Just a few more days to go…
My husband and I were selected to participate in The Great Outdoors Challenge 2014, a west- coast-to-east coast cross-country backpack across Scotland. I am super excited and honored because only 300 participants are selected each year with only a handful from the United States. The annual event is May 9 – May 23. The Challenge is sponsored by The Great Outdoors Magazine (much like Backpacker Magazine in the United States), in partnership with the outdoor company, hanwag.
A few years ago, I read Trail Ambassador’s Philip Werner’s account of his experience and challenges hiking in a foreign country across wet and demanding terrain in this event called the TGO. I remember thinking, “How cool would that be!”
The TGO is entirely non-competitive (although, upon finishing, Challengers receive a special badge, certificate and T-shirt). A maximum of 15 days is allowed for the crossing. Most people take between 12 and 14 days to cross, and the average length for a crossing is about 289 kilometers (180 miles). The Challenge demands a good level of competence in navigation, survival techniques, campcraft and general hillcraft that requires crossing rivers, climbing Munros (peaks over 3,000 feet), walking through peat bogs, bad weather bypasses, mud, and boulder fields. There are no pre-blazed trails, just hill walking. The event is very organized with due dates, rules, and a cool get together at the ending point, Montrose. The event is renowned for its sociability, support, community, and camaraderie.
Hiking in a Foreign Country
First off, I should admit that we applied for our first passports ever for this trip. World travelers we are not, but we do have years of climbing and backpacking experience in all types of terrain and conditions. I love the process of planning and have enjoyed making plane, hostel, and bus reservations, researching apps and technology that will work while walking in Scotland, studying maps, learning about currency and metric conversions, and plotting routes on GPS software. But I think what has been the most rewarding, is meeting other challengers through the TGO Online Forum. Many hikers come back year after year to hike this trek again. It is that good. They are so willing to go out of their way to offer advice, information, and encouragement with an abundant source of humor.
What is really cool and unique about this event is the Challengers have the responsibly of planning their own routes across the entire country passing through Scotland’s Highlands, Monadhliath Mountains, and Cairngorm Mountains. That is BIG. The routes must be submitted to a vetter for approval on a deadline date. The Challenge requires a detailed plan with daily kilometers traveled, meters ascent, overnight pitches (camps), GPS coordinates, and Foul Weather Alternate routes. The Foul Weather Alternates are routes to take for safety in case of storms (Scotland is known for them) and dangerous water crossings.
Planning a route across a country we have never visited was by far the biggest project that we have taken on. At first, I was more than frustrated, but after finding a few tools it was fun. After experimenting with mapping software, websites and apps, I ended up using Routebuddy mapping software to create our route and Viewranger iPhone GPS app for on route navigation. The process required hours of analyzing maps, reading books, and plotting routes on software.
What made the process even more challenging is the topographical maps are in the Gaelic language. The Ordinance Survey maps of the United Kingdom even have a special grid system. Very different than just picking up my USGS Topo maps and plotting a route.
I quickly discovered Place Name charts to translate and understand the maps. On my to-do list is to learn how to pronounce some of these landmark names before we leave.
Our TGO Stats and Route
We submitted our proposed route to TGO vetter, Colin Tock in February. It was a relief when he enthusiastically responded with congratulations on our route with some detailed camp and route suggestions. Here is our planned summary and map of our route:
- 13 days
- 218 miles or 351 kilometers
- elevation gain – 43,566 feet or 13,279 meters
- Start point – Shiel Bridge – May 10, 2014
- Finish point – Stonehaven – May 22, 2014
- Munros climbed (mountains over 3,000 feet) – 12
- COUNTLESS water crossings
The TGO gear planning is close to being finalized. For the crossing, a few items will serve to protect from Scotland’s cold, stormy, and wet elements. We will be packing full Gore-Tex rain-wear, water-proof gloves, neoprene socks, fleece, and hiking umbrella. Both Dan and I will be sporting Gossamer Gear packs and poles (Click here to see my complete gear list)
The plan is to send a resupply box to Fort Augustus and Braemar. while adding fresh food at local pubs and grocery stores. This will accommodate my gluten and dairy free diet. Most of the nights we are wild camping, with 2 nights in hostels.
Snow and Water Conditions
Scotland currently is experiencing the highest snow levels in the past 65 years! The storms this season have been described as ballistic. This will add additional obstacles such as danger from avalanches, terrain traps, and high stream crossings. This is quite a contrast to our current California drought conditions.
Since we do not have wet, muddy, or even snowy conditions to train on this year due to our low snow year, we chose sand. Our backyard is the Southern Sierras. They are steep, with lots of cross-country routes, and with deep sand. Perfect for practicing navigation skills and hiking long miles. We have also included climbing our local Tehachapi Mountain a couple times a week, and trail running in a nearby canyon. To get ready for big elevation gains and losses on our TGO route, we’re taking a 6 day cross-country backpack in the Grand Canyon National Park during Spring break.
Ahhhhhh the Questions
The last few summers I have put in a good number of miles on the Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide Trail. The typical questions that usually come up before my hikes are usually: “What about bears?”, ” Are you carrying a gun, or “You are hiking by yourself?” Not so with the TGO Challenge. Questions pour out, but are very different. I am asked most often: “What are you most looking forward to?” “Are you going to carry a location device, so I can follow you?” ” Are you going to take lots of pictures?” or “Will you be blogging while on the trip?” They even have a twinkle in their eye and a look of envy as they are asking away.
I will remember that twinkle each night in my tent as I write and share a blog post about the day’s events. This trip is meant to be shared… the journey, the danger, the fears, the triumphs, and the unknown.