Originally, this was to be a blog about my preparations to enter the TGO Challenge in 2012. For a variety of reasons that didn't happen, so this has now become the repository for my outdoor musings.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Thoughts on the TGO Challenge, and If It's For Me.

They say time is a great healer, and I guess I have to agree. It's been nearly seven weeks since Bev, Chris and I headed north for our foray in to the Cairngorms. Bev sensibly forayed from the comfort of the Fife Arms and a VW Golf, whereas Chris and I made progress by foot in to the hills. The blisters, achey legs and fatigued brains have been restored, leaving behind some niggly questions. Neither of us had a great deal of backpacking experience, so these three days raised quite a number of issues, some of which are surmountable and others which may not be. Read on, and let me know your thoughts.

Firstly, I think I'll talk about the Physical Aspects of our hike. I deliberately chose a route that wouldn't provide too much agro from a navigational point of view. Up one valley, along another and then south crossing from one valley to another. Land Rover tracks, stalkers paths with the odd bit of heather/bog trotting. So that wasn't too much of a problem. I did also want to see how we would cope with a long day, carrying hefty loads, and that definitely was a tougher proposition for us. The second day was quite committing as we had no shortcut back to anywhere if we found the going too much, so we really had to dig deep mid-afternoon. I think we both felt a little unsure about our ability to do those sort of distances for ten or twelve days running. One other aspect that would need to be honed is campcraft. I am pretty confident that, like anything, the more you do it the easier it becomes. Backpacking skills are a whole level (or two!) up from your usual dayhiking skillset, and getting them dialled makes the whole thing easier, safer and way more enjoyable, I imagine! We did ok, but I think a "smooth and by the numbers" routine when making/breaking camp is something we do well to aspire to. I suppose kit comes in to the "physical" side of things too, and overall I was pleased with how things worked. I need to practice rigging the Trailstar, and I need to cut down on weight which I think would be in three areas: clothing, food and paunch.

Then there were the Mental Issues. Hmmm, that doesn't look good! One of the biggest things that both Chris and I struggled with was the absence of wives. I know loads of people like getting away from their respective spouses/partners, but we were not of that type. Ensconced under flapping silnylon at Derry Lodge we both confessed, like the old soppies we are, that we missed our wives. And this feeling didn't go away. We were just as bad the next day. And the day after that. I'm not sure how you get round that, or indeed why you would want to. Unfortunately, neither of our girls has the health to join in on a 180 mile hike so this could be a challenge-buster, as I don't think we've got it in us to wave them off for the best part of two weeks. Another issue that raised it's head was that of the very nature of the TGO Challenge itself. We found at times that we were just head down, ploughing on for the next break or campsite and not really enjoying the experience of being where we were. Is a linear, timed (after a fashion) hike the right sort of event for us? Would we rather be a little freer in our scheduling, stopping where we want, exploring where we fancy, rather than grinding the clicks out? Especially when the last few days seem to be mainly an uninspiring trudge through the eastern flatlands (no offence meant to anyone who likes that bit of the walk, or indeed lives there)? I recall Cameron McNeish describing his feelings of unease as he headed away from the hills when he wrote about his first Challenge in TGO last year, and I can certainly understand them. West is best!

So questions to be answered:
1. Is our navigation up to the job? Pick the route according to you ability, do a course, practice, practice, practice.
2. Are our fitness levels were they need to be? Walk, diet, hike: simples.
3. Campcraft? Nothing beats getting out there and doing it I guess!
4. Kit-wise, some weighing and judicious choosing should get things a little closer to where they need to be.
5. Can we be wife-free for two weeks? I don't know, but I think not...
6. Do I actually want to do the TGO Challenge? Yes, and No. I love the idea of it, I love the wilds of Scotland, I love the idea of digging deep when things go pear-shaped, but I don't know if I love the idea of forcing those things to fit an organised, however loosely, event.
(To be frank, the first four questions can be answered fairly easily, I think it's the last two that are the clinchers...)

Please don't take this post the wrong way. I really enjoyed the experience I had seven weeks ago, and I completely understand why people come from across the globe, year after year, to be part of the TGO Challenge. I am constantly inspired by the blogs, photos and articles that Challengers post. As I type this I really feel the need to get out in the boonies somewhere and pitch up. I've got the gear, I've got some idea, and I definitely love the experience. The question is, do I want that experience to be on the TGO?

I guess only I can answer that.

P.S. If you haven't had the chance to read Chris' view of our hike then you could do worse than go here.


  1. Ken; I can only tell you of my experiences on my first TGO but maybe they will help.

    I found it was all about the numbers; the number of days, the number of miles needed to be covered each day. But it doesn't have to be; as you know there is plenty of daylight at that time of the year and you can and should try to kick back and enjoy, there is very little point in arriving a wild pitch early in the day, so you'll only be sitting in the tent, may as well spend the time earlier in the day and enjoy the views. Of course you can arrive early and grab some extra ZZZ's :-)

    No matter how fit you think you are, you will get fitter as the days go on. Towards the end I was doing 18-23 mile days which I never thought I would be doing at the start.

    My phone packed up the day before starting and I had no time to replace it, so the only time I was in contact with the family was when I could find a phonebox.

    I have a young family and it was hard to leave at the beginning but once into the walk, thing weren't to bad.

    Days when I had little to do (Braemar) were hard even with friends around.

    I finished on the Wednesday but wasn't leaving Montrose until the Friday; these were the worse days of the whole trip, if I could of got a train out earlier I would have, I was missing my family really bad but that was really the first time that had hit me, up til then the walking keep this in the back of my mind.

    And this does make me wonder if I will ever do another one.


  2. What an interesting post, Ken.
    Only you can decide if you can go without seeing your other half for the two weeks. Perhaps you could meet up a couple of times along the way? A nice B&B as a break is a great tonic with a loved one.

    On the struggle with getting your head down and doing the miles, I can help:

    It's great that you managed this walk, especially as it had time constraints. The thing is, the time constraints on a two / three day walk are far tighter than those of a two week walk. As you said, once you had committed to the Glen Avon section you were totally committed to the rest of the walk for the next two days. You HAD to get those miles done in the two days.

    On the Challenge, however, if you fall behind your schedule on say the second day, you have another twelve days to sort that out. Most Challengers build in a rest day into their schedules (I generally build in a couple) so if things do go a bit tits up, you have ample opportunity and time to sort it out.

    I notice that Chris was carrying a heavier pack than you. It makes life a lot easier if you are both carrying light loads as then you are both more likely to be enjoying it and bolstering each other.

    (Mind you, that doesn't stop you having a bit of fun and loading Chris's pack up wit a few rocks for a laugh...)

    On the campcraft thing, you are spot on. A few more weekend jaunts will soon have everything ticking over so it becomes second nature. Maybe take a trip out with someone more experienced to catch a few good ideas?

    The last thing I'll say to try and persuade you to come along on the Challenge is that you will constantly be bumping into other Challengers gong your way, who will become firm friends and you'll have a great time with them.

    I hope we do see you both on the Challenge next year. If yo can cope with the backpack in your report you can easily cope with the Challenge and have a whale of a time.

    All the best to you & Chris


  3. Good advice so far. There is no answer to being away from the wife. I miss mine every moment when away. The hills are still worth the pain.

    Arrange a meeting on the way as Alan says. Fitness can be worked on and kit weight helps. Navigation skills learnt and honed. Anytime you want to meet up for a training weekend in the Autumn in the Lakes give me a shout. Sure we can help point you in the right direction with a tip here and there and a chat over a beer at a wild camp.

  4. My advice to go for it - but do a three or four day backpacking trip in April as a shake-down. Don't worry about the distances covered on this one, it's more about mental preparation. There's likely to be a Black Mountains trip organised if you want to join in. Having doubts about it is pretty usual, I would say. See Louise's blog.

  5. I haven't done the TGO Ken, but just wanted to say how much I appreciate your honesty and candour. It's refreshing to read and helps me frame my thoughts about it too (minus the wife aspect!).

  6. Great post. This hits home for me somewhat. I recently set out for my first solo hike. I had 4 days planned on the AT in Georgia. All by myself. I will admit that I was quite nervous about going by myself, but also, the same as you, I was not so sure how I would do being away from my wife and kids.

    It may have made it worse for me that the wife and kids actually hiked a little ways down the trail to see me off. I will admit that the first few hours was ok. It was new and fresh and I had missed the trail, so it was great being on the trail. However, I quickly found that when I came to a look out or a nice spot, when I turned around there was no one to share it with. So, like you, I kept my head down and pushed on.

    By doing this I ended up at the stop for my first night way early. I knew I didn't want to sit there all by myself and think about how I now severely missed my family, so I pushed on.

    That night I made it to a road crossing along the trail and considering I did a little over 20 miles I decided to call it a day there. I pulled out my phone and called my wife.

    I told here that if she were to be there with me, I would probably load up and go back with her. It was bad enough that I missed them, but it seemed to be worse that I didn't even have a friend to talk with. I really felt lonely. The next morning I road hiked into a town and made plans for my wife to come that night.

    This experience makes me seriously question if I will be able to thru hike the AT now. And this is something that I have felt that I want to do since I started backpacking (even though it was only 2.5 years ago).

    So, I understand what you are saying. I appreciate that you posted this. It is nice to know that I am not the only one that feels this way.

  7. Well I have to be honest, I wasn't expecting my thoughts to strike such a chord with you all! Many thanks for your positive comments and advice.

    George: I found your account of the TGOC very honest. It brought home the reality of the undertaking, that it's not all lovely views and whisky! That in it's own way is quite motivating though, having the understanding of it as a "challenge" is important.

    Alan: I like the idea of rendezvousing (is that how you spell it?) with my better half, assuming that doesn't contravene the unsupported ethos of the challenge..? Also, the point that a longer walk gives you more time to make up ground should it be necessary is a good one.

    Martin: I like the "beer at wild camp" part of your comment! I may well be in touch...

    Mike: thanks for the link to Louise's blog, plenty to read there. Also, let me know about the Black Mountains, if I can fit it in I would be interested.

    Helen: Thanks for comment, glad to be of assistance!

    Chad: Thanks for your comment, the AT is a mighty undertaking! I enjoy my own company in the hills for a day, but any longer and I can end up pining for my wife and cats. It's a tricky balance, I love being in those environments. I'm not really sure what the answer is.

  8. I did Kilimanjaro last year. 2 weeks away from my wife of 18 years and my 3 children under 16. Yes it was bloody hard, yes I shed a few tears but it made me stronger and boy do I appreciate them all the more. This will be my first challenge in 2012 and hope to meet up with you Ken!