Published: May 17th 2009May 17th 2009
When preparing for this trip I was relying heavily on a book called 'The Advanced Backpacker' by Chris Townsend. He has a section devoted to what an experienced backpacker friend of his calls 'the shake down'. He says that even the most experienced backpacker/hiker goes through a period of self-doubt at the outset of a long hike. 'For a hike of a few weeks, it can last days; for a hike of a few months, it can last weeks.' He warns that more than half of hikers give up on long-distance hike plans in the first few weeks.
Me, being the fool that I am, have set off to do this massive undertaking without any real experience. So I've tried to include in my planning time for gradual immersion into long-distance hiking. My time as a tourist has required hours of walking with my pack, for example. And now, in advance to starting my first long-distance hike, The West Highland Way, I have made a short trip to the Isle of Arran, one of the Inner Hebrides islands off the west coast of mainland Scotland.
It is a beautiful island and has been called 'Scotland in miniature.' I came
here to camp and to climb Mount Goatfell -- an established foot path recommended by the Lonely Planet.
My first day was lovely. The sun was shining and it was a beautiful warm day. Rather than wild camp (which, unlike the rest of Scotland, isn't technically allowed on Arran), I paid £4 a night to camp at an established campground. It was a simple affair -- three fields with one building with toilets and running cold water. I set up my tent in the furthest of the three fields where there was no one else and where I had a clear view of the mountain range before me.
All was well -- I figured out my stove and boiled water without blowing up, I set up my tent without issue and then, after a nice pasta and cheese sauce dinner, laid on the grass and listened to Sigur Ros' 'Takk...' on my headphones (an album which must truly be enjoyed outdoors), while I watched the clouds whisk by like massive birds unfurling their wings and floating away.
The next morning I set out on the Goatfell trail, which started from my campsite. I could have left my
pack and camping gear, but decided to bring it -- (a) to ensure its safety and (b) to practice. 'I have to get used to walking all day with this eventually,' I thought, 'so I might as well bring it.'
It started off well: just me, my pack and my walking sticks, following a clear path along a small river in a valley between the mountain ranges with the black jagged rock that is Goatfell looming ahead of me like Mordor.
After two hours I started to really feel the weight of my pack. I weighed it before I left Canada and it was 30 lbs. However, I think it was 30 lbs with a lot of little extras missing. And now I had food and fuel added to the load. It felt closer to 50 lbs.
How did it get so heavy? I don't know. Tent, sleeping bag, stove, pot, sleeping mat. Everything in it is 'ultralight weight' and yet, this and that... it added up: medications for emergencies, clothes, camera, fleece jacket, rainwear.... all things that seem so essential. But everyone comments on it: 'that looks heavy. Are you sure you can manage?'
At this point, the trail began the ascent and I realized that I should have left the pack at camp. I got up to the 450-500 foot high 'Saddle' and decided to congratulate myself on walking 4 miles and turn back. 'Don't push yourself too hard at the beginning,' Chris Townsend says. Right, I thought, this is fine for me for today.
But I decided to just, at least, get up on the ridge and see what I'd be missing. Spectacular view! Mountains all around me with a valley in front and behind! This is why it is called 'the Saddle' -- picture a dip in a mountain ridge with peaks before and behind you and valley on either side. I could see clearly ahead of me a lovely valley and a clear path following the river with the sea in the distance.
'Down,' I thought. 'I can do down.' And, looking at the map, I knew that this was a decent alternate route, I'd end up in Sannox and could take the bus back. Beautiful. So I continued.
It involved, however, a bit of a scramble to get down from the ridge. I started my way, but lost the path. Now, in rockclimber terms, this would be a 5.4, maybe 5.3, climb that I was downclimbing. Not a big deal. For those of you who are not climbers, the climbing scale begins at 5.0 and can go as high as 5.13 (I think one person is claimed to have climbed a 5.14). Climbing that requires a rope begins at 5.5. Most rockclimbers generally work on climbs ranging from 5.8 to 5.12.
In other words, this was not hard. However, I had my 40-50 lbs (or 100 lbs?) backpack on and two long walking sticks. I scrambled my way down to a little ledge when I saw a group of hikers coming upwards towards me. I decided to hold back to see if they knew the correct route. They did not. They took forever to figure out which way to go, finally choosing a route I'd already ruled out as too precarious to go down.
But while I waited (I didn't want this group to see me foolishly choose a dumb way down), I took the opportunity to figure out my game plan. I had about 6 feet of slick rock between me and what looked like a path. I decided I would simply slide my pack down the rock and then I'd scramble down after it.
When all but one hiker had disappeared into the rocky craig (not experienced hikers, by the way -- they looked more like an organized guided tourist group), I gently let go of my pack.
It slid. Then it rolled. Then it gained velocity. And then it rolled, and rolled, and rolled. Things started shooting off of it. The poor hiker guy looked up at me terrified. 'Rock!' I cried (as climbers are taught to do). And just when I thought 'my God -- it's going to role down the whole mountain,' it finally stopped. After about 50 feet.
I scrambled down, using my climber skills to take advantage of a brilliant undercling and made my way back to my pack. Miraculously, nothing was broken. Not even my camera, which was in an outside pocket. I proceeded to make my way down. 'This is fun!' I thought as I used climbing moves to agilely make my way down. My pack felt as nothing.
I made it down to the valley and walked along, feeling wonderful about myself when all of a sudden my foot gave out beneath me on the pebbled path. I tripped and found myself face planted, with my arms rolled in, and me pinned under my pack. Normally such a little trip wouldn't cause such a wipe-out, but I was helpless under that pack.
I unhooked myself and crawled out and noticed a small hole in the knee of my pants. And blood beneath it. I rolled up my pant leg to find a 2" long and relatively deep gash in my bleeding knee. Not quite bad enough for stiches, but close. Luckily, I had everything I needed on my back so I cleaned it, put iodine on it, dressed it and continued.
When I finally finished the trail, I had walked 7 or 8 miles. It came out at a bus stop and I munched on cheese and nuts while waiting for the bus. I then walked another mile to get back to the campsite, thinking all along about which items in my pack could be mailed home.
When I got back to camp, I plopped down on the grass and removed my mud-soaked boots. It took me an hour to set up camp: I was all thumbs and just wanted to collapse in tears.
I haven't felt homesick at all on this trip. Not once, until that moment. 'Why am I doing this? Surely a 3-4 week vacation in teh UK and Ireland would have sufficed? I could have been so satisfied seeing what I've already see. Can I really walk every day like this? Under this pack? I could have saved my money instead... could have gotten a job, been warm and comfortable in Canada. I thought about my sister's cats, I thought about Fredericton, I fantasized about the winter when I would be home and life could be easy again.
I have always known, though, that this is not a vacation. This is meant to be hard. Why? I don't know. But I feel like I've given up on everything I've ever tried to do -- backed out when the going got tough. And this is meant to be different. This is meant to be about accomplishing something I set out to do.... seeing it through to the end.
I decided the next day to take it easy. I dropped my plan to go around the Cock of Arran. I paid for a third night at the same campground, trusted my tent and stuff to be safe on their own there, and spent the day walking around the area pack-free. I mailed back 1.8 kilos worth of stuff (ah, camping toilet -- so complicated to acquire and such a good idea, but alas, too, too heavy to be practical. The swimsuit I bought for this trip went as well, so did my binoculars.)
That night, despite the rain, I did actually enjoy myself and thought perhaps I'll be alright afterall. However, after three nights camping, with the freezing wind and drizzle on Saturday, I decided I couldn't face the complication of getting all the way to Islay (involving a ferry from Arran to Kintyre, bus to the other end of Kintyre, three hour ferry to Islay and then one hour plus bus ride to the camp site there) and I disregarded my already purchased ferry ticket and returned to Glasgow a night early.
And tomorrow, after one day's rest, I begin the seven-day West Highland Way hike. Yesterday it felt too much to contemplate, but today I feel re-invigorated and am looking forward to the real hiking to begin.