Expedition Cravings | Plans of a highland traverse

Since I got back from Malaysia at the beginning of February I’ve been feeling pretty restless. Focussing on climbing has kept me occupied, but in the last couple of months I’ve been craving an expedition more and more—to go somewhere wild and do something challenging again.


UPDATE: Read the expedition report here


If I’m honest, even before I came home daydreams of running in the hills were beginning to resurface again. During the deepest lows of tropical illness in Indonesia I wrote the following…



20th December 2018 – Amed, Bali

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Reading back over journal entries from my last two terms at university, I long for the days when I was running all the time, even twice a day, purely for the sheer pleasure of it. I remember the joy I felt on that towpath—an intrinsic elation fueled by no external gratification or tangible meaning. It was just the pure exhilaration of flowing fast over the track—racing the rowers or simply alone—far out past the locks and through the empty cobbled streets of the still-sleeping city.


And then there were the trips to the mountains. Weekends flowing fast and free over the fells of the Lakes, clawing into the burn of the climb and flying down technical descents. It was me, the elements and the ground beneath me—nothing more and nothing less. I miss that simplicity and running more than ever. Reading my almost poetic accounts of those runs makes me realise how much it made me feel alive. I ran for flow and the sheer hell of it. I need it again.

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Unfortunately, the after-effects of the disease scuppered plans of ultrarunning adventures for quite some time. Even the holy land that is the Lake District lost its appeal after a particularly demoralising trip in March. But I’m beginning to feel the cravings again, and with a long-term project planned to begin around late summer (more on that soon), I figured that there might just be time for an impromptu expedition in the meantime.




THE IDEA


It all started from a conversation I with my uncle over my Grandmother’s 80th lunch. We talked about the possibilities of a John O’Groats to Land’s End cycle in early June, and although the plans never did materialise, a seed began to grow.


I quickly dismissed the idea of cycling in preference for being on foot, and began to think up a similar traverse that I could attempt in around 10 days. Scotland was the obvious place to start—I’ve never been to the highlands before and wanted something new—something that was as wild as I could find in UK.


A couple of years back I saw adverts for the Cape Wrath Ultra—a multi-stage race than ran the length of the Cape Wrath Trail over 8 days—a monster of a trail that covers much of the most challenging and dramatic terrain Scotland has to offer. It was the sort of simplicity that appealed to me, and the freedom and wild isolation of the Highlands must have stuck it in the back of my mind.


Reignited by my current scheming, old ideas resurfaced. With Cape Wrath and the Scottish wilderness in my mind I developed a plan—I would traverse the length of the Scottish Highlands.



THE ROUTE



My route links up two of Scotland’s most iconic trails—the Cape Wrath Trail and the West Highland Way—for a complete north-south traverse of the Scottish Highlands.


The Cape Wrath Trail (https://www.capewrathtrail.org.uk) is considered the toughest of all British trails—'an unofficial, unmarked and magnificently wild long-distance route from Fort William to Cape Wrath, the most north westerly point of mainland Scotland.’ Many parts of the trail are pathless, requiring careful navigation through bogs, rivers and generally pretty rugged and mountainous terrain. It’s also very isolated.


The West Highland Way (https://www.westhighlandway.org) is an official marked trail that travels from Milngavie on the outskirts of Glasgow to Fort William. It crosses the Grampian Mountains, traversing through rocky passes, open moorland, and along loch shores. From what I’ve read the entire route is on some sort of path, and route-finding is not challenging.


Overall the route comes in at the following approximate stats:

- Cape Wrath Trail 235mi (380km) | 12,000mascent

- West Highland Way 95mi (150km) | 3,100m ascent

- Total combined route 330mi (530km) | 15,100m ascent


I don’t know how long it’ll take me, but I’ve allocated about two weeks and I’ll just see how it goes. I’m aiming to do the enire traverse in around 12 days, though based on the estimations of the route maps (2-3 weeks for the CWT and 5-7 days for the WHW) this may be a little ambitious. We’ll see—that’s half the fun anyway.


DIRECTION


I’ll be walking the trail from north to south, against convention for a couple of reasons.


1) In both trails, and indeed the route as a whole, terrain gets gradually easier the further south you go. I want to hit the hardest stuff early on before my lack of training becomes too apparent!


2) I have no idea how well I’ll fare, and if I do need to cut the distance short, I’d prefer to have experienced more of the wilder Cape Wrath Trail than the West Highland Way.



APPROACH & PHILOSOPHY


The aim of this expedition is simply to enjoy the complete freedom of being able to worry about nothing but covering ground, challenging myself and keeping my body in operating condition. I want to be able to walk, sleep and eat as I see fit—to take cat-naps on the trail or walk through the night if I so please. I’m excited for the simplicity of it all. It’ll be two weeks completely offline, out of touch with society and the chance to live entirely in the present—something we’re a little scarce on in today’s society.


I’ll be taking a bivy and tarp so I can spend the nights wherever (though I also plan to make use of Scotland’s bothys where possible), and will in general try to go as light as possible so I can move fast and even run sections if it makes sense.


The route doesn’t take in any real summits, and mountains are not the focus—to be quite honest I’m just not prepared for that right now. Instead I want to experience the full diversity of the Highlands and cover ground as fast as possible. Without the fitness I had previously I’m going to be relying on time on feet rather than speed!



KIT AND OTHER PLANNING


The plan is to go light—fastpacking: walking with some running thrown in. So I want to keep my pack weight down as much as possible.


Based on my estimations I reckon I can keep base weight to under 6kg. I don’t want to push it much lighter though. The unpredictability of Scottish weather means it has to be up for anything—snow, storms, midges, and continuous rain—and since the northern half of the route is pretty remote (and with no mobile coverage) I don’t want to risk under packing.


Water shouldn’t be an issue, and I only plan on taking 1.5L of carrying capacity. I’ll just filter and purify water from the many streams, bogs and lochs along the way—if there’s one thing I’m told Scotland has no shortage of, it’s water! As for food I’ll start with about 6 days’ worth, and resupply at two or three points along the route. I’ll have to plan it carefully though as towns and villages are very few and far between.


Together with a litre of water I estimate starting food rations to be about 6kg, meaning maximum pack weight will be around 12-13kg—not unmanageable, although difficult to run with until I’ve eaten some of it.



EXPECTATIONS AND AIMS


I have fairly low expectations in terms of performance given the last 8 months, but I’m very excited. It’ll be a great opportunity to enjoy focussed time in the mountains and just see what I can manage.


1) It’s given me an immediate goal to focus on over the last few months. In general, they’ve been a little dreary, filled mainly with writing research proposals and trying to secure expedition funding for next year—there’s been a distinct lack of adventure. Planning for this has given me something to aim for and kept me motivated.


2) To get my fix of running/hiking and the British mountains before I leave again. I don’t anticipate being able to run a whole lot in the next year—for the most part I’ll be living in the jungle—so I aim to get it out of my system now.


3) To prove I’ve beaten the leptospirosis—I really have no idea how well this is going to go physically, but either way it’ll let me know where I’m at.


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I am a little scared. I’m attempting to cover daily distances in excess of those of most multi-stage ultramarathons—but for 12+ days straight. Weather is likely to be appalling, anything from gale-force winds, persistent rain and even snow, to torment from midges and the navigational challenges of thick Scottish mists. More than half the route is pathless and goes through waist deep bogs and barren mountainsides.


The route is also extremely remote, sometimes multiple days from any help or warmth—if something did happen my options are pretty limited. The rivers can be seriously difficult to cross in places and dangerously cold if things were to go wrong. All I have to protect me are a lightweight tarp, bivy and sleeping bag. My initial food will only last 5-6 days. Quite frankly there isn’t a whole lot of room for mistakes on this one. And then there’s also the solitude—12 days alone is likely to accentuate the intensity of everything else.


Whilst to the hardened Scottish outdoorsman this may not seem intimidating, it’s by far the most serious undertaking I’ve attempted yet, both technically and physically, and if I’m totally honest I’m more than a little apprehensive. It’s going to be quite a challenge—physical and mental. But I guess that’s why we do these things…


Anyway, that’s about all. I’ve just been on the phone to the Ministry of Defence to check there are no exercises planned for the Cape Wrath firing range in late May (that would be a bad way to prematurely end the expedition …), and I take the sleeper train to Scotland tomorrow (followed by a multitude of other trains, buses and ferries…). Otherwise it’s just figuring out final details and stocking up on food rations!


I plan to write a report after the expedition, so stay tuned for that. If you subscribe in the footer below you’ll be notified when they get published.


UPDATE: Read the expedition report here



George


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