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The Days of Drinking Peat Water or Walking the Affric Kintail Way in Summer Boots in Late Autumn

Affric Kintail Way (AKW) is the newest long-distance walking trail in Scotland. Albeit being only 44 miles (71 km) long, it manages to offer a sense of wander together with a crunchy chunk of wilderness! All you need, is a tiny bit of patience to get out of civilisation and into the more remote areas. But patience is something all walkers have. Right?

Due of my previous engagements (trekking in Uzbekistan :)), my friend and I could not leave for our adventure earlier than at the very end of October. Which is a tricky time when it comes to packing. Winter kit would obviously be over-doing it, but summer kit does not offer enough protection any more. Our main concern was our boots – we are both dearly attached to our “summer alpine” style walking boots which offer about 20-35% protection from the rain only when arduously sprayed with the waterproofer in the morning. And our budgets banned us from getting waterproof boots before our hike, so… Off we went in summer ones!

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Day 1, October 28. From Drumnadrochit to Cannich: 23.34 km

This is the day the internet described as the “boring slog” and the “I should have just skipped this part”. Frankly, I have no idea what those people were going through when out on their walks, since day one was nothing but boring. Just now, when writing this up, I again came across someone’s walking diary where they admit to hating the first 25 miles on AKW. Hmm!? I think it is one of those “it is not what you are going after, it is what are taking with you” mindset things, for sure. Or something more mysterious. But because of all the warnings, we kept a keen eye out for the boring bits to surface and met with none.

We started our walk under the lovely Scottish sun (Kadri and I still are subject to a spooky weather luck every time we cross the Scottish border) (and I am aware it will end one day soon), only to run into a giant redwood within the first half an hour. My very first redwood! And we were just talking about visiting the States only because of them. Their bark was incredibly soft. But above all, they just felt old and strange and happy. What a start!

I managed to see a red squirrel later on, but actually spent the most of my day staring at the clouds. There was something happening which I had never seen in my life – massive rolls of apocalyptic carpets were twirling and floating above our heads, opening up a completely new level of wide for me. They changed the space, somehow, making me feel as if we were completely alone and the world had decided not to collapse yet but was thinking about it.

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You do have to walk on a lot of forestry tracks on day one. At one point, the living trees started howling behind the massive stacks of their felled companions. The howled similarly to a curious wolf or to a dog sentenced to patrol a very small territory. It was scary and heartbreaking. Later, when we were already starting to near Cannich, the forest once again started wailing, and accompanied us with the sound of windows and doors creaking open, as if a slow-motion art movie was taking place around us. Thinking about it later, I obviously understood that it is technically the other way around – doors and windows carry the sound of the forest with them, within them. But still.

In summary, the first day offered good straightforward walking. No chances of getting lost but definitely fewer people than on the first day of West Highland Way, for example. Also, fewer waymarks.

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Day 2, October 29. From Cannich to River Affric Car Park: 19.94 km

Day two of AKW is all about the forest. And about getting the first glimpses of the stunning Glen Affric with little islands poking out of the water and people casually gliding between them in their red kayaks. I was looking at them when walking amongst the trees, wondering whether they lived close and would they be out here in the rain as well. If I knew how to drive I would drive here just for this glen. And their kayaks!

As a side remark: lots of people mention not seeing much of the glen on their way on day two. I think none of them walked it so close to November when a lot of the leaves have already fallen. Because we certainly saw the glen constantly to our right, making our camera sensors buzz with its blue waters.

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Luckily, there is a spot marked as Classic View on the trail, so you don’t have to take detours to see the majestic glen when it first comes into view. I’m pretty chuffed about that spot. Just because I’m such a mountain/hill/forest person, so I never go out of my way to take in the beauty of glens, valleys or waterfalls. But luckily, the older you get, the more beauty you start noticing, so am looking forward to widening my intake of marvels.

The going is once again pretty straightforward but our journey was made magical by having to walk on silvery ground for quite a while. We even suspected frost at places but finally understood that it was just good old pyrite giving the ground the look of an Elvish rug.

All in all, the day starts with quite a long walk on a forestry track but when that is over and you can turn left to descend into the glen, things start getting pretty. First you are greeted by some of the healthiest ferns you will ever meet, and if lucky, dragonflies will take a flying break on your belly as well. And then there are the tree beards – thin moss and lichen curtains hanging from the tree branches. There is also an excellent lunch spot just in the middle of the way at Dog Falls with tables and a river view.

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In the setting sun, we set up camp at the very edge of River Affric Car Park, now also called the most glamorous camp spot of my entire life! Here you have real toilets and picnic tables at your elbow’s reach! I climbed to the viewpoint to see the last shades of the orange light, and once again concurred that life looks magnificent. Soon, the moon was shining bright and the temperature dropped below zero. What else would you want from a night out?

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Day 3, October 30. From River Affric Car Park to Camban bothy: 16.36 km

It took a long time for my friend to fall asleep – her sleeping bag was a bit too thin, as was her mattress. Eventually, she got the survival blanket from her bag and wrapped it around her. Nothing carried should go unused, right? I, however, woke up with a sweaty back in the middle of the night. In my moment of utter cowardice, I had put on too many layers before falling asleep and now had to start lowering the temperature inside my bag. I think the two of us combined probably reached the optimal sleeping temperture. Not a perfect consolation, but almost!

When I zipped open the tent in the morning the world was covered in frost. The outside was warmer than I had guessed. We cooked some porridge under the salmon pink skies and watched the double rainbow lose itself in the glistening trees. I had not planned on waking up in Rivendell but I was not going to run away.

It did take us a lot of time to get going. While this was the most glamorous camping spot of my life, it was also the longest time between waking up and hitting the road. I think we got lost in staring at the sky and trying to capture all the changing shades of it. 🙂

But finally, off we went, with the Alltbeithe Youth Hostel (the remotest youth hostel in the mainland UK) as our lunch spot in mind. Once again, the weather rolled over to the sunny side and the going became straightforward. Today we also met the first people on the road! (We had a little bet going on about this.) Apparently, they had had their tent nearly ripped off by the harsh winds of two nights ago – something we had no idea about (they were walking from a different direction).

There was a single small wind turbine standing not too far from the hostel. Seeing an odd man-made object in nature makes me think of eternity every time.

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After a very nice lunch (today we munched on things Kadri had prepared) things started turning boggier. We kept our eyes on the road, trying not to step on the wrong type of green moss. Soon, I found myself walking in the hoofprints of a deer who had probably used a similar bog avoidance system. There are no waymarks in this part of the trail but you can’t really get lost since most of the forkings lead back to the main trail, so the best thing is just to choose the path that offers the driest ground. And check the map if you feel like your gut and mind are starting to argue.

After all the delightfully winding paths, the Camban bothy came into view. But only after both of us had started seeing mirage houses in the highlands! I know there are records of legendary optical illusions which people see in the deserts, but nothing on the granite stacks making themselves seen as houses, right? I’m pretty certain it is a common occurrence among people with weary legs, and only needs to be researched and written down into a book.

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Aaaand – there was no one else in the bothy! Reading through the logbook we soon came to a realisation that what we were walking in, were probably the only three consecutive non-rainy days of this autumn. And that we had both been talking to the weather gods with the same favour in mind: if you give us dry days at first, we can take anything you show us on the last one. * gulping sounds *

Fair enough, though, Kadri’s boots were properly soaked by now, and there was not enough coal to light a fire, so we did what any normal person would do: a slightly adjusted re-enactment of Bruce Robinson’s Withnail and I. There are few things some plastic bags and foot warming pads can not solve!

Day 4, October 31. From Camban bothy to Morvich: 16.76 km

So! The Camban bothy kind of has a double roof at places, creating a wind tunnel that magnifies some of the sounds. I woke up only once but was then certain that we would be stuck in this bothy for a long time, hiding from the storm. A creepy start to the morning of All Hallows’ Eve, for sure!

But the entire All Hallows’sinister vibe flew out of the door the moment I opened it. Because there was barely a drizzle and absolutely no wind outside! I don’t know about the sound mechanics of the bothy’s roof but it sure does fill your dreams and your reality with some special layers of imagination.

We had our porridge when sitting at a table, this time browsing through the bothy logbook, and me reading Robert MacFarlane’s The Wild Place. There is valid geeky peace in reading books in locationally suitable settings.

The packing, of course, went quicker indoors, and we were soon on our way. The weather gods had indeed heard us. But at least they had not taken us too seriously. Our last day of AKW was a day of soft, drizzly rain, with a bit of real rain at the very very end of it, when buildings were already in sight. (Eewh, that strange feeling!)

The drizzly rain accompanied us when we crossed all the tiny mountain rivers and walked on the mountainsides covered in fast-moving clouds. These are the night-time dreams of my teenage years, so time gets blown open every time I walk in the clouds. And then there is the feeling of freedom – feeling hunger and contentment at the same time. I think this is my definition.

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The drizzle traveled along with me when I had to climb 20 – 30 meters up hill to find a single crossing point for an especially wide mountain river. Of course, I could see it from afar but did not start planning much before reaching it. I think what nature (and yoga, funnily enough :)) have taught me, is to deal with the things/obstacles/issues when I get to them, and not worry about them too much beforehand. It is not a professional attitude yet, but it seems to be expanding, yay!

The narrow path next to Allt Grannda waterfall finally made me realise that looking at intensely vertical waterfalls from above and below is now definitely pulling me into a vertigo-like state. Especially when that bubbling water comes into your view quite suddenly. So, just to get a picture of the whisky-coloured cauldron, I had to drop my rucksack against the mountainside and press myself very strongly against the mountain as well, and only then reach for the camera.

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Everything changes in seconds in the mountains. The clouds, the wind, the light. For a second, I saw a row of bunnies chasing after each other in high spirits. Silly me! That was just a frothy and bouncy stream with tiny white waves jumping out. Soon afterwards, an actual heron did glide above the River Croe just before the Glenlicht House, so I counted my wildlife spotting a success. The porch of the Glenlicht House provided a lovely spot for lunch, but also notified us of the journey coming to an end. I did not know of the Five Sisters of Kintail yet. Nor that they have beautiful ridge walks on top… This day made me promise that I would return to Glen Shiel.

The last part of the Affric Kintail Way meanders between the striking towers that are the Five Sisters of Kintail. They feel like some oddly powerful children of the mountains of Glen Coe and the Liatach of the Torridon Hills. They are munros, officially, but they send you back towards civilisation in the most awe-inspiring manner.

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So, if I were to write a 4-day hike description about the AKW, it would go as follows:

– Day 1 – stuff looks nice

– Day 2 – everything is getting nicer

– Day 3 – things are getting really beautiful

– Day 4 – omfg, omfg, omfg, omfg

On the last night we slept under a (high and real) roof. Hazel (at Ruarach Guest House) gave us whisky and cake, and a lift to a bus stop in the following morning. The people you meet, eh?

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“Our years hold the times where all and everywhere is always beautiful”, I wrote then turning 30. I don’t know whether it was the release of the inner hippie, but that is time where the most maginificent times of my life started. Even if they mean drinking peat water.

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Why you don’t always need the sun to be happy

March 2017: A Different Time in Scotland

I travelled back to Scotland in the middle of March. The aim was to gather more technical winter mountaineering skills with the help of Rob Johnson Expedition Guide. Luckily, when I contacted him near the end of 2016, the group had just one space left. I was set to go!

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What I absolutely had not planned on, was developing either a monster migraine or an uncanny sinus infection a couple of weeks before the start of the winter skills & mountaineering course. In my case, getting the train up to Fort William from London could have easily been taken for a road trip to Damascus, only with a difference that instead of a ruggedly holy calling I was starting to have doubts whether I could climb at all.

About that pain

There will be no cliffhanger in the middle of this story. Sorry! 🙂 All went well, albeit laboriously. The prescription drugs I was taking at the time lowered my walking heartbeat to 50 bpm. Even a single set of stairs became an accomplishment of sorts, not to mention a mountain. True story! The ascent of Stob Ban ended up the hardest walking experience of my life. I actually had to rest my head on my axe after every ten meters.

But when there’s a will (and the love for the mountains, and a truly patient mountain guide and one other patient climber), there’s always a way. I did end up:

  • climbing/scrambling the quartzite North Buttress of Stob Ban in the Grey Corries (a borderline route between grade II and III, if my memory is not jig dancing);

 

  • climbing my first Grade I winter gully in the Cairngorms (Jacob’s Ladder). A very gracious gully for learning, I have to say.
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The last meters of Jacob’s Ladder. (Photo either by Rob or Rachel.)

I also spent one of my climbing days in bed with vertigo, holding on to my mattress and ignoring the fiercely orange flashes the smoke alarm in my room was producing. I mean, you go out with many things, but you don’t go climbing with a vertigo.

So, this time it was a a slightly mixed bunch of feelings. And definitely the only time in my life I have felt less than flawlessly happy in the mountains. But still, I aaaaalmost got there, of course.

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After the last climbing day, feeling properly vague in the head but so devastatingly happy I spent these days in Scotland.

This year, man!

The beginning of 2017 has not been particularly lucky. Having been almost professionally lucky (and healthy) so far, it has been tremendously hard for me to accept the physical daily pain. I’m definitely better equipped to deal with years of high level mental strain (positive and the other shade) than even a week of physical discomfort. Not kidding.

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Fort William at the end of winter 2017.

When I can’t move, all my versions of the future lose their grounding and their zest. It’s as if someone has changed my light switch for a capriciously functioning dimmer. There are bursts of normality, but mostly I inhabit a space filled with thick, gooey air. In here, I need to refocus my eyes and my itinerary with every step I take.

I have no idea how people with chronical pain deal with it. Where do you find your projections of peace? Can everything be trainable?

Why you don’t always need the sun to be happy?

So, where on Earth is the only place to find peace when you are officially burnt out, over worked, over stressed and physically crumbling? In the Scottish Highlands, of course.

 

In here, you do not need the sun to be happy:

  • The light and warmth often hide some of the smells eminating from the soil. Although warmth gives free reign to blossoms and such, it also takes the soil away from underneath your feet. You kind of stop noticing it. But sometimes you need to feel the ground the most.
  • The sun is always about the present. The murky weather fixes your thoughts on possibilities instead.
  • The grey weather gives you time to think. The sun is an action call. (In other words, the wolf-coloured weather makes for a great travel planner.)
  • You notice more shades in colours in the hands of a dubious climate.
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View from the top of Jacob’s Ladder, Cairngorms.
  • As long as a snowstorm or a gale is not visiting the same place as you, you can still go forwards with your most loved activities.
  • The dramatic (and the grand) scenes mostly welcome the traveller in the non-sunny landscapes.
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On top of Jacob’s Ladder. Last day of climbing, Cairngorms. (Photo by Rachel.)
  • The murkiness makes you feel as being part of a story. You feel yourself and your itinerary in a specifically intense manner when hitting the road in proper dreary weather.
  • The sunlessness makes you notice more allurement around you. It does.
  • A tough weather brings strangers together.
  • The gloom makes you move. The sun habitually traps you into the moment. (By no means a wicked trap, though!)
  • The overcast weather works wonders for the imagination.
  • A weather with an epic temper makes you feel like being on a journey the legends are made of.
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The Mamores Ridge.

And what else forms the core of a human heart than all of the above?!