1 day, 7 Munros

January 29, 2011

The South Glen Shiel Ridge is described as a ‘Munro-baggers delight’ on Walkhighlands and, having now walked it (back in September 2010), I can confirm that this is indeed the case.  A fabulous ridge walk that takes in no fewer than seven Munros and is no more strenuous (but is a little longer) than some walks I’ve done that only involve one or two.  Brilliant!

For a relatively new Munro-bagger (me), it is a great way to get the count up but, even if you don’t own a Munro map, subscribe to Munro magic and underline those you’ve climbed in the back of your copy of The Munros: Scottish Mountaineering Club Hillwalkers’ Guide, it is still a fabulous walk with some of the most beautiful views in the world.  Like this one, for example:

However, one thing I would advise, make sure you give yourself enough time to complete the walk in daylight!  We did not do this and the day lengthened into something of an epic adventure.

But let’s begin at the beginning.

I completed this walk with my dad, my friend Tracey, and dad’s friend, Matt.  We were camping nearby and intended to make an early start but the campsite office didn’t open until 9am and we didn’t want to leave without letting someone know that we were there and paying for our spot.  So we waited until 9am and dutifully went to pay for our two nights… and the guy in the shop was very laid back and didn’t ask how many tents we had or take car registrations or anything like that.  And so we could quite happily have waited and paid the next day.  Ah well.  Add to this the time it took to shuffle motorbikes and cars so that we had a car at the end of the walk (the end of the walk being 9km down the road from the start) and we didn’t start walking until after 10am.  Not wise.  But we worried not and started the walk in high spirits.

It’s a fairly long walk from the road to the start of the ascent, and the first ascent is a bit of a slog.  But our efforts were rewarded with multiple sightings of rock ptarmigans along with the knowledge that, at peak one, the hardest part of the walk was already over.

We stopped for a while at summit one (Creag a’ Mhaim) to rest a little and admire the views and then turned our attention to the ridge stretching out, seemingly endlessly, ahead of us.  What an amazing sight.

On we walked.  The directions from Walk Highlands warned of a ‘very narrow’ section of ridge on the ascent to summit two but it wasn’t as bad as we feared and the top of Druim Shionnach was reached without incident.  Next came Aonach air Chrith – the highest peak of the day.  And, just beyond that, a rather rocky section that looks much scarier than it actually is.

Let’s take a moment here to appreciate the beautiful blue sky in that last photo.  Weather-wise, we could not have asked for a better day to complete this walk.  Warm, but not too hot, and clear enough to see for miles.  I still can’t believe how lucky we were.

It felt like a long way to the fourth peak, Aonach air Chrith.  This was mainly due to the two minor summits that try to fool you into thinking you’ve reached it when you haven’t.  But reach it we did (eventually).  And this was our reward:

A rather poor photo, I admit, but they were a long way off.  Excellent views through dad’s binoculars though and nice to see them at last after hearing their rutting calls throughout the day.

Summit five (Sgurr an Doire Leathain) involves a detour from the main path which meant we could rid ourselves of our rucksacks for a short while.  Lovely.  By the time we reached it we realised we were starting to lose daylight.  This failed to instill any sense of alarm and, instead, we revelled in how pretty the light was with the sun so low in the sky.

Still two more summits to go at this point but not one of us suggested cutting the walk short.  Having done night walks before, I was not phased by walking in the dark, especially when the sky was so clear and we knew the moon would be almost full.  So onwards we went and soon reached our sixth summit, Sgurr an Lochain.

The final climb, up to the top of Creag nan Damh, was rather wearying.  But we made it.  Seven summits in one day.  Beautiful weather.  Stunning views.  Wildlife sightings.  Great company.  Fantastic.

Now all we had to do was climb down.  In the dark.

It should have been easy.  It sounded easy in the directions.  It looked easy on the map.  But we were tired and we weren’t really concentrating.  And did I mention that it was dark?  And so we overruled the GPS and started down the first thing we came to that looked like it might possibly be a path.  It wasn’t a path.

And so, what should have been a nice, gentle descent became a steep scramble along the side of a river/waterfall.  Whoops.  It was pretty tough going and really rather surreal to be climbing down a Munro in the moonlight.  But it was a beautiful, unique experience.

We should have set off earlier.  We should have cut the walk short when we realised we weren’t going to finish it in dayight.  But we didn’t.  And I’m glad we didn’t.  It was an adventure.  And I would far rather have an adventure than miss a Munro.

That attitude might get me into trouble one day…


54 miles

September 6, 2010

It’s more than two months since I walked 54 miles in 23 hours and 30 minutes i.e. since I completed the Caledonian Challenge.  I’m not really sure where the time went.  I have been meaning to write about the experience for some time but never quite managed to get around to it.  So I’ll do it now.

The Challenge was, physically, the hardest thing I’ve ever done.  All my hopeful ‘it’s just a walk’ type thoughts abandoned me completely in the fourth stage when it began to get dark and the midges decided that I was the tastiest thing ever to cross Rannoch Moor.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let’s start at the beginning.  The day began early.  We were to start walking at 7am which meant dragging ourselves out of bed at 5am.  Not fun.  A breakfast of cereal and toast and then we packed ourselves and our carefully organised (a labelled bag for each checkpoint) belongings into the team mini bus and off we went.  Shortly into the drive ‘Eye of the Tiger’ blasted through the van courtesy of one half of our support team who had made motivational playlists for every stage of the walk.  This set us up nicely for the day ahead.

And so to the start point where team photos (I’m the one in the middle) were taken and we ‘chipped in’ using electronic tags that had been fastened round our wrists the night before when we registered.

Slightly later than planned (7:10am) we started to walk.  The first stage was a mere 8 miles along the Caledonian Canal and we pretty much power walked our way through it arriving at checkpoint one after only two hours.  Here, after locating our support vehicle cunningly identified by a pink balloon, we ate a fabulous fry-up, changed into fresh socks (there is nothing more wonderful than fresh clean socks when you’re walking 54 miles, believe me), filled our water bladders (well, our support team filled them for us), stocked up on snacks for stage two and continued on our way.

Stage two was rather longer than stage one – twice as long in fact. 16 miles.  I remember stage two being absolutely beautiful… but also having the hardest, rockiest path I have ever walked on.  The soles of my feet began to hurt.  I tried to walk on the grass at the sides of the path for some relief.  It didn’t work.  We had all accepted that pain was going to be an inevitable part of the challenge and so we sodliered onwards with motivational thoughts and words mainly involving Hamish Brown, Eddie Izzard and Battlestar Galactica (what would Starbuck do?) and made it to checkpoint two.

After chilli con carne, tray bake and more clean socks we began the 10 miles that made up stage three.  We were still making good time and, as we were leaving the checkpoint, one of the organisers told us that we were the second all-female team – and the first was running it (nutters!) so they didn’t count.  This gave us the motivation needed for the 500m of continuous ascent we now faced – the longest climb of the challenge.  Poor thighs.  Up and up and up we went.  And, eventually, we reached the highest point of the challenge and the half way point.  That felt pretty good.  What didn’t feel so good was watching the elite teams, who had started up to three hours after us, run on by and disappear into the distance.  Oh well.  We consoled ourselves by discussing just how insane you would have to be to run this route.  From the highest point we climbed down the Devil’s Staircase and on we went until we reached checkpoint three.

My legs almost gave up on me as we walked into checkpoint three and we started to get a bit emotional as one of the organisers told us how lovely it was that we all chipped in together.  Our reply consisted of something along the lines of ‘That’s what you do when you’re a team. Never leave a man behind.’  Oh dear.  Do bear in mind that, at this point, we had walked 24 miles in almost 12 hours and exhaustion/hysteria was setting in.  This was the furthest we had ever walked in one go (with the exception of our team leader who had completed the challenge a few years before) and had elicited a Lord of the Rings type moment reminiscent of Samwise Gamgee taking the step that would take him further from home than he had ever been before.

Pasta, soup, more clean socks and we left checkpoint three to the strains of Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believing’.  Oh how I love that song.  But the next stage was mentally draining and I almost did stop believing.  There is no support team access at checkpoint four and so we left knowing that we wouldn’t see them again until the end.  My mum sent me a text message telling me how proud she was of me and that she knew I could do it.  My knee started to hurt (a pre-existing injury) and for the first time I started to think that maybe I couldn’t do it.  And then we got to a water stop and there was no portaloo.  And that was when I cried.

A few tears shed and I felt better and on we went.  But, by this time, another team member had started to suffer with a leg injury she had incurred while training for a 10k run a couple of months before the challenge, it had started to get dark and the midges were out in force.  As I mentioned before, midges find me exceptionally tasty.  Despite Avon skin-so-soft and a rather attractive head net I was bitten 138 times.  Little bastards.  I wasn’t having much fun any more.

Checkpoint four involved medics and sports massages.  And, of course, food and more clean socks.  My knee was strapped up and the walking poles came out for some extra support as we began the final stage.  12 miles to go.

And what an emotional and painful 12 miles they were.  By this point it was properly dark… and it had started to rain.  We donned head torches (which are very difficult to wear when you are also wearing a midge net) and waterproofs and set off.  The final stage began with a steep climb followed by a steep descent.  The climb wasn’t so bad.  The descent was painful as my other knee began to hurt.  Progress was slow and it took an age to reach the water stop at the Bridge of Orchy Hotel.  And here my fellow injured team mate decided to retire.  It was horrible.  After training together for so long we had so wanted to finish all together.  But it was not to be and we were down to four as we left the hotel.

The pain in my knee grew steadily worse as we walked on and, by the next water stop, I was ready to call it a day.  My knee was seizing up and I couldn’t imagine being able to walk another 7 miles.  But, at the same time, it seemed ridiculous to stop after having come so far.  I couldn’t give up.  I sat in an ambulance for a while trying to decide what to do.  There was a mini bus leaving for the finish line.  I almost got on it.  But then I remembered the Caledonian Challenge hoody I had bought.  How could I wear it if I didn’t finish?  And then another thought occurred… if I didn’t finish I would have to do it all again next year.  That was it.  I decided to go on.  Even though the medics told me not to.

During the last 7 miles it gradually got light but it was still drizzling and I felt pretty miserable.  By this point I just wanted it to be over.  And then finally, at 5:40am, we crossed the finish line.  Photos were taken.  They were not flattering.  A medal was put around my neck.  And then I was taken to see another medic and a physio. Our support team brought me sweet tea, put blankets around me and offered me cake that I didn’t manage to eat.  None of it really felt real.

Once we had all had food and/or sports massages, we piled into the mini bus for the journey home.  And immediately fell asleep.

It didn’t sink in until some time later that it was all over and I had actually walked 54 miles.  Even now it all feels a bit unreal.  Straight after the event I thought I may never walk again but, now that I’ve had time to heal and the pain has faded, I remember all the good points.  The atmosphere throughout the event was amazing, the organisers were all so encouraging, the other teams were friendly, our support team were amazing, friends were very generous with their sponsorship (we raised £3735 for the Scottish Community Foundation) and, above all, in my team mates I have made some wonderful friends.

It was tough, it was painful, it was emotional.  And we’ll do it all again next year… maybe.


Another rejection to add to the collection

August 9, 2010

Woe and alas, Laura Cecil will not be my agent.  It seems she enjoyed The Path of the Moon but did not feel ‘sufficiently enthusiastic’ to market it.  She did, however, wish me luck and offered me advice on where to seek other potential agents.  This means it was the good kind of rejection.  The, ‘it’s not hopeless, it just isn’t for me’ kind, rather than the ‘this is awful, give up now’ kind.  So, all is not lost and I will live to write another day. I’m just not quite sure what I’ll be writing…

(This was written on 7 June but it seems I failed to post it. Ah well. Better late than never.)


Five more sleeps…

June 7, 2010

The Caledonian Challenge used to be one of those things that seemed so far away it probably wouldn’t really happen.  Now it’s next weekend.  Only five more sleeps (except we’ll be getting up so early to make our 7am start time that it’s really only four and a half).  It doesn’t quite seem real.

The good thing is, I’m more excited than scared.  This is the opposite of how I felt a few months ago.  We have trained and trained and, a couple of weekends ago, completed the Longest Walk Training Weekend.  This involved two 20+ mile walks, one on the Saturday and one on the Sunday.

Saturday saw us heading to the Pentlands, climbing a few of those and then circling round and somehow (I wasn’t the one with the map) ending up coming back into Edinburgh along the water of Leith.  By the time we reached Edinburgh city centre we had, according to the sports tracker I have discovered on my mobile phone, walked 22 miles.  And I felt okay. Hot (it was that incredibly sunny weekend) and tired, but basically okay.

A big noodle stir-fry (eaten while watching the Fellowship of the Ring – perfect post-walk viewing, I plan to watch the complete trilogy next Sunday) and a good night’s sleep and off we went again.

Sunday’s walk began with a train journey to Linlithgow.  We then walked back to Edinburgh along the Union Canal.  The Union Canal website claims that this is 18 miles.  My sports tracker says 21.5.  It felt more like 21.5.  The Sunday felt even hotter than the Saturday, probably due to the lack of shade.  I don’t like heat.  At least, not when I have to walk 21.5 miles in it.  If we had spent the day sitting in park drinking Pimms I may have felt differently.  But we didn’t.  Alas.  There were some grumpy moments on the Sunday.  But we made it.  And, despite the heat, I once again felt pretty much okay.  The giant Chinese takeaway we rewarded ourselves with at the end of the walk no doubt helped.

And that was the last of our official training.  Since then I’ve just been keeping things ticking over by walking to work and taking myself to the gym a couple of times a week.  On Saturday, we met for our final planning session to make sure we have everything on the kit list… and to discuss what we’re going to eat throughout the Challenge.  It’s all about the food!  We realised that all this training has made us a little bit crazy when we found ourselves saying things like ‘the last section is only 15 miles’.  Only!  What has happened to us?  It seems that we’re well and truly ready to go.  And I honestly can’t wait.


Night Walking

May 21, 2010

As the Caledonian Challenge lasts for 24 hours, it is inevitable that some of it will be walked in the dark.  Eeek.  The organisers recommend that you practise walking at night… so we did.

Equipped with my newly purchased 40-lumen-strong headtorch and accompanied by one of my team-mates (the other three having made their (legitimate) excuses not to join us), I left Edinburgh at 11:30pm.  This is not a normal time to be leaving the house to go walking.  It felt very odd.  An hour and 10 minutes later we set out along the Borders Abbeys Way.  We began our walk at St Boswells with the aim of reaching my team-mate’s parents’ house in Kelso (15 miles away) for an early morning post-walk cooked breakfast.

It was a cloudy night.  There was no moon.  There were no stars.  It was very very dark.  We could only see what was in the beam of our head-torches.  It was strange to have so little idea about what surrounded us but, at the same time, it was beautifully peaceful and it felt somehow special to be experiencing the world at a time when most people (sane people!) are tucked up in bed. Due to the aforementioned darkness, I can’t tell you much about what the Borders Abbeys Way looks like.  I can, however, tell you that it smells lovely.  Blossom, wild garlic, general country riverside freshness… delightful.

What was not so delightful was that it rained for most of the night.  But even this did not negate my enjoyment of the experience.  It was more drizzle that rain really, the kind you hardly notice when happily wrapped up in waterproofs. And, had it not rained, we would not have ended up sheltering in a phone box (the traditional painted red kind) at 4am eating blueberry muffins.  A surreal experience, the memory of which I will treasure.  Much as I will treasure the memory of the cooked breakfast that we made it to Kelso for. I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated a cooked breakfast more.


Herds of deer and mountain hares

May 14, 2010

Back in March, I climbed my first two Munros.  Since then, I have climbed six more.  After Munro five, my Munro map got promoted from bookshelf to wall.  After Munro eight, I became a member of munromagic.com and started my own log.  I think the log is akin to the spreadsheet I previously identified as the one step I needed to take before becoming a Munro obsessive.  I think I have become that obsessive.

But, now I have discovered that padded heel grips stop me from getting blisters, I’m loving every minute of it.  I have found my legs to be stronger than I thought they were and that I’m much fitter than I was when I started this game (Stob Coire Easain and Stob a’ Choire Mheadhoin). I have seen a whole heard of deer galloping across the mountainside and learned how important a compass is when the mountain has its head in a cloud (Geal Charn).  And I have seen agile mountain hares, in the midst of their colour change from winter white to summer brown, hopping across the snow and then hiding behind tufts of grass so that only their ears show (Carn a’ Gheoidh).

I love that each Munro is so different from the last. I love the feeling of achievement when you reach the summit and admire the view (assuming there is a view).  I love the feeling of impatience on the way down, the feeling that you can’t wait to start climbing the next one.  And I love that there are enough ‘next ones’ to keep me going for many years to come.


Never mind training – I need a packing spreadsheet…

April 4, 2010

Up until now, all of my Caledonian Challenge related fears have been to do with the actual walking.  I have worried about my fitness level, about footwear and how best to combat blisters, about managing to walk in the dark without falling over… This evening I met with my team mates and, over chai lattes, we began to worry about the logistics.  It began with a discussion about the type of vehicle we should take (minibus or people carrier and, if we go for the people carrier, will we also need a trailer…?) and then we began to talk about packing.

Now, the Challenge is split into five sections by four checkpoints.  At three of these checkpoints our support team will meet us and feed us.  They will give us clean socks and snacks and anything else we might need for the next stage of the journey (e.g. head torches for the sections walked in darkness).  And herein lies the logistical complication – how will we ensure that we can get what we need for each section easily with minimal hunting around?  The answer seems to be that we all pack multiple bags – one for the start, one for each checkpoint and one for the end.

My poor brain can’t cope with packing.  I can’t do it without a list.  But this requires more than a simple list.  When I went to Africa I had a packing spreadsheet.  It was colour coded and had sub sections.  I was mocked… but I didn’t forget anything.  I feel another packing spreadsheet is needed for the Caledonian Challenge.  This one will have a master list broken down into sub-lists for each checkpoint.  I will once again colour code, I may even use hyperlinks… It will be an organisational masterpiece.  And then I’ll get back to training…

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