TGO Challenge 2014 Days 5 & 6 : Going ‘relatively’ ultralight

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This is the life……

The sun continued to shine over the next two days bringing a spring to my step and seeing the miles fly by. Even after cramming my rucksack full to bursting with a resupply parcel at Spean Bridge I was still able to kid myself that I was ultra-lighting…..relatively speaking !

Day 5 – Spean Bridge to Loch Ossian : 36 km

Route Day 5  :  36 km

Route Day 5 : 36 km

A few miles of tedious road walking was needed to get from the campsite to Spean Bridge in the morning. I’d planned to follow the line of a disused railway for most of the way but no matter how many hedgerows I peeked through I couldn’t find a way to get to the blasted thing.

Still, it was a gorgeous morning with fine sweeping views, and with Paddy for company and no traffic it was really a very pleasant start to the day.

Looking South from the Commando Memorial

Looking South from the Commando Memorial

I guess we must have had a lazy start to the day as by the time we reached the Commando Memorial the first of the days coach tours had already arrived and the mount was like a termites nest with camera laden bodies swarming everywhere.

You’ve got to hand it to them, they really knew a great spot to place the statue, the panorama is vast. In many ways I wished I’d arrived late in the evening and watched the sun set from here, letting my mind wander in complete silence and solitude. When I was a wee lad I had an odd collection of Airfix soldiers, including commandos which I used to pitch against French Infantry from the Napoleonic Wars. Needless to say the French always got a sound trashing. But looking up at these powerful figures, even on a sunny day, put all those games into perspective.

The Commando Memorial

The Commando Memorial

From the memorial it’s only a short distance into Spean Bridge where I was due to pick up a resupply parcel at the Post Office. I left Paddy to restock at the local store and marched smugly into the PO to pick up my carefully prepared rations, only to be given a good telling off ! Apparently Post Offices these days don’t do Poste Restante ? That was certainly news to me. If the normal guy had been working, he’d have sent it straight back to the senders address….I was told bluntly. Luckily for me I hadn’t given a senders address, so they hadn’t had a choice.

It took a bit of brute force to pummel the contents of the parcel into my rucksack owing to the fact I was now almost a day ahead of schedule and now packing far too much food. It may also have been something to do with the extra Melton Mowbray pork pies and jelly babies I bought at the shop next door.

Paddy and I parted company in Spean Bridge as he would be following the River Spean east, and I was heading southwards over the Lairig Leacach towards Carrour station.

I’ve been over this way many times before, but never in such good weather. It was an absolute delight, strolling along in the sun. The track seems to eat up the modest height gain easily and all the way the scenery just begs you to sit a while and soak up the views and warmth. Even the addition of a few kilos of extra rations went almost unnoticed.

Heading up the Lairig

Heading up the Lairig

On the way up I passed  a group of four Austrians with pack loads that wouldn’t have been out of place on the back of a Nepalese porter. They seemed to be almost staggering under the weight, and I was shocked to find out they were each packing 25kg on their backs (not on the TGO I hasten to add).

Bit by bit I was entering the realms of the ultralight backpacker, at least in relative terms. The previous night I was at 50% relativity compared to the German lad that joined us for a drink. And here I am at 40% skipping over the Lairig Leacach. At this rate my rucksack would be positively floating.

Heading back down towards Lock Treig

Heading back down towards Lock Treig

I joined John, Sue and Jane in the bothy at the top of the Lairig for a spot of brunch and then set off down towards Loch Treig. It looked like the trials bike event that had so badly scarred my route yesterday had also been this way with another four lane highway of mud and bog ripped through the path. Avoiding the worst of it wasn’t too difficult though and the route continued to be a joy.

Lairig Leacach

Lairig Leacach

On the way down the other side you really start to get the feeling that you’re entering an area locked away from it all. I’d originally planned to spend three days crossing from Spean Bridge to just beyond Dalwhinnie due to the distance, but it was turning out to be one of those days when you just want to stroll on….way past my planned overnight camp which admittedly I reached very early due to the first few days mileage.

West end of Loch Treig

West end of Loch Treig

Loch Treig was a wonderful place to while away a lazy hour eating pork pies, and looking back towards the pass.   I could have quite happily spent a pleasant evening there but itchy feet and the early hour pushed me on a bit further.

Looking back to the Lairig across Loch Treig

Looking back to the Lairig across Loch Treig

As it happens only about as far as the next major stream which came tumbling down towards the loch. It was just too nice a spot to march past and ignore. So I climbed up besides the water, ate jelly babies and decided that my watch was now surplus to requirement. Sometimes it takes a few days on a trek to truly relax into your surroundings and let go of everything that happens nine to five. I think I ‘d now reached that point.

Enjoying a peaceful afternoon by Allt Crucachgan

Enjoying a peaceful afternoon by Allt Crucachg

When I’d planned my walk though this area I’d come across photo’s of somebody camped on the southern shore of Loch Ossian, it had looked serene. That would now be my plan, walk on towards Carrour Station, past the Youth Hostel and then find somewhere to pitch by the Loch.

For anybody planning to walk through this way I would heartily recommend you ignore my route along the southern shore and instead take the path along the north side, at least for the next couple of years. There was absolutely nowhere to pitch along the entire length of the loch.

I would find out next morning the reason why it all looked so different from the photos I’d seen. But along the whole southern side the track had been bulldozed on either side, a ditch dug to bury something presumably. There was the odd little spot I could have squeezed my Trailstar onto but none of them had the commanding view of the loch I was craving for. From the track the views across the water were just too fantastic to pass up by spending the night staring at a few square meters of silnylon. And as you approach the eastern end rhododendrons added colour to the picture.

A wonderful walk, if it hadn’t been for the civil engineering.

Looking back west over Loch Ossian

Looking back west over Loch Ossian

I’d almost reached the end of the loch when I decided I’d just have to head into the trees and compromise for the evening. I found a shaded spot amongst the pines, next to a stream and with the evening sun rays piercing through the branches and the surface of the lake shining just beyond them.

As it happens it was a lovely place to bed down for the night watching the sun setting through the Trailstar door. Perfect end to a perfect days walk.

Camped by Loch Ossian

Camped by Loch Ossian

Day 6 – Loch Ossian to Dalwhinnie : 34 km

Day 6s

Route Day 6 : 34 km

That stroke of luck genius, hiding in amongst the trees for the night had saved by bacon, or at least stopped it from becoming deep frozen.

By eight o’clock the previous evening the temperature had begun to plummet and my one season sleeping bag had begun to show its limitations. If I’m honest it showed it’s limitations throughout the entire TGO but being a hardy Yorkshire man it took getting two seasons out of its depth before I began to wince and shiver.

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Another dry day beckoned by morning however and although there was frost on the Trailstar, there was no evidence of ice by the stream so maybe I’m just getting old and feeling the cold more.

From the nights pitch it was a short trek to Carrour shooting lodge at the end of Loch Ossian, followed by a short bog trot across to what should have been a path starting up the glen towards Ben Alder. As the path climbs steadily the views back west should have been over an untouched vista over the loch towards Carrour station.

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Looking back over Loch Ossian towards Carrour station

Instead I once again entered a scene of civil engineering destruction, for another river hydro scheme. As I picked my way through the mud, ruts and rubble I wondered how my planning could have possibly missed this. How could I have missed all mention of work going on in the area ?

I stopped one of the pick-ups trundling past and asked the workmen how long all this had been going on, and then it became clear. In only two weeks they’d driven a two lane track over a mile and a half up the glen from the loch shore.

Until now I’ve had the naive impression that micro hydro schemes possibly have less impact than others, but seeing the permanency of the roads that have to be driven in even for these small scale projects, I begin to wonder. That track will have broken the feeling of isolation and remoteness you get on the walk from Spean Bridge to Dalwhinie, for evermore. It’s a crying shame. So much damage caused in so little time.

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Oh, how man can ruin a view.

I know that the hydro scheme  will only go part way up the glen, but part of the reason I decided to come this way is because you can walk for a few days without hitting anything too influenced by mans destructive hand. That feeling has I fear gone for good.

The upper part of the glen is still thankfully beautiful as you follow the Uisge Labhair upstream back into the wilderness.

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Besides the Uisge Labhair

It was getting noticeably less wet under foot as I travelled further east, and that combined with the sun and still air meant that frequent stops were the order of the day;  a chance to sit by the river and enjoy the fresh mountain water. I had no planned destination for the end of the day, I would just see where I got to. No rush.

It’s quite a long trek up the glen, eventually climbing the valley side to join a path skirting Ben Alder from Loch Ericht. This then leads you up to the col which takes you over into Ben Alder Forest and on towards Dalwhinnie.

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Looking back from the col to Loch Ossian

It was also the first time I got my feet on snow during the trek, all be it only just, with a small patch still lying across the path over the col.

And as soon as I reached the col the sun disappeared, the temperature dipped and the wind picked up. Nothing drastic, but just enough to remind you how quickly the weather can change, and just enough to warrant an extra couple of layers of clothing.

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First foot on snow

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Looking back towards the col

The walk back down the other side towards Loch Pattack and Ben Alder Lodge was as long as the trek up, but far more bleak, barren and grey. Or was that just the change in the weather. It got so chilly around lunchtime that I had thought about taking a rest in Culra bothy until I remembered it was closed due to the discovery of asbestos in the walls. A quick peek through the windows when I got there revealed it quite clearly, many of the interior wall panels peeled back to expose it. So instead I sheltered outside in the wind and warmed myself with a brew.

One thing that struck me in several areas of my TGO was the stark contrast between areas where it was obvious that forests had once stood, and areas where you could begin to see them reappearing with tiny saplings poking through the barren landscape. This was one of the former, with ancient tree stumps littering the land showing how, not that long ago, trees would have covered much of this flat plain.

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Where once trees stood….

Rather than taking the well worn track over to Loch Pattack from Culra bothy I crossed over the river to the south bank just beyond the bothy and headed in the direction of Ben Alder Lodge.

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Looking back towards Culra Bothy from Ben Alder estate track

Then rather than follow the easy estate track along Loch Ericht, I instead burst my lungs ascending steeply through the felled forest area to meet the broad ridge climbing up to Meall Cruaidh. Looked easy on paper when I planned the route, but short of a path and with rough ground under foot it dammed near finished me off.

Once on the high ground, the walk along the top over The Fara was more than worth the effort, if a little short lived. It was all over too quick, leaving me with a knee jerking descent back down to the loch through a fire break in Loch Ericht Forest.

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It was as I rejoined the estate track by the loch edge that my ‘relative’ ultralight backpacking peaked.

Sat on a log by the track nursing a pair of badly blistered feet, was Robert Leech, a member of the arms forces from Aldershot. He’d set out from Oban on his TGOC, complete with 24 hour army ration packs and a rucksack weighing 35 kg. By all accounts he’d had an epic, dragging that pack up munros along the way. and leaving behind several layers of skin off his heels.

I walked with him the last few miles into Dalwhinnie where he decided he would have a rest the next day. How he managed it I can only wonder. As a youngster I once carried 22kg along the Pennine Way and endured the daily morning trauma of bruised shoulders. But 35kg ! Got to take my hat off to him, hard as nails some people.

As for me, I retired for an evening of ale to dull my own pain. It was due to be another chilly night, with the prospect of 10 hours uncontrollable shivering in my ultralight 1 season bag. A skin full was in order.

9 thoughts on “TGO Challenge 2014 Days 5 & 6 : Going ‘relatively’ ultralight

  1. Nicely written, Sir.
    Utterly depressing to see that even in the middle of this piece of Paradise we are destroying it with new bulldozed roads. Renewable Hydro schemes. Renewable wind farms. All there to save the planet, yet destroying it before any global warming would even touch it.

    • Indeed. I’m sure that the consultants responsible for helping push these projects through, conveniently gloss over the long term damage and change they cause. The wilderness areas of Scotland are being fragmented beyond repair. In years to come society will look back on schemes like this as a shameful period in our history, when people stood back and let short termism and business interest destroy landscapes for generations to come. It’s an embarrassment.

  2. Another excellent write up, John.

    I stopped at the Commando Memorial in 2013. Fortunately it was at the end of the day as the last coaches were leaving so I was able to wander and reflect on the bravery in peaceful solitude. As I wrote on my blog, thinking of what they endured put my own efforts to walk across Scotland into a humbling perspective.

    I had planned to take the routes you followed on this post on my Challenge in 2013. However, I ended up on my FWA and missed these sections. More’s the pity given your comments re the hydro scheme and new tracks. Another area spolit before I get to it.

    You will soon be writing up the best part of your Challenge – meeting me 😉

    • It’s still well worth heading through this way David, I guess there’s plenty of options for avoiding the bad section at the end of Loch Ossian by heading a bit further south and rejoining at the col. If it hadn’t been for that mile of bulldozed track, the walk from Spean Bridge to Dalwhinnie would have been my favourite section of the TGO. Still beautiful.

      • I have to say that reading your report I did think briefly of completely ditching my 2015 planned route, going for an Oban start and heading up via Loch Ossian! However, accommodation is booked for Strathcarron and on from there for 2015. However, I could go this way in 2016 if I am still Challenging then.

      • Thought about that myself too. When you really look more closely at a map, an Oban start gives you some nice long stretches of potential solitude if you take a sweeping arc, and some cracking scenery.

  3. Nice write up sir.
    Been there a few times, shame about the industrial devastation in the name of the Psuedo Green knee jerk lobby, greedy landowners, and greedy utility companies. Scotland is becoming less and less a desirable place to visit, and they seem completely unaware of it.
    But some lovely photos.

    • I must confess that I’m part of the Sustainable Development profession myself, but sometimes the things that are done in the name of it are just plain crazy. Greed is indeed driving most of it.

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