Keith Ruffles is one of the lucky winners of a wilderness walk experience with Cameron McNeish, here's how he got there.
Aspring freelance outdoors writer Keith Ruffles was one of the lucky two candidates selected to spend a week in Knoydart with Cameron McNeish and cameraman Richard Else, here - in his own words - is how he won out in an X-Factor-style selection process in the Cairngorms.
Being chosen for the GORE-TEX Experience Tour is fantastic; it’s something of a cliché but it really is a dream come true. I’ve always wanted to travel to Knoydart – one of the UK’s last true wildernesses – and now I’ll be going with one of the country’s foremost experts in the guise of Cameron McNeish.
Even the name Knoydart is enough to conjure up images of lonely mountains and beautiful lochs, a place so remote that it’s only accessible by boat or on foot and where its few miles of roads don’t actually connect with the rest of the British mainland. ’d always wanted to travel to this corner of the Highlands but it’s not an easy place to reach, nor is a trip there to be taken lightly; this is one of Britain’s last true wild places and knowing the land is of the utmost importance.
But becoming one of the lucky two to accompany Cameron and award-winning cameraman Richard Else on the expedition wasn’t going to be easy, and so it proved; after being told the fantastic news that I was one of five shortlisted from around 150 applicants there was the no small matter of an assessment and interview day up in the Cairngorms.
It was hard to know what to expect, and while I felt elated to have got this far I knew that it would have been disappointing in the extreme to fall at the final hurdle. All sorts of scenarios went through my head during the long ten-hour coach trip to Aviemore the night before.
The morning of the assessment day was bathed in glorious sunshine, and at the prearranged meeting point at a local cafe I met my rivals – James, Adam, Stephen and Douglas – and the two Tour leaders, as well as two representatives from GORE-TEX. Together they would make up the judging panel and it was them that we were going to have to impress.
First we went for a ramble in some of the beautiful countryside that surrounds Aviemore and makes up part of the Cairngorms National Park. It was the perfect icebreaker, and I got to learn a little more about the others who were vying for a place on the expedition. All of them had come a long way to get there; some drove, one had got the train and another flew. It was clear that all of us had a genuine passion for the outdoors and that all would have a lot to give to the Tour. The judges couldn’t have picked a better final five.
It was also the perfect opportunity for Cameron to tell us something of his own outdoors philosophy. He saw that people were in danger of losing their connection to the landscapes around us, and he hoped that he would inspire a sense of belonging to the wilderness to those of us that would be accompanying him to Knoydart. His enthusiasm was infectious, and by the time it came to the individual interviews I felt that I was already appreciating the surrounding mountains in a whole new way.
Once we’d reached an isolated bothy high up in the hills was it was time for the individual interviews. It was hard not to feel nervous; this was the occasion where we would show the team why we were the best candidate and why we should be picked. On film and with microphone in hand Cameron asked each of us a series of questions whilst the rest of the panel tried their best not to put us off.
Some of the questions were fairly predictable – why did we want to go, what similar experiences we had had, what we hoped to learn from it – but some were impossible to second-guess. I don’t think the team weren’t trying to catch us out at all; it’s just that they really wanted to get the best impression of each of the candidates in the short time that we had together.
The final question was perhaps the best; Cameron asked what he could learn from me during the week in Knoydart. Being an academic sort I’d studied theories of people and place at university and I suggested that we could compare my theoretical knowledge with his considerable practical experience. This seemed to go down particularly well.
The finale saw us gathered at nearby Loch Morlich to learn our fate. We were lined up and – in true X-Factor fashion – the winners were announced after an agonisingly long wait. First it was James, and then – me!
Needless to say I was speechless and once it had sunk in I couldn’t stop smiling. It was also hard not to feel for those not going; they were a fantastic bunch of people and all of them would have been brilliant team members. I honestly believed the judges when they said that it had been an extremely tough decision to make.
So what do I hope to learn whilst I’m in Knoydart? True, there’ll be the pure pleasure of simply being in an area famed for its spectacular scenery and no doubt the camera will be getting plenty of use. But the Experience Tour is more than that; Cameron wants us to not only discover what it’s like to trek in the mountains but to actually rediscover a connection with the landscape around us that he believes is lacking in today’s increasingly urbanised society. It’s hoped that those joining him will take this back home with us and pass that knowledge on to our friends and families.
All that’s left to do now is to wait impatiently until the start of the Tour in less than a fortnight’s time. Going to Knoydart will not only be the proverbial journey of a lifetime, I’ll also bring back some fantastic memories – and a greater understanding of our untamed environment. It should be quite a trip…
About the Author
Keith Ruffles, 27, is an aspiring freelance outdoor writer, originally from London but now living in Leeds. You can read his personal blog at www.keithruffles.com.
The Scottish leg of the GORE Experience Tour is now obviously closed, but there are further experiences on offer, to find out more, pop over to the Tour web page at www.facebook.com/GORETEX.OutdoorProducts. All images courtesy of Gore-Tex.