Why I failed to finish the Cape Wrath Trail
Early in April I set out to walk the whole length of the Cape Wrath Trail, from Fort William to the Cape Wrath, in 8 days. My trip was set on lightweight principles, I was organized and prepared for a fully unsupported trip and my planning was perfect. Sadly, I didn't complete my trip, for two reasons. First was a necessary itinerary adjustment such that I wouldn't reach Oykel Bridge until the end of the 7th day, meaning that it would take me 10 days to complete the route (time I didn't have). Second, it became very clear by day 4 of my trip that my two year old daughter was finding my absence very problematic, causing severe sleep issues, so I headed back home after 5 days from Attadale.
Nonetheless, my trip was amazing! I had a chance to see parts of the Cape Wrath Trail that I love (Knoydart and Torridon), enjoyed the physical and mental challenge and managed to write a guide for planning a trip on the CWT.
Here I want to explain the reasons I had to adjust my trip in the first place; the ability to adjust is an important tool in preparing for and completing long, hard and challenging adventures. The four reasons I did not manage to complete the Cape Wrath Trail in the time I set out are:
- Physical demands
- Mental and emotional demands
- Trail conditions
- Gear failures
Two of the above are my own doing, one is part of the route’s character (which a bit more time could have solved) and one caught me by surprise. I enjoyed exploring the problems and learning from them for future trips and hope you can learn from my experiences too.
Physical demands (for ultrapacking)
When planning my Cape Wrath Trail trip this year I expected to walk it ultrapacking-style, going for long days with no stops at a steady 5km/h pace. Last year when I walked the trail I kept a pretty good pace, and my experience on recent trips showed me that 5 km/h is a reasonable pace for me.
The timing for my trip was very precise, allowing me exactly 8 days of walking while my mother-in-law visited to help my wife with our daughter and newborn son. When setting the time for the trip in late 2015, we expected my wife to give birth in mid to late February, giving all of us enough time to recover and be prepared for the trip. In the end, our son was born closer to mid March and by the time I reached the trail I was deeply and truly sleep deprived. Muscle deterioration, problems with recovery and fatigue made keeping a 5 km/h for 10–12 hours a day were extremely hard and by day 2 I couldn't catch up on my itinerary.
A second challenge that came from our expanding family was that I was needed close to home from January on. Between my pregnant wife’s limited ability to deal with an extremely energetic 2 year old and the fact she might give birth at any time, all my trips were short and close to home. I hadn't had a long, fast and demanding trip for 3 months prior to the CWT. Even the trips I did go on during the winter were limited due to weather and short days, again not offering the challenging conditions I needed to be ready for an 8 day ultrapacking adventure. This lead to a real deterioration of backpacking training which made carrying a heavy pack (18 kg) over 45–60 km per day extremely hard. The fact that I hadn't covered more than 40 km in a day for a few months prior to the trip was very clear (shouting) from the first day: my feet, legs and back were exhausted.
Last, my general training program for day-to-day fitness suffered a major blow in the month before the trip. By the time I got on the trail I was out of shape and suffered from quick fatigue; I was stiff and found stretching hard at the end of the day, making walking the following morning more difficult.
The lack of physical aptitude and practice caused a great morale drop and my mornings were a mix of grunts and an attempt to pick up my spirit. I had a hard time motivating myself to walk and that leads to the next problem:
Mental demands (how age and parenting can slow you down)
When I go hiking, I usually go for a night or two; once a year I try and go on a longer 5+ day trip. On my last CWT trip I was away for 12 days, finding it very hard but still manageable to be away from my family. A year later, my connection with my children, especially with my daughter, is much stronger. I found that by day two, when the times I had cellphone signal didn't correspond with the times my daughter was available for a chat, I had a hard time focusing on anything but trying to get to a location where a conversation was possible. Talking with my daughter became more important than the walk by day 3, a major hit to my morale. For future trips I think I will need to plan an itinerary that allows for daily conversation with my family (including the kids), otherwise I will find it really hard to continue on my trip.
In the past I had no problem solo hiking, and it is still my preferred way of hiking, but as I'm getting older I find that I get lonely after 2–3 days with no conversation. It has never been a problem for me to hear nothing but natural silence (and noise), but I now find that I'm missing human voices during my hikes. An unexpected tool I found along the way that helped dealing with this issue were podcasts downloaded to my phone using the Stitcher app. I am a regular listener to a host of podcasts, especially when I’m travelling or training, so I just had a few podcasts ready on my phone to be used offline. When I found that I was missing a conversation (after breakfast the second day), I popped in my headphones and enjoyed some human conversation.
One thing I managed to avoid this time was the loss of contact with home. On my last CWT trip I noticed that not knowing if my family was okay and not keeping my wife updated about my status were getting me anxious. This time I carried a two-way satellite communication device (Delorme Inreach SE) and that solved the problem! A couple of messages throughout the day meant my wife knew I was okay and I could get updates such as the fact that my newborn son was gaining weight like a champ!
Trail conditions (don’t underestimate the Scottish weather….)
This is a very common mistake many make when coming to Scotland: I under-estimated the weather while over-estimating myself. The ability to walk fast for many hours does not take into account the need to deal with so many different weather conditions.
My second day on the trip, walking from Corryhully bothy to Kinlouch Hourn, started humid and warm with heavy rain, moved to grey and cold winds at one pass and then to a constant drizzle. By mid morning I had warm sun that had me shedding layers until I was down to my t-shirt, just to meet horizontal rain and then hail on the second pass of the day. By lunch time the rain had calmed down and I had a quick but warm break and then back to a constant cold drizzle. During the last pass of the day it became humid and warm again, making the climb exhausting, just to encounter a full blown snow blizzard near the top. The snow stayed with me until half way down to Barisdale when it turned warm again. By the time I reached Barisdale the rain and wind were back with a vengeance and I found I didn't have the energy to walk the extra 6 miles to Kinlouch Hourn and another 4 miles to my planned camp for the night. I was exhausted.
The day I've described above is a pretty normal day in the Scottish day season and I foolishly forgot that. Even with all my best intentions, I could not walk more than an average of 4 km/h in those changing conditions. The snow slowed me down, the warm and humid climbs seeped my energy and I had a hard time keeping up.
Another big issue that was true for this year compared to my previous trip is how saturated the ground was. Scotland (and the UK as a whole) suffered from an extremely wet winter that resulted in very wet conditions underfoot. Bogs are soaked, making walking in ankle deep water pretty common; whole sections of the trail had been washed away and water crossing were higher than before. This, again, should have been part of my planning but I somehow missed that.
Based on the conditions above I should have limited my daily distance to 45 km and not aimed for 55 or even 65 km days; it was just not realistic in this context.
Gear failures (you have to blame some gear for this!)
Despite my best efforts to get my gear just right, I had two unexpected failures/mismatches. The first were my shoes and the second was my GPS watch.
On the first day of walking, after just two hours, my GPS watch froze — just got completely stuck. I played with the buttons and after about an hour it came back to life. Two hours later it got stuck again, but it continued to track my walk. On the second morning, after a complete recharge, it was still stuck so I let the battery drain and tried again on the 3rd day — and again, it froze after two hours.
In and of itself, a frozen watch was not a big issue as I had my phone and my Inreach for time and tracking if needed. The big problem was that I rely on my watch for fast navigation, using the “Navigation” function and the pre-loaded GPX files I made for the trip. By not having the watch I had to use maps more, which takes more time and meant I didn't get the real time walking data I needed to keep up a good pace. By not knowing how fast I was walking, I ended up walking slower than I would have if the watch was working properly.
The watch was apparently in need of a software update, something I was not aware of and once done when I got home, solved the problem. Not a disaster, but still frustrating.
The second, and much bigger issue, were my shoes. It seems that every trip, I have a problem with my shoes and I have yet to find a pair of shoes that will work just right for me — maybe I should just make my own? The Altra Lone Peak 2.0 shoes that I used on this trip were very comfortable, but have an extremely slippery sole. For the first time in my hiking life I found my self slipping a lot — getting wet, muddy and injured. This also meant I had to walk slower than I would have liked from fear of slipping, especially in the wetter or icier conditions.
One of my slips on the first day resulted in a serious bruise and gash on my right shin, which I paid no attention to during the trip; compression socks during the nights kept the swelling down and any issues at bay. When I returned home, a haematoma spread through my right shin, causing more pain than I thought it would. A secondary injury from the slippery soles was that I had to use my toes more to balance as I walked, causing a severe injury to my left foot’s Extensor hallucis longus, which is now in need of a long rest and lots of icing.
This was an unexpected problem with the shoes, as they have performed well in the past, but clearly there is a bigger issue with very wet trail conditions. The trip also took a big toll on the shoes and they are now pretty much ruined, with most of the upper ripped and torn.
A note about cutting a trip short
Besides not succeeding in doing the Cape Wrath Trail according to my original plan, I also cut my trip short. We have a newborn at home and my 2 years and some months old daughter found my not being home for a long time too much. Her deteriorating sleep had become a concern and as a parent I was needed at home promptly.
Another part of my decision to head home early was a weather forecast that threatened to make my trip even harder. I left the trail on Saturday afternoon after getting snow on that morning in the bothy I spent the night in. The weather forecast for the rest of the week promised more snow and heavy rains, not great conditions to try covering long distances.
Between the need to be home and the worsening conditions, I felt comfortable abandoning the trail. Luckily, my planning for this trip was extensive enough that I knew exactly where my escape routes were and finding the most efficient and rewarding way to head home was easy. The decision to head home was done on Friday morning but I knew that trying to travel from Shiel Bridge would be hard and draining, so I opted for another night outdoors, heading to Attadale to catch a train to Inverness instead. Despite the extra night on the trail I managed to get the flight I needed to head back to London.
If you are a parent or just walking in Scotland, knowing your escape route is vital — plan well for those!
Despite cutting my trip short I really enjoyed myself, and I hope that you can take the information here and use it to make your trip excellent, on the Cape Wrath Trail or on any other trail.
Going on your own CWT adventure?
Originally published at www.outdoorsfather.com on April 30, 2016.