From May 20th to May 27th I hiked the first 120 miles of Scotland’s Cape Wrath Trail roughly following the route described in Brook and Hinchliffe’s book North to the Cape (starting in the south at Fort William). I initially planned to hike the complete 200+ miles, but a sprained ankle a week before my departure left me inclined to change my expectations a bit, more open to spending a few extra days travelling rather than powering through to the northern terminus at Cape Wrath. This wasn’t all bad, as unseasonably (yep, even for Scotland) wet, cold and windy weather made hostels and whiskey distilleries seem even more interesting than I normally find them. What follows is a trip report/photo essay and a few notes on my experience with extended wet and cold hiking.
I wasted no time getting to the start of the Cape Wrath Trail. After flying from Minnesota to Edinburgh via Amsterdam, I promptly hopped on a train west to Glasgow and another north to Fort William. All told this constituted about 23 hours of travel, and 32 hours of not sleeping. Still, upon arrival in Fort William I elected to purchase a few supplies and hit the already-saturated ground running: I started my hike that evening with a few hours of wide path/lane/road walking. I eventually found an out-of the way clearing to set up my new TT Scarp, which handled the heavy wind and steady rain overnight quite well but could do nothing for my jet lag. A mediocre night’s sleep ensued, but I awoke the next morning excited to tackle some real backcountry.
Gentle at first:
But then climbing off trail, up and over a wet, windy pass:
Then descending off track to cross a fast moving above-the-knees river filled with the rain that had steadily been falling since I started walking that morning, ascending off-trail steeply over another wet, windy pass and descending to another river. So this is Scotland hiking, huh?
The combination of my sleep deprivation, harsh weather, jet-lag, poor conditioning and the fact that this was the first time I’d been away from my wife since my wedding made for a bit of a gut check: I did my best to embrace that these were the conditions I'd be facing and reminded myself that hiking solo didn’t leave much room for error.
Cold rain was here to stay, but at least the trail became defined for the rest of the afternoon. I passed through a cluster of a few buildings known as Strathan, then ascended a small dirt road then path up the valley Glenn Dessary. The consistency of the rain was impressive: I decided I needed to dig a cat hole for a bathroom break, but had to wait about six hours for the rain to break enough to do it! By about 4 PM, I was reaching the upper part of the valley, where heavy rains were leading to potentially dangerous stream crossings over steep terrain. After one particularly intimidating crossing (though in practice it was pretty routine), I decided it was time to find a place to set up my tent and rest up, ideally getting enough sleep to put me back in a normal frame of mind.
The best I could do was a little mound of grass next to a few trees, slightly elevated from the ubiquitous ankle-deep standing water that covered pretty much all open grassy areas I had walked through for the past few hours. I was more than happy to claim it as my own:
The next morning the rain broke for an hour or two, giving me time to finish ascending the pass, but then came back with a vengeance as soon as I started my descent. No worries, though: a solid night’s sleep and an hour or two of non-rain had me pretty excited to be hiking, and for the most part I was staying warm and dry as long as I was on the move.
I descended toward Sourlies Bothy at the end of Loch Nevis, a massive body of water jutting in from the sea. At Sourlies, I ran into a few University students from Glasgow who were waiting for the tide to go out before retracing there steps in the direction I’d be going. They were a lot of fun to chat with, and we hiked together for the next mile or two before our routes diverged, during which time they filled me in on some of their favorite places in Scotland.
They snapped a photo of me in front of the bothy. My rainsuit (Golite Reeds and Rab Momentum Parka) was pretty much my all-day-every-day uniform for the entire hike.
Bridge over the river Carnache:
Again, I turned northward on my own, working my way in the direction of Loch Horn, ascending yet another pass, though the off-track portions were pretty short and straight forward here. The views were some of the best of the trip, and the rain even let up a little:
Upon descending toward Loch Horn a Stalkers Cabin, camping area and non-MBA bothy were right along the track. Sleeping inside the shelter for a night seemed too good to pass up, so I called it a day, made some dinner and rode out the windy, rainy night in relative comfort. I met a few of the local animals, in the process:
View of Loch Horn from near the bothy:
The next morning started out mellow enough, a little rain and not much more as I started my day's walk:
After about a half hour, the skies unleashed some of the most ridiculous conditions I’ve hiked through: 60-70 mile winds strong enough to push me to the ground even with trekking poles and good footing, and rain that seemed to smack my hood so hard that I could hear nothing else. Fortunately, when the really bad stuff came through I was on a low level route that wound around Loch Horn….I can only imagine what it would have been like up high! I resigned myself to the simple fact that this would be a short day, and once I arrived at the head of the loch I’d need to find a protected tent site and wait out the weather. That’s when I thought I’d started hallucinating. Struggling along the trail, still almost two miles from the cluster of cottages I knew lay ahead I came across this:
Of course, on a day like this, there was no way I wasn’t going to go at least investigate. Upon arriving at the cottage, a young man and woman, early twenties at most, greeted me warmly and asked me to have a seat in the “tea house”. I was directed toward a small greenhouse bolted to the ground, with rose bushes and what appeared to be a small café inside!
I promptly ordered a pot of tea and some scones and proceeded to eat the most delicious mid-afternoon snack of my life, all the while not entirely sure if I was in some sort of hypothermic stupor or just really fortunate.
Sure enough, a few English folks who stayed at the bothy with me straggled in behind me and confirmed that this was a real place and not a surreal dream!
Eventually (read: 2 hours later….) I made my way along the wet, windy trail to a protected site surrounded by bushes in Kinloch horn to sleep away the rest of the evening.
To my surprise, even after a somewhat shortened day due to the horrendous weather and tea stop, my left ankle, sprained a week before I left for Scotland, was becoming a little sore. On top of this, I was developing some Achilles tendinitis in both of my heels. I planned to hike another short day and rest up as much as possible. This plan was more or less intact as I ascended toward a pass near a large peak oddly named as The Saddle.
I was looking to put a few miles in, and retreat into my tent or (gasp) a bunkhouse in a town of Shiel Bridge, which I’d be passing through around mid day. During this rough, off-track and soggy ascent waves of small hail came and went about ten different times! I actually started laughing at just how absurd my situation was: walking, more or less alone through the rain for four days in a row now. The ground was soaked to the point that my feet were submerged every single step regardless of where I was walking. I couldn’t stop to take breaks to eat for fear that inactivity in the cold wet conditions would leave me hypothermic, so I kept snacks stuff in my hip belt pockets and had been eating on the move the entire trip. My camera had to stay holstered in some of the most beautiful parts of the hike because the most exposed places were also the wettest, windiest, and generally least hospitable locations for my fancy new Sony Nex5 camera. To top it all off, my ankle and Achilles tendons were starting to protest every step. Now I was being hailed on. Over and over again. My trip began to feel a little ridiculous, and I said out loud, more than once, “what is the POINT?!) I have to admit, some of the beauty of this place was lost on me:
Then, a funny thing happened. After slowly trudging my way to the top of the pass and navigating my way along a ridge to a descent toward a valley that would take me to Shiel Bridge, blue sky appeared.
It wasn’t much, mind you, but it was something. My spirits lifted, I took some photos, and generally reveled in the temporarily changed conditions. Suddenly, as I walked through town, I was less interested in that bunk house. Patches of blue sky and (gasp) sun accompanied me for the rest of the afternoon!
I kept walking…and walking …eventually passing up and over another pass, ambling through a long stretch of high country toward and past the Falls of Glomach (lots of day hikers here), then down another valley into a long expanse of farm country.
I simply could not get myself to hole up in a tent when the rain had finally stopped falling! My “rest day” had become a 23 mile, 12 hour journey with a lot of off-track uneven terrain….but it was sunny! I was going to pay for this tomorrow.
Yep…the morning saw me hobbling down the dirt road toward the farming community of Killilan. Very slowly at first, then just slowly. Eventually, I loosened up enough to walk without a limp, and kept on going. The next couple days basically consisted of me walking somewhat slowly but steadily toward the town of Kinlochewe…The bad weather returned, and physically I wasn’t feeling great. The lack of photos from this stretch are a testament to the combination of poor weather and mediocre morale. On the upside, a couple shorter days (and a couple beers in the pub at Kinlochewe) had me feeling at least a little better and ready to take on another remote stretch of trail with a bit more vigor. Also, after six days of hiking I was desperate enough to bathe in the river north of Kinlochewe. Well worth it!
The rain continued as I worked my way up to Lochan Fada (Lochan = Small Loch), north of Kinlochewe, and as I set a NNE bearing toward another pass.
Somewhat inefficiently, I navigated my way toward the correct pass and subsequent valley leading down to and past Lochan Nid. This was another too-cold to stop day, and as a result I kept moving until I was just short of a series of cottages known as Corrie Halley, and pitched my tent in a pleasant spot off the trail near a stream.
I was now just 7 miles short of the biggest town along the trail (excluding Fort William), and this was a good thing. As I awoke the next day, I realized I basically could not walk. This is bad on a backpacking trip. After packing up, it took me a solid five minutes to work my way up a gentle 15 meter climb that I had descended the previous night to reach my tucked-away camp spot. I slowly loosened up a bit more, but there was no mistaking it: I needed to stop hiking. The site of my ankle sprain was shooting pain with each step, and my Achilles tendons were even more painful and tight. I hobbled the final 7 miles to the road leading to Ullapool with some effort, and promptly put my thumb out, getting a ride 9 or 10 miles up the road to Ullapool. I did walk through some pretty country along the way:
Once in Ullapool, I immediately sent an e-mail home so everyone knew I was out and OK, then took some time to plan out travels for my remaining six nights in Scotland. I was a little frustrated at the way things ended, but having an entire week to travel around Scotland is a pretty tough thing to complain about! Pub food, beer, whiskey and good conversations ensued.
In the next day or so I'll try to get a gear and technique breakdown added to this post....long story short, both worked out great in large part to BPL! Thanks for reading,