When I was a boy I used to dream about having ‘adventures’ , which in those days generally involved going to the South Pole, sailing single handed to somewhere remote, or anything that had taken my interest after reading a book or hearing a radio programme. As I got older I guess I just followed the ‘party line’ put over by my father; that my first aim should be to secure a reliable job, then get married and raise a family. Having fun did not seem to feature very highly on the agenda. However after marrying Alison (hereafter to be referred to as Ali) in 1968, we did have lots of fun, no family and many mini adventures , in the form of fabulous walking holidays in the Lake District and Scotland, but I never got to the South Pole!
From the mid 80’s we did less and less walking, partly due to heavy domestic commitments and partly because Ali’s knees were beginning to protest after years of clog dancing, and mountain walking. In 1991 I got the chance to join four other friends for a week in the Langdales and this re-awakened my love of the mountains. For the next 8 years we had a succession of wonderful holidays mainly in different parts of the Scottish Highlands, I did not realise at the time but the opportunity for ‘adventure’ was slowly becoming more of a reality.
One of the areas that we had not walked was the Cairngorms, because of the difficulty of access. In 1999 I came across a walk described in one of Cameron McNeish’s books, ‘The High Tops of The Cairngorms’. It really struck a chord with me and over the next months my mind kept going back to it. The walk is a four day backpacking trip through the Cairngorms, taking in 6 of the highest tops – Ben Avon, Bienn a Bhuird, Cairngorm, Ben Macdui, Carn Toul and Braeriach. Starting at Tomintoul and finishing at Achlean in Glen Feshie, 45 miles total ascent 5,665m, he describes it as “A long remote high mountain walk, that is extremely strenuous and serious. There is no technical difficulty”
I could not persuade any of my walking friends to join me so in early May 2000 I set off on my first backpacking trip since doing my Duke of Edinburgh’s Gold Award hike in about 1964. I was fortunate that the weather was good. I so enjoyed the challenge and the whole thing of pitting oneself against the elements and the terrain that I became hooked, returning home to immediately start thinking what the next trip should be.
At last I had had my own ‘adventure’, albeit a fairly humble one. It was at this time that I recalled a conversation from one of the many walks on Dartmoor with my walking friends. It concerned what originally was known as The Ultimate Challenge, an annual event for walkers of experience who planned their own route from the west coast to the east coast of Scotland, between certain points. I remembered that although I had no desire to take part in the organised walk, the concept of planning a route and walking from one side of the country to the other really appealed.
So, for many evenings through the winter of 2000/2001 I sat for hours at home, surrounded by maps and the Scottish Rights of Way Society handbook, looking at the options and eventually coming up with a route which was a mix of good tracks and remote paths with alternative high level sections should the weather be suitable. Foot and mouth forced a late postponement of that expedition, at short notice I went to North Africa, trekking in the Atlas Mountains. Later that year I found out I had brought back more than good memories from Morocco, when tests showed I had giardiasis, a particularly nasty parasitic micro-organism, that took two lots of antibiotics to remove from my system and it was late 2002 before I really felt back to fitness. So it was not until the beginning of May 2003 that I set off, on my own, from Inverie in Knoydart on my walk to Montrose, 13 days during which it rarely seemed to stop raining! Nevertheless a fantastic experience and I loved every minute of it. The concept of walking from A to B with all the accompanying changes in terrain etc. is one that I find very challenging and satisfying.
During the summer of 2003 one of my regular walking friends lent me a book which he thought would interest me; it was The Cape Wrath Trail by David Paterson. By the time I had finished reading it I was very tempted to plan my own Cape Wrath Trail. At the end of the book David Paterson makes the observation that as there is no definitive path from Fort William to Cape Wrath, that any one keen to do this walk should plan their own route and enjoy the challenge of coping with the various sections of wilderness.
Once again the sofa became littered with O.S. maps, the S.W.R.S. book and map, sundry other guides and trail books. In trying to keep to a straight line from Fort William to Cape Wrath there are a few sections where the only logical route is the one David Paterson took, but it was a very interesting exercise working out what I hoped was a realistic route. The rights of way laws are different in Scotland to those in England, I think it is fair to say that in the mountains, landowners generally are happy for walkers to use estate tracks – these are used and maintained by estates to give them access to remote areas for hunting, fishing and forestry. When planning a route I prefer to use estate tracks or rights of way when heading into the wilds, rather than just hoping there will be open access from a village or road, because deer fences can be quite an obstacle to progress.
By early 2004 I had the route worked out and had pencilled in two weeks in May, all I needed was the fitness to do it!