustus.  We didn't have maps for this although they could have been purchased from Fort Augustus on the way.  But I was there to see the land under threat from the energy industry, and see it we did.  It's a stunningly beautiful place, even in mean weather, and chock full of wildlife.

To Ghru or not to Ghru - that really was the question.  Talk of knee deep snow, the 'impassable pass', and so on.  Ooh, calamity.  First thing in Aviemore, before even a coffee, we took our cold, sodden hinds to the Tourist Information Centre to get the low down.  The Aviemore TIC is one of the best there is, they know about the weather in the hills because of the needs of skiers.  MWIS verdict was stabilizing, improving slowly.  Webcams showed tops were off completely.  Tried to call Challenge control, got hotel reception as the phones were busy often on this trip - lots to deal with.  Chewed it over some more in the cafe.  Didn't want to be told no.  They were telling others to go round via fords of Avon, we heard.  We'd been over by Bynack More in January and there was no way that was going to be easier in this weather, that plateau is at 700ms plus and completely exposed - plus the Avon might be impassable.  I've since spoken to others who had a hard time up there, I didn't see it as the safer option at all.  I had shipped in a Harveys map of the Cairngorms with our food parcel just for this decision, knowing it might be tricky and wanting to keep our options open.  Glen Feshie was our Foul Weather Alternative but meant two days instead of one, and was going to be wet too.  I texted control again later, told them we had done our research - our plan was to go, but only if visibility was good and the weather more settled by the morning.  We had additional corroboration from the National Park ranger contacted by the good folk at Coylumbridge campsite.  He had the up to date local knowledge and thought it was do-able. 

The rain stopped at 5pm, and when we left late at 10.30am the following morning it was still dry.  Sit it out, learn what you can, watch and wait.  But also, our timing for the Ghru was lucky.  A day earlier and it would have been the Feshie whether we liked it or not.  Postholing up to our knees, and yes, the boulder field in wet snow is dangerous, but slow and steady wins the race and the Feshie was apparently pretty wild too, I heard after.  We were exhausted by the time we reached Derry Lodge though - it took concentration, but we both really wanted to do the Lairig Ghru as part of our first Challenge - it makes complete sense as a thru-hiking route, the 'pass of the cows'...

After that, the going got easier, it's not all hard work - we had to learn how to take long lunch breaks all over again.  There seems to be an art to this too - I do it easier than T, but she can be persuaded if the food is ok (i.e if there is soup, crisps and chocolate).  Resting is important.  I think we'll plan a full rest day if we do this again, we could have taken one but we wanted to get in on Thursday and left a day later than most.  I think a day of recuperation (not necessarily in the bar) is good for the mind and body - I find I start to slow down after about 7-8 days, it happened on the HRP too.

After Derry Lodge and Braemar, we went high.  At Lochnagar we waded through wet snow up to our knees, walking with Ian whose a bigger lad with a bigger bag and went in up to his waist a couple of times, but none of us would have changed it for the world - it was one of the best mountain days I have had in the UK, bar none.  Hard work, but absolutely crystal clear.  Made a nav error towards the end trying to find Miekle Pap but doubled back, avoided the short cut into the bowl of terror, and got down safe.

The following day, we aimed for Mount Keen... but the stupid way.  I'm surprised our vetter didn't warn us about the 5 hours of peat hag purgatory we endured.  Mr. Sloman bless him, told me it might be 'a little boggy', which I took to mean it might be a little boggy, which since the rest of the walk had been the same didn't seem to matter - now I know better!   It wasn't possible to follow the channels which run north/south and not east/west in the main, and we must have added a few hundred metres of ascent just scrambling and falling up and down on our way east north east to the north end of the mountain.  But no way were we not going to climb a Munro or two if we had the weather for it, and we did at the end.  It's a horrible approach, the hill just sits on the horizon, teasing you for hours!  But also: two tiny, magical glens, many deer, a giant mountain hare, and ancient standing stones.  Was it worth it?  Of course it was.

We also went over the Wirren hills by Tarfside a day before the end, which was exposed in the heat but about 10degrees cooler than the glen floor, so the right thing in my mind.  Interesting to see the damage done by new hill tracks and intensive bird hunting first hand - it's a farmyard up there, despite a beautiful rolling ridgeline.  Time to turn the tables on the toffs.

One of the things we would do differently next time isn't about the route at all, but the celebration dinner at the end.  Scared off by stories of terrible veggie food, we didn't go to the meal, and I think we missed out.  New co-ordinator John Manning had made extra efforts with the menu and people found it good.  As a consequence we missed a few of the speeches at the start, and also our chance to stand and be congratulated as first timers.  We're both a bit shy of that kind of ceremony, but it is an achievement, and it would have been good to cheer on all the other newbies, as well as all the old timers (which we did, from the back).  If it's your first time, book yourself on the dinner, regardless.  We will next time...

How Hard?  People said this Challenge was tough, and this is our first one so I've not got a comparison.  My perspective is that the walking was easy but the weather was tough.  Except the road at the end, and the peat hags to Mount Keen - they were just hard, full stop.  It's difficult to stay dry enough, warm enough and motivated enough with wet snow falling fast up high and driving rain down low, and it slows you down.

Our decisions raised a few eyebrows here and there - why did we forge on?  The Falls of Glomach weren't a problem when we were there - Yes, there is a drop to the left when ascending, and we wouldn't have climbed in there the following morning in high winds, but we had another option on the map for getting into Affric (which was actually worse on the ground according to reports!).  Compared to most of the walking we do this gorge is not an issue.  We did stop when the rivers made us on the Sunday, and held up in the SYHA.  We accessed the conditons the rest of the time and decided then and there.  It was up for discussion, we didn't just plough on regardless.  What's important is that we changed our methods of navigation in order to stick to our plan - we adapted to stay on target.  We didn't bail out and hit the road, that was really last resort for both of us and we were never at that point at all.  In the middle of the walk, road wasn't much of an option anyway - we deliberately chose to stay miles away from it from the outset of planning.  T's feet are a mess of plasters from wet boots (Goretex? - honestly, what a joke) but we kept a close eye on the weather, the navigation and each other, accepted corrections where we needed to from each other, and went for the tops where we felt able and our timing was opportune.  Sometimes we walked with other solo walkers - being part of a team is good when the weather is testing, I think for them too - and this is part of the bigger picture of what the Challenge means.  Word up to Rob, Stephan and Ian especially.  We had a good run.

Future Plans - this is where it gets interesting!  This time I used Scottish Hill Tracks and other blogs as the basis for the route.  In the meantime I bought a Harvey's munro map, and the confidence and experience gained from doing this Challenge is invaluable.  I think the route for next time will be alot more ambitious and aim for more mountains in the first instance, then look for ways of joining them as a through route.  Less tracks, more topography.  I am looking at a diagonal from either Oban or Torridon, and there were exciting reports from Morar starters, although both the latter are committing routes from day one.  We'll see.  Regardless, the TGOC is a Pandora's box of possibilities, and this I hope is just the start of many crossings.  I am promised to the Cape Wrath Trail, though, so I'm not sure which will come first....