There are few places in my life that I’ve found more ruggedly beautiful than the Highlands of Scotland. The place is magical – it’s so far north, so remote, that sometimes it feels like you’ve left this world and gone to another.Julia London
A reader sent this word-of-the-day to me:
: an adventurous, daring, or chivalric enterprise
I don’t know about the chivalric part, but there is something daring about my next walk. As if taking a sharp turn away from fire, smoke, drought and heat, I’m headed to Scotland to walk a long-distance and wild trail through the West Highlands on one of the toughest trails in the UK to the northwesternmost point of mainland Britain.
The rugged trail is utterly unmarked are pathless and required a high degree of navigational skill as well as self-sufficiency, with unbridged river crossings that offer challenge when in spate (flood).
That being said, I’ll carry a tent only for emergencies as all along the way are a series of bothies or basic stone shelters, much like New Zealand, that provide refuge and a fireplace. Aside from constantly wet feet, this should be luxurious!
The idea to walk in Scotalnd started with my English friend named Ted, an ultramarathoner I met on the John Muir Trail and with whom I’ve walked the Drakensberg Traverse in Africa, the Colorado Trail, a whole slew of Fourteeners, the Western hemisphere’s highest peak Aconcagua and a couple hundred miles on the Pacific Crest Trail – as well as my one and only ultramarathon, the Fellsman, a 62-mile, 11,000 foot gain-and-loss, trail-less challenge in the North Yorkshire Moors.
In fact, it was that race where I met Ted’s friend and arch-rival, Terry, a tall, slender mountain man with a shock of unruly hair. He gave Ted a run for his money, but somehow got lost in the mist that day, ended up behind us and then dropped out because of the awful weather of spitting rain and ice pellets. Somewhere along the way, Ted convinced Terry to keep running the annual race into his seventies even when his family wanted him to quit and he ended up capturing the Fellsman over-70 record of 17 hours, which no one – including Ted – has beat.
Heartbreakingly, this past year while walking a tricky ridge in the Scottish Highlands, this seemingly invincible man – a legend and role model for many – managed to trip and fall down just right, hitting his head and never recovering. At the time, he was working on climbing all 282 of Scotland’s Munro mountains when he died, with perhaps the thought in the back of his mind of walking to Cape Wrath with Ted, a feat he actually wasn’t sure he could pull off.
And that’s how I’ve come to be Ted’s second, both of us hoping to walk this desolate but wildly beautiful landscape as not just a challenge to our hardiness, but in memory of a tough fell runner who left the world doing the thing he loved the most.
Late September and early October can be exquisite they say, full of fall color, drier, and empty of crowds. Then again, it can be dour (relentlessly severe), with stops in villages for a warm bed and a wee dram of single malt a necessity. I will pack a tent for the freedom it provides, my thermals, serious rain gear, and plenty changes of socks – and likely a larger pack to accommodate. By next week, I will have a complete gear list.
For now, I’m biking and hiking to get fit, marking up a route on CalTopo with alternates, bothies, possible peak bagging and escape routes marked, and scheduling all the Covid tests I’ll need before I leave, when I land and before I return.
But you know, this sharp turn towards a completely unexpected part of the world, and a trail I hadn’t given much thought to, is so like how things turn out. We make plans and hope for the best, and then our heart gives us trouble and we have to improvise. We think somehow nothing is working out, and then a call comes out of the blue and we move in a totally different direction. To be honest, I feel lucky. I feel like the trail provided. And I feel like surprises await those with an open mind, ready to receive.
Though it should be pointed out the last time I hiked in these parts, I was labeled “The Bog Finder…!”