I’ve just put the date of next year’s Great Wilderness Challenge in my diary: Saturday, August 11, 2018. That’s when hundreds of walkers and runners will again gather in the west coast village of Poolewe to enjoy the majesty of the surrounding landscape.
An army of volunteers will also be on hand to help participants – whether marshalling in the remote wilds of the Fisherfield forest or cooking up a fine spread of food for everyone to sample after returning from their own personal challenge.
This year there were more distances than ever before on offer, from the 25-mile course to a 1.4-mile route suitable for wheelchair users. Other options included two 13-mile courses and a seven-mile circuit, making it a really accessible event, whatever your level of fitness.
I had entered the 25-mile run but reluctantly pulled out after coming down with a virus in the week running up to the event. I didn’t fancy coming a cropper in the middle of nowhere and relying on the mountain rescue volunteers to get me safely back to the finish.
While I didn’t feel well enough to run, I wanted to soak up the atmosphere, and the organisers made me an offer I couldn’t refuse – a trip in the helicopter to the halfway point on the 25-mile route. I’d never been in one before so that would be an experience in itself.
I took my camera along to Carnmore, close to the causeway between Fionn Loch and Loch Dubh, where those tackling the longest route would reach after the testing first half from Dundonnell over to Shenavall and across the two rivers, before coming over the pass to reach us.
It’s an area I know pretty well, having wild camped here many years ago before tackling some of the Fisherfield Munros and, on another occasion, done my best to ride in from Poolewe on the mountain bike – despite getting a puncture trying to hop over one of the many cross drains on the stalkers’ path.
Finding myself so suddenly out here after the helicopter flight, it felt somewhat surreal. Walkers and then runners soon started to make their way down the pass to the checkpoint, manned by a group from Dundonnell Mountain Rescue Team and some event volunteers.
At times, part of me wanted to be taking part – until another coughing fit reminded me I’d made the right decision!
The spirit among the competitors – and those further back in the field – was wonderful, and friendly words were exchanged as each one came past, knowing the most challenging part of the route was over even though there was still plenty of ground to cover to reach the finish line alongside the river in Poolewe.
Once back in the village, people were gathered, proudly hanging their medals round their necks as they returned to the village hall for some well-earned sustenance.
The soup, sandwiches and cakes put on here were like nothing I’ve ever seen at an event before.
The GWC is a superbly organised event that exists for the primary purpose of raising funds for charities across the Highlands. Its main beneficiary is Highland Hospice, and many other good causes are given donations each year from money raised by each participant.
These include the MS Therapy Centre in Inverness, Crossroads Skye, Skye & Lochalsh Young Carers, Headway Highland, DEBRA, Gairloch Car Scheme and Gairloch Aid & Mobility Support.
Since the event’s inception in 1986 the Great Wilderness Challenge has raised £3.6 million, with this year’s donations still to be counted.
Taking place in the heart of the Fisherfield and Letterewe forests, it’s an inspiring challenge for all sorts of reasons, and I am hoping to be on the entrants list for the 2018 Great Wilderness Challenge. I wonder if you’ll join me?
* For results, photos and more details of the event, see www.greatwildernesschallenge.info
* Article first published in Active Outdoors | August 18, 2017