Cape Wrath Trail 1: Fort William to Sourlies


Fort William to Cona Glen


The Cape Wrath Trail (CWT) is a walking route beginning in Fort William and ending at Cape Wrath on the north western tip of Scotland. It is renowned as the most difficult long distance trail in the UK due to large sections of difficult terrain. Having already walked the West Highland Way (WHW) from Milngavie to Fort William, I took a few rest days to make sure that I had no lingering blisters and to take the opportunity to change some of my kit. As it turned out, I did a fairly good job of only bringing things that I would use on a daily basis. The only items that I didn’t use daily were my spare base layers, which I only used as a treat when stopping at a bunkhouse, and an emergency warm layer. Given the possibility of proper winter conditions – I was setting out in February after all – these weren’t really optional. As the Cape Wrath Trail passes through more remote areas of the highlands, and over more challenging terrain, it was necessary to carry more food supplies in order to provide flexibility. At this point, I also picked up my camera tripod and a couple of additional lenses. The difference in my pack weight as a result of these changes was as additional 2.5 – 4kg so that in total I was carrying around ~20kg, one third of my body weight. I wasn’t sure how well I would cope carrying this weight, especially as I had been told that the first 5 days of the CWT were the most physically challenging.

To begin the CWT from Fort William, you catch the ferry across Loch Linnhe to Camusnagaul. Many people walk the 22 miles to Glenfinnan on the first day, but with the short day light hours I decided to aim to camp about half way, somewhere in Cona Glen, before carrying on. I set out to get the 7.45am ferry. It was a cold but clear morning, the sun already warming the mountain summits. While I was waiting, one of the lads who worked on it told me that I was the first he had seen cross to do the CWT since September last year. I was sceptical that I was the first to do the CWT this winter as it is possible to begin without using the ferry crossing but it did make me wonder how many people do it at this time of year. The ferry ride was short and sweet, the ferry captain’s dog and I were the only passengers. As I looked back and watched Fort William grow further behind me, Ben Nevis towering behind it, I felt excited and nervous about heading to the more wild and rugged parts of the country.


 


The walk to Cona Glen began with a long stretch of single track road (tarmac) alongside the loch. While not massively exciting, the day was really warming up due to the clear sky and glaring sunshine. Once again, I was getting used to a heavier bag, so it was good to have this flat stretch to begin with. Eventually the route turns off up into Cona Glen along a rougher vehicle track. I really enjoyed walking up the valley in the sun but by midday I was already concerned about sunburn – who’d have thought I’d need sun cream in Scottish winter. By 2pm I had reached the area in which I planned to wild camp. It was very tempting to stop at this point as there was some good ground for tent pitching, plenty of dry wood for making a fire, and a stream which looked very inviting for a quick dip. I think if I was with anyone else I would have stopped here, but I carried on walking for a few more hours until I was climbing up out of the valley and it was approaching nightfall. Here, as I cooked my dinner, I sat and watched the sun descend and the stars come out. Despite my exposed pitch, I didn’t notice the slightest breeze all night.


 

 


Cona Glen to Glenfinnan


The following day, I headed up and over the mountain pass. It was another warm day and much of the snow on the pass was melting and wet. I descended to the north where it was mostly shaded, crossing partially frozen streams and past an impressive wall of icicles. When I was just a short walk from Glenfinnan the usual path which crosses Callop River was signposted “PATH CLOSED”. Rather than retracing my steps and using an alternative route, I went ahead and followed the closed path. The bridge across the river was incomplete but still easy to cross. The real challenge was reaching the end of this closed section of path, to find some thin strips of tape crossing between the wooden fence posts. I was clearly struggling to get past this obstacle with my oversized bag, when out of nowhere I heard the big burly voice of a big burly Scotsman, “Well… you’ve made it this far!” He headed over, took my rucksack and hoisted it over the fence with ease while I climbed through and thanked him. At this point, I was just looking forward to being away from the walls and fences, and areas that were taped off.


 


I walked past the Glenfinnan viaduct where I ran into the local constable. He took down my name, “in case I was reported as missing”, and informed me of a bothy a further 3 km along the track, and that it would probably rain during the night. I had initially planned to wild camp, but I headed up the valley alongside some woodland to Corryhully bothy. I’ve heard Corryhully bothy being referred to as “the one with electricity” and indeed it did have a couple of power sockets and a supply of electricity. From the outside, the bothy looked quite nice, but it was a bit rough. Unfortunately, the sleeping area was wet, there was a fair bit of litter left over from those who stayed previously and there were mice. It would have been hard work to make a fire as the only fuel was wet wood, so I made some hot food and took a few photos before making up my bed. While the sky was clear, there was a lot of moisture in the air which made the stars appear to “glow” more than on a clear and dry evening. The moon, which had provided so much light on previous nights was now dark, and so the ground was almost black. During the night, the rain came down heavily. I kept my bag of food close to make sure I didn’t end up sharing it with the mice – perhaps this was rude, as after all, it was their home and I was their guest.


 

 


Glenfinnan to Sourlies


The third day of the CWT was a big one, a 17 mile walk with a total of 1000m of ascent over two mountain passes and increasingly rough terrain. To make the day more challenging, the good weather of the previous few days was over, and I was in for some rough conditions. I set off shortly after sunrise, assuming this would give me plenty of time to reach Sourlies bothy before nightfall. At the top of the first mountain pass, the snow was deep but fairly compacted, and wind speeds were gusting at around 50 mph. If I was side on to the wind, my rucksack acted as a large wind barrier, catching the wind and almost sending me to the ground a couple of times. I took a break from walking to make a brief video clip, but as I was doing this my tripod was blown over and my camera lens was plunged into the snow. As I dashed towards it to pick it up, my rubbish bag (stored on the outside of my rucksack) became free, and was blown over the mountain pass and down into the valley. I was massively upset that I might have made a negative contribution to the landscape, and spent the next half an hour searching for it as I descended into the valley below. It was nowhere to be seen. Concious of my time constraints, and to appease my guilt, I decided to continue on and pick up any litter that I spotted on my way to Sourlies. The descent was over rough terrain with many large tussocks and a potential river crossing – luckily at this point the river levels were still quite low and so I was able to cross by stepping over stones. Before reaching a forestry track to Glendessary, I crossed a very boggy, almost swamp like field and the heavy rain began to fall. I would soon get used to this type of boggy terrain. The rain did not stop falling until there was a brief break in the clouds the following morning.


 


At Upper Glendessary, a footpath leaves the vehicle track for the mountain pass to Sourlies. When I reached this point it was ~3.30pm, and the sign for Sourlies indicated that it was a further 4-5 hour walk – as sunset was at 6pm and there was a thick layer of rain cloud overhead, it was clear that I would soon be in for a night time walk. As darkness fell, all I could see were the silhouettes of the mountain peaks looming above, and even these gradually disappeared. I got out my head torch, which provided tunnel vision through the rain and the condensation from my breath. The uneven ground surface was a mixture of squelching grassy bog and rock which was often partially covered in ice. The poor visibility, difficult terrain and bad weather meant that I was walking frustratingly slowly, at around 1-2 km per hour. Every now and then I would catch a glimpse to my side of huge rock formations – these were all the more dramatic as they faded away into the black of the night. Soon, it became clear that I had reached the lochan, Lochain a’ Mhàim, as I could hear the gentle clatter of pieces of ice resting on the water’s surface colliding with one another. Despite arriving at this peaceful setting, I was feeling physically and mentally drained and was determined to forge ahead and get to Sourlies bothy. My foot work had become clumsy so that I was regularly stumbling over the rocky ground.

After reaching the end of what felt like a very long descent, I reached a flat expanse of boggy ground with long grass up to my waist. Initially, I came across the walls of a ruined building, and being the very exhausted person that I was I remember having the unreasonable fear that this was the bothy and it had somehow been destroyed. Of course, the actual bothy was a little further along, and at 9.30pm, I was happy to find that it was intact, cosy, clean, dry and empty. I had been walking for over 12 hours and it was a great relief to be indoors. I immediately took off my wet clothes and hung them on the drying lines to drip dry. The fireplace was all made up with a small firelighter and a stack of kindling. There was a table with a basket of logs, although they were damp and covered in thick bark. Despite my best efforts, and initially enjoying the heat and orange glow of the burning kindling, the logs just didn’t want to light. For dinner, I ate two dehydrated meals, including one of the two spare meals I was carrying. The howling sound of the wind and the rain blowing against the corrugated metal roofing added to the warmth and satisfaction of finally being in my sleeping bag, and it wasn’t long before I was getting some well deserved sleep.


 


This was my first day of proper wilderness. To me, wilderness is not just how geographically remote a place is, it is the feeling of vulnerability and the resulting adrenaline that comes with passing through it. If I made a simple mistake, such as falling and snapping my leg on a rock, there was no phone reception, no one with me who could go for help and nobody to support me. It could be days before anyone else walked through the area. Of course, while all is well, it is this feeling of vulnerability which adds significantly to the sense of adventure, and it was exciting to go through it on my own. The following days only got more wild and ultimately, pushed me to my limits.


Continue to Cape Wrath Trail 2: Sourlies to Shiel Bridge


 

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