walkhighlands

Excitement, Adventure and Really Wild Things - Part 1

Date walked: 31/08/2019

Time taken: 5 days

With Martyn Wells (Stage 4 Cancer Patient) on the Cape Wrath Trail



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No Stomach for the CWT

This is going to be a long piece; I'll spread it over two articles but there is much background and stuff to explain, so please forgive me. I hope it's worth reading. Especially if you, or someone you know, has cancer .....

In 2017, my friend Martyn Wells discovered that a mole on his back was bleeding. He did the sensible thing and sought medical advice. Tests revealed the worse news: malignant melanoma.

Immediately after he was given the diagnosis, a lady who had been sat quietly in the corner, came over the talk to him. She patiently offered advice, how to break the news to family, and what help was available to him. As they finally finished talking, some time after 7pm, Martyn asked her when she finished work. "Oh, today, 5pm", she said ...... And that story to me is what Macmillan nurses are all about and why I am so proud to have helped raise funds for them. 1 in 2 people will be affected by cancer in their lifetime. Only 1 in 5 will be able to get help from Macmillan. That should be 1 in 1.

To thank Macmillan, Martyn decided to do a sponsored walk along the 220 miles of the Severn Way, from Pumlumon to the Severn Bridge, in September 2018. But as plans were progressing he was rushed into hospital again. Malignant melanoma doesn't go away. This time a cell had developed and burst through his stomach wall. Martyn almost died. And his stomach was removed.

Just think about that. He now had no stomach.

But in September 2018 Martyn did indeed walk the Severn Way, raising some £47k for Macmillan. I accompanied him for one and a half days but felt guilty afterwards that I had not been there at the end. Even during that walk, Martyn was wondering what to do next.

Two weeks later, I got a message. Succinct. "Can the Cape Wrath Trail be done on 10 days?"

No way, I thought, but I came up with an itinerary that in theory should be possible, assuming good fitness, lightweight sacks, and perfect weather. Though I really thought 12 days was the limit.... One thing for sure, Martyn would need someone experienced to accompany him the whole way this time, and I only knew one person who had done this sort of thing before. A short, fat, out of shape, 50-something .... Oh well, I needed a decent holiday.

Early this year Martyn found himself in hospital again. The immuno-therapy treatment he had been receiving had led to him developing double pneumonia, and then sepsis. He spent 16 days on a ventilator, close to death. By the time he recovered he had now lost over 7 stone compared to his pre-cancer weight. On top of that, and the need to receive a feed direct into his intestines each night, in order to get enough nutrition into his body just for normal day to day activities, he now had greatly reduced lung capacity. And he also had to learn how to walk all over again.

A few weeks later he wheezed to the summit of Pen y Fan.

Over the summer we trained and trained. Martyn was now covering 20+ miles with a 15kg rucksack on good paths in good weather through the Brecon Beacons and rolling Worcestershire hills. He stopped taking an overnight "tube feed" and began living entirely on what he ate, just about maintaining a steady weight. We began to think this might just be possible.

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Martyn training in the Malverns

On the night before we left. having finally weighed out all the food he would need to maintain his weight, Martyn sent me a despairing message: "My rucksack weighs 23kg!"

I have to admit that at the moment I almost cried. There was no way that I, let alone Martyn, could carry that sort of load on the Cape Wrath Trail. Personally, I'd spent a lot of money replacing kit for lighter items, and parring everything down to get my own rucksack weight (including 5 days food) down under 13kg - something I knew from experience I could reasonably manage. I think it was about 14kg when we set off.

Thankfully, Martyn too managed to cut his kit list down and in the end was carrying around 17kg. Though still, in my opinion, too much. We set off for the Fort at 3.45am on Friday 30th August, picking up the other member of our team, Rob Simcock (who, apart from snowboarding in the Cairngorms, had never been to the Highlands before) from Macclesfield en route.

As we crossed Rannoch Moor into Glencoe the rain was teeming down. We smiled at the drookit walkers on the West Highland Way .... Little did we know how lucky they were!

After a hot curry at Spice Tandoori, we had an early night in comfy beds at the Premier Inn, a sleep disturbed only by the sound of even more rain. Next morning, BBC news announced that some parts of the Highlands had seen 100mm of rain the previous day. Surely, then, that would be it? No.

Into the Wild


Joining our team of three were Paris and Josh, who were to make an independent documentary about our walk. I was surprised to see them waiting at the ferry for us - in the rain - fully kitted up. They had decided to walk the whole of our first day, up Cona Glen and on to Glenfinnan, with us, even though, as we discovered, neither had actually done this sort of thing before. Josh with a massive camera strapped to his back. Thankfully we all struck it off well from the start and Paris and Josh became good friends over the next 10 days, eventually helping us considerably. Despite initial reservations about intrusion, we probably wouldn't have managed what we did without them.

We were the only ones on the early ferry that last Saturday in August, and the only ones to cross to Camasnagaul all day, as engine problems meant later sailings were all cancelled. The first few miles down the narrow road to Inverscaddle were taken in relaxed, good humour, despite the rain. When the rain worsened as we left the road, for the track up Cona Glen, though, I was starting to worry. We were now heading into the wild: and I had with me four people with little experience of such places (only Martyn had done any real hillwalking in Scotland before). If the weather continued like this, rain teeming down, with no shelter for many miles, there could be some rather unhappy, cold and wet people before very long. But, thankfully, the last front blew through and after a mile the weather began to improve. Thereafter, for the rest of the day, we had a mix of Highland sunshine and showers.

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Rob & Martyn striding up Cona Glen

We reached the locked Estate bothy of Corrlarach exactly according to my planned schedule. This was good going! Progress further up the glen was also quite good; we were still on a pretty decent landrover track. But then the climb to the pass over to Callop began, and now progress slowed, as track was replaced by a path typical of those we were to use in the coming days: occasionally good, but mostly either stones running with water, or bog. Over the pass and it was downhill all the way.

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Waiting for Josh on the pass to Callop

But the path was ever wetter. All that rain of the past 48 hours had nowhere to go: the ground was completely saturated. And Josh was now finding progress increasingly difficult. His camera and other equipment weighed far more than our rucksacks, and, unlike us, he'd not trained for this. But I was impressed with his perseverance, and though the going underfoot became increasingly difficult for a time, I could eventually see the good landrover track from the new Callop hydro scheme, just below us. After that it was easy, mostly level, going into Glenfinnan. Nearly there!

I was pushing a bit ahead of the others, partly because they were going slow, but also to check the path ahead for any difficulties. And as I approached the start of the landrover track, that's exactly what appeared before me. A difficulty. Our first stream in spate. I hadn't remembered there being any problems on this path, and normally the Allt Coire nan Leacaich shouldn't present any problems. Later we looked back on the photos of this crossing and laugh at how easy it was ...... But at the time, we'd not had to do anything like this and I was especially concerned about Josh and his camera backpack. There was no option though, we had to cross. And in the event, it wasn't as difficult as it appeared it would be. Josh even stopped for a "selfie" mid-stream .....

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Martyn and Rob's first river crossing

It was, however, now much later than we'd hoped it would be for our arrival at Callop. Fortunately, though, easy landrover tracks led to Glenfinnan and we reached the Visitor Centre in the gloaming, just too late to see the evening steam train cross the viaduct. everyone was pretty exhausted now. Paris and Josh decided against camping with us, as originally planned, and booked a taxi to take them back into the Fort to dry off. I was determined to push on to Corryhully and a guaranteed dry night (although it hadn't rained much in the past few hours, heavy showers were forecast overnight) but Martyn felt he really couldn't and shouldn't go any further. The last few hours, on rough ground, had taken it's toll on him. What to do? Perhaps a little selfishly I decided to press on for Corryhully, leaving Rob to accompany Martyn at a slower pace, with the promise I'd get a fire going ready for them. I did, also, feel strongly that Martyn would be better in a bothy, with company, than on his own in a tent on this first night. But as I pushed up the glen into the dark, I began to question whether I'd done the right thing.

I reached Corryhully to find several people already in residence, and, delightfully, a good roaring fire. Pretty tired myself now (according to the map I'd walked about 25 miles, but the GPS tracker Martyn carried showed the day's distance to be closer to 29 miles) I was glad to switch the famous electric kettle on for a much needed mug of tea. As I started my second mug, voices were heard outside: Martyn and Rob had made it, not so far behind me as I'd expected.

Martyn collapsed (almost literally) onto a bench by the fire. Rob and I helped him with a hot drink and food and, although the others at the bothy were now retiring for bed, I stoked up the fire. There was a goodly supply of dry wood and also a couple of "fire logs" left by previous visitors which, normally I would have left, but I felt it was justifable to use under the circumstances. I've no doubt Martyn did feel much better in front of a warming fire than he would have done alone in a damp tent.

Next morning, surprisingly, we all felt reasonably good. Just minor stiffness in our legs. Good. The training was paying off. Moreover, the sun was out! This was actually the last we'd see of it for a while, but for the crossing over to Glen Pean we had a mostly dry day with just the occasional shower, and some good sunshine between. The ground, however, was still very, very wet .... My only problem was that my trekking pole was missing. Had I perhaps left it at the Visitor Centre? I didn't know. I would just have to try and make do without it. But a mile up the glen we were called back by a walker out to climb the Glenfinnan Munros - I think his name was Simon. He'd found my pole where I had dropped it when I stopped to put on my headtorch, just short of Corryhully, last night. Enquiries in the bothy has revealed it was mine and he'd hurried up the track to catch us up, fortunately doing so just as our paths diverged. Over the coming days I was very, very, thankful as it was to become an essential tool.

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Corryhully

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Resting on the way up the Streap pass

Halfway up to the path, with Martyn at this stage bringing up the rear, as he progressed more slowly over the steeper, rough, ground, there was an anguished cry. Rob and I turned to see Martyn on the ground, almost upside down, wedged between some rocks. He'd slipped and fallen on what, ordinarily, should have been easy ground. Fearing the worst (head injury?) we rushed back. Thankfully, Martyn was coherent and just needed help getting his rucksack off. Then some cries of pain: he'd dislocated his thumb. Field surgery ensued. Martyn used to play rugby; this had happened before and he relocated the joint, took some painkillers and we bandaged up his hand. He could continue.

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The Streap Pass

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Another "easy" crossing

The descent down to Glen Pean was slow due to the saturated ground but the crossing of the river, just before the gorge, proved easy. Then, a boggy trod through the trees to the forestry track and round to A'Chuil for the night. Ominously, although the forecast had been for a dry night, the cloud seemed to be closing in now and, as we settled down for an early night in the bothy, drizzle started to fall.

White Water Rising

It was drizzly overnight and drizzly when we set off from A'Chuil. The only photograph I took all day was a view west from A'Chuil, towards Knoydart: of lowering cloud and rain. The path down into the forestry was easy enough but the bog-trod up to Wade's military path was slow. It was now raining heavily.

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Looking up Glen Dessary as the rain sets in

By the time we reached Lochan a Mhaim the path was, in many places underwater. We were now soaked through and making slow progress. And then we hit the first big impasse.

Just after the lochans, two small streams come down from the left to join the Finiskaig River. The Allt a Ghobainn and the Allt a Choire Ghlais. Both were now a surging mass of white water; too wide to jump across, too fast to wade. Rob started to wander upstream to find a crossing point for the first of these, but my attention was drawn to the path ahead: both streams joined with the Finiskaig River, and just a little further on we would then need to cross that. I could see the path rising beyond the river; at this point totally inaccessible. I called Rob back. Our only chance was to backtrack to the lochan, hope to ford the river at it's outflow, and somehow negotiate the crags and rockfalls on the the other side to pick the path up again. Martyn stopped to take some video footage - which slightly piqued me at the time: "For f*ck sake, we haven't got time for that!" But I was later glad he did, and regretted not taking any photos myself. At the time though, survival was my only thought.

The outflow of the loch was, as expected, not too fast flowing, though the water was thigh deep, and we crossed safely. I scouted ahead, up what Martyn later described as a rock face, but was in reality just a very steep, mostly grassy, slope. Beyond, a boulder strewn, Tolkienesque, gully looked like it might provide passage down to the path. "Welcome to Mordor", I said, as the others joined me. There were deep holes aplenty amid the boulders: it was slow going; one slip could easily mean a broken ankle or worse. And any help would be many hours away. Slowly we got down, through another tricky boulder field, and reached the path beyond.

Knowing the only major side stream after here was bridged I allowed myself to relax, slightly. It was still a long way to Sourlies at the pace we were moving, the rain was unrelenting, and the path itself was now a veritable torrent of water. But as we passed the gorge and approached the Allt a Ghille Chruim bridge, I could see the sandy tidal flats of Sourlies, at the head of Loch Nevis, and the shimmer of a roof on our night's shelter

When we reached the bothy we were surprised to find the threshold underwater. Though it hardly mattered given how wet we were. Then I noticed - the adjacent stream had overflown everywhere it could and one overflow branch was now actually coming under the bothy, beneath a gap in the sleeping platform at the west end, and out through the door.

But. We were out of the rain. We still had dry clothes to change into (something we ensured was the case throughout the walk). And even if our feet did get wet again every time we walked through the river flowing through the front door, we were otherwise dry. And safe. Rob later said it was his favorite bothy.

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Leaving Sourlies

The rain eased overnight. Water levels dropped and the stream stopped flowing through the bothy. It was a calm, almost benign, morning, albeit with cloud swirling low about the hills. We donned soaking wet trousers, soaking wet socks and soaking wet boots and started off for the new Carnach bridge. Ironically, though wide and deep, the Carnach would have been much easier to ford here than the Finiskaig had been yesterday ...

We followed a track, slowly deteriorating into a path, which at times we lost amid the endless boggy morass, up into the very heart of Knoydart, beneath the, surprisingly clear, crags of Ben Aden. Progress was slow though, even though for the most part it was, for now, not raining. It didn't help that Martyn now broke one of his new Leki trekking poles. Attempts to repair it proved futile and served only to delay us further. Eventually he had to resort to using just the one pole, as I was doing, but something he wasn't at that stage used to.

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That's barely even a stream!

At one point the lower path wended a very scrambly route through a gorge, and emerging I saw an easier, higher path, come in - I didn't mention this to the others; it would probably have made for better, faster, going had we found it, but, surprisingly to me, both Martyn and Rob admitted they'd rather enjoyed the scramble directly above the river. In better weather it certainly would have been a nicer route and quite fun. We emerged by a water-sodden, grassy, sward by the river, with tall beetling cliffs on the other side: an idyllic camp site in summer. Beyond here, the map indicated no path, but we found one all the same, though little more than a deer track at times. Eventually, now mid afternoon, we reached the point, beneath Carn Mor, where the upper glen turns right and the path starts a steep, steep, ascent to the old stalker's path over the Mam Unndalain. But there was no sign of any path on the hillside. I doubled checked our position on the map. Yes, we go straight up here .... and stepped two paces to the right to suddenly see the path I had hoped for, hidden by the tussocky grass. It was a hard climb for a fit person; Martyn found it much more so with his greatly reduced lung capacity leaving him gasping for breath at every step. As we climbed, the cloud came down, and rain set in for the next few hours.

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Climbing up to the Mam Unndalain

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Rain closing in again

At last, on the stalker's path, I thought the worst was over. But the climb, and having to adjust to using just one pole, had taken a lot out of Martyn; he was seriously flagging now, still climbing slowly up hill, and we were in constant driving rain; getting colder, wetter, with every slow step as we climbed to the peak of the pass at 1,800ft. Now, more than ever, we needed to hurry. We were taking much longer than I had expected. It was getting late and I didn't want night to fall before we got to Barrisdale. But progress for Martyn was painfully slow.

Eventually the path started to descend; I knew where we were and again started, just slightly, to relax. And, as yesterday, was then faced with another impasse: almost a repeat situation with a surging torrent ahead of us, joining the main stream to our right, with the path fording this a little further on. The side stream might have just been possible to cross but not the main Allt Gleann Unndalain further down. But, fortunately, just here it was braided into several lesser streams after plunging down some waterfalls, and there was a chance each would, themselves, be, just, crossable. And so it proved, though not without difficulty. Worth noting that had we not been carrying trekking poles, these crossings - as with most of the others we experienced on the walk - would have been simply impossible. I think yesterday's experience reduced the impact, but it was really just as serious a situation. And it's one thing to find a way across a torrent yourself, but when you have responsibility to ensure your companions can do so as well, there's an added mental strain.

Back on the path, Martyn took on more food, and, surprisingly, now found a fresh spring to his step, leading the way down what was now a reasonable path for the final three miles to Barrisdale and safety. Not surprisingly we had the bothy to ourselves. But it was 8pm before we stripped off our sodden clothes that night.

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Down to Barrisdale

Rivendell

More heavy showers fell overnight, but come morning there was actually a hint of sun! On the map the path out to Kinlochhourn looks quite straightforward, but I knew from past experience that it climbs up and down and up and down and expected fairly slow progress. But apart from the odd shower, we were starting to dry out and spirits were rising.

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Leaving Barrisdale

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On the Path to Kinlochhourn

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Group photo

Negotiating wrack-covered rocks and one almost subterranean passage through rhoddendron, we came at last to the road end: and there were Paris and Josh waiting for us, with the news that not only were tea and cakes awaiting us at the tearoom, but they had arranged accommodation for us there as well. And so we reached Rivendell, the last homely house, west of the mountains. Lorded over by the friendly, cheerful, ever-helpful, Tony. With the warmest drying room in the world.

An American couple were staying at the cottage across from the tearoom and joined us for evening meal, proving very friendly and, as with so many people we met along the way, rather, I think, delighting in being able to be a small part of this great adventure.

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With Paris, Josh and the Americans at Kinlochhourn Tearoom

Even as we had walked in to Kinlochhourn I was thinking that, whatever we did next, we all needed a rest day. Moreover, we were now two days behind schedule and getting low on food. The route over to Shiel Bridge took us to nearly 2,800ft with no path and involved at least two major river crossings. We knew that any further rain would put these very quickly in spate and potentially impassable. And more rain was indeed forecast tomorrow. So it was not a difficult decision - and I think an entirely sensible one - to accept Tony's offer of a lift out to Invergarry and get transport from there on to Kinlochewe, where a food parcel awaited us, and from whence we might recommence the walk. However I knew that even then, we wouldn't be able to walk half as far as we'd originally hoped. But we weren't going to just give up, and would see what we could do!

I later described our crossing of Knoydart as being some of the most challenging conditions I had experienced in 35 years of hillwalking and backpacking in Scotland. This is true, but with the slight caveat that, normally, I would never have dreamt of going out in such conditions. I'd have still been at A'Chuil .....


(I hope to get part 2 of this story written up in the next week or so)

Martyn's Just Giving page is: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/capewrathtrail2019

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Beacon Quest - Jubilee Weekend in Snowdonia

Attachment(s) Date walked: 31/05/2012
Views: 2487

Essan


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Location: Evesham, Worcs
Interests: Photography, bothies, weather, history, geology, paleoclimatology
Pub: The nearest bothy
Mountain: Drium Fiaclach
Place: Essan
Gear: Camera and pipe
Member: Newsletter Editor, Mountain Bothies Association
Camera: Lumix TZ100

Munros: 98
Corbetts: 52
Grahams: 7
Donalds: 2
Wainwrights: 24
Hewitts: 88
Sub 2000: 4
Islands: 5
Long Distance routes: Cape Wrath Trail   

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