Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Not Not The West Highland Way

I was having misgivings for a while if I’m honest which only got worse after I had made it public on here my intentions to attempt “Not The West Highland Way”. My original vision had me wandering along at my own unhurried pace in late spring/early summer with a light pack and not a care in the world. The reality however was that with my redundancy suddenly brought forward, I was forced to go in early March with not as much as I’d wanted in the way of preparation. I was (if you read back) working in Malaysia only a few weeks ago and I had tried my best to prepare. I was knocking out 10km every day on the cross trainer in the hotel gym and hiking through the jungle to get to the beach at the weekend. It was all I could fit in and I honestly am feeling a little fitter, relatively, as a result. Relatively? Well relatively fitter is all I have these days. With the Sarcoidosis I’ve lost a good chunk of lung capacity and function. The damage is done and it cannot be undone. It is what it is though and all I can do is work with what I’ve got. So I tried. I put the kilometres in, went through my kit and pared everything down as much as I could, packed up, put up a cheery post announcing my departure and set off.

I caught my train to Milngavie and was walking an hour later. At first it was pleasant leaving the outskirts of Glasgow behind and making my through Mugdock country park but the load on my bag was making it harder than I imagined. My pack was coming in at just under 16kg complete and to be honest it’s the heaviest pack I’ve ever carried. Even long ago a winter overnighter with full hardware at its very heaviest (iirc) for me would come in at something approaching 12kg (and it’s usually a bit lighter these days). No matter I thought, it’ll get easier as I eat the food and I should grow more accustomed to it the further I go.

I strayed a little from Ronald Turnbull’s description and avoided leaving “the way” to follow the road into Strathblane and instead chose to walk a little further a pick up the recently opened “John Muir Way” to take me into Strathblane. It was a little bit into this that I was feeling a couple of hotspots on the balls of my feet and a twinge on the side of my left foot. I found a nice tree stump, got the kettle on and removed my boots to let my feet breathe a little bit (you can see the photo in the post below). After a short rest I repacked and set off again all going well except the pack weight and twinge in my left foot that was definitely become slightly sore.

A few enjoyable but uncomfortable km later I was arriving in Strathblane and after consulting the map I followed the road out the back towards Lennoxtown for a couple of km. It was while on this road the heavens decided to open up. I was dodging cars and with no verge I didn’t feel it was safe to un-shoulder my pack and start pulling on waterproofs. At Balagan house I was able to move into their driveway and get to my waterproofs but by this point I was more than a little damp. The layer of Paclite and other proprietary waterproof materials I installed added a most welcome layer of protection but did little to stop me getting any colder and wetter. I was ok when moving but the chill crept in as soon as I was stationary.

Shortly I turned left and started off up the track onto the fells at Balagan Farm and immediately I didn’t feel good as I struggled up the switchbacks. I think the term is “bonking” and I was finding it hard to get my breathing under control. I slowly fought a war of attrition with the track, slipping in the sloppy wet cow sh*t and eventually got above my bovine companions. I wasn’t making good progress. I was only able to walk for a minute or so each time and then I was forced to stop and catch my breath. The wind was getting steadily stronger and colder the higher I got and squalls of cold rain kept blowing in and slapping against my hunched over, slowly moving form. I could see the demoralizing curtains of each impending downpour approaching as they blew in over Glasgow’s skyline. I wasn’t moving fast enough to generate my own heat and was by now thinking “Ok, I really need to get out of this. Find a pitch, get the tent up, get dry clothes on and feed and water myself.”

I realised I was by this point very low on water and frustratingly had no obvious resupply point despite all the driving rain. I found some patches of lingering snow behind the summit of Dumbreck so found a flattish spot and started pitching my old friend the Laser Comp (told you I made some last minute changes) but something wasn’t right. I had inserted the pole into the sleeve and was trying to push it in to make it arc and locate the other end into its eyelet but no matter how hard I pushed I could not quite get it to fit. It was like the pole was 6” too long and if I forced it any harder I was sure something was going to rip. That would be a disaster in these conditions so I footered with it, checked the inner, the pole sleeve etc and eventually with the tent fly whipping around I found that by unhooking the inner at the toggles on the bathtub I could get the pole in (I’m still not entirely sure what was the cause of my difficulty as I reconnected them without issue later). I finished pitching it and dived inside but by this point I was soaked, my gloves were soaked and I was frozen to the bone. I got my mat inflated to get me off the cold ground, changed into dry clothes, pulled on my halfbag and down jacket and lay there trying to get warm. It took a long time for my breathing rate to come down to a normal resting rate and I was still cold.

I dozed fitfully snatching a half hour here and there as the tent rattled and shook in the storm. I awoke, still slightly cold, at around 2am and realised the rain had stopped and the wind had died down a little. I was hungry and I’d finished my water off completely so ventured outside and gathered a couple of large blocks of the small but well consolidated snow patch to bring back to the tent. The welcome roar of the stove soon had me a plentiful water supply with which to drink and cook from. I had a hot mug of Milo, some snacks and a pasta carbonara dehydrated meal. I felt a little better now but was still in poor spirits with my confidence knocked. I tried to get back to sleep but was cramping up like crazy and realised that I was getting cold again despite feeling better after eating. I soon discovered that my mat was soft and that I was bleeding heat into the ground where my hip was pushing through the mat. I re-inflated the mat and drifted off only to wake up and find I had re-inflate every hour or so.

When it got light I was mentally broken. I’d debated with myself all night and was now pretty much decided that I was done. I was exhausted, hadn’t had a proper heat or sleep all night and was cramping up every time I bent my legs or feet. The front of my shoulders were sore to the touch where the pack straps had been. When I stood up my left foot was definitely painful when I rolled my weight forward. None of this was physically going to get any better by pushing on and I was clearly pushing my sleep insulation to its limit along with a slow leak in my mat. Continuing on in this state just didn’t seem sensible so despite the disappointment in myself, I packed up and set off back the way I’d come.

It took me far longer than it should have to get back to the road as every step was now quite painful. I was confused as to why (and still am) as I definitely hadn’t gone over on my foot, twisted it or done anything obvious that would cause injury but something was definitely not right as I limped along the road back into Strathblane. I stopped at the Kirkhouse Inn where the sympathetic hotel staff made me some hot coffee and let me sit in the warm bar for a bit. From there it was a taxi back to the train station, a quiet and contemplative train journey and a short hobble from the train station back home.

That was me done after approximately 24hrs which on the surface is laughable but after a week of thinking about it there are some things I feel I need to keep in mind. The big Sarcoisdosis elephant in the room. I need to remember that I do have a very serious respiratory condition and it limits what I can do physically. I’m not in my early twenties any longer so maybe long multi day hikes with heavy pack weights just aren’t for me. I know I can still do overnighters and day hikes and that still means an ability to get out, escape the mundanity of modern life and get some fresh air which essentially is what it’s all about. It’s just a matter of perspective and I need to adjust mine a little to be more realistic. I’m a little disappointed but I’m not sad. I had a go and it didn’t work out. The mountains aren’t going anywhere. I’ll go back to my usual outdoors activities and maybe I’ll have a think about how to tackle it again in a little while. Maybe I could do it in sections? A series of overnighters perhaps? Maybe I could just drop it and do the normal WHW like most folks? Do I need to wild camp it? Maybe I could attempt a repeat of the normal WHW faster, lighter in summer conditions and north to south like I did previously? Plenty to think about but the point is I’m not completely done, I just need to have a rethink and get back out there...

...and when my foot has healed up and I can properly put my weight on it I’ll be out again with the dug and the stove somewhere. In fact later this week in with any luck would be nice.

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