I was exhausted when my alarm went off at eight. My second breakfast in a row was cornflakes, a sausage and bacon sandwich and another four rounds of toast. I could get used to this.
Next up was shoe shopping. As much as I love my trail runners Ben Nevis had taken its toll on them. I found an identical pair that had been updated for this year. I tried them on and it was bliss, they just felt so right. It was as if I was cheating on my old pair. It’s like some sort of long-term relationship, my old shoes are worn and familiar – we’ve shared good times and bad, I wouldn’t be where I am now without them. But my potential new shoes are exciting and seem like a good fit. Do I trade something I know for something a bit different? Like a two-timing love rat I chose both. I’d pay for it later with the extra weight on my shoulders and the guy in the store seemed bemused at my decision to keep wearing these old things, I guess some people will never understand. For now I’ll keep wearing my old ones, patching things up when I can until things can no longer be repaired; I’ll try my best to keep this relationship alive though I fear it is doomed to failure. During that time I will secretly covet the new shoes in my rucksack and eventually the time will come where I have to make the switch.
The walk down to Steall seemed to go on and on. My legs were tired and I felt drained. It was also the first time I’ve passed a large red sign warning ‘Danger of Death’ reminding the unwary that fatal accidents are possible out here. The scenery here was far more interesting than that of Ben Nevis, and after a packet of crisps at the ruins I crossed a wire bridge and began my climb up An Gearanach. It was steep in places and my calf muscles burnt as I quickly made my way up. I was fighting against the clock if I were to get around early enough to continue ticking off jobs that needed doing before I headed out onto the Cape Wrath Trail. I didn’t want to compromise the main part of the walk by rushing it, so pushing on up to the first summit seemed the sensible way of saving time. As I made my way up the mountain rescue helicopter landed on Ben Nevis behind me, another reminder not to do anything too stupid.
I had the song ‘Ring of Fire’ in my head as I made my way up. It was the first time in days that something had replaced the sound of bagpipes in my ears. There had been a piper somewhere in Glencoe and the sound of pipes travelled up into the hills. I’d not been able to spot him from either climb, but I suspect he was playing for tourists in one of the car parks. The sound of bagpipes is one that is much more pleasant from a distance, somewhat less harsh. Since then I have had an earworm burying itself in my consciousness and had walked to Fort William with an omnipresent hint of Scotland the Brave.
Once at the top I just so happened to find a nice ridge to walk along. Are you noticing a pattern here? I couldn’t run along this one though. Today my ankles hurt too much and I wouldn’t trust them to keep me stable for long. Not that it stopped me from making an attempt, I just quickly abandoned it after only a few metres.
Like my route, my mood rose and dropped through the day. It’s lonely here, I miss the camaraderie of the trail. The people in the town don’t stop to chat and even with the many tourists there is rarely a sense of shared experience as there was on The Way. Indeed, the only people I met today were walking in the opposite direction and they only stopped to point out I’d be late finishing.
I think the other thing getting me down, besides my creaking joints, was the complete lack of sponsorship I had received. I questioned why I was doing this, whether I’m actually helping UNICEF at all or whether my efforts could be classed as complete and abject failure. That sort of thing.
I could have been in Bruge. At various points over the last few months California and Japan had been potential holiday destinations. Somehow I ended up here, alone, in pain, up a hill.
For all these moments of doubt though, there is something very special and almost overwhelmingly uplifting about reaching the top at the end of a long day. The world opens up and you can see for miles where moments previously all that lay ahead was gruelling climb. I felt like king of the world. Everything I need, I can carry; everything I can see, I can walk to. If there were ever a cure for a dark mood then these hills on a good day could provide it.
I made my way along, my pace varying with my mood. The climb up to Am Bodach was steep but I enjoyed it, even if my knee didn’t. To the south I could make out Aonach Eagach and Bidean. To the north was Ben Nevis and beyond that, to the northwest, lay my ultimate destination: Cape Wrath.
The journey continued well to Stob Chorie a Mhail before it started to deteriorate as I began to flag. Tired and demoralised, Sgurr a Mhaim fell quicker than it might, but it was still a long way back to the valley below. Now I just wanted to be done for the day.
Eventually I made it back into Fort William, and despite the convenience for food (teddy had a deep fried mars bar – he needs the calories). I’ll be glad to be done with the place. Tomorrow is my only planned rest day, and then I’m out into the wilderness, the forecast is rain.