Photos from the trail

I’m back in Cambridge and procrastinating over cleaning and fixing my equipment, so have instead sorted through my photographs and uploaded them to Facebook. You should be able to view them by visiting the Hitting The Hills Facebook Page.

Here are a selection of my favourite photos:

The West Highland Way

Day 3
Day 3 – About to be overtaken by a 10 year old girl on a bicycle.
Beauchaille Etive Mor
Day 3 – Near Kings House, looking towards Beauchaille Etive Mor.
Aonach Eagach
Day 4 – Aonach Eagach ridge walk.
Aonach Eagach
Day 4 – Having fun in high places along the Aonach Eagach ridge.
 Stob Coire nan Lochan
Day 5 – Making my way up to Stob Coire nan Lochan.
Devil's Staircase
Day 6 – The early morning view from the top of the Devil’s Staircase.

Fort William

Day 7 - Making my way back down Ben Nevis towards Fort William, taking the main route down.
Day 7 – Making my way back down Ben Nevis towards Fort William, taking the main route down.

Cape Wrath Trail

Loch on Day 11
Loch on Day 11
Loch na Leitreach
Day 12 – Loch na Leitreach
Looking out from Sail Mhor
Looking out from Sail Mhor
Another Loch
A wee loch I encountered on Day 17
Loch Beag
A slightly bigger loch I encountered on Day 17
Day 18 – Loch Inchard, heading towards Badcall.
Loch Inchard
Day 18 – Loch Inchard, heading towards Kinlochbervie.

I’ve not done any fancing editing or anything, so if anyone who is good at that sort of stuff wants to play around with the photos then drop me an e-mail and I’ll send through the high resolution versions.

Day 19 – Cape Wrath

The view may have been spectacular, but the sleep wasn’t. I’d not bothered with the thermarest or tarp due to the midges and had left myself with an uncomfortable sleep. It must have been late when I finally got cool and comfortable enough to sleep. It was too hot inside my sleeping bag but too damp and sticky outside it. To make matters worse some of these midges had worked themselves into my bivvy, so I was being bitten as I attempted to sleep.

If it was late when I fell asleep, it was stupid early when I arose. It was raining. Actually, it was belting it down. It was before sunrise and the rain was making its way through my bivvy. It was only a matter of time until inevitably it made its way through my sleeping bag. I was lying in a pool of cold and damp, but at least that meant I’d be midge free, right? I unzipped my bivvy and got a face of midge. Inhaling midge is not particularly pleasant. I imagine you could achieve a similar sensation by attempting to snort cornflake dust.

Some time and just a hint of self-pity later, I packed and was off. While I had been lying there in a pool of water I felt that maybe I was just about done after all.

I couldn’t face the midges enough to warrant a trip back down into the bay. Besides it was dawn, so about 05.00, and it was raining, so maybe not the best time to be sat on a beach.

Instead I stood on top of the small hill to the north of the bay and admired the view. The rain stopped and the sky started to clear. I still wasn’t going back. I’m more of a hills person anyway, even if these weren’t my hills. They certainly weren’t my hills, they were just lumpy bog.

As I made my way down to Strathchailleach Bothy, I found myself knee deep in bog. I had been promised such experiences so this was not too surprising. I then found myself in thigh deep bog, this was a little more awkward.

The bothy itself was a bit odd. It had been inhabited by a strange old man until the mid-nineties. He had painted on the walls, they weren’t very good paintings, but seemed to be the main attraction of the bothy.

Leaving the bothy, I turned north and made my way towards the lighthouse at Cape Wrath. Whatever fair wind had carried me so quickly forward from Ullapool was now gone. I trudged through the insect-dense bog to the lighthouse. If anything had dented my enjoyment at times it has been the insects. I’ve tried using deet but it feels icky, the midges treat it like hot sauce and the clegs attack anywhere not covered in deet, such as my eyeball, ears, mouth and deetless patches of my thin t-shirt, e.g. the nipple area. Oh well, it’s a small price to pay for the fun I’ve had, and you’ve gotta laugh.

I was walking through the military zone when I heard an intermittent beeping somewhere to my right. I was tempted to go and investigate it but chose not to, more because I was tired and it would take a long time than the fact that finding unexploded explosives is the sort of hobby that you probably don’t do for very long, well not if you are good at it anyway. Heading towards the lighthouse seemed the more sensible option.

The sun shone down on the lighthouse I had seen blinking in the darkness from Sandwood Bay. There’s a cafe of sorts there which was empty. I had arrived well before the tourist bus would. The shop served a selection of tea, coffee and cold snacks; a cup of tea was needed.

I don’t know whether it was the tired was or the fact since yesterday being here had seemed inevitable, but I didn’t have the same elation that I had experienced while walking on down the road yesterday evening. I was happy enough, I just wasn’t sure what to do next.

I sat and drank tea, chatting to the owner. I had not seen another trail turtle at all during my journey up from Fort William, so I asked whether many people turned up here having done the Cape Wrath Trail. He told me that a fair few people did, that fair few was about a hundred people a year. Of course, he added, not all of them did the whole trail in one go and most who do take three weeks complete it. He went on to add that the record time was something like 100 hours, now there’s a challenge, although travelling through such scenery in the dark seems to miss the point of the journey.

It would be landrover track for the last fourteen miles, so I switched back into my new trail runners. New shoes and dry socks provides the same boost the cup of tea had. I sat and thunk and drunk tea until the tourists arrived by minibus from Durness. The driver asked whether I wanted a lift back, I declined, I still had fourteen short miles left to hit my magic total. He warned me that if I didn’t make it back in time then I’d be stranded on this side of the Kyle of Durness. I had no intention of missing the ferry.

I got caught by three tourists as I departed. They asked what I was doing, and donated a couple of quid when I told them, wishing me luck before off I marched. A little while later they waved as the minibus took them back to Durness. A little while later it would pass again, taking another load of tourists to the lighthouse.

I reached the ferry point and waited around. Eventually the man from the cafe drove up, he seemed pleased that I had made it, next the minibus arrived and finally he ferry did. I say ferry, because that was the purpose it served, I really mean small boat capable only of holding about eight people at a time. Two of them had seen me walking towards Sandwood yesterday, they asked about my journey and seemed amazed when I told them.

As I sat in the ferry, I felt that same kind of happiness that I had the precious evening. The sun shined down on my face, the breeze blew through my hair (ok, well, stubble) and the boat made its way through the water. This feeling continued as I made my way to Durness. The man from the lighthouse stopped to offer me a lift but I politely declined, these were my last few miles. I couldn’t go any further even if I had wanted to; I had run out of map and out of food.

Durness seemed soft and tranquil compared to the rugged, weather-beaten Cape. It was already shut for the day wham I arrived. My bus back would leave at 08.00, so for me it would remain shut.

I stopped for dinner at a nearby pub and got talking to the family on the table next to me. They had done the West Highland Way previously and congratulated me on my achievement. I don’t know how much of an achievement this has really been. Nothing too hard was thrown at me, but I look back at photos I only took a couple of weeks ago and they seem like they were a lifetime ago. I’ve been away for a long time but other than that I’m too tired to reflect on what I have been through. I’m sure my feet will remind me in the morning.

I really don’t know what else to say. Tomorrow I make the long journey home, spending the afternoon in Inverness before taking the sleeper home. I’ll then continue to sleep all weekend.

What an adventure I’ve had, I’ve been happy out here and as they say – be happy while you’re living, for you’re a long time dead.

Day 18 – Sunset over Sandwood Bay

Today was the day that I would find out whether my route to Cape Wrath was blocked. It was a bright and breezy day; the only things I had to contend with were the clegs.

By late morning I was at Ben Dreavie, the last hilltop of my journey. I admired the views of what would be my final days of this adventure. I made my way along and, having not even seen another person since a brief encounter with a couple of workers near Inchnadamph, decided to stop off at Rhiconich Hotel for a tea and irn-bru. It was quiet here too. The lady working on the reception desk served me before hurrying back to her desk. I checked the time; it was 17.00 and I was nineteen miles into my day.

With my heart in my mouth I called the Cape Wrath military number. It was all clear, it would be for the whole of July and August. I was very happy about that, particularly as I had spent a good portion of the afternoon working out alternatives if I couldn’t get there. I was now only twenty miles from Cape Wrath, where I’d get to celebrate the end of my journey before having to walk another thirteen and a half miles to catch a bus home.

I couldn’t wait to reach the end, but at the same time I wished that I could spend longer out here. My feet were sore but I was used to that. I probably looked a mess, but then again I usually do anyway. I can safely assume that I also smell, but I’m so used to it now that I don’t notice it.

I sat and let some time tick by in the hotel before heading out towards Kinlochbervie. It was twelve miles to Sandwood Bay. I half-hoped to get there before nightfall, not only to watch the sun set over the sea but also to be away from the houses that were spread along the coastal road.

It’s hard to describe just how happy I felt while walking down the road. There was a sense that I had already made it, now all I had to do was coast along until my destination. I was ridiculously happy; I’d been waiting for this feeling for two years, since the glorious failure of 2011. The miles on this adventure had been less dramatic than those; I had better known what to expect this time. It had been a hard journey at times, even if I had expected worse. There had been no moments to make a grown man cry. My only doubts had been towards Barisdale, where I doubted that I would be able to cover the miles in time, and Ullapool, where I had been concerned about my feet. Yet here I was, bouncing along on the final stretch.

I stopped off at a place called London Stores in the wonderfully named Badcall. It was overflowing with foodstuffs. I didn’t think you would be able to pack any more food in there even if you added another dimension. The owner of the shop was quite odd. At least I think he was odd, it’s hard for me to tell now, maybe I’m the odd one. He asked if there was anything I wanted out of the freezer that he was cutting out newspaper coupons over. I replied no, I had no way to cook those foodstuffs, but the cheesecake looked good. He then pointed me to the refrigerated pies and sandwiches that he had. He seemed very insistent that I buy one. As he grumpily took my money for Fanta and a flapjack he continued to ask if I was sure that I didn’t want a pie; he could probably have sold me that cheesecake if he’d tried.

I came across some toilets managed by The John Muir Trust before I turned off towards Sandwood Bay. They had a leaflet which outlined the quality of wild land. From red through to dark green for not wild through to very wild, with blue reserved for the “top 10% wildest land”. Most of what I had walked through over the past weeks had been blue. What hasn’t been blue had been dark green.

I was still on a high when I approached Sandwood Bay. I’m not a beach person, but as an acknowledged non-expert of beaches, this was the best beach I had seen. The sand looked clean without a hint of rubbish, the sea was the bluest I’ve seen in Britain. The only downside was that the midges were terrible. As I made my way down to the beach they somewhat spoilt the experience. Once on the beach, with a good sea breeze, it all felt worthwhile. Had it not been so late I would have paddled in the sea. I put that on my list of jobs to do tomorrow.

I sat on the beach as the sun disappeared behind cloud. I made my way up to a grassy patch that seemed breezy and started to unpack for the night. The breeze stop and the midges appeared en masse. It got so bad so quickly that I quickly have up on the tarp despite the grey sky. Instead I threw myself and my sleeping bag into the bivvy and curled up for a night overlooking another beautiful part of Scotland.

Day 17 – Glendhu (too tired to think of a title)

Not the most restful night I’ve ever had, I’ll admit that. Having once again fallen asleep to the sound of midge rain, I had been stuck with condensation building up inside my bivvy, leaving me cold and damp. At least I didn’t have any crazy midge dreams this time. I only decided to rise once someone from the lodge ran past.

I was better prepared this time and was able to escape he worst of the midges. They hadn’t been quite as bad as the other day either, which helped. I set off through what was listed on my map as Benmore Forest. There were no trees here, I guess there must have been once.

I was once again back in my trusty old trail runners. It dawned on me that one of the reasons that they had been rubbing my ankles was that I often tend to walk with my feet at very odd angles when walking along, rather than up or down, the side of a hill. It was just as well I was wearing them because I soon had wet feet. I stopped concentrating while walking over some stepping stones, admiring the view, and I let my right foot fall straight into the stream. You’d have thought I’d have learnt by now.

I continued on towards Inchnadamph, another village that looked like it had four houses, a hotel and a red telephone box.

I felt a little sad as I walked wistfully past Conival, my journey was coming to an end. I didn’t really feel ready for it to end just yet. I’d miss the hills and the glens, the clear lochs and washing my face in mountain streams. I’d miss walking along as the sun set with everything I needed on my back. I’d miss the little frogs that jump out of my way as I walk down the trail and the flies of the butter and dragon variety. I probably won’t miss the midges or the clegs.

For lunch I had a tortilla wrap containing “grated Italian-style cheese” and salt and vinegar crisps. Then my adventure towards Glendhu finally started. The rocky path was good enough but slow going and I could see how it could take a long time in bad weather. It took a long time in bright and breezy weather.

The view that awaited me when I rounded Beinn Uidhe caught me by surprise. I had been expecting more rolling hills, perhaps with some bog and heather to make things difficult. Instead I was greeted with rocky, lumpy hills; it was a fantastic sight. Then the path stopped and I had to make my way through heather and bog. I then stopped at Loch Beag for another crisps and dried cheese wrap.

A few uneventful hours later and I was in Glendhu. It had been a long and tiring stretch, even if the distance wasn’t far. It wasn’t as hard as some of the stretches between Sourlies and Strathcarron, but it had been hard enough for these tired legs.

My night would be spent in Glendhu Bothy. It was very eerie with the wind blowing across the loch and I tried not to think of any horror stories.

My left IT band has now gone and my right knee hyperextends as I walk. Hopefully both will feel a bit better by morning. I’ve now just got to hold everything together for that last 50 miles

Day 16 – Slowly Cruising Along

I had a slow start from the B&B, mostly due to not getting up until eight, but partly due to wondering about feet. I had taken advice from the obvious blister expert and switched to new shoes for the day. I’ll try to keep these dry and use the old pair for boggy bits.

The foot fairies had been hard at work overnight and my feet were generally less sore. After trying on the new shoes, and resorting to my third and final set of socks, I decided to make do with only a few pieces of tape. It’s easier to add more tape to a blistered foot than it is to peel it off. The main area I taped was my heels, it seems that if inov8 trail runners rub, it’ll be at the heel. My old pair never did, but this new pair seem to a little, so better to fix that before it becomes a problem.

Breakfast was a bowl of cereal followed by two bacon and sausage sandwiches. Given that the Blacksmith’s Cottage B&B owner had also donated a fiver, it made the stay a worthwhile bargain. I’ll have to stop eating so much once I stop walking though, as I’m getting through an awful lot of food.

The morning plod was just that, a plod. I plodded down a single track lane and then I plodded some more. I’d like to be able to say it was due to being up late last night typing up blog reports and doing laundry, or that I was taking it easy because of the blisters. The real reason was that I now only have two walking paces, slow or limping; I preferred slow.

I made my way along this relatively flat track, first past Loch Achall then along a river, before stopping at Loch an Daimh for a lunch of crisps, fudge and macaroons. I’m saving the Irn-Bru flavoured macaroon for later.

The loch itself was as blue as the clear sky above it. On a hot day like this I was tempted to go for a swim; if only I knew how to swim. I’ll have to come here again for that swim one day.

As the path confined to Oykel Bridge it reminded me of the Great Glen Way, a good solid track to walk along, gradual ups and downs with lochs and trees along the way. The hills were changing here too. The hills here roll in a more gentle manner than those south of Beinn Eighe. The views were still wonderful, except for those bloody wind farms, but they were less dramatic than those that I had seen before.

I rolled into Oykel Bridge around 18.00. It’s a funny old place, like many I have encountered. From what I could see Oykel Bridge has two houses, a hotel, a bridge and an old-fashioned red telephone box. That’s it, that’s all you get. What I got from the hotel was a can of coke and a cup of tea while I rested for half an hour.

My spreadsheet told me that I had done 317.97 miles and my diary told me that I was on day 16. It felt like I was within touching distance of the finish line. Today was the fist day that I thought about the possibility of not being able to finish due to the military bombing the heck out of the wilderness that I hoped to be walking through shortly. As I had walked to Oykel Bridge, cruising along with my home on my back, my other reoccurring thought was “I’m like a turtle, lol.”

I continued plodding on into what was listed as day 17 on my maps. I decided to set myself the somewhat optimistic challenge of completing 30 miles by the end of the next night, because, you know, it was getting too easy otherwise. The Cape Wrath Trail guide I had looked at when preparing for this trip had suggested allowing a day for the twelve mile stretch between Inchnadamph and Glendhu. If I did nine miles of the stretch before that tonight and the other nine in the morning, I’d have all afternoon until nightfall to complete that stretch.

The walk from Oykel Bridge to Benmore lodge was quiet and, with more good path and no need to navigate, it had been an uneventful day. It had given me a lot of time to think about my life and the people in it. For me this has been a long journey, a long few weeks, most people won’t have even noticed that I’ve been away.

I hurried past Benmore Lodge as the sun set behind Loch Ailsh. Outside it were new off-road vehicles and a motorboat. I’d seen another lodge earlier in the trip with tennis courts outside it. I’d settle for a small cottage somewhere out here. I scurried past the big old house and camped out near the end of the forest. I knew there would be midges here but it was getting too late to continue in death of somewhere better.

Day 15 – The Ullapool Conundrum

I awoke before dawn having slept poorly. I had drifted to sleep to the sound of midges hitting my bivvy. It had been like listening to the sound of rain on a caravan roof. The midges weren’t up yet but neither was my willpower. It wasn’t even 5am, I couldn’t walk without more sleep, so off I dozed.

I had a very surreal dream. One of my co-workers was starring in a play and we were late. For some reason we were also lost in the highlands in what looked suspiciously like the Falls of Glomach crossed with where I grew up. The “we” included several work colleagues, my PhD supervisor ( who offered to buy me a drink before disappearing into the throngs of people, because, you know, the wilderness is where you find all the best throngs.), and also there was my old chemistry teacher. For some reason he was married to one of my work colleagues. Perhaps more believable was one of my co-workers turning out to be an anarchist. He proved this by filling out a form with all the correct information, just in the incorrect boxes. He also signed his name a bit funny; he wasn’t a very good anarchist. Anyway, we all started running to escape the great clouds of midges. I then woke up to a great cloud of midge.

This was a midge cloud of epic proportions, I mean like the weird smoke monster in Lost before that series started getting crappy. If you imagine you’d scraped the burnt bits off your slice of toast, you look down and the sink is covered in little black bits, well that’s an approximation of what it looked like through the mesh window of my bivvy.

Having packed my sleeping bag inside my bivvy, I summoned he courage to jump outside; I was promptly eaten. Anything that wasn’t midge was more or less either me or dead midge as I hastily packed. Wearing only a t-shirt, the midges targeted my arms. I wiped them off leaving black spots of dead midge on my arms. You’d have thought that evolution would have made it so that most animals could recognise the smell of dead peers and think “hell no”, instead I seemed capable only of attracting more midges. Ears, nose and eyelids were particularly unpleasant and I ate more than a few. Soon I was packed and off ready for an uneventful day.

My shoes rubbed as the heels of my trail runners were slowly disintegrating. My socks were still damp and I’d had no chance for a proper foot check that morning. For now all I could do was plod on.

The plodding on went well and I tried to remember that I’m on an adventure, one I should enjoy each moment of and not wish it away. I’m still not going back to midge-land, but enjoying where I was lasted well until I hit the A835.

There’s always a question mark hanging over Ullapool on the Cape Wrath Trail. It’s a good halfway point and place to rest and resupply. I was already low on food and although it was a bit out of the way and a long and boring walk, I’d always known that I’d not take a shortcut through the hills here. I phoned ahead and booked a B&B (O2 coverage has been good thus far), then on I limped down the road.

As far as roads go, this one isn’t fun. Well, it may be fun for motorcyclists, is has the special reflected N road signs that stand for fun corners, but for me it was long and boring. It reminded me why I had opted for as little road as possible on. The only thing it was good for was getting miles done quickly.

Quick those miles may have been, but my joints and feet suffered on the hard road surface. Tired from a bad night and an early start I must not have looked my best as drivers gave me a wide berth as if I were about to fall into the road gasping for water like a drowning trout on a hot summer day. Some time later I arrived in Ullapool.

Food and medical supplies were quickly ticked off the list, a shower and shave would come later (my first in a week), but not before dinner. Apparently one of the best chip shops in the country can be found here. I found it and has a large haddock and chips with onion rings and irn-bru. It was glorious, the best fish and chips in living memory, if only I could find such a chippy in Cambridge.

I now have over 21,000 calories in my rucksack, plus extra fudge and an irn-bru flavoured macaroon, so I’m all set for the final leg of my journey. There are about 100 miles left to go and I’m now counting down instead of up. Each uphill takes me a little longer and each downhill hurts a little more, but I’m currently good to continue, one day at a time, and once again I have to say, so far it had been completely worth the effort.

Day 14 – Lost Sir Limpalot of the Loch

I arose early-ish and began with a foot check. I knew this wouldn’t be pretty. The swelling on my left foot had gone down and the blisters on that foot had been taking care of themselves. On the other foot, my right was shredded. I had felt a blister burst just before the Limg Hut and the road to Kinlochewe. Days of walking through bog had taken its toll and I was rapidly approaching the stage I’d need to worry about ending up with trench foot or at least infected blisters. As long as nothing got infected it’d be sore but fine. The torn blister between my big toe and the one next to it was going to prove painful. The toes along the line were also a bit sore so I decided to trim my nails while I was there. It took some careful hands while using a knife, but they felt better trimmed. Next job was to patch up a bit of rucksack then find something relatively clean to wipe my camera lens with. (I’m going to have a lot of blurry and smeary photos.) Finally, some jobs done and I set off.

The first stretch was pathless and awkward, particularly as I was being careful not to get my feet too bogged up. After a few hours I found a path to take me down into Kinlochewe, just in time for a cheese and onion sandwich lunch. I was an hour ahead of yesterday with five miles less distance to cover, this was beginning to look possible, only 148 miles to go, but first the sandwich.

It was a very tasty sandwich, but there were copious amounts of grated cheese and the bread was not entirely intact either. This was a sandwich of questionable structural integrity. While I ate the lady behind the counter talked to me. I quickly re-learned the natural order of things, for people in rural cafes to complain about the weird things that foreigners did. I smiled and nodded, only speaking between mouthfuls of grated cheese. It was all coming back to me: when they are talking I can eat; when they’re not talking I have to talk (Note to self: finish the mouthful of grated cheese first); when in doubt smile and nod.

The trek out of Kinlochewe started well enough, all the way until the footpath came to a half at Lochan Fada. From there I just had to make my way between Sgurr Dubh and Beinn Bheag through to Loch an Nid, easy really. This is where things started to go wrong.

I started following a path up towards Sgurr Dubh, there were two walkers ahead of me and I had heard rumour that there were others on the trail a short way ahead and that they had been managing less than 16 miles a day. I followed them up for a while, neglecting my map and compass. To be fair, my map wouldn’t have been all that much help, it’s not quite detailed enough when lost on top of a hill. Again my compass saved me as I swung down and around the hill. I saw a loch in the distance, not quite where I expected it to be, but it was there, that’s gotta be it, right?

Unfortunately my mapping software doesn’t show parts of the know universe that fall beyond the best fit for sticking my route onto sheets of A4. It therefore neglected to inform me of the existence of Loch a’ Bhraoin. As I made my way towards it I saw another loch to my left. This was closer and nearer to where I thought my loch should be, but meant that I was now somewhere I shouldn’t be. In the end I resorted to using my GPS; the one to my left was right. I hated using it and wondered if one day the hills would be full of tourists using a GPS that barked satnav type commands at them, “turn left next to the wee hillock, carry on north through heather and bog for approximately three county kilometres”… I felt that would somehow miss the point, getting a bit lost was part of the game (which I had just lost, again).

As I travelled along the Skye Boat Song replaced m previous earworm of Loch Lomond. I supposed that I was at least closer to Skye. Unfortunately I don’t know the words beyond the chorus and even there I’m sketchy. I mostly settled for my own random jibberish or a lot of “dum, diddly dum, dah dah” in my head. I also kept thinking one line should be “The crownless again shall be king”, which is of course Tolkein, but sort of fits.

The remaining few hours were slow, mostly consisting of being eaten by midges and clegs. I called time just a click short of my target of Shenavall bothy. I was exhausted and with a gentle breeze and beautiful weather I ignored the tarp for just a bivvy with the night sky overhead. Once inside the midges decided to pay me a visit.

Day 13 – A Perfect Day

No mice this time, just the sound of scratching at the door. It was quiet here, alone in the bothy. I was reluctant to leave; the drizzle and cloud seemed uninviting.

There had been an information sheet about the bothy. It had been a home up until the end of the First World War. The conditions up here were so difficult that the family living here needed to store four months of food for the winter. It may only have been ten miles to civilisation, but as I soon found out, it was a long hard ten miles. You’d have to be tough to survive the winter in this place.

I had thought that I’d make a good hermit, but perhaps here would be a little too remote. As I walked on towards Strathcarron it occurred to me that the last time I had seen another person was at Shiel Bridge. The last time I had said a few words to anyone was approaching Barisdale and the last time I had a conversation was Sourlies Bothy. Over 18 hours had ticked by since I’d even seen as much as a human footprint. It seems strange to be this isolated. Even hiding away in Cambridge it’s easy to go days without proper conversation, there’s always some sort of contact with mankind, even if it were just the internet, tv or listening to music. Here the only reminders that civilisation existed were the bothy I was walking away from and my own footprints. I feel that this kind of isolation is a lot more wholesome.

It was a hard trek to Strathcarron. I was once more navigating through cloud, which I seem to be getting better at. My only misadventure occurred when happening upon a fence, where upon crossing under it I had somehow managed to bang my head. I succeeded in grazing my head (it feels like a cut but how would I know? I realised I hadn’t seen a mirror in days). I also succeeded in ripping a hole in my hat. This has not been a good year for hats for me. This is a near identical replica of the one that I lost in the Lake District and I fear I won’t be able to replace it again. Similarly, today I slipped over again and now fear that my trail runners may now be equally willing to end the relationship.

I stopped in Strathcarron for some lunch. I already needed the rest and some hot food made a welcome change. Looking in a mirror told me that I had indeed managed to carve quite a long but shallow cut along the top of my head. A tea, coke, cheeseburger and chips and I was back underway, once again only really at the start of my day.

The sun was now out and about and it was a beautiful day for walking. With a solid path beneath my feet everything was falling into place.

I stumbled upon Coire Fionnarich bothy, somewhere that seemed like it would make a wonderful home. My claim to becoming a hermit was then proven when I encountered some mountain bikers in the pass between Meall Dearg and Sgorr Ruadhh. Conversation with them seemed a bit disjointed and they seemed sure I would make it further than I would today. I seemed to struggle to convince them that I wasn’t going to be walking along the road. If I wasn’t socially retarded before I left then I am now.

Our paths separated and I promptly got lost. Well, not lost exactly, the path disintegrated and I was temporarily misplaced. It took me over an hour to work myself back to where I should have been. That didn’t bother me anyway, I was still enjoying the walk out here.

Next up was what I had thought may present a difficult choice. My path continued to the north around Beinn Eighe whereas a road to the right could quickly and smoothly take me to Kinlochewe, saving me precious miles and time. No one but me would even know. In the end the choice was easy. I continued straight ahead and as I rounded Sail Mhor it proved the correct choice.

I had one of those passages of serenity that only Buddhist monks are meant to have. Peacefully I plodded around, listening to the sounds of wildlife, the breeze foot by and the crunch of path underfoot. This was like some sort of hippy-dippy zen walking that I was doing as I calmly reflected on where I was.

Loch Coire was beautiful and I camped on the side of Ruadh-Stac Mor. (Note to self: here be ridges to run along in the future.) This felt like a similar camping spot to the one at Kings House, only higher up and far more remote.

The sun had set and the grey sky changed to a pinkish-red at the horizon. This had been a day that made the whole trail feel worthwhile.

Day 12 – Lost in the Clouds

It was dry when I started out, which meant that at least I could pack things dry. Within half an hour it was raining on me. As I made my way down this wet stretch towards Shiel Bridge, I realised that there was no way I would have made it along here last night in the gloaming. Like Sourlies Bothy, I had called the day short at exactly the right time.

I wandered through a sleepy Shiel Beidge and started to make my way up to the Falls of Glomach.

I was not making great progress in the rain, progress that slowed further when I entered the cloud. Visibility seemed to have dropped below 100 metres in any direction. I got my compass out; even with a path the clouds were disorientating. It felt a bit disconcerting so I stopped to check my bearings which I then attempted to double heck using the GPS on my phone. With wet hands and a wet screen I had no way to operate it. I couldn’t get anything dry enough to use it. This was less than ideal.

In the end I decided to follow one of the paths below my feet. I regularly checked my map and compass. There wasn’t a lot else I could do.

The falls were pretty enough, and the scenery around them spectacular, but I didn’t have time to stop for too long and soon I was moving on. The day was passing me by; it had been scheduled to be one of the longest even without the additional miles added to the start.

I carried on walking, along a loch, past a lodge, you know, the usual. I was certain that I would not make up that distance today. As I made my way up past Iron Lodge and north to Maol Bhuidle, I knew I was right. With the wind and the rain and the tired legs, I decided to call time early. Over the course of three days I’m nine miles behind where I wanted to be. I’ve done 230 miles in twelve days.

Tomorrow is going to be another long day, and another attempt to claw back some lost distance. Before that inevitable chase I have lots to do. I have maps to check, repairs to make and this blog to update. More than that though, I have muscles to rebuild. Here’s a rundown of my niggles:

– Neck – aches and clicks
– Shoulders – both ache
– Left elbow – somewhat uncomfortable since Fort William
– Lower back – sometimes a sharp pain
– Right IT band – grumbling since day 1
– Both knees – deteriorating rapidly
– Both ankles – already deteriorated
– Left foot – swollen
– Big to on left foot – haven’t been able to be d it since Loch Lomond. I think I stubbed it on something.

Still, despite all that and all my grumbling I’m mostly enjoying my time out here. I just wish I wasn’t playing catch up.

Day 11 – Doubt and Willpower

I’d been woken a couple of times during the night by the sounds of small scurrying things. A mouse had taken the opportunity to take a nibble out of one of the mesh pockets on my rucksack’s hip belt. That would teach me not to leave empty wrappers unguarded in my pockets.

I waved goodbye to the people I had shared the bothy with and attempted to claw some distance back. It didn’t go well.

The journey started with footpathless bog and then got worse. There was no point in trying to keep feet dry. At least the bog-water flowed easily out of my trail runners.

As I came down a slope some mud gave way beneath me which in turn led to me falling onto my backside. Moments later this was followed by my foot slipping off what had suspiciously looked like a stepping stone at a river crossing. Despite not falling in, I still ended up in the unenviable position of having a wee boulder stepping on my left foot. That hurt.

I kept trudging forward and discovered the first level of despair – that point where you find yourself standing still, seemingly unable to continue, your feet being enveloped by the bog. By ankle deep you realise you have to find the will to keep moving. If the ground had been dry enough I’d have probably just had a lie down.

For all that, there was a moment of almost overwhelming joy when I reached the top of that stretch. It was now all downhill to Barisdale.

As I made my way down, I came across a group of five people. A weather-beaten Scotsman, following him was a tall man in tweed carrying a gun and behind him three hound ladies, one of whom appeared to be his daughter. The Scotsman asked where I had come from, after I told him he laughed that “it must have been a nice easy walk then”. He wished me luck and I continued on. It was now lunchtime and I was finally ready to really start my day.

I made my way slowly to Kinloch Hourn. During the walk to Barisdale I had doubted I would make it much further than that today. By now I was certain of it. As I slowly lost and found paths and moved onwards I wished I could take a boat like Tweed Jacked and co. had done. 10-15 miles a day seemed difficult at the moment, 20-25 seemed impossible. I couldn’t see how I was going to make it. This is easily the hardest walk I’ve done on my own, and I still have another 200 miles to go.

As I approached Kinloch Hourn the sun peeked out. I checked the time; it was 16.15. There was plenty of daylight left for walking. I might not be able to make it all the way to Shiel Bridge, but I’d be damned if I was going to sit here and not try.

My luck turned once more as I pushed on. I came across fresh water and a good path. I followed the path until fit stopped. I had trouble locating the next path, which was easy to understand once I realised that there was no path. My route was just an arbitrary blue line drawn on a map saying “you are here, get there”. Again the going became slow and as the sun dipped behind the hills to my left I found the second level of despair – not having anywhere suitable to camp as the sun set.

I continued down and around, the mountains gave way to allow me a little more sunlight. I darted towards Shiel Bridges but with the light beginning to fail I knew that it was in vain. Tired and aching, I put up my tarp in the fading light only a mile and a half from Shiel Bridge. Even though I was still four miles away from where I had planned to begin tomorrow’s long day, I felt that I had snatched some measure of success from the jaws of defeat. I felt ashamed that I had contemplated a B&B in Kinloch Hourn; I knew I was better than that. I’m glad to be a bit further down the trail; I’m now exhausted.