Cape Wrath Trail Run (28 April to 5 May 2017)
Cape Wrath Trail Run - by Michael Smith
Where does your run start? No, not the first few paces. Where does it really start? The thought processes that get you here, standing on the tarmac, contemplating the miles and hours ahead. I do a lot of contemplating on long runs. Heaven knows, I’ve got the time to fill.
So, the Cape Wrath Trail. 222 miles from Fort William to Cape Wrath, mainland Scotland’s most north-westerly point. Where did that begin? Two years before at the West Highland Way Race. I recall describing to my father the rain, the route, the midges and the blisters. Ah, but the best of the Highlands lie to the north of Fort William was his response. His favourite part of all the world was Assynt in the far North West – and Suilven his favourite mountain (who doesn’t have a favourite mountain?). I wanted to visit the area after he passed away in 2016.
The fact that in that same year they ran the first-ever ultra race along the Cape Wrath Trail seemed to lead in that direction. The race wasn’t for me - I wanted to run it without the threat of time cut-offs. But it did tell me it was runnable, potentially in a week.
Doing a multi-day run of this length, across this terrain, poses its own challenges. With at least the first night camping out, there’s a trade off between carrying enough to be safe and travelling fast enough to hit a road at the end of the day.
Here's a link to my route.
Day one – the handshake of doomStart: Fort William
Finish: Sourlies Bothy
Distance: 38 miles
Time taken: 13 hours
Knoydart is pretty wild. Few roads to speak of and gnarly terrain. And, boy, do you get drawn in gently. From Fort William, it’s the early morning ferry across Loch Linnhe to Camusnagaul and down the A861 (three cars an hour, single track road), before turning north-west up a broad track through Cona Glen and dropping down towards Glenfinnan (of Harry Potter viaduct fame). A quick bite to eat at the teashop, a look around the exhibition to the ’45 Jacobite rebellion, and off again.
I’m not far from the viaduct when a Land Rover pulls up. ‘Hi, I’m Alisdair’ says the driver (and estate owner, I’m guessing), ‘where are you going?’ I tell him I’m planning to run from Fort William to Sourlies Bothy. ‘I’ve never known anyone to do it in a day.’ Well, you can shake my hand, I say, because I might be the first to do it. ‘I’ll shake your hand,’ he says, ‘because I might be the last person ever to do so.’
It certainly gets a bit more remote from now on. In fact, it’s another 24 hours before I see another road. One of the nicer things about running the route is that I’m passing walkers – not many, two, three, four a day, perhaps – it’s an excuse to stop and chat. One I meet crossing a col dropping towards Glen Pean tells me he’d met three Dutch lads who’d had to turn back because the pass was blocked by snow. Where was this? I asked. ‘Can’t remember the name, all these Scottish names sound very alike.’ Not particularly helpful.
Now snow did concern me. I knew that part way through day two I’d have to cross the saddle just below the Forcan Ridge – the highest point on the trail – and carrying an ice axe and crampons did not make for a fast run. Scotland had been hit by Winter’s final snowstorm just two days previously – which had necessitated some re-packing to add warmer clothing – and I had to hope it would melt before I got there.
I don’t get much sleep though. Neither does the mouse who’s found the packet of Maltesers one of the lads left on the floor.
Start: Sourlies Bothy
Day two – You can have any cake you like, as long as it’s fruit
Finish: Morvich campsite
Distance: 30 miles
Time taken: 15 hours
It’s an early start – 6.30am – mainly because my bothy-buddies decide they want to get around the headland before the tide comes in. There’s very little path to follow for the first few miles and it’s rough going, but I’m down in Barrisdale Bay for lunchtime having been able to run the last three miles on a good path. This is where Loch Hourn probes far inland like a Norwegian fjord – and I see the first signs advertising the café at Kinloch Hourn.
|I might have crossed it|
With an over-active imagination and a desire to conserve the food stocks I’m carrying, by the time I reach Kinloch Hourn after a surprisingly difficult path along the south shore, I’ve built this café into one of Scotland’s finest-stocked eateries. ‘Cheese scone or freshly-made bagel with the soup? What sort of pie? With cream or ice cream? Such a hard decision.’
The warning signs were there on arrival though. No menu.
‘What would you like?’ I’m asked
'What have you got?’
'Tea or coffee and cake.’
'Coffee and cake please….oh, and what sort of cakes have you got’
I’ve had no phone signal for the best part of a day, so check-in with my wife Helen using the public payphone at Kinloch Hourn. She’ll be providing campervan support for most of the trip, but my plan had been to carry enough to last me two nights camping out/bothying. She’s decided to come up a day early and will meet me that night at Morvich campsite just north of Shiel Bridge.
It’s so much of a relief to see her a day early that I skip up the next hill. One I didn’t need to climb at all.
|The view of Loch Hourn from the hill I didn't need to climb|
Back on route, there’s an easy river crossing, where I chat with a walker who’s camped for the night and taken a week to get here. I haven’t quite reached the point where I realise it’s the done thing to be tight-lipped on how long it’s taken me. He’s giving himself a minimum of three weeks to get to Cape Wrath. You’ve really got to like your own company though – three weeks in my own company and I’d be handing in my notice.
Now this is the bit of the route which could make or break the journey. The route climbs to about 800m just below the Forcan Ridge, and any significant lying snow could make this treacherous. Thankfully there are just a few patches which can be negotiated with care and I’m on my way down. The path down to Glen Shiel is a lot rougher than I’d hoped, and plans to be at Morvich by 8pm become 10pm. Helen’s a sight for sore feet though.
Day three – A ridge too farStart: Morvich campsite
Finish: Craig (Strathcarron)
Distance: 29 miles
Time taken: 12 hours
Two things: I hadn’t appreciated how wild this section is, and had underestimated the distance when totting it up on the map. What I thought would be 21 miles turned out to be a lot more. Thanks to Helen’s support, I could travel a lot lighter – but should have been carrying more food and a bigger headtorch. And I should have set off before 9.30am.
Thankfully I realised the mistake within a couple of miles of setting off and could up the pace. Again the weather is great, very un-Scottish: sunshine and no rain since the few drops on leaving Fort William.
For the first few miles I’ve been following signs to the Falls of Glomach. Waymarkers of any sort are a novelty and the noise from the waterfall makes it easy enough to find. It’s an amazing sight which my photos can’t do justice to. The path hugs perilously close to the falls and it just isn’t possible to see where the water lands because it drops so far into the ravine.
Down the path dropping beside the falls, rounding a corner, and the path comes to a sudden and abrupt end with a drop on all sides. This gives me a bit of a scare. I momentarily contemplate scrambling down, but thankfully think better of it and climb back up the hillside to see if I could look down on the path I should have taken. I’d apparently followed the out-and-back back path to view the falls up close, rather than the much less clearer route (which I’d crossed without spotting) traversing the gorge side.
Back up – and thankful for clear skies – I can spot the faint line below me, which I follow along the ravine. It’s still one of the most tricky bits of the whole route with some very steep drops to one side where a misplaced foot could be problematic.
|Maol-bhuidhe bothy and surrounds|
Up to this point – mid-afternoon – I haven’t seen anyone, but am shortly passed, going in the other direction, by six girls who were spending the night at the bothy.
After some heather-bashing, there’s a good path to follow on the north shore of Loch Calavie, and opting for a shorter, but steeper route than planned, I aim to push over the final ridge before nightfall.
At the base of the ridge is a cosy bothy called Bearnais. I pop my head in, reassure the couple from Leeds I wasn’t staying, and have a quick chat. They’ve taken a five-month career break to walk the length of Scotland from Gretna to Cape Wrath. Time is now 7pm.
|The view towards the Torridons|
The path downhill isn’t straightforward as it zig-zags through heather and bogs, but after a lengthy detour upstream to cross the River Carron at a bridge, I’m at the van just before dark.
Day four – All about YvesStart: Craig (Strathcarron)
Distance: 10 miles
Time taken: 3 hours
Kinlochewe – today’s destination – is roughly the mid-point, so it seems a good opportunity to have a short day (to have pressed on would have meant another 18 miles before I hit the next road).
And the shortest day also presented the most jaw-dropping moment. Carrying just a bum-bag, the plan was to follow the estate tracks to Loch Coulin, and instead of crossing moorland, rather take the slightly longer, but drier route along the road. This meant meeting Helen at the north end of Loch Clair where I could change to road shoes for the final stretch into Kinlochewe.
|Loch Clair and Liathach|
Onto the road and within a few minutes, Helen pulls next to me in the van. The window’s wound down. Helen says: ‘This is Yves’. A face leans forward from the passenger seat, waves, and says in a strong French accent: ‘I’m not a runner; just an ‘iker.’ Helen says: ‘Alright if we go on?’ And they’re off.
Now I confess to knowing about Yves. Because the night before we’d gone looking for him. He was walking the trail but had been stranded by closed accommodation and Helen had promised a local farmer she’d give him a lift if she saw him on the road. He’d managed to make it to Strathcarron the night before and had been hitch-hiking that morning when she passed.
Sans Yves, we meet in Kinlochewe, check into the campsite, and we’ve got an afternoon to go around the National Trust gardens at Inverewe.
Day five – Steve McDeerStart: Kinlochewe
Distance: 25 miles
Time taken: 10 hours
Shoe choice was a key consideration for this run. Running surfaces contrasted between hard-packed estate roads to virtually trackless moorland. There wasn’t much of the well-worn paths you get somewhere like the Lakes. So I’d look at the route each day and make a judgement of cushioning versus grip. In this regard, the Harvey maps of the route helped immensely – describing whether it was track, path, or no visible path.
Today, with a long approach track up towards Lochan Fada, it’s a cushioning day.
Within a few minutes of leaving Kinlochewe, I’ve talked to Yves who was also setting off – planning to make it to Shenavall bothy that night (some 16 miles) - and then I meet Steve.
Steve is nothing if not determined. He’d run one way along a deer fence, try to leap it unsuccessfully, turn and run the other way and try again. This went on for some time. I thought of Steve McQueen trying to leap a fence on a motorcycle in the closing stages of The Great Escape. This Steve is of course a red deer. I like to think he made it to neutral Switzerland.
On this trip you really have to find your own amusement.
It’s another great day of blue skies and the route through this part of Wester Ross provided some of the best views: Of the mountains of Torridon, Slioch and An Teallach.
En route, I meet a lad who’s walking the trail and asks me the time as I pass. He’s convinced he’d made an early start, but is disappointed to find it’s nearly 10am. His watch, he explains, only updates when there’s a phone signal. That’s not something you get much of around here.
Dropping down to the A832, it’s only another six miles before the day’s end at Inverlael on the A835, but again this is more climbing and then dropping steeply. Still, not a massively long day, and there’s time to drive down to Ullapool for what are possibly the best fish and chips I’ve ever tasted (thanks to friends Dave and Lorna for the recommendation).
Day six – Double geographyStart: Inverlael
Distance: 40 miles
Time taken: 16 hours
Now this is a big day – and one where the topography bites back. I’m off for 5.30am. The climb through Inverlael Forest in the early morning sunrays is great, and cresting the col below Meall Dubh means I can look back towards An Teallach, and the mountains crossed the day before that, and the day before that.
|Early morning sunlight climbing out of Inverlael|
I catch a brief glimpse of Suilven in the distance – it would be another day before I’d see it again – then I drop down in the quagmire, gorges, and the general labyrinth which is Glen Douchary. I’m not looking forward to this stretch as the guidebook (yes, I now made sure I read the following day’s stretch the night before after the fiasco of the Falls of Glomach) predicts it’s tough, ankle-twisting going. Many walkers, it says, gave up for the day long before reaching the road at Oykel Bridge. Oykel Bridge is my planned lunch-time stop.
Much slow, but fascinating, going as an indistinct path contours around the side of the gorge lined with waterfall after waterfall. This looks to me like a path the ultra runners had made. Mountain runners will take the most direct line to avoid an unnecessary climb, so the path twists and turns – often close to a drop - on a camber a walker with a heavy rucscac would find hard to negotiate. Back on a track at Loch an Daimh, it’s good progress – albeit buffeted by a cold north-easterly wind.
Within a couple of miles I pass The Schoolhouse bothy, completed with desks and blackboard. To get so far today, I’d successfully passed the first part of my geography test.
|The Schoolhouse bothy|
At Oykel Bridge, the furthest point east of the route, there’s a drink at the hotel, where some chivvying from Helen gets me back on the road after an hour-long stop.
The path now turns north-westerly and a good track traces the edge of one of Scotland’s finest salmon rivers. This isn’t dramatic mountain country, and a whole day walking this stretch may have been a bit dull, but it’s fine for a few hours’ running. At Benmore Lodge the mountains are back… and the path vanishes.
The climb over the col just to the south of the summit of the Munro Conival is painful. Time and again I spot a footprint to follow, and then it’s obliterated by deer hoof-prints. The deer were only a short distance away and I have a few choice words to say to them.
|A waymarker! One of just three|
Helen had booked a B&B this night, so no campervan, but a chance to soak my feet in a bath and the most restful sleep to date.
Day seven – Buy shares in Compeed!Start: Inchnadamph
Distance: 33 miles
Time taken: 13 hours
‘But what about the blisters?’ you’re probably asking at this stage. I haven’t run day-after-day for as many days as this before, so I wasn’t quite sure how my feet would hold up.
Alternating stony tracks with bogs were hard on the soles. I’d gained a few blackened toenails through kicking rocks; a few blisters through wet feet twisting in the shoe on steeply-sided hills. Compeed blister plasters were layered and overlapped around my feet with the complexity of an Ikea instruction booklet. The main thing though is to keep my feet dry and change my socks – often up to five times a day.
After unbroken sunshine for six days, the ground is at least starting to dry out – if this didn’t happen to be one of the boggiest places on mainland Britain.
Today’s stretch is the most rugged, the most varied, the most spectacular. A day for superlatives. I spend breakfast chatting to an American father and son walking the route and they showed us video footage they’d taken of the blizzards and knee-deep snow the previous week. Really hard to believe the weather had changed that much.
It does mean I’m slow starting off and Helen has to virtually push me out the door.
The first climb to the pass at Glas Bheinn is straightforward and so is part of the rocky descent. But among the rocks it’s easy to lose the path. So I did.
|Eas a Chual Aluinn|
After a bit of scrambling, I’m back on the route (if no sign of the path), chat to a German woman who’s walking the route in two-day stages, and then below the waterfall of Eas a Chual Aluinn. It’s Britain’s highest waterfall with a 200m vertical drop as the water pours over the cliff edge. It’s spectacular. The gift shop and interpretation centre hasn’t been built yet, neither the car park, nor indeed any paths to its base. What a strange and untypical part of the country.
At Glencoul bothy, the path hugs the edge of a sea loch for the next few miles – but hugs in such a way that leaves you short of breath as the route climbs, falls, twists, and generally gives up any pretence of being a path and opts to become a stream bed.
At the road at Achfary, I meet up with Helen. This stage just done has taken me a lot longer than planned, and without a phone signal I can’t tell her I’m delayed. She’s been waiting a fair time.
The plan was to change into road-running shoes, run the three mile stretch of road and then change back. I get about 50 yards, but no good, the road shoes were rubbing too much. So back in my trail shoes, I complete the road section to Loch Stack Lodge.
It’s getting late now (7pm), and there are seven miles still to cover to the road at Rhiconich. Ordinarily, that shouldn’t take too long, but sections without paths, an intricate network of lochs and lochans, and the biggest (un-bridged) river crossing of the route to date means it’s getting close to dark before I get there.
The rough, boggy, heathery path alongside Loch a Garbh-bhaid Mor has to be one of the most frustrating; the view looking back to Foinaven shining pink in the Alpenglow one of the most entrancing.
|Foinaven catches the last light|
Just before the next loch I surprise a Dutch backpacker (surprised me too – I’d been singing Louis Armstrong’s We’ve got all the time in the world at high volume. It seems the right tune for the circumstances) who was laid flat out next to the path in his sleeping bag for a night under the stars. He hadn’t expected anyone this late at night. Evidently. I come close to standing on him.
The crossing of the Garbh Allt river poses no challenge. Knee deep, but not fast-flowing. At this point I really do think I’m hallucinating. I hear a red deer seemingly barking my name. Strange.
Within half a mile the ‘red deer’ turns out to be Ray, a friend who’d been up in the Highlands and decides to track me down. For the last mile or so the path improves, and it’s so nice to have company for this stretch. At the camper van at Rhiconich is Helen, Ray’s wife Dawn, and sausage sandwiches. Really great to see them all.
The original plan had been to get to the port of Kinlochbervie that night, but that’s still about five miles away, so I settle for one mile of running along the road by headtorch to Achriesgill, and an early-morning start the final day. Venison pie for dinner meant me and the path-obscuring deer were now quits.
Day eight – Nowhere (else) to run to
Finish: Cape Wrath
Distance: 17 miles
Time taken: 8 hours
If only I could kid my brain into thinking I had two more days to run, this would be a lot easier. But, no, eight days you said, and eight days it is. Brain sends signal to legs that they can start to wind down. Not helpful when I’ve made a 4.30am start.
The reason for the early getaway is to be at Cape Wrath lighthouse no later than 2pm. That’s when the last minibus of the day from the Kyle of Durness turns around and heads back. Helen will be on that minibus – and so will I.
The first stage through to Blairmore is all on roads – and at this time in the morning there’s negligible traffic. There’s now a four-mile path down to the beach at Sandwood Bay – one of the finest beaches in Britain. There’s no-one else on the beach, and in the unbroken morning sunshine it’s idyllic. No time to linger though.
The next seven miles along the sea cliffs to Cape Wrath is tough. It’s up, down, across bogs, climbing over boulders. There’s a path of sorts, but it’s too close to the edge of the eroded cliffs to my left for my liking. At one point, I see two walkers ahead of me, but by the time I’ve reached the top of the hill, they’re nowhere to be seen. It’s that sort of place.
The lighthouse is often in view, never really getting closer, but Sandwood Bay behind me does at least have the decency to withdraw.
The MOD use this part of the headland as a firing range. They’re not firing today, though it does help to keep alert and not stand on anything I shouldn’t. Like that mortar bomb just there! Relax, it’s just a bit of exploded tailfin.
There’s a really boggy section where I keep picking up paths and losing them, and then the final mile on the track to the lighthouse.
It’s been blue skies all around, except for a cloud hovering over the lighthouse which decides to drop at this point and obscure the place in mist. It really is a strange place. There’s a café (24 hours) with three walkers in it waiting for the minibus.
I could at this point say it’s an anti-climax. But the journey doesn’t end there.
|Journey's end at Cape Wrath|
Within an hour, Helen and a minibus full of visitors turn up, the clouds vanish and the sun shines brightly. We spend the next hour exploring the clifftops and gazing at views stretching in all directions. In a direct line, there’s no land between here and the North Pole. The journey back in the minibus is great too, the 11-mile bumpy track giving a sense of how remote this part of Britain really is.
This run is dedicated to my father – and who I like to think arranged eight days of rain-free weather so I could see the North West Highlands at their best. Thank you to Helen for being the support team, to those who joined me, sponsored me (£575 raised for the Alzheimer’s Society - chosen because, through my work, I see the impact it has on people's lives) and followed the GPS tracker and sent encouraging messages. Good luck also to those I met walking the route – some of you are still out there.