Fear, Loneliness and Perspective

My list of things to get done seems to be going in the wrong direction.

I’ve booked a sleeper train up to Glasgow on Friday night, so everything has to be ready by then. I have to make lists of potential B&Bs, campsites and other places to escape to in an emergency. I have to seam seal my tarp, print my maps and pack my gear. On the plus side, the blog is up and running, my route is set, and I think I physically possess most of the gear that I need.

In some ways I’m almost ready, and I’m excited to be setting off. In other ways I’m a little bit concerned that I won’t be ready for my departure, and the lack of preparation will result in failure for the trip.

The West Highland Way eases me into the trip. I’ve walked that walk before; there will be plenty of people around to help me if I get myself into too much trouble. There are a few tough bits that may present issues, particularly if the weather is bad – for example the Aonach Eagach and the Ring of Steall.

My main concern early on is that my knee or ankle will give out early on in the trip. Aside from the long-standing knee issues (which will probably be painful but fine) I recently wandered around the Lake District and seem to have done something to my ankle while playing silly buggers. Being somewhat hypermobile has its advantages. I seem to be able to land on my ankle while running down a hill in a way that looks like it should be resulting in agonizing pain and possibly serious damage. The disadvantage is that I end up with those awkward enduring issues related to hypermobility – joint pain, tendinitis, knee pain, back pain… most of which I’m starting with. I’m hoping that any of these sorts of issues remain manageable throughout the trip. I’d rather fail in some heroic manner than splutter to a finish limping into Fort William – preferably the kind of failure that involves rescuing some damsel in distress.

Gear wise – I have a few concerns about the tarp, because it’s new and I’ve not taken it out in anger yet. The rest of the gear I know well, it’s just that slight unknown about my home for three weeks that makes me a little uneasy. Other than that, the first hundred and fifty miles should be relatively straightforward… providing I don’t fall off a ridge or do anything stupid.

The Cape Wrath Trail is tough; even if I’m physically fit completing it is not guaranteed. It’s a bit difficult to know what to expect here and once again a fear of the uncertain comes into play. There’s only so much you can gain from reading other people’s trip reports and I can only imagine it to be something a little closer to the crazy wee trip around Wales that I did with Heley. Two hundred miles of that will be both physically and mentally exhausting.

Time is an issue, I’m worried that along this stretch I am being overly optimistic with the distance I can cover, and will have to cancel the last couple of days of my trip in order to make it back home to work.

The other issue is that of loneliness. I hadn’t originally planned to spend these three weeks alone, but I’m a little short on notice to find someone willing to walk this way with me. I’ll hopefully find a few people to chat to during my travels. This is particularly likely along the West Highland Way, but is unlikely to be the case when following the Cape Wrath Trail, which already promises to be a long, hard, lonely slog through remote wilderness.

This will be my first time camping under a tarp on my own for this length of time. Now, I might not be the most sociable person ever to bounce along the trails of Scotland, but I do like a bit of company from time to time, so if any of you do happen to be wandering around these particular hills while I’m away, then do try and get in contact. I shall be making semi-regular tea stops and anyone who wants to would be welcome to walk with me for a while.

So that’s all my insecurities about this trip dealt with. Here, written down for you to laugh at. From now on I shall endeavour to wander along unbeatable. If it does surface, my fear of failure will drive me on – as will the hope that there will be at least a couple of donations to UNICEF as a result of my efforts – but looking at the trip as a whole, and the experience gained from the 2011 trip, I know that this is going to be tough. If I am not careful I could end up in a spot of bother, but how could I call it an adventure without all those disasters-in-waiting? On the other hand, I’ve walked 20-30 mile days before and there will be some beautiful views. This will be a grand adventure.

Introduction

Here we go again…

I’m off on another walk around Scotland. This time I’m going on my own… without a tent… with one week to prepare. The evidence suggests that I may still be crazy. I still have the slightly dodgy knee. I’m also still as optimistic as ever, so I’m looking to walk further and raise more than I have done during my previous shenanigans.

The initial plan is to walk the West Highland Way again, spending a bit of time in Glencoe, and doing the interesting bits around and about those parts – so Coire Gabhail, the Aonach Eagach, the Ring of Steall and Ben Nevis.

From there I have yet to decide whether I want to attempt some or all of the Cape Wrath Trail, which would take me from Fort William, up past Ullapool to, well, Cape Wrath. The other option is to do the East Highland Way, from Fort William across to Aviemore, then head from there down through the Cairngorms to Pitlochry before following the Rob Roy Way back down towards my starting point on the West Highland Way. The former sounds more exciting, but is logistically more difficult – in particular the fact I’ll be miles from anywhere and cutting it fine on getting back home in time for work after my holiday. The latter would have more civilisation along the way, which could be considered a good or a bad thing, and is my safe option. At the moment I’m trying to get routes and whatnot sorted for both, and may not actually decide what I’m doing until I reach Fort William.

Now, I think now is probably a good time to remind people that I’m not really some kind of expert outdoorsman. I might have wandered out into the hills before, but I tend to just tend to go with the flow. Over the years I’ve managed to set fire to my (wet) socks and to get lost walking in a straight line (While following a river). On both occasions I had company, so it remains to be seen whether I am more or less likely to court chaos when wandering through the wilderness. Therefore, anything resembling advice that can be found in this blog is merely the result of my own meandering experience and may possibly be not quite entirely correct.

Aside from not knowing where I’m going, I’ve not got all my camping gear together yet and still haven’t got around to learning all those skills that are meant to be critical to wilderness survival. I mean, I can’t tie my own shoelaces, let alone rig up a tarp using fancy efficient knots. My tarp generally stays up, although if you were to ask me what kind of knot I used the response would probably be “tangled”. My view on getting lost is that at least it presents an opportunity to find myself and my ability to get sunburnt is unparalleled (I recently managed to start to burn on a cloudy day in the lakes). On the plus side I do have a couple of handy skills for use when out in the wilds. I can usually set fire to something, it may not be what I intended to set fire to, but at least something is on fire. My other rare talent is being able to sniff out a chip shop within any 30 minute detour of a route. If you’re out in the hills and you need chips, I’m the person to be walking with. I may not be some dashing, seasoned adventurer but I can probably say that out in the wilderness I am no more of a danger to myself than I am usually.

So, here we go, I’m going to be spending three weeks hiking / wandering / limping around Scotland, trying to stay dry, find food and keep you all entertained with this blog. If you do find yourself reading regularly, then please do consider making a donation to UNICEF and wish me luck – I may need it.

Hitting The Hills 2011 – Statistics and Kit.

Summer is rapidly approaching, and plans are afoot for another sneaky trip up to Scotland to do a crazy amount of walking (over a much shorter period of time this year!). Before I go into the details of that particular plan I thought I’d post a kit-list and a few of the statistics behind the trip Heley and I did last year.

Looking through the statistics, written down on paper it doesn’t seem anywhere near as impressive an achievement as it actually was, likewise looking back at the photos the sense of scale is somewhat lost. It’s quite strange breaking the trip down into photos and miles done, it’s easy to look at it and go “oh, that’s it?” and harder to think that “that’s it” was a lot of hard work, preparation and step after step of struggle mixed with some beautiful scenery and events that ranged from the melodramatic to the bloody daft.

If you are interested in the statistics of time spent walking, how far we walked each day, etc. you can download a PDF of the trip here.

I’m pretty pleased with the kit that we took with us. In fact I’ll be re-using most of my kit this year and there are only one or two items I’d be tempted to replace.  If you’re interested in looking at the kit-list you can download it here, otherwise here’s a brief run-down.

Shared Kit:

Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2 Tent – this was a godsend. It’s a really light tent, and the material feels a little flimsy, but it stood up to everything we threw at it on the trip. There was enough room for two of us in the tent, and the 2 doors made getting in and out much easier than the one door of The North Face Tadpole that it had replaced.

We also took an MLD Poncho tarp as an emergency waterproof and in the hope we’d find nice weather and a nice spot to camp under a tarp with. At 314g it didn’t weigh much and I’d probably take this again anyway in the hope of using it.

The White Box Stove that we got was perfect for us. Heley knew how much fuel she needed at any given time nailed down to the very last drop (She quickly became the resident chef, which suited me as I’m likely to set fire to everything given half an opportunity).  The choice of meths was a good one, it was easy to stock back up, and having the Esbit tabs and the Evernew Stove gave us another option in an emergency. As a result I’ll be getting rid of my MSR Pocket Rocket and sticking with meths in the future.

Everything on the cooking list was pretty standard, and I think we would have been able to at least make a brew in even the worst of weather and if we lost half our kit. I was pretty happy with the navigation, luxury and hygiene stuff that we took. I’m not sure if we took the red location lamp or not in the end, but the only reason I could see to take it again would be to attach to the back of a rucksack if we ended up walking along the road in the dark.

I think I got used to midge bites more than I got used to the Electrostatic Clicker and I’m not convinced that the Avon Skin So Soft worked all that well. I was quite lucky that Heley seems to be the one person that midges like more than me. But, I was more-or-less used to being bitten by the time we arrived in Fort William.

In our Technology category I think the Echo Pocket Scope was a nice idea, but never really needed in the end. The Anquet maps on waterproof paper were brilliant, and the rest of the tech did their respective jobs well.

My Kit:

I really liked my rucksack, the Osprey Exos 58 Large, although it seemed to cause a bit of panic towards the end of the trip when everything had worn away at the sides near the frame. A couple of e-mails and the shop I bought it from has replaced it so I’ll keep an eye out as to whether that issue was just with that particular rucksack or a more general issue. Heley had no such problems with hers, which was the same model in medium.  So hopefully it was just that one.

The Montbell Spiral Down Hugger  #3 sleeping bag was luxurious, packed down tight and is probably the nicest sleeping bag that I’ve ever seen.  Coupled with my Thermarest NeoAir Mid and a silk liner I was as comfortable as I’ve ever been when camping.

The Petzle E-lite head torch is good enough for sitting around camp with, but if you wanted to navigate at night then something a little brighter would be worth investing in.

I was really happy with all the clothes I took. The stand out clothing had to be the Smart Wool Microweight underwear.  It was almost a pleasure to wear the same underwear for more than one day at a time! Aside from that the Rab Off Limits trousers were fast-drying and never gave me any hassle. In fact, most of my kit was hassle free, just the way I like it. The only clothing that looks like it felt the strain of the trip is my Montane Featherlight Smock. My innov-8 Roclite’s also seem a little worse the wear, but still have a good few miles left in them I think.

So there you have it, I finally got around to finishing my reporting on last year’s trip. I wouldn’t expect my kit-list to change too substantially between now and the next trip, but who knows what new and exciting things will be available to buy.

Aftermath

So the trip is long over and it’s back to reality. The trip seemed to last a lifetime, and being away seems a lifetime ago. I must be on my third lifetime in a month.

There are plenty of photographs up at http://www.facebook.com/HittingTheHills. Few of them are of me, which is one of the benefits of being the person holding the camera.

There had been suggestions of developing a Hitting The Hills board game, and I dabbled with the idea of putting together a comic; the issue with both ideas mostly being that I can’t draw. As a result there may yet be a book of the comic of the blog of the trip. If I ever get around to writing it then it will be completely fictional. Well, almost completely. Names will be changed to protect the guilty.

This blog isn’t going to be completely ignored while I procrastinate on writing an epic novel that will almost surely result in me very nearly, but not quite, becoming a real writer. I’ll also be slowly reviewing the odd bits of kit we took, putting together a kit list, uploading a breakdown of the miles done per day and so on.

The book will have to be mostly fictitious. It’s easy to forget bits of what happened, and it’s strange what you remember. There are things that I neglected to mention in the blog, or didn’t seem so important or funny at the time; for example almost injuring myself stretching on the first day, or my uncanny ability to find fried food, even in the wilderness.

Some things are hard to describe. There are moments that I wished I had captured on camera. There was the time when we were shuffling up to Culloden camp site and we were asked by the lady running the campsite where we had come from. Upon replying with “Inverness” her response was “Oh, well, I don’t feel sorry for you now”. Whereas my response of a “well screw you” glare and a comment of “We started in Glasgow last week” was adequately venomous, the wounded look on Heley’s face had more than a hint of malevolence to it. A snapshot of that moment would have become an internet sensation, and I’m sure something a little like this was going on in Heley’s head: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=28S-aOWtFdo

With over £1100 raised so far, and still hoping a few more people cough up some pennies, some aspects of the trip have been a success. The club has really grown over the last few months, and it’s great to see other people getting involved and helping out more.

In other ways the trip was less successful. Both Heley and I are on the long term injury list. We didn’t manage all the miles and I’m still gutted that I didn’t get to the finish line on foot. There will be other dramatic adventures though. Perhaps I’ll try the 267 miles of the Pennine Way or the 2181 miles of the Appalachian Trail. My sense of adventure has certainly not been dulled by the failure.

Who knows, I might wander up back into the hills this winter to catch up on the bits of the trip I missed… and besides, the Cape Wrath Trail starts not far from Ben Nevis, and it’s only 200 miles long, that’s just a wee stroll.

There is a story behind this, but I'm not going to tell you it.

Cows!!!

Day 9: Director’s Cut

If only they had rucksacks!

Warning: Heley and Phill crossing

I didn’t really write about Day 9 at the time, not least because it was the longest day we walked. It was 32.42 miles long and it had the most ups and downs. We accumulated a total of 5453.59 feet up and 5512.86 back down. It was also a day designed by the devil himself. I’m pretty sure looking back I’ve blocked out the worst parts of the day, so here’s something more akin to a tamed down executive summary. Enjoy.

You know it’s going to be a bad day when you are woken in the middle of the night by some animal being attacked in the wilds. You know things are going to get worse when the other person in the tent can’t get back to sleep because they need to pee, but can’t go out to pee because there may be some wee beastie out there that preys specifically on the weak of bladder. Did I mention that it was cold, wet and windy too?

Anyway, 4 hours next to a wide awake person needing to pee didn’t sound like fun, nor did any possibility of 4 hours next to someone fast asleep having accidently got to the point where they didn’t need to pee anymore. So the cold and wet was braved in order to ensure that no wild animals were lurking in the attempt to catch us off guard in the middle of the night.

I returned to the tent cold and wet. A few hours later I awoke to find that I was still cold and wet, but had lost all ability or care about how to get warm, I was quite miserably suffering away in my sleeping bag wondering whether death by hypothermia was a valid excuse for a night in a bed and breakfast. At least a hospital would be warm.

Heley was up early and so made me tea, that helped and eventually I dragged my frozen, lazy backside out of the tent to discover Heley being eaten alive by midges. Midges are attracted to the carbon dioxide in your breath. It’s hard to avoid them without breathing. Luckily for those of us still in possession of legs, they can’t keep up with you if you are walking around. Heley wasn’t walking around. She was sullenly sat there and so, sat in a dense cloud of wee bitey things, had neatly turned herself into breakfast.

I packed as quickly as possible after shepherding Heley away from the midge-cloud for a moment’s respite. We then trundled off to Fort Augustus in silence, where I was sure that Heley would announce that she was done and would find the quickest way back to Cambridge. All credit to her for sticking it out, although I suspect that continuing was partly so that she could watch me suffer too.

I can’t really recall much of that leg of the journey. It seemed to mostly contain Heley and myself either ignoring each other or walking a hundred meters apart. I think each time one of us started a conversation the other just answered with a glare which only meant that keeping talking would almost certainly end badly. I’m glad that the sharp knife was safely hidden in my rucksack, although I’m sure Heley could have made good use of the trekking pole.

A brief moment of happiness occurred when we realised we were already in Fort Augustus. We considered walking through the town before settling down for tea, but by this point we had no intention of walking even an inch further than absolutely necessary. However, we were attracted to a particularly large sign that promised tea and cakes in the form of a café overlooking Loch Ness. It promised much more than it delivered, not least because it was shut. We’d walked an extra couple of hundred meters to get there. It did adequately sum up how I felt about life at that point.

Instead we settled for a little pub and had a cup of tea there. It was pleasant enough, I suppose. We left the pub, walked a little further through the town and found a plethora of wonderful looking places promising hot drinks and snackables. We’d not even reached lunchtime at this point and it was looking increasingly likely that Day 9 was just out to get us.

At least we weren’t the only ones suffering. A “Monster” challenge around Loch Ness took relay teams of four running and cycling around the loch with a distance of 120 km to cover. They were heading in the opposite direction to us. Most of them were very polite and always said hi as they passed. They only had to say “Hi” to us once; I had to acknowledge each of them as they cycled past. There were bloody hundreds of them. Heley was in no mood to acknowledge anyone.

Onwards we trudged. Trudging being the operative word, onwards being the slowest of the words and we being something I use in the loosest sense of the term.

Somewhere I had read the advice that duct tape is great for taping blisters. Elastoplast is great for taping blisters. Duct tape, not so much. While Heley hobbled onwards I attempted to duct tape my feet back together. A couple of miles later the lesson was learnt and I took the duct tape back off. I also learnt another lesson – duct tape is a bitch to get off.

There must have been some good points along this stretch. I say good, I certainly feel like I actually mean tolerable. We chatted for a bit, the mood lifted and then we broke. Some people collect stamps or keyrings from their travels, Heley and I collect injuries. By about 3pm I was ready to pitch the tent and ignore the rest of the day. Convincing Heley to stop for the day was never going to be a viable option, so on we plodded, ever slower.

Civilisation came in the form of Invermoriston. I can’t remember much about the place other than being sat on a bench near a car park while I attempted to solve the problem that was my feet. The place also had public toilets and a shop, which from our point of view made it a big town. Heley collected more supplies of diet coke and chewing gum, whilst I almost twisted my ankle on the step outside the shop. That would have been an embarrassing way to end the journey.

Eventually, after another couple of hours walking, we had a judgement call to make, to wild camp or attempt to make it to a campsite at East Lewiston. The decision was made, onwards we wobbled. We knew it was going to be late by the time we got to the campsite, and it just seemed to get later and later the more we walked.

We moved very quickly towards the end, ignoring the pain just to get to the campsite. We resembled the Elderly People sign as we walked. Campsite located, tent up, food cooked, we got everything sorted like clockwork. You’d think we were experts at the way everything got sorted in the dark.

Somehow, over the best tuna and rice I have ever tasted, we looked back at the day and laughed. I think the only other choice was to look back at it and cry, and hell, you gotta laugh.

 

Image courtesy of Ethan Prater