Cape Wrath Trail: Self-Supported Attempt

On Wednesday 28th April I plan to start an adventure northbound from Fort William on the 230 mile Cape Wrath Trail (CWT), which ends at the stunningly situated lighthouse at Scotland’s most north westerly point. I’m hoping for a fantastic adventure, and also to try to complete it in a fast time. I’ll be travelling alone and self-supported, picking up supplies from pre-laid caches along the way. I’ll be looking to beat a record on the route.

Tracking is available on my Garmin MapShare page. Since I am aiming to complete the route self-supported, I ask that people don’t come to meet me during the attempt (even to say hello or take photos), but to follow along virtually instead.

Route

The CWT is probably Britain’s wildest long distance path. It is very remote by UK standards, and passes through only a few small settlements as it winds it way northbound amongst some of the most inaccessible parts of the Highlands, including Knoydart, Torridon, Assynt and Sutherland. At Cape Wrath itself, the Arctic Circle is about the same distance away as London. Around 11,000m of elevation are gained and lost along the route.

Quite a lot of contours are involved. And some blue bits.

The route of the CWT is not set in stone as is the case with other long distance paths like the Pennine Way. There are a number of variations, all excellently described in Iain Harper’s book. There are two main variants: the Glenfinnan (west) variant and the Great Glen (east) variant, with additional options within each of these. The guidebook treats the west variant to be the primary route, and where further options are available within that, it tends to select the longer and more scenic alternatives.

Current Record

For the west variant, the male fastest known time is 7 days, 9 hours and 31 minutes, set by Przemyslaw Szapar in 2018. The overall record is about 72 hours faster, at 4 days, 9 hours and 43 minutes, and was set by Damian Hall and Beth Pascall in December of the same year. It’s worth noting that Beth and Damian ran in winter, where the north of Scotland receives only about seven hours of daylight (I was going to put sunlight but thought better of it) during December days, ground conditions are more difficult, weather is potentially more taxing and more kit must be carried. Their fantastic achievement was captured on film in Wrath, by Summit Fever Media. The film is beautifully and thoughtfully shot, and is well worth spending a few pounds to watch. It gives a great flavour of the trail and of the physical and emotional journey that the two travelled. SFM are independent filmmakers who skilfully cover the UK outdoor endurance scene.

Both of these record runs were self-supported. There is also a supported time of around 6 days by James Gibson, set in 2019, and much of his run was also solo, though not all of it. There are have been few known supported attempts on this route. This is probably partly because a fully supported attempt on the route would be logistically difficult, due to fact there are only a handful of total road crossings, and pacers or road crew would have to perform long hikes into remote areas. The Cape Wrath Ultra is a bucket-list race for many endurance athletes in the UK and beyond, and provides a means to run the route, supported, over about eight days.

I’m not a fast athlete in anyone’s books, at least not over short or medium distances; I’m never going to set any records on mountain rounds or win competitive races, but my aim here is to have a go at the men’s record and perhaps get somewhere close to four or five days. I have a reasonable amount of experience in staying safe in the hills, having come into ultrarunning via a lot of hillwalking and mountain biking, and some climbing and mountaineering, during and after university, and I hope that my experience on the Peak Boundary last year will go some way to preparing me, although I was kindly supported by many friends and family on that occasion. The CWT is longer than the Peak Boundary and is much rougher, with a significant proportion of the trail not on paths. It involves much more ascent and descent and takes place, not between two major cities like the Peak District, but in the most remote landscapes in the British Isles. There are also some river crossings which need to be treated with respect, and after heavy rainfall may be impassable safely. I’ll be checking SEPA before I go and may need to come up with plans to mitigate these threats as they arise.

Preparation

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this attempt and preparing for the logistical challenges that lie ahead, and have undergone a training plan which for the first time has included a structured programme of strength exercises for muscular endurance. I started the plan in January in order to prepare for Ultra Trail Snowdonia 165km, originally due to take place in early June and now moved to September. This move has given me the opportunity to pivot my training towards preparation for the CWT, and in the last few weeks I have switched emphasis from high vertical weeks to long, slow, rolling off-road runs. And now I’m enjoying the best bit of all, the taper.

Sun cream…too far?

Going self-supported means that I must carry everything I need to be fully self-sufficient in remote mountain terrain. I’ll be using a Garmin inReach Mini satellite communicator, for emergency and routine communication, as well as tracking. There is little mobile signal on the CWT, but the inReach will work if I can see satellites. Although I plan to sleep in bothies where possible, I will be carrying full bivvy and cook kit so I can sleep on the side of the trail if required. I will over-pack rather than under-pack when it comes to clothes; I have no doubts that, regardless of the weather, I will appreciate the extra layers when I go through the deep fatigue of the final few tens of miles. At any stage I’ll have up to about 8000 calories of food with me, with a resupply at least once every 24 hours. For the preservation of memories, I’ll be taking a GoPro (thanks for the lend, sis), while for occasional tuning out when the sleep deprivation sets in I’ll be taking my headphones for some of my favourite podcasts, Hardcore History and 13 Minutes to the Moon. They should wake me up. A few powerbanks (at caches) should keep these items, plus my phone, topped up. Safety and first aid equipment, plus maps, compass, poles, drybags and head torch bring the total pack weight, including 6000 calories and one litre of water, to 7.8kg. I’ve been testing the new kit (particularly the pack and bivvy bag) recently, and got out for a bivvy on Stanage last week. I’m lucky enough to live within running distance of this classic grit crag.

Bivvy at Stanage. In Stanage to be precise, in a cave where a famous English folklore hero was reputed to have stayed a while…

My preparation has involved an unhealthy amount of time looking at spreadsheets, and a thoroughly healthy amount of time looking at maps and reading the guidebook. I even had to trawl the internet to find the UK’s only airtight plastic boxes that would be big enough to act as dry, non-perishable food and clothing caches at various points along the route. I hope the notice I’ve made will be enough to put people off tampering with them, although I doubt anyone will even find them in the few days they are there, and they’ll all be collected by me at the end of the attempt, regardless of success.

I’m aware that wildlife can’t read. But hopefully the tricky box catches will be enough to put a stop to any opportunistic snaffling.

Schedule

Scotland is allowing travel from England on 26 April. This, together with my work schedule, has been the main item dictating when I start my attempt. I had originally planned to undertake my journey in winter, since this is normally the only time of year I can be assured of sufficient time off that does not interfere with other family plans. But this year has of course been different, and I remain on furlough for the time being, but not for much longer. There is a narrow time window available for the next few weeks where I am not expecting to restart work. At the same time, I’ve needed to organise my attempt around the firing times at Cape Wrath firing range. Although they are not yet published online for May or June, I contacted Range Control by telephone and have all the information I need. Hopefully enough info to avoid needing to wait for red flags to be lowered before entering the peninsula. Hopefully enough info to avoid getting shot.

These factors have led to me to plan to start the run on Wednesday, 28th April.

Since the overall record of 4 days and 9 hours is my stretch target, it makes sense for me to be aware of the splits that Beth and Damian achieved on that attempt. When I look at the mileages and times involved, I feel like they are achievable, but then I remember what they achieved last year, and I become less confident. This all points to the trail being much harder than I’m expecting. To use the esoteric language of statistics, I have a feeling that my Bayesian priors about my probability of success are due to be repeatedly and unceremoniously updated as I push deeper into the Highlands. And not in a good way.

Leg startLeg endMilesTime elapsed at leg end
Fort WilliamGlenfinnan214:12
GlenfinnanGlen Dessary327:09
Glen DessaryBarisdale4712:27
BarisdaleMorvich6820:59
MorvichStrathcarron9331:11
StrathcarronCoire Fionnaraich bothy9833:16
Coire Fionnaraich bothyKinlochewe11746:37
KinlocheweShenavall bothy13452:57
Shenavall bothyInverlael14558:54
InverlaelKnockdamph bothy15764:04
Knockdamph bothyOykel Bridge16673:22
Oykel BridgeInchnadamph18479:06
InchnadamphGlendhu bothy19685:21
Glendhu bothyRhiconich21599:20
RhiconichSandwood Bay227103:07
Sandwood BayCape Wrath lighthouse235105:43
DH/BP times including all stops. Extended breaks were taken at Coire Fionnaraich, Knockdamph and Glendhu.

If I can’t keep up with these splits, I’ll try for a good men’s self-supported record on the route. Above all though, I want to enjoy the journey, a rare opportunity to travel through some spectacular and remote backcountry by myself. I can’t wait to get on the trail.

5 thoughts on “Cape Wrath Trail: Self-Supported Attempt

  1. 😃You are an amazing and incredible adventurer, Mike! We are so proud of what you can achieve and wish you great success, complete safety and some kind of enjoyment along the way as you move forward. We’ll be right behind you (so to speak) and praying❤️

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is so mind blowing and exciting Mike! You’ll have the most incredible experience, and we’ll be with you in spirit while enjoying the comforts of home.

    Liked by 1 person

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