Walker Stories from the Caledonian Challenge
Adventures on the West Highland
By Peggy Hamilton
June 17, 2006 was a
typical Scottish day, with overcast skies and drizzle. The midges—look like
gnats, bite like mosquitoes—were plentiful, and a midge net fashion
statement was evident as we waited for the signal to begin.
But spirits were high, and a pipe band was playing Scotland
the Brave as we hikers—1459 strong—began crossing under the start banner
and activating the tracking chips secured to our wrists. My teammate Al and
I (our other two teammates had dropped out several weeks earlier, one of
them taking our support team with him) felt our “blood a-leaping high as
the spirits of the Old Highland men” as we began the 54-mile trek through
some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.
trail—at this point slightly muddy turf—went immediately upward into a
mountain forest. There wasn’t much time for sightseeing, as the 1459 surged
forward en masse and it became a matter of survival to simply keep moving
with the crowd. After a couple of miles the faster walkers cleared out, the
forest ended, and it became downright pleasant hiking if you could ignore
the steady rain and midges. Al and I were making good time.
After the first water stop at Mile Five (thank you, Cub
Scouts!) we crossed a stile and the trail turned into a former logging
road. Although it was wider than the turf trail, it was littered with rocks
and crossed by numerous run-offs due to the rain, making for less solid
footing. Recognizing that I couldn’t keep up the pace we’d set on the turf,
I sent Al on ahead by himself. We agreed to meet up at Checkpoint One,
located at Mile Twelve in Kinlochleven.
Seven, as I was fording a run-off, one of those rocks caught my foot the
wrong way and sent my ankle inward. I tested it, found it operational, and
kept going at a slightly slower pace.
later a second rock caught the same foot and twisted it in the opposite
direction. Again I tested it, again found it still operational, and hobbled
on at a much decreased pace, leaning heavily on my trekking poles and
beginning to feel very much like an Elderly Person.
That trail looked awfully long . . .
Pretty soon everybody who had started later than I was
passing me, many of them asking me if I were all right. After responding
repeatedly that I was fine—just a bit slow—I finally had to admit to one
especially concerned team that I didn't think I was doing so well. They
offered to send help when they reached Checkpoint One and gave me some
trail mix, making me promise to eat it immediately. I thanked them, downed
the trail mix, and shuffled on. By Mile Ten it had become clear to me that
I simply wasn’t going to make it to Kinlochleven. I found a natural turf
bench at the side of the trail, called the emergency number we had been
given, was told that they had indeed already been alerted to my plight and
were out looking for me, and sat down to wait for the meat wagon. Soon I
spotted a beat-up old Land Rover making its way along the trail. The driver
boosted me onto the passenger seat (by then I couldn’t put any weight on my
ankle) and I had a hang-on-for-dear-life ride down the mountain and into
My rescuer, president of the Scottish
Four-Wheel Drive Society, took me straight to the first aid tent, where a
paramedic was waiting for me with ankle wraps and ice packs. After making
sure nothing was broken (I’m convinced he was disappointed; last year at
that point they’d had two broken ankles and a broken arm while this year
had produced only nine other sprained ankles) he pronounced me unfit to
continue. My tracking chip was deactivated, and I was officially retired
after seven hours, 22 minutes, and 24 seconds. Out of the Challenge, on my
own (Al had left for Checkpoint Two while I was riding in that luxury Land
Rover) and faced with finding my way back to Ft. William, I asked around
until I found that a bus was due in about an hour in the village center, a
five-minute (“or in your case, love, ten or fifteen”) walk away, and I
began limping away from the checkpoint. Near the entrance I spied a
two-woman support team packing up and asked them for a lift to the bus
stop. They said they had nothing to do for another four hours when they
would meet up with their hikers at Checkpoint Two and insisted on taking me
back to Ft. William themselves. I’ve always said that the Scots are the
nicest people in the world, and every time I travel there that belief is
So off I went on another wild ride, back
to Ft. William and the Alexandra Hotel where I’d spent the last two nights.
My luggage and car were still there, and the desk
clerk found me a room for another night, then insisted on carrying the bags
for incapacitated—I was barely ambulatory by that time—little old me. After
an early meal of Chinese takeaway I conked out. I was, as they say in
Scotland, “knackered”. At 4:45 Sunday morning I was dragged out of
unconsciousness by my cell phone. It was Al. He’d made it to Checkpoint
Four (Mile Forty-two) and needed a ride. I dragged my sorry self out of
bed, hobbled around getting cleaned up and packing, and headed south.
(Fortunately, by the time I reached the car I could put enough weight on my
ankle to work the clutch.)
It was another overcast
day, and as I drove through Glen Coe and across Rannoch Moore—two places
that I consider among the most beautiful on God’s green earth—I couldn’t
help but think that it’s no wonder anyone who grew up there believes in
“ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties”; nowhere else in the
world is so much of a fairyland . . .
Al was waiting
for me at Checkpoint Four near Tyndrum, and after filling the car with
petrol I bid a sad farewell to the Highlands and turned the car toward
Glasgow and other adventures.
St George and his
Dragon’s Caledonian Challenge
By Graham Benbow
Caledonian Challenge what’s all that about then? 54 miles in
24 hours that’s only 2.25 miles an hour or 207 times around a standard
sized football pitch, what’s challenging about that then?
Each walker completing
200+ miles training over four months:
Walking to and from work.
Helping people erect fences.
Administering first aid at a road
accident. Calling out the emergency services as two canal boats catch fire.
Being stopped by the Police and ‘interviewed’. Walking in to a lamp post.
Getting blisters. Learning about 101 ways to use Vaseline to prevent
chaffing – so we are told.
Encourage sponsorship from friends, family and colleagues. Raising
Corporate sponsorship from EDS and Marriott Hotels Glasgow. Holding fund
raising events; sweepstake, charity auction, wearing your ‘kit’ to the
Beg, Borrow and Buying Kit: Aldi’s did good
business in hiking sticks. Undertaking a 1036 mile round journey to take
Getting up at the ‘crack of dawn’ to collect walkers from the
four corners of the South East London. Listening to ‘Tom Tom’ giving
directions to Heathrow Airport. Departing at London 07:30 and arriving at
Fort William 18:30. Shipping Gazebos, cooking utensils, foldaway chairs
from London. Spending hours burning CD’s that can’t be played on the
Mini-Buses Cassette player! Exchanging tales with other Challengers on the
Journey north. Visiting B& Q and Sainsbury’s to purchase essential
supplies (including 8 bamboo canes, a bright orange bucket and a pasting
table – don’t ask!). Taking flak from the locals for wearing St George and
his Dragons T-shirts emblazed with the cross of St George. Walking through
a Burger King drive through for lunch (essential pre walk protein – not!).
Experiencing the Support Team’s Driving abilities along narrow roads in a
15 seater mini-bus heading for Fort William. Breathtaking views of Loch
Lomond and Glen Coe, mysterious mountains shrouded in low level
Registering and partaking in Safety Briefings
and Pasta Parties: Receiving your walking number, microchip, goody bag and
walkers passport (which required details of your medical condition, any
medication, allergies, blood group and next of kin – at which point you
think can I go home).
Participating the Safety
Briefing, what to do in the case of………..least said the better. The Pasta
Party at the Nevis Centre. Last minute emergency purchases. A few drinks in
the hotel bar in the company of a traditional Scottish musician, we
believe, to calm the nerves and encourage a peaceful night sleep.
Walking the 54 miles: Stage One Fort William to Kinlochleven
12 miles. Dropping off the walkers and re-tiring to Morrsion’s for a superb
cooked breakfast (the walkers having had ‘continental’ at the Hotel).
Starting in pouring rain at 9 am, the rain was to fall for about 16 or 17
hours of the entire walk, but we were at the front. Being joined by 500
other walkers for this stage start (other had started at 7am whilst the
last group left at 11am), and given a pep talk by the event organiser.
Experiencing the Scottish clegs and midges in wet
woody valleys. A splendid stage through Nevis Forest on the side of Glen
Nevis, and as the weather improved the views got better, entering a
nameless Glen, surrounded by Mountains covered in mist and cloud with
sunshine breaking through lighting the greens, browns and greys of the
Negotiating a rugged, wet and undulating path, slowly
ascending in height. Missing Ben Nevis, which apparently provides dramatic
views on this stage! In true British tradition queuing to cross stiles.
Meeting up with the support team at Kinlochleven for a most welcoming Pasta
Chilli (extra’s for me please) and the nectar of life a hot sweet cup of
tea, only to be told you’ve got to leave now! Dispensing of goody bags and
drinks for the next stage to the Glen Coe Ski Centre.
Stage Two Kinlochleven to Nevis Ski Centre 10 miles.
Descending 1600 feet to the summit of the Devil’s Staircase giving
unsurpassed views of Glen Coe and the dominating features of Buachaille
Etive Mor and if you looked over your shoulder you could just spy out Ben
Nevis behind the Mamores, the range of mountains not another participating
team. The rather depressing sight of Checkpoint 2, still six miles away!
Arriving at checkpoint two and receiving a welcoming
massage, use of real toilets, more sweet tea, more goody bags, banana and
honey sandwiches, a change of socks and the evitable comment from the
support team as they count down the minutes of our stop and tell us its
‘time to go’.
Stage Three Nevis Ski Centre to
Inveroran Hotel 12 miles (Bronze) Experiencing the remoteness of Rannoch
Moor, dominated by the Black Mount. Crossing the scenic Ba Bridge and the
appealing Ba stream with views across the wide expanses of Loch Tulla. Rain
falling again that will not stop until the finish. Having been walking for
12 hours and realising you’ve only completed half the route.
Arriving at Checkpoint 3, Inveroran Hotel, having completed
30 miles to the welcoming sounds of the ceildh band. Forgetting to change
your boots for walking trainers.
Stage Four Inveroran
Hotel to Auchtertyre Wigwams 12 miles (Silver) Experiencing the delights
of the Scottish midge at nightfall. Wondering were the support team are,
nice and warm in a local hostelry we expect. This section sees the eagerly
awaited night time stretch, by now the team had split in two groups of four
and two. Sleep depravation. Ascending Mam Carraigh to descend into the
Bridge of Orchy as evening turned into night, watching the line of head
torches following in our footsteps. Not being able to enjoy the views,
owing to nightfall, as the route, the railway, and A82 squeeze through this
narrow pass north of Tyndrum into Coire Chailein, and wondering why the
head torches of those in front were going in the wrong direction?
Experiencing the pains, aches and blisters manifesting themselves, but
ticking of the miles as we arrived at each water stops and the soup kitchen
at Tyndrum. With less than 3 miles to Checkpoint Four were we would join up
with the support team once more. Walking along the midge invested River
Cononish at 2.30am surprised at seeing trains running on the Oban line and
missing the opportunity to stand in historic amazement when at Dalrigh the
site were Robert the Bruce was defeated in 1306 by the MacDougalls and went
on to hide in a cave to be confronted by a spider. Arriving at Checkpoint
Four to the welcome sight of the Support Team, bacon butties and more hot
sweet tea, this time we ignored their count down and remained at the
checkpoint for an hour, repairing damaged limbs, leaving for the final 12
miles at 04.40, this time minus goody bags!
Five Auchtertyre Wigwams to Stuckendroin Farm 12 miles (Gold) Walking into
daybreak above the Fillan valley close to Crianlarich and being eaten by
the midges. Walking down any inclines backwards owing to a twisted knee.
Ticking each mile off as the finish got closer and closer. Arriving at the
finish and being wrapped up in a silver blanket and blagging an early trip
on the Royal Marines speed boats on the basis of an early flight back to
London. Being greeted on the west side of Loch Lomond by the welcoming
committee and wondering why! Being re-united with the support team and a
refreshing pint of beer for some, and more tea for others. A white-knuckle
ride back to Glasgow and use of the Marriott Hotel’s leisure facilities to
shower and freshen up.
Lack of the use of your legs for a few days as
the slow process of recovery kicks in.
And then the
And that was the Caledonian Challenge a
stroll in the country!!!.
But most importantly it’s
was about fund raising £3,000 in pledges so far for the Scottish
Community Foundation with RBSG Community Action Awards still to contribute.
We all found the event rewarding, building team spirit, rapport and
friendships along the way and the Teamwork, and Personal Achievement was
immense. Four team members achieved Gold Awards (54 miles) two members
achieved Silver Awards (42 miles) the Support Team earned the walkers
gratitude for looking after us.
Roll-on next year for
some, but not for most!
St George and his Dragons
were Matt Rowe, Paul Backhouse, Darren Perry, Andy Le Marchand, Andy
Squire, Dave Tully, Andy Fisher, Steve Carpenter,
The Old Fogies Triumph
June 17-18, 2006
In 2005 our daughter Rachel and her
English cousins Tuulia and James entered the Caledonian Challenge. This
involves hiking 54 miles within 24 hours over the West Highland Way, a
hilly footpath that runs from Ft William to Loch Lomond in Scotland. After
their successful completion of the this grueling event they quite naturally
expected their parents to take on the Challenge in the following year. Thus
the stage was set. My wife Patricia, her brother Peter and I could hardly
say "no" and disappoint the kids. Our team, composed of one
American (me) and two Brits, all in our 60s, would call ourselves The Old
Tuulia and James Staff, Peter's children would act as support
team. Eila, Peter's wife also volunteered. The support team would have a
seven seat van and would meet the walkers at three of the four rest stops
where they would provide food, water and clothing changes. It's not easy
since they would have little sleep during this period in a cramped up car
seat. We all began preparation for the event. Peter who regularly walks
around the island he lives on, West Mersea began to walk around twice in
day and then three times in a day. Each circuit is 14 miles.Patricia and I
completed the Great Saunter, a circuit of the Manhattan Island
"shoreline" in one day, 32 miles. Two weeks before the Challenge
we covered about 200 miles in 15 days along the SW Coastal Path in
Cornwall, England. This is a rugged undulating footpath and the effort not
only increased my stamina but toughened my feet. Patricia seemed to start
and end the walk with stamina and no blisters.
June 17 we three parents were driven by our support team to the 9am
starting point just outside Ft. William. In this 10th year of the Challenge
each of the 1482 walkers were given a special computer chip which was
inserted into a reader at each rest stop to record our individual time for
each of the five stages of the walk. This information was posted on a web
site so that any interested person could track each walkers progress.
The first stage was 12 miles and pretty easy. Peter
was constantly urging us on and eager to complete the walk in 18 hours. I
made up a chart to show my own progress to a 24 hour performance. Patricia,
who probably could have finished in 16 hours stayed with me through the
whole walk so that we could finish together. The second rest stop was at
Mile 21 after the Devil's Staircase. This involved a long steady climb to
the high point of the footpath and was quite a tiring effort with numerous
false tops. The weather was almost always cloudy with periods of drizzle.
Rain gear was required at some points. The scenery was impressive with
treeless green hills and mountains beneath moody grey clouds and mist. By
the end of this stage some walkers began to drop out. By Stage three, at
Mile 29, walkers deteriorated further. My feet were sore and inspite of
the training we had completed in the two weeks prior they were hot and red.
I had to make a go/no decision about walking the remaining 25 miles. A
marshall suggested I visit the First Aid department at the other end of the
rest tent. A young Scottish foot repair person put vaseline and hospital
gauze pads on the bottoms of both feet. He used tape to hold the pads in
place. To my own amazement my feet felt alot better. I really did not want
to quit. I had invested considerable emotional and physical effort to get
this far. So the will to continue was strong. Now with diminished pain the
path ahead was clear. I took some Paracetemol, an over the counter pain
killer, two times during the walk. Now I popped a third one to make life a
The organizers had prepared a nice rice
and chicken dinner for the walkers at this point. It was the only stage
without our support team. They would meet us at the final rest stage, Mile
42. After I decided to press on with Patricia, Peter felt comfortable
enough to go on alone and make the best time he could.
stop, was the nightmare stop. Most of us arrived in the wee hours of the
morning. It was dark and rainy with mud and midges everywhere. We had head
nets, insect repellent and headlamps. The headlamps were especially useful
beacons for the the midges just encase they couldn't smell us. A clever
midge could zoom in under the head net and the ones buzzing around me were
geniuses. Walkers were in various states of exhaustion. People were limping
about or just quiting altogether. The First Aid department and the masseurs
were doing their best to repair the damage.
support team was particularly wonderful and were at our beck and call. They
cheered us up and encouraged us. They brought us food, water and medical
supplies. They made suggestions on what to take in the last 12 miles of
this grueling endurance test. Usually around 10pm I get sleepy. But not on
this night. Perhaps it was adenaline, perhaps the will to finish. At around
2am we set off for the last leg. James joined us. Those final five hours
crept by, minute by minute, mile by mile. It was windy and wet. The trail
markers were not always clear and by this time walkers were spread out
thinly along the footpath. At times there were no headlamps visible, ahead
or behind us. The organizers had placed signs and lights at most critical
turning points...but not all of them. Finally the clouds seemed to brighten
up a bit. By 4am we turned off the headlamps. It seemed like we would never
see Loch Lomond but at last we crested a hill and there it was. After some
more twists and turns in the trail we reached the final check point tent.
We returned our chips. Someone swathed us in aluminum blankets and we
awaited the Royal Navy raft which would ferry us across to the other side
of the Loch. Here crowds of support teams, volunteers, rescue works and
British army soldiers gave us all a big hand and cheers. We each received a
gold medallion on a purple ribbon...though its actually made of brass. Of
the 1482 walkers who started, 1061 completed the walk. That is about 72% of
those who began it. I cannot think of a better measure of the determination
of the human spirit. Patricia and I finished in 21 hours and 50 minutes.
Peter completed the walk about 40 minutes earlier and waited for us at the
This was physically, the most difficult
day in my life. I tested the limits of my endurance and determination and
now I have bragging rights for the rest of my life. As we age we often
impose limits on ourselves. Sometimes society imposes these limits. On
occassion, it's a good feeling to test and exceed those limits. After
returning to London I had our medallions mounted and framed. They will have
a place of honor in our home. In time, the brass may tarnish but the
memories never will.
I should mention also that this
was a fund raising event for Scottish charities. Therefore we want to
extend a special thanks to those who contributed financially in the name of
the Old Fogies. In addition to our support team we also want to thank our
daughter Rachel for preparing trail snacks and giving good advice and
Slawek for helping us get and return the Van.
One final note. Many trophies are awarded. A winning
runner might complete in under 12 hours. I was especially interested in the
Oldest to Complete prize. On July 4 Rachel phoned me at a restaurant near
Christchurch to tell me that I had won in the "Oldest Individual to
Complete" category. For someone who had never won a trophy of any kind
I was thrilled.