The Cape Wrath Trail: An Introduction by Joe McCarthy

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The Cape Wrath Trail is a real gem; the diamond in the rough. It is widely regarded as the toughest and most remote of the UK's long distance trails. From Fort William you will navigate 370km of rugged, beautiful mountain country to reach the UK mainlands most northwesterly point of Cape Wrath. There are no signs to follow, no nightly stays in B&Bs with a pub dinner. The complete lack of an established route and few amenities requires self sufficiency; with full camping gear and multiple days of food needing to be carried between resupply points. It was this lack of services and facilities that I found so alluring as I began to plan for this hike. I don't like a long walk to be constantly interrupted by towns and roads as I feel this disrupts the rhythm of the walk and makes it harder to connect with nature. The Cape Wrath Trail definitely ticked all the boxes; this is one for the wilderness junkies!

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What is it?
The Cape Wrath Trail is a 370km thru-hike from Fort William to Cape Wrath. The trail, which links old drovers and funeral routes passes through the most remote regions of western and north-western Scotland. You will travel through the highlands of Knoydart, Kintail, Torridon, Assynt and Sutherland; each one distinctly varied geologically from the last.

How long will it take?
This depends on a couple of factors including your route choice and the weather/ground conditions that you encounter. The trail took me 15 days in total (plus a rest day in Kinlochewe) which was partly due to having very settled weather over the 2 weeks. Most guidebooks recommend 16-21 days and its a good idea to give yourself a couple of days more than you think you'll need in case of injury, fatigue or natural hazards.

When should I go?
The months of April, May and June are usually the most popular for the Cape Wrath Trail. I did mine in late April/early May and was very lucky to find the bogs and rivers low, allowing for quick passage through what could have been extremely difficult terrain in poor weather. Sparse vegetation cover on the hills also made for minimal effort on off path sections; with little heather bashing. The lack of midges at this time of year was a big moral boost and I finished most days on the trail with my sanity in tact thanks to this. I could enjoy the views from camp without being swarmed by a thousand nasty beasties! September and October are also options for walking the trail but see less daylight hours for walking and usually more midges than the late Spring months. July and August are only an option if you want to be swarmed by midges continuously. Between November and March expect little daylight, lots of snow and ice and fewer facilities open than in the high season.

What route should I do?
The start of the trail presents you with 2 options for the first week of walking. The Great Glen variant offers much easier walking on a waymarked trail with less time spent in the hills. The other option: The Knoydart variant is much tougher, with no amenities, much rougher terrain and a completely unmarked trail. This is the section that I walked as I was yearning to spend time in the boonies of Scotland! Once out of Knoydart the choice of route is not so varied; but you can decide to make certain sections more or less difficult depending on how your feeling; an aspect of the trail that I found very engaging.

 The 370km route: starting from Fort William and ending at Cape Wrath.

The 370km route: starting from Fort William and ending at Cape Wrath.

How do I prepare myself?
The days can be long, the ground rough and the weather hostile. And then theres the aspect of walking solo for many days at a time with little to no human contact. It is quite often that you will have no phone signal and the resupply points are few; meaning heavier packs. It is important to prepare yourself mentally and physically for such an endeavour so practice self sufficiency and increase your fitness day to day. If you have no experience of long distance or mountain walking it would be wise to cut your teeth on one of the less remote trails on offer such as the Great Glen Way or West Highland Way.

The logistics of planning such a long walk can seem overwhelming and to get you going I would recommend purchasing the Cape Wrath Trail Harvey Maps and Cicerone guide. The Harvey maps  are preferable to OS maps for this particular walk; the main reason being that the primary route (as well as alternatives) is detailed, along with amenities and the differences in track quality that you will encounter. The maps are extremely lightweight, waterproof and only 2 are needed for the whole trail. Whilst the maps will allow you to visualise and navigate on the trail, the Cicerone guide will break down each section; giving details of logistics and potential hazards along the way.

What are the hazards?
Due to the lack of an established trail and its remoteness the Cape Wrath presents certain difficulties that other trails in the UK do not. Of course, what makes the dangers more real is the fact that you will quite often be more than a days walk from a road and usually many days away from a town or resupply point. Hazards to bear in mind are:

  • River crossings - After heavy rainfall many rivers can become impassable. Don't be afraid to wait.
  • Snow & Ice - Not usually an issue in the Spring/Summer months but be prepared for some snow and ice on those higher up northern and western facing aspects. The highest point of the trail: Bealach Coire Mhalagain (700m) had a thick bank of snow that I easily skirted without winter equipment.
  • Weather changes - The weather of North-West Scotland is unpredictable at best, hostile at worst. Your choice of clothing and equipment should reflect this. A map and compass is essential to navigate across pathless, featureless terrain should the weather turn.
  • Insects (ticks and midges) - Midges are an annoyance, ticks are slightly more concerning. Know how to recognise, remove and treat embedded ticks and tick bites. I checked over my body each evening as ticks like to make their home in the dark, warm areas of your body (its preferable to catch them in the less dark regions before so). I was lucky to find only 2 ticks (both on my feet).
  • Remoteness of terrain - You will have to be self sufficient for many days at a time. That means carrying your own kit and food - plan accordingly. It is also worth bearing in mind the psychological aspect of being far from civilisation so prepare for little to no human contact.
  • Military bombardment range - The last kilometres to the light house are made all the more exciting with the crossing of an active military bombardment range. The MOD firing times are displayed and updated here.
 Streap, Gleann Cuirnean.

Streap, Gleann Cuirnean.

 Beinn Eighe, Torridon.

Beinn Eighe, Torridon.

What equipment should I take?
You will need to be equipped for the conditions at hand. That could be anything (even in the summer months) so expect rain, snow, sleet, hail, sun, cold easterly winds or wet, humid westerly ones. Ideally you want clothing that will keep you warm when wet and wick any moisture away from your body. Merino wool or synthetics (polyester, nylon, rayon) are good for baselayers and synthetic or down insulations are very effective at keeping you warm at camp. A full set of waterproofs is a must.

I decided from very early on that weight would be key to successfully walking this trail, and most importantly enjoying it while i did so! Get those kitchen scales out and scrutinise every item in your pack. The luxuries can stay at home. For those of you interested in a full breakdown of my kit and its performance I have made a very geeky spreadsheet that you can view here. This kitlist with item weights included was inspired by outdoors writer Alex Roddie; whose blog and kitlist were instrumental in my preparation for this walk. 

What food is good for long distance hiking?
I like to take a combination of lightweight, dried foods and also some luxury foods (such as cheese, chorizo, sweets). Here is a typical day of food on the trail, usually totalling around 3500-4000 calories.

  • Breakfast - Granola, Muesli or Porridge with dried milk. Chocolate Digestives or Hob Nobs. Black coffee with sugar.
  • Snacks - Dried fruit and nuts. Chocolate Bars. Peanut M&Ms.
  • Quick release sugar - Haribo/Jelly Sweets. Dates
  • Lunch - Oatcakes with cheese & chorizo.
  • Dinner - Cup a soup. Powdered Mash or Noodles with cheese and chorizo. Hot chocolate with powdered milk. Biscuits. Herbal Tea before bed.
 Wildcamping, Kintail.

Wildcamping, Kintail.

 Sunset from Barrisdale Bothy, Knoydart.

Sunset from Barrisdale Bothy, Knoydart.

Why do it?
Walking a long distance trail is a beautiful thing. You can become fully immersed in the time, the place, the now as you enter a life with a more simple and satisfying rhythm. The end goal is something concrete and clear to aim for, but the route to it is anything but; as the walk changes with the course of the natural world. Here you act according to the weather, the landscape and most importantly your gut. It is a release from the daily commitments of suburban and digital life, where we are encouraged to run at a hundred miles per hour in a frantic search for success and happiness. I have found hiking to be a brilliant release over the years and the lessons learnt from it are still applicable once back in civilisation. Take it slow, be brave and embrace the journey! The Cape Wrath Trail will help you along the way.

 The final miles. Sandwood Bay and Cape Wrath on the horizon.

The final miles. Sandwood Bay and Cape Wrath on the horizon.

my top 10 kit for the UK mountains by Joe McCarthy

It can be a laborious process; sifting through the never-ending selection of outdoors kit for sale; to find something more clarifying than just advertising hyperbole. I find online forums, blogs (ahem) and youtube tutorials are the best way to cut the crap in the search for a future purchase. It is also worth bearing in mind that generally, with outdoors gear you get what you pay for. That £20 pop up tent you bought from Aldi just wont cut the mustard in the mountains I'm afraid!

But before I decide, what features do I look for from an item? 

  1. Weight - How light is it?
  2. Durability - How tough is it?
  3. Reliability - Is it quick and easy to use?
  4. Suitability - Could it withstand 4 seasons in a day? Will it keep me alive?

Achieving an equilibrium of these 4 criteria should hopefully allow for some degree of comfort in the outdoors, no matter what the conditions are. If you are warm, well fed and rested then your brain (and I cant always vouch for this) should work to its full capacity!

So what are my favourite pieces of kit? You'll find my top ten below; all tried and tested in the worst conditions and the loneliest locations of the UK and New Zealand.

 One of my favourite wildcamps to date: on a 6 day epic from Mallaig to Inverie through the Rough Bounds of Knoydart.

One of my favourite wildcamps to date: on a 6 day epic from Mallaig to Inverie through the Rough Bounds of Knoydart.

1. Tent - Hilleberg Akto + Footprint
1600g + 240g/£555 + £65

Ive had my fair share of bivvying in the mountains and lets just say that it isn't always roses and sunshine. Being awoken by rain to the face or the friendly bites of a midge swarm can lose its novelty pretty quickly, especially when travelling solo. This is where the Hilleberg Akto comes into its own as a high quality, sturdy one man tunnel-tent; capable of many a wind, rain and even snow filled night. The guy line tensioners and zips are easily operated with gloves and the vents at each end provide air circulation; helping to stop the build up of condensation on the tent outer. The porch area also provides ample space for kit and the footprint keeps your kit dry (Scotland dry, not actual dry). Note: The price of this tent is made all the more bearable if you divide it by how many nights you've spent in it. Im currently on £1.93 per night!

Caring for your Hilleberg

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2. Sleeping Bag - Mountain Hardwear HyperLamina Spark
737g/£180

This 3-season sleeping bag ticks all the boxes for me. Its lightweight, synthetic and has a brilliant warmth to weight ratio (1C comfort limit for 737g). The synthetic fill will retain heat even when wet meaning that the maritime climate of the UK need not overly bother me. After getting my down bag soaked in Snowdonia last year I was reluctant to use down again for an exped with wet weather forecast. The central zip is also a nice touch for those of you who sleep on your side. No more zip to the hip!

 

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3. Sleeping Mat - Thermarest NeoAir Xlite
340g/£135

A sleeping mat is one of the most appreciated pieces of kit for anyone who spends a night out on the hill. Its a little bit of comfort far from home. The NeoAir Xlite fits down to the size of a 1L drinks bottle, is tougher than it looks and is super super lightweight. Need i say anymore?

 

 

 

 

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4. Pan - MSR Titan Kettle
118g/£55

Heres one for the ultralight gearheads out there! A simplistic design; this titanium pan can boil up enough water for dinner and a hot drink. It also fits a 230g gas canister neatly inside when not in use. I've used it on both my gas stove and straight over the campfire; a welcome piece of kit when your cold and wet at the end of the day. 

 

 

 

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5. Camera - Gopro Hero 3+
125g/£280 (4 years ago)

The rigours of trekking in this unpredictable landscape don't make it the most camera friendly environment. Gopro changed this with its range of fully submergible cameras; useful for skiing, climbing, hiking, scuba diving, kayaking.. the list goes on. An abundance of add ons to change the POV gives you immersive imagery that other cameras can only dream of! It fits in your pocket. It can shoot 1080p. Its tough as nails. Welcome to the future of adventure videography!

 

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6. Compass - Silva Expedition 4 Compass    
36g/£30

I've never been much a fan of GPS navigation. I disapprove of a careless over reliance upon technology in the outdoors and besides, what is better than connecting with the landscape through map and compass? One benefit of working on your navigation skills is being able to keep your shit together when that claggy rain and wind kicks in, and it will at some point here. Its a very rewarding feeling to know that you and you alone got yourself off that mountain!
 

 

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7. Personal Locater Beacon - Mcmurdo Fastfind 220 PLB
150g/£180

It feels ridiculous to spend nearly £200 on something you hope to never use; yet after a series of near misses in New Zealand this became a must have item for me, and it was one that made my Nan very happy! It offers the solo walker a certain peace of mind whilst in the mountains; with mountain rescue a single button press away.

How to register your PLB

 


 

8. Waterproof - Mountain Equipment Janak
515g/£320

The essential. That balmy summer day can quickly become a stormy test of the elements; and for these inevitable scenarios this solid Gore-Tex Pro jacket offers ample protection. The 80D fabric used throughout is tough enough to take the wear of a heavy pack and the rigours of scrambling and climbing on both rock and ice. A synch-able, peaked-hood, waist and velcro wrist cuffs seal the deal, creating an airtight cocoon of warmth around your core. And if that gets too much for you the pit zips can be opened to regulate your body temperature. A solid waterproof for both winter and summer conditions.

 

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9. Baselayer - Rab Merino+ 120 Short Sleeve Tee
£50/135g

Rab's range of merino base layers are a 65:35 blend of merino wool and polyester; creating a more durable fibre than the 100% merino blends. Gone are the days of sewing on the trail! I find the shirt, underwear and pants great for walking and sleeping in year round, such is the versatility of merino (it is incredibly warm yet breathable). The odourless (within reason) benefits of merino are everpresent in these baselayers meaning that theres still a chance to make friends on the trail.
 

 

 

 

 

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10. Walking Trousers - Montane Terra Pants
340g/£85

These are my go to mountain trousers. Ive bushwacked in Taranaki, walked in 40C heat in the Aussie outback and scrambled on the Cuillins in them. They've been worn extensively for the last 2 years, yet still show very little wear thanks to the tough fabric and cordura reinforcements on the bum, knee and inner ankle. They dry extremely quickly, have thigh vents for hot conditions and also boast a stretchy waistline which is great if your a skinny bastard like me!

 

 

 

 

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There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.
— Sir Ranulph Fiennes

The allure of winter climbing by Joe McCarthy

Its day 2 and I'm perched in a more precarious place than I had hoped, with a couple of steel points on each foot and an ice axe in each hand. I hold myself close. I am unroped, and through my legs I can see flat ground 150m below. Oh and Hartley's grinning face. He seems to be enjoying this at least. In terms of technicality there is none, just your bog standard Grade 1 winter gully; but the unaccustomed mind can exaggerate things. I feel exposed, vulnerable to my own lack of winter climbing experience. The other two are fine, they are real climbers with a back catalogue of gnarly routes on Welsh rhyolite and Northern grit. I was just a wannabe, a walker with a handful of airy scrambles and an intense fear of falling. As we reach 200m the top is in sight and progress slows to a snails pace as the snowpack starts to deteriorate; our slime a long line of churned up slush. Troy tentatively cuts steps to ease our progress until eventually we realise that we are in avalanche country. A downclimb is the only option. Distraught, I begin to lower myself, crampons blindly kicking. My ice axe tears at lose chunks of rock and soil that our ascent has exposed. The snow was melting and so was my courage. My clothes wet with cold sweat. My mouth dry. The eternal fall beckons.

And so I began to think. Why was I doing this?

 Buachaille Etive Mor or in English: The Big Herdsman of Etive. Surely no mountain in Scotland is so recognisable, so impressive a guardian of the land around it. For me it marks the end of civilisation in the British Isles. From here on out its raw Scottish mountains until the far north-west coast meets the rough waters of the Atlantic.

Buachaille Etive Mor or in English: The Big Herdsman of Etive. Surely no mountain in Scotland is so recognisable, so impressive a guardian of the land around it. For me it marks the end of civilisation in the British Isles. From here on out its raw Scottish mountains until the far north-west coast meets the rough waters of the Atlantic.

The snow-capped peak
Ahhh, is there anything better than the alpine mountain? What was once held in fear and with great suspicion has developed into a metaphorical symbol for the best, the highest, the greatest, and it has become a recent and at times egotistical obsession for man to ascend it. It represents a physical challenge, a mental barrier to overcome and the chance to share a hugely personal and spiritual experience in an environmentally positive way. Unfortunately in this country our mountains lose their snow in summer and so for me the winter trip is an exciting prospect of a landscape transformed; a hilltop of grass and rock reconstructed into a lifeless place of rime and ice. Climbers are attracted to what is essentially an idealised lump of stone and snow; personifying its very nature to provide context for their risk: to tame the untamed.

 The approach into Buachaille Etive Beag. The lack of snow in Glencoe made for a quick, no-nonsense walk in. Nothing compares to walking through a snowless glen with the snow capped destination beyond!

The approach into Buachaille Etive Beag. The lack of snow in Glencoe made for a quick, no-nonsense walk in. Nothing compares to walking through a snowless glen with the snow capped destination beyond!

 Hartley ponders the mountains.

Hartley ponders the mountains.

A change in perspective
The banalities and stresses of modern life become insignificant here. It doesn't matter who you are, how much money you earn, your position on the career ladder (Everest aside). The mountain can defeat you. The mountain can make you feel small, insignificant and in turn humble in the presence of natures vastness and brutal capacity. We are but a grain of sand. It is this feeling of mortality that keeps mountaineers coming back to indulge in this risk-filled activity; albeit with a highly romanticised memory of last years experience. As I made contact with flat ground after 2 hours of downclimbing I began to notice and appreciate the little things. I felt thankful to be alive in this vibrant world and my senses were heightened to the landscape and the experience. The meltwater gushed in channels beneath the snow. A minuscule spider walked, somehow alive in the snowfield. The sweet warmth of my hot Ribena touched my lips, providing comfort. The cold evening breeze bit upon our rosy cheeks as the sun began to set, purple and crimson. I felt mortal.

 Stob Coire Sgreamhach makes an appearance as a misty blanket slips down the hillsides; a gift from the cold tops to the glen below.

Stob Coire Sgreamhach makes an appearance as a misty blanket slips down the hillsides; a gift from the cold tops to the glen below.

 We spent the first day practicing winter skills on the hills above Glencoe Mountain Resort. Here Troy digs us a snow shelter near to the summit of Creag Dhubh with his latest piece of kit: the Ortovox Kodiak shovel.

We spent the first day practicing winter skills on the hills above Glencoe Mountain Resort. Here Troy digs us a snow shelter near to the summit of Creag Dhubh with his latest piece of kit: the Ortovox Kodiak shovel.

The Suffering
The level of each person's will to suffer is a very subjective thing. For some the trodden route is wild enough; a stroll to the top and back in time for tea. But for others the prospect of suffering in the hills is alluring, an almost intensely primal experience where you pit your wits against the elements. And when the going gets tough there are certain things like adverse weather conditions or a monstrous rucksack that are just shit for moral. Your scared, your tired, your shoulders hurt, your hungry. Embrace it. Embrace the suck. We like to blame other factors for our own problems but you can only learn when you hold yourself to account. Assess your own actions, learn from your own performance. This is how you become mentally astute to the conditions and the current situation. The severity of these are heightened in winter by exposure to the cold, the chance of avalanche, the potential lack of features to navigate from and in turn a certain level of anxiety is constructive for survival. Always go with your gut feeling. Once you see these aspects of backcountry travel as a challenge the suffering can even, at times become fun. Yes fun.  

 Gearing up before our unsuccessful attempt of Stob Coire Raineach.

Gearing up before our unsuccessful attempt of Stob Coire Raineach.

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 Back into Glencoe and thankful for flat ground after 3 hours of front pointing on slushy snow. A summit unreached is a lesson learned, but mostly I was just happy to be walking with two unbroken legs! 

Back into Glencoe and thankful for flat ground after 3 hours of front pointing on slushy snow. A summit unreached is a lesson learned, but mostly I was just happy to be walking with two unbroken legs! 

Witihin half an hour of safely touching ground the 3 of us were descending back into Glencoe, already revelling and romanticising the events of the day. We had been searching for the fine line of life and death that is winter mountaineering and in doing so had got slightly more than we bargained for. 

Why do you think humankind is attracted to the winter mountains? Please leave your comments in the box below and in the meantime get out and brave the cold! You wont regret it :)

safety first - tramping in New zealand by Joe McCarthy

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There is a paradise in this world and I call it New Zealand! 

As a hiker (or "tramper" in Kiwi terminology) the infrastructure of trails, routes and huts made it an ideal location to take the leap from hiking in the Scottish highlands to a bigger wilderness. With this transition came a stronger emphasis on personal safety (especially when travelling solo); with a very fine line between pushing my comfort zone and potentially killing myself. Of course if everything went perfectly to plan it wouldn't make for an exciting story and its safe to say that I broke every rule that I'm preaching here. So I present to you some tips that I didn't really consider at all...

  1. Respect water. The number one killer of tourists in New Zealand is the many rivers that intersect its mountain landscape. If, after heavy rainfall the river is running high don't be afraid to wait it out or turn back; you'd be surprised how quickly the water level can drop once the rain stops. After a week of rainfall I witnessed a 6 foot high torrent of white water become a rippling brook the next day.

  2. Weather is a fickle thing. The temperate climate combined with the close proximity on all sides to an ocean expanse means that the weather can change on a whim. Use your initiative. If theres an ominous tower of cloud heading your way it may be best to descend from the hills. If its blowing a gale at sea level its probably not going to be the finest day to tackle that airy scramble you've been dreaming of. Always assume that the weather will worsen as you gain altitude. I found the MetService extremely useful for daily forecasts specific to the national parks.

  3. Gear up. Don't scrimp out on the essentials. A decent pair of boots and a rucksack (ask for a fitting in both) are a good place to start. Add a set of waterproofs, some decent insulating layers (your in the land of merino wool so make the most of it), a sturdy tent, sleeping bag and insulated mat and your well on your way! I met people at many a hut expecting fresh linen and a cooked meal on arrival. Don't assume anything, be self sufficient! Take a plentiful supply of food to last the duration of your trip; you may need to inhale that bag of peanut M&Ms after a soul destroying descent at the days end. The often neglected safety essentials such as a 1st aid kit, fire kit, compass, map, survival bag, whistle, head torch and emergency rations are also a must.

  4. Listen to the locals. They know the land better than you do and to prove it every man and his cousin Johno will be ready and able to list off multiple horror stories of unfortunate tourists that didn't heed their advice. I was told in excruciating detail of a "munted" tourist found beneath the icy bluffs of Taranaki; the clothing torn from his body as he fell (the lesson intended was to dissuade me of attempting any snowcapped summits without sufficient equipment and experience). Another I recall was of a young German eaten alive by wild hogs after falling into a Karst sinkhole on Mount Owen. I still wonder how the pigs escaped to tell the tale. Whether they were true or not, the tales caused me to approach with caution, and I remain thankful for that advice!

  5. Tell someone. Tell anyone. Whether its a hostel, visitor centre, family back home, or your new friend Johno; its good to know that people have got your back and this most simple form of communication could potentially be a life saver. I broke this rule too many times, entering many a tramp with an attitude bordering on hubris and naivety. Luckily i never had to pay the price for this most basic of errors.

  6. Have fun! Your in a good place! New Zealand boasts a great variety of trails, huts, bivvies, information centres, hostels, and campsites to suit your adventurous needs! The opportunities to meet people of different cultures and to bond over this magical landscape are endless. Most importantly don't forget to practice a 'leave no trace' attitude when enjoying the outdoors, for in doing so you are showing an appreciation and respect for the land, the wildlife and the local people.

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Have I missed anything from my list? Or would you like to share your own story of a near miss in the outdoors? Leave a comment below and ill get back to you. Oh and please visit my newly launched Print Shop by clicking on the button below :)

The mental game by Joe McCarthy

Its difficult to summarise what is required of an individual when it comes to backcountry travel and survival. It is something that I continue to ask of myself. It keeps me on my toes; forever searching for new methods that will benefit how I experience nature. In their broadest form (and in no particular order) I've narrowed it down to these four:

  • Equipment (and knowing how to use it!)
  • Skills & Experience
  • Physical Fitness
  • Mental Fortitude

But which of these attributes is of highest importance? Equipment can be bought, physical fitness improved from hours spent exercising, and outdoors skills gained from attending training courses, reading books and leaving suburbia behind. Mental fortitude is something that we are taught far less about. Being mentally focused is the glue that binds the other attributes together; from which we can make clear decisions as the circumstances of each trek change. With the recent high profile male suicides of Chester Bennington and Chris Cornell its become apparent that us men are not as thick skinned as once perceived, and thats okay. We have been programmed from a young age to repress our emotions; an unhealthy way of being in the wild. It is crucial to approach difficulties with a positive mindset and a problem solving attitude, to understand that mistakes will be made when learning,to communicate clearly with yourself and to the group you travel with.

In my life I have found that anxiety is healthy if kept in its place, panic is to be avoided at all costs, and fear is a welcome mechanism that enables the body and brain to work at their best.
— Ranulph Fiennes - Fear: Our Ultimate Challenge

And so why the focus on this psycological aspect? In all honesty it was something I spent very little time on until recently. In May I found myself in the Eastern Cairngorms with an awfully negative mindframe and a lack of commitment to the challenge at hand. After 3 days with no human contact I was depressed and lonely (remember I chose to walk in an area which sees a low footfall so this should hardly have come as a surprise). The dry conditions of the land after weeks without rainfall did all but lift my spirits:

The ground snaps with each step. I stop and look down at the pitiful heather; a bare skeleton of bleached, leafless twigs. As I ascend further the heath is replaced with pockets of pink gravel and clumps of dry, yellowed grass that resemble wire brushes. Over the winter months little snowfall has been able to settle as brutal winds scour the flat-topped plateau lands. Here only the hardiest of plants can survive. The delicate upland flora has lain unprotected in its important time of hibernation and it shows. Open to the elements and unwatered for much of this dry spring the place has become a sorry, yellow land.

Even in May a steady northerly still bites. I climb down into a peat bog to avoid the worst of the wind; looking for any diversity of life. There is no wet softness to the bog as I jump down from the heath. No slick, oily mud waiting to swallow my boot as I walk. Just the rock hard ground, cracked from a severe lack of rain. The burn that winds its way down into the glen below is no more. Just a dry, jagged scar remains, peppered with more pink. The land screams for water and the sun beats down. I rue my decision not to carry extra water into the uplands (not for the first time!) and after another hour and four sips my water bottle shows 100 measly millilitres of tepid water. I continue on, a lonely nomad wandering across the crunchy, beige sea.

 Creeping Azalea  (Loiseleuria procumbens)

Creeping Azalea (Loiseleuria procumbens)

Spring arrives late here on the sub-arctic plateau and the only specimen of flowering plant I can find on my ascent is the dwarf shrub Creeping Azalea: clinging to the windswept, gravel slopes of Beinn a' Bhùird. Creeping Azalea is an extremely hardy plant which can withstand temperatures and scathing winds down to -40C. Because of its hardiness it doesn't require the protection of the snow blanket in the winter months and each plant can live for up to 60 years. I sit and eat my lunch, appreciating the minuscule pink flowers amongst the surrounding vastness of brown, tan and yellow...

The moment the door shuts behind me I switch into an expedition frame of mind, and so should you. From that point forward you must pay proper attention to the journey, run over the details so that you are completely au fait with the minutiae. You must become active and sharp, spotting signs in the airport ahead of others, and thereby preparing yourself for the kind of alertness that makes the difference when you are in the bush. You must become willing to adapt to new circumstances and bend with the flow of the journey, like the proverbial tree on the mountain.
— Ray Mears - Essential Bushcraft

With this quote in mind i think back to my application to this walk and realise the importance of a positive mental attitude in the wild. Leave your worries and misgivings at home, focus fully on knowing where you are at all times and on planning escape routes for when the weather turns. Check once and then twice your kit and provisions for the journey ahead (I mistakingly left half of my rations at the car on this one). Train yourself physically to deal with any challenges that may arise. And lastly, engage with the landscape around you, just because it is dry and wind beaten doesn't mean that it is completely dead. Embrace the place! Embrace the struggle! Use the creeping azalea as inspiration, for the smallest flower can thrive if only you take the time to look for it.

The Cairngorms: A Winter Immersion by Joe McCarthy

We checked the mountain weather forecast daily, wishing for snow, wishing for winter. The climate of the British Isles is incredibly variant and the freakishly warm January weather continued to cast doubts on our plans of a multi-day snowshoe trip. It was not until we crossed the border that our uncertainty began to ease as a typically wet snow splattered upon the van windscreen; dancing into the full beams from the Scottish night. Our winter immersion had begun.

We set off through the deathly quiet of a native Scots Pine forest, weighed down with 6 days of provisions as well as layers and equipment for winter travel. The chosen destination was Garbh Coire Bothy: an uninsulated mountain shelter nestled in a small, upland glen in the heart of the Cairngorms. Even as the forest thinned the silence was all powerful, with just the muffled crunch of each footstep and the uninterrupted tapping of a million snowflakes falling to the ground. There was a noticeable lack of wind and the snow clouds hung heavy. Time stood still.

Snowshoeing is an ideal method of travel for beginners to winter exploration. It does not require the same level of knowledge and technical skill as mountaineering, ice climbing or cross-country skiing. The winter landscape poses certain risks, ones that the 3-season hiker need not consider. Avalanche, white out and the greater risk of hypothermia were all to be considered as we made steady progress towards the Lairig Ghru. As we left the forested glens behind we were confronted with our first test as the visibility dropped and we found ourselves navigating in a featureless landscape.

Once in the Lairig Ghru the snowy mist lifted to the tops, allowing us a clear view of our refuge for the night: Corrour Bothy. The bothy was a mere spec next to the sheer granite bluffs of one of my favourite mountains: The Devils Point. Its Gaelic name 'Bod am Deamhain' literally translates to 'Penis of the Demon' but was anglicised to a less graphic 'The Devil's Point' by famous ghillie: John Brown upon the royal visit of Queen Victoria to the area in 1865.

Charged by the prospect of warmth we stupidly began to plough through deep snow in a straight line in what proved to be a long and agonising hour. The sighting of shelter tired us, always a taunting beacon on the horizon. We observed the tracks of mountain hares and various birds in the snow alongside our own. Soon after we sighted some black grouse, standing as sentinels, looking side on from rocky vantage points along the valley bottom. Their calls of "coo" and "glug glug glug" followed by a frantic beating of wings and an uncoordinated take off became common place en route to the bothy.

  Black Grouse  by Edward Lear

Black Grouse by Edward Lear

After a night spent under four walls and a roof we continued further into the Lairig Ghru. The gradual rise in the valley floor brought with it a severe drop in temperature along with a stronger wind and the visibility worse than the previous day. For the goggle-wearing trail blazer it was a struggle, with nothing but white in front you begin to lose perspective of your surroundings. Incline, decline and flat merged to leave us stumbling into ditches and moraine like drunkards. Each step forward was preempted with a sharp stab of a walking pole to give some sort of inclination as to what we were walking into. We mistook every dark boulder under the snow blanket for the bothy, until finally we sighted the doorless front ahead of us. We kicked in steps at 45 degree angles as we ascended the last part of the steep slope, the aching sensation of lactic acid in our legs increasing with each step.

As we approached the bothy our eyes began to adjust to the gloom inside and we noticed a corpse like shape in the doorway. The whistle of the wind whipped snow into the darkness, piling up against what we soon realised was an abandoned sleeping bag. Upon entry we discovered further items including crampons, climbing axes, rope, a smashed helmet and the empty packet of a foil lined blanket. What happened here? A failed climb in the corries above us maybe? The mysterious circumstances of the neglected climbing hardware was a sobering reminder of the unmerciful landscape that we were immersed in. After shovelling out most of the snow and reinstalling the door we soon relaxed, ready to enjoy the shelter of this bothy. Or so we thought.

It is a constant fight to stay warm in what would be best described as a stone-walled freezer. First we layer up with all of our insulated clothing. We use our roll mats as cushions to insulate our feet and arses as we sit, taking our boots off in the process. A big mistake; for within half an hour they have frozen solid. My gloves are the same; each finger chilled into a miniature freezer of its own. As I leave the blessed ‘warmth’ of the shelter Matt battens down the door using an assortment of wooden slats, reminiscent of the Tarantino film: ‘The Hateful Eight’. Angry swirls of spindrift sting my exposed face from the dark valley floor below. We drink one smouldering drink after the other. Hot chocolate, tea, coffee, soup. For each drink another trip outside is needed to relieve yourself and the vicious cycle is complete, for you are as cold as you were in the first place. The candle dies and the winter’s night is upon us. The snow casts the inky blue of the sky into the bothy and with sudden gusts of wind we feel euphoric; as if flying through space in our sleeping bags, relishing the cold that we have so sought after.

With our main destination reached we now had to make the long journey back to our starting point. We unbarred the bothy door to find ourselves surrounded by a foreign sight: a cloud free Ben Macdui and blue skies! It was much welcomed after 3 days without sun. There was now a glazed sheen to the snow and this crust made for much better snowshoeing than the soft powder of days before. After making quick, crunchy progress down to the valley head we were finally walking in direct sunlight. We basked. We walked in t-shirts. We put on suncream; the smell taking me back to school ski trips in the French Alps. We cut through streams and corniced snow, through a maze of lumpy moraine, pretending that we were in fact traversing across the crevasses of polar glaciers. We saw not a soul, not a footprint. The Lairig Ghru was ours.

Gnùig - Pejorative for slope with a ‘scowl’ or ‘surly’ expression.
— Robert Macfarlane - Landmarks

As we neared our lunch stop at the Corrour Bothy the Devils Point loomed large. I thought of the Gaelic word: Gnùig. It seemed an appropriate word to describe the mountain's east face, for it certainly scowled as it became silhouetted by the sun, casting us into shadow. The temperature plummeted and within seconds my uncovered arms and hands burned bright red with cold. I picked up the pace and as I reached the bothy threw on my extra layers in an attempt to warm up again. Winter had returned in an instant.

We left the snowy wilderness of the Cairngorms, content with the solitude and simplicity that the winter landscape had shared with us. Our circadian rhythm was reset away from the modern distractions of phones, television screens, and the artificial light that disturbs our sleeping patterns daily. Removed from these we had entered a timeless place where the weather rules supreme; for what appeared to be simple at a first glance was not so. The range of conditions that we encountered each day transformed the landscape. From oppressing pinewood, to the subarctic, to brilliant alpine. The cold Scottish winter truly has it all.

What is Winter? by Joe McCarthy

I do not claim to be an expert in winter travel. In my last post I shared with you my naive introduction to snowshoeing at the tail-end of a Canadian winter. My travels since then have taken me to some far away and wild locations, but never have I undertaken a true winter epic. With this in mind I headed for Snowdonia in early December hoping to gain cold-weather experience and to test out some equipment before a snowshoe trip planned for 2017. My plans were thwarted when I arrived to find only a meagre dusting of snow on the summit slopes of Snowdon. Where are you winter!?

Equipped with a borrowed ice axe and some piss poor crampons (just in case) I ascended up and into the Cwm Tregalan. The sun was setting as I came across an old ruin from the long gone days of a slate mine. Man's influence had created a bizarre setting of slate piles spilling out from the hillside, separating like giant fingers upon the wild scrub; with a scattering of rough shelters and caves that swallowed my torchlight. After some home maintenance, including laying a new stone floor free of sheep shit I bedded down in my bivvy with a hot chocolate and my latest read: Jack Kerouac's On The Road. If it was calm when I went to sleep it definitely wasn't when I first awoke in the night. A chilling gale launched itself in bursts through the large opening at the shelter's front, whistling eerily at a thousand pitches through a thousand gaps in the stonework. My night was a restless one, filled with dreams and visions as I continuously drifted in and out of a wind induced stumour. "I do this to myself" I said to my porridge in the morning. My porridge looked back, silent and grey.

I walked where my boots led me, my spirits lifting as the sun rose. After undertaking mostly well planned day-hikes in Scotland in the summer (thanks to walkhighlands: a delightful website of detailed hiking routes!) I felt that a lack of route planning and direction would help to keep my navigation sharp and my journey pure for the next 3 days. The only constraint was the daylight hours and I pondered on how different the situation could be if visibility was poor and conditions tough. But for now the weather was truly beautiful, with sun drenched peaks to climb and a wind-buffeting scramble on Mynydd Drws-y-coed. That sent the pulse racing (and the nose running)!

After 3 days in the hills I descended through a mist into Bedgellert. The sights and sounds of structure returned. A farmer driving his pick up down a tree-lined dirt road, passing me with a no nonsense nod as he went about his daily routine. The 9 o'clock bell rings shrill as I descend further into the town; the school children stood to attention in the playground like miniature soldiers. I hear the mother tongue of Welsh spoken by neighbours outside terraced houses. The normalities of village life seemed foreign and strange after my isolation with nature.

So my borderline-obsessive pursuit of winter had honed my senses, not just on my return to civilisation but also on the hill. I was constantly reading the landscape, searching for the elusive traces of cold in this mild December: frost and ice accumulating in the shadows of drystone walls, the whipping cracks created by frozen grasses clashing at the lakeside, the half frost-clad pine trees showing the arcing movement of the days sun, the bitterly cold westerlies on the windward slopes. With these subtle reminders of a winter yet to come I left Wales having been blind to the warning signs. Maybe there is yet hope for my snowshoes!

Let it Snow by Joe McCarthy

As the colder months start to set in most suburbanites are falling into the hibernation routine; wishing bitterly for warmer days than winter. Not me. I'm pouring over various maps of the Scotland wilderness, tea in hand. With winter comes snow, and that is what I'm looking for! I want to immersify myself in winter, to understand the change in landscape, to feel the bitter cold, to see the bizarre sculptures that form when wind and water combine. With these desires in mind in early 2017 me and my fellow wild-place enthusiast Matt will be taking the long drive north to Aviemore: the door to the Northern Cairngorms. From there we plan on taking a multi-day snowshoeing trip, using the local bothy infrastructure to explore the huge U-shaped valleys of the Lairig Ghru and Glen Derry, with a detour planned to the summit of Ben Macdui.

So why snowshoeing? Two and a half years ago we both embarked on a road trip of Vancouver Island, and the Canadian Rockies. In between long days of driving we would undertake some short day walks to satisfy our newly-found lust for pure, untouched scenery. For one particular day walk we drove up to the Mount Washington Alpine Resort on the recommendation of an extremely enthusiastic New Yorker turned Vancouver Islander. The resort was deserted. The season was over, yet the snow remained. From the car park we wandered towards the fringe of a nearby pine forest, soon experiencing the struggles of walking through powder snow. After milling around for a couple of hundred metres it was obvious we were going nowhere and so we resorted to diving and swimming around in the snow.

 Matt enjoying a bit of snow wading.

Matt enjoying a bit of snow wading.

 A deserted Mount Washington Alpine Resort. Suits us!

A deserted Mount Washington Alpine Resort. Suits us!

 The sure sign of an inexperienced traveller. The snowshoes are somewhere in that pile...

The sure sign of an inexperienced traveller. The snowshoes are somewhere in that pile...

As we stood back at the car contemplating our miraculously short walk we saw them for the first time. A mother and son levitated past us, effortlessly disappearing into the snow dusted pines that we had just spent near on an hour trying to reach. In a snow shoe induced panic we left Mount Washington and gunned it along Highway 19 to Nanaimo, catching the night ferry back to Vancouver. And so back in Vancouver we began our sporadic search, the snow season was finished and this made our search all the more difficult. After picking up a pair in Valhalla Sports (and Matt a used pair in a climbing shop) we began our journey towards the Rockies. We would make good use of our new purchases there! We didn't. The Rockies are no place for 2 inexperienced city boys with little knowledge in map reading, wild camping, and survival skills to go galavanting off in snowshoes. 

This was the nature of our trip. Our minds, dominated by a lifetime of tarmac, concrete, and farmed field were constantly being blown by the raw nature of Canada and the ways in which it could be explored. In the two and a half years since we have constantly been pushing our comfort zones in the search and exploration of mountain, moor and forest. You learn through experience. And so now seems to be a good time to blow the dust from my snowshoes and finally put them to proper use!

Merry Christmas and happy planning for future adventures in 2017! What have you got up your sleeve for the year ahead?

Gday! by Joe McCarthy

Welcome to my blog! This is the perfect time to start sharing more than my photographic work with you. In July I returned to the UK after travelling Australia and New Zealand, before heading to the wilds of the Scottish North-West for a month of hiking in September. I am feeling fresh and inspired by the beauty of the outdoors. 

My time in Australia was spent doing typically Aussie activities: watching cricket, drinking tinnies and sunning it on the beaches. After 2 months in Sydney with my family I took the hop over the Tasman Sea to Queenstown; where I spent a couple of weeks hitchhiking to the various trailheads of Mount Aspiring National Park. This was what I'd come for! And so after relying on Kiwi good-will I purchased my own car, so as to access the most remote areas of NZ with a certain degree of comfort and flexibility. 

The road was however just half of the journey. I will be sharing a selection of my favourite hikes with you in the coming months, as well as some other hill and mountain routes that I have undertaken in the UK as part of the training for my Mountain Leader Award.

What next? For the winter months I plan on taking a few multi-day trips into Snowdonia where I will be testing new cold weather clothing and equipment. All in preparation for the next big one: a 7 day snowshoeing trek into the Cairngorm winter and its mountain bothies. But more about that another time...

 A worthwhile stop near Arthurs Pass whilst driving the West Coast Road. The drive is one of New Zealand's most spectacular and is one of only a few paved roads to link the west and the east coast of the South Island. Mountain views are in abundance here with the Southern Alps surrounding!

A worthwhile stop near Arthurs Pass whilst driving the West Coast Road. The drive is one of New Zealand's most spectacular and is one of only a few paved roads to link the west and the east coast of the South Island. Mountain views are in abundance here with the Southern Alps surrounding!