Last May I walked the Cape Wrath Trail, which had been one of my goals ever since I got to the UK; needless to say it was an amazing adventure, but it caught me off guard. I was partially unprepared, partially overwhelmed and mainly – I didn’t quite make all the way: I skipped a couple of 10 miles sections due to injuries. I managed to get from Fort William to Cape Wrath in 10.5 days, a great result I was happy with, until the details about the Cape Wrath Ultra became known – an 8 day challenge – and I got hooked.
For some unknown reason beyond the need to just try, I have decided to take on the Cape Wrath Trail again in April 2016 as it falls on a unique time in my life that will allow me to aim for an 8 day unsupported walk of the whole Cape Wrath Trail (no skipping this time!). Yes, I want to try to do what the fully supported ultra race runners do, all by myself; it is a weird test of endurance and preparation.
I planned very well for my last Cape Wrath Trail trip and I have written about it many times, but this coming trip will require more than a few changes, from menu to gear to training. The shorter time I’m hoping to achieve and my experience of having already done the trail once are leading to the following changes (most are still in planning stages):
The menu is one of the parts that will see the most change, though it is still not quite all figured out. Last time I had roughly 3500 calories per day, but still ended up losing about 5 kg (more than 10lbs) during the trip, so I need to have more. A big part of my problem was that I lost my appetite on days with very bad weather, as the idea of dealing with trail mix or jerky strips while on the move was just not appealing.
This time I plan also on only boiling water for coffee in the morning and doing the bulk of my cooking during the evening, after I have reached my campsite or the bothy for the night. This is in order to use a simpler and lighter stove and eliminate another unnecessary breaks during the day. I will be relying more on protein and energy bars as they provide a great boost while being easy to eat on the go.
I will also need to increase the use of powders (protein, energy etc) for more adding more calories, fat and protein to my diet without ending up carrying too much weight. I’m hoping to create a menu that will offer 4500 calories while keeping the weight to about 500g per day as I will be carrying food for 8 days and 8 nights. As I finalize my menu I will post it in detail including the research I relied upon to make my decisions. My process for the best balanced menu is still in progress, but the first step is in place.
The bulk of my gear will remain the same as my last trip, though I’ll be leaving more gear at home as part of my new skills from practising ultralight backpacking. I’m hoping to reduce my base weight enough to allow an easy carry of all the food I will need for the whole trip while keeping the pack weight at a comfortable range. The main changes are:
- I’m leaving the camp chair at home – most bothies have a few and the 420g are really not necessary.
- Despite the Reactor‘s great performance, the weight and the reduced cooking time means that I can cut much of my weight by using a simple alcohol stove; I’m thinking to adopt Andrew Skurka’s “Cadillac” format.
- I’ll be replacing my Nordisk Telemark 1 ULW tent with a MLD Trailstar. I found that the Telemark tends to have too much condensation if the weather is mild and I will have no time to deal with drying gear. The tarp setup is extremely durable and stable and I know I can try and rely on bothies for most of my trip.
- Winter gear as an option – with winter making a late appearance I’m concerned that it will stay present in April; I’m expecting to find snow on some of the passes so an ice axe and light crampons might be needed. This will be decided based on weather and snow cover reports.
- Different footwear. As I had so many injuries with such minimal footwear (the Inov-8 Trailroc 235) on such a harsh route, I will be using the Altra Lone Peak 2.0. This time I will also make sure they are in good condition before leaving on the trip.
There will of course be other gear changes: less clothes, a few more gadgets etc, but the above is the bulk of it. The list is almost there, but last missing items and minor adjustment will need to happen before I will feel I’m there.
Over the last few months, I have been focusing on a more all round training program with a bit of emphasis on running. Mixing that with fast hiking along the Pennine Way allows me to have a more robust training program that doesn’t rely too heavily on going outdoors. The reason is that many times I’m just too busy and parenting is a time-consuming hobby and interest, so finding time to train outdoors is a challenge.
That aside, my running regime is now focused on increasing distance while trying to encourage a fast recovery. I had planned for that on my last Cape Wrath Trail trip, but this time it will become even more important. In the 2 months leading up to my trip, I will be moving to daily runs to encourage the all-so-needed recovery while increasing my mileage weekly.
I will also continue my monthly weekend endeavours, maintaining a good daily distance within the day light limitations, working mainly on keeping a consistent pace through long days. Another aspect of going outdoors through the winter is to feel more comfortable with the wide range of potential weather changes, which might include snow this time.
On my last trip I took Ian Harper’s Guide to the Cape Wrath Trail by Cicerone and the Harvey’s 1:40000 two part maps for the trail. Both of the above were (and still are) very good, but I found a few things:
- 1:40k maps are not detailed enough for sections that require more serious navigation
- 1:40k maps are too detailed for many of the clear paths along the way
- The Harvey’s maps only showed the route itself and none of the greater surroundings
- The guide only has tiny map inserts that don’t always cover important details
- I rarely walked the daily sections recommended by the guide and found myself needing to jump between pages to follow the route descriptions
- At times I found that I needed a better description than the one offered by the guide
- The extra information offered by the guide was mostly used for planning and not actually in the trip, so I was carrying some unneeded weight.
I’ve also been starting to hone my more technological navigation methods and I intend to use them more on the trip. I will be carrying the traditional navigation tools, but the maps will be maps I create for myself using OSMaps. The idea is to get the most value for the weight and the best tools for the kind of navigation needed on the Cape Wrath Trail – tools that allow for many navigation corrections, weather adjustments and long days.
Other issues to plan for
Beyond the above I need to accommodate two more weather related issues:
- Snow – in April there is a very good chance that parts of the trail will be covered in snow, mainly some of the higher passes. This means that I will need to carry crampons and an ice axe and be skilled and comfortable with using them. I have done winter walking and glacier crossing, and I am comfortable in crampons, but it has been a few years so I will need to practice – this is part of my goal for my winter hikes. March 2016: this now seems very unlikely to be an issue, so no crampons will be needed.
- Floods – so far this year the winter has been very wet, causing repeated floods all across northern England and Wales. If this trend continues, there is a chance I will need to deal with very wet conditions and might even reach uncrossable water ways. The danger of that is that I will either need to find an alternative route, wait for the water to go down or just go back. Anyone of those options can easily eradicate my plan to walk the trail in 8 days.
Are you coming?
That is my first stage of planning as it stands at the moment. I will be writing a post about the final gear list and a post about the final menu choice to share with anyone else who might be interested in such an endeavour.
The Cape Wrath Ultra will take place about a month after I finish my walk, giving me some more serious competition. I’d love to hear if anyone is planning on doing this trip and how they are preparing for it – in terms of gear, menu and training. If you are going, leave a comment, and if there is somewhere you are writing about it, share it in the comments so we can all learn from each other.
You can also read all about my previous adventure and download the trip report here.
March 2016 update: final itinerary and GPX files
Two months have passed and the trip’s plans are clearer, though some issues have come up. My gear list is almost sorted and the menu is almost there, all made possible by finalising my itinerary. My planned days are long, mostly 40-50km, but one day will be 65km. My plan is to start at Fort William after arriving via the night train, which will influence my start time. If I arrive on time I will be taking the 10:00 ferry to Camusnagaul, otherwise it will be the 12:20 ferry. The time I catch the ferry will determine whether day one will be long or day two will be, as my goal is to be past Kinloch hourn by the second night.
Another factor is the firing range – there is training happening usually in April and September, and this year is no exception: they will commence on 11/4, which means that I might not be able to reach the Cape itself. This will only be solved when I arrive to the edge of the range and see if the flags are up. In any case, I plan on walking to the lighthouse and back to Sandwood Bay that same evening (it is only 10km each way), so if the range is empty that afternoon I will be able complete it without any problem.
From Sandwood Bay I will start walking very early to catch the minibus from Kinlochbervie to Lairg and on to Inverness, allowing for an easier retreat than via Durness.
My itinerary is:
|Day of trip||Start Point||End Point||Distance (KM)|
|1a||Fort William||A’Chuil bothy||51|
|2a||A’Chuil bothy||10km past Kinloch Hourn||40|
|1b||Fort William||Corriholly bothy||37|
|2b||Corriholly bothy||10km past Kinloch Hourn||54|
|3||10km past Kinloch Hourn||Tea House bothy, Coulin||65|
|4||Tea House bothy, Coulin||Shenaval Bothy||38|
|5||Shenaval Bothy||The School House bothy||44|
|6||The School House bothy||Glencoul bothy||47|
|7||Glencoul bothy||Kinlochbervie Hotel||46|
|8||Kinlochbervie Hotel||Sandwood Bay, after a visit to Cape Wrath||40|
|9||Sandwood Bay||Kinlochbervie (catch minibus)||12|
Alternative A for days 1 and 2 are for the 10:00 ferry and alternative B is for the 12:20 ferry.
I will be spending most nights in bothies, just as last time, and my goal is to have two main “civilization” stops:
- Day 4 – stop for an hour or so at Kinlochewe and have a normal meal while asking to charge my electronics and chat to my wife. This is a short day (38km) and with an early start, so it should be simple
- Day 7 – a night in Kinlochbervie Hotel will allow me to sleep well, eat well, shower and charge everything for the last push. Hopefully that also means I won’t smell so badly on the way back home
Ferry in Camusnagaul: 07826695160 or 07468417137 (Dougie Robertson)
Cape Wrath Range: 0800833300 (central line) or 01971511242 (on the ground contact)
Kinlochbervie Hotel: 01971521275
Final notes and a bonus
I’m happy with my itinerary as it mixes longer and shorter days. I will be going through areas I have missed on my last trip and I hope to get better weather. Snow and floods now seem very unlikely, so, potentially, an easier trip is coming up. I have created all the GPX routes I’ll be uploading to my watch, which I thought might be useful to you too; you can download them from here (note: they are compressed in a zip file).
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