Where even downhill is uphill work
The Caledonian Challenge is a 24-hour, 54-mile hike through the Highlands with four brief stops. Jeremy Seal heads for the hills. Sunday Telegraph, 13/4/2008
The Highland dawn began to show somewhere beyond Bridge of Orchy – some 60,000 footsteps in, some 40,000 more to go - backlighting 1074-metre Ben Dorian in vermilion. At least, I think it was vermilion.
The truth is I might have been hallucinating about the colour. I had just trekked through the night. And even if it had been the shortest of Scottish summer nights, then I had also trudged through the correspondingly long Scottish summer day which preceded it. Welcome to the Caledonian Challenge – 54 miles from Fort William to Loch Lomond, with only brief rest and refuelling stops en route – which has established itself as Scotland’s foremost endurance fund-raising event since it was founded ten years ago.
The six Bath Babbies – don’t ask - were among 345 named teams, some 1500 walkers in total, who had gathered for staggered morning starts by the banks of the River Nevis. Our all-male team had built up middle-aged fitness levels in the months leading up to the event, but not so as to pass up the least scrap of extra encouragement to be had. Stuart did not fail to notice that the walk kicked off at a car park called Braveheart – ‘Us?’ he said. ‘Could they mean us?’ – while the Kinlochleven High School pipes band put vim in our stride at the off. A few teams went off like startled stags but most, the Babbies among them, were clearly for deferring the inevitable discomfort for as long as possible. The thing about the Challenge, at least for the first few hours, is that there’s nothing to stop you approaching it like a weekend rambler enjoying one of the world’s truly great walks. So we chatted, admired the views of mountain, loch and ruined trackside bothys, nibbled mint cake and scanned for golden eagles on the looming crags of Ben Nevis.
Scotland’s first national trail, a rugged combination of military roads, disused railway lines and drove tracks, is more creatively imagined as a walking tour of upland Scotland’s iconic highlights; the splendour of Glen Coe and the desolate expanses of Rannoch Moor as well as Britain’s highest mountain and Loch Lomond’s bonny banks. Which might seem to favour the more leisurely approach. In fact, the gathering clouds of midges, especially in the sheltered glens, meant that there was a greater temptation to keep moving. We were mostly sheltering behind the midge nets which hung from our hat brims, among the kit items supplied by the organisers, and rather resembled wandering beekeepers as we descended towards our first checkpoint at Kinlochleven.
After checking in at the town’s High School – presenting our electronic wrist bands to the Challenge’s cheerful and supportive marshals – we met up with our support team. John and Nick doled out bowls of pasta, bananas and energy bars, plasters and gels, and set about spirit-raising with gusto.
‘You’re doing fine,’ said John, handing round mugs of hot sugared tea.
‘12 miles done,’ added Nick. ‘Which means you’ve only… oh, never mind.’
It was beyond Kinlochleven, where an arduous climb finally summited at the Way’s overall highpoint of 550 metres (1850 feet), that the chat began to turn threadbare. All unnecessary patter evaporated to leave occasional bursts of encouragement or breathless queries about dicky knees. We descended the steep zig-zag of the Devil’s Staircase into Glen Coe where a blue light flashed. A shivering girl lay inside an ambulance, wrapped in a foil blanket. At Checkpoint 2, 22 miles completed, we were not even halfway.
That gruelling afternoon, in the way of things, gave way to a glorious evening reminder of what it was we walked for. The eight-mile section, across easy terrain on the western fringe of Rannoch Moor, was bathed in late sunshine. Birds sang among the gorse, and a silvery threadwork of lochans and burns stretched out beneath the Black Mount. With last of the light an old cobbled drove road led us into wooded Inveroran at the head of Loch Tulla. From the checkpoint marquee came the rousing sounds of a fiddle, but the backing was a chorus of delirium. Walkers groaned beneath the hands of trainee physios. I wolfed several bowls of chicken stew before submitting to the exquisitely agonising ministrations of Amy; angelic Amy, did I offer to marry you for that midnight massage?
And so to the night; groups fracturing, and a line of bobbing head torches following the foot of mountains through forestry plantations towards Tyndrum. And beyond it, in a beautiful summer dawn, there was Checkpoint 4 where feeding station had largely given way to field hospital. Still, as Nick told us, just 12 miles left. Things got a little hazy after that. I remember a soup stop seven miles out and encouragement from day-walkers heading north. I recall midges driving me on whenever I stopped to rest, and the beautiful River Falloch winding south towards Loch Lomond. There were tears as a lone piper serenaded me across the finish line, back pats, and a print-out record of my time was pressed into my hand. A boat ferried me across to the Welcome Home site on the loch’s western shore. It turned out I was the second team member home. Stuart gave me a hug. He then told me that the Braveheart Car Park was actually named for the fact that Mel Gibson’s film unit had used it during the making of the movie of the same name. In no way a recognition of our efforts, then. Not, after 24 hours, 13 minutes and 55 seconds, that I much cared.
The RBS Caledonian Challenge 2008 (www.caledonianchallenge.com) takes place over 14th/15th June. Payment per participant is £125, plus a commitment to raise £500 in sponsorship for the Scottish Community Foundation. Participants should be fully prepared and must register as teams.