Photo of a river.

Cape Wrath Trail: Day 8 – Loch Ailsch to Glendhu

The morning started where the evening before had ended – with midges. While I was being simultaneously eaten alive and packing my tent I realised that I couldn’t find the bag for my tent. The sensible conclusion was that I’d left it outside overnight and it had blown away. I cursed myself for my stupidity.

The journey started well, albeit rather slow. I was making my way over the many little, and some not so little, streams that fed into the River Oykel. It was necessary to stay quite high up to make the crossings. Towards the last crossing of the glen my walking pole got caught in the rocks as I stepped onto a stepping stone. My right leg landed hard and unexpectedly into the river before I safely lurched onto the far bank. My knee voiced its concerns about what had just happened and would continue to make it known how deeply unhappy it was with me all the way down to Inchnadamph. Luckily I could still walk, although I found myself once again irritated with myself for my carelessness. This time I had bent my walking pole. I didn’t quite trust it as much as I had previously, but I was lucky that I hadn’t broken it.

I squelched along with a sore knee to Inchnadamph, where I realised that I didn’t quite go all the way down to the village and the hotel, so once again would miss the opportunity for a cup of tea. On the bright side, the sun met me as I faffed about trying to choose the right path up to Glen Coul and from there on to Glendhu Bothy.

I plodded along in the sunshine enjoying my hike. The hills here were a special kind of lumpy, with boulders strewn across them. It was the sort of landscape that you would choose if you were making a low-budget movie about an alien planet.

I climbed up and through a pass where I was met with a heavy downpour. Everything that wasn’t underwater was slippy. Crossing a small stream I put my foot on a large rock that had clearly been used as a stepping stone a thousand times before, but this time it gave way and tumbled over and down foot of drop. Once again my bodyweight and rucksack crunched through my right knee. It was raining hard and this was not okay.

Exhausted, exasperated and drenched I came across the main river that runs into Loch Beag. It was in a ferocious mood. I made a brief attempt to cross it, finding myself immediately up to my crotch in fast flowing water. I thought better of it and climbed back out and a little higher upstream to find somewhere more suitable and try again. Take two – I got three steps in before the water almost took me with it. I started to return to shore when I almost went in. It took everything I had not to fall in. As it was the river snatched one of my walking poles off my wrist, out of my hand and never to be seen again. So much for worrying about how to bend it back into shape.

I was left with one walking pole and two concerns: 1) I was potentially stranded here, and 2) my tent required both of my walking poles to remain upright (it uses the walking poles rather than having tent poles of its own). Without it shelter became a new problem, but I’d find solutions to that later, first thing’s first, I had a river to cross or I’d have to track back to Inchnadamph.

A little further up I found another place that seemed like a good place to try. It was above a torrential little waterfall and had been enough of a climb to cut some of the water adding to the deluge out of the equation. There was an island in the middle and a large boulder between the island and the other shore. This would break the attempt up nicely. I survived to the island easily. To the big rock was a bit harder and the final push would prove to be the hardest. I couldn’t take the shortest route across as that would take me into some sort of vortex of doom. Instead I made my way downstream of it, which was right where the river took me. I found myself getting very wet. I was mostly underwater, only my head and one arm remained above the water as my rucksack tried to swing me round and under, while the river tried to drag me very quickly downstream. I manged to get enough foot into the ground to be able to grab onto the other shore. Even then, pulling myself onto the shore was no easy task.

Losing my pole was now a trivial matter. I was just glad to be alive. First I emptied some of the water out of my waterproofs, then out of my rucksack. Then, soaked to the bone, I continued the rest of the descent to Loch Beag going through a weird range of emotions and thoughts.

It started with me wanting to talk to my mum and tell her I loved her, and to tell someone close to me that I missed them. Then I wanted to let everyone know that I was still alive, even though none of them would have been worrying about me at this particular point in the day. Then I felt justified in doing all those silly squats in the gym, if I had been weaker then I’m not sure I would have had the strength to get myself out of that mess. Form there, I decided that I should probably learn to swim if and when I got back to Cambridge. And finally, I was just exhausted and wanted to be at Glendhu Bothy. Realistically it was the best place for me to spend the night.

It seemed to take forever to get there, but I ended up sharing the bothy with a French girl who was also doing the Cape Wrath trail. We chatted for a bit and when I mentioned I’d started from Glenfinnan on Wednesday she said she had as well, and it was surprising this was our first time that we had bumped into each other. It then turned out that she had started the Wednesday before I had. She seemed to be doing well though, although the rain had made it difficult for her. After reading her guidebook she had decided that she would spend the day walking here along the road from Inchnadamph, as the weather forecast had been bad and her guidebook had listed this as one of the hardest sections of the entire trail.

I decided I’d flick through her guidebook for the next few days and I found warnings about three more river crossings. Looking at my maps I could see that there were long ways around them if necessary, but the idea of more river crossings did cause me to feel a little more cautious. I would probably take another two days to get to the Cape Wrath lighthouse. I still needed to check whether there would be bombs dropped on the Cape Wrath range, so tomorrow I would find out whether the military would succeed in stopping me where mother nature, my failing kit and my falling apart body had all failed.

I think the French girl would have enjoyed staying up and chatting for hours, company is something of a rarity on this trail, particularly finding someone else doing the same hike, but I was so exhausted after the day that I was soon ready to give up and go to bed.

I wished her luck and told her I hoped she’d make it. I hoped I’d make it – I still have three more river crossings to do and tomorrow’s was one listed as potentially unpassable. Bugger.

I got myself ready for bed, hung my kit to dry and sorted through my rucksack, where I found the bag for my tent hiding in the front pocket. I guess it hadn’t been such a bad day after all.

Photo of a river.
This river was harder to cross than I had anticipated

Today I Learnt: Rivers are dangerous

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