Home » Hiking » 2014 Scotland Trip » GGW Day 2 (Saturday) – Caol Lairig to Leitirfearn (37 km?)

GGW Day 2 (Saturday) – Caol Lairig to Leitirfearn (37 km?)

This is a long one, sorry. But it was a long day.

There was some condensation on the inside of my tent thismorning (the first time I’ve had any this trip), and heaps on the inside of the fly (so I guess the ‘double wall’ thing was going its job!). I dried the tent off a little and luckily got packed up just before the rain and midges came out.

I walked up river to find the footbridge that I had been planning on crossing (partly out of curiosity and partly to get a definite location on my maps). It was not very safe looking so I was glad I hadn’t bothered to find it the night before. Lesson: bridges on the map that don’t also have marked tracks leading to them may not be reliable!

A slightly dodgy bridge in the Caol Lairig.

A slightly dodgy bridge in the Caol Lairig.

From here I turned and headed directly up the side of the hill (Bohuntine Hill/ Beinn a Mhonicag)). I say directly, but that is not strictly true. I tried to go directly but it was so steep and so difficult to walk up that I ended up crisscrossing and meandering across the slope like a drunken butterfly. When I say “difficult to walk up” think: “almost knee high thick heather, bracken and grass, with lumps and bumps and holes hidden underneath”. Plus everything was wet (due to the dew overnight) and squishy (due to the fact that this is Scotland). It was a very long slog. Thank god for sheep/deer tracks which were far from direct but were at least walkable! Except that I was reminded that sheep/deer are narrower than me when I was following their tracks across a steep creek gully. I was fine crossing the creek, but then the track snuck around the edge of the gully back out to the main hillside, with the hill next to me so steep that there simply wasn’t room for me next to it. My foot slipped off the edge of the path and I ended up falling about 1.5m down the gully into the creek (it was tiny – I didn’t get wet). Luckily I fell feet first and only got a small cut on my finger where I was scrabbling at the sides on the way down. Climbing out was annoying but not too difficult.

I was supposed to cross over three sets of parallel roads on the way up this hill and had been planning to walk up to one, follow it horizontally for a while, walk up to the next one, etc. I didn’t find them at all. I must’ve walked straight over at least two of them and didn’t even notice! My guidebook for this walk had casually mentioned that I could follow the parallel roads around the hill. Fat chance!! They are bleedingly obvious from a distance but almost indiscernible when you’re actually on the ground! This was a pretty big disappointment for me – partly because I’d come all this way to see them (and they weren’t as amazing as I’d thought) and partly because I’d planned a lot of my walking for today relying on using them as a reasonable path (and navigational aid).

I FINALLY got to the top of the hill. It had taken me an hour to get ~500m! Oh, and 300m up (the peak, Beinn a Mhonicag, is 567m, but the river I started at is already at 263m). Lesson number 2: 300m hills are not to be sneezed at! They may be just one more of a hundred hardly noted hills on the map, . . . but it is still 300m up in only 500m across!! For reference, Mount Cooke (on the Bibulmun Track) is considered a big steep hill. It starts at about 330m and summits at about 580m, so ~260m . . . in about 2,000m!!! Beinn a Mhonicag is higher and 4x as steep but I had approached it as “just a little hill I’ll go up to have a look from the top”!

That said, the view from the top was lovely. While I had been climbing, there was fog coming in from both ends of the Caol Lairig valley (where I had camped), but this had cleared to give good views. There was a little bit of mist left (not enough to impede the view), swirling gently up above the crest of the hill in a mesmorising dance. The Glen Roy valley is a nature reserve and is an incredibly beautiful place, and the parallel roads were apparent on all of the surrounding hillsides. On the downside, there was heavy fog blocking the view to the south-east and the top of the hill was very boggy. I mean . . . seriously boggy. Big black pits of mud that I had to pick my way around, and super squishy marsh that you’d sink up to your ankles if you stood in the wrong spot. As I said, the view was amazing, but I’m not sure it was worth the walk up! You can see the view from the top here.

Mist coming in from the northern end of the Caol Lairig.

Mist coming in from the northern end of the Caol Lairig. You can see how steep the hill I’m on is, and how you can’t see any parallel roads on it, despite the fact I should be amongst them and they are quite obvious on the opposite hill!

I’d like to apologise at this point for my tautologies. A Glen is a valley, so saying “Glen Roy valley” is effectively saying “the Roy valley valley”. However, for those who aren’t familiar with Scots Gaelic naming, I feel I need to give more information about what I’m talking about. As some extra info, an Allt is a river, a Lairig is a pass (usually a valley), a Stob is a peak and a Ben, or Beinn, is a hill. Scotland tends to call almost everything a hill, even though most of them are technically mountains!

Enough rambling . . . My planned path from here was to cross the Caol Lairig valley then go up the opposite hill (Leana Mhor) to the parallel roads and follow them to the north. Since I had already discovered that parallel roads are USELESS for walking, I instead I came off the north end of the hill (at least walking down was slightly easier than walking up) and aimed for a track that I could see down in the valley which led to the main road through Glen Roy. When planning my route I had tried to avoid roads whenever I could. Already, on only my second day, I had reversed this, learning a healthy respect for (dread of) cross country walking!

The track down to the road along Glen Roy.

The track down to the road along Glen Roy.

The track was great, and the road was very quiet (I only saw two cars) and nice to walk on. The valley was stunning and while it rained occasionally the weather was usually good. I also saw a bothy which was closed (presumably due to poor condition). I hadn’t even thought to check for bothies out here.

Brunachan bothy (closed)

Brunachan bothy (closed)

The road ended at an estate so I had to turn off and go cross country before I got there. From here I had to walk north-west to get over the ridge that runs along the edge of the Great Glen, to get back to the GGW. I was trying to be sensible and had planned to skirt around the edges of the hills, part way up to hit the lowest point of the ridge, rather than walk over the top. Unfortunately this plan used the parallel roads for most of it!

The hill up from the estate was very steep, but slightly easier walking than the previous hill (more grass, less heather). Partway up I saw some quad bike tracks. This section was particularly steep – I’d be pretty scared of tipping over backwards coming up here on one of them!

Looking back down the hill to the estate lodge (see the quad tracks in the bottom right?). The hill in the background is Sgurr an Fhitlich.

Looking back down the hill to the estate lodge (see the quad tracks in the bottom right?). The hill in the background is Sgurr an Fhitlich.

I think I did get onto one parallel road for a little while as the walking seemed somewhat flatter and easier than normal. Unfortunately it was so indistinct that I meandered off the RL (elevation) and ended up on normal hillside again. After going around the first hill, I altered my course slightly to go south-west, rather than north-east, of the next hill (Meall a Chomhlain) which gave a slightly steeper but shorter route, whereas the original plan relied on the parallel roads. This change should’ve also given me two options for footbridges across the Allt a Chomhlain. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find either of them! I ended up having to cross at a reasonably wide spot, but at least with a few big stones. Sadly, one foot slipped just a little and went in more than shoe depth, so I had one wet foot. It’s OK though, I evened that up shortly afterwards by misjudging a bog and sinking the dry foot too deep in that!

This is where I got a wet foot crossing when I couldn't find either of two footbridges on the map.

This is where I got a wet foot crossing when I couldn’t find either of two footbridges on the map.

Meall a Chomhlain is quite big (630m) and very steep. It was incredibly hard. Think all the “hard walking” stuff from first thing thismorning, PLUS always walking the same direction on a very steep angle so your feet are always sliding the same way, getting squashed into the side of your shoe. AND, continuously worrying that you’re walking the long way around because you don’t have a distinct path or landmark to aim for.

Although I haven’t mentioned it yet, I was still feeling “not great” today, so had hardly eaten anything. Breakfast this morning and a muesli bar since 7:30, with 5 hours of really hard walking. The weather was also a bit unpleasant, with one patch of really strong wind and driving rain, where all I could do was turn my back to it and stand and wait. I almost stopped and sat down and cried but realised that wouldn’t get me out of this valley . . . and that’s what I really needed to do. This really was a low point in the trip. I was tired, and miserable, and sore. It was really only my stubbornness (and the fact that I had no other way out!) that kept me going.

I sat down for a few minutes, which actually really helped. I don’t tend to stop when I’m walking. I’ll stop to look around, take photos or read the map, and tend to walk slower and pause a lot if I’m tired, but I think of sitting down as wasted time that I’ll need to walk faster and make up later. This short rest made me realise how important it is to actually stop and sit occasionally.

I also got some food out. I still had no appetite, and the thought of food made me feel sick, but I realised I had to eat otherwise I wouldn’t be getting over the hill. I basically ripped off small bits of pita bread and let them dissolve in my mouth while walking so I could swallow them. Yep, it was a pretty bad day!

Eventually I got to the flatter bit near the summit of the hill. I wasn’t actually going to the summit, but just had to get across the ridge. I cut across the side of the hill using a fenceline as a guide. I saw a herd of deer and a lot of frogs up here. The views to the south-west were also lovely. While the flatter terrain was much appreciated, it came with a price. Acres of bog. Rivers of thick black mud, lakes of it . . . . this was the worst patch of bog I’d seen. Some sections I had to detour a long way out of the way to find a way around. One section I climbed along the fenceline to get over it, and another section already had some old fence posts and planks which I could tiptoe across.

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Near the top of Meall a Chomhlain. Bog.

EVENTUALLY I got over the peak and onto the (slightly) drier downhill slope into the Great Glen. My plan was to go straight down the side of the hill, through a section of pine forest near the bottom and hit the north end of Loch Lochy (at the Laggan Lochs), 2 to 3km away. Unfortunately, as I came over the ridge I saw a road in the now logged pine forest to the north, only 500m away. I was so excited to see a road (it had been a really long day . . . I think maybe I’d gone a bit crazy), that I changed my plan and instead bee-lined for the road! This involved climbing a 10’ fence (with my pack on), walking down a near vertical hill covered in logs and stumps from the logging, and crossing a couple of rivers. All that stuff actually went quite smoothly although I had to jump across the rivers, which I don’t really like doing. My method involved basically throwing myself at the far bank so that if my foot slipped, the weight of me and my pack would drive me forward onto the far bank anyway. Luckily my feet didn’t slip!

I got to my road and then . . . . within about 10m it disappeared!! I was devastated. It reappeared again a little bit later, but then started going up hill! I didn’t want to go uphill. I’d just been there. All I wanted to do now was go downhill to the Great Glen! Then it disappeared again! Luckily at this point I could see the main pine forest road. It was a fairly boggy walk to get there but luckily only a short distance.

My road is on the right, it disappears as soon as it is out of sight! This is looking north-west across the Great Glen.

My road is on the right, it disappears as soon as it is out of sight! This is looking north-west across the Great Glen.

At this point I took my shoes off (my poor feet had taken a hammering today) and put my sandals on, then padded very slowly out of the pine forest. It was a very long walk because the road wound around and zig zagged to keep the gradient low for log trucks. I’m pretty sure I walked about 4km to get the 1km out of the pine forest. It was also quite slow because I was exhausted and I’m pretty sure I bought a size too small in sandals so, while they worked, I had to keep readjusting my feet into the middle. While I was slowly making my way down a boy (12ish?) ran past me, up into the pines. He came back past again when I was almost at the bottom – obviously training for something.

I’m pretty sure I would’ve been better off to follow my original plan! The other problem with my new route was that it brought me onto the Great Glen further north than I’d planned so I missed the floating dutch barge pub at the Laggan Locks!

At the bottom of the pines I cut through what looked like someone’s driveway (I was beyond caring at this point), had a short walk on the A82 then found the GGW. I was so happy to see it! My shoes went back on at this point. I stopped at the Laggan Swing Bridge to fill my water bottle and had just started when I read the sign that said this water might not be safe for drinking! Disappointing, as I was running pretty low on water.

Back on the path!! Yay!

Back on the path!! Yay!

I stopped at the Great Glen Water Park for some lunner (lunch/dinner) – it was ~4pm, so sadly right between lunch and dinner service. They still had a small menu available so I had some lasagne and Irn Bru – I didn’t have much appetite still but knew I had to eat something, and felt the sugar would help. While I was there, two guys came in from mountain biking, thinking that they were feeling pretty sore and tired. They should try being me!! I had a chat to them outside – they like mountain biking at night to make it more interesting (?!?!?) so had done this section last night, but decided to come back today and see what it looked like in the light.

I now had to find a campsite and would be happy with the nearest suitable thing. Luckily, within an hour I had found an absolutely lovely spot on a big flat grassy clearing next to Loch Oich. It has clearly been used as a campsite before (as most good places along the official walks have) but I had it all to myself. It was still early (~5:30) so I set up camp, did some washing and tried to dry all my gear. Shortly after I arrived 3 kayakers went past and pulled in a few hundred metres further along and set up camp. I found out the next morning that both of these spots, but especially the one they were in, are designated camping sites for the Great Glen Way. There is actually a composting toilet next to Leitifearn, opposite where they were camping. It would’ve been nice to know that beforehand – I just saw the house (Leitifearn) and thought I should keep as far away from it as I could!!

Campsite, drying my fly and other gear. You can just see one of the kayakers about to pull into shore further up the loch.

Campsite, drying my fly and other gear. You can just see one of the kayakers about to pull into shore further down the loch.

This was a really long, hard day. I feel like I’ve conveyed that fairly well in the story. If I could’ve skipped this day entirely, in hindsight I would. And I wouldn’t plan to do it again. Even as I wrote that though I know it’s not entirely true. Part of me is crazy enough to think it surely couldn’t be that bad twice. And part of the problem was that I was sick and not eating. But also, it was a huge experience. The scenery was amazing and being able to cross that kind of country on my own course and my own two feet is something special. I saw places that hardly anyone else sees. It was really hard, and pretty miserable a lot of the time, but still incredible.

Elevation

As an added bonus today I’ve given you the elevation profile (above) of the pink section of track (below) to show you just how crazy it was.

GGW2

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5 Comments

  1. Bridget says:

    Wow, tough day. I appreciate the addition of valley and hill for people like me!

  2. annathrax says:

    What is a “bothy”? Sounds like a rough day, we all have them! I cried every day on the inca trail, like a big sook! Lol

    • Helen says:

      A bothy is an old building, usually a house but maybe a barn or something, that is now maintained and made available for walkers to stay in. There is no booking, no cost and no facilities (water, power, toilets) but there is usually a fireplace, benches for sleeping and most importantly, 4 walls and a roof! Check out http://www.mountainbothies.org.uk/
      Good to see I’m not the only one crying on hikes . . . . sometimes I wonder why we do it? Seems to be worth it though!

      • annathrax says:

        Ah ok cheers, didnt know what it was. Good place to hide from the elements! Im a big sook, im always crying anyway! Lol

  3. Sounds like a bit of an epic day!

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