I would never consider myself a brave person. I'm scared of heights and cows and caterpillars. I don't do scary rollercoasters, go in confined spaces or jump off high things.
But I have decided that I want to take on a challenge that scares me. Many people will think I am insane for considering it. Others might shrug and think it's not that scary. I'm not doing this to compare my adventure ability with anyone else. I'm doing it to prove to myself that I can. (And to give me the content for a book, which I want to write.)
I have set myself a goal to not only do this adventure, but have written the book and become a speaker about how to challenge yourself by the end of of next year. And unless you set big, scary audacious goals and tell people about them, life will just stay the same. I'm tired of waiting for a magic wand. I'm making my own magic.
To walk the Cape Wrath Trail. On my own. April/May 2018.
The Cape Wrath Trail is considered the UK's toughest long distance walk. It's not the longest. In fact it's only 200 - 250 miles. The reason the mileage is approximate is because there is not an actual trail. There is no lovely way marked footpath. You have to find your own way from Fort William to Cape Wrath, the most north westerly point in the UK.
The way goes through some of Scotland's wildest terrain, boggiest ground and most remote areas. It is tough walking where every mile feels double that.
Not only will I have to navigate my way using a map and compass, I will have to carry everything I need on my back. My accommodation will be a tent, wild camping anywhere I can find a not boggy piece of ground. Or staying in very, very remote bothies (little stone huts that provide four walls, a roof and a fireplace, with little more.) I will have to carry my own food - there are not many places to restock en route. Access to water will be less of an issue, but will require purifying. Staying dry will be a major challenge. In fact, I can expect to have wet feet for the 20 (to 30) days it will take me (depending on how lost I get).
If I go too early, there will be too much snow/cold. If I go too late, there will be too many midges. If I go from August onwards, I'll come across deer stalkers doing a deer cull. And when I get to Cape Wrath I will need to ring the MOD to find out if they are practicing live drills or dropping real bombs. They typically do this in April.
Upon reaching Cape Wrath, when you are supposedly done, there is a long slog over bogs to reach a tiny ferry, which may or may not be running depending on the weather and the sobriety of the skipper. Once across the Kyle of Durness, I will need to get back home. There is a very limited bus service.
I have walked 192 miles during the coast to coast. But I have never carried my kit on my back (except for one 1 mile walk to a wild camp). I have wild camped on my own once, close to home in sight of humanity.
This walk will require massive physical, mental and emotional endurance. Getting lost, running out of food and crossing rivers are the three big challenges (the rivers can be particularly dangerous if in spate). I expect to cry a lot.
But I want to know that I can find my way in the wilderness. And I want to embrace the solitude and amazing views. I think everyone needs to test their endurance at some point in their life. I've done other challenges, but nothing on my own. And frankly, why start small? If you're going to go solo, go REALLY solo to one of the last remaining wild spaces in the UK. In the words of Rafiki from Lion King, 'It is time.'
My husband has kindly agreed to me doing this and some how I'll sort out childcare cover. I will take a satellite emergency tracker so that should I get into real trouble I can call the rescue team and so that my path can be plotted at all times.
I have booked myself into a Mountain Navigation Skills course for November and will have my silver certificate by the time I go, with possible additional training should I feel I need it. Plus I will be doing practice walks in boggy ground carrying a heavy pack. I do not want to have to call the emergency services unless absolutely necessary so I won't be going into this ill prepared.
I know that for many women, the thought of being alone in a bothy with strange men who happen to also be there may seem dangerous. But it is highly unlikely that people walking that trail are the type to go raping and murdering. I doubt they'd have the energy!
I have applied for an adventure grant (fingers crossed) to cover the costs and have got in touch with a mad man who has run it in 8 days, getting tips and advice from him. I have the maps and guide book.
I AM GOING TO DO THIS EVEN IF IT SCARES THE SHIT OUT OF ME.
There. I said it. No turning back now.
So why should a mother in her forties choose this over having a comfortable bed and a nice holiday with her children in the sun? I do question my own sanity. But I also know that inside me is a secret adventurer. Not a very brave adventurer, but an adventurer all the same.
Every single time I have pushed myself out of my comfort zone, I come back feeling a little more confident, a little more capable and a little more comfortable in my own skin. As they say, it's only when you get lost that you truly find yourself.
What's your challenge for 2018?
Please join me in the Glamoraks group on Facebook to share any adventures you may have planned. They don't have to be a multi-day hike through the wilds of Scotland. Just tackling whatever is out of your own comfort zone is enough. Seriously. If you have never put on a pair of hiking boots and even walked a mile, make that your challenge. This is not a competitor sport. It's not about who has gone the furthest or done the toughest thing, it's about pushing your own personal levels of comfort so that you can discover just how remarkable you are. And trust me, you are remarkable. You just need to realise it.
Distance: Variable - from 5 miles to 12 miles
Terrain: Mostly easy walking on flat, broad paths - but expect steep climbs up and down when you go into and out of the valley
Refreshments: The Lion Inn, Blakey Ridge, Dale Head Farm Tearoom (plus Shepherd Hut if you fancy spending a night somewhere remote), plus plenty of pubs and tea shops in Rosedale Abbey
'Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet'. That is the Shakespearian line that played on repeat in my mind as I walked along the ridge line overlooking Rosedale in the North Yorkshire Moors. There wasn't a rose in sight, just miles of heather, breathtaking in its purple splendour. I was gobsmacked that I'd never been to this part of the moors before, which incidentally isn't named after roses, but possibly after the viking word 'rhos' for moor.
As it turns out, I had actually skirted Rosedale when I did the coast to coast, but didn't realise where I was at the time (I was a little preoccupied with the blisters on my feet having just walked 25 miles in a single day).
But the best finds are often completely unexpected, so let me rewind.
A friend had called to say that she was spending a night in a shepherd's hut somewhere remote. I invited myself along. Armed with just a postcode and a couple of bottles of champagne, I drove from York, to Pickering, then across to Hutton-le-Hole. As I climbed across Spaunton Moor out of Hutton-le-Hole, I was greeted to a breathtaking sight of heather as far as the eye could see. Daft sheep kept wondering across the narrow road, which meant I had to drive slowly giving me ample time to take in the vista. I was listening to Cold Play's A Sky Full of Stars as I drove, and the combination of uplifting music and stunning scenery plastered a smile of my face while simultaneously moving me to tears. It was simply jaw dropping.
Bracing myself for a perilously steep drive down Chimney Bank (there is a carpark there where you can take in the view - post code YO18 8SE), I noticed old stone structures on the side of the hill and wondered what they were. I found out the next day....
I made my way through the ridiculously pretty town of Rosedale Abbey and still the road continued. Eventually I could drive no further as the path petered out. Stopping the car I climbed out and found my friend, wearing fluffy slippers, sitting in the sun outside the shepherd's hut, located at the aptly named Dale Head farm. It was indeed at the head of the Dale and you could travel no further by car.
We enjoyed home baked cake and tea in the pretty tea room and garden. When all the other walkers had disappeared, we were left to enjoy our champagne, a BBQ and a good long chat outside our hut, while we watched the sun set and the stars come out. After a slightly tipsy stroll that evening, we decided that a walk was in order the following day.
The full Yorkshire breakfast nearly put paid to that idea, but we huffed our way up the forest line to the old railway track that runs midway along the ridge. It used to cart trains filled with ironstone ore off to Teeside. We turned right and walked to the old calcining kiln remnants where the ore was blasted to remove impurities, making it lighter to ship. Despite being industrial relics, the ruins were beautiful and ghostly. These were like the buildings I'd seen the previous day and I learned that the entire area was dotted with old mines and kilns.
We could - from Dale Head Farm - have climbed up to the same abandoned railway line track and turned left, following a three mile path around the head of the Dale, until reaching the Lion Inn at Blakey, where you can enjoy a meal or pint, before walking another two miles back down into the valley to the farm. For a day trip, that would make a lovely 5 mile walk, very do-able with children.
However, having waved goodbye to my friend and driving back to Chimney Bank (where I'd seen the old stone kilns and mining buildings the day before), I spotted an inviting path heading north west in the direction of the Lion Inn. Carpe Diem! I ignored the fact that it was Monday and that I should be working, put my boots on and followed the path. This too was an old railway line, the tracks long since gone, but the flat path makes easy walking. Heather lined both sides of the route while sweeping views across the valley below were wonderful.
By my estimation it's roughly 5 miles from the Chimney Bank car park to the famous Lion Inn pub at Blakey Ridge, situated at the highest point in the North Yorkshire Moors. This pub is a haven for walkers, being on the Esk River Valley route, the Coast to Coast and the Samaritan Way. It is also the only place to eat and rest for miles. I decided that I'd walk to the pub, get a cold drink and then walk back again. And then I realised that I'd left my wallet in the car.....But I used the pub to refill my water bottle and luckily had a few snacks in my pack to make an impromptu lunch, which I had sitting on a stone taking in the views.
During my walk, I stopped to chat to a man who had been in the fire service for years and who had now retired. He spends every Monday walking somewhere beautiful - lucky him. He had started his walk at the Lion Inn and was walking to Chimney Bank, down into Rosedale Abbey, through the village, up the other bank and along the track I'd walked that morning, continuing all the way around the top of the dale, before returning to the Lion Inn. I have tried to map that out (see below) and I believe it will be about 11 or 12 miles - but it may be a bit more. There will be one very steep downhill and another steep uphill during the walk if walking anti clockwise.
But it got me thinking that it would make a fine one-day walk. You could stop for lunch in Rosedale Abbey. If you felt the need, you could stop again at Dale Head farm with its tea garden (although you will be adding in another climb for yourself). And then you could return to the pub for a well deserved pint! Alternatively, you could go for a weekend, and start in Rosedale, break the walk by staying at the Lion Inn and then completing it the next day.
There are many different ways to tackle this particular part of North Yorkshire Moors - but whichever way you do it, I can highly recommend you go. August is when you'll see the heather in all its glory. February is when you'll see the wild daffodils (although Farndale - the dale on the other side of Blakey Ridge - is where the best daffodils are on display). In winter, dress for extreme cold and don't attempt driving Chimney Bank in icy conditions. The walking - while on the old railway line - is mostly flat. The views - assuming you have a clear day - are spectacular.
Here's a taste of what it looks like like, although no pictures can do it justice.
Here's a rough map plotting out of the entire circular loop taking in both the east and west sides of Rosedale. But the best bet is to get an OS map (number OL26) and have fun plotting out your own route, depending on how far you want to go!
I first wrote this blog post in May 2014 on a now defunct blog. But thanks to the wonders of the internet, I could find it. So here it is - the walk that started my love of walking:
Dont get me wrong, I like other people. But occasionally I do like to head out on a little adventure all by myself. It makes it slightly more scary, slightly more liberating and it gives me plenty of time to think. Or sing aloud with no-one listening.
As I have no children this week (I know, how did I wangle that one?) I decided to buy some hiking boots and a small backpack and attempt a bit of the Cleveland Way. If you did the Cleveland Way in its entirety, you'd have to walk 110 miles. I didn't have the time to do that and did I mention I had new boots?
So my grand plan was to catch a train from York to Scarborough (somehow going on a train always makes any trip seem that much more of an adventure), then walk from Scarborough to Boggle Hole Youth Hostel just before Robin Hoods Bay. And then after a night in the hostel, walk to Whitby, where I'd catch a bus and go home.
Except on the morning of my trip, the Met Office gave a yellow warning for rain all along the Yorkshire coast, with not insignificant winds just to add to the mix. Given the walk is a clifftop coastal walk, which does get very muddy and you walk quite close to the edge at times, I started to have second thoughts.
After much deliberation while the heavens poured down outside, I decided to drive to Whitby, walk to Boggle Hole and then retrace my steps. That would make a shorter walk and if the weather really got too vile, I could simply turn around and drive home.
The weather was pretty vile. But I wish I'd stuck with my original plan because it was manageable. And there is something utterly liberating about walking in the rain. If you have good shoes on, your feet stay dry. This is important. If you wear natty waterproof trousers as I did, your bottom half stays dry (even though you will look like a telly tubby). If you wear a really not very good supposedly waterproof jacket, you will get wet. But once you're wet, you're wet. And who bloody cares when you get to see this:
I walked for a good hour that morning before I saw a single other person. It was just me and the cows and the sheep and the seabirds and fields of buttercups dancing in the wind. And because no-one was there, I could sing out loud (Sound of Music was my preference) and talk to myself (yes, I know its the first sign of madness but it helps to talk out loud when you're trying to build a plot for a book). It didn't matter that my clothes were filthy, that my hair was in knots, that my face was make up free and rather sweaty. I could just be me. It was lovely.
When you stand on a clifftop, with the wind pelting rain at your face, looking out at the vast curving expanse of sea in front of you, you get a real sense of the earth's size, shape and beauty. While pretty huge, it makes you realise just how tiny it is in relation to the rest of the universe and how tinier still we are. And that puts any problems you might have into perspective, which is why you end up singing like a loon to a field of cows in the rain. Because why not?
If you like me sometimes yearn for head space and clean air to just revel in nature, I can highly recommend doing this walk (or one similar near you). Here's how to do it:
I found this website very useful, with lots of info on the trail depending on where you want to start and how much of it you want to do. It also has plenty of other trails to try out.
I started in Whitby. To find the start, just walk up the steps to the Abbey, walk through the gates as though you are going to the Abbey, but then follow the road to the left and you'll see a sign showing you where to go:
The path is clearly signposted. You will walk through a caravan park (less lovely) but once you're through that, it's just miles of gorgeous coastline to enjoy.
You will pass an old fog horn, which mercifully wasn't blaring out because it was foggy but the thing would deafen you! That is swiftly followed by a lighthouse.
Besides those two landmarks, really the route is just a series of undulating hills. There are one or two places to stop for a snack at caravan park cafes, which thankfully are off the path so you can avoid them entirely should you not need food. Large bits of the walk are flat, but you do get steep inclines and declines, with plenty of little streams to cross some by bridge, others by stepping stones.
You do occasionally have to walk through fields with cows (something I am not a fan of) but mostly you simply walk past the sheep and cows grazing on their side of the fence. In places the path does get very close to the edge of the cliff. I made sure I walked as far from the edge as possible due to the wet conditions and the erosion that is visible the entire length of the coast. It really does feel like the sea is taking big bites out of Britain and one day there will simply be no land left!
Walking into Robin Hoods Bay, you head down a very steep hill. If you've never been to Robin Hoods Bay, it is an old fishing village with houses stacked on top of each other, clinging to a steep hill as though they are afraid they might topple into the sea. I stopped for a cup of tea and scone with jam and cream at the bottom of the hill just what was needed on a very wet day.
I got to Boggle Hole (about a 1/2 mile after Robin Hoods Bay) but I felt I hadn't walked enough (I'd only done about 7 miles) so I kept going to Ravenscar. I passed the Peak Alum ruins, saw deer in fields and climbed up a steep hill through beautiful woods to get to Ravenscar. Sadly, when I got there, the fog had set in so thick that I could see nothing so had to turn around and head back to Boggle Hole.
I have stayed at Boggle Hole Youth Hostel before. This time I had to stay in a shared dorm, not something I have done since I was about 21. But it was fine the showers were hot, the beds not too uncomfy for bunkbeds and frankly all I wanted to do was sleep after eating a meal and having a small bottle of wine. After wolfing down my full English (£4.99 from YHA) this morning, I set off retracing my steps.
This was the view that greeted me this morning:
I was amazed that I had no blisters given I had new boots, but my feet were fine, if a little stiff. Like the rest of me. Who knew walking up and down hills in slippery mud could tire you out so much?
After almost reaching the end, and after stopping for a moment on a bench to admire the view and complete solitude, I begrudgingly got up and did the last slog back to Whitby. Slog, because my feet were tired by then and I had to see other people. Didn't they get the memo that the Yorkshire Coast was mine, and mine alone?
And then I rewarded myself with a proper Yorkshire lunch of chips n gravy.
And that was it. By my reckoning, about 23miles in total walked. I now have the walking bug (not to mention the boots and backpack) so will be doing a whole bunch more of it. Coast to coast perhaps?
Since I wrote this back in 2014, I have gone on to walk the Coast to Coast, the West Highland Way, climbed Snowden, walked the circumference of the Isle of Wight and have climbed Kilimanjaro - plus heaps of other walks in between. All because on that rainy weekend, I decided to put my boots on and go have an adventure. Why don't you try it? You may just find yourself in the process.
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I have wanted to walk the West Highland Way for a long time. It's a 96-mile walk in the Scottish Highlands starting just outside Glasgow, running the length of Loch Lomond, then hitting the stunning scenery of highland hills and moors, before reaching the final destination of Fort William.
This walk was a little different for me for two reasons:
1. I was walking it with my husband (I normally walk alone or with female friends)
2. I hadn't planned it. He had. Or rather, he'd arranged a travel company to do it.
While getting to spend a full week with my husband without kids was lovely (and a rarity), I found the lack of planning on my part took away from the sense of adventure I get when going for a walk. When I walked the Coast to Coast, I spent ages plotting out our route, choosing accommodation and getting familiar with what was in store. This time, we simply paid a travel company to plan the route and accommodation for us. And while that saves time, it doesn't give you the same satisfaction you get from doing it yourself. It also means that if there are any problems en route, we could just call the travel company to solve it. But again, this makes you feel like less of an adventurer.
And apparently I like feeling like an adventurer! So the first decision you have to make when deciding to walk the West Highland Way - or indeed any walk - is what level of adventure do you feel like having? Do you like the comfort and ease of having someone to arrange it all for you, book you comfortable accommodation, ensure your bag is moved and have them on call should something go wrong? Or would you prefer the other extreme of plotting out your route, carrying all your kit on your back and wild camping your way along the route? Or something in between?
What you choose will depend on your budget and appetite for adventure and potential discomfort!
Before I describe our experience of doing the route the easy way - i.e. staying in comfy accommodation with someone moving our bags with shortish days, here are a few things to note about the walk:
Number of days
This depends on your fitness level. We did it over 7 days, some do it in 4 or 5, others take up to nine for rest days or to spend a day climbing one of the many hills en route. You can even add Ben Nevis, the UK's highest mountain, as a bonus challenge at the end.
When to do it
You can do it year round, although to do it in the winter months you need to be pretty hardy and you will find more of the accommodation options closed. Summer months mean midges. And lots of them. Spring and Autumn seem to be the preferred months, with fewer midges and milder, if unpredictable, weather.
How tough is it?
I found it very manageable and a lot easier than the coast to coast. Lots of the walking is flat, but there are plenty of hills to challenge you. The bits that sound scary - like the Devil's Staircase - actually aren't bad at all. Conic Hill is a big climb but it's the descent that is harder on the knees more than anything. And day 3, scrambling around the northern parts of Loch Lomond are more tiring that you may expect, particularly if you're carrying a big pack. People of all ages and fitness levels do it - just know your own abilities and factor in enough time to go at a pace you're comfortable with.
Where to stay
We stayed in a mix of hotels, inns and B&Bs. Of the three, B&Bs were by far our favourite with better breakfasts and much better service. But there are also plenty of low cost options like bunkhouses and camping pods on the way. And if you're into proper camping, wild camping is allowed in Scotland and there are stunning spots to do it. If you're able to carry your own kit, this is definitely a good option. That said, if the weather is against you, you may hanker for a hot shower instead of a cold tent!
Where to eat
There are places to pick up food most of the way along - whether it's stopping for a pub lunch or getting snacks from a campsite shop. So bar one or two days, you don't really even need to preorder packed lunches as you can mostly get something along the way.
We had a map but didn't need it as the path is so clearly signposted. It was useful to get an overview of where we were heading. But I am a big fan of the Trailblazer guides which have simple to follow maps, with useful info on things to see on the way. We used the West Highland Way Trailblazer guide and it served us admirably. My husband took a compass with him, mainly because he is ex-military and likes to point to maps saying things like, 'We're here and the enemy is here', but seriously, a compass wasn't needed (unless you plan to go walking off the track).
Kit (not including camping stuff)
How to get back
It's a one way walk. To return to Glasgow (or Milngavie if that's where you left your car), you can get a train to Glasgow and back out again to Milngavie, or catch the Citylink bus but be sure to book a seat in advance. Ask the driver to drop you off at the stop closest to Milngavie and then just get a taxi (Uber operates there) back to get your car or catch the bus straight to Buchanan Station in central Glasgow.
Day 1 - 12 miles: Milngavie to Drymen
On Saturday 1 April, we found ourselves in Milngavie (pronounced Mullguy). As we'd had to drive from York that morning, we'd missed the baggage moving company so had to drop our bags off at a taxi station (recommended by the travel company) who would move them to our first night's accommodation. We then parked our car at the Premier Inn, which lets you park your car for free for the week and it's pretty safe as it's next to a police station. You can also get a train from Glasgow to Milngavie if you don't have a car.
Next we had to figure out how to get to the start of the walk, which proved to be the trickiest navigational part of the entire expedition as the actual walk is very well signposted. But we found the obelisk and giant West Highland Way sign in the centre of town and were soon on our way. The first part of the walk takes you through Allander Park, which is pretty enough with a bubbling stream keeping us company. But it's still urban and not quite the highland experience I had envisaged.
We left the park behind us, passed through Mugdock Wood, passed two lochs and a bunch of quirky wood chalets that looked like something out of Hansel & Gretel. We began walking across fields, with the first glimpses of the hills in the distance. At one point we passed what we thought was a ranger station where a very friendly 'ranger' hailed us and offered us free tea, coffee or water. I happily took up the offer of water as I'd had a 'little accident' with my water pouch (i.e. I'd somehow managed to drain its contents accidentally and it was bone dry). We had the option of making a donation and he was at great pains to assure us that one was not necessary. But we made one all the same. I have since seen statements on the West Highland Way website that no donations should be made to anyone other than directly via the WHW website. So I have no idea who the chap was, but hey, he gave me water so I was happy.
The scenery began to give us a taste of what was to come. Although not rugged, it was still fairly gorgeous. We plodded on along a farm track as the skies darkened and just as we reached the sign for the Glengoyne distillery, the heavens opened. So we diverted off the path and opted for a tour learning how whisky is made. As regular consumers of single malts, we felt it was our duty to know more about where it came from. And getting a wee dram was a bonus.
After smelling the yeast infused barley and water bubbling away in giant vats, and seeing the immense effort that goes into distilling and ageing the liquor, we felt obliged to purchase two half size bottles. They were tucked into our backpacks, in case of emergency!
After a picnic in the sunshine that had returned, we headed back to the path. It paralleled the busy, noisy A81 road and was fairly uninspiring to be honest. We eventually veered away from the road and headed into countryside that looked like it could be The Shire, from the Hobbit, and indeed, several signs seemed to indicate that it was.
We finally arrived at Drymen (pronounced Drimin as in drip, not Dry as in dry - why would you have a word that sounds like it looks?) We stayed at the local Best Western hotel and despite it having a pool, spa and steam room - great for tired muscles - it just didn't feel like a hotel for walkers.
So day 1 was good but hardly the epic landscapes I'd been envisaging. That said, the glimpses of highland scenery were a tantalising taste of what was to come.
Day 2 - 15 miles: Drymen to Rowardennan via Balmaha
After the first of many, many full Scottish breakfasts, we were on our way, bright and early. We retraced our steps to where we had diverted from the path the day before and immediately climbed a steep hillock in glorious sunshine. A boggy, wet and muddy field on the other side awaited us, reinforcing the need for good boots and gaiters.
We soon entered a forest with wide, dry paths and easy walking.
We got glimpses of Loch Lomond and Conic Hill, our first proper climb of the walk. It's 170m up, but the views from the top over Loch Lomond are well worth it.
After admiring the stunning setting for a while, we headed down, while scores of day trippers were heading up, sweating profusely. The downhill was actually tougher going than the up as our knees, not yet used to it, felt the strain.
At last we popped out in Balmaha where several cafes and shops offered us a choice of lunchspots. We opted for a quick and easy sandwich from the village shop and enjoyed them in the sunny park next to the Loch. We had the statue of environmentalist Tom Weir for company.
Having done our first 7 miles for the day, we had another seven to go. We began our long walk along the banks of Loch Lomond, regularly singing:
O ye'll tak' the high road, and I'll tak' the low road,
And I'll be in Scottland a'fore ye,
But me and my true love will never meet again,
On the bonnie, bonnie banks o' Loch Lomond.
As it was a sunny Sunday, the loch was busy with many people having BBQs on the sandy beaches. We followed the undulating track, finding a number of gorgeous coves that would be perfect for a dip if the water wasn't freezing. Although it was very pretty, it still didn't feel like the wilds of Scotland that I had imagined.
We got to our hotel - the Rowardennan Hotel (or Rhodedendron as we nicknamed it) - at last. It is right on the path and had a sunny beer garden with views of the loch. So we took our boots off and enjoyed a pint - although sadly most of Glasgow seemed to have the same idea. Perhaps a less sunny, non weekend day would have made for a quieter stop. If you wished to and had a spare day, you could head off to climb Ben Lomond (974m) and Ptarmigan summit (731m) from here, which would make a great day walk.
We weren't going to be doing that and had another early night instead - two days of walking in fresh air makes an 8pm bedtime a stretch goal!
Day 3 - 14 miles: Rowardennan to Inverarnan
Waking to beautiful views of the mountains, we got up bright and early as rain was forecast later in the day and we wanted to get most of the miles out of the way before it set in. After another huge artery clogging breakfast, we set out at the same time as another couple of walkers. The first two hours sped by as we chatted, barely noticing the stunning scenery to our left as we walked easily along a broad plantation track. There are two choices of paths here - the easy one which we did, and the other than runs closer to the water but was described as far more challenging and may potentially have been closed due to a landslip. Given the rock scrambling that was to come in the afternoon, I'm glad we chose the easy one.
Waterfalls cascaded down rocks to our right at regular intervals. Trees and rocks covered in bright green moss made for a ridiculously pretty backdrop. Bubbling burns every few paces gave a calming soundtrack. It was idyllic and much quieter than the busy path of the previous day.
After following the undulating path for some time, we crossed a bridge over an impressive waterfall, before arriving at Inversnaid Hotel. We had ordered packed lunches from our previous hotel, but as it turned out, we hadn't needed to as the hotel was serving food (the guide book had said it only did this from Easter). So we stopped for a quick bite to eat and a warm drink, before adding a few more layers and heading out. The bad weather was definitely approaching, with strong gusts of wind whipping up white horses on the loch.
The path seemed to match the volatility of the weather. Our smooth easy way of the morning was replaced with a path the bucked and bent every few paces. At times it was almost at the Loch edge. At others, you climbed and scrambled over rocks with sheer drops down to the water below. The wind whipped up waves that crashed relentlessly on the shores while the trees groaned and creaked above us. It was fabulous. And a little exhausting.
We saw the sign for Rob Roy's cave, but had it on good authority that it wasn't worth going to investigate. So we didn't, as we still had a fair way to go and the rain was inching closer. We also passed a lovely little snack stop for walkers, using an honesty system to refuel if necessary.
Our friends from the morning, who'd fallen behind us, came charging past in a tearing rush to catch the ferry to Ardlui, where they were spending the night. We meanwhile stopped to admire the feral goats, something the guide book had told us to look out for, so we were rather pleased we'd found them. To be fair, they looked like normal goats but on a day where the scenery involved beautiful - but repetitive - water, trees and rocks, goats made an interesting diversion.
As we reached the very top of the Loch at Ardleish, the rain set in. Our last few miles were a damp splodge along a track into Glen Falloch. At last we got to Beinglas campsite, with many miserable looking campers attempting to put up tents in the rain. We walked on to the famous Drover's Inn for our night's accommodation instead.
The Drover's is an ancient inn, which trades on its history rather than it's exceptional service, food or rooms. The plethora of stuffed animals that greet you in the entrance hall definitely add to the ambience, but we both agreed it was our least favourite stop, despite its 'must see' reputation. Nonetheless, after several glasses of wine we agreed that we'd still rather be there than sleeping in a wet tent.
Day 4 - 12 miles: Iverarnan to Tyndrum
We woke to a drizzly day, had another full fat breakfast and headed out, stopping at the Beinglas campsite shop for a sandwich for our lunch. Having done several multi-day walks, I have long since learnt that there is no need to pay for the packed lunch as they invariably include a piece of fruit (that gets squashed), a biscuit (that gets squashed), a carton of orange juice (that tastes foul) and a sandwich. My top Glamorak tip is to take your own snacks and just stick with the sandwich.
Our walk took us alongside a river, the rushing noise of which helped masked the noise of the A82 road running nearby. This was a feature of the West Highland Way that I hadn't appreciated. It basically follows the road for a good stretch of the walk. And while the surrounding scenery is gorgeous, it hadn't yet felt wild and remote, which is what I had expected.
The wet weather came and went with showers on and off throughout the morning. Using an underpass we crossed underneath the A82 and made our way up the hill on the other side before coming across what is apparently known as cow pat alley. The track runs to a farm, which is frequented by cows. At times the muddy cow pat mixture was lapping up to my ankles and my gaiters were worth their weight in gold.
We passed a cow that seemed to be in some kind of distress, possibly calving? We attempted to contact the farm but had little joy. To our relief we saw a land rover approaching the cow, so we assumed that someone had alerted the farmer to the poor cow.
Leaving the bovine drama behind us, we climbed a hill to Crianlarich crossways, the official halfway point of the West Highland Way, before climbing higher to a viewpoint spot and then on through mossy forests with pretty streams every few minutes. The path plunged down again, crossing a river in the valley before climbing again. We took our time as we only had 12 miles to go. We found a picnic spot on the crest of a hill with views out below us and had our lunch while our feet aired (at military husband's insistence!)
After lunch we followed a relentless downhill path (I felt very sorry for the few people coming up the other way), before passing underneath an old arched stone bridge. We crossed the A82 again and walked on towards St Fillan's priory, with views of Ben More in the distance. There's not much left of the priory, but interesting noticeboards give its history.
As we arrived at Wigwams, a little campsite at Strathfillan, the rain came down again so we took shelter under the shop awning and hat a restorative cup of tea. Once the rain cleared, we headed back out passing another little piece of history - the place where Robert the Bruce had the battle of Dalrigh and a little loch where it was rumoured his sword had been thrown (but never found). I wondered how many ghosts still wandered the area.
Despite our dawdling, we still got to our Tyndrum B&B before 3pm, the time it opened, so we loitered looking at pretty streams of which there are several thousand (or so it seemed) on this walk. After checking in and husband dutifully cleaning the remains of cow pat alley off our boots and gaiters, we ambled into the town centre for a pub dinner.
There is a gap in the market for someone to open a really good curry house or pizza joint along the Way as ye old Scottish pub faire - while lovely - starts to become a bit repetitive. We would play food bingo with every menu. Haggis? Tick. Black pudding? Tick. Whiskey sauce? Tick. Macaroni cheese? Tick. A highland burger? Tick. Venison of some kind? Tick. Sticky toffee pudding? Tick.
Despite walking many miles every day, this is not a walk you do to lose weight!
Day 5 - 19 miles: Tyndrum to Kings house
This was the day I had been waiting for. While the scenery had been getting steadily more wild and more beautiful, this was the day that promised really spectacular and wild Scotland. It didn't disappoint. After an excellent breakfast by our hosts at Glengarry House B&B, we headed off, for once with a packed lunch that sounded worth getting. Beef and horseradish and ham and pickle sandwiches, two chocolate bars and a cereal bar. Now that's more like it.
It was a gorgeous start along a lengthy military road, which initially ran parallel to the A82 but soon separated from it. The views were simply breathtaking. When the clouds cleared we could see the munros of Ben Dorain (1076m) and Beinn an Dothaidh (1004m), which are options for anyone wanting an additional hill climb while on their trip.
Thanks to the relatively flat path, the walking was easy and we made the seven miles to the Bridge of Orchy in just two and a half hours. As it was still early, we stopped at the Bridge of Orchy hotel for a coffee. It was the best coffee and friendliest service of the entire route. Keen to get on though, we headed out again and climbed up and up and up through a plantation until we reach a cairn at 320m with views over Loch Tulla and Rannoch Moor. We descended to Inveroran, not to be confused with the recently visited Inverarnan. Here you will find a hotel and had we not had our exciting packed lunches, this would have made a good lunch stop to break up the day.
But we soldiered on, past a very pretty spot ideal for wild camping next to a little river. We headed up towards Rannoch Moor, stopping for our picnic lunch next to a little burn. Obviously a sock rotation was required....Then it was time to tackle the moor.
We were crossing ten miles of exposed moorland - the largest uninhabited stretch of land in the UK - with exceptional views of Coire Ba, the largest mountain amphiteatre in Scotland. It was spectacular and exactly how I'd (naively) imagined most of the Highland Way to be. The path we walked along was the old cobbled drovers road, still in use until the 1930s. It also really hurt your feet to walk on it due to the cobbles. You are warned to take plenty of kit to protect you from the elements for this stretch, but we were lucky and had just the odd spot of rain and chilly gusts of wind coming off the snow topped mountains to contend with.
A bigger issue was trying to find somewhere to have a pee privately. The flat expanse of land didn't offer up much privacy to the walkers stretched out along the route.
At last we saw the Glencoe Ski Centre's chairlifts and knew we were getting close to our destination of Kingshouse. Despite the 19 miles, we both felt strong and filled with the contentment you can only get after a long walk in a beautiful, remote place.
We made our way to Kingshouse, which has a hotel (closed for refurbishment at the moment) and a bunkhouse, with handy cafe. It's here we passed some time while waiting for a taxi to pick us up and take us to our accommodation in Ballachulish for the night. There are plenty of day walks from here if you want to break up your trek.
Day 6 - 9 miles: Kingshouse to Kinglochleven
This short day seemed a doddle after the 19 miler of the day before, but it featured something called The Devil's Staircase, which sounded terrifying. Particularly when you'd drunk a little too much red wine the night before....
We returned by taxi to Kingshouse and set off along a path running alongside the noisy A82. If you can block out the road, the mountain views are spectacular. We soon veered away from the road and headed up the dreaded Devil's Staircase, which as it turned out was far less daunting than it sounded. Yes it was a fairly steep climb with quite a few zig zags to reduce the gradient, but we'd had tougher hills on the walk and this one made up for it with stunning views at the top.
A West Highland Way ambassador I'd met the day before while waiting for our taxi had said that the climb up wasn't the problem. It was the descent that killed you. And so we began the descent, which was long and slow. My husband said he didn't see what the problem was. But several hours later, he'd changed his mind. As had I. The way down never ended. You see Kinglochleven away in the distance and think it won't be long before you get there.
But down the stony path goes, threatening to twist ankles with every step taken. Each step jars the knees and challenges the toes. We took note of the Blackwater Reservoir we were passing, but frankly, our concentration was purely on how to stop the pain in our knees.
It may only have been 9 miles, but they were nine exhausting miles and we were VERY happy to stumble into the Ice Factor, an indoor ice climbing centre, for a sit down and a spot of lunch. My husband who had said at the start of the day that he was keen to have a go at the ice climbing funnily wasn't feeling quite as keen anymore.
So we just chilled out, headed to our B&B - Allt-na-Leven (the best place we'd stayed all trip) and spent the afternoon having a lazy nap. A very casual dinner was grabbed from the pub next door and we happily spent the evening with our feet up, doing not very much at all!
Day 7 - 15 miles: Kinlochleven to Fort William
And so the final day dawned. After an exceptionally good breakfast at our B&B, and a quick stop at the co-op across the road for a lunchtime sandwich, we headed out of town. Almost immediately we had a hill, which gave the Devil's Staircase a run for its money. As always, our way was dotted with bridges, burns, little waterfalls and mossy trees. Quintessential highland terrain.
At the top of the hill, we followed an old military road that continued into the descending mist along a valley between two high hills on either side. The mist gradually turned to rain and wet weather gear was called for once again. While blue skies would have made an incredible backdrop, there was something very atmospheric about the rain and swirling clouds. Old stone ruins would emerge spookily and the sense of old tales lingered over them. It was easy to imagine highlanders from hundreds of years before galloping horses along the track swathed in faded tartan.
That image almost became reality when, having stopped for a short break, a young man came strolling along the path. He wore a button down shirt, tartan tie, full kilt with sporran, a Harris tweed waistcoat and blazer, long woollen socks, an old fashioned haversack on his back and a shepherd's crook as a walking pole. The only nod to modernity was his hiking boots, but even they looked the part.
As the sun came out, we left the barren scenery behind us and instead were faced with what looked like a scorched earth policy put into practice. Warning signs earlier in the path had said that the way was closed and that a diversion had been put in place. The path was now reopened but it was easy to see why it had been closed. Forestry operations had felled hundreds and hundreds of trees, which lay strewn across the path. In places we had to scramble over the fallen logs. While the smell of pine was lovely, the site was horrible and a far cry from the pretty plantation we might have been walking through. It wasn't quite the ending we'd hoped for.
We stopped for a picnic on two of the tree stumps, before heading up a final hill. We could have diverted off to see an ancient iron age fort, but we'd reached the stage where we just wanted to take our boots off. With views of Ben Nevis ahead of us, we began our final descent down to Fort William on a wide forest path. Here at least the trees were still standing.
The West Highland Way ends rather drably with a walk along a busy road into town, so we opted for an alternate route that the book suggested. We stayed on the forest path, skirting around cow hill and only dropped down into the town at the last minute. Our final short stretch was along the bustling high street until we found the West Highland Way end sign. We saw many of our fellow walkers there, all getting their pictures taken. We chatted to a few, although I found that we'd met fewer people on this walk than I had on the coast to coast. I'm not sure why, but there just didn't seem to be the same bonhomie as I'd experienced before.
But we settled down for a pint at the Ben Nevis arms with a couple of them and toasted our achievement. The bar kindly (and with a hint of clever marketing) gave us free certificates acknowledging our success. And that was it. A final walk to find our accommodation for the night. A final menu featuring haggis, black pudding and sticky toffee pudding. A final bottle of wine and a final single malt. Our Scottish adventure had ended.
So would I recommend it?
It's a great trail with some incredible scenery. You get a mix of lochs, moors and mountains. It's relatively easy and there is accommodation, wild camping and plenty of food stops on the way. I just wish it didn't follow the road for as much of it as it does. It didn't feel as wild and as remote as I had hoped. That said, it's still worth doing. And if you're short on time, I'd recommend starting at Tyndrum and heading north as those are the best bits scenery wise. I'd also make sure you go when the midges aren't out as EVERYONE mentioned them.
Throughout this series of blog posts, I have included tips on what you will need and what the experience is like. But what you seldom read about is what happens to you when you get back.
First of all, you will look at the incoming group of poor sods about to tackle the mountain and will smile knowingly into your beer, not wishing to be them for a single minute. And then you realise that the team who came down the same time we were about to head up were looking at us in exactly the same way.
Secondly, your body can have a delayed reaction to the exertion, high altitude and temperature extremes you've gone through. Here are some of the effects we experienced:
Yip – it’s all glamour. But is it worth it? Yes. Would I do it again? No. Am I glad I did it? Absolutely.
Go back to day 1
Start height: 3950m
End height: 1800m
A 6am wake up call by our coffee porter, revealed a gloriously sunny day. The snow covered peak set against a bright blue sky seemed surreal. We’d been there. We’d done it. All the exhaustion of the previous day had gone and we could at last celebrate our success.
A brilliant breakfast of delicious (yes, really) porridge was followed by pancakes, fruit and Vienna sausages, which no-one except me seemed to like, so I ate my body weight in them.
It was our last time packing up tents, our last time of putting on filthy clothes. There was a spring in everyone’s step and laughter throughout the camp. Donations of kit were made to the porters, some of whom trek up the mountain in ancient crocs with holey socks and thin sweaters. They thanked us by singing and dancing for us again. We all joined in. It’s amazing what a bit of extra oxygen will do for you.
We bid farewell to the camp after group pictures and began a long, steep descent. The path started with more rocks to clamber down, which reminded tired legs of the pounding they’d taken the day before. Knees and toes put up a protest, but there is only one remedy – keep walking. We were joined by one of the guides Godfrey, who filled us in on plenty of local plant knowledge, local customs and tales from his portering days when he was required to carry 40kgs on his back, unlike the regulated 20kgs now.
We passed through Mweka camp and instantly the vegetation changed from alpine to rainforest. The path was smooth, gently sloping and shaded by trees. I couldn’t help myself – I had to walk fast. In fact I practically ran a good portion of it, just to feel speed for the first time in a week. Over pretty bridges, past incredible trees. The path just went on and on for about four hours.
Finally, just as my knees and toes were ready to throw in the towel, the end sign came into view.
And that’s when it happened. The feeling that I expected to get at the summit – but didn’t – kicked in. Tears. Lots of them. I’d done it. I’d gone there and back to see how high it was. It’s high. It was hard. But it was absolutely worth it.
A celebratory beer and samosa awaited us. The heavens opened in a tropical deluge. But nothing was going to dampen our spirits. We had just conquered the highest freestanding mountain in the world. We’d stood on the roof of Africa. We’d seen the curvature of the earth and watching the sun rise beneath us. We’d pushed ourselves to our limits and survived with a smile on our faces.
Thank you Kili. You challenged us. But we won.
Climbing Kilimanjaro - Day 6 – Machame Route: Summit day - Barafu camp to High Camp with a stop at Uhuru Peak.
Start height: 4600m
Midway height: 5895m
End height: 3950m
Looking like Michelin men, we waddled into the mess tent at 11pm for some ginger biscuits and porridge with heaps of sugar for energy. Nervous energy fizzed through the camp as people faffed with their water bottles, wondering whether 3 litres would be enough but unsure whether carrying more would be too much on such a tough climb (Tip: take at least five and ask a porter to carry it for you). Head torches were adjusted, hand warmers stuffed around water bottles, into boots and gloves, layers were added or removed.
Finally at 11.45pm we set off, single file, pole pole. We were told that we would probably get hot during the first hour as it is steep, involves hauling yourself over some boulders and it’s not yet really too cold. They were right. But there was no way to remove layers, so zipping and unzipping became the order of the evening, not easy with bulky gloves on.
The path became more even, a steady zig zag traversing the mountain, nine steps one way, nine steps back again. As we looked up, we could see a row of gently swaying lights like a magical lantern parade, weaving up and up and up. No matter how far back you tilted your head, the lights continued until eventually it was impossible to tell which lights were head torches and which were stars. We had a long, long way to go.
As it grew colder, it became a mind game. Follow the boots in front of you. Listen to your music. Look out at the stars. Spot the southern cross. Look down at the far away lights of Moshi and Arusha miles and miles below. See the orange flashes of lightening storms in clouds far beneath us lighting up the sky like a Renaissance painting. One step. Another step. Breathe. Sip. Step. Breathe. Sip. Step. Take a moment to smile and revel in the awesomeness of where you are. Try to circle your neck, stiff from looking down. Try not to feel the three layers of waistband digging uncomfortably into your skin. Try to wriggle your toes to stop them freezing. Blow into your camelbak tube to stop the water in it freezing. Notice how the water you’re sipping turns into slush gradually, until eventually it freezes solid. Try to take the odd bite of an energy bar. Step. Breathe. Step. Breathe.
For seven hours we did that, stopping only for an occasional pee break. Any last vestiges of modesty are well and truly thrown to the wind on summit night. You can step off the thin path to pee, but there is nowhere to go. You will find yourself squatting – as I did – next to several blokes standing alongside you peeing. You can choose to show your butt or your ‘front bottom’ to the passing traffic stream. As it’s dark and they’re looking at the boots in front of them, they probably won’t notice. But if they turn their head torch onto you, your naked glory will be caught in their beam. You genuinely will not care. You will be too busy trying to figure out how to pull all your layers back up before your butt freezes.
At around 5am, the winds blew their hardest and coldest and it became increasingly difficult to hang onto any positive thoughts, which were driven away on the snow flurries. But soon thereafter we saw the first glow of dawn stretching in a pinky gold line along the curvature of the earth. It was magnificent and quite literally breath-taking, at such high altitude. That glimmer of light served as a tonic.
We watched as the line of gold along the horizon grew, casting a strange bronze colour across the mountain face we were still traversing. At last the burning ball of a star that we call our sun popped its head over the horizon and instantly night was gone. To look down on a rising sun is a magical experience and unlike any other I’ve had.
The euphoria of sunrise was short lived. We could now see the top of the mountain. Only the height of Snowdon left to climb, one person cheerily said…. The last push up the mountain to Stella Point is the toughest. Loose scree and dust, a steep gradient, very little oxygen and a path that never seems to end all start to take their toll on your good humour.
My chest began to feel as though it had icy needles in it. For the first time, I allowed myself to think ‘what ifs’. What if this is pulmonary oedema? What if I can’t breathe? What if I don’t make it? I had been ignoring thoughts like these the entire trip, but when your reserves are low, it takes every ounce of your mental strength to push them aside and just keep walking. Every step takes an epic amount of effort, despite a painstakingly slow pace.
Finally at about 8am we reached Stella Point at 5756m. A welcome cup of ginger tea helped revive me somewhat, but a walk to find a rock for a pee just about wiped about my final reserves. Looking along the rim of the crater, I could see Uhuru Peak in the distance. It was so close, yet it felt like an entirely different country.
Gradually members of our group arrived at Stella in varying states of health. Some – like me – were tired, breathless and having to dig into deep energy reserves, but were nonetheless well. Others were less lucky, seriously battling to breathe, looking green after a night of relentless vomiting, staggering with dizziness and disorientation. We learned two of our group had had to turn back at 5300m, four couldn’t continue from Stella Point, and one was practically carried to Uhuru Peak and who we later learned had cerebral oedema.
There wasn’t enough air to stand about, so we soldiered on to the final bit of the summit. It should be a gorgeous 45-minute walk with views over an ancient volcanic crater and carved glaciers glinting in the sunshine. But you don’t focus on that. You simply put one foot in front of the other in a determined effort to get to the top.
At last, you reach the famous sign. There is no moment of jubilation. Well there wasn’t for me. Relief flooded through my body that I had at last reached the top. But that was it. My focus was simply to get my picture taken (it’s a bunfight up there as everyone wants to get their shot) and get the hell down so that I could release some of the tightness in my chest.
After no more than 20 minutes at the top, I headed back to Stella Point. It was only at this point that I realised I still had to go down. Nine hours of walking and we were nowhere close to being done yet. They say that when you think you have spent all of your energy, you stilly have at least 40% in your reserve tanks. It was time to dig into those reserves.
The path down hill is different to the one going up. No gentle zig zagging traverses, just a scree slope to slide down. This might be fun if you had any strength left in your legs, but there were few who did. The dust kicked up by the scree gets into your lungs and it takes a huge deal of concentration not to trip over hidden rocks.
As you head down, the day heats up. All those layers you needed in the early hours of the morning are shed and added to your pack. The weight of your water, which you have now almost completely run out of, is replaced by the weight of your discarded clothes. Porters kindly took the daypacks of many. I wasn’t one of them.
There are no words to describe this downhill, three-hour slog. You simply want to get back to camp. It became apparent why those people we’d spotted the day before weren’t smiling. Nobody prepares you for the down. Everyone is too busy thinking about summiting. But getting to the top is just half-way. You haven’t conquered Kili until you get to the bottom.
I eventually staggered into camp around 12.30pm, having walked for just over 12 hours straight. I downed a litre of water, stripped off my boots and collapsed on my mattress, instantly falling into a deep sleep for an hour. I woke up coughing. The icy splinters I’d felt in my chest on the way up combined with the volcanic dust on the way down made for delightful grey sputum. Apparently it’s called the Khumbu cough, caused by low humidity and sub zero temperatures experienced at altitude and is thought to be triggered by over exertion. Tick, tick, tick. I was indeed a perfect Khumbu cough candidate.
Lunch – our first proper meal since 5.30pm the night before – was an eclectic affair of pineapple, pancakes, vegetables and chips. But no-one cared. It was fuel. There wasn’t much conversation, just thousand mile stares and lots of coughing. Despite us all looking like extras from a zombie film set, we had to pack up our bags and carry on walking. There is no water at camp to replenish our stocks and certainly not enough oxygen to spend another night at Barafu.
By 3.30pm we were back in our boots, trudging down the hill in fog. This path was however, a kind, gentle slope. Every step took us to more oxygen and strangely I felt stronger, rather than more tired the further I walked. The same can’t be said for some others who were feeling the exertions, particularly in their backs, knees and toes. Even with the extra oxygen, I was still ready to call it a day eventually.
We arrived at High Camp at around 6.30pm, after what seemed like the longest day ever. Once again the porters had beaten us to it and served us ‘plain soup’, which tasted remarkably like all the other soups but still felt like liquid gold going down. Chicken and rice followed. I vaguely recall acting as mother for both mess tents as everyone sat staring blankly, unable to help themselves.
We collapsed into bed. My sleep deprivation made me think that cleaning between my toes at this time was a good idea. It wasn’t. I gave up and passed out. The reality of what we had done drifted through my mind just as my eyes closed. We had summited Kilimanjaro!
Thanks to my hot water bottle and the extreme exertions of the day, I actually slept the entire night without having to pee, my first time in a week.
Start height: 3995m
End height: 4600m
I woke at 5am, listening to the sounds of the camp, before plugging in my audio book in an attempt to drift off again. I couldn’t. Although it was only Friday morning and we were only due to summit on Saturday morning, summit day would be starting on Friday night. We were in the final stretch.
I assessed the hygiene levels of my smelly clothes, shrugged and opted for breakfast instead. The usual porridge greeted us along with a jazzy new addition of Vienna sausages stuffed with vegetables. Eating is hard work. There’s lots of passing of cups and plates. The chairs either list dangerously as they’re set on uneven ground or slope backwards, ready to tip you out the tent. Someone acts as mother to help everyone else from having to get up, slopping ladles of porridge into tin bowls. The pill popping commences. General discussions about how everyone is feeling do the rounds. And then it’s time to head out again for another day of walking.
Standing on a rock, brushing my teeth before leaving, the clouds swirled around me, occasionally clearing to reveal the spectacular views. I was reminded of just how lucky I was to be doing this incredible challenge. It’s not glamorous. But it makes you feel alive. If you ignore the bustle behind you, it’s just you and the clouds on the top of the world.
The walk was a short, but steep one through the strange alpine desert until it kindly levelled out for a while. Rocks, dust, stones that sound like shattering glass, a few scrubby plants and very little air kept us company as we walked. Despite the ever-thinning oxygen, it was a jovial walk full of banter and laughs as we tried to take our minds off any nasty side effects. Cheese jokes. Debates about Wookie genitalia and indeed whether Wookie’s were male or female. It kept us smiling all the way up the steep climb to base camp.
We arrived at Barafu Camp, a barren, inhospitable place full of rocks and tiny patches of cleared ground for tents. Situated at 4600m, everything takes effort. Unpacking your sleeping bag, taking off your boots, trying to walk the 15 metres to the loo – it is all hard work that leaves you panting.
I had yet another toilet disaster upon arrival. The toilet tents hadn’t been set up yet and there was nowhere even remotely private to pee, so I raced into my tent and grabbed my urinal (a spare given to me by a friend). I had used it effectively for the last two nights so had no qualms about using it now. Except I forgot about the pathetically weak plastic which had obviously reached the end of its life. Cue pee all over me, my clothes and the inside of the tent. When you have very little air to breathe, trying to mop up pee with wet wipes and change out of wet clothes is exhausting. Such fun.
The weather at base camp is something out of the Book of Revelations. One minute it is so hot you can feel your skin frying. The next the clouds roll in, the winds blow and it is freezing. Hail is hurled down, thunder crashes below you and lightening zig zags the sky. It’s easy to believe you are losing your sanity.
Lunch was pasta, veg and fresh pineapple washed down with a briefing talk that made all of us wish we hadn’t eaten. Our resident medic explained what would happen on summit night. We could expect to vomit, get raging headaches, suffer from hallucinations, battle to breathe and potentially suffer from High Altitude Cerebral or Pulmonary oedema. So that was comforting. We were also told to expect 25km winds, temperatures of -15c and up to 20cm of snow.
We were advised to rest all afternoon. We didn’t need to be asked twice. Stumbling to our tents we noticed a stream of people who had obviously summited and were on their way down. Not one of them was smiling. Where was their elation and whooping and air punching? They looked like walking zombies. It didn’t bode well.
After ‘sleeping’ through thunderstorms, snow showers and melt-your-face off heat for a couple of hours, we had an early dinner at 5.30 and were told to get to bed as we’d be woken up at 10.30pm. You try and sleep when you have a carnival of emotions jostling inside you...
After zero sleep, we got up at the allotted time, got dressed into as many layers as we could and got ready to face the summit.
Start height: 3900m
End height: 3995m
For the first time since the walk began, I couldn’t face a morning coffee, probably a symptom of the altitude. But the nausea passed after a breakfast of porridge (again!), scrambled egg, toast and pancakes. By 7.30am we were ready to begin the big climb, but first we took in the incredible views that showed us how high up we had come.
We’d been warned about traffic on the Baranco wall as it’s a single file steep path up a rockface, with porters having to get by with their loads balancing on their heads. Thanks to our early start, we managed to get ahead of the bulk of the foot traffic and could simply concentrate on getting up.
The wall looks a lot scarier than it is – as long as you don’t look down. It was a day to put poles away and use your hands to scramble over the boulders. Looking for a place to put your feet and gripping a hand hold was actually fun and certainly took everyone’s minds off feeling ill. However, there is one particular part that will get the hearts of those afraid of heights thumping.
Called the Kissing Wall, you have to hug a rock and step across a gap with a good drop beneath it. A friendly guide waits with a hand outstretched to help you, but despite this, it still takes a deep breath and a leap of faith if you’re a vertigo sufferer like me. As I landed safely on the far side, it was though my body had to release the fear and adrenalin it had stored and I burst into inexplicable tears. I wasn’t the only one. Several of us all did the exact same. Altitude eh? It’s does funny things to your body and mind.
After two hours of boulder scrambling straight up, we got to the top. A fellow vertigo sufferer and I had a big hug at the top, before moving as far from the edge as we could.
Everyone amassed at the top, whooping that we’d conquered the wall and had a snack break and collective toilet visit behind the rocks. The mountain is littered with deposits from previous visits. You’ve always know when you’ve found a private toilet spot because of all the used tissue and piles of poo left behind. So you have a choice – privacy and revulsion, or a fresher spot where at least one person will be able to see you. By day 4, privacy was far less important than the ability to lean back against a rock with your backpack still on to use it as support both squatting down and getting up. The blokes had no idea how much easier they had it. Squatting multiple times a day with very little air to breathe is exhausting! Top tip: Do many squats as part of your training programme ladies.
Suitably lightened, we set off along a long path we could see stretching ahead through a valley. The rain set in. It was about this time that I realised my waterproof jacket wasn’t actually waterproof anymore.
We trudged on until our next campfire hove into view. Had we had wings, we could have flown across to it in minutes. Instead we had to traverse our way down the side of a steep valley that went on and on. Finally we crossed a stream on the valley floor and then had to head up the other side, which was just as steep, although mercifully shorter. As we lumbered up, the porters hopped like mountain goats up and down the path to fetch stream water for us to drink. Remarkable chaps.
We arrived at Karanga camp, situated at 3995m. It was our last camp before base camp and walking up to the tents took supreme effort. The lack of oxygen could definitely be felt, with our wet clothes not adding to our joy.
A hearty lunch of chicken, fried potatoes and greens, washed down with milo helped and we all set about trying to dry our kit in the brief snatches of sunshone. It’s hard to describe the intensity of the sun when it does come out at high altitude. It feels like a flame licking your skin and so our kit strewn across rocks and pegged on lines did dry.
A handful of us headed out for another acclimatisation walk, a relentlessly uphill trek through alpine desert, giving us a taste of what was to come the next day. We headed back for dinner of cucumber soup, rice and vegetable sauce. Carb stodge is what you need. It’s warm and filling and certainly helped me have a better night’s sleep at last.
We went to bed with the lights of Moshi every further away and the looming peak ever closer.
Start height: 3800m
Midway height: 4600m
End height: 3900m
After a hideous night’s sleep thanks to my mattress not being fully inflated, which meant being cold and uncomfortable, I was keen to get up and out of the tent. I’d been told it was best to sleep with as little on as possible so that the sleeping bag fabric is next to your skin and can do its job, but I was so cold I ended up wearing about 4 layers including my coat. Top tip: inflate your mattress fully or better yet, hire one of the mattresses the tour company offers, which are thick and warm and cost just $15 and you don't have to fit it in your bag..
Adding to the drama of the night, my uriwell device broke. I’d just got the hang of using it properly when it experienced one concertina too many and snapped. My tent mate understandably shrieked as droplets sprayed the inside of the tent. They were water droplets as I’d rinsed it, but everyone in the other tents enjoyed the, ‘Oh my god, is that piss inside the tent!’ Every day is a laughing day....
Breakfast again at 6.30am due to a long day ahead. It featured porridge that made me gag due to altitude sickness, but which quickly made way for sausage, egg and toast, which I was happy to tuck into. Every breakfast time looked a lot like a drug addiction clinic, as everyone lined up their various tablets for the day ahead: Malarone, Diamox, pro-biotics, vitamins, ibuprofen, paracetamol, rehydration sachets. Then there was the sun lotion application, water bottle refilling and bag packing.
By 7.30 we were on our way across the gorgeous Shira Plateau. Unlike the brutal ascent of the previous day, this was a gentle climb through alpine moorlands. We’d catch glimpses of the peak looming ahead of us, before the fog rolled in causing everyone to add layers and waterproofs.
Despite the climb being more gradual, breathlessness became a common factor as we gained height. Pole pole, sippy sippy, pole pole, sippy sippy became a mantra in my head as I listened to my ipod. Music is an incredible mood alterer. One moment a toe tapping pop song would come on, making me want to move faster than the requisite pole pole. The next instant Elgar’s Nimrod would come on and I’d be moved to tears by the enormity of what we were doing. There is something incredible about listening to a beautiful piece of music, looking up at a snow covered peak or the clouds swirling around you and simply thinking: 'I am here!'. It’s moments like that, which make you forget about the discomfort.
Mindset is such an important element in a walk like this. It is critical not to worry about what might happen or to dwell on how you are feeling. I found the best way to ignore any altitude side effects was simply to acknowledge them, congratulate my body for responding the way it was meant to, and then moved on. Complaining is a killer too. Focusing on the beauty around us and the once-in-a-lifetime privilege we had in doing the climb, helped keep my thinking positive.
I concentrated hard on my breath, inhaling deeply through my nose and slowly expelling the air through my mouth. I’d sip regularly on my water, holding it in my mouth for a few seconds before swallowing it. I’d let the clouds and the music swirl around me and just enjoyed it.
By lunchtime we’d made it to the famous Lava Tower, set at 4600m, another 1000m up from the last camp. The ever-awesome porters had raced ahead to set up the temporary lunch camp, cooked a fabulous lunch of pasta with chicken and made sure the toilets were ready for action!
Fully fuelled up and ready to carry on what was expected to be a 10-hour walking day in total, we left the eerie tower looming in the fog behind us as we descended down a steep rocky section into a valley, across a stream and then up again. Over the crest of that hill we made our way down again following a stream and walking through strange otherworldly trees that were apparently over 90 years old and which never lost their leaves.
I loved this walk and descending to a lower altitude made it easier to breathe. At last we arrived at the beautiful Baranco Camp situated at 3900m. It had views all the way down to Moshi in one direction and views up to the snow-covered summit in the other. It was, however, hard to ignore the wall of rock that stood between us and that end point. We’d be tackling the Baranco Wall the next day and for a vertigo sufferer, it didn’t look terribly appealing.
We had a flat pitch – yay! – no rolling into my tent mate in the middle of the night. I also got a washy washy wash and changed my clothes for the first time in three days. Whoop! Clothes up till this point had involved layers – thin walking trousers, t-shirt, thin midlayer, fleece gilet, waterproof outers and the option to switch between sunhat and fleece beanie. While walking you get warm. The minute you stop, you feel the cold. Good sunglasses, hand sanitiser, lip balm and tissues are other essentials to have on you at all times.
After getting clean, it was dinnertime. A treat of popcorn and mugs of tea served as an appetiser, before the main event arrived. Delicious leek soup with bhajis (or what could be described as savoury donuts) was followed with rice and mash with vegetable sauce. A warming mug of milo helped us to brace for the cold dash to the tents.
I used two mattresses, had a water bottle filled with boiling water to serve as a hot water bottle, attempted the naked sleeping thing, followed by layers of clothes. I was still cold and the altitude made it feel as though someone was sitting on my chest. So a restless night followed. I began to give up on ever sleeping well.
Day 4 and the Wall awaited.