TGO Challenge 2009

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“Roger, thanks for your email explaining that there’ll be no Challenge register at The Glenuig Hotel start point. It turns out there’ll be no hotel either.”

Roger Smith, the TGO Challenge organiser, had sent an email a few days before the start of the TGO Challenge 2009 to tell me that because only three of us were starting at Glenuig he wouldn't send a signing-on register, we were just to phone him when we started walking. Meanwhile I’d emailed The Glenuig Hotel looking for indoors accommodation to avoid the appalling weather Scotland was getting, only to be told that the hotel was closed for refurbishment. An odd way to debut as a TGO Challenge start point, and an odd way to start the holiday season. Things were getting interesting already, and I hadn’t even started the Challenge.

A couple of days later I found myself chatting to fellow Challengers on Wigan Station. I’d travelled up to Wigan from Somerset the day before, and stayed the night with my cousin Liz. It’s always good to see Liz, and it meant I could arrive at Lochailort at about 5pm instead of 11pm if I’d travelled up from Somerset in one day. I’d quite liked the romantic notion of getting off a train at a west Highland fishing village in the cloudless, windless eleven o’clock twilight, but my partner Helen had reminded me that it might be windy and raining (how right she was), so I’d opted for the 5pm arrival. This also tied in with a mini bus which John Hutchinson had kindly organised to take Challengers to Glenuig and Acharacle.

After a few minutes of chatting on Wigan station our train appeared and we all rushed off to our respective carriages where I found myself alone again. But at Preston a couple of Challengers who I think were John and Sue Plume got on and sat across the aisle from me. The few days running up to the Challenge had been very nervous ones for me, and talking to John and Sue calmed my nerves down considerably.

A few hours later we pulled into Glasgow Central station and as we moved to the end of the carriage to collect our rucksacks we found ourselves surrounded by a few more Challengers, and when we burst out onto the platform we seemed to have joined a tide of Challengers all heading for the exit. John and Sue had kindly invited me to join them in the short walk to Glasgow Queen Street Station where I found the station seemingly packed with Challengers waiting for the train to Oban and Mallaig. People were earnestly talking in groups or greeting each other like long lost brothers. Confidence being at a very low ebb I just found a seat and soaked in the scene.

After a while our train was announced and there was a general stampede towards the waiting train and the luggage racks were soon bursting with oversize rucksacks. My allotted seat was next to a chap called John, and opposite a chap called Alan. I’m guessing John was John Simpson and Alan was Alan Staples.

This railway trip from Glasgow up to the west coast was something I’d wanted to do for a long time, so I was thoroughly looking forward to it, my only reserve being that the five hours it took might seem a very long time. However, there was a carriage full of like minded people to chat to if I got bored, and in fact, the five hours sped by looking out of the windows and talking to John and Alan who were both very interesting. Thanks guys.

The railway journey is certainly worth doing. Although the train only trundles along at a few mph it soon leaves Glasgow behind, and from there on is travelling through increasingly stunning scenery. We left Glasgow in reasonably bright conditions, but on the long pull up to Crianlarich the weather became darker and wetter. At Crianlarich there is a bit of a pause as the train splits into two, one half going to Oban and the other half to Mallaig. There is a sudden burst of activity as people realise they’re on the wrong half of the train, and then the slow journey is resumed through Tyndrum and Bridge of Orchy up onto Rannoch Moor, passing poncho clad West Highland Way walkers in the rain.

The weather on Rannoch Moor wasn’t encouraging, the bleak plateau being lashed with wind and rain. The railway skirts the eastern side of the moor and in places there’s no firm foundation for the line and it “floats” on a bed of turf and brushwood. The summit is just north of Corrour Station at 1350’ above sea level from where there is a long descent to sea level again at Fort William.

After a pause at FW the train sets off in the reverse direction towards Malliag. Those of us who had been travelling backwards now having a forward view of even lower clouds and even heavier rain, and as the train slowly travelled west the cloud got lower and the rain got heavier.

West of Fort William the railway follows the north shore of Loch Eil, a sea loch with low hills to north and south, but after Glenfinnan and the wonderful curved viaduct the line enters much more rugged country with steep craggy mountains to north and south. Those to the south were supposed to be my mountains of tomorrow, but peering up into the dark cloud it was obvious that they weren’t possible, and a low level route would have to be followed.

After following the south shore of Loch Eilt the railway reaches the sea again at Lochailort at the head of Loch Ailort. It was with a bit of a sinking feeling that I left the comfort of the train and with quite a few others made my way to the station exit. Some of those others, including Alan who I’d been sitting opposite, were staying at Lochailort, the rest of us were boarding a mini-bus to Acharacle and Glenuig. I think there were twelve of us on the mini-bus, and when the driver called out “Who’s for Glenuig?” and the only answer was a lonesome “Me”, eleven faces turned and stared at me pityingly – or so it seemed. A very fit and experienced looking Challenger sitting across the aisle from me, Denis Pidgeon I think, asked “I take it you’re a very experienced hillwalker then?”. I mumbled a non-committal answer and felt anything but. The person sitting in front of me, David Albon turned round and chatted for a while, and I started to feel a bit better, but I was feeling distinctly unsure of myself.

If I’d felt uncomfortable getting off the train at Lochailort I had a hollow, empty feeling getting off the mini-bus on my own at Glenuig. As I walked away from the bus in the wind and rain I could feel eleven faces staring at me from the steamed up mini-bus. But just as I was about to burst into tears a figure popped up from a rough bit of ground between the lane and the sea and beckoned to me in a friendly sort of way. Fellow Challenger Ian Cotterill welcomed me as though the proprietor of a five star hotel, and brushing away some sheep muck, indicated a good place to pitch my tent between the rocks. Ian kept up a flow of conversation as I pulled my tent out of the rucksack and pitched it, and by the time it was up I was starting to feel quite good about being on the west coast.

Then comes that magical moment of shoving the rucksack into the tent and getting in yourself. In an instant one finds that the unfortunate spot one had had to pitch the tent in isn’t such a bad place after all, and the worse the weather is the cosier the tent seems. Outside again Ian and I stood chatting in the half gale sipping tea, and I knew everything was going to be alright.


Day 01 - Glenuig

Day 02 - Glenfinnan

Day 03 - Cona Glen

Day 04 - To Kinlochleven

Day 05 - Kinlochleven to Corrour

Day 06 - Corrour to Loch Rannoch

Day 07 - Rannoch

Day 08 - To Blair Atholl

Day 09 - Blair to Loch Crannach

Day 10 - Spittal of Glenshee

Day 11 - To Clova

Day 12 - To Tarfside

Day 13 - Tarfside to N Water Bridge

Day 14 - N Water Bridge to coast

Day 15 - The seaside and then home

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