The Hike

19 Jul

I am back. I am clean—well, almost clean, since I still need to shave my beard. And before I get started telling the tale, I want to take a moment and thank everyone who has supported me on this trip and also everyone who has donated to End Polio Now via my CrowdRise website. So far, I have raised $2,200, putting me very very close to my $3,000 goal! I have been honored and humbled by people’s generosity, and am so pleased that this trip has given me the chance to give something back to Rotary, who has made the past year in Scotland possible. It is still not too late to make a contribution! If you would like to donate to End Polio Now, please follow this link and click the big orange button in the top right that says “DONATE.”

Since before I even arrived here last August I have been wanting to do a coast-to-coast hike. My experience thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail gave me an appreciation for “slow-travel,” so to speak, and I enjoy taking the time to truly see and experience every single bit of land between point A and point B. With the help of my friend Michael Reader-Harris (who is only one munro shy of hiking all of Scotland’s 270 mainland munros), I began to chart out a route across the island. There was a lot to consider when planning the route; west-to-east or east-to-west? follow the glens or the ridges? how many miles? where should I start or finish? I began by picking the termini, settling on the Knoydart peninsula on the west coast because of its remote and rugged character, and Montrose in the east because many other coast-to-coast hikes finish there. Indeed, it wasn’t until after I had done my basic route planning that I learned that Knoydart is home to Britain’s most remote pub and that the scenic Scurdie Ness lighthouse is located in Montrose. After choosing the start and end point, I then began to connect the dots between the two termini, finding ways for my route to go through areas that I wanted to visit, such as Ben Nevis or the Cairngorms.

In the week before leaving, I spent a lot of time getting all of my gear together. Since this was an unsupported backpacking trip, this meant carrying all of my supplies and gear with me. I try to travel as light as possible, because every pound on the back feels like a ton on the legs. In the end, I carried in my pack a tent, sleeping bag and mat, a cook pot, stove, fuel, small first aid kit, waterproofs, clothes, food, and water. This of course is what most people carry, but the difference is really in the individual items. Whereas most people’s first aid kit could probably perform surgery, mine is essentially a plastic bag with a tube of antibiotic cream and some bandages. I met a fellow on the trail who was carrying one of those butane cartridge stoves that you see in fancy restaurants for cooking tableside omelettes or Bananas Foster; my stove was made out of an old can of catfood and weighs about 10 grams. Even with all of these weight-saving measures, my kit still weighed about 25 pounds without food and water!

But finally the planning was finished, and it was time to hit the trail! On Sunday July 3rd, I dipped my foot in the North Sea at the Scurdie Ness Lighthouse in Montrose. It was a great place to start the hike—I even saw a plaque there commemorating other long-distance hikers who finish their west-to-east hike at the lighthouse as well. I knew that I was in good company!

The first two days I passed through urban and then agricultural areas, and it was very satisfying to see the city gradually turn into countryside, and then pass into true wilderness. On my second day the paved road turned into a dirt road, and then the dirt road into a path, and then finally the path disappeared itself, and I was truly in the wild. From there, I set my compass to a westward bearing and just started to walk.

I did a mixture of wildcamping, bothies (stone shelters), and a few nights in hostels. The bothies were always interesting experiences because they were all so different. Some were simply a stone building with a door and a window, dirt floor, and a fireplace, while others were practically five-start accommodation with wood-burning furnaces, elevated sleeping platforms, and old furniture. The Corrour Bothy even had a guitar!

Shielen of Mark Bothy

Inside Corrour Bothy

Wild Camping on the shores of Loch an t-Seilich

Since I was walking through some very remote areas, I spent many nights by myself without any other hikers. The solitude was shocking at first, and felt like a splash of cold water down my back. After a few days though, I became accustomed to it and even savored it. There is something exhilarating about the solitude, realizing that you are the only human around for miles. It isn’t something I wanted every night though, and I was grateful for company when it was available, especially if they had a fire going by the time I arrived!

I was pleasantly surprised with the pace I was able to keep through the hike. When I was planning my route, I set a 15 to 20 mile per day pace, and was a bit concerned that I was trying to cover too far a distance in not enough time. But I was very happy to see that I was able to make the distances without too many problems, besides the odd blister here or there. It helped that the sun rose at 3:30 AM and set at 11 PM, giving me plenty of time to walk! The hardest part was simply dealing with the rain and wet ground. Some days it felt like the land was simply a mud-soaked sponge, with water oozing up out of the ground with every step I took. There were many a time when I wished that I had brought Wellies with me, because my “waterproof” boots simply could not keep my feet dry in those conditions! I ended up using a fair bit of “duct-tape first aid” to keep my feet in good condition.

Duct Tape First-Aid

The Glorious Fried Mars Bar

When passing through towns I always took the time to sample the local cuisine, including my first experience with the fabled “Fried Mars Bar.” I ordered one from Braemar’s internationally acclaimed “Hungry Highlander” fish and chip shop. It was delectable, delicious, delightful, divine, but deadly. After eating one you feel like there’s molasses in your veins. I am convinced it would be a hit in the US, and if I can’t find a job by this fall then I think I’ll try to introduce it to the State Fair of Texas!

Although Scotland doesn’t have too much in the way of ferocious wild animals, I did see my fair share of wildlife along the way. I frequently came across grouse and ptarmigans while hiking across the high plateaus. They had the tendency to wait until I was right upon them to then make their presence known to me by squawking loudly and darting past me in a flurry of feathers. The surprise made me jump more than a few times! I also came across plenty of domesticated animals as well, including a herd of highland cattle on my second to last day, giving me one of my favorite photos from the trip.

Highland Cow in Glen Dessary

Although I did not plan it this way (I promise!), my route passed through many areas where they filmed scenes from Harry Potter. It was pretty neat to see signs like the one below, or walk past landmarks that I recognized from the movies!

Harry Potter Mania!

The Glenfinnan Viaduct, AKA the “Harry Potter Hogwarts Express Bridge”

My favorite moments on the hike were when I was hiking off-trail. As I was walking across the plateau from Cairn Toul to Glenfeshie, I stopped and looked around and realized that I could not see any sign of human civilization—no roads or even trails, no cars, people, not even airplane contrails above me in the sky. It felt like I had traveled back in time.

Glen Geusachan illuminated by sunlight 

The other highlight of my trip was my climb up Ben Nevis, the highest point in Britain. The mountain’s base is actually at sea level, so you have to climb all of it’s 4,409 feet! I climbed the mountain following the Càrn Mòr Dearg Arête route, which is the more challenging of the two established routes to the top. The first part of the climb is easy enough because it follows a steep but well established trail up into the basin beneath Nevis’s North Face. But once I got to the basin, I saw that the trail disappeared and I essentially had to scramble straight up hand-over-hand a 60° scree slope, only to get to a knife-edge ridge which I was then able to follow to the summit. If you look the photo below, the route follows the thin ridge on the left, then up through the clouds to the summit. It didn’t help that the basin was covered in fog, so I truly had no idea how far I was to the top. The ridge walk to the summit was absolutely incredible, because when I looked to the right all I saw was fog, but to the left was crystal clear, letting me see literally thousands of feet down to Glen Nevis. It was a terrifying but thrilling experience that goes down in my life-list of best mountain climbs!

Ben Nevis and the Càrn Mòr Dearg Arête, shrouded in clouds

At the summit of Ben Nevis

So finally, on Friday July 15, I arrived at Inverie beach on the Knoydart Peninsula, the end-point of my hike. It was a strangely anti-climactic experience ending my hike there. Unlike when I finished the Appalachian Trail, there were no people to greet me, no plaque commemorating the end of the trail, indeed no “end of the trail” to speak of at all since I had made up the trail myself. I took me about twenty minutes to even get a proper picture taken of me standing in the ocean, because there was no one there to take the picture and I had to keep trying to balance my camera on my backpack. It would have been sad had it not been so funny!

But in it’s own way, it was a fitting end to the trip. Although standing in the ocean at the end of my hike was certainly an important experience, the trek was much more about the journey from ocean to ocean, about the places in between. That’s why when I look back on the experience, I don’t immediately think of Scurdie Ness or Inverie, but instead think about the amazing places between those points, like Ben Nevis or Cairn Toul.

The end of the journey, standing in the sea

After dipping my feet in the water and taking my photo, I headed up the beach to “The Old Forge,” which is Britain’s most remote pub. Although Inverie is located on the British mainland, it is an incredibly isolated town because it has no road access to the rest of the mainland. The only way into the town is either walking across the Knoydart peninsula, as I did, or sailing in from another port. Because of its remoteness, the pub certainly has its own distinct character. The food was amazing, easily the best mussels I have ever had, and the pint of ale was quite refreshing as well.

Stepping behind the bar at The Old Forge

And so now I am back home in Glasgow, safe and sound. My legs are definitely still recuperating from the trip, but I should be in tip-top working order after another few days of rest. I can’t believe it, but my time in Scotland is drawing to a close, with only a few short months before I head back home. The rest of my summer will be a busy dash to the finish line, working on my dissertation and looking for a job. But I am so glad that I will be able to leave Scotland with this trek under my belt. To hike coast-to-coast was on my proverbial “bucket list” since before I even arrived, and now it’s done! There are still a few other things I would like to do (like visit some of the western isles), but I will certainly be able to leave Scotland satisfied that I have “seen” enough it.

Again, thank you all for reading and supporting my endeavor. I could not have done it without everyone’s support! And now, as ever, onward.

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One Response to “The Hike”

  1. Steven Cutbirth July 25, 2011 at 11:54 pm #

    Great Blog Robert! Your trip sounds amazing. I miss you friend.

    L & R,

    Steven

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