Wandering Ft. William – Post Ben Nevis Recouperating – July 8

After going pretty hard for most of our trip, we decided we’d earned a rest day. What exactly does that entail for us? Well, it doesn’t exactly mean hanging out and doing nothing all day.

First stop, the Ben Nevis Visitor Centre, so I could get a pin and maybe a sticker or something. Plus, it was so foggy we wanted to see how bad it was near the trail head. Answer – densely foggy. I was so happy I went ahead and hate-hiked that mountain yesterday when it was gloriously sunny and clear.

Next up – Neptune’s Staircase. Wait, what? Fish don’t have feet. No, no they don’t. Nor is this a salmon ladder (my first guess). It is a series of eight locks that form part of the Caledonian Canal.

Which, as it turns out, is an engineering marvel that fell flat upon completion because it was….

  1. Poorly constructed – It’s still standing and functional, so I’m confused by this assertion, but that’s what the signs said.
  2. Too narrow – Victorian technology moved faster than they were able to imagine, apparently.
  3. Too shallow – See above.

We had very good timing because as we approached, we noticed four sailboats heading into the first lock! Neat! My first reaction to seeing the crew and the boats – “Oh hell no, would I be traveling very far via sailboat. Thanks.”

That being said, watching the boats go through the locks was pretty neat. For one thing, it was a lot quicker than I thought it would be. I believe they said it would be two hours to go through all eight locks. After watching the boats, we meandered up the trail a little bit before coming back to have a nice cup of tea and a pastry in the lock side hotel. Oh clotted cream, how I love you so very much!

Next up – finding the actual geocache. We’d already jumped through the hoops to log a find on the earthcache, but there was also a real cache nearby and so of course I was going to look for it! Found it before the midges got to me, those little bastards. They make mosquitoes seem harmless in comparison! 

We headed back into Ft. William to try our hand at more caches. This ended up being more difficult than imagined because while we found a very handy car park, we could not figure out how to get out of it and across the main road on foot. There was a railing and lots of vehicles. We tried a few different ways until Chad finally spied the underpass that led to freedom and the original Fort William, which was basically a nice little waterside park with plenty of signage and campers in the way of a cache. 

When our tummies started to growl we headed back to downtown Ft. William, which by the way is either the beginning or the end of the West Highland Way, and that makes for some grand people watching! And, if you choose correctly, some very yummy food and drink. This time around we chose wisely and found ourselves a nice little chain restaurant/pub that had a nice selection of cask beer. Hooray! 

Since yesterday had been a rather tiring adventure, after stuffing ourselves, we headed back up to our lodging (a nice Air BnB room in the neighborhood a bit up the hill – it came with a cat, the hill was modest to walk) for a well deserved nap! While this was not our first Air BnB adventure, it was definitely the first time we’d rented an en-suite room in someone’s house. But we figured eh, if our host was an ax murder, at least we’d be killed AFTER we hiked Ben Nevis.  She was absolutely not an ax murdered, but a very nice lady who had the first floor in a nice Victorian house. (Seems Victorian in the UK is a bit different than what I think of as Victorian here, mainly I suspect because Victorian here is considered a fairly definitive style not a time period in which things were built.) Our room was purple with a silver ceiling and all kinds of cute touches. I love it. And I slept like a rock. 

And one last photo…our car this trip was an MG3. I had no idea that MG even made vehicles any more. 

I mean, it’s a far cry from what I think of as an MG, but it got great gas mileage, the passenger seat had loads of leg room and it treated us well!

It was definitely a low key day, but we still took photos! Check out the gallery for more than what’s above (I think!)

chris on July 8th 2018 in Geocaching, Travel

Ben Nevis with 3,000 of our Closest Friends – July 7

Up early. Way too early. And with sadness because really, we should have stayed a second night here. But this is how we end up rolling, despite the pretense of not being vacation nomads. The good news was that despite having to catch the ferry at 6:00am, we were literally a 5-minute walk away. Yay for small bits of happiness at way too early o’clock!

We arrived at the main parking for the Ben Nevis Visitor Centre only to find it chaotic and overflowing. This did not please me. We drove back out to extended parking, where I threw a fit trying to repack our hiking backpacks that had done suitcase service while on Islay. Chad meanwhile cobbled together some food to throw at me from a safe distance, hoping to calm me the hell down. It did not work.

After much equipment flinging and saying of many bad words, we stalked off to the Visitor Centre and trailhead. I was extremely anxious. Because starting a 7 – 9 hour hike at 12:30pm is a bad idea in my experience. Anything later than a 10 am start is pretty much unheard of for us. And even that is late. But the weather was perfect – clear, blue skies, little clouds, and a temperature only expected to hit 77 in Fort William.

As I stomped my way along the path to the trailhead, Chad said to me, “You’re not going to hate-hike this hole mountain, are you?”

I glared at him, “Damn straight I am. This is some bullshit.” (What exactly was some bullshit was entirely unclear to me at the time, but I was sure something about the situation was obviously bullshit.)

Here’s the thing about Ben Nevis, you can’t actually see the summit. You can’t see it from the trailhead, in fact it probably isn’t even the mountain you’re looking at because it’s not the one that seems obvious. You can’t see it when you cross the trail by the loch, which seems like a good way into the hike. You can’t even see it when you’re almost there. You finally see it when you’ve just thought, ‘well that’s pretty much it. I’m going to die up here having never achieved the summit.’ Because suddenly you’re there. And it’s enormous. This giant flat expanse. But we’ll get to that a little later.

I learned several things as Chad and I hiked Ben Nevis with thousands of our closest friends, that fine Summer day.

  1. Giving way to upcoming hikers is clearly not an international hiking phenomenon. This lead me to extend my hate hiking of the mountain for quite some time longer than it should have. (I do happily give way to any hikers coming down who are obviously in distress. I’m not a complete monster.) The only nice part of this was that when Chad and I gave way as we came down the trail, the hikers going up seemed genuinely surprised and thankful.
  2. 1/3 of the returning hikers were on the left of the trail; 1/3 of them in the center; and 1/3 of them on the right. Chaos! If you’re not going to give way, at least pick a damn side! Sweet Jesus! I’m not into playing Frogger when I’m going uphill.
  3. I don’t like hiking with hoards of people. Let’s be honest, I hate it. I hate it so much. There were people everywhere! Generally one goes to the mountains to get away, unless apparently it is Ben Nevis! Holy Moly!

So, after what seemed to be an eternity of varying types of trails – nice smooth bits, steps, random rocky goodness, loose scree/small rocky goodness – we started seeing some extremely large cairns.

At this point I just assumed that we were close to the top. Hahahahah. No. We were in fact on the part of the mountain that was basically a rock field, making the trail discernable on this lovely, bright, clear day, but probably a witch to locate should any fog, rain or snow have rolled in.

Yeah, when I looked up and could not see the summit, I was so devastatingly bummed. There was one moment when I thought I might cry or, alternatively, just reach out and punch the next person within arm’s reach. I did neither because I A) have some pride and B) am not a complete horse’s arse.

Oh, did I mention there was a snow field to cross? There was. It was a little slippery.

At long, long, long last, we were very near the summit and could see the crowds gathered near the trig station, getting updates on the World Cup Scores from some guy who had data at the highest point in Britain. Yep.

We snagged a nice flat boulder and Chad made sandwiches, while I happily let my backpack drop from onto the rock. It had taken us 3.5 hours.

 

Despite having seen plenty of photos from the top of Ben Nevis, I was quite surprised to really see how large and flat the summit was. None of the panoramic and 360 photos prepared me for it. Nor for the crowd.

We got the highest geocache in Scotland which was amazingly an ammo can. Then we took the required photos for the virtual geocache, which took some time because we had to outwait the all the people at the emergency hikers hut and the trig pilar.

Now remember back when I was all freaked out because we were starting so late and I was sure no one would be heading up the mountain after we did. It was just too late. I was so very wrong. There were people streaming up the mountain, not only while we were on top, but as we were descending. It was crazy!

We did find out that the National Three Peak Challenge was going on  – bag the tallest peaks in Scotland, Wales & England in 24 hours – which was part of the crowd, but honestly only a small percentage. There were people we passed who looked like they’d never set foot on anything rougher than a paved rail trail, and here they were taking on 4400+ feet of mountain! It was amazing and insane and maybe even a little bit inspiring.

On our way down Chad suggested we take a little shortcut to circumvent a few of the cut backs. It worked out well. Then we saw another and Chad suggested we take it too. Sure! Why not! HAHAHAH. Why not….because it was a path of loose stones that had recently been placed to help with erosion and it was straight down. Yep, straight down the side of a crazy steep mountain on footing that was the exact opposite of stable. The good news was it completely circumvented all the remaining cutbacks. Additional good news, no injuries or death; although that was touch and go a few times for me!

Finally, finally, finally, after a solid 2.5 hours of hiking we were done. Not too bad! We’d shaved an hour off our time, in no small part to our crazy gravel surfing shortcut! That would be the straight light on the below tracklog.

And the sharper descent on the elevation cutaway here….

This is what Chad looked like when we were oh so almost very close to being back to the parking lot.

This is what I really felt like –

This is me faking it, because I accomplished what I set out to do three years ago.

Check out the gallery – there are a lot more photos in it that I didn’t use and they deserve to be seen in full size. And they are captioned, so you know what you’re looking at! Aren’t I thoughtful?

chris on July 7th 2018 in Geocaching, Travel

Off to Whisky Island – July 6

On our last trip, three years ago, we decided that the next time we visited Scotland we would definitely not move every night. Ahem. And so this morning we packed up all our stuff, had a wonderful fresh cooked breakfast and headed out to catch the ferry to Islay, because when it comes to vacation, we’re rather terrible at this relaxing thing. It was a little bit of a bummer because Tarbert (population: small) seemed like a neat little place to explore. And the view from our room was a lovely sight. 

None-the-less, we had whisky tastings to attend, and so on the ferry we hopped.  We first opted to sit inside and try to sleep. That was an abject failure, so we headed out on the deck. It was very breezy. And cold. 

Me on ferry: jeans, sweater, nano puff, hands jammed in pockets, hunched against the wind, thinking I should have brought my wind proof fleece hat, but still unwilling to go back inside and miss the view. 

Local woman on ferry: thin dress shorts, sandals, light windbreaker, not zipped. Accompanied by small children in shorts and flip flops. 

Chad was also bundled up and so I felt a bit silly when a local guy in shorts and flip flops, holding his infant in what I would describe as clothes for a scorching hot day, looks over at us and says completely seriously, “Lovely weather for a crossing.” 

Us: “Yes” while leaning into the buffeting wind, hair sailing behind me like a windsock. (I am clearly not built for this weather, sorry cold climate ancestors, the Mediterranean genes clearly won out. )

The ferry landed and disgorged us at 12:38. We had to be at Lagavulin by 1:30. The sun was shining, the sky was blue and there were 2.6 miles between us and our tour. And thus began our first full on forced march and it only took us until the 3rd day!

I’d like to remind you that A. we were wearing jeans B. the sky devoid of clouds, and C. there was no breeze and no shade. Oh, and we were wearing our very full backpacks. To say we were a wee bit sweaty when we arrived at Lagavulin would be by far an understatement! Fortunately, the waiting area was nice and cool. Thank god for old, thick-walled, stone buildings!

We had a nice tour, although like the other distillery we’d toured last time there were no photos allowed inside. Although our tour guide did let us do a little cheat and take a photo of the stills from outside the door.

At one point we popped out on the bay side of the building and what a view! We could see ruins of a watchtower.

We went to the end of the pier, but it wasn’t quite enough to get the much sought after photo with the black lettered Lagavulin building. As you can see the best you can do is this….

Our tour included not only a tasting, but really nice glasses with the distillery logo – that I am now responsible for hauling 3000+ miles home in one piece.

Ok. First tour done. We had just under an hour to get to our next tour at Laphroaig which was only a mile or so down the road. We’d hustled past it on our way up the path. We were very early, which was nice. So we wander around and relax. Plus get coffee! Because nothing screams cool and refreshing like a nice cup of coffee when you’re sweating to death.

The Laphroaig tour was quite a bit bigger and included an obnoxious overly-dorked out guy who was practically vibrating the whole tour. Even with uber dork, the tour was great. And shockingly we could take all the photos we wanted, which was a complete surprise! Like this one of me on the malting floor….

And this one of Chad on the malting floor next floor up, which was not in use at the time.

Chad was quite taken with the tiny little peat oven that was used to smoke the malt. It really was tiny little thing, considering how peaty Laphroaig is.

The view from the dock was just as lovely as the previous one, but with the bonus of being able to get the iconic photo without a side trip! Hooray!

Finishing up in the museum – this was my favorite bit of trivia pictured below –  we had quite a few options to sample. Trying to choose wisely is both possible and impossible since I’d only ever had one previous variety from this distillery, so I simply trusted that I’d be happy with whatever I chose. And I was.

It was now time to head back into town and seek out our Air BnB which was a first floor flat in someone’s back garden. We popped around a corner off one of the main streets and I was immediately reminded again why I love the Victorian concept of space. Let’s just build a two story building in our back garden! Seriously, it’d be like us deciding to do a small apartment in our backyard. Also, let’s add two sheds, one for laundry one for shed stuff.

Next stop….dinner. I had fish pie. Yes. Fish pie. It was delicious. Creamy sauce, fresh caught salmon and haddock, covered with crust reminiscent of shepherds pie, but crunchier. Nom nom nom nom.

We ended the evening with a walk on Kilnaughton Bay. It was completely deserted and we couldn’t figure out why. Not that we were complaining about having it all to ourselves, by any means. (We later figured out that World Cup Soccer was the reason it was deserted, unless you were in a pub.)

Check out the gallery – there are a lot more photos in it that I didn’t use. And I even captioned them so you were looking at them going, uh, nice photo of…..a thing?

chris on July 6th 2018 in Travel

Hiking The Cobbler (Arrochar) – July 5

As I lay in bed, I was thinking that perhaps I should order half pints next time… Which is to say, I was a little over excited to be in Edinburgh last night and that did not bode well for today’s planned activity – hiking The Cobbbler (or Arrochar or Ben Arthur or The Finger of God – which seems to get used a lot).  Still, plans are plans. So while Chad went to fetch the rental vehicle I finished packing up and schlepped our two suitcases and two backpacks down to await him. The super good news was that for some reason, the Royal Mile was nearly desolate despite it being around 9 am on a Thursday! In short order the luggage was crammed into the MG3 and we headed out to…the grocery. 

That’s right, our first stop heading out of Edinburgh was a grocery store because we finally had the foresight (Thanks Sam & Gwen!!!) to take a cooler with us. We were pretty sure that lunch would not be provided at The Cobbler, or at a lot of places we were planning on being. So off to the store we went! Those of you who know my abject distaste for going to the grocery at home, may be shocked to hear that I delight in grocery shopping abroad. But I do. 

Ok. Back to the story. In short order (there may have been napping on my part) we found ourselves having lunch at the trail head, which was a lovely place. The tide was way out. It was still lovely. 

Since we weren’t exactly getting an early start, there was no chance we were going to have a cool start to our hike. By the time we started up the trail, the sky was blue, the clouds were gone, and it was almost like hiking at home. Only less humid and starting at way lower elevation. 

I was ever so happy to have a 2.5L water reservoir for this hike. Especially as I kept stopping and wishing that all the trees that were blocking the wind, would have at least give us some shade. But nope. No shade, no breeze, only sun. In Scotland. Thanks unseasonally high temperatures. You suck. 

When we finally cleared the tree line, the breeze did pick up. Which was a tremendous relief. However, what was not a relief was looking up at The Cobbler and thinking A. It was really still far away and B. Jutted up out of the landscape in a really shocking manner. So yeah, that last bit was going to be a scramble. 

In addition to the sweet breeze, a nice little stream appeared, running along the trail, more or less. I’m sure when this area gets its usual allotment of rain, the creek is probably roaring. However, even in this drought, it was running quite nicely creating several little pools along the way. I really wanted to take off my shoes and plunge my feet into it, but the idea of motivating myself to keep moving up the trail after that was daunting. So I just enjoyed watching and listening to the water. 

After much slogging, we were getting close to the part where we would start gaining serious elevation. However, before that happened, we came to a fork in the trail. Now, we did have maps. We had trail maps. But what we did not have was the verbal description of the trail. It seemed logical that we would take the fork to the right, go around the back and pop up where we needed to be. But…that trail looked like it took a frolicking detour on the topo map. And the other trail looked to be more straightforward and quicker. We were tired. We pondered. Then we chose the left fork after talking to some other hikers. 

Onward and upward. It was going well, until we encountered some other hikers coming down that trail. They told us, no, the other trail was in fact less stupid (not their words) and quicker. Ah well, too late now. We were going to have to take the scrambling, scree approach. Hooray! Look how happy we are! 

There’s nothing quite like scrambling up a rocky path, all set up in top notch hiking shoes, hiking poles, fancy backpacks with water reservoirs….and then passing a group of teens with (I’m guessing) their grandma. And grandma is tackling the trail in sandals and using an umbrella has a hiking stick. Yep… 

As we stopped to take a breather, we could see a guy on the peak to our right coming down via rope. Not being climbers, we weren’t really sure what was going on. However, we were pretty sure he hadn’t climbed up, but had started from the top coming down. It looked like maybe he was either checking anchors or placing them. Whatever he was doing, it was taking quite some time. Dude had to be burnt when he finished up. 

So the trail scramble up was not as bad as it had originally appeared to be. From afar it looked like it was going to be a loose nightmare. Fortunately that was not the case. Not that it was a walk in the park, but it was nothing compared to what we would face in Fort William. Once on top, we gratefully ditched our packs, had a snack and pondered how exactly this thread the needle was supposed to work. 

All this time I thought that crawling through the needle was supposed to be the difficult part. It wasn’t. I scrambled through and found the 3 foot ledge on the other side. It was fine. 

HOWEVER…the next step appeared to be crawl or walk out the ledge. And I do feel like I should clarify that calling it a ledge makes it sound a little more dicey than it was. I pondered it. Took some time to go over in my head that even if I crawled out to the end, I would still have to STAND UP and scramble up onto the top. Uh, nope. It was so windy and while I was pretty sure I could have done the crawl without freaking out, I knew there was no way in hell I would be able to stand up and make the final scramble.  I’m in the photo below, if you click on it to make it big, you will be able to better understand what I described above. (MOM: You should not click to make it bigger.)

This is what our track log looked like. As you can see we chose to return to the car via the trail that descended from the back of the mountain. It was clearly the easier of the two trails. Although honestly, I would 100% rather scramble up loose rock than down. So I call our decision a good one! We also slacked and did not climb up to the North Peak – there were people there and I was tired and hungry. 

For your reference, you can check out our elevation cut away. I think the parking lot elevation was 7 feet! 

Once back to the car, we headed out to Knapp Guest House in Tarbert, which had a lovely little harbor. And a wonderful restaurant called Starfish where we feasted on fresh caught sea bass! 

Clickity on the photos below to embiggen. There are some I didn’t put in the narrative. 

chris on July 5th 2018 in Travel