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Cape Wrath Trail for Jamie, Ft. William to Coire Fionnaraich
by petejkenny » Wed Aug 10, 2022 6:45 pm
Route description: Cape Wrath Trail
Date walked: 06/05/2022
Time taken: 19 days
Distance: 370 km
Ascent: 10000m4 people think this report is great. Register or Login free to be able to rate and comment on reports (as well as access 1:25000 mapping).
‘I walk with my grief
My close, my dark companion
Shadow of my love’
Our son, Jamie, our only child, died by suicide in July 2019 aged 17, out of the blue, as the saying goes. Our lives changed irrevocably that day; in the turmoil of traumatic loss and grief, the devastation of family and friends, all certainties blown to the winds.
I faced the most basic question, whether to go on or not, was it possible to continue without him?
I did decide to go on, and the question then was, to what purpose? I don’t think there’s an easy, permanent or single answer, but the things that made most sense were honouring his memory and helping others.
I’ve spent a lot of time in the Highlands, completing the Munros in 2017, visiting a lot of the islands and backpacking though many wild glens, camping by remote streams and lochans. I’d thought about doing the Cape Wrath Trail in a desultory way for a while, pushing it on to some distant list of good things to do, a bit daunted by the time and distance.
Last year the thought of doing it to fundraise and spread the word about young suicide got stronger, the decision delayed by the caveat ‘when I’m fit enough’. Grief, injury and lockdown had all left me a bit overweight and lethargic, drinking and eating too much, struggling on.
Then, as the year was coming to an end, I realised that if I wanted to do it I had to commit, and just get fit enough in the period of preparation. I told my partner Dinah, Jamie’s mum, and my friends and family and then, in the New Year, made it public.
I decided to walk the Trail in May, when the weather is often better, and there are no midges, which gave me four months to get ready. Also, Di was going to Ullapool for a week with our friends Lynn and Lorrie at the end of May; if I timed evrything right, she could pick me up at the end.
I chose Papyrus to raise funds for, it is the national charity for the prevention of young suicide, set up in 1997 by bereaved parents. The target was £2,300, £10 for each mile of the Trail, I set up a Facebook page, a Just Giving page and started training.
In those four months I lost a stone and a half, with regular long walks and exercise, eating healthily and stopping drinking. I also raised £6,500 before I even started, and did radio and newspaper pieces to spread the word.
I’d realised many years before that a lighter pack means your journey is quicker and easier, and I’d got a lot of lightweight gear over the years, including a Terra Nova tent, but I did buy four key items in the run up. The first was a pair of Scarpa Rush Trek GTX boots, because I wanted footwear that was waterproof, with ankle support and also light. They had some moderate use in my training, to break them in.
The second was a Montane Trailblazer 44 litre rucksack. I have a 30 litre bag I’ve used for shorter trips and I managed to pack that with all my gear, feeling triumphant until I realised there’d be no room for food! I also got a Thermarest Neo Air Uberlite sleeping mat, astonishingly light and compact.
Finally, I got a Ronhill/Mountain Equipment Tech Jacket, only a 100 grams, and my star buy, as my waterproof shell. Although I was worried about durability, I took the plunge after seeing a few video reviews and I’m glad I did, it was excellent.
I won’t do a comprehensive gear list but eventually, with food, my pack came in at 12 kg, a reasonable weight, with enough gear to manage the Trail, and the odd luxury to help with morale. I packed freeze dried meals for the evening, bags of quick cook porridge, dried milk and fruit for breakfast, oatcakes and squeezy cheese for lunch and chocolate/muesli bars for snacks.
Fort William to Glenfinnan
I left my car with my friends Andy and Paula in the Black Isle and got the bus to Fort William from Inverness on Friday May 6th, getting the legendary ferry over to Camusnagaul and finally starting the Trail at about 1.00 pm. I’d been a bit fluttering and anxious in the days beforehand, did I have everything, was I ready, what if this, what if that? It was lovely to feel all that go, I was ready and if anything went wrong, I’d sort it out.
It was an easy walk down to Cona Glen, the road quiet, the odd light shower and fine views over Loch Linnhe. I wanted to get as close to Glenfinnan as possible, because my nephew Tark and his partner Lex were meeting me the next morning to walk up past Corryhully bothy with me. I knew I had a long walk into the evening to manage this.
I’d never been in Cona Glen before and it was beautiful, a lovely river with high hills either side and many fine camping places, especially higher up. There were quite a few tents in the glen and as the afternoon passed and evening began I was tempted a few times to stop for the night, siren voices saying that I could ‘just pop over’ to Glenfinnan early in the morning.
I managed to ignore them and pushed on over the bealach below Meall nan Damh to start the long descent to Glenfinnan; as soon as I was over the top the path was atrocious, sketchy, boggy and slippery, unlike the excellent path in Cona Glen. Getting down to the hydro track took ages of sweaty, sweary effort and there was no chance of stopping because there were no camping spots.
Finally, I got to the track and it was much easier, and faster. I got down to the river past Callop and camped on nice flat grass at about 10.00 pm, a mile or so from the visitor centre. It had been a good first day, covering nearly 20 miles in 9 hours and I’d pushed on when I needed to, because ‘popping over’ was nothing but a fib my tired legs were telling.
Glenfinnan to A’Chuil
I met Tark and Lex at about 9.30 in a furiously busy visitor centre car park, filled with people waiting for the cafe and/or toilets to open, and to see the Jacobite steam train, and any attendant Dementors. I’d thought about Jamie the whole way over that morning, remembering how Tark and I had looked for him when he was missing, and thinking about my plans to tell people on the way about him and about Papyrus.
I’d had cards printed with Jim’s photo on and a brief description of what I was doing, with details of the Facebook and JustGiving pages. I thought this would be easier than just speaking and would leave people with the information they needed to help. I hadn’t met anyone on the Trail the day before but today I was sure to be talking with strangers about my son’s death.
Simon Gunning from the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) says that talking about suicide is a primary preventive action, because suicidal thoughts and feelings grow in silence and shadows. So, although my heart beat hard and my throat felt choked with sorrow, I had committed myself to do that.
It was great to see Tark and Lex there, we had a coffee and set off up the glen, under that famous viaduct and up to Corryhully bothy, where we met Alistair the estate manager and I got to give out one of my cards and say a few words about the cause.
“Well, I’ll let you have whatever’s in the honesty box here.”
“Thank you, so much, I really appreciate it.”
“Ah, well, it might be empty yet!”
It was empty but he made a donation anyway, and it seemed like the cards would work, and I would be able to do my small part. I loved his dry humour, Jim would have as well.
It was a lovely day, lots of sunshine and no rain, and the walk up to the bealach was a delight, with great views opening up back down the glen. Just as the path started to worsen we parted company, and they made their way back down to Glenfinnan.
I pushed on over the top and the path worsened a lot quite quickly, although it was never as bad as the one over from Cona Glen. The only real challenge, once I got to the bridge over the Pean river, was how long it took to walk through the forest to A’Chuil, it honestly went on for ages and ages.
I got to the bothy about 6.00 and Mattius and Ian were there, and I was quickly given a cup of tea, a great welcome at the end of a days walk.
A’Chuil to Sourlies
I’d given myself 5 days to get to Rattigan, where I was spending two nights at the youth hostel, with a rest day in between. I knew that would involve at least one big day and when I woke up to a fine morning I thought I’d do a big push all the way to Barrisdale, setting me up for two shorter days.
It’s a rough old path at times between A’Chuil and Sourlies, passing through beautiful scenery, I loved the lochans at the beleach, and the first sight of Loch Nevis, the high hills above, and that feeling of being a long way away from it all.
As I looked down to the river snaking into the sea loch, I decided there and then that I’d stay at the bothy, leaving the big day for tomorrow; it was just too lovely to move on. So I strolled into Sourlies just before 3.00, to find it empty and for 20 minutes or so it was all mine, until others began arriving, one by one, two by two, until eventually there were eight of us in the one small room.
Someone brought news that the forecast for the next day was persistent rain, which did make me wonder if I should push on. By this time, however, I’d got out my mat and sleeping bag, taken off my boots and was generally in the mood to let tomorrow take care of itself, so I did just that!
I was beginning to notice how many people were doing the Trail, and how many had traveled from other countries to do it. Over the course of my journey I met about 20 people who were doing it in the same time frame as me, aiming to get to the Cape within a few days of each other. It was, in fact, the first May since 2019 when It could be walked, due to the pandemic, so there was a lot of pent up demand. It was also the case, though, that the Trail is increasingly well known amongst walkers far and wide, and I guess that can only increase in years to come.
I’m not ashamed of our son’s suicide, I’m filled with grief and trying to carry on, to be helpful. However, I felt my speech held back at Sourlies, in the sun by the wide water, with people content to be there, sorting their things out, talking about their day and their plans. It seemed brutal to tell them about my cause, for strangers to have to hear about such traumatic loss.
In the end I did speak, quietly handing out the cards individually, giving people a chance to say what they wanted, to ask questions, before signalling that we didn’t have to talk about it at length. I began to hear about others experiences of bereavement by suicide, a friend, a godson, a work colleague and I took courage from people’s responses.
I began to see how walking ‘in his memory’ could be, that I’d say his name, and what happened to him, every day, and trust in others kindness and our shared humanity.
Sourlies to Loch Hourn
I got up early the fourth day, setting out at 7.00 am, into a windless, gentle but incessant rain, archetypal highland weather. I made good time to the bridge over the Carnach and then was caught up by Blair, who was on a tight schedule, and was a fast walker anyway. We stayed together until just after the river gorge, with him asking me more about Jamie.
After excusing himself he then powered away, heading up over the rough ground to the stalkers path into Barrisdale. I heard that he got to Kinlochourn by 2.00, meaning he walked at about twice the speed I did! I soon lost sight of him as I toiled up the hill in the rain; feeling enormous relief when I finally got to the path, which took me squelching down the steep slopes by the river and finally to Barrisdale bothy, where I stopped for lunch.
It was a really dank day by this time, the relentless rain, the clouds, the swollen rivers and streams and drenched paths making walking a tiring plodding, endurance test. There were a few people at the bothy, including a French couple I’d see a few more times along the Trail, then a Dutch couple arrived, hot on my heels.
There was a general air of listlessly looking out the window, reminiscent of miserable rainy childhood days, as they were sitting out the rain. The idea of staying had its allure but that would then leave me with a really massive walk on day five, and it was only 12.30, so I decided to push on.
I wrote in the bothy book about Jamie and left a card on the table, so people might see them in times to come, I did that in every bothy, and then followed the Dutch couple who’d just left. I’d begun to feel a bit relentless myself, I’d walk on today, through the rain and do what I’d said I’d do. The phrase is ‘come Hell or high water’, well it was the water that had the last word…
I caught up with the Dutch couple, walking strongly with big packs, the man carrying a fishing rod as well.
“Everything’s lightweight except the food, we have to eat properly!”
When we left the track for the path to Kinlochourn we walked together for a short while, then, inexorably, I fell behind. They walked like Blair, is all I can say!
I plodded along the path, which is more arduous than you’d think from the map, it’s undulating and rough in places. On that day it was also very wet, and I began to be concerned about the two bigger streams I’d have to ford. The first big stream I came to was the Allt a' Chaolas Bhig, which had a foot bridge but the river was clearly in spate, a furious torrent of white water thundering underneath. Still, I thought, I’ll find a way.
In the meantime, I saw an otter from one of the bluffs close to the loch. There was a swirl, some ripples and then two dark eyes looking at me for a long moment, before the water closed over them again. I had a spring in my step from then, and as the afternoon developed I would really need every bit of possible bounce I could muster.
The path began to resemble a stream as the water found its way to the loch, every so often I’d poke a drainage gap in the verge with a walking pole, and watch a spout gush on to the rocks below. The hills above were starting to look like a sheet of tattered lace, as all the dry courses filled and the existing streams swelled.
Every little trickle seemed to require a big effort to cross and a couple of times I had to look up or downstream to get over, finding a narrower part or some well placed rocks. This wasn’t getting any easier.
Eventually I splashed my way to the Allt Raonabhal, above Ruinval, and at the path it was impassable, being just as turbulent, if not more so, than the one a mile or so earlier. Still, there was no sign of the Dutch couple, so they must have got through. Upstream I could see a waterfall far above, so that would be a long arduous detour; downstream I saw the burn spread at the outflow, so that’s where I headed.
I struggled down by the side of the stream, over rough, tussocky wet ground, only to find that a tributary stream, which I’d forded by the path, was also impassable. I had to struggle up to the path and then go back down it until I could find a viable route to the outflow. Finally, I got there and it was shallow enough to get over, at the cost of a wet foot.
I walked up to the house, all locked up, and found a half roofed shed behind, which I rested in for ten minutes or so. It was great to be briefly out of the endless rain and to be able to take my hood down while I had a snack. I then struggled up to the path and when I got there reflected that it had taken 45 minutes to travel 15 feet!
The next big stream was going to be the crux, I’d walked this path twice before and I knew it was the biggest unbridged burn; perhaps I’d be able to get over at the outflow again, and still make it to Kinlochourn this evening.
The Allt a Camuis Bhain was less than a kilometre away, just over the other side of Creag Raonabhal and I was there in about twenty minutes, standing by the most ferocious torrent of the day, a raging, thundering deluge. I immediately thought I’d probably not get over it today, but made my way to the outflow anyway, perhaps it’d be passable, and the best camping spots were down by the beach anyway.
At the outflow the water was more than waist high and very wide, almost certainly deeper in a few places, flowing with great force into the loch. The chances of me losing my footing, if I attempted a crossing, were very high, and I’d get soaked to the skin anyway, so I decided to camp.
Before I started a few people asked what the most dangerous thing about the Trail was and I always said it was the rivers; there are only a few high places with much exposure, whereas there are many streams and rivers to cross, and in spate a lot of them are truly perilous.
I realised that Blair, and the Dutch couple must have got to the stream before it was too high to cross, which showed how quickly the water levels changed. That meant, of course, that it could change quickly in the other direction, as well.
I thought about the next day; I couldn’t afford to wait if things hadn’t changed, so I’d have to go high up and cross in Coire Sgiath Airigh, an arduous start to a long walk. Still, it might all be better in the morning…
I had the tent up quickly, I’ve got a polished routine of putting up the fly first, then the footprint and inner are protected from the rain, everything’s packed in the order it’s needed. In the morning it’s the reverse, carefully sponging off any water from the inner sections. If you don’t do things like this on a multi day walk, you’ll end up having to sleep in a completely wet tent the next time you camp.
I was all set up by 6.00 and after eating one of my freeze dried meals, and doing my crucial footcare, I lay listening to the rain, thinking about Jamie, hoping he’d be in my dreams. I was soon asleep, exhausted by a long hard day.
Loch Hourn to Rattigan
It had stopped raining when I woke up, and the stream had fallen noticeably, so I was able to get across relatively easily up towards the path. Having gone to sleep so early, I woke early too and was on my way by 8.00 am. The three mile walk to Kinlochourn felt like a gentle stroll after the dramatics of the day before and I was feeling really good, set up for the long haul ahead.
I was expecting that I could get to the youth hostel at Rattigan by 7.00 pm, allowing for the tough ascent from sea level to the highest point of the Trail, at well over 2,000 feet, the Bealach Coire Mhalagain, between the Saddle and Sgurr na Sgine. I’d been there on my Munro expeditions, so I knew it was a rough, stony, bleak place.
By the time I got to Kinlochourn I can only say that I was ambling, enjoying the views and the lack of rain. I tried out the Tea Room, which was closed, as I expected, so I wasn’t too disappointed. I then circled the end of the loch, over the bridge, heading up to the bealach at the head of Allt Chadha Mhor, passing a pair of Shetland ponies grazing on a lush lawn.
It was a stiff pull up to the pass, with great views back to Kinlochourn, I was relaxed and confident, even climbing the little hill between the pass and the loch to enjoy the views down Loch Hourn. As they might say in one of the old movies, ‘too relaxed.’
I then made a completely basic mistake, I’d read the guide book that morning and I remembered they suggested you take a right turn at the pass, so there was a right turn and I took it. I’d remembered wrongly and hadn’t double checked on the map, blithely following my belief that this was the way.
What I was actually doing was heading up a stalkers path to Buidhe Beinn, at right angles to the route I should have been following. Sometimes the worst thing is certainty, because you’re disinclined to double check, so it was only some 40 minutes later that my doubts got too loud to ignore, and then I found out where I really was.
I should then have just gone back down, but the thought of that was so miserable that I decided to contour round the hill and work my way down to the path as I did so. Well, it did work but I’m sure it took a lot more time, and effort, than just retracing my steps.
This little diversion cost me more than two hours, pushing my arrival at Rattigan later into the evening. It was about 2.30 by now, with a lot of hard walking still to do, so I pushed on, passing the hut by the Allt Choire Reidh and fording the wide river. People I met later told me that it had been impassable the day before and the tiny wooden shelter had four people sleeping in it!
The path contours the nose of Sgurr na Sgine then, bit by bit, disappears, leaving you to get up to the Bealach Coire Mhalagain over rough trackless ground, stony when it’s not boggy, and very steep.
All you can do, sometimes, is trudge on; when it’s really bad I’ll give myself a challenge of taking a hundred steps, or getting to a particular boulder, well, it was really bad and windier by the step! It also started to rain, increasingly hard the higher I went.
Having been there before, I knew I needed to aim for the north side of the bealach; on the other side of a ridge leading up to the Saddle is a very bouldery path, leaning more to the boulders side of things, to be honest. I found that in the wet, windy murk and also got a phone signal, so I gave Di the task of letting the hostel know it’d be past nine before I got there.
The path clears, or arguably actually becomes a path, as it approaches Meallan Odhar, and I stomped over that and descended north, down to the saddle below Biod an Fhithic. There was a faint path leading down to the glen of the Allt a Choire Chaoll, ‘very sloppy’ as the Cicerone guide accurately describes it.
This whole traverse was the most complicated bit of navigation of the day, and I’d managed it flawlessly. All that remained was the trudging haul down to Sheil Bridge, then on to Rattigan, miserable but straightforward; little did I know that I was going to add to the misery with my second blunder of the day.
I knew there was a ford as the burn joins the Allt Undalain, then a good track on the other side, into the campsite, so that was my route laid out. What I wasn’t thinking about was the effect of all this rain on the streams, despite my experiences. The advice is to cross higher in the glen if there’s a lot a water; unfortunately this advice had not stuck where it was needed, in my head!
So, I squelched down the glen, pushing on, and finally got to the ford to find it was impassable, wide, high and angry. I could see the track on the other side but it might as well have been on the other side of the mountain. Looking down the Allt Undulain I could see where I was going, no more than 2 kilometres or so to the campsite, so I decided to walk down the east side of the river.
In retrospect, it’s easy to see that I should have retraced my steps until I found a place to cross, because the difference between one side of the water and the other was stark. On the west was a good track which would have seen me at the campsite within half an hour, on the east was a boggy, tussocky, pathless mess, which took 2 hours to get across.
This was the most miserable walking of the whole Trail, and I’d brought it all on myself. There was really no path, the ground was drenched and lumpy, I was constantly having to climb up and down slippy hags, or manoeuvre round trees close to the water. There was a deer fence for a while where a muddy, sludgy, dip between every post made any rhythm impossible. On top of all that I was exhausted.
And on top of my exhaustion was the maddening sight of the track on the other side…
I finally got to the youth hostel at 11.00 pm and joined a small group who were still up, Americans who were walking the TGO coast to coast challenge. They were warm and welcoming, as was the hostel, and some kind person had left a can of beer in the fridge with a little note to say ‘help yourself’.
They were experienced trekkers in the USA but hadn’t been to Scotland before, we talked about our reasons for being there and I handed out my cards. As I experienced throughout, this led to a conversation about mental health and suicide and some of their own experiences, as well as lots of jokes and trail stories.
I got to sleep at about 1.00 am, finding the one vacant bunk in the dark, having hung my gear in the drying room.
Outside, it was still raining.
In the morning, the rain had eased off, and there were dry spells throughout the day. I said goodbye to the TGO crew, who were off to the Kintail Lodge for their briefing and then heading off, towards Glen Affric.
Before I’d started the Trail I’d come up to Scotland to catch up with friends, and also to do a bit of preparation; one of those tasks was dropping off a resupply parcel at Kintail Crafts. Our friends Clive and Jennifer live in Glenelg and my first plan was to have a rest day with them, unfortunately they were away that week, so I booked the hostel instead.
I stayed a night with them, and went round to Kintail Crafts the next day. I’m sure that if I’d posted it, it would have been fine, but actually handing it over felt much safer.
On the way I saw the TGO crew waiting in the car park of Kintail Lodge and went in to say hello. There’s a place selling hot rolls and drinks in the car park, ‘The Wee Bun’, it used to be a bunkhouse, apparently.
I got a bacon roll and a tea and we all sat chatting, Eric, Brian, El, Will and me, when one of the group saw otters in the loch. We all rushed over, and there were three, right close to the wall, two were there only briefly, but one lay on its back in the water, eating something, for longer.
Lauren at ‘The Wee Bun’ was so helpful and friendly, getting stools so everyone could sit under the porch when there were showers and, of course, getting the food and drinks. It’s not mentioned in the guide, so gets overlooked a bit, but it’s well worth a visit.
Eventually, I walked on; I should say that you can walk all the way from to Morvich, without using the road, for the first section there’s pavement, from the Lodge there’s a path that runs close to the loch, accessed via a gate in the corner of the car park. The road can be quite busy, so this is a safer and much nicer, alternative.
Kintail Crafts is a great place, stacked to the brim with all kinds of things, and a great place to restock. Carol and Cliff, who are lovely people, are also really happy to accept resupply parcels, and they’ve started stocking backpacking meals, so give them a visit on your way.
I picked up my parcel, and bought a load of other things, like chocolate and flapjacks, beer for that night, and a scotch pie for the next day. I gave them a card and they made a donation, Carol said she’d spread the word about Papyrus.
I made my way back to the hostel, to sort myself out for the next day, and hopefully have a nice relaxed evening, before returning to the Trail.
When I got there the TGO crew were back, for another night, having decided to leave the next day, and picked up Benny, the group leader. Unfortunately, the forecast was dreadful, rain and high winds, gusting at up to 60 miles an hour, so there was a lot of discussion about routes, as they had planned to do the Three Sisters ridge.
In amongst all the talk about weather and routes we did have a good time, with a lot of laughing to go with the drinking, or was it the other way round?
Rattigan to Maol Buidhe
I got up at about 7.00 pm, had breakfast, and got all my stuff together from the drying room; it was looking a bit dismal outside, so the forecast was looking accurate.
I left the hostel at about 9.00 and started walking around the top of the loch, planning to get over the Falls of Glomach as early as possible, before the wind got up. This highly sensible strategy didn’t last more than the time it took me to get to the Kintail Lodge Hotel, and ‘The Wee Bun’.
As I got there, the light rain increased and Lauren suggested I sit inside and eat my bacon roll, aided by a hot tea. We chatted about Jamie, and mental health in the highlands, as well as the foibles of tourism and the strange two years they’d had with the pandemic; empty, crowded, no customers, queues, no seasonal staff and so on.
Then Malcolm came by, having been at the campsite, and the three of us sat drinking tea and chatting, as an hour passed pleasantly. An hour I wasn’t using to get to the Falls!
Anyway, we tore ourselves away and set off together, until walking up the turn from Morvich I got a video call from my nephew Sean, and Malcolm walked on. These contacts from family and friends meant so much, the feeling of people following where I’d got to, and wishing me well through the tough bits.
The walk to the Falls was a long wet trudge as the rain had become persistent, and the saturated ground got a fresh soaking. As I walked out of the forest my biggest concern was the wind, which was picking up, and as I got closer I got more worried about the walk by the edge, down into Glen Elchaig.
I knew it was a narrow path,with some steep drops, and it would be easy in those conditions to slip, or be blown over; I decided not to go that way. I looked at the map and although I’d passed the suggested alternative, I could see a path marked on the other side of Meall Sguman, so I crossed the Abhainn Gaorsic intending to go over the hill and find the path on the other side.
First, though I walked north, contouring the hill, hoping to see the Falls, which I did after a few hundred metres. They were spectacular, with all the extra water adding to the torrent gushing down the gorge; I was entranced, and also very glad not to be on the path above them.
Then, by complete chance, I came across a good path, also contouring the hill and apparently heading towards Glen Elchaig. It wasn’t on the map, but it was on the ground, a much better circumstance than the opposite! Anyway, I took that path and it eventually delivered me down to the Glen by the northeastern end of Loch Leitreach, I crossed the bridge and then I was on the good track up Glen Elchaig.
I got to Iron Lodge a mile or so further on, and it was getting late, it was about 7.30 pm, the rain was still falling, the wind was increasingly gusty and Maol Buidhe looked to be more than 2 hours walk away. I was also tired and hungry, and I could see across the burn that there were some good camping places around the lodge.
I was sorely tempted but decided to push on, into the evening, almost a default position of mine, as this report will show again. I’m not a fast walker but I am persistent, I’ll walk until it’s dark if I think I have to!
Past Iron Lodge the track rapidly became a path, as I turned into the glen of the An Crom-Altt, stopping after a kilometre or so to eat the cold scotch pie I’d bought at Kintail Crafts the day before. Then I pushed on, the wind and rain, funnelled down the narrow valley, pummelling my back as I trudged on.
It took about an hour to get over the bealach and out of the glen, to the more open country leading down to the strath north of Maol Buidhe. It was perhaps two miles or so away by now and I trudged on, determined to get there.
This was the worst weather I walked in on the Trail, hard gusts of wind, endless rain, water everywhere, getting darker by the minute. It began to resemble the scene in King Lear where the grief stricken king roams the heath, it was horrendous.
I was still managing to pick out the path, and after all I’d been through that day I was grimly sure I’d get there, but would I be able to get over the tributary stream that ran just before the bothy? Well, if I couldn’t that would be hard, but at least there’d be a decent place to camp.
Then, at about 9.30, I came to a section where on the map the path crosses and recrosses the stream. All I could see in the twilight was a wide sheet of water stretching out ahead, with no way of knowing what was path and what was stream; I stood uncertain for a minute, until a particularly brutal blast of wet wind decided for me that I could go no further and I’d have to camp.
Later on the trip I met Ian again, who talked about his high standards for a good campsite and the care he took to choose them, I told him about this experience, and how I picked a place within two minutes. The worse the weather, the more accommodating a lumpy bit of higher ground looks!
Anyway, I don’t think I’ve ever put up a tent in worse conditions, and a Terra Nova is a bit of a faff at the best of times, but all my preparations worked and I was in my sleeping bag, having a stiff shot of Glenlivet within five minutes. Outside, it sounded as if the world was one big washing machine, on a spin cycle, but there I was, warm and dry, drinking single malt and eating chocolate.
Jamie’s never far from my thoughts, and that evening as I lay there I could picture the sardonic smile he had, if he thought you were doing something stupid, one eyebrow cocked slightly, an implied question, ‘Dad, whatever are you up to?’
Despite the racket outside, I quickly fell asleep.
I woke briefly a few times in the night, the rain still clattering down, the wind howling; ‘sounds bad’, I thought, as I snuggled deeper down.
In the morning things weren’t much better, and I just lay there considering what to do, that and stretching my legs, wondering how hard it would be to make a cup of tea.
Well, I thought, soon, I’ll have some breakfast and then pack up and get to the bothy, any minute now, in fact.
I took my time because I was drastically amending my plans for the day. I had thought I’d get to Coire Fionarach bothy via Strathcarron but I couldn’t see how that would be possible, the best I could hope for, I thought, was to get to Ben Dronaig Lodge.
I was effectively going to drop a day from my schedule, I wasn’t going to get to Ullapool on the following Tuesday, when I had a night booked at the youth hostel. So, I was going to Maol Buidhe, get myself together and then, if the river was passable go on to Ben Dronaig, making a few more miles at least.
I’d have breakfast at the bothy, I thought. I opened the tent a little to confirm that, yes, it was still windy and wet, just as a dark figure passed by. It was a young woman, French by her accent, looking like some lost marine mammal, her black waterproofs shining with water, a poncho billowing and flapping around her.
We managed a brief shouted exchange, she said, “It’s terrible, I’m going back!”
Since I was going on, rather than back, this wasn’t the most hopeful start to the day, but I’d known from the start that I would only give up if I was too sick or injured to carry on. It just reflected the reasons I was walking the Trail; for my son’s memory, to help, perhaps, prevent another 17 year old following him.
So, for me, it was, ‘it’s terrible, I’m going on!’
For anyone undertaking the Trail just for enjoyment, however, the conditions were bad enough to make anyone think twice, so I hope she ended the day warm and dry, full of good food and her drink of choice!
This exchange somehow motivated me to get going, and I carefully reversed the process of the night before, leaving the fly until last. As I got out of the tent to finish packing up, it really was a dreary day, the weather no better than the night before, just with the benefit of murky daylight.
This was underlined by the fly being caught by the wind, desperately billowing, and then catapulting the final titanium peg way off into the distance, as I held on tight to the other end. Fortunately I had a few spare pegs, because I certainly wasn’t going in search of that one!
There wasn’t any less water than the previous evening but there was a lot more light, and so I was able to make me way through the melange of wet path and overflowing stream, and got to the Allt a Creacha Mhoir, just in front of the bothy in about 30 minutes.
It was quite high, with a lot of white water, but I was able to get across, using a few of the big boulders that sat in the stream. If I had managed to get there the night before, it certainly would have been a challenge in the dark.
It was bliss to get inside out of the rain, brew up and make some porridge on a table, instead of a soaked tussock. I sat, a bit shell shocked, I think, and watched a couple of figures clearly trying to find a way across the Ling, and equally clearly, not finding it at all straightforward.
Malcolm arrived at this point, and he told me he’d camped at the back of Iron Lodge, on nice flat grass, relatively sheltered, at about 6.30, so I’d passed him, unknowing, a bit later. We talked about this stage, and he said that the path by the Falls of Glomach had been really scary, and he’d been conscious of the danger of a slip, or a hard gust of wind the whole way over.
By this time we saw that there were people on the other side of the Ling, having managed to cross. I told Malcolm I was planning to go on to Ben Dronaig Lodge and we had a good discussion about walking strategies.
He pointed out that I’d pushed on for another two hours, in terrible conditions, hadn’t got to the bothy, and after all of that was only just a bit ahead of him, also the river crossing was really hard, there’d be high winds in my face all the way down Loch Calavie, and it would probably take four or five hours.
In the morning, it was forecast to be better, so if I waited until then I’d likely pass the lodge after two hours of pleasant walking on my way to Coire Fionarach. I had to admit that this all made sense, although sometimes, the heroic march into the evening gets you where you want to go.
“Not last night, though!”
If my idiosyncrasy was a tendency to start late and finish late, sometimes for not much benefit, Malcolm’s was that he’d never stayed in a bothy, in 40 years he’d always camped. Outside the wind howled and the rain fell. I wondered what sense it made to set up a tent in that, when he was already in a dry, waterproof and windproof dwelling.
“Well, I don’t know, I just never have…”
Then James arrived, doing the Trail from North to South, carrying some wood with him, from Ben Dronaig Lodge. The good news was that it was still possible to cross the Ling, the bad was that it was very hard, and the wind and rain were howling down Loch Calavie.
“It was terrible, but at least it was at my back.”
It was getting into the middle of the afternoon by this time, and we sat drinking tea and burned the wood. Apparently the estate had left a load of chopped wood at the Lodge, so he and another guy decided they’d bring some over to Maol Buidhe, which was fantastic.
It was very pleasant sitting by a fire, in the dry, while outside was wild and wet, and I decided that I would stay there, following Malcolm’s wise advice, confirmed by James’ experience. Later, Malcolm decided he’d stay in the bothy, so it seemed we were having a mutually beneficial influence on each other!
James moved on, taking one of my cards, and very interested in the alternative path I’d found by the Falls. It seemed that everyone was still moving, and it was only Malcolm and I who were staying put; nevertheless I wasn’t tempted, we had a plan and it involved doing nothing much, the most attractive sort!
As the afternoon drew to an end, Tim Aspin appeared, also carrying logs from the Lodge, this time four or five, confirming that the weather was awful. Tim was walking from John O’Groats to Lands End, raising money for The Mental Health Foundation, so we had a lot to talk about. He was basically doing it via trails, estate tracks, old drove roads and so on, avoiding public roads as much as possible.
Once Tim had got himself sorted out, the evening was drawing in, and the fire was rekindled. Sitting in a remote bothy, with congenial company, round a fire, while a storm rages outside, is one of life’s rare pleasures, in my view.
It was one of the highlights of the whole trip.
Maol Buidhe to Coire Fionnaraich
I’d decided to take the Strathcarron variant because Jamie and I had stayed at Coire Fionnaraich bothy in July 2017, on one of our last Scottish trips. We’d had a great time walking up the glen with our beloved Collie, Max, and having the bothy to ourselves for the night.
Of course, I’d always thought there’d be more; perhaps that’s how we live with transience, dreaming of futures we might never have. Anyway, that was my destination for the day, and a good distance to cover, about 16 miles, including crossing the Ling and a pathless section up to Loch Calavie.
We were up at about 7.00 to a better day, cloudy but dry, and the burn had fallen dramatically. We left at around 8.30, parting with Tim, our very own wonderful woodsman, at the Allt a Creacha Mhoir, as we were heading North. As Malcolm predicted we crossed the Ling easily, the whole process of finding a place and getting across took less than ten minutes.
The section from there up to Loch Calavie was also easier than expected and we were on the good path beside the loch in twenty minutes or so. We then had a really pleasant walk by the loch side, over the bealach at Coire na Sorna, down to where the path splits at the bridge over the Allt Coire na Sorna.
We parted there, because Malcolm was going over to the Bealach Bernais and down to Craig. I wished him well.
I was at Ben Dronaig Lodge in short order, as it’s only about half a kilometre further on, and stopped for a cup of tea. As Malcolm predicted, it had taken two hours, and I wasn’t wet and miserable.
While I was there a woman with a very nice camera stopped by, and we had a gentle, thoughtful conversation about mental health and young suicide. Then, as ever, I wrote about Jim in the bothy book and left a card, and I was on my way.
I’d been to this area a couple of times in the late nineties and early two thousands and there’s a big difference, these days, because there are small hydro schemes, and the tracks/roads and bridges that were used to build them, and now help with maintenance, are hugely better than what was there before.
It’s done, but I feel there is something lost by it, real remoteness perhaps; although maybe I’m mostly sad that I’m not in my thirties and forties anymore! It certainly makes access easier, and there are loads more people in the hills, for sure.
I walked away from the Lodge, crossing the bridge over the Uisge Dubh, heading towards the ‘path’ that heads over the Bealach Alltan Ruairidh. I met Pete from Liverpool on his bike, who’d been Munro bagging; he was heading back to his car down towards Attadale, which he thought he was going to need a tow with.
He was really positive about my challenge, talking about how much young people needed good mental health services, and how important it was that people like me talked about young suicide.
Shortly after he left I got to the start of the ‘path’, which is marked by one of those gates which you see in the highlands, from time to time, with no fence on either side, looking like a surrealist joke. This one also effectively had no path either side, as if it was one of those virtual routes, which is recorded but doesn’t exist.
So, it was a pathless haul up to the bealach, where an actual path can at last be found, wending through the hills to Strathcarron, with a final steepish drop down to Achintee. I got a signal here, too and tasked Di with the job of sorting out some accommodation for me, for my second night in Ullapool, as I already had an Air B&B sorted for the Wednesday.
The last time I’d been this way was in 2017, when I’d done a convoluted two day trip to bag Moruisg, Maoile Lunndaidh and Bidein a Choire Sheasgaigh, Di and Jim dropped me off a few miles northeast of Craig, and she picked me up in Strathcarron. By the time I’d got to this last bit of path I was exhausted, crawling along, in the rain too, inevitably.
This time I felt full of energy and made it to Achintee, and then Strathcarron, by about 5.00 pm. I had a brief check that the post office wasn’t open, and, unsurprisingly, it wasn’t, only opening four hours a week in total! However the hotel was open and had a good selection of chocolate bars, which was what I was after.
The barman tried to interest me in a dram and I can’t say I wasn’t tempted, but the thought of walking up to Coire Fionnaraich under the influence dissuaded me! I sat on the grass opposite and had a rest, having a snack and a soft drink, before moving on.
As I crossed the bridge out of the village, planning to take the path by the river and meet the road just short of Coulags, a car pulled up, and out jumped Pete from Liverpool, who seemed delighted to see me. He was so enthusiastic and good humoured, that I felt even better than I already did, which was pretty good.
He asked me which way I was going and offered me a lift to Coulags; at the risk of a visit from the Cape Wrath Trail Police, I have to confess I accepted, saving me perhaps two miles of walking. We chatted about the hills and the highlands and then, after no more than ten minutes, we were at the start of the walk up to Coire Fionnaraich.
Before he left he gave me a bottle of beer, Schiehallion, I think, which was much appreciated, although I did then have to carry the empty all the way to Kinlochewe! Anyway, Pete was one of those people who give your spirits a lift in the first ten seconds you meet them, so I hope he’s on a hill somewhere having a good day.
After that I almost bounded up the path along the Fionn Abhain, to the bothy, which is just a couple of kilometres from the road. I got there at about 6.30 to find a load of people, I didn’t even try to count them but there were at least twenty.
There was a group of young people, up for a party, who were all camped around the bothy. The French couple from Barrisdale were there, two young women were in the main room with a wood burning stove, which was lit, and another group arrived half an hour after me. It was pretty busy!
I found out that it had been the French couple who I’d seen crossing the Ling, the previous morning, and they’d gone to Ben Dronaig Lodge from Maol Buidhe, as I’d planned to do. It had taken them five hours in all, including the very difficult and hazardous river crossing; Malcolm’s wisdom was becoming as clear as a spring morning!
I sat in the main room chatting with Lilly and her friend, when the next group arrived, looking a bit lost and, I think new to bothies. Anyway, I took my stuff into the other downstairs room and ushered them in there, thinking that would leave the young women with the front room to themselves.
We had a very pleasant evening, my Schiehallion was excellent, and we talked about Jamie, mental health, walking, running, education, and all sorts. It was a bit if a surprise to find that there were still problems in the world the next morning!
When bedtime came I discovered that, actually, they’d already bagged themselves a room upstairs, so I had the main one to myself, the wood burner still warm enough to dry my socks. The party outside was either very quiet, or I was too tired to notice, because I was quickly asleep and had an undisturbed night.
Part two: https://www.walkhighlands.co.uk/Forum/viewtopic.php?f=25&t=114020
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