TGOC – The Great Outdoor Challenge – is a common theme on these pages. Originally described as ‘The Ultimate Challenge’ in the pages of an outdoor magazine in 1980, it involves a self-supported and individually planned multi-day walk from the West Coast of Scotland to the the East. Of course there’s a website where you can find out more.
This year, in a nod to the covid pandemic, start times were staggered over a week rather than the usual weekend. As a southern softie, I like a few days to acclimatise to the Scottish hills before starting on the planned route. My bid for a Thursday start was accepted and we took the Sunday night sleeper (train) to Inverness, which got us to Torridon via another train and a taxi around lunchtime on Monday.
The pre-quell: day walking around Torridon
The big mountains of Torridon are out of bounds for the TGOC which has its northern limits on the A896 / A 832 main road west from Inverness. So this was an opportunity to take a couple of day-walks north of the road and check out the environment surrounding Beinn Alligin, Liathach and Beinn Eighe.
We made very aware of the fall-out from Brexit when we tried to find an evening meal. The nearby pubs and hotels were limiting food serving to residents only because of staff shortages. The newly opened Wee Whistle Stop cafe in Torridon’s community centre was doing a great lunchtime trade but closed at 4pm. Lis, the owner said “We would love to be open later but it is impossible to find staff”.
We stayed at a B&B in nearby Annat from where we walked along the shore and into the foothills of Beinn Alligin. Despite the poor weather we met a few walkers who had made the circuit over the top. On our second day we were given a lift to the start of the path to the far side of Beinn Eighe. The car park was busy and we found a film crew with a couple of mountain bikers and a walking group with more than 30 members heading around the path to the ‘triple buttresses’.
Many of those walking the Cape Wrath trail pass through this area, and there were a couple who had camped near the carpark and were en route to some comfort at Kinlochewe.
On the Wednesday, as we were leaving, we found a heavily loaded walker consulting his map by our accommodation. This was Bob, recognisable from his escapades of the 2021 TGOC. He was planning an impossible sounding start to his route, and I advised him where to join the beautiful path which traverses the mountain area south of Annat. Sadly he failed to take this in and had a very difficult day1 (see later in the story).
Day 1 Torridon to Achnaschellach, Craig, & Glenuaig Lodge
The forecast was poor, but I started on Thursday in fine weather and this continued for the first hour or two. On my previous excursion from Torridon I followed a good line on the map only to spend half-an-hour heather-bashing up the hillside to the well-made path. This time I was determined to start properly in Annat. I headed west on the road to the end of the village, before joining the path which heads eastwards. The extra kilometre or so is worth it!
The route below is recorded from a Spot satellite tracking device which I carry with me. This sends periodic beacons back to base. There seems to be part of the track missing from both the start and the end of the day.Download file for GPS
It was not long before I saw a TGOers Graeme Harris with wife below me fighting through the heather. A short while later and I was surrounded by the remote mountain landscape that is unique to this TGO starting point.
The weather gradually deteriorated with light rain and increasingly gusty wind. As I neared the point where I hoped to ascend the ridge it was impossible to move forward without stopping and starting to the tune of the wind, so I decided to follow a lower route over the bealach at Coire Grande. The previous time I traversed the mountains to the south of this path (see here), this time I had hoped to cover those on the north side.
On the way through to Achnashellach I found a couple of old-timers shut up in their tents waiting for better weather so they could go up high. The walk thus far is excellent; unfortunately this is followed by 5km on a busy road which has a damping effect on the first day. Gerry’s hostel at Craig is still operational, now run by his son Simon who we met on a previous trip (see here). I arrived at 2, only to find a note pinned to the door ‘hostel opens at 5pm’.
I suspected my planned camp spot was not ideal in this weather, but a 3 hour wait in the rain was not attractive either. During that time I could surely find some nice flat dry-ish ground with a bit of shelter? There was time to explore the plantation across the river and find an unmarked footbridge to a stand of ancient pines but, all-in-all there was nowhere attractive enough to set up the tent.
I set off down the track on my day 2 foul weather route, continuing my search, feeling sure there would a good spot near Glenuaig Lodge if not before.
This attractive small house looks like a bothy from a distance. Draw closer and it looks suspiciously well-kept. The entrance door on the far side has a notice which explains “the third hut along is a walkers’ shelter” and finally you can understand the house is not for you.
I walked on past a couple of concrete ‘garages’ to a smallish wooden garden shed held down by two cables anchored into the ground with a torrent gushing down the hillside in front of the door. The door acts as foil for the wind when opened – guaranteed to swing you off your feet and into the stream that you need to cross to enter the hut.
There, in the gloom, sitting at the far side in his longjohns was Bob, the man I had met on Wednesday morning. He explained that two others had taken up the offer from a Landrover-driving gillie and moved into one of the garages. This was Heather and Stuart who enjoyed a superior level of comfort and managed to dry all their gear including boots during the night. We made the best of our little hut, blocking most of the rain which blew through gaps in the side of the structure. Two men, two bunkbeds – it sort-of worked allright!
Bob, now a day behind his plan, wanted and early start; whereas I was more relaxed being a couple of hours ahead. The poor weather continued and, over the course of the morning the hut had several visitors. First was the Heather and Stuart from the garage next door. Next was Frederick who spent the night at Bernais bothy. Then came a number people who started the day at Gerry’s hostel including some fellow Thursday Torridon starters.Download file for GPS
I was easily persuaded to change my FWA with its nearby untried river crossing to join the others who were familiar with a crossing further downstream. 5 of us marched off together:- Kate, who had walked here in 2021, Peter, Martha, and Andy Walker. No-one was keen to cross, but eventually Andrew took the lead, I followed, then Martha. The other two decided to camp nearby and wait to see what the next day would bring.
The route over the bealach was straight forward, with a bit of river hopping to avoid the steeper ground, past 60 or so red deer and eventually coming down to Loch Monar. The attractive looking camp spot that some call the ‘sheepfold’ is actually rather uneven ground. 3 of us made-do here, but we could have done better closer to the lake.