Caledonian Challenge: ‘The hills I’d been talking about, now looked like mountains’

The path to the Devils Staircase. Picture: Caledonian Way/ Bloody Scotland.
The path to the Devils Staircase. Picture: Caledonian Way/ Bloody Scotland.
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AUTHOR Gordon J Brown shares his experience of taking on the gruelling Caledonian Challenge.

I remember, after a few pints, saying that I quite fancied joining the Bloody Scotland team on the Caledonian Challenge. A few tweets later and I was signed up. Then, being male, I read little on the subject.

Chris Brookmyre, Matt Bendoris, Doug Johnstone, Craig Robertson and Gordon Brown. Picture: Caledonian Way/ Bloody Scotland.

Chris Brookmyre, Matt Bendoris, Doug Johnstone, Craig Robertson and Gordon Brown. Picture: Caledonian Way/ Bloody Scotland.

A few weeks before the walk a dribble of nervousness began to seep into my ignorance. My fellow walkers, two in particular, were posting photos of their training. Posts such as ‘just done Ben McBen in 43 minutes’ told me that the ‘walk in the hills’ I was about to undertake might not be as easy as I assumed.

Even so, as I sipped a cocktail on the beach in Spain, I still held out hopes that all would be well.

After all, I had once walked the last half of the West Highland Way (some twenty five years ago) and the Caledonia Challenge covers the last twenty four miles of the Way in reverse. So how hard could it be?

The briefing the night before injected some reality – when they showed the route on a large screen. The hills I had been telling everyone about, now looked like mountains.

Still, the next morning spirits were high.

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We set off at a hell of a pace and, with some forty three teams involved, the masses at the start soon began to thin out.

We reached Kinlochleven, the half way checkpoint, in a little over four hours.

We were in no rush to leave the checkpoint. Feet up and a cup of tea was the order of the moment. We even considered a cone from the ice cream van that sat outside.

Roll on the second half.

Spirits were still up in the sky.

Then we hit ‘the hill’. When I say hill, what I really mean is the ‘vertical climb rejected by Sly in ‘Cliffhanger’ because it was too steep’.

By half way up the thing the fun part of the event was vanishing into the mist around us. The midges descended, forcing us into midge hats (I had a very fetching midge suit – but sadly no photo of me in it). The team began to split. Craig and myself drifted to the back. Craig was suffering with his feet but showed no sign at all of giving in – quite the opposite – head down he was determined to finish.

To ease the pain as we worked our way to the top of well named Devils’ Staircase (for those paying attention this was the second green spikes bit on the first photo) there were views to sooth the soul.

The walk had one last sting in the tail. As we crested the Devil’s Staircase we could see the Glencoe Mountain Resort, our objective. At a guess it looked a few miles off – the reality was a three times this – or maybe it just felt that way.

By now, through the wonders of modern technology, we knew that our team mates had finished. Craig and I were about half an hour behind. Craig sucked it up and we ground out the last stretch. And, just to add sauce to the whole thing, the final half mile was up hill.

When we crossed the finish line we discovered that the others had used the intervening half an hour to decompress, change socks, tops, feet etc – Craig and I by-passed this, walked another hundred yards up to the cafe, and ordered beer.

We did the whole thing in 8 hours 47 minutes – that placed us 7th out of the 43. Not bad (especially given the extended lunch break we indulged in).

As we sipped at the alcohol there was a short (very short) conversation on the merits of entering the longer walk next year (54 miles). This ended when we looked at the electronic score board. It would seem that some madman had just finished the 54 in a little over nine hours.

Some of us spent that night in Fort William eating curry, ignoring the football and groaning every time we stood up to get a round in.

My final thoughts on it all are simple:

Well worth doing.

A great team.

Great fun.

Pain what pain?

Oh, and, the cup of tea back home was magnificent.

Gordon J Brown is a crime writer from Scotland. To find out more about the Caledonian Challenge vist their website.