In the run-up to the 40th TGO Challenge this May, we will be running a series of short articles on the finest backpacking event in the world. Here, former TGO editor and long-term Challenge coordinator Roger Smith takes a look back over four decades of coast-to-coast crossings of Scotland.

First published in the February 2019 issue of The Great Outdoors.

When we launched the Great Outdoors Challenge (or Ultimate Challenge as it was then) onto an unsuspecting world in 1980 we could never have envisaged that not only would the event still be going 40 years later, it would have grown into an unstoppable force with many people returning year after year.

That first year we had just 65 entrants and ran the Challenge over three weeks. We quickly realised however that a fortnight was as much time as most people could afford to take out from their lives for the walk, and from the 1981 event onwards the time allowed was reduced to 14 days. In the October 1980 issue of TGO we printed two accounts which showed different sides of the event. One was a true high-level crossing, the other was a hilarious account of a lower level route.

They obviously touched a chord and for 1981 we had (somewhat to our surprise) over 200 entries. We had to quickly expand the parameters of the administration to cope with this but cope we did, helped by a glorious spell of May weather. That was my first crossing and I managed to bag 20 Munros on the way.

The tenth Challenge in 1989 saw the first of our now traditional celebrations at the Park Hotel in Montrose, which has been our finish point every year. A dinner was arranged and the five people who had completed all ten crossings got a special award. They included Hamish Brown, who came up with the idea for the Challenge in the first place.

Looking back over such a long period, one year begins to blur into another, but I shall always remember 1992, my first year as event coordinator. I was in a high state of nervous anxiety for the whole fortnight but I need not have worried: everything went to plan and another successful Challenge took its place in the archive.

“It is a tribute to the purity of Hamish Brown’s vision that the format of the Challenge has never changed, and I hope it never will”

Of course there have been scary moments and we have more than once been grateful for the magnificent service provided by our mountain rescue teams. One incident involved a very experienced solo walker having to hole up at the remote Oban Bothy on Loch Morar for 48 hours due to incessant rain making the streams impossible to cross. He had no way of contacting us and we were mightily relieved when mountain rescue got in touch to say that they had met him finally walking out. He had to drastically revise his route to get across in time, but he managed it.

This flexibility is one of the great features of the Challenge. Everyone has to submit a route sheet but we stress that if circumstances change due either to the weather or for personal reasons such as an injury there is no problem in changing your route as long as you let Control know.

And so we come to the 40th Challenge. It has drawn a truly international field of walkers from 15 different countries including 40 (appropriately) from the USA, over 20 from The Netherlands (they love our hills) and walkers from more exotic places such as Barbados and for the first time a walker from Japan. All will be made equally welcome.

It is a tribute to the purity of Hamish Brown’s vision that the format of the Challenge has never changed, and I hope it never will. We have embraced modern technology but the physical challenge of getting yourself across Scotland within 14 days remains and many Challengers show extraordinary resilience in doing so.

I recall on one of my Challenges meeting a crofter on my first day. I stopped and he asked me where I was going. “I’m walking to Montrose” I said. He pondered a minute and then said, somewhat gravely, “You’ll no get there the day”. Nor did I, but I did get there and the achievement of doing just that will be in the minds of every walker on the 40th Challenge as they set off from the west coast of Scotland this May.

One in particular may find his mind reeling back to the early days. Our own Chris Townsend, who was on the 1980 Challenge, has entered again this year for what will be his 17th crossing. I’m sure he will enjoy it every bit as much as his first. During the event we will welcome the 9000th person to complete the crossing. Every one of them is special to us.

Header image © Ali Ogden