What is the TGO Challenge?
The Great Outdoor Challenge (TGO) has been attracting people wanting to explore the best of Scotland since 1980, after the idea for a non-competitive event was pitched to The Great Outdoors magazine by Hamish Brown. Hamish, having crossed Scotland coast to coast himself, believed this could be accomplished and enjoyed by others.
Whilst the TGO has changed through the years with the introduction of mobile phones, GPS, and overall popularity, the same basic framework and spirit still exist. Participants can start from a choice of locations along the west coast and devise their own route making their way via hills, glens mountains, and rivers to multiple locations on the east coast, all by foot (with the odd ferry crossing) before public transport can be used to travel to the official end point in Montrose with TGO control. With between 11 and 15 days to complete the challenge, participants are sure to be tested along the way.
This year’s TGO Challenge saw 400+ starters, including myself….
For more information, I recommend taking a look at the official TGO challenge website.
D1 Torridon – Coire a’ Chlaiginn (33km)
Rain! Oh, the rain… alas, I was not to be phased this was the first day and I was raring to go. Whilst I knew this year’s TGO had a staggered start I was surprised to find myself being the only challenger heading off that day.
Starting from Torridon YHA I headed up towards a small village named Annat before heading up over the mountain passes via Ben Damph Forest through to Achnashellach. Due to the rain that had persisted for the previous 3 days most trails and paths had become tributaries and with high wind driving rain and sleet the going was tough, although I enjoyed the adversity of it all and was still on a high after eventually beginning my journey, so made good time over the passes. Crossing the ridge line between Stuc a Choire Ghrannda and Beinn Liath Mhor was challenging with some lower-grade scrambles made especially harder in the high winds, however, I was rewarded with some spectacular views down the Valley of Coire Lore. The pace I was keeping up was fast, part running some sections in order to emerge from the mountain weather as soon as possible, this meant I was running rather warm and chose not to wear my outer shells…. Bad idea, I was positively wet through by the time I dropped out of the cloud line resting for a bite to eat and reassessing my life choices before heading on through the Achnashellach Forest.
Now outer shells donned (3 hours too late!), I joined the track for the final leg of the day. As the rain set in again and the wind picked up, I chose not to go Munro chasing and instead headed for a revised camp spot at a lower level. As I neared some remote lodges I discovered a refuge hut for walkers, wet through as I was and with the awful weather forecast for the remainder of the night, I decided to take advantage of the four walls and a roof. It had an electric heater!!!!!! Gods be praised, I was able to dry myself and kit completely. After the long and testing day, I now had hot food in my belly and was all cosied up in my sleeping bag, sleep was easy to find.
D2 Coire a’ Chlaiginn – Tom a’ Mhein (31km)
Emerging from my warm refuge hut to an overcast, yet thankfully dry day, I was ready to chew up the 31km ahead of me… Hand railing the river Meig for 6.5km I came to my first river crossing of the trip. The flow had seemed to slow somewhat at this point, however, with all the rain of the previous week it was deeper and faster than expected. I had passed a couple of wire bridges near the start of the day’s travel, however, going on the opposing side of the river looked hard, so continued to where I now hoped to cross fearlessly and gracefully…
After a lot of not very manly yelps of panic and scrabbling with thin air to regain my balance, I made it to the other side intact, if not somewhat humbled by the river. Here, at least one walking pole would have come in useful and with hindsight, would not recommend river crossings without a bystander. Enough with health and Safety, let's continue…
Heading due south heading over a narrow pass via Torran Cean Liath towards Loch Monar I got to witness a multitude of wild deer roaming the fells and some truly spectacular waterfalls. Emerging down the pass, views opened up on to Loch Monar. I happened upon a great spot for lunch and a warm brew, finding myself very content and now enjoying being out in the wilds of Britain after the testing first day.
Skirting around the north shore of the Loch, short passages brought me around to small bays, eventually bringing into view Glen Strathfarrar Forest where the final leg of the day would take me down the river Farrar. Passing the mighty Dam wall, the rough terrain gave way to an unexpected paved track, whilst the next 7km was easy going and the view continued to impress, the pavement pounding did not do my feet any favours. Nearing the day's end my feet were feeling a wee bit sore and I was looking forward to the rest, camp location was fantastic! Perfect lie, evening sun, with a herd of deer grazing across the pasture, perfection. A few bike packers had made their way up to the same location so found myself with company for the first time since leaving Torridon, which goes to prove there are still some truly remote areas within the UK.
D3 Tom a’ Mhein – Drumnadrochit (36km)
After a great night’s sleep, I was back on the road – literally, the next 15km continued how the latter evening left off. To be honest, these miles were pretty much uneventful, this is not to say that I didn’t enjoy the continued landscape and nature that was around each corner. Nevertheless, the impact on my feet really started to bother me and I was longing to get off the road. As I neared the small village of Struy I got a few bars of signal for the first time since leaving Torridon so was able to check in with my girlfriend to confirm I was alive… the quick chat perked me up and was able to scratch off the last few kilometres of pavement bashing in quick time.
Back in the hills, hooray! The climb from the small Hamlet of Mauld up to Carn na Gearraig is sharp, gaining 300 metres in less than 1km. After this effort a spot of lunch was in order overlooking Loch a Mhuilinn, I took a much-needed rest bite with the large amount of ‘bush whacking’ due ahead.
The heather grows strong in the Highlands and the next long leg to Drumnadrochit was hard going to say the least. Fighting my way through the tall heather was tiring and what lay beneath was heavily saturated ground, by the time I reached Loch Neaty my feet were soaked. Whilst OS 1:50,000 maps provide a lot of detail it did not account for the wildlife control fences which were a surprise, adding some additional unwanted miles to circumnavigate. Back on my route on the South West side of the Loch the going didn’t improve, in fact, the undulating nature of the ground around Carn a Bhainne mixed with the thick heather slowed my pace yet again. I was rewarded for my efforts when turning the corner of the fell to expose views across Loch Bruicheach which were breathtaking. Looking back, I wish I took a photo, however, due to the state I was in and the time lost in the day from the slow going I just wanted to rest up for 10 minutes before being thankful to re-join an actual track!
Following this track brought me alongside a small Loch where there was plenty of wild brown trout raising, tempting as it was to stop and cast a line out as I had packed a small travel fly fishing rod and I chose to continue as the longing to get to the Hostel and a shower was overwhelming. Leaving the rising fishies behind I was once again off the beaten track aiming to re-join a new track south of Loch Gorm. My compass bearing took me directly onto this ‘track’ (inverted commas intended). You could just about make out what once was a used track however due to the heavily saturated ground it more resembled a bog marsh than a trail route…. One wrong step later with bog water up past my waist I was able to confirm it was indeed a bog marsh… To be honest I did get a bit panicked during the frantic efforts to extricate myself from the bog and it did take some effort! Once out, the heavens opened to compound my misery, not that I could get much wetter. Calming myself and ensuring I was good to continue, I redetermined my mind and readied myself to push on the last 5km. Descending the fells I now joined the tarmacked roads via some farmsteads, these roads were steep and the impact on my feet, which were soaking (I did manage to talc and change out my socks after my ordeal) and had accumulated a lot of miles this day, were excruciating. Nevertheless, I limbed on and as the sun decided to show its face, I entered Drumnadrochit were the first port of call was a pub. To this day, and, I’m sure for many more to continue, I never had a more enjoyable pint, bring on day 4!
D4 Drumnadrochit – Upper Coignashie (37km)
Waking early from the Hostel to ensure I got to the pick-up point for the ferry crossing across Loch Ness, I went in search of a bacon sandwich. I was informed the night before that the local Tesco sold bacon Sandwiches from 6 am, this was a filthy lie! Gutted to find out that the breakfast sandwiches didn’t start until 7:30 I left desponded. Not off to the greatest of starts, I made my way to Temple Pier on the shores of Loch Ness. The Ferry across Loch Ness is not run throughout the year and is solely scheduled for the TGO Challenge by a very interesting chap called Gordon Menzies. Here at the pier, I finally got to catch up with some TGO Challengers who started a couple of days earlier and were able to share some stories of their journeys so far and news of others they had met along the way. It transpired that weather conditions had been even worse for those who started earlier on the challenge and there already had been a sizable dropout due to harsh conditions. The five that joined me on the crossing were all seasoned TGO veterans and were in fine spirits, although they could all consent to the start having been in the hardest conditions they had experienced.
The crossing provided some amazing views of the Loch and landmarks such as Urqubart Castle before dropping us all off at Inverfarigaig. Throughout the crossing Gordon provided us with facts and the History of the Loch, the multiple land speed record attempts, mainly by John Copp throughout the 1930s and 40s (and the unfortunate fatal attempt). He of course did not leave out the mysteries of the infamous Loch Ness Monster.
Now on dry land and tarmac leg to get through I set off at a good pace climbing the Pass of Inverfarigaig then down and around Loch Farraline. From the loch, the clouds rolled over once again and the wet stuff descended upon us as I ascended over the saddle between Maol Chnoc and Meall a’ Ghuirmein. The going was tough before re-joining a well-used track on the Dunmaglass estate, the track led through a wind farm, here things turned cold and, as you may have guessed, windy. Refuge was found in a bothy in the middle of the wind farm, inside were a number of long benches which were not empty. I was quickly welcomed by six TGO challengers who had also sought respite from the conditions outside. As we all plunged into our packs to locate our stoves and warm beverages made, conversation moved to all our efforts of the day’s past, and, for the others who had multiple crossing attempts, discussed how this year’s attempt varied. I stayed for longer than most as it took me some time to get warm once again. I finally left the bothy along with two others that had come together by chance on a crossing 6 years previously and now meet up yearly for the TGO. John was in his 70s and an Army veteran from the USA whilst his crossing partner Alison in her 50s from the UK was heading to the same camp spot as myself for the night so I decided to accompany them for the last leg of the day. It turned out the camp location was a popular TGO stop-off point with several tents already erected around the ruins at the edge of a small wood, day 4 complete.
D5 Coignafeuinternich Ruins – Aviemore (34km)
I awoke earlier than everyone else as I had to ensure I arrived at the campsite I pre-booked on the outskirts of Aviemore due to the last check-in time of 6 pm and therefore was eager to set off as soon as possible. Leaving the other TGO challengers behind for their breakfasts I set off, I have to say most of this day was a bit of a blur, as I set a frantic pace rarely stopping and trying to make good of the pleasant weather that I thankfully woke up to on this day.
I did inevitably stop for lunch, however not as I expected. As I headed for the Speyside Way to take me into Aviemore I descended through an outdoor bound’s activity centre and to my surprise they had a food hut open. It was a pleasant change not to have to set the Jet Boil up for another freeze-dried lunch and instead have a coffee and sandwich simply handed to me after the exchange of monies. A simple pleasure. The rest of the day continued at the same walking pace and with the Speyside Way under my feet, I was in Aviemore in next to no time, much earlier than expected.
Back amongst civilisation I was able to catch up further with the rest of this year’s TGO community over a beer (or two). Aviemore marked the end for some choosing not to continue on, yet feeling triumphant in making it so far in tough conditions. Those of us continuing on, turned our focus to the coming weather…
D6 Aviemore – Corrour Bothy (19km)
Talk the previous night regarding the weather made me ponder on route choice and whether or not to change this. 70pmh winds were forecast across the Cairngorms and I came to the decision my high route was no longer safe. I spent some time with OS maps to reroute and called this into TGO control so they were aware of where I planned to be and when. The new route would take me through the Lairig Ghru, whilst a lower route, it still has a high point of 835m with substantial rises on either side creating a valley where the wind would still surely be channelled.
After a refreshing shower at the Rothiemurchus Campsite, I am once again on my way. The Lairig Ghrus starts by winding its way through the Rothiemurchus forest crossing the River Druie. Whilst not my original planned route I was not left disappointed by the spectacular views of the pine wood forest.
As I left the forest the trail continued to rise and views soon opened up across the Cairngorm range, 360 views showed snow-filled gullies, long ridges and all the colours of heather possible. I was tempted to bag a few Munros and divert off my newly devised route, however, the wind was really starting to pick up. As I neared the highest point of the Lairig Ghru the trail transforms to a boulder field which spans approximately 3km. I was pre-warned about this when calling in my revised route to the challenge control, however I felt confident enough that I could manage fine in the high winds. Going was slow as I was constantly buffeted by the wind, causing me to have to change where I’d planned to place my next step at the last moment. Rather than this dampening my spirits I found it quite fun, it at least kept me on my toes, figuratively and literally. After the boulder field the route descended gradually passing Ben Macdui and several streams combined to form the River Dee. After crossing a couple of bridges and restocking my water supplies from the Dee I was at my stop for the night, the Corrour Bothy.
I expected this to be a popular stop, and from the short conversations I had from hikers I’d passed, this also was their destination for the night. Whilst I arrived earlier than expected I was still surprised to find only one occupant. As an icebreaker I offered up to make a couple of cups of fresh coffee which was well received. Just as the fist brew went on another clattered through the doors of the Bothy escaping the gusts outside. First thing our new guests exclaimed was, ‘’That coffee smells amazing!’’. I got the Jet Boil fired up once more… or so I thought. Over the course of the next hour and one fuel canister later, each new resident of the Corrour Bothy had a mug in hand. Now the Bothy was at full occupancy and there were several tents pitched outside the Bothy. I felt justified in getting there early and securing a spot indoors. The party really began once the Whisky showed up and my kindest was rewarded with a few drams coming my way from those I early shared a brew with.
Amongst the merriment we were provided with a stark reminder of the threat’s mountains pose. Around 8pm it appears Mountain Rescue were out in force accompanied by the HM Coast Guard helicopter. Touching down just outside the bothy for a short while before setting off to their next rendezvous. A site to behold, and at this moment, I felt very much vindicated in choosing a lower route.
D7 Corrour Bothy – Braemar (22km)
I was looking forward to getting into Braemar and today’s short distance along with a better weather forecast would see me there in relatively quick time, however, I still wanted an early start so I could spend more time in Braemar. As I swung myself off the wooden bunk, I was surprised to find that another body had joined us through the night and somehow squeezed in on the floor amongst the other bodies right next to my raised spot. After just avoiding stepping on him I set about getting breakfast on and sorting my kit. The act of doing this must have awoken the newest guest, as I soon found out he was American when he greeted me good morning. It transpired he was also on the TGO and had a pretty hard time of it passing through the Lairig Ghru. Remember those boulder fields I mentioned, well, he, unfortunately, wasn’t quite agile enough during a gust of wind and twisted his ankle amongst the boulders. After limping the rest of the way to the bothy at a snail’s pace, he eventually arrived around 2 am and simply collapsed to where I found him when I woke.
The least I could do was sort him a brew and provided him with some painkillers from my first aid kit. I offered to walk with him to Braemar as this was also his next destination, however, he planned to get some more much-needed sleep and would set off after mid-day.
Leaving the bothy behind I set off to Braemar in what developed to be a warm sunny day, what a nice change... Going was good and with only a few river crossings to contend with I was soon nearing Braemar. As this was not part of my original route I was not expecting or aware of Mar Lodge and what they had to offer challengers of the TGO. As I neared Mar Lodge signs had been erected welcoming TGO challengers and stating that a warm brew and biscuits were just around the corner, needless to say, I picked up the pace yet more. National Trust Scotland ran the estate and had opened their estate office for challengers in what used to be an old stable to the estate. Here, as promised, was tea, coffee and biscuits along with some dishevelled-looking men/ TGO challengers. Asides from the confectionery and brews, there were a number of tables strewn with parcels, it transpired this was a popular resupply spot for challengers and many had food and necessities waiting for them for the next legs of their respective journeys. A nice touch was a whiteboard that had been left in the room welcoming those on the TGO and those passing through who had taken the time to sign their names. After a quick chit chat, more than my fair share of biscuits I signed my name to the long list on the whiteboard and was back on my way.
Exiting the Mar Lodge Estate, you cross an impressive bridge before continuing via road into Braemar. Once in Braemar I headed straight for the YHA which I had booked for the night, I was rather early so the room was not ready, however, this allowed me to leave my belongings in the communal room whilst I went back into town. With nothing else much left to do and nowhere to be in a hurry it only seemed fitting I treat myself to a few beers on the pub terrace in the Scottish sun. As had become custom over the past few days, as was soon joined by fellow TGO’ers all eager to soak up the sun with a cool drink. In what felt like a bit of a celebrity atmosphere I arranged to meet up for an evening meal at The Flying Stag which is part of the Fife Arms Hotel. A very impressive building, showcasing art from local artists, an impressive sketch from Queen Victoria and world-famous artists, including a Picasso. The meal was great and the company even better. worth a visit!
D8 Braemar – Spittal of Glenmuick (30km)
I was first in the queue the next morning at a local café (The Bothy Braemar) awaiting the doors to open for a much-anticipated full English Breakfast, or, as should be said, full Scottish Breakfast. The place seemed to be full of TGO challengers, I was soon joined at my table by an older gentleman in a kilt from Yorkshire who had many crossings under his belt/kilt. He was a great fount of knowledge regarding multi-day treks and specifically the TGO. New to the challenge myself I was unaware of some of the key locations many aimed for along the way, he suggested that I should try and make way to Tarfside where many TGO’ers meet up and enjoy each other’s company. Taking note, I planned to revisit my route plan when I neared Tarfside to see if I could include this stop the next day.
Suitably stuffed and reprovisioned from my supply package I posted myself before I left on the TGO to the YHA it was time to head up to the tops again. The first part of the day's walking took me through the Ballochbuie Forest and past the Falls of Garbh Allt which were very Tolkienesque. Emerging from the forest I made my way up to Lochnagar, walking close to the cliff edge so that I could take in the expansive views across the Balmoral Estate. The descent took very little time where I picked up a track used by the estate vehicles. The track consisted of many large rocks loosely strewn for around 3km, every other step I rolled my ankle and was surprised not to have sustained an injury, however, the constant effort left me feeling particularly fatigued. Camp was a small forested area just outside of Spittal of Glenmuick where amenities were a welcome site. Settling in for the night I made the decision to change the route the next day to end at Tarfside where I hoped to find others.
D9 Spittal of Glenmuick – Tarfside (23km)
With the new route devised the previous night, I located myself at the picnic benches next to the rangers/information hut to enjoy my porridge. This must have been a popular place to start day hikes as there were plenty of hikers passing by wishing me a good morning. Just as I was finishing up the ranger came along in her pickup truck with two Border Collies looking very excited. Stopping for a chat and discovering I was part of the TGO she was keen to know how my crossing had gone so far and was very informative on how to navigate around the peat bogs that would prove an obstacle as I headed up to Muckle Cairn.
A small, yet steep-sided valley leads up into the hills where I eventually circumnavigated the peat bogs remembering the advice from the ranger and arrived at Shielin of Mark Bothy. This appeared from nowhere, as it is well hidden from view. Dropping down to the rear of the bothy I could hear plenty of voices, arousing from their sleep were about 5 other TGO challengers who were getting ready for the off. Naturally, I stopped for a brew and a few biscuits whilst we all discussed the next leg. All were heading towards Tarfside but were not planning to set off for another hour or so, As I was l already in my stride, I bid them farewell and would look out for them at camp.
Cresting over Muckle Cairn I caught sight of two walkers, one in a kilt, about a kilometre ahead. I knew from the first site this was my Kilted friend I met over breakfast in Braemar. Kicking on I caught up with them as we neared the Stable of Lee and yet another Bothy and therefore another brew stop as this now appeared to be custom when arriving at a bothy. I stuck with my two TGO companions as there was plenty of the day left and no need to set a frantic pace, plus we were all heading in the same direction.
Heading past the remains of an ancient keep we made our way via road and public footpaths through sheep fields in the shadow of the Hill of Rowan before arriving in Tarfside. A warm welcome was provided at St Drostans Hostel for all TGO challengers passing through, volunteers Ann and Alvar Thorn ushered us in to be sat down at a large table that was jam-packed with fruit, and baked goods both sweet and savoury, however, what caught my attention was the unmistakable smell of bacon being cooked. For a small price for each item on offer I certainly had my fill. Camp was on the common a further 100 metres down the road were already there were 10+ shelters erected from fellow challengers. Setting up my spot for the night I soon got chatting with a group of friends attempting the crossing together, sharing a few drinks and stories. They informed me that a couple of days prior to starting the TGO they came over to Tarfside and hid some beverages in the local wood by a distinctive tree so that they would be well provisioned when they eventually arrived. To me, this was a great idea, especially as they were generous enough to share a few with me. I slept well that night.
D10 Tarfside – Edzell (30km)
I’m not going to lie; I did not enjoy this leg of the journey. I knew by changing the route to Tarfside from my original plan would result in this leg into Edzell being re-plotted. I did plan to go back up in the hills, however, I was informed that the bridge was out and I would have been required to cross the River North Esk. I was, therefore, resigned to road walking all the way to Edzell. I won’t bore you with the next 20km, other than to say my feet hurt… a lot. On reaching Edzell the local common field I planned to overnight at was full of travellers. Not to worry, I planned to stay in the town for most of the day as it was the last day of the premier league season and I wanted to find a pub with a seat in front of it. I’m sure I’d find a new camp location after the football finished.
Nowhere had the football on, I guess this was to be expected being in Scotland after all. I resigned to watching it on my phone after gaining the Wi-Fi password from the barman at The Panmure Arms Hotel. Some further information was also gained regarding the travellers that had come to occupy the local fields, it was apparent they were less than welcome and there had been a number of instances/run-ins with locals. Not wanting to further cause any inconvenience to locals, I made a note to find a new camp location a little further out from town. In a cheerful mood, as Newcastle United had won the last match of the season, I stayed a while longer with other TGO’ers before they headed off to a nearby campsite many had pre-booked. Heading out from Edzell I earmarked a few locations observed on the OS map that could be suitable for camp. One area I headed towards turned out to be on private land, the next two woodblocks I came to were far too dense. Before I knew it, I had walked a further 10km and dusk was starting to settle in, fingers crossed the next wood block would prove at least accessible. With a bit of bush-whacking, I was able to find a small glade just within a wooded area around 8km southeast of Edzell named ‘Mur of Pert’ on the map. Not the most ideal spot, however, I was very thankful not to have to carry on the rest of the way via backcountry roads in the dark…. I wish I had booked the campsite.
D11 Horrible wood block – Montrose (9km)
As soon as dawn broke, I was up, wanting to get back on the road and to my final location, Montrose! I ate breakfast by the roadside as the wood block in the rising morning sun awoke a multitude of flying insects that proved to be a little frustrating, to say the least. The Sun was shining down, refuelling my spirits and made for a pleasant experience for what would be a short walk to the coast and the end of my TGO journey for 2022.
I arrived in Montrose just as businesses were starting to open for the day and seized this opportunity to get bacon sandwiches in my hands at the first café/bakery I saw open... and then another about 5 minutes down the road at the next bakery. A bit greedy I know, but I felt I earnt it. A short skip and a hop later I was there, the ocean out before me at Montrose Bay, feet dipped in, I was done… Hooray!
Triumphantly I made my way to check in with TGO control just back up the road at the Park Hotel where I was welcomed, congratulated and signed my name in at the official end point. Collecting completion certificates and T-shirts I was able to thank mission control, organisers and volunteers for all their efforts. The atmosphere in the mission control room was fantastic, other finishers were congratulating everyone coming in and this couldn’t help but place a smile on my face. It’s great to complete any challenge, however, having others to share the alation with makes the feeling of accomplishment that much greater. I stayed on the grounds that night and we were all able to come together at the TGO celebratory meal hosted by the TGO organisers.
What a great journey and experience that I hope one day to be part of again. A special thanks to Ali and Sue for organising such a special event and to all the volunteers to make it all happen, a big thank you.
Until next time…