The sky clears overnight and I am so warm, I sleep only in a tank top with half my bag unzipped.
Promptly at 5, the rain returns, slashing from the side, the wind blowing and making a racket. Ahead is the highest bealach yet plus two rivers with warnings that it could be extremely dangerous to cross in spate
It’s not simply a matter of following a trail because there is no trail, just a boggy, rocky soup of maybe a herd route.
I can see the closest hills, but this is full-on, all-day soaking rain, truly having ‘settle in.’ The tent is wet, our waterproofs and shoes are wet, our spirits are wet.
Needless-to-say, I’m disappointed.
Over the pass is another loch and a B&B where we made a reservation somehow suspecting after six days, we’d need a shower and a real bed. I have to admit, I am the stinkiest I’ve been on any hike. Sharing a tent must be a misery.
Ian and Ted have walked to the tea house to try and find a ride out – perhaps with someone in a camper van, or the couple we met at Barisdale who likely have to give up their bid on any Munros.
But it’s 20+ miles of curvy mountain road to the main route. Do we try and hitch in this awfulness and will the unfriendly couple be willing to offer their phone?
It’s funny how you get drawn into wanting to move forward. I know we have the strength, but it will take eight hours and we’ll see nothing but driving rain in our face.
Perhaps the weather will improve in the coming days. I hear they had drought all summer with high fire danger.
Ted complains that the weather isn’t being fair and that people really ought to help more. When I point out we chose Scotland and this trail requires a fair amount of self-sufficiency, he tells me I’m not being helpful.
It stops raining for a few minutes and I look out. Gray and miserable, the wind pressing at the tent. When I suggest we pack away our sleeping bags in case the pole snaps, Ted tells me we need to buy a better tent. This is not fun.
I hear a noise. It’s a couple walking past with their dogs. When I call out, they obviously can’t hear me over the crash of the river. I’m utterly useless just sitting here. I really wish we’d stayed at the bothy in Barisdale.
Ian returns and tells me they managed to catch a ride with three of the geologists who just happen to be headed our way. What luck!
They’ve come from Oxford up here to study the fault lines. Usually their time is spent in Central Asia helping populations determine where it’s safe to build.
But today, they’re in what they describe as the literal ‘middle of nowhere,’ winding along on a one lane road filled with potholes and puddle, the cliffs squeezing out the last day’s rain.
I ask about the geology here and am told it’s mostly ancient sandstone and mudstone from inland seas squashed at high temperature into gneiss banded metamorphic, which accounts for the brilliant mica and bright white quartz. Igneous intrusion adds another property of hardness, making this place a climber’s dream.
But not today as I’m left wondering how shoes make purchase in constant damp. The driver takes the curves at a clip and in the back, I’m whipped about feeling my stomach in my throat. The open window keeps me from hurling, but makes it cold on this nearly two-hour drive.
The geologist gal mentions she got interested in geology when she took a course on Aran Island. The weather was so wonderful, she fell in love with digging around. She adds those who had bad weather on their course chose lab work instead.
It’s not long before we meet the main highway up Great Glen, busy with traffic. A young man in shorts, a T, spats and backpack walks along the highway looking miserable.
Ted calls Fiona to ask if we can come early and bring Ian too. I can’t feel my toes, so jump into a bath as she takes our dirty clothes and chucks them in the wash. At the pub, we order local fare and the waitress is downright rude to me as I attempt to choose a whisky.
The rain is relentless, but the morning opens with clearing skies. The next bothy is about 15 miles in with a dangerous rocky ravine to navigate next to massive Fall of Glomach. So with sadness, we decide to catch a bus back to Fort William and fetch the car, perhaps finding a less drenched area to hike.
In the meantime, we bag a peak – the conveniently placed Munro, Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest mountain. I shouldn’t be surprised the trail is packed with hikers, many totally unprepared in tights, holding a waterbottle in their bare, exposed fingers.
Being the highest and easily accessed, it’s so popular, the locals have ‘paved’ the tourist trail with massive stones. It’s 4400 feet above the loch at sea level, so no walk in the park, but after the wild roughness of bog trotting all week, we keep a steady pace from start to finish.
Rain comes and goes and we get views of Loch Linnhe and the start of the Cape Wrath Trail. When we reach the halfway point at a lochan, the trail is more gravel heading right into mist.
I consider once of twice turning back since it feels silly to exert so much up into colder and harsher weather without any view, but we press on, the wind blowing cold rain in our faces.
Dozens come down, looking mildly miserable and I say hi to everyone. A tiny pug hops over the rocks ahead of one man, two women in fur lined hoods and down are drenched to the bone.
We soon hit the massive rock piles, cairns to mark the way and keep walkers from walking directly off the vertical gullies. Our feet pick through slushy snow, thankfully not too slippery. For about 200 yards, it’s steep going and the cairns disappear in mist.
Two men come down at Ted asks how far. “Just ‘round this corner, mate. Mind the cliff!” Three massive mounds mark the danger zone and I look down a yawning chasm. The wind blows wildly, gale force as we press up to a group of wind breaks.
I go towards the door up rocky stairs into an emergency shelter hoping to dress more warmly, but Ted suggests we head straight down so as not to lose the footprints.
Up until now, the wind was at our back. Turning around, we’re smacked with ice. My fingers and toes are numb, but there’s nothing to do but watch my step on the steep bit, carefully placing each damp sneaker on a snow-covered rock and heading towards the cairn coming into view.
Just then, it begins to snow massive horizontal flakes. Moaning as I go seems to help as does a few, “You’re ok, al. You’re ok.’s
We’re out of snow and on rock now, just rain and wind, the temperature noticeably warmer. Down and down, I think how easy it is to ascend and ignore just how long the descent will take.
But soon, the lochan is in view and we’re below the cloud, views coming into view. It’s essentially stairs all the way down, tiring on the quads but never slippery. All along the way, the builders created escape shoots for the rushing waterfalls and it’s frankly a luxury.
I finally feel the cold in my bones as we drive back to town. It takes a hot shower and wrapping in my bag to warm up. I can’t help but wonder how it would feel trying to warm up in a wet tent or stone bothy.
At this moment, I’m sitting with a traditional breakfast in a Weatherspoons in Fort William with a plan now to head back into the highlands and see what might be salvaged for the rest of this trip.
Was it a risk to come in October? Sure, but locals tell me it’s difficult to predict weather at any time in Scotland. This past summer was in drought and oftentimes, fall is glorious here.
Truth is, I walked about 60 miles of the Cape Wrath Trail, a fourth of it and had absolutely glorious experiences of bog trotting, bothy sharing, passing showers followed by rainbows and a bit of making up the route as I went. I survived a wipe out and went on to bag the biggest Munro of all and have come to know a new part of the world as a walker.
I didn’t succeed in the goal I set out to achieve, but as the British would say of this few weeks in the highlands, it was all rather good.