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CWT: Day 4, Sourlies to Barisdale, 10 miles

Beautiful and wild Knoydart from the off-trail climb.

I’m beginning to love the sound of rain thrashing the bothy. It comes in spurts as if flung at the windows. I’m snug as can be on my wooden platform, slightly hidden by a screen of drying socks and rain gear.

Tall Ian stirs first, putting on waterproofs, boots and gators. Ted and I let out the air from our mattresses in tandem, and soon all four are cooking breakfast and discussing our plans for the day.

We are in Knoydart, at least its ‘rough bounds,’ likely the only wilderness left in the UK. Last night was just a taste of its challenges, a mere six miles taking us almost as many hours to shuffle through. It’s described in the Cicerone guide as ‘rough underfoot.’ Certainly rougher than anything I’ve walked including New Zealand bush or the exposed Tararua range.

But inside this lovely place – it’s stone with a concrete floor, so I mean more the striking location at the edge of a loch – it’s easy to feel tough and strong, bragging of all the walks done and those hoped for.

But back to Knoydart. It’s said, so Jacob tells me, the name comes from the Norse and a certain Knut’s Fjord. I chew the words in my mouth and see how they could become NOY-dart or as the Scots say it, noy-DIRT.

But this is the same Jacob who told me to tip the butler at our next bothy, so consider the source.

The men of sourlies with the shit shovel.
Seaweed at low tide.
Loch Nevis in clear skies.
Morning light.

It’s a rough and lonely place, piles of colorful seaweed on its front ‘lawn.’ Life must have been hard for those early inhabitants; it’s a place for views not life, it would seem.

We pack up and Ted invites Ian to tackle the first section together. It’s a short beach walk, then a clamor over the head to a massive bog with a bridge far on the end over an uncrossable river. Jacob tells us in mist, you better take a bearing or you’ll get sucked in the bog searching for the bridge (he fell up to his mid-thigh)

We stay far to the side before working our way towards Carnoch, ‘studying the grass’ as Ted would say to find lumps that hold our feet as we look for ways to cross deceptive mud patches that will eat a leg whole and channels covered in gracefully flowing weeds that hide four foot deep water channels.

Miraculously, we step, jump, leap, squish and splash through without incident and cross the brand new bridge, where I turn off for photos of ruins under a double rainbow.

Local resident.
Dr. Seuss pines along the river near Carnoch.
Ruins and rainbow where I waited out the SVT episode.

My Scotland sojourn is a lesson in living. Each day I’ve been here it’s rained, oftentimes hard and cold. Yet it passes quickly and the sun comes out brilliantly, shining on the rock and creating some of the most unusual light I’ve ever seen – a sort of deep yellow contrasted with sombre shadow. And inevitably, a rainbow or two.

All things change, the good and the bad. And, my heart beat. Oh for the goddess’s sake, why now?!? What causes SVT to come on, I really don’t know. Too much leaping? Moving fast in the morning? Not enough breakfast?

I’m armed with a beta blocker plus a Salt Kick tab my friend Lisa the exercise physiologist recommended, and there’s no better place to wait my heart rate to drop from 190 back to 70 then at this stunning place in the sunshine.

Ted tells me Ian wants to wait because ‘three is better than two’ in this wild country, and slowly I feel better, packing up, snagging some gummy bears and working my way through more marsh towards a deep ravine.

This land is set up for ‘stalking’ or hunting deer. A massive green mat is laid on on the track in a few places so vehicles won’t get sucked in. But we leave all that once we sidle the raging river over a complex maze of stones. It’s a jungle gym amidst wiry oak trees. A red throated diver sails through. Thousands of tiny rivulets of water from the latest shower trickle down massive rock walls.

Gorgeous light but very hard footing on rocks sidling the river.
The glorious and wet hanging valley or gleann.
Working my way through the boggy bits.

Every moment is heightened concentration. Where to place your feet, how to balance with sticks, which approach to take. I love it, even when I slide down a flat rock towards an eddy and carefully straddle a stone that I can then lunge up from onto another set of rocks in a bit of a stair-step.

Dr. Stromer at Summit Orthopedics would be proud of his work.

When we finally leave this riparian enclave, it’s back onto boggy grass heading steeply up to a long, high valley under the massive Munro Ben Aden. Ian comments our photos make this walking look easy, nowhere can the viewer see the muddy, rocky, ankle twisting accident waiting to happen that is tramping in Scotland.

It’s magical in here, other lesser mountains dotted with gray rock soaring above, leaking dozens of complex waterfalls into the raging river. One falls comes nearly straight down a flat mountainside, scouring the brown grass aside as if wall art. Another crashes with such urgency, it’s carved a sort of double staircase into a pool which makes its own double staircase.

We splash and ooze through the muck as another shower comes through, the raindrops flung from the sky as if spit out. Ted and I hike all day in waterproofs, chucking the hood on and pulling it off for each 10-minute shower.

Don’t get me wrong, they’re cold and a nuisance, they make things dark and seem far more difficult, but I love these Scottish showers that spatter my protected body as I move through them. I live outside now, and I don’t think I’d really know this place intimately if everything was blue sky and views all day – or easy walking.

Ian and I chit chat most of the way through this hanging valley, looking ahead to the cleft that opens west and will allow us to climb over the bealach at Mam Unndalain.

We come to a waterfall that has split into two arms. I easily cross the first, but am stopped in my tracks at the second. It’s obvious how people cross from one flattish stone to another, but the burn is in spate, full and rushing. One false move here, and your body would clatter down a shoot at 50 degrees, banging against rocks along the way.

Spectacular falls below massive Ben Aden.
Near the actual trail now after clamoring to the top to avoid crossing a waterfall.
An extrusion of quartz.

We look above to see if there’s any easier crossing, but it’s all the same – fast, high and dangerous. Our route meets a stalkers trail beyond and Ian, at 6’2” and 31 years old, confidently steps across the falls to check things out.

He returns not entirely certain the way, or if we need to cross yet another falls. Ted gets in position to cross, but turns around to ask if I want to do it.

I’ve loaded a GPX track into my phone, one recorded by someone who walked this, and it shows that they contoured high above this spot about 1/2 mile back. Considering there’s an alternative, I say, “No.”

It’s funny how we get swept in the moment and pulled along by a need to keep moving forward. But sometimes you need to shake that up by choosing an alternative. I probably could have leapt the falls, and I would have if I absolutely had to. But it’s a risk and I’d like to keep walking beyond this hike.

Ian comes back and we walk back, stepping back in muddy, wet, rocky awfulness looking for a route up. That’s when Ted points up and says “If I were on my own, I’d crack up there” And this time, he has two following him up, first on stairsteppy grass, then through bracken, all steep but doable.

It’s like ice climbing but not really needing ropes as we heave our bodies one big step at a time high above the river. My calves burn with my feet bent back on small holds, but I love it on this mountainside, like a child playing – exhilarating but never really dangerous.

Later Ted tells me he can’t believe we just followed him up.

Out of breath but SVT only a memory, I charge on looking for the route through the huge rock chunks. You never know for sure what’s beyond, but I have my bearing of the track beyond the falls we couldn’t cross and lead us now on a less steep, but still exhausting ascent.

Ted and Ian on good track now heading to the bealach.
Moving fast now towards Barisdale.
The huge and instant lump from my fall.

The view beyond reveals a long lachan and forbidding peaks, the sun shining a spotlight through the gloom right on us. Ian can outdo both of us, but we have a talent for scampering straight up mountainsides and I reach the rise where I see the falls as well as the bealach, and maybe most important, a route to get there.

It’s more straight up climbing, the humpy grass easy to negotiate. Ian worries we’ll tire this way, but I think I see a flat line above – is it trail? By gum, it is! It turns out we never need to cross that falls as the trail already does so. All we do now is join in and walk to the top.

The views are stunning to our first bog, the river gorge, the long hanging valley and the humongous Munros. It’s an easy cross over before heading down on surprisingly good track. Massive waterfalls crash down from every mountain in this valley and we move fast on wet and rocky terrain.

Barisdale Bay surrounded by shapely mountains appears, a deep blue under sunny skies. I walk behind where I like to linger and snap pictures, so I watch Ian wipe out on mud, falling fast as if on ice. He’s fine and I pay no mind.

Which might have been unwise because my turn is next, and I crack my head on a rock.

I scream, but the sound of my tin cup smacking the rock gets their attention. Both Ian and I think that’s my skull cracking at first. I missed my temple by an inch and a huge, purple lump appears almost immediately.

I sit down and they minister to me, getting me ibuprofen and water and ensuring I don’t get cold in this shaded area.

It seems to only be a bruise, but are all head injuries dangerous? I stand up and put my pack back on and slowly lead the way down. I don’t want this to end my trip – or end my life. Am I seeing double? Do I know my name and street address?

It’s not that far down, maybe a half hour, my now realizing that so much rain has really made for tough, and as it turns out, dangerous hiking.

The sun glowing below Mamm Unndalain.
Barisdale Bay on Loch Hourn.
The wonderful bothy with flush toilets.

But I’m ok, walking steadily and confidently to the estate and its superb bothy with running water, toilets and electricity. The estate owner is a Dutchman named Dirk who brings me ice for the lump. I eat piles of food with one hand and hold the ice in the other, then turn in early as the swelling recedes, fairly certain the hiking will continue.

What a day of excitement, play and near misses. I was challenged by the rain – and its effects – but fascinated by how it felt and the light of such changeable weather. I loved how we clicked as a trio and each brought something to the table that left is feeling strong and capable as well as open to the experience. I was bowled over by the exquisite beauty and grand scale of this place as well as my privilege to walk through it. And I am humbled by my fragility and the speed with which things can change.

Let’s hope my bruise – which oddly has no abrasion perhaps because I wore a buff – goes down overnight and reminds me to take care as the hike continues.

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