Lake District, July 2020: A Weekend of Wild Camping and the Top of England

Mottled grey skies hid the tops of the peaks surrounding Keswick…not the promised sunshine, or even a partly cloudy day. The forecast remained good and so I was in the car by 9:15 and heading for Wasdale. I was glad I hadn’t left later than I did as there was almost no parking available and only by luck were there a few spots along the side of the road that were usable.

From the car we walked through a farm to start the trail up to Great Gable. It was initially flat and gravel but soon started to rise. Soon we were rewarded with views behind us and all around of the rugged Wasdale Valley and Wastwater. Scree-covered slopes plunged into the cool depths of the glacial lake. It could have been a wild, rugged and stunning valley if it weren’t for all the people.

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Scafell Pike hid, shrouded, in the clouds to my right as we climbed. Occasional smatterings of rain came through but never with much seriousness…only enough to have to put the camera away. The peak of Great Gable to the left became invisible behind its own lower bulk.

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We paused at Styhead Tarn at the apex of Styhead Pass before starting the never-ending ascent to Great Gable’s pinnacle. This is where the trail from Seathwaite up to Scafell Pike intersected with the “easy” trail from Wasdale Head that climbed to the top of England…and the amount of people more than doubled.

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The climb was tough and long and more people were coming down than going up…in fact I think I was the only one going up this route. The path was either small rocks, large rocks or placed “flag-stones” put into position by national park rangers…those are the ones I liked.

By the time we were half way I up I was exhausted and we stopped for another break. The views just kept getting better as we climbed, and every so often the clouds would depart the top of Scafell Pike. With more open views we could see the little dots of people milling around.

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Eventually, with much wondering if the mountain would ever end, some scrambling and cairn finding we reached the top of Great Gable. The views were epic. 360° scenery assailed our optic nerves and it was almost too much to take in. We looked down over Wastwater to the south west and Buttermere and Crummock Water to the north west. We could see the brutal switchbacks of High Crag and the lofty reaches of Great End and Scafell Pike. To the east yet more mountains scraped the sky.

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I had the mountain mostly to myself but after a few long minutes we made the treacherous and rocky descent to Windy Gap. I lost the trail one time as there seemed to be no cairns of any description and we ended up in a not-so-favorable location so we had to back-track slightly. The notch between Great Gable and Green Gable certainly lived up to its name.

I watched people descend the steep red path from Green Gable and heard more than a few complaints from a distance…apparently it looked better from afar than it actually was up close. However it wasn’t too bad to climb and when we reached the top and looked back at Great Gable I was lost for words. Great Gable from the new view was so much more dramatic than the long scree slope I had climbed and the cliffs were quite imposing.

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A brief stop atop Green Gable was enough to take in the view before we attempted the steep and treacherous descent back to Styhead Tarn. It wasn’t fun but it was definitely better going down than it would have been going up.

Back at tarn-level I was disappointed by the two large groups with massive tents who were blaring music. One also had a fire but I couldn’t see if it was off the ground. I don’t get coming into the mountains to blare thumpy music…just enjoy nature already. I knew I wouldn’t be staying there.

A short climb brought us to Sprinkling Tarn beneath the shadow of the imposing Great End. There were already a few tents dotted around the tarn so was glad I had arrived a little earlier than planned. The only flat dry spot I found was on a small hillock and surrounded by bog. I did find a small path through and set up the tent.

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Unfortunately there was a group across the tarn playing music (again, why?…and play it quieter and be considerate if you need it). As the evening progressed and I made dinner and fed the dogs more and more people trickled in to pitch tents. With the wind blowing I went inside to read didn’t watch how many finally showed up. Someone passing my tent at about 9:30 made a comment about counting 40 tents. This was not what I was expecting or hoping for on my only wild camp of the trip. It was certainly noisy and felt worse than a campground.

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I read for a while, trying to stay warm and wondering how so many people would be “taking care of business” in the morning…I was wondering how I would with no privacy.

Day 7

I slept better than I thought I would…I really struggled with comfort and the cold. I wasn’t actually cold…just psychologically I thought I was. I had pitched my tent, however, on a small bump on a little hillock which meant that there were no flat spots to lie on and I kept sliding into the door and the wall, or off my air pad. I was glad to see 6:30am and only crawled into the cool morning breeze when the sun hit the tent.

A quick breakfast and then a quick look around while “taking care of business”. If there is one reason to carry a poncho, this was it…privacy in front of everyone. Although 95% of campers were still asleep.

My neighbors on the tarn left before me…one of them, I had discovered the previous evening, was from the next town over from where I live. Neighbors in the mountains, neighbors at home. What are the chances?

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I had spent all night being irritated with the campers and the camp that I was pretty sure I was going to forget the whole trip and just hike out to the car in the morning. But stubborn me ignored that gut desire and made me climb to the top of Great End, my 14th Wainwright. And of course, stubborn me knew that once I was there and saw how close it was…I wouldn’t quit until I’d reached the summit of all English mountain summits.

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Part of my excuse for not wanting to do the climb was being concerned about the terrain for the dogs; I had been given some warnings about it. The first we encountered was climbing up toward Broad Crag through a minefield of boulders. However it was neither as treacherous or difficult as I had been led to believe…and certainly wasn’t as dangerous for the dogs as the boulder field before Jackass Pass in the Wind River Range. The dogs actually handled it better than I did…regular mountain-goat dogs.

So with Great End and Broad Crag behind me, neither of which had been a tough climb; I was, after all, about 3/4 of the way up them just by camping at Sprinkling Tarn and having done all the hard work the previous day.

Wide expanses of mountain and valley surrounded us on every side…Wasdale Valley and Wastwater to my right, the Eskdale Valley to my left. Great Gable stood sentinel at my back and the distant glint of sun twinkled back at me from Derwent Water. I could see the blinking lines of shimmering cars in Seathwaite lining the road, a metal divining rod pointing towards Scafell Pike.

A final bouldery descent into a deep saddle was followed by a quick snack of cheese and crackers…no wine though, sadly. And with a snack came entertainment…fell runners who had already come up from what is basically sea level at speed and were dancing nimbly from rock to rock like Big Horn sheep despite the pull of gravity. As soon as they had come they were gone, disappearing up the side of Scafell Pike with skill akin to the parkour athletes of the cityscapes.

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We climbed far slower…the pack had something to do with that I think…but it wasn’t bad at all and within twenty minutes from the saddle we were standing on the top of England. I was standing on my first “highest peak” of a country; no doubt there will be a summit of Snowdon and Ben Nevis in my future somewhere.

A quick photo or two were taken, both of which managed to make it look like I was the only one there. The peak was busy but not crowded…there are good reasons to start early in the day. Passing all the people on the way down let me know exactly how much busier the top was going to get.

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The descent was so much harder on the legs than the climb…and it never let up. Some sections were lovely paved slabs of rock and others were slippy, slidy, ankle-rolling rubble rocks…and yes I fell, again. So graceful.

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With legs like jello, shaking so hard I actually had to sit down and rest a few times, I finally made it back to level ground after about 90 minutes of descent. It was hot…not just warm, but hot. The difference 3000ft made to the breeze and air temperature was now very apparent and I was sweating.

I was tempted to dump my gear at the car but I resisted; too much expensive equipment to leave as visible temptation. Instead, I lugged everything another ¼ mile to the end of the road and to the Wasdale Inn. The pint of beer and nachos went down a treat despite them being out of sour cream AND guacamole. It was good end to a fabulous hike and I was thankful that stubborn me had won out…I knew I would have regretted not doing the whole thing…especially with Scafell Pike so close…I would have been an idiot not to so it and let all that effort go to waste.

You can watch my entire Scafel Pike and Great Gable adventure here:

Lake District, July 2020: Cat Bells, Maiden Moor, High Spy and Castle Crag

Day 5 – Cat Bells, Maiden Moor, High Spy and Castle Crag

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Back in Keswick for two nights I had planned to hike part of my original route with my friend Dave. Instead we did a long 16 mile route as a day hike.

While I prefer to start early, my version of early and someone else’s often aren’t the same. We were still at the parking area and hiking by 9am which was well before most people.

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The initial climb to the top of the first bell of Cat Bells was moderate and well-graded with gravel underfoot. It was a good leg and lung work-out and I was pausing often to admire the view, at least that was my excuse. And the views over Derwent Water and beyond to Blencathra, Skiddaw and the Helvellyn Range were quite something.

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There was a bit of rock “scrambling” to the get to the top of both the first and second bell at the summits and once again we paused to enjoy the stunning 360° views. The climb to Maiden Moor, which looked flatter on the map and at a distance, now looked quite imposing to climb. However climb it we did and touched the cairn at the top. And then on to High Spy where we stopped for lunch.

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Most of the trail so far had been really great and I was enjoying having someone along who really knew the area and could point out all the interesting things, and where I had been a couple of days prior on the ridge of Red Pike and High Stile. We enjoyed a lunch of leftovers while gazing up at the massive peak of Dale Head. I was quite thankful we hadn’t added that to the list of peaks for the day as it was a long way down to go back up again.

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The trail led us through a valley with the remnants of old slate mining works. It was quite tough going but no where near as bad as the descent from High Crag. What actually made it difficult was just how stiff and sore my legs were feeling from that hike. The hike down wasn’t too bad but I was glad to hit more moderate trail.

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Of course, when faced with a long hike home but one more small Wainwright in front of you, you always choose to climb some more. I was definitely tired at this point but Castle Crag was so close and on our route home.

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So up we went, climbed a couple of ladder stiles which the dogs found particularly tough to descend from, had a snack break while waiting for a young family to climb the shale pike, and then up we went. It was a decent path up the spoils heap although a little slippery in places because of the shale itself. It actually looked worse from the bottom than it was climbing up it.

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Close to the top we check out the old quarry where people had built their own little slate monuments…and there were a lot of them…and added our own. Some were quite large and elaborate and others were small and discreet; mine was the latter as I was out of oomph to do anything more.

One more short climb took us the top of Castle Crag where we once again looked out over Derwent Water. A quick picture taken atop the pinnacle rock of the peak and a perusal of the names of WW1 soldiers from the area who had died in the war and we started our descent.

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At last on flat ground and wide and easy path we still had another five miles to hike. Our reason for coming the back way off Castle Crag to the river rather than going back on ourselves was was to check out the cave of Millican Dalton, a local “mountain man” who used the cave as his home, off and on, for several years. The cave is an old quarry and is two chambers; a main large one and a small upper one where Dalton had his bedroom. At the center of the large cave was a stone firepit and seating.

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A book written about Millican Dalton’s life was actually performed as a play in the cave for a couple of nights. I can’t barely imagine how much work it was for all the stage crew to haul all the lighting and sound equipment up from the road by foot.

From the cave we followed the languid and clear River Derwent that looked so inviting. I wanted to fish it (which is free to do in most places in the Lake District with a few exceptions – rod license still required) but of course I, very sadly, didn’t have my fly rod with me…next time I will.

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Despite not being able to fish we did stop. The dogs played in the water for a while, chasing pebbles that were tossed for them or, in Kye’s case, dragged big rocks out of the water. She would loosen them with her paws and when it was shallow enough she would dunk her head under and getting a hold of them with her teeth before bringing them to shore and leaving them there. To this day I still don’t know why she does it.

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A quick stop at “Bear in the Window” to read some of the letters and postcards sent to the teddy bear in the window of a shed. Years and years of correspondence were shared with the world to read and enjoy. Such a lovely spot of humanity in the world to connect through a bear.

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We passed the famous cupped hand which were no longer where they were supposed to be. High waters had moved the wooden hands 100 yards closer to Keswick, and closer to the shore. I wonder if they’ll get moved back and secured better. They are supposed to sit in the center of the round stone circle in the bottom right of the picture:

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With a beer and pizza calling our name we hurriedly covered the final few miles back to the car. Views over Derwent Water from ground level were just a lovely as from above albeit quite different. The rain was just starting to come in as a light drizzle as we reached Hawes End Outdoor Adventure Center. We were thankful for the cover of the trees as it steadily increased and we were both thankful to reach the car only slightly damp.

And beer and pizza definitely finished out a long and exhausting but absolutely amazing and beautiful day.

 

Lake District, July 2020: A Quiet Day and an Iconic Crag

Day 4

After another long day we kept it quiet today. A brief stop at the Bowder Stone outside of Rosthwaite and another brief stop in Rosthwaite itself for a beer in the garden was the start of the day, which was actually already noon by that time (no 8am beer for me if that’s what you were thinking).

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From Rosthwaite we watched sheep being moves to new pastures and I had two dogs very eager to help. We also checked out a couple of farm campsites for future use when we finally get back to doing the original loop we had planned, or a variation thereof.

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From Rosthwaite we did a quiet, low level 5 mile hike to Seathwaite, the wettest place in England. Of course the sun was out for us and bathed the valley in layers of shadow and sunlight. The easy hike, other than the mild scramble just beyond the youth hostel, followed the River Derwent into the valley to Seathwaite Farm Campsite.

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The crystal clear waters of the river, little more than a beck here, were just too inviting. We paused on the banks, a low gravel beach, and the dogs played as I threw rocks for them. Kye brought me at least three rocks from the river bed. With the dogs thoroughly soaked and having had their fun we continued on.

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At Seathwaite Farm Campsite we made a slight U-turn and head back along the opposite side of the valley. This route took us through several stone-walled fields before leading us back to the youth hostel and then to Rosthwaite.

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We stopped for a second beer at the Scafell Hotel before heading up to find an overnight parking spot on Kirkstone pass…of which there were few and not easy to find. We did end up in a lovely spot but it rained for a while, although we were rewarded with a gorgeous rainbow first thing in the morning…although the camera didn’t capture it nearly as gorgeous as it was.

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***

Day 5

I was up well after the sun and it looked amazing reflecting on the mountains behind us. I am not sure which peaks hugged us to the north east but they were rugged and wild like so many in the Lake District.

The chill of the morning didn’t last long as the sun finally hit the car as I was packing up. It looked like it would be a good day for hiking and the weather forecast confirmed it.

We parked just north of Grasmere (much to my annoyance at the end of the hike) and followed a narrow path on the verge to the turn off of the main road. A quick meander through farm houses or B&Bs took us to the start of the climb for Dead Pike and Steal Fell, the highest point for the day.

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We had mountain to ourselves and the trail was easy to find. Loud voices across the valley brought our attention to farmers and dogs bringing sheep in to the sheepfold. It was fun to watch, even at a distance but one of the dogs had managed to corner the sheep on quite a precarious precipice.

I kept an eye on the progress as I climbed, reaching false summits (should have known they weren’t the top as I reached them too quickly). I am still not sure which one was Dead Pike but the peak of Steal Fell was obvious…and the cold wind was quickly and brutally sapping the heat from my body.

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We dropped off the top and the wind immediately quieted a little. Another cairn was ahead, not more than 30 yards away. I am not sure exactly which is the official summit but we touched both. Wainwright number 8 done.

We paused at a point well protected from the wind and almost half way around the horseshoe for a snack. And just as we were settled a chill rain came through. The poncho was hastily pulled over me, gear and pack…and camera…and we waited out the 15 minute shower while staring at superb views.

The weather continued to threaten throughout the rest if the morning but despite me donning my full rain suit for a bit we experienced no more than a few sprinkles of the wet stuff.

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There might not have been much water coming from above but the ground underfoot more than made up for it. From just below the summit of Steal Fell the ground was nothing but peat bog. Gortex trail shoes didn’t help much in those conditions although they did initially help keep my feet dry…they just weren’t up to THAT kind of challenge.

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We managed to mostly stay on the less wet parts and water never made it over the top of the rim of my shoes. The few rock outcroppings and mounds between the bogs were welcome islands of relief, despite the rocks and some scrambling.

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We summited Calf Crag and followed a faint trail by various pikes and mini-peaks to Gibson’s Knob (?), both of which I believe are Wainwrights. More of the same followed…descent to boggy area, rocky climb to dry area and back down again…and repeat.

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The final ascent took us to Helm Crag, home of the iconic and well-known rock formation The Lion and The Lamb…a gorgeous picture of which can be found here by landscape photographer Henry Turner:

(Credit to Henry Turner. Print can be bought here: The Lion and the Lamb – Limited Edition Photo)

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We didn’t get the best views of the rock formation (and certainly not as good as Mr Turner) and the one place we did see it well I forgot to take a picture…I was too busy taking video. Just below the crag we took a lovely long break with views over Grasmere…it was such a perfect moment with amazing weather…it had be so changeable it was nice to have.

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I check with some passing hikers about the best way down as there were two routes…the direct one was very much not advised. The “easy” one was still tough and rocky so I can only imagine how tough the direct version was…I was glad I had asked. Compared to the descent from High Crag, however, this one was a walk in the park.

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The trail dropped us in to Grasmere where I enjoyed a pint of Hop House 13 on the patio. There was no pub garden, but it was enough to be a good end of the day…well that, and some famous Grasmere gingerbread as well as an ice cream. I definitely splurged!

You can watch the whole amazing hike from Steel Fell to Grasmere here:

Lake District, July 2020: The Beginning

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Day 1

After connecting with a lovely gentleman by the name of Dave (through one of the outdoorsy FB pages I am a member of) who lived in Keswick, I had my resupply prepared for my half way point and met with him Friday night. 

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Dave offered me a ride to Windermere and with a free parking space located in Keswick I happily took the offer. He dropped me off at the train station in Windermere where I started my attempt at the 90 mile route that was the Tour of the Lake District.

After leaving the train station, and with my pack feeling especially awkward and heavy, we climbed through trees and across farm fields. This would be the norm for the day.

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My map book was doing me well until I reached Town End where I took a wrong turn. After chatting with a local and meeting another hiker I got my bearings but managed to leave my hiking poles behind. Along with the power failure in my car I was concerned that this boded badly for what was to come.

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The other hiker I met, whose name was Mike, offered to walk with me and we were both heading for Ambleside. When I realized I had left my poles behind he kindly offered to retrieve them for me. We walked together for a while…his legs and lungs far outpacing mine…but we enjoyed some conversation, although I was out of breath most of the time as we climbed away from Town End. Views over Windermere were stunning and there were some lovely cows that decided to pose in a lovely way for the camera in top field.

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Mike and I parted ways as it was already 2:30 and I needed a lunch break and he was heading on for Ambleside and plotting out the route for guests of the hotel he worked for. The company was nice but again I was reminded of why I prefer to hike alone…paces rarely match, and neither do fitness levels.

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A quick lunch break in Skelghyll Wood was lovely but not quiet as it was a well-used walk out of Ambleside. The view over Windermere from the overlook was lovely but not as good as I’d already been given.

We barely touched on the quaint town of Ambleside although it is well worth a visit as it was a town we had driven through and is the epitome of old English village charm. Sadly it is now a tourist draw but it is still a beautiful place to visit.

South of Ambleside we crossed the busy main road, taking our lives into our hands with some pretty chicken-worthy traffic dodging, and followed the river and a minor road north for half a mile.

Another climb assailed us. I was starting to really feel the weight of my pack at the this time and something wasn’t feeling quite right. I put it down to not having carried any serious weight since my two days on the South Downs Way in October 2019…more than eight months prior.

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We passed a couple of farms, waved to a gentleman on the balcony of his house who was watching walkers and cyclists. And not long after we turned off onto a bridleway. As we passed through the gate I watched a helicopter take off from a not-too-distant location in what I can only assume was a mountain rescue. Within minutes of the departure of the helicopter Cody was almost run over by a speeding cyclist. These trails are shared by hikers, horse riders and cyclists alike but I witnessed numerous moments of high cycle speed on steel downhill slopes with sharp corners almost contributing to accidents.

With Cody’s brush with cycle tires out of the way we paused for a snack break on the first piece of open access land we had come to. (Open Access land in the UK means you are not restricted to designated footpaths, bridleways and rights of way). Views that I knew would only get better as the days went on.

It was just after this very serene moment and lovely break that I made a very irritating navigational error. Granted I was following the map, but the trails weren’t obviously signposted and there was a lot of confusion with paths. I started climbing but this was when the rain came in…rain that wasn’t supposed to show until 6pm…another two hours away.

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So I inadvertently climbed what I believed was Ivy Crag. I talked to a family at the top who appeared to be locals who mentioned that a green strip just below us was a path down. It wasn’t. Upon checking the route it was nothing but boggy ground and led to a very steep, rocky, cliffy-like way down. I back-tracked.

The rain had cleared before I reached the top and I was rewarded with the sight of a beautiful rainbow in front of the fells. Sadly it was not to last and the brief rain shower was a portent of what was to come.

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By the time I got back to the turn-off and the right path I was getting tired. I was struggling with my pack and couldn’t quite understand why the weight wasn’t carrying centered. I put it down to the fact that I had drunk more water from the right side than the left.

By the time we reached Loughrigg Tarn the rain was starting up again. We had barely crossed a sheep field when it intensified. I ducked into the trees to don my waterproof pants to go with my waterproof jacket AND a poncho. While I wanted to wait for it to die down I had a feeling it would be a while. I don’t mind a little rain but when it is constant and incessant it is really demoralizing.

From Loughrigg Tarn we passed through a caravan park before crossing Skelwith Beck and passing Skelwith Force. We didn’t stop at the waterfall as there was zero protection to keep the dogs away from the edge…and it wasn’t worth the risk. There were also people already on the rocks and I’m not good with intruding on gatherings.

The rain continued off and on as we hiked a lovely stretch of bridleway through the woods. Half way through a field of cow the rain hit with a vengeance and made looking at the map very difficult and I kept doubting what I’d already checked. I was wet and tired and hadn’t really eaten much…lunch had been a very small affair. My energy was lagging and my attitude was not a good one.

On top of fighting the weather I was also fed up of dealing with gates that really didn’t accommodate anyone with a larger backpack, not to mention the stiles and gates in stone walls the dogs couldn’t get through or over and it took my minimal reserves of energy just to get them over these hurdles manually. Thirty-forty pounds of dog, plus their packs was no small weight when I was already struggling.

Finally with all the fields and torturous hiker-gates behind us we climbed yet another hill although the rain had now paused for a short while. I was pleasantly surprised by the appearance of Colwith Force which I had forgotten I had routed us past. With all the rain in previous days it was quite the dramatic waterfall.

The woodland dumped us out into more farm fields and then onto a restricted byway where I made another navigational error. I was already running on fumes and was really struggling by this point. Thankfully the error was only across a level trail and we didn’t get beyond the next gate before correcting it.

At this time I was fed up. My pack was causing some serious issues with my shoulder and after taking a closer look at it I realized the frame was crooked. This was the same pack in the same configuration I had used the previous year with no issues but I knew something wasn’t right. At least I knew my fatigue wasn’t just due to lack of calories and the weather.

I was ready to find a camping spot but the place I thought about camping for the night was either covered in bracken or a swamp of bog. I decided on my back-up plan and made the steep but short climb to Cathedral Cave, an old quarry tunnel and cavern that was meant to be beautiful. But my back-up plan was thwarted as the cave was closed due to a rock fall at the far end.

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I was now feeling really defeated. I looked at the map and hoped there might be another camping possibility further down the trail. I sent mom my InReach check-in message as it was already 8pm even though I wasn’t in camp. When we stood to leave Cody was struggling with his hind-leg not working right; he was almost carrying it as though it was dislocated although he had done nothing to it. It was at that time…a combination of unexpected bad weather, Cody looking hurt and my pack causing major issues that I decided to call it and bail on the trip temporarily.

I called Dave for a pick up and returned back to Keswick where I replanned my whole week to keep Cody healthy and still able to hike.

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***

Day 2-3 – Scale Force, Red Pike, High Stile and High Crag, plus Side Pike

I wasn’t about to waste a week of hiking in the Lake District. After looking at my book, a few maps and remembering my friend Abbie Barnes had done Scale Force on one of her videos I decided to incorporate that into a longer hike.

A steep climb from Keswick, over Honister Pass, dropped me into Buttermere where I parked at The Fish Inn for convenience. There were a few other walkers out but most seemed to be visiting Sour Milk Gill waterfall and walking around Buttermere. A few hardier souls were following the path to the right along Crummock Water.

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Cody was looking good for not walking well yesterday…I swear he malingers sometimes to get out of long walks. A short two miles saw us following the western bank of the lake before we crossed Scale Beck and began climbing up the valley. The path was easy to find and generally easy to navigate although there were certainly some boggy bits and a bit of rock hopping required.

The short steep climb up to Scale Force was a good one and dropped us out just above the beck. A bridge that crossed the creek provided me with amazing initial views of the massive waterfall; it was quite awe-inspiring and made me feel quite small below its raw power.

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Scale Force sits back in a carved hollow. The wide and deep waterfall in the lower section is preceded by a long elegant drop of white cascading water that was reminiscent of a horse’s tail. The amount of rain the Lake District had had recently meant that the waterfalls were pretty spectacular and dramatic…although there is something to be said for the lower water flows in dry seasons…I often find them prettier and more unique.

From Scale Force we climbed up the right side of the gully. This was the “proper” footpath marked on the map but it turned out to be a very steep and overgrown trail. Most people seemed to be climbing on the left side of Scale Force which I only realized too late. Climbing on the right meant I missed out on some views of the waterfall and meant a wet crossing of the creek further up the valley. Cody struggled to cross and in aiding him I got a very wet foot and almost lost a hiking pole.

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The climb continued in moderation and felt quite long. I was starting to wonder if we would ever reach the top when Red Pike came into view over the wide flat top of the rise. It looked massive and despite how much we had already climbed it looked twice as hard. But on we went and despite my misgivings the ascent wasn’t bad. The views, which I struggled to find words for, were spectacular. We looked down over the valley and Buttermere Lake and Crummock Water, and across the valley to Whiteless Pike and beyond to Keswick.

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From Red Pike we dropped down slightly before following the edge of the cliff (not quite the edge) round to High Stile. The views of the cliffs ahead, and of the peak before us, were quite different to those approaching Red Pike. High Stile had a very unique profile and a great approach and as we walked between the two Wainwrights we looked down over Bleaberry Tarn and some very steep-looking trails back to the valley.

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The views from High Stile weren’t hugely different from Red Pike but we had a better viewpoint for Ennerdale Valley which people often speak fondly about. We headed towards what I thought was High Crag but I couldn’t see how there would be a good way down. I checked my phone for the map and realized we had missed the turn for High Crag.

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Thankfully we hadn’t missed the path by much and instead of backtracking we crossed the top of the ridge. We met up with the path as it dropped down to a narrow ridge-line towards High Crag. The sun and partially cloudy sky made for some stunning photography opportunities, and the landscape certainly helped.

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I was still feeling good at this time…right up until we started the brutal descent down the scree-field trail to Seat. The trail switchbacks helped a little but the footing in many spots was quite treacherous…I was amazed that the two guys in front of me were managing it with big packs and without hiking poles.

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Finally at the bottom with jelly legs shaking quite visibily we climbed the last little mount to Seat before meeting up with the trail that came down from Haystacks. If I was thinking that a trail up to a popular Wainwright would be smooth and easy I was about to be proven wrong. Rough, bouldery, rocky and not very pleasant…those were the words I would use to describe it. Of course it may have been those things only because I had already done the previous scary and jelly-leg inducing descent.

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I finally reached the base, and the head of Buttermere. Despite it being a tough descent, looking back I was very glad I hadn’t had to climb that route with gravity against me. Doing the route counter-clockwise had definitely been the right choice.

The last mile along the banks of Buttermere felt really long and since it was 8pm I was ready to be back at the car. I was envisioning mac and cheese for dinner.

From Buttermere we headed back to Honister Pass where we found a quiet pull-out for the night. I made the mac and cheese but the replacement cheese (Jarlsburg vs goat’s cheese) I used but was not conducive to melting well and the meal I had been looking forward to wasn’t as good as hoped.

Honister Pass ended up being a great, quiet spot for the night and we were rewarded with part of an epic sunset over the peaks.

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You can see the epic footage of the hike here: Be kind this was my first YouTube attempt.

***

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The following day didn’t have the greatest forecast and Cody was looking quite stiff…and I was feeling much the same due to the descent from High Crag. Initially I spent the first part of the morning driving around looking for toilets and eventually had to resort to a porta-potty beside the road that was actually pretty clean.

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A drive up to Blea Tarn, and a break in the weather, gave us the opportunity to do the only hike of the day. We did a short but steep climb to the top of Side Pike, a sister summit to Lingmoor Fell. I was a little disappointed to learn this peak wasn’t actually a Wainwright, especially considering some of the other random flat “mountains” of zero note that are considered to be Wainwrights…I need to step back in time and have a chat with this gentleman. The climb up required some rock scrambling which Kye did with ease but Cody needed a boost up some of them.

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The views over the Langdale Peaks to the north, and the valley below were pretty spectacular in spite of, or maybe because of the weather. We made it back to the car just as the rain began to come in again. With the weather as good an excuse as any we drove down to Little Langdale and enjoyed a pint of beer and some cheesy chips (the big English-style kind) in the lovely Old Dungeon Ghyll pub. Sadly what could have been a lovely charming olde-worlde pub felt sad with all the virus protection measures in place. Despite this it was still a lovely pub that I hope to visit another day.

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Two days and three Wainwrights bagged, and one extra peak

A Weekend on Exmoor, July 2019



I have always been an independent hiker and backpacker (except in Grizzly country) so when I felt a deep inner need to do an organised hiking and camping weekend it had me questioning myself a bit, or maybe a lot…I don’t do organised group trips. However, this one was different; it wasn’t just any group hike, it was one organized by one of the strongest and most inspirational women I know…Abbie Barnes.

So with the car packed and fueled up I hit the road early Friday afternoon with the dogs, feeling excited and apprehensive, and mentally cursing the frustrating traffic that I was encountering. I had left early to avoid this kind of mayhem although I’m sure rush hour would have been ten times worse.

A quick stop at a lovely pub in an itty bitty town after three hours of driving gave me the chance to Google for a campsite that wasn’t extortionate on price for a tent. Ashe Farm near Taunton fit the bill at £6 a night and was quite a pleasant place to stay, even with the loud music that was thankfully turned off at the 10pm cut-off.

An early morning start (didn’t sleep great) had me at the trail head parking lot in Withypool at 8am (a little bit early for the 10am scheduled meet time) so I sat and read for while, waiting for the others to arrive and slowly they trickled in. Abbie was the last to arrive and I was weirdly nervous and shy to meet this amazing lady I had been so inspired by…and I’m not a shy or nervous person around people; while she talked with a couple of the hikers she already knew I sat quietly with the dogs.

The dogs were the best ice breaker as Abbie loves dogs and knew of mine from this blog, and I soon felt a little more at ease, although still strangely nervous.

We were all ready to go and were soon climbing up out of Withypool to the high point of the day which provided spectacular views all around. Everyone was super friendly and we all talked as we climbed through scrubby moorland, and the cameras were out often. 

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We passed an ancient stone circle that was barely visible and had, sadly, recently been vandalized. There is very little of this kind of ancient history on Exmoor left to see; Exmoor, unlike Dartmoor, is only 14% moorland and many of the ancient histories have been plowed under with farming being a predominant feature of the landscape.

With the stone circle behind us we followed roads and tracks and ended up on the Coast to Coast Two Moors Way, a 100+ mile route from Wembury on the south coast of Devon to Lynmouth on the north coast and looking out over the Bristol Channe towards Wales. We followed this for some time, remaining up high and often passing through sheep fields which were torture for the dogs as I had to keep them leashed for a lot of the time and they just wanted to work.

We descended as we started to hear the sound of water and reached the highlight of the walk. Tarr Steps is an old trapper bridge and according to local legend, the bridge was built by the devil as a place to lay out and take in some rays, but he was eventually run off by a local parson.

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We stopped for lunch and were amused by some very brave Chaffinches who wanted to share our food and actually took it out of the hand of one of the other walkers.

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Soon we were back walking and were following the banks of the River Barle on a quiet and peaceful stroll back to Withypool.

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It was during this time, and at various other times during the day, that Abbie had I discovered just how much we had in common and talking with her was like having a conversation with an old friend. Whether it was backpacking gear, long trails, Vikings or dragons, dogs or other things…we both had the same kind of passion for it. I was beginning to understand why God had made the urge to do this trip so strong in me.

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Back at the cars we all headed out for the 40 minute drive to the campsite…a very pretty location alongside the river at Cloud Farm. Sadly there were a lot of people and big tents but we managed to find a spot to fit all our tiny tents together, plus the cars. It was a great communal feel and it was fun to be camping with so many like-minded people.

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Everyone made tea or coffee (except me) as Abbie got fuel ready for the campfire, and we all settled in to some easy and laughable conversation.

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A quick and quiet walk along the river built up an appetite for dinner. As Abbie got the campfire going we all cooked dinner and everyone learned the very American magic of “pink bunnies” to make smoke move…they’ll all remember me for that one for eternity.

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A kid screaming close by, and the bright sky kept us all up talking late into the evening but by 10pm we were all retiring to the cozy confines of our tents and sleeping bags.

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***

What a rough night. The child that had been screaming at 10pm last night woke us all at 4am, and again at 5. I was thankful for the ear plugs I had graciously been given but they can only do so much to protect against the well-used vocal chords of an upset 2 year old. I was up at 6:30am, again with the child-alarm going off and I crawled out of my tent into the damp cold of the morning. A heavy dew soaked everything and as soon as I was dressed warmly I started on wiping the tent down to dry.

Everyone else started to stir and made coffee and breakfast as we began to dry out tents pack camp away. We were ready to go around 9am but a flat tire on one of the cars had us a little delayed in leaving, as did the detour a couple of us took when we missed the turn…that’s what I get for following others! It was a pretty detour though and didn’t add on too much time and we were on the trail by 10am.

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Another national trail (the South West Coastal Path) marked the start of this hike as we climbed and descended through the longest stretch of old coastal woodland in the UK. We passed an old spring that looked more like a shrine to the ancient gods and felt like it belonged in Middle Earth…a common theme througout the 13 miles of the day.

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While the first few miles were buried within the trees we were occasionally blessed with gaps in the trees. The views over the Bristol Channel were beautiful and clear, and the cliffs and beaches below them almost defied description with their edge-of-two-worlds charm. The blooming purple heather added another dimension to the already-stunning vistas and just gave one sense of peace and tranquility.

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I was setting a moderate pace as we rose and fell along the trail, pausing to give others time to catch up. Slowing ones own pace down to not get too far ahead is definitely something I had to be constantly thinking about as I felt my feet speeding up every so often. My former guiding habits as a wrangler kicked in as I constantly turned to make sure we were all still together…a habit I will likely never lose. Of course it is tough to hike and look behind at the same time and I was constantly living up to my well-known clumsiness as I tripped on every rock and shadow. Abbie brought up the rear and no man was left behind.

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The only thing to marr the enjoyment of the trail were the sheep ticks…I have never seen so many ticks before. Dog ticks I can just about deal with as they are often easy to remove but these little things were almost impossible to grab a hold of and remove. I was really glad I had been treating the dogs since April, and had given them a boost before this trip. I was constantly seeing ticks crawling on them and pausing to remove them quickly. We still had to stop once to remove more than two dozen ticks that had already taken a bite.

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Once out of the cool damp woodland the amount of ticks dropped rapidly and there were few to be seen as we crested the hill and looked along the coastline to Lynton and Lynmouth…and what a sight that was. We were unbelievably lucky with the weather and the turquoise sea below us looked very Mediterranean while mottled with deeper shades of grey-blue beneath the clouds.

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A long steep downhill path took us into Lynmouth, a quaint seaside town full of old-world charm and picturesque store fronts and stone cottages. We visited the flood memorial museum that detailed the historical events of the fatal flood of 1952.

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A quick stop in the national park center was made as everyone but me and Abbie munched on homemade Cornish pasties and then we headed to an old pub for a proper Devonshire cream tea…and it was amazing.

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A nap felt like it was needed but we were pressed for time and we were soon back on the trail, following the Lyn River to Watersmeet where the east and west Lyn rivers meet…surprisingly. We passed the site of the old ginger beer production site that had been washed away in the flood and I felt a calm sense of serentiy beneath the old, gnarled trees that were dressed in the green garb of moss and lichen. Rock overhangs made me want to build a home in some places as the feeling of Middle Earth was strong and the place felt quite magical. It was definitely my favorite stretch of the trail.

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While there were still ticks there weren’t as many as along the wide track as there had been along the narrow coastal path…or maybe the dogs just didn’t brush against the vegetation as much. It was also through here that I had my injury for the trip…never had a trip that didn’t involve something. At least this time it was only a slip and an ungraceful landing on my butt with a grazed knee…and another pair of hiking pants ruined by a hole in the knee. That made me more mad than the fall and the bruised knee.

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After a few miles we stopped at a bend in the river, and the dogs got to play in the water for a while, chasing unobtainable sticks and cooling off while having fun. Everyone got the chance to see Kye doing her “dunking her head to remove big rocks from the water” thing…it got a few laughs and many comments.

After taking a quick pee break as others got back on the trail I hung back a little. I was starting to feel a little overwhelmed with being with the group (lovely people though they were). The lack of alone space and time that I am so used to while I’m hiking…and why I get out in the first place…was starting to get to me a little. Time alone in nature is my balm.

Abbie hung back to make sure she hadn’t lost me, as responsible group leaders do, and it was during this time as we hiked alone that I had the most amazing and important conversation I have had in my adult life with anyone…ever. I now knew exactly why God had put this intense need to do this organized trip in my head and laid it so heavily over my heart that it was almost suffocating.

Sadly our time to talk was too short and we soon arrived at Brendon where we had to leave one of our party behind who was struggling with the length of the hike. (Abbie headed back to pick him up in the car when we were done, we didn’t just abandon him).

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The last mile or so out of Brendon was a steady uphill climb in the intense sun. We were all suddenly missing the shade of the trees. Someone had also cut back the gorse that lined the trail on one side but the cuttings had been left and made walking for the dogs very difficult and painful. Twice I had to carry a dog, with Abbie helping with the other…definitely much appreciated. Of course both dogs were wet from the river still but damp clothes were actually a blessing on that long, hot climb back to the car.

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While I was hot and tired I wasn’t really ready for the weekend to be over. A last conversation was had by the group and then we all bid our farewells to each other. I watched everyone depart one by one to their homes in other places, far removed from the peace of Exmoor.

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The next morning felt good after a solid night of sleep, albeit with some strange dreams and I headed into Lynmouth to check out the little town some more…and to eat a one of those amazing pasties that had smelled so good on Sunday. I had no plans and I was just going to enjoy some alone time away from work and people and spending some quality time with the dogs. After the amount of ticks I had decided against doing another hike despite my original plans.

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Despite a slightly unorthodox approach to hiking and camping for me I had an absolutely amazing time, met some fabulous people and made some amazing memories. I’m really glad I listened to my heart and did this trip and I can highly recommend booking a weekend or day hike with Abbie, especially if you not confident to go alone or you are just getting into hiking.

If you don’t know who Abbie Barnes is, follow the links below to check out her Spend More Time in the Wild videos on YouTube and the website…I hope you find her as inpirational as I do.

Song Thrush Productions

Spend More Time in the Wild

West Highland Way After-Thoughts: What I Would Do Differently, and What I Would Keep the Same

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The West Highland Way was not what I expected. Coming from an American backpacking background I am used to remote wilderness and being far from help…and very empty trails. I knew the WHW would be busy but I had predicted just how busy it would be, and the amount of trash those people would leave behind them when there aren’t garbage cans to put it in immediately.

Was I disappointed in the hike? No (other than the amount of toilet paper). Would I approach it differently next time? Absolutely.

While Scotland is remote and beautiful, and one of the last wilderness-type areas in the UK, it still isn’t that wild…you are almost never a day from anywhere. And that is the expectation I would change if I re-hiked the West Highland Way…or most other UK national trails; some of the more remote Scottish trails might be the exception. What the UK does have is an abundance of history and culture, and that’s something that I learned to embrace more on the West Highland Way vs the solitude of distant rugged peaks miles from the nearest dirt road (let alone a paved road or, God forbid, a town) that I am used to in Wyoming or Utah or Colorado.

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The West Highland Way, or any popular trail for that matter in Europe, needs to be approached with very different expectations than those you often find in the US. You need to be okay with running into more people (who are often very interesting), tenting less (or at least “wild camping” less) and appreciating that you will run into unique and quaint towns a lot more often (which also, generally, means carrying a lighter pack as it easier to buy food every day or every other day).

So how would I approach the West Highland Way differently now I’ve hiked it? And how will I approach future UK (and some European) backpacking trips differently?

First, I’d carry less food. I am so used to backpacking in the US where you can plan a trip that can go for a week or more without crossing a road or seeing a town, and you need to carry everything with you…and I love that…it’s why I got into backpacking in the first place. But it is rarely something you will experience on most popular trails in Europe, and especially in England.

Pubs and quaint cafes in the UK and Europe are abundant; I often found that since I was on vacation I would rather eat a good meal that was local, and enjoy a local beer, vs eating the bland Ramen noodles I brought with me. British pubs are awesome and almost everywhere permits dogs; I love the atmosphere of chilling outside in the pub garden or inside watching local patrons…there are some good stories to hear from the locals. Pubs were one of the few things I missed about the UK when I was in the US.

Second, I’d mix up the wild camping and the campsites and wouldn’t plan on just “wild camping”. Just like the PCT or AT there is a hiker culture and mentality along the trail, and when you get done with a long day on the trail it is fun to talk with people who just walked the same section you did. Hikers are generally an awesome group of people and I met some amazing people while I was hiking…whether in the pub, those I chatted with on trail or those that helped me out when I was sick. I love wild camping and wouldn’t trade the few nights I had, but I also enjoyed the couple of nights I camped in campsites and could sit and chat for a while.

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Third, I’d forget the Smidge. I brought it as my only midge deterrent as I heard it was AWESOME and it didn’t work. I bought a headnet on the second day which was a much better investment…lighter and infinitely more useful. I dumped the Smidge. Don’t underestimate the greater Scottish midge…ever.

Fourth, I’d change my schedule slightly. Again I was relying on my experiences of hiking in places like Wyoming’s Wind River Range where 12 miles a day was a good day, at least for me, with all the steep ups and downs (with views to match). I booked my only non-tent night for the night of day 5 but it was too far out; if I hadn’t gotten sick and ended up in the hospital I would have been there a day early. Seven days would be a good trip schedule for most backpackers in decent shape…six days for those in better shape or who are tight for time.

As a backpacker and camper who doesn’t rely (or always care for) paid-for campsites this would be my adjusted schedule to not push myself and still enjoy a relaxed pace, and also my reasons:

Day 1: Milngavie to just above Dryman/before Balmaha wild camp.

The great evergreen trees provide numerous protected great wild camps once you turn off the main road that leads to Drymen. This is such an easy section that 13 miles disappears easily. I started at noon and it meant the trail was mostly empty and devoid of two-legged traffic. It was a good lesson on starting to hike either early or late.

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Day 2: Wild camp to 2nd wild camp past Rowardennan, beyond the camping restriction boundary.

The Rowardennan Hotal would be an easy stopping place for a quick, late lunch before finding a wild campsite. The permited site 1/2 mile south of the hotel was a good spot if you want to do dinner at the hotel, or started late, and not go above 15 miles but with hindsight I would push on past the boundary (after a good bite to eat) to where wild camping is permitted.

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Day 3: Rowardennan (either wild camp or permit site) to one of wild camp or Beinglas Farm Campsite

Wild camp south of Doune Bothy or just past the ferry to Ardleish (I wouldn’t choose to stay at the bothy unless the weather was terrible); both offer beautiful lake-side camping spots; or one of the few pay-for campsites I would choose to stay and pitch up at was Beinglas Farm Campground at Inverarnen…food was awesome, facilities were great and it was fun to socialize with the other hikers.

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Day 4: Wild camp/Beinglas to Tyndrum.

There seemed to be few good spots to wildcamp through this area but the 15/12 miles for the day, and being a little over the half way point, made Tyndrum a great stopping point for resupply and laundry/shower. Not as great as Beinglas Farm for the social aspect and food, but the staff were friendly and very helpful and it was an easy walk to town…and a very good burger.

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Day 5: Tyndrum to wild camp on Rannoch Moor.

If I had one single favorite night of camping on the West Highland Way it was the night on Rannoch Moor; the views were stunning and I had the whole place to myself. I hiked in during the shower-prone afternoon where everyone else stopped at the Bridge of Orchy (a very short day from Tyndrum), the Inveroran Hotal or camped at Victoria Bridge, and had the most incredible location to set up my tent. I loved that I hiked, either in the afternoon or first thing in the morning, alone. I can’t recommend stopping here more…best sites are around Ba Bridge, Ba Cottage and the next bridge north.

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Day 6: Rannoch Moor to Kinlochleven.

Waking up to something so different from the night before was what sold me on spending the night on Rannoch Moor…it was worth it. There are few camping choices in Kinlochleven and I had originally planned to wild camp beyond the town. The campgrounds have tough ground that doesn’t like tent stakes much. There are several good camping spots just as the trail leaves the road out of the town (and still near to the pub/hotel) or further up the hill (with several good water sources). The only reason I chose a campground was due to my illness being an issue…I would choose to wildcamp next time, in either place mentioned above. If I was to pick a campsite I would definitely go with the place with the view along the loch again at the MacDonald Hotel vs the Blackwater Hostel along the road.

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Day 7: Kinlochleven to Ft William. No advice here…just finish the trail. However, getting up early and having the whole valley to myself at 5am was pretty awesome….I would highly recommend an early start every day if you prefer to experience the trail without the rabid hordes.


I carried more clothes on the West Highland Way than I have ever carried on any trip. Scotland’s weather is more changeable than anything I have ever encountered in the US and while I barely needed my down jacket and my extra fleece I was glad I had them as I did use them when the sun disappeared. With the abundance of water (or easy access to refilling bottles) an extra layer of clothes wasn’t an overwhelming weight. I was also extremely glad to have a waterproof rain suit (pants and jacket) AND a poncho for me and the pack. I wouldn’t carry a pack cover again unless the forecast was 100% chance of rain, in which case I wouldn’t be out backpacking.

I picked a great time of year to do this trail and got pretty decent weather and fewer midges than in summer. If hiking this trail, or any other Scottish trail again, I would certainly pick the shoulder seasons again. This does mean avoiding Conic Hill with the dogs in April and May, but it was worth missing just to be able to do the rest of the hike with them.

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Recommended Stopping Places…for food and/or beer:

Drymen: While I didn’t even go near Drymen I heard a lot of recommendations for The Clachan Inn from many people.

Balmaha: The Oak Tree Inn sits is a great place to stop for lunch or a pint…or both. The location is gorgeous and the beer is good. A tea/coffee shop sits onsite also for those less inclined to have a pint while hiking (who are you weird people?) or when it’s too early for beer…yes, there is such a time.

Rowardennan: The Rowardennan Hotel had good food, good beer and a lovely beer garden if it’s warm enough and there aren’t too many midges with amazing views over the loch. A good place to stop for lunch but the hotel is expensive and the only other option is wild camping or the youth hostel.

Inversnaid: There is only the hotel that is easily accessibly. Sadly I was there right before I got sick but the food did look good. Be prepared to ditch coats, boots and packs in the mud room before entering.

Inverarnen: The Drover’s Inn across the river is worth checking out for a drink but the restaurant/bar at Beinglas Farm (apparently) has the better food, not to mention lots of other campers/hikers to socialize with…definitely a place where the “hiker trash” gathers. Of the three of us who ate there together not one person had a negative thing to say about the food…and it all disappeared fast.

Tyndrum: The Tyndrum Inn has some great food and decent wine. I didn’t care much for the atmosphere in the restaurant (maybe I was too early as I was the only one there) so would choose to eat in the bar next time. A little pricey but the service was good.

Bridge of Orchy Hotel: Stopped for lunch and had an amazing bree and grilled onion pannini…was amazing. Great food, dog friendly, good local beer and not too expensive. Definitely worth stopping at for lunch, or dinner before camping at Victoria Bridge.

Glen Coe Ski Resort: A well-located cafe just off the trail. Food was okay but pricey for what you get. Good stopping place for breakfast if you camp on Rannoch Moor, or a cup of tea if coming through later in the day.

MacDonald Hotel, The Bothy Bar: Great views but not much of an outside beer garden. Dog friendly and again the food was pretty good (although I don’t actually remember what I had). A good place to socialize with locals or other hikers and close to a couple of wild camping spots.


Many people hike this trail hut to hut style and have their bags transfered each day by utilizing one of many baggage transfer companies. It is not something I chose to use. I didn’t want to be restricted on where and when I would be stopping for the night, not to mention that doing that turns a backpacking trip into a series of day hikes, at least for me. So much of what I love about backpacking is that it ISN’T day hiking, not that I don’t enjoy day hikes…I just much prefer backpacking…it’s a mental thing.

However, I did use one of the services for a resupply box and my shuttle back to Milngavie. Would I use this approach again? Yes. It worked great to have the dogs’ extra food, and some shampoo and my phone charger etc shipped to the middle point. Since I drove to Scotland, having a dog-friendly ride back to the car was essential so we didn’t have to deal with the delay of public transport. I wouldn’t ship as much of my own food next time for the same reasons as I wouldn’t carry as much food. I can’t speak highly enough of Baggage Freedom who went out of their way to work around my needs.


One final word: PACK OUT YOUR TRASH. I can’t stress enough how ugly and disappointing it was to see so much toilet paper on and near the trail, not to mention the one place I saw the plastic applicator from someone’s feminine product right next to the trail. Some places on Rannoch Moor, back in the trees, looked like a trashed nightclub restroom at 2am; either carry a mini trowel and bury the toilet paper or pack it out in a ziploc bag. It isn’t rocket science and it’s all about respect for the land, and for others.

These are the thoughts I had after hiking 96 miles of Scotland’s most famous trail; I’m sure there are more so please share your thoughts, experiences and recommendations below.

Backpacking the West Highland Way, May 2019: Part 4

Day 7

I had hoped, during the hours I was falling asleep, that I would get to enjoy Rannoch Moor in the sunlight. I had appreciated it’s dark beauty through the mists, clouds and rain and wanted to see it’s other side. I was not disappointed.

My sleeping pad was half-way flat by morning and I hadn’t used it for more than this trip…only night 3 of sleep in my tent so far. I was disappointed. I slept okay but not great and wasn’t ethusiastic about waking up when all I saw was was grey light through the ceiling of my tent. But it was warmer than I expected and I crawled out from under my cozy quilt.

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While my tent may have been over-shadowed by cloud the rest of the moor was mottled in peridot and citrine as the sun beamed through random breaks in the clouds. The mountains were alive in such spectacular fashion I had to take a moment to soak the feelings into my soul.

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The landscape was a living thing that writhed between the tough of water, sun and wind and reveled in all of it. I was beyond thankful that I had made the decision to camp on the moor…I had experienced it completely alone and without the hordes that would normally pass through around mid day. And I had also been blessed enough to see her dressed in both summer and spring garb.

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With my poetic license wrung out we were out of camp by 7am. I was surprised that there was no condensation in the tent and only minimal moisture on the underside of the floor. A lone trail runner passed by camp as we were packing up and that was the only person we saw until Kingshouse, the Glen Coe Resort and the King’s House Hotel.

With the solitude I was enjoying on the trail, and the quiet spring morning, I was blessed with three separate encounters with Scotland’s famous red grouse. Initially I thought I was hearing frogs ribbeting as they called to each other, but as I got closer to the sound I found myself walking up on a bird with vivd rust plummage that didn’t seem all that bothered by me.

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Initially the weather and sun was pleasant but as soon as we topped the “pass” below Gualainn Liath Ghiuthais the wind became extremly bitter and unforgiving. I had all my clothes on bar my sleep layers, hat and puffy jacket and was still chilled to the bone and I decided to make a brief detour. An hour-long stop at the cafe at Glencoe Mountain Resort and a hot sausage sandwich was all that was needed and I was ready to re-brave the chill. But once I was back on the trail again the air felt like it had warmed a few degrees and the wind wasn’t so biting.

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From the cafe it was a brief downhill walk to the Kingshouse Hotel where I finally saw some of the native deer, who are renowned for being particularly friendly. We finally rejoined the hordes and despite my early start, the four miles across Rannoch Moor from the campsite had eaten up our morning advantage. We were all heading for Kinglochleven and our last night and final day.

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A mild walk along the valley was marred by walking parallel to the busy A82. The beautiful views of Glen Coe and the surrounding mountains (not clad in clouds) were tarnished by the ever present snake of road and vehicles upon it. It made me sad.

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But after a couple of miles, and rekindling a couple of acquaintances made in Inversnaid, we left the road and were rewarded with the famous view of Glan Coe…it was stunning and took my breath away (even before I started climbing).

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Devil’s Staircase stood before us and it looked like every other climb we had ever done in the US…steep, rocky and straight up. So with that mindset in our heads we started climbing. And withing a few hundred vertical feet I was removing first one layer then another. It was just like every other pass I had ever done but minus the altitude which actually made little difference as it was the fatigue in my muscles that made us pause for a break…just like back home.

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The top came in sight and we crested to a mega blast of chilled mountain air. I quickly added layers back on before I descended, and was removing them again before long. My saving grace was my buff as it helped with the difference between feeling slightly chilled or downright cold. I wouldn’t leave home on a backpacking trip without my Buff.

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The old military road hugged the side of the mountain and climbed and fell in moderation with the occasional flat section. It begain to get a little mundane but the views were ever-changing and were worth every moment.

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Finally the steep descent started down to the dam and then Kinlochleven. And downhill sections always suck…they are hard on knees and ankles and muscles…and this one was no exception. We crossed massive water pipes, two of which had burst rivits or seals and were spraying massive jets upwards and sideways; they made your standard burst pipe looking like a dripping tap.

Most people turned off for the hostel and campsite but I decided to head for the other end of town. I had initially planned to hike a little further and wild camp but I was concerned about my stomach issues reappearing and really wanting a bathroom close by.

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So I chose to pay for a campsite at McDonald’s Hotel and Campsite. It was expensive (£10) for tent sites that were more-or-less impossible to get tent stakes into. I spent the better part of an hour fighting to get stakes in the ground as without decent stake holds my tent won’t stand up. I was glad to have four shepherd hook stakes me that I usually used for the inner tent as they were able to sneak between the stones an inch below the surface…barely. I still had to locate some rocks to help secure the stakes. I wouldn’t recommend this place for tent camping if you have a trekking pole tent…although after watching videos of people staying at the other campsite in town, the ground wasn’t any better there and the views certainly weren’t as good.

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I enjoyed a beer in the bar and ordered a salad for dinner…still keeping the meals light…before taking the dogs out and heading for bed.

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Day 8

I had intended to get up and start hiking before the rain hit so when I thought my watch said 4:30am I started packing up. However I misread my watch in the half light and only realized as I was almost done packing everything away. I had actually crawled out of my sleeping bag at 3:30am.

I tried to be quiet as I packed away but a DCF tent sounds like a chip packet rustling and is noisy no matter what. Hey, it’s the thought that counts anyway…right?

So I actually started hiking at 4:30am and the midges were already bad as I left the campsite in the still, dawn light. And out of the gate we had a long steep climb back out of town in order to join with another old military road…there are a lot around.

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We passed other tents as we climbed before bursting free of the trees to look over Kinlocheven and the loch… We were now on a work road for a hyrdoelectric dam project for a short while before cutting skywards again, up the valley. I could see the road stretched out for at least a mile to the apex of a pass before it disappeared.

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As I left the construction behind a deep sense of being completely alone settled over me. Even though I’d initially wanted to leave early because of the weather I was really appreciating having the trail to myself again like I had on Rannoch Moor. This was the feeling I backpacked for…and as beautiful as the West Highland Way is, it is just too crowded.

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The morning was definitely cold and I hiked fast to stay warm. Thankfully the wind wasn’t too bad and I never felt as chilled as I had during the morning on Rannoch Moor.

As we reached the top of the pass we could again see the trail stretched out for more than a mile along the side of the glen. It was tough walking with loose rubble and large rocks in the path and made the day less fun but I still appreciated every moment I was out there…and it wasn’t raining! Two ancient stone buildings, an old farm house or drover’s hut and a fenced sheep fold were the only other evidence that humans had inhabited this area long before people hiked the West Highland Way for fun. You could certainly imagine how tough life might have been in such a wild and remote location…and without bug spray or headnets to make the midges bearable.

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Kye had limped a little, off and on, and although I had checked her foot and found nothing I checked it again. She had managed to tear a claw off and it was obviously painful when she caught it wrong or stepped badly. Thankfully it wasn’t terrible and I was able to pull the loose part away without any pain. It seemed to help as I didn’t see her limp again until we got to town.

I did find the lack of change to the scenery and the same footing slightly tedious and was looking forward to the forest for a change…but it never came. The forest that was on the map is no longer there, save for a few trees. Stumps and scattered remnants are all that remain of the trees. A few clumps of trees still stood but there was nothing like that which was indicated on the map.

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The highlight of the day was rounding the bend of the top of a hill and being rewarded with the view of the towering heights of Ben Nevis in front of us. It dwarfed everything around it and I was a little sad that I wouldn’t have time to climb it. The top also wasn’t shrouded in cloud, but instead had a gentle draping of white garb around its shoulders. In another couple of hours in wouldn’t be visible to those hiking behind us.

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So the views actually got worse rather than better and the hiking became a lot more mentally challenging. And it didn’t change much until the final stretch into Ft William where we were finally in the trees and on a logging road, and then a road walk. And it was just as I was starting to descend on the logging road that it started to rain…the much anticipated rain was a little early. It wasn’t the most inspiring finish.

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So with the three of us feeling pretty damp and bedraggled we finally made it to the “original” end of the West Highland Way. I took a picture anyway, even though it wasn’t the official end. And then we walked another 1/2 mile to find the Sore Foot Statue and the current official end of the trail. A couple of quick pictures were all I took as we headed for The Crofters Bar to warm up and eat some food. I found a quiet corner to read while waiting for my shuttle to arrive in three hours.

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The shuttle ride was what it was supposed to be. Greg dropped me back at my car at Beinglas Campsite where I had intended to stay another night but the rain and swarm of people persuaded me otherwise and I drove a short ways south to find a quieter place to park for the night.

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With 96 (+3 extra) miles  of the West Highland Way behind me I started to think about what I got out of my experience, what I would do differently, what I expected and what the reality was…but that deserves a whole other post to itself, so stay tuned for my mumblings and ramblings with hindsight being 20/20.

If you are interested in backpacking the West Highland Way these are a couple of videos I highly recommend of people who have done it and did a great job of vlogging their experiences, and are both informative and entertaining:

Backpacking the West Highland Way, May 2019: Part 3

Day 5

It was cold last night…the wind was quite bitter and even in the car it was cold. But I got what I needed and that was a restful and half-decent night’s sleep despite the mattress in the car being a little too hard. 

The nice thing about staying in the car was that I didn’t have to wake up in the cold (or as cold as a tent) and didn’t have a condendsation-covered tent to pack away. The midges were out in force though. After a quick trip to the bathroom I had to don my headnet as I went through my remaining food and left most of it in the car…it just wasn’t needed. It made my pack pretty light even with two liters of water.

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I was feeling good and strong despite not having eaten anything for breakfast; I still didn’t have much of an appetite. We headed out along the old military road at 8:30am and followed the track out of the trees and across creeks for many miles. We passed numerous waterfalls but I didn’t take pictures of every one…just the prettiest of the ones I saw.

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The hiking was easy as we climbed further into the Scottish highlands, and wide gravel tracks made that possible. We ducked under the railway and the busy A road before climbing a steep hill where Cody got stuck going over a stile…they aren’t easy for dogs, especially those with packs…and there was no way around.

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The old military road hugged the hillside which was peppered with sheep. The dogs behaved themselves and kept to the trail…they were interested of course. We had to contend with a second style but it was managed with a couple of amused on-lookers who were taking a snack break.

Suddenly we were at Creag an Taghein and the turn off to Crianlarich. It was the quickest 6 miles I think I’ve ever done…it went by in a blur. I was feeling pretty good and was sipping water frequently again vs chugging it occasionally like I normally do. I was probably not intaking enough water but it was better to be a little dehydrated that way than to be disgorging it all in excess.

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The sunny weather promised by the weather forecast didn’t materialize but the cloud cover made for a good hiking temperature.

As soon as we turned away from the turn-off to Crianlarich the climbing started and it was fairly consistently up for a mile or so, with a few downs. A slightly-creepy looking hiker was at the top of the first hill and I wondered if he belonged to the tent/camp that gave me the heebie-jeebies on night one.

At the apex of the climb the wind really picked up, but it wasn’t consistent. While it kept the midges away it also meant I couldn’t find the right clothing combination to stay at an appropriate temperature yet again. It seems to be the norm for Scotland.

With many ups and downs (mostly downs now) we finally descended back to the main road. A lone wild-camper was below the trail, and ahead of us we were rewarded with the sight of a very interesting arched stone bridge.

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We had to make a mad dash across the road from the bridge as the road was BUSY! but at least there were warnings to the drivers…which I didn’t trust at all. The trail then curved in a loop through several sheep and highland cattle farms, and where St Fillian’s Priory had once stood as well as an old graveyard.

The ruins of the Augustinian Prior date back to the 13th century and was endowed by Robert the Bruce in 1317. The graveyard itself dates back to the beginnings of the early Celtic church in the 8th century.

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I leashed the dogs through a field with lambs close to the trail but that didn’t last long. Despite how well behaved my dogs are, when we are close to farms I try to respect the farmer’s nerves and leash the dogs even if I don’t deem it necessary. It’s what I would hope others would do. We also got our first views of highland cattle…always cool.

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We headed back towards the road and thankfully didn’t have to cross it again. We passed by the location of the Battle of Dalrigh. This was the location where Robert the Bruce was ambushed by Clan MacDougall in the summer of 1306; caught by surprise the battle was a short, frantic engagement and Robert’s remaining horsemen were killed and several of his key allies were injured. Bruce went into hiding and two years later he went on to defeat the MacDougalls at the Battle of the Pass of Brander.

From the site of the Battle of Dalrigh we passed the Lochan of the Lost Sword where legend has it that Bruce and his army threw their weapons into the small lochan.

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A short meander took us from there through Tyndrum Community Woods and it was here that I started having some serious pain my left foot again.

It was not the same pain I had coming out of Balmaha and loosening my shoe laces didn’t help this time. It was tough to walk on and I hoped it was only temporary and something a night of rest would help. If Gastroenteritis didn’t stop me, a little pain in my foot certainly wouldn’t.

With a little limping we arrived at Tyndrum By The Way…the only overnight cabin stop I had booked and non-tent night I had planned for. So far I has spent more nights not in my tent than in my tent and I was a little disappointed as that had not been my intention for the trip at all.

I picked up my resupply box with shampoo and soap and a razor, and the dogs’ food as well as some extra food for me (which I didn’t really need). A shower and laundry were called for and I got both done quickly (they rent towels which was great, and provide laundry soap in the cost of the washer). It was nice to be clean, with clean clothes.

A walk with the dogs was brief for them to relieve themselves and I headed into Tyndrum to find something palatable to eat. I had barely eaten all day (a Belvita snack and some naan bread) and I ordered a burger. It was a safe choice but I only managed half, and barely touched the sweet potato fries that I had paid extra for. With 96 miles of trail, and 55 hiked so far, I was starting to worry about my calorie needs with lack of food intake over the past three days…I’m already a pretty skinny person.

A warm night was spent reading in my little camping cabin as I checked out the map for the following day. The weather forecast looked decent and I was ready to see the remoteness of Rannoch Moor.

Day 6

Despite having a mattress to sleep on and a warm, dry space to stay at Tyndrum By The Way I only got a half-decent night of sleep and was awake before 7am. Cody hadn’t settled well and his constant movement awoke me several times in the night.

I enjoyed the three diet Pepsi cans I had stashed in my resupply box and took my time packing my gear away. Baggage Freedom had agreed to pick up my box for me again as I wouldn’t need everything in it…I had paid for the full baggage delivery service even though I wasn’t actually using it.

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It was a slow start out of the campground but we were finally hiking around 9am and the weather wasn’t nearly as nice as I had hope it would be. Rain was drizzle (or what I like to call “air rain” and intermittent, and then windy but not really cold, which made it very hard to decide on clothing.

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The trail followed the old military road from Tyndrum to the Bridge of Orchy, crossing under the road and rail line a couple of times. We were basically following the same line as the modern contraptions but over different routes.

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A truck honked as we climbed away from Tyndrum and I waved. I heard him honk again for the two groups of hikers ahead of me. I’m guessing this was a friendly gesture.

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As we climbed and descended, mostly gently, the views gradually expanded. The peaks appeared and reappeared as clouds flowed like water over their lofty heights. Rain came and went but never for long and never in more than drizzling form. And despite the rain and the biting wind it felt like a good day.

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Quickly the miles passed as we walked by black-faced ewes and their lambs and herds of multi-shaded red highland cattle. Slugs were once again in abundance but the only wildlife we really saw or heard were the song birds. The sun might not have been out but the vivid yellow of the gorse flowers almost made it feel like it was.

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We descended into the Bridge of Orchy and stopped for lunch at the bar. Dogs were once again permitted and we hid ourselves in the perfect corner. I had a scrumptious brie and onion panini (could have done with some chicken but still good) that hit the spot and enjoyed a local beer…my first one on the trail since I got sick. It seemed to go down well.

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Another hiker from Germany I had connected with south of Tyndrum joined me and we chatted for a while as we ate. She had been someone I had run into yesterday and she had been struggling mentally with the trail…so I commiserated with her and told her my gruesome tale (before she ate!!!).

An hour of warmth and recuperation made it easier to find the motivation to get moving despite the beer telling us to take a nap. I bid the other hiker farewell and headed out to cover another two miles to the Inveroran Hotel.

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A steep climb was followed by open views at the top. I paused often to capture the moment, both in my memory and in my camera. But now, up high and out of the trees the wind just got worse and I was constantly fighting to stay straight as I walked. I wasn’t feeling hopeful about camping on Rannoch Moor.

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A quick stop at the hotel for an apple juice (my beer-filled gut being restricted by my pack belt was not liking the carbonation of the beer and was protesting) and to fill up with water for camping took us until 3pm. I wanted to do another few miles and my aim was for Ba Bridge.

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The wind was still kicking butt when we left but we were soon a little sheltered by the trees and I removed some clothing layers…I didn’t want to be sweating out there. We were now following one of Talbot’s Roads that led from Inveroran up to Glen Coe.

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I was feeling good, despite the extra weight of water in my pack, and poured out a few tunes as we hiked. We passed the creepy guy again. He turned and looked at us once as we approached then kept his back turned…barely grunted a “hello” when I said hi. Weird. We also passed the noisy group of German’s we had passed earlier in the had who had been playing music on an external speaker…how rude.

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Another mile down the trail and sadly my GE infection apparently wasn’t completely over. I had the sudden urgent need to find a secluded spot and dig a hole. I found a place but it also looked like everyone else had used the whole area as their toilet with no thought of packing out or burying anything. I have sadly seen a LOT of the dreaded charmin blooms on this trail…I think there needs to be a public awareness campaign about TP and burying waste. No one wants to see hundreds of charmin blooms on a wilderness hike.

Back to me. The urge happened several times over the next few hours and I had to deal with it as it happened. I was just hoping I wouldn’t tun out of toilet paper. Finally I remembered to take some Imodium…dumb broad. At least this time I was able to keep it down. (Oh and I did bury everything I used, or produced).

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So despite the intestinal problems I was thoroughly loving gentle walk across Rannoch Moor. The views were stunning and the weather was constantly changing from sun to clouds to rain and back again. I reached Ba Bridge and wasn’t feeling inspired; the wind was still strong and a particularly heavy band of rain came through. It was also still fairly early. I decided to hike on and to aim for Kingshouse. I felt like it was a safer bet than risking the weather.

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Of course with this decision in mind I dumped half of my water so I didn’t have to carry it as it was certainly heavy. And then, a little over half a mile further north I came across the most perfect campsite. It was sheltered, below an old stone bridge, and next to a creek. I climbed down to see if it was sheltered enough and immediately decided to stay.

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You couldn’t beat the views from the campsite…backed by Black Mount and other peaks to the west, and looking out over the moorland and winding waterways to the east…it was perfect. Occasionally the sun would come out for a moment and turn select areas to gold, or highlightied the last remnants of snow in hidden fissures.

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The ground was wet but that was to be expected and I was glad to have a DCF tent floor…anything else would likely have soaked through in time if no ground sheet was used. The creek beside the tent was beautiful and ran through short cleft in the rocks before diving into a deep pool…a place that looked refreshing for a hot day.

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It had still been early when we had arrived…about 5:30pm…so I took a short walk to take some pictures and then read in the tent for a while to stay warm. Finally it got too cold to do even that and we made final preparations for bed in the still-daylight of 9:20pm.

Backpacking the West Highland Way, May 2019: Part 2

Day 3

Well I thought I had a goodnight of sleep but I was definitely feeling drained and on the lethargic side. I attributed it to being day 3 and lack of caffeine (normal on day 3) but I struggled to cover the 7 rough miles to Inversnaid.

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At the edge of the trail by the Rowardennan Youth Hostel, and looking out over the loch we passed the Loch Lomond National Park Memorial Sculpture. The park is dedicated to those who gave their lives in the First and Second World Wars and was created out of the former Rowardennan Estate with the support of the National Heritage Memorial Fund.

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The trail was undulating and not particularly easy under foot, reminding me more of trails I had done in the US than those of the earlier part of the trail, but it wasn’t anything I hadn’t hiked before with relative ease.

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It took me 5 hours to do 7 miles (very unusual for me). The highlight of the entire day were the hillsides that were absolutely carpeted in bluebells…they looked almost other-worldly.

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The trail was beautiful but it was already starting to get a little old to be following the same body of water. I was yearning for good trails and differeing views, not to mention I was desperate for some solitude. This was the first day I was noticing the popularity of the West Highland Way and I was craving the wilderness and solitude I was familiar with on other backpacking trips I had done.

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I was finally glad to take a break at the hotel and grab a diet coke. I also got a piece of lemon drizzle cake but within the first bite I knew I couldn’t stomach it. I forced down two more bites before accepting how nauseous it was make me.

I chatted with my campsite mate (Bronwyn from Germany) from the first night and said hello to the American ladies from the second night at the Rowardennan Hotel) before setting off on the trail again. I wasn’t feeling much better although the caffeine did help my headache some, and the further I walked the worse I felt despite the waterfalls and the unique tables and chairs.

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I was struggling and with just a mile under my feet it hit me with violent abandon and up came everything I had eaten and drank since the morning. And it kept coming. When it was over I stood there with legs like jelly but I initially felt a little better and thought that was going to be it and that it would be okay to continue. Then the other end hit me…several times and I had to scramble up steep hillsides to find a rock or tree to hide behind. I was not doing good but I thought I could make it to Inverarnan.

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Another mile down the trail and I took some Imodium but within another 15 minutes of hiking I was nauseous again and back up the Imodium came along with, well, I’m not sure what as I could have sworn it all came up the during the first wave.

A group from Germany came up behind me and asked if I was okay. I wasn’t sure at all and again my legs were violently shaking to the point I could barely stand. They offered to walk with me to my now-planned campsite below Creag a’ Mhadaigh and I was appreciative of their kind offer. I have never felt so death-like.

At camp I laid down for a while and then got my tent up to take a nap. Thrice more I had to escape my tent in a hurry and I finally called for emergency help. I was in a bad way and was concerned about my hydration levels as I couldn’t keep even water down. I was feeling dizzy and slightly delirious and I knew, even without much of a rational thought in my head, that it would be dangerous to stay where I was.

I had some cell service so didn’t use my SOS device, but of course that meant not being able to provide GPS co-ordinates to my location. Thankfully I knew where I was on the map (despite my brain malfunctioning) and while I butchered the names I was able to explain where I was.

Eight burly mountain rescue men showed up in the rescue boat to help, packed up my gear and helped me into the boat. I was so dizzy and light-headed by that point I could barely move on my own. They took care of the dogs and we took a 15 minute boat ride back down Loch Lomond (which of course Cody HATED) to a waiting ambulance. I was given some fluids and anti-nausea medication before being taken to the hospital south of Glasgow where I ended up feeling like a pincushion.

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What I had was acute gastroenteritis and they pumped more fluids in me, made me rest and brought my temperature down. And because I didn’t have any other place to stay other than my car the Dr kept me in overnight (albeit woken very early) so I could at least get a little sleep.

Day 4

One of the guys with the mountain rescue crew had kindly taken the dogs home with him so they were well loved and taken care of overnight. As soon as I got back to my car (an early-morning bus and two trains later) I went to pick the dogs up and headed for Inverarnen with the idea of doing some light hiking back to the spot I had been picked up the previous night; I wanted to check I was okay to continue and a short day with a day pack would do just that for me as I certainly wasn’t feeling 100%.

I paid for a campsite and pitched the tent, just to get it to dry out in the sun and breeze, and it dried quickly. I packed it away again and updated my family with everything that had happened, my plan for the day and hopefully the rest of the trail.

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A fairly moderate climb took us through more bluebell woods, shaded with the multi-faceted leaves that were highlighted perfectly in the sunshine…and that was why I didn’t want to waste the day. It was the first real day of sun we had seen.

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Feral goats were eating just below the path and of course Kye and Cody were pretty interested in them, but I convinced them we couldn’t stay and so on we went towards Dubh Lochan.

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The climb took us up by Cnap Mor and past the circular lochan before dropping us back down to one of the most amazing campsites I have ever seen…it was perfect and flat, with a nice fire pit and right on the edge of the loch with some pretty awesome views. We once again bumped into the American ladies and I told them what had happened the previous day as I had mentioned that I wasn’t feeling great when I saw them at the Inversnaid Hotel.

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We marched onwards, taking our time as I didn’t want to push myself. I felt the occasional cramp in my stomach or minor wave of nausea but it didn’t last and eventually those feelings because less frequent. I drank sparingly, taking small sips more often rather than chugging it as I usually do. I think it helped.

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We climbed again, past Doune Bothy and an old farm house that had seen better days. The sun was a pleasure to walk in for a change but the wind was sharp and I was constantly removing or adding a layer. A small saddle took us east of Craeg a’ Mhadaidh and the path led us through the trees and over numerous small creeks. And after 3 miles we finally came out to the clearing I had pitched my tent the precious evening and then rescued by the wonderful boat crew.

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I did a quick camp check to see if anything had been left behind or forgotten (other than most of my insides). There was nothing, not even a scrap of paper or tent peg (they did a great job packing up fast even if the result wasn’t pretty).

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I rested a while but was glad to be feeling decent and after 15 minutes we headed back to Inverarnen. The whole route of 6 miles had taken about 4 hours…not my normal speed but I also hadn’t been trying to maintain my normal pace either. I was just happy to be walking on the trail.

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On the way back I was lucky enough to come across a slow worm (a legless lizard, so neither a worm nor a snake even though it looks like one) basking in the sun on the trail, and a toad, and a very tiny spider hanging out in the mouth of a bluebell…sometimes it’s the little things. Of course I took the opportunity to take a couple of pictures before encouraging them off the trail so they didn’t get stepped on by the group behind me as the blended so well.

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Back at the campsite I read the WHW guide that I’d been missing and tried to gauge mileage and potential campsites ahead. Unfortunately Thursday night put me right in the middle of Rannoch Moor…not a good place to be if the weather turned…so I was hoping the weather forecast would stay positive through Friday.

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With the dogs fed I decided it was time to try and eat something more substantial than the handful of shortbread cookies I’d had earlier and headed to the bar/restaurant with the pups. The lightest, easiest thing on the menu seemed to be a veggie dish/starter (vegetable pakora) so I opted for that and some naan bread. I ate most of it but didn’t want to push the limits of what my stomach could take and saved the rest of the naan bread for later.

The lovely American laides found me sitting outside in the sun, in my winter jacket, braving the chill wind. They were staying at a B&B across the river but the food at Beinglass Farm was much better (apparently) than the Drover’s Inn. So they ate and we chatted for a while before heading our separate ways. I hoped to see them in Tyndrum, but this was the last night we would see each other.

With the chill in the wind I was a little glad to be sleeping in my car and hoped I would get a good night of sleep…I desperately needed it.

Backpacking the West Highland Way, May 2019: Part 1

Day 1

Lots of traffic out of the south-east at rush hour made for a longer-than-anticipated drive to Birmingham where I spent the night in a lovely fellow Adventure Queen’s driveway (you’ll have to Google who the Adventure Queens are) who had offered me a place to park as a stop over on Friday night. However not only did I park for the night but I also enjoyed a couple of hours of great conversation and a glass of wine.

Sleep evaded me most of the night, and what sleep I did get was fitfull and restless. I was up with the birds and heading north a few minutes after 5am. It had rained during the night and rained off and on during the 5 hours drive to Glasgow until finally settling in 30 miles south of the city. I wasn’t feeling good about the impending hike in rain.

I dropped off a resupply box with my return shuttle driver and found a parking space at the train station…the place most recommended by, well, everyone.

With the drizzly rain still lingering I knew I’d have to suck it up so I started getting ready and a little before noon we were standing at the obelisk at the official start of the West Highland Way. It felt a little surreal to be standing there, having seen this icon in so many pictures and videos of people who had done the trail before me….similar to the what I assume it must be like for those at the southern (or northern) monument of the PCT.

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We followed the signs and were quickly away from the town center and walking well-gravelled paths alongside the creek. I had worn my full rain suit but was soon dying of heat despite the coolness of the day and the rain. I switched out to my poncho and was quickly feeling better. 

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The drizzle continued for a couple of hours and obscured the views that should have been stunning. It was hard to look around much when I had my head down most of the time trying to stay dry. The dog’s raincoats were doing their job for the most part but I quickly realized that my measuring had been sub-par and they were too short for their bodies.

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We meandered mostly through farmland and crossed a few roads, finally enjoying some rain-free hiking tine during the afternoon which held until camp.

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The miles flew by under our feet as the trail was mostly a wide travel track with little elevation variation and easy to walk on. Livestock surrounded on either side and despite the lack of views I stopped to appreciate the little things, like the stunning pink flowers alongside the path, or the first views over Loch Lommond framed by shrouded peaks and vivid yellow gorse.

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As we hiked up the road towards we encountered this cool-looking bridge but it was only when I got closer to it and peered intently at the gaping black maw that I saw how cool it actually was.

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I had encountered a few backpackers and a handful of hut-to-hut (or B&B/hotal to hotel) hikers, and many backpackers peeled off at Dryman Camping, a mile or so before the town. But it was way to early to stop…not to mention I find it silly to pay for camping when there’s so much of it available for free in Scotland.

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So on I went. I had intended to blip into Drymen for water but a convenient creek at the turn off saved me the extra mile. It was quite chilly and my hands weren’t happy with dealing with cold water and the breeze. I filtered 3 liters as I knew we’d be dry camping…and dang was my pack suddenly very heavy, which wasn’t helped by having to leash the dogs through a sheep field and then on a short road walk.

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Finally we were in an area where we could camp and I started looking for a good, sheltered spot. The first one was promising but the neighboring tent just looked a little sketchy and didn’t give me positive feelings…it wasn’t a backpacking tent and I didn’t fell comfortable with staying there.

So on I went for another half mile before settling on another sheltered spot in a large stand of pine trees. Two other tents occupied a couple of spots but there was plenty of room. I struggled to get my tent up as it is difficult to figure out the correct orientation for it, especially in a tight spot, but I got it done.

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One of my neighbors came over to chat as I was making dinner and the midges just swarmed us. I doused myself in Smidge (something that was SWORN to work, so I didn’t bring a headnet) but it was useless so I quickly ate, and walked (to keep from being eaten myself) as I chatted and then be both headed for the safety of our tents to get away from the flying evil midges. I was really glad to have brought my Kindle but was kicking myself for not having brought the West Highland Way guidebook.

Day 2

I slept fairly decent last night…once I actually got to sleep. Initially I was lulled into relaxation by the gentle sounds of light rain tapping on the tent. It was quickly followed by the sounds of loud voices, distant fireworks and neighboring campers making constant bird calls (obviously fake). I awoke to the dawn chorus again but covered my head with my coat and fell asleep again until 7am when the light sound rain was enough to break my slumber.

I packed as much away as I could inside the tent before emerging just as the rain was tapering off. The tent was soaked and cold to pack away but the midges were already out so I quickly packed it away without even bothering to dry toweling it off a little. I was missing having even a little breeze to keep the buggers at bay. I didn’t realize how much water was held by the tent until I put it up again…no wonder my pack felt so heavy.

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We followed the forest road north once again and said “good morning” to a few groups of other backpackers. We then had to turn west and take the road alternate as it was still May and Conic Hill was closed to those with dogs through April and May for lambing. And while it was a bit of a wrench not to do the whole route, doing the rest of it with Kye and Cody more than made up for it…not to mention that it was a steep climb and was socked in by clouds so there would have been no good views from the top.

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We took the road walk to Balmaha which thankfully had a sidewalk all the way and wandered into the town a little footsore after pounding tarmac for two miles. I ate a quick snack, said a quick “hello” to other WHW hikers I passed at the cafe and got some water and then we pressed on. We paused at the Tom Weir statue in the park to read about the iconic local hiking legend and mountain man who had been instrumental in protecting some of Scotland’s most scenic areas.

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Blamaha sits on the edge of Loch Lomond at the south end and it felt a little surreal that we would be walking by this body of water for the better part of two days.

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We hit our first moderate climb out of the trail (since we didn’t do Conic Hill) and was surrounded by bluebells…the smell of them was all-encompassing in the much-appreciated sunshine that was now gracing us. At the top of the hill it was finally time to remove my waterproof pants and it was such a relief to be rid of them.

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The scenery didn’t change much and we paused only briefly at Cashel to eat lunch and grab a midge net for my head…I didn’t want to suffer through another night again. I was really glad that most places seem to carry these things, even if they are at slightly inflated prices.

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Trees surrounded us, bluebells carpeted the floor and the lake guided us onwards constantly to our left. It didn’t change much. It was also around this time that I started to get some sharp stabbing pains on the inside of my left foot. I had not stepped badly or anything I could recall but it got worse with each step until it felt like my foot was on fire. I paused and it went away but as soon as I started walking again the cycle of pain started over again.

With a brief thought I questioned my shoes and paused, while fighting off midges, to loosen my left shoe. Neither was over-tight (had numbness issues with that before) but apparently the laces were pressing on something just right to cause pain and as soon as they were looser the pain ceased. Crisis averted. 

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At the top of a steep climb and a hundred or more steps, and as I paused for a bite and a drink of water, another hiker passed us. I hadn’t seen too many hikers up to this point and we chatted for a bit…this was his first long-distance trail and he was struggling a little, but enjoying it anyway.

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We came across some permitted campsites at Sallochy and I had to double check the name of the place we had a permit for. We were way too far south to be stopping already and the map confirmed we still had a couple of miles to go.

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At about 2pm we reached the campsite I had booked for the night. Loch Lomond is one of the few places in Scotland that restricts dispersed camping due to the area’s popularity and a permit is required to camp in one of a handful of locations along the loch . It was very early but it gave me a good chance to get the tent set up and to let it dry out, and just as it was up a very considerate breeze picked up to help.

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With now 6 hours to kill until bed time I put my water bottles in my pack and headed a half mile up the trail to the Rowardennan Hotel. I grabbed a bite to eat and drank a couple of good beers while chatting with some other WHW hikers, including two lovely American women from Arizona (whose names I forgot) and before too long it was 6pm and I headed back to camp to cook dinner and read a book.

Rangers showed up around 7pm to check my permit, and other campers came in about 8 although I was well ensconced in my tent by that time and didn’t even poke my head out until I had to take the dogs out at 9:30pm.