Jun 8, 2011 at 4:22 pm #1275124
From May 20th to May 27th I hiked the first 120 miles of Scotland’s Cape Wrath Trail roughly following the route described in Brook and Hinchliffe’s book North to the Cape (starting in the south at Fort William). I initially planned to hike the complete 200+ miles, but a sprained ankle a week before my departure left me inclined to change my expectations a bit, more open to spending a few extra days travelling rather than powering through to the northern terminus at Cape Wrath. This wasn’t all bad, as unseasonably (yep, even for Scotland) wet, cold and windy weather made hostels and whiskey distilleries seem even more interesting than I normally find them. What follows is a trip report/photo essay and a few notes on my experience with extended wet and cold hiking.
I wasted no time getting to the start of the Cape Wrath Trail. After flying from Minnesota to Edinburgh via Amsterdam, I promptly hopped on a train west to Glasgow and another north to Fort William. All told this constituted about 23 hours of travel, and 32 hours of not sleeping. Still, upon arrival in Fort William I elected to purchase a few supplies and hit the already-saturated ground running: I started my hike that evening with a few hours of wide path/lane/road walking. I eventually found an out-of the way clearing to set up my new TT Scarp, which handled the heavy wind and steady rain overnight quite well but could do nothing for my jet lag. A mediocre night’s sleep ensued, but I awoke the next morning excited to tackle some real backcountry.
Gentle at first:
But then climbing off trail, up and over a wet, windy pass:
Then descending off track to cross a fast moving above-the-knees river filled with the rain that had steadily been falling since I started walking that morning, ascending off-trail steeply over another wet, windy pass and descending to another river. So this is Scotland hiking, huh?
The combination of my sleep deprivation, harsh weather, jet-lag, poor conditioning and the fact that this was the first time I’d been away from my wife since my wedding made for a bit of a gut check: I did my best to embrace that these were the conditions I'd be facing and reminded myself that hiking solo didn’t leave much room for error.
Cold rain was here to stay, but at least the trail became defined for the rest of the afternoon. I passed through a cluster of a few buildings known as Strathan, then ascended a small dirt road then path up the valley Glenn Dessary. The consistency of the rain was impressive: I decided I needed to dig a cat hole for a bathroom break, but had to wait about six hours for the rain to break enough to do it! By about 4 PM, I was reaching the upper part of the valley, where heavy rains were leading to potentially dangerous stream crossings over steep terrain. After one particularly intimidating crossing (though in practice it was pretty routine), I decided it was time to find a place to set up my tent and rest up, ideally getting enough sleep to put me back in a normal frame of mind.
The best I could do was a little mound of grass next to a few trees, slightly elevated from the ubiquitous ankle-deep standing water that covered pretty much all open grassy areas I had walked through for the past few hours. I was more than happy to claim it as my own:
The next morning the rain broke for an hour or two, giving me time to finish ascending the pass, but then came back with a vengeance as soon as I started my descent. No worries, though: a solid night’s sleep and an hour or two of non-rain had me pretty excited to be hiking, and for the most part I was staying warm and dry as long as I was on the move.
I descended toward Sourlies Bothy at the end of Loch Nevis, a massive body of water jutting in from the sea. At Sourlies, I ran into a few University students from Glasgow who were waiting for the tide to go out before retracing there steps in the direction I’d be going. They were a lot of fun to chat with, and we hiked together for the next mile or two before our routes diverged, during which time they filled me in on some of their favorite places in Scotland.
They snapped a photo of me in front of the bothy. My rainsuit (Golite Reeds and Rab Momentum Parka) was pretty much my all-day-every-day uniform for the entire hike.
Bridge over the river Carnache:
Again, I turned northward on my own, working my way in the direction of Loch Horn, ascending yet another pass, though the off-track portions were pretty short and straight forward here. The views were some of the best of the trip, and the rain even let up a little:
Upon descending toward Loch Horn a Stalkers Cabin, camping area and non-MBA bothy were right along the track. Sleeping inside the shelter for a night seemed too good to pass up, so I called it a day, made some dinner and rode out the windy, rainy night in relative comfort. I met a few of the local animals, in the process:
View of Loch Horn from near the bothy:
The next morning started out mellow enough, a little rain and not much more as I started my day's walk:
After about a half hour, the skies unleashed some of the most ridiculous conditions I’ve hiked through: 60-70 mile winds strong enough to push me to the ground even with trekking poles and good footing, and rain that seemed to smack my hood so hard that I could hear nothing else. Fortunately, when the really bad stuff came through I was on a low level route that wound around Loch Horn….I can only imagine what it would have been like up high! I resigned myself to the simple fact that this would be a short day, and once I arrived at the head of the loch I’d need to find a protected tent site and wait out the weather. That’s when I thought I’d started hallucinating. Struggling along the trail, still almost two miles from the cluster of cottages I knew lay ahead I came across this:
Of course, on a day like this, there was no way I wasn’t going to go at least investigate. Upon arriving at the cottage, a young man and woman, early twenties at most, greeted me warmly and asked me to have a seat in the “tea house”. I was directed toward a small greenhouse bolted to the ground, with rose bushes and what appeared to be a small café inside!
I promptly ordered a pot of tea and some scones and proceeded to eat the most delicious mid-afternoon snack of my life, all the while not entirely sure if I was in some sort of hypothermic stupor or just really fortunate.
Sure enough, a few English folks who stayed at the bothy with me straggled in behind me and confirmed that this was a real place and not a surreal dream!
Eventually (read: 2 hours later….) I made my way along the wet, windy trail to a protected site surrounded by bushes in Kinloch horn to sleep away the rest of the evening.
To my surprise, even after a somewhat shortened day due to the horrendous weather and tea stop, my left ankle, sprained a week before I left for Scotland, was becoming a little sore. On top of this, I was developing some Achilles tendinitis in both of my heels. I planned to hike another short day and rest up as much as possible. This plan was more or less intact as I ascended toward a pass near a large peak oddly named as The Saddle.
I was looking to put a few miles in, and retreat into my tent or (gasp) a bunkhouse in a town of Shiel Bridge, which I’d be passing through around mid day. During this rough, off-track and soggy ascent waves of small hail came and went about ten different times! I actually started laughing at just how absurd my situation was: walking, more or less alone through the rain for four days in a row now. The ground was soaked to the point that my feet were submerged every single step regardless of where I was walking. I couldn’t stop to take breaks to eat for fear that inactivity in the cold wet conditions would leave me hypothermic, so I kept snacks stuff in my hip belt pockets and had been eating on the move the entire trip. My camera had to stay holstered in some of the most beautiful parts of the hike because the most exposed places were also the wettest, windiest, and generally least hospitable locations for my fancy new Sony Nex5 camera. To top it all off, my ankle and Achilles tendons were starting to protest every step. Now I was being hailed on. Over and over again. My trip began to feel a little ridiculous, and I said out loud, more than once, “what is the POINT?!) I have to admit, some of the beauty of this place was lost on me:
Then, a funny thing happened. After slowly trudging my way to the top of the pass and navigating my way along a ridge to a descent toward a valley that would take me to Shiel Bridge, blue sky appeared.
It wasn’t much, mind you, but it was something. My spirits lifted, I took some photos, and generally reveled in the temporarily changed conditions. Suddenly, as I walked through town, I was less interested in that bunk house. Patches of blue sky and (gasp) sun accompanied me for the rest of the afternoon!
I kept walking…and walking …eventually passing up and over another pass, ambling through a long stretch of high country toward and past the Falls of Glomach (lots of day hikers here), then down another valley into a long expanse of farm country.
I simply could not get myself to hole up in a tent when the rain had finally stopped falling! My “rest day” had become a 23 mile, 12 hour journey with a lot of off-track uneven terrain….but it was sunny! I was going to pay for this tomorrow.
Yep…the morning saw me hobbling down the dirt road toward the farming community of Killilan. Very slowly at first, then just slowly. Eventually, I loosened up enough to walk without a limp, and kept on going. The next couple days basically consisted of me walking somewhat slowly but steadily toward the town of Kinlochewe…The bad weather returned, and physically I wasn’t feeling great. The lack of photos from this stretch are a testament to the combination of poor weather and mediocre morale. On the upside, a couple shorter days (and a couple beers in the pub at Kinlochewe) had me feeling at least a little better and ready to take on another remote stretch of trail with a bit more vigor. Also, after six days of hiking I was desperate enough to bathe in the river north of Kinlochewe. Well worth it!
The rain continued as I worked my way up to Lochan Fada (Lochan = Small Loch), north of Kinlochewe, and as I set a NNE bearing toward another pass.
Somewhat inefficiently, I navigated my way toward the correct pass and subsequent valley leading down to and past Lochan Nid. This was another too-cold to stop day, and as a result I kept moving until I was just short of a series of cottages known as Corrie Halley, and pitched my tent in a pleasant spot off the trail near a stream.
I was now just 7 miles short of the biggest town along the trail (excluding Fort William), and this was a good thing. As I awoke the next day, I realized I basically could not walk. This is bad on a backpacking trip. After packing up, it took me a solid five minutes to work my way up a gentle 15 meter climb that I had descended the previous night to reach my tucked-away camp spot. I slowly loosened up a bit more, but there was no mistaking it: I needed to stop hiking. The site of my ankle sprain was shooting pain with each step, and my Achilles tendons were even more painful and tight. I hobbled the final 7 miles to the road leading to Ullapool with some effort, and promptly put my thumb out, getting a ride 9 or 10 miles up the road to Ullapool. I did walk through some pretty country along the way:
Once in Ullapool, I immediately sent an e-mail home so everyone knew I was out and OK, then took some time to plan out travels for my remaining six nights in Scotland. I was a little frustrated at the way things ended, but having an entire week to travel around Scotland is a pretty tough thing to complain about! Pub food, beer, whiskey and good conversations ensued.
In the next day or so I'll try to get a gear and technique breakdown added to this post….long story short, both worked out great in large part to BPL! Thanks for reading,
MattJun 8, 2011 at 4:30 pm #1746648
@thomdarrahLocale: Southern Oregon
Nice TR, thanks.Jun 8, 2011 at 4:52 pm #1746657
Very cool Matt! I'm jealous, I wanted to do a Scotland trip two years ago but it didn't come to pass. What an adventure you had!Jun 8, 2011 at 5:12 pm #1746666
@xpatrickxadLocale: Upper East TN
Bummer about the ankle acting up, but looks like a great trip. Great report on an area that's always interested me.
Side note what distilleries did you get to visit?Jun 8, 2011 at 11:18 pm #1746819
@mikefaedundeeLocale: Under a bush in Scotland
I'm sorry our weather didn't behave a bit better for you Matt. You showed good will power to push on as far as you did. :)
Windspeeds of 120mph were measured that week, so it was lucky you avoided those in your Scarp.
I've tried to explain to non-Scots how difficult it can be to find a dry pitch in Scotland. At least you now know what saturated ground is like! :)
Nice report. Just a pity about the weather, as April was one of the warmest and sunniest on record. I guess you paid the price for that in May.Jun 8, 2011 at 11:35 pm #1746823
@fre49Locale: France, vallée de la Loire
I had the same weather, in the same area in 2009, but even with rain its gorgeous.
I didnt get as far as you sonext year if i get in TGO 2012 ill probably start at Dornie or Shiel bridge to see the falls.
you will recognize the bridge, i told my wife i took the photo in case she drowned so i could sell it to a tabloid :)Jun 9, 2011 at 1:26 am #1746833
Well done, excellent effort given the poor weather you experienced. May is normally one of the better months, but the weather is always unpredictable at all times of year. Console youself with this – at least the wind kept the midges at bay! Nice photos too.
For non-Scot readers: the CWT is more of a route than a trail, but it is *far* superior to any of the marked (not-very-)long distance trails in Scotland (such as WHW etc).Jun 9, 2011 at 2:32 am #1746838
@fre49Locale: France, vallée de la Loire
Yes definitly one of the best hikes worldwide.
To give an idea, i enjoyed it more than the Torres del Paine in Chile, Arctic circle trail in Greenland, Laugavégur in Iceland, any GR i did in France etc..
The only other hike i enjoyed as much i can think of is the Hornstrandir in Iceland.
Scotland is definitly a great place to hike, too bad it takes so much time to get there.
Matt your photos are great too, please post more !Jun 9, 2011 at 3:04 am #1746841
@empacitatorLocale: Western Australia
Hi Matt, great trip report. How did you find the Scarp in these conditions?Jun 9, 2011 at 9:38 am #1746960
A few thoughts on Gear:
For this trip I knew I’d likely be facing intensely wet, windy, and possibly cold weather. I also knew I’d be carrying everything brought from the states on my back for the entire two weeks I was in Scotland, and wanted to be able to be comfortable and not look like a hiker for the time spent travelling. After the trip, I figured out my base weight was a bit less than 15 pounds, but included some extra clothing, a guide book, lots of maps, and much more camera gear (Sony Nex5 with two small-ish lenses) than I normally carry. Overall, I’m very pleased with how my gear worked out, which is a credit to all the great advice floating around on the BPL forums.
I used a TT Scarp 1 and was thoroughly impressed by it. In this sort of weather it was great to have a tent that would set up quickly, allowing me to find a camp spot and be in my tent boiling water in the vestibule a few minutes later. I didn’t used a ground cloth, yet had zero problems with water coming through the floor, even in places I was kneeling. This tent is bomber, with excellent attention to detail regarding the design: removable inner, taut pitch, two vestibules, fly that can be raised and lowered to the ground, etc. I didn’t use the optional crossing poles, yet it still handled the rough weather easily. That said, I’ve actually listed my Scarp in the gear swap: not because I don’t like it a lot, but I’m going to be starting a medical residency and most of my trips from here on out will be with my wife. Also, as a solo shelter is much more tent than I need for my typical Minnesota trips.
This area was also a success: before leaving, I purchased a 2/3 POE Peak Elite AC pad, which I paired with a 2 oz 59” thinlite pad. The grand total for this comfy set up was only 10.75 ounces. I used my 22 oz MYOG Topbag, created from thru-hikers down quilt kit. I was more than warm enough every night, and was pleasantly surprised that the down didn’t collapse noticeably in the wet weather.
On the move:
I wore pretty much the same thing each day I walked, with little variation.
For my lower body I had old running shorts, Golite Reeds, Darn Tough quarter height socks, and La Sportiva Wildcat mesh trail runners. This combo worked out pretty well: I didn’t have to change anything for stream crossings: just walk through. Some days I wished I had something more than running shorts under my rain pants as my thighs got a little cold, but this was minor and if I needed to I could have added my REI adventure pants, though they would have gotten wet.
On my upper body I had a smartwool 150 short sleeve T, a Minus 33 quarter zip wool top (which I’d describe as mid-to-heavy weight), topped off with my Rab Momentum eVent Shell. I chose the wool quarter zip because it looks better for travel purposes and doesn’t pick up stink. That said, a 100 weight fleece would have performed better for the hiking portion of my trip as the bottom of the wool pull-over sometimes absorbed water and didn’t dry quite as quickly. This was a minor issue though, as my eVent shell pretty much blew me away: everything the shell covered stayed dry, and I didn’t sweat much in it either. The one flaw of this shell is that the zipper would occasionally catch on the storm flap on the interior of the parka. In my tent, I often wore my wool tops to bed to keep me warm and let any damp portions dry out.
I replaced my 6-year old Black Diamond adjustable poles with the new Black Diamond Distance Z-Poles (aluminum version). At 12.5 ounces per pair for the 120 cm version, they were extremely packable for travel purposes (a big plus on this trip), comfortable, noticeably lighter than my adjustable poles, and very durable. There were dozens of times when I slipped, placing my full weight on the poles to catch myself from falling straight on my backside, and they always felt sturdy and showed no damage after the trip. They can be had for $80 with any 20% off sale, which I think makes them a very good buy.
Another star of this trip was my new MYOG synthetic parka. All of the insulation is 100g/yd primaloft (or some similar variation, depending on what I had laying around) with an M90 shell. No pockets, draw cords or frills. Just shell material and insulation. It offered piece of mind, but also was great for putting on as soon as I reached a camp spot and to augment my sleep system. I probably under-utilized it during the day, as I should have quickly put it on under my rain shell when I needed breaks. Usually I just kept moving all day.
My iPhone was pretty useful: I downloaded a couple Scotland Guidebooks (including one written by Chris Townsend) to be used with a Kindle App, saving weight. Also, as a back-up camera, iPOD (lots of audiobooks and music for evenings in my tent), and a wi-fi ready device for travel I think its 6 oz was easily justified. Battery life (in airplane mode) was excellent. Another cool feature, previously unused by me, was the ability to record voice memos: each night I’d record 5-6 minutes about the day. Once I reached wi-fi access after the hike, I sent these to my e-mail address and my wife’s: she thought this was fantastic, and left me with a very good record of my hike.
I also geared most of my clothing (wool tops, rei adventure pants, crocs, etc) to serve dual function in the backcountry and frontcountry, in spite of the fact that lighter hiking options existed.
Learning more about Whiskey in Scotland was fascinating: I made it to the Glen of Ord distillery near Inverness after my hike, and would have liked tour some more around Speyside but found cheap travel to Edinburgh and elected to spend time around the city before leaving…I loved that so many of the pubs seemed to have 30+ different single malts, and I may have tried a few of those with new friends prior to heading home:)
My overall impression of Scotland was fantastic: friendly, laid back people, lots of rugged and beautiful yet accessible backcountry, and Edinburgh was a gorgeous city. If you want to avoid camping day-in-day-out, planning a route in relatively remote areas with access to a B&B, hostel or hotel every two or three days would be an option. I found that a lot of Scottish hikers like to stay in some sort of accommodation but do day trips to bag peaks – many of which are between 3,000 and 4,000 feet. I really liked how quickly I could go from relative civilization to intense, remote off-trail backcountry, all in the matter of a few hours. I certainly see the appeal of staying in a B&B with a hiking partner or two, summiting a few remote peaks and returning by night fall to rehash the day’s events in a pub. All this can be done without getting into a car. I didn’t make it to the Cairn Gorms or Skye: if the weather had been better and my ankle was at full strength, those would have been the next couple places on my list.
Anyway, thanks for having a look at my trip report, and thanks even more for all of the great knowledge floating around on BPL.
MattJun 9, 2011 at 11:10 am #1747032
@davecLocale: Crown of the Continent
Great TR. Looks like a place to visit.Jun 9, 2011 at 11:32 am #1747045
Monday the 23rd May was a terrible day to be walking in Scotland Matt. You did well to do the miles you did. Great report and reflection on kit. Hope next time you visit you can get up high on the hills and bag some mountains as you go.Jun 9, 2011 at 11:36 am #1747046
Martin: Monday the 23rd was wild… and also happened to be my birthday!
MattJun 9, 2011 at 4:28 pm #1747168
@valsharLocale: San Francisco Bay Area
Great trip report and love the commentary about your journey.
It is always fun to see other parts of the world to see how different the weather and terrain are from what we have here.
Man, those last 7 miles must have been excruciatingly painful!
In the end, you made it and have some great memories to have for a lifetime.
Appreciate your taking the time to share your trip.
-TonyJun 9, 2011 at 11:18 pm #1747341
Matt the 23rd was a day I wont forget in a long time. I was walking across Scotland on the TGO Challenge at the same time you did your walk further North. I got a bit worried when trees started falling down a few hundred meters further up the road I was walking along at the time. It was not safe that day to be walking low level, let alone up high in the hills.Jun 10, 2011 at 1:18 am #1747353
Monday 23rd was the day that the Forth Road Bridge was completely closed to all vehicles due to high wind, and it took me almost 3 hours to drive home due to all traffic having to use the Kincardine Bridge instead and several trucks having been blown over on the M9 motorway.Jun 10, 2011 at 8:57 am #1747455
Thanks for all the kind words, everyone.
Stuart and Martin –
I knew that Monday the 23rd was nasty, but up until now I really just had my own estimations as to just how bad it was…sounds like you both had adventures of your own!
I can't begin to tell you how many people mentioned how nice the spring had been up until May! I definitely booked my plane ticket knowing that May was normally one of the prime times to visit the country, but the way I see it I basically signed up for hiking in wet and windy weather by showing up in Scotland. Good weather would have been a bonus. Still, I came away with a lot of great memories out of the trip, and I learned a ton about wet/cold travel.
MattJun 25, 2011 at 12:28 pm #1753243
@nbramhallLocale: Scottish Highlands
Great stuff Matt. You certainly didn't have much luck with the weather but I'm glad to see that didn't put you off giving it a go. You walked through some of the most spectacular, remote and wild areas of the country and by the looks of it got some decent views in between all the damp stuff. Places like Knoydart are the real prizes, particularly for those people who just do day trips rather than backpacking. You probably won't believe me but in May 2009 I actually sunbathed on top of The Saddle! Great report and photos – thanks for sharing.Jun 26, 2011 at 5:53 pm #1753536
@tomclarkLocale: East Coast
Nice trip report, I understand the lack of photos due to weather, but wish there were more. Surprising that you left the B&B. Hope the rest of the trip was good.
One question for anyone, why are there no (live) trees in any of the photos? I realize the altitude and latitude, but was wondering if there was other reasons.
TomJun 27, 2011 at 1:22 am #1753611
Tom, there are some trees in the photos!
However there are no trees above 1000'. This is largely due to the latitude of 58N (1 degree short of Anchorage). There are additional reasons – very little soil, acidic peat, browsing by red deer, weather.
In many glens you will see ancient tree stumps (called bog pine) in breaks in the peat. These are the remnants of the Caledonian Forest that was once widespread up until ~500 years ago. The cause of it's demise is still a subject of research: undoubtably many trees where chopped down for ship building, charcoal etc but it is also thought that climate change (wetter -> waterlogged roots) played a significant part.Jun 27, 2011 at 3:08 am #1753617
@tomclarkLocale: East Coast
I was wondering if over harvesting was a factor.
TomJun 27, 2011 at 5:52 am #1753629
As I mentiond, over harvesting was probably a factor a few hundred years ago. Since then there has been little attempt at replanting until recent times. After WWII dense patches of Sitka Spruce mono-cultures were planted specifically for timber production and only very recently has replanting of native species been attempted. Both require saplings to be fenced off to prevent deer from browsing.Jun 27, 2011 at 8:07 am #1753654
@kat_pLocale: Pacific Coast
Matt, thanks for posting your trip report. Nice to see and hear about some places that are not the usual common destinations. Sorry you had such inclement weather….but it makes for a good story and some real gear testing. Nice pictures too.Jun 27, 2011 at 9:58 pm #1753884
Hamish Brown's book Hamish's Mountain Walk mentions replanting several times. I don't recall him writing at length about the practice but I got the distinct impression that he didn't much care for the it.
Edit: Very nice trip Report! …. and not just because you are from my neck of the woods:-) I was with a group backpacking the SHT from Silver Bay to Finland in late May and we thought we had challenging weather (well, there WAS a tornado in the area). But I think your experience will help us reset our definition of "challenging".Feb 9, 2013 at 3:01 pm #1952653
@drongobirdLocale: San Francisco Bay Area
Matt – We're planning our own hike in Scotland and have reread your trip report. You did a terrific job of giving us a sense of what we might encounter. Please know that your trip report continues to be useful! Thanks, Amy and Jim
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