Challenge coordinators Sue Oxley and Ali Ogden celebrate bonds forged through shared backpacking.

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

“Here is my route,” read the email from Tim. “It is the same as Douglas’s. We had such a laugh last year we are planning to walk together again.” Around a fifth of those walking in groups or pairs on this year’s TGO Challenge met on a previous crossing so, to us, it is a familiar story. Strangers encountering one another on a remote hill track or mountain ridge recognise a fellow Challenger by the large pack, slightly dishevelled appearance and a propensity to head east. They fall in to step, maybe for a few hours or days, possibly all the way to the coast. They walk and talk but, in a world temporarily devoid of TV, radio and social media, they will also enjoy the luxury of shared silences as they take in the sights, smells and sounds of their surroundings.

These incidental friendships often grow stronger over the years, including our own. We met in 2004 and walked together for a day, meeting again by chance later on the same Challenge. Two years on, we planned to walk the last few days together. Another two years saw us join forces for ten days before our first full Challenge as a pair in 2009, during which we had the idea for forming a business in the Highlands. A decade later, despite running Newtonmore Hostel with our husbands and coordinating the Challenge, we remain good friends.

Many Challenge friendships cross oceans and continents. Our Barbadian regular constantly spreads the sunshine he brings with him into the lives of all the Challengers he meets. Two couples from opposite sides of the Atlantic, who bonded when the English introduced the Americans to scones, subsequently planned and walked their second Challenge together. People of all ages mix easily – one younger Challenger from Kenya regularly walks with a man from Lancashire who he calls ‘Grandad’.

“There is something special about relationships formed in the hills, which is even more accentuated on the Challenge”

Sometimes the “Challenge Family” tag becomes literal. One of our route vetters met his future wife during the event and they tied the knot halfway through their crossing a few years later. Another couple first set eyes on each other on the third day of one Challenge and had decided they had a future together by the time they reached the east coast. She packed up her life in the Netherlands, moved to Devon and they married a few months later. In 2016 the end-of-Challenge dinner saw a bride and groom, resplendently attired in their Challenge T-shirts, walk through a long archway of walking poles to exchange their wedding vows in front of their Challenge friends.

There is something special about relationships formed in the hills, which is even more accentuated on the Challenge. While many of our groups and pairs have met during the event, most participants walk solo. The freedom to travel at your own speed, enjoy the solitude and make your own decisions is a big factor, but it also means that encounters with other Challengers are all the more special. The sense of independence gained by plotting your own route, navigating it and carrying everything needed to survive for days at a time seems to give confidence to those who may lack it in their day-to-day lives and makes striking up friendships that much easier. As you walk and talk, you get to know your companion faster than you would in most other social settings. By the time you have exchanged the mishaps and the highlights, the inevitable highs and lows of the journey, you have certainly reached a good accord. Maybe the lack of distractions makes it easier to talk but we suspect the simplicity of walking in the hills day after day, as well as the moments of solitude, sometimes crystallises what is important to us, making it easier to share our thoughts.

Challengers come from all walks of life but they share the same simple goal – to trek, self-supported, from the west coast to the east coast through the Scottish Highlands. Lawyers, doctors, ex-miners, church ministers, care workers – some now retired from employment and from every political persuasion – all take part and learn to get along with each other in this common and, importantly, non-competitive objective. Challengers are unfailingly helpful to each other regardless of status – freely giving food, making tea for late-comers in to camp, administering first aid, encouragement and sympathy in equal measure. It would be naïve to think every social and cultural barrier is broken down for two weeks in May but falling into step with someone from a different background helps us appreciate the value and values of others and may help break down prejudices we don’t even know we have.

We think Challenger Sally Phillips summed it up perfectly in 2018: “Although I hiked most of my miles on my own, I was lucky enough to spend some time walking with some amazing people of varying age, nationality and motivation. These people are doubtless the reason that some return to the TGO Challenge year after year.”

You won’t be surprised to hear she is coming back for her second crossing this year.

The TGO Challenge – a truly unique and very friendly event!

Photo: Sue Oxley & Ali Ogden