It’s not until we push ourselves past our perceived limits, till we feel so cold and so tired that we feel we can’t go on any further, that we discover what we are truly capable of. . . Britain’s most famous wild camper and bestselling author of Extreme Sleeps, Phoebe Smith, is back. After bivvying under boulders and camping in caves on her last tent-bound adventure, she’s decided to hit the UK’s wild places once again, but this time take it further. Determined to discover what defines a truly "extreme" night out, and see if she has the guts to do it, she heads to the extremities of the country. Battling whiteouts in Wales, facing monster waves in Suffolk, and attempting to make camp in gale-force winds on Britain’s highest mountain, Phoebe takes us on a series of inspirational expeditions into the wilderness as she quests to find the ultimate pitch.
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About the Author
Phoebe Smith is the author of The Camper's Friend and Extreme Sleeps. She regularly writes for Country Walking, the Guardian, Trail, and Wanderlust.
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Camping Britain's Extremes
By Phoebe Smith
Summersdale Publishers LtdCopyright © 2015 Phoebe Smith
All rights reserved.
I'd never considered that I might die in Kylesku. When I'd rocked up to the car park in the tiny Sutherland hamlet late on a Saturday afternoon to tackle the first in my trio of remote Scottish outposts in my Wild Nights Challenge, the rain struggling to do any more than release tiny pellets in a lacklustre kind of shower, death was the last thing on my mind. I was instead much more happily distracted by the grey seals popping up with increasing curiosity as I began to make my way along the edge of Loch Gleann Dubh.
Yet it was here, hours later, that I found myself chest deep in river water – the kind so cold that its icy fingers seemed to tighten their grip around my chest, making each breath come out as a small gasp of air. My heart was beating fast with adrenaline, my body fighting to remain upright in the current. The fast-flowing water seemed to echo louder and louder in my ear and though the safety of the bank was less than a metre away from my current point it may as well have been miles. It seemed that here I was, far from civilisation and stuck at a halfway point between living and dying, between the certain hypothermic death of the river and the dry land of survival.
It wasn't supposed to have been this difficult. It was supposed to have been a long but straightforward meander to a oncelived-in estate called Glencoul, where a small uninhabited hut known as a bothy lies in wait for walkers to take refuge in. I had researched it well before I came here, learned all about the Elliot family who, in the late 1800s, had left their lives in the coastal town of Gairloch to relocate into the middle of the mountains, to this lonely cottage on the edge of a loch.
The idea of it had fascinated and enthralled me. Ever since I began wild camping and seeking out the more rugged corners of my island home of Great Britain years ago, I had wondered what it would be like to spend an extended period of time actually living and existing in one of the remote regions of the country.
Through my reading I knew that only the very hardy could and would survive out here, and Margaret Elliot was undoubtedly one of them. She had moved to Glencoul when her husband John got the job of deerstalker in what we now call the Reay Forest Estate. Their home was a fairly large-sized house perched above Loch Glencoul. The only ways in or out were (and still are) by boat, which takes the best part of an hour even with today's engine-powered beasts, or on foot, which takes at least 6 hours of hard graft. Self-sufficiency was clearly key, and Margaret had it in abundance. She raised sheep, pigs and chickens to supply them both with meat and eggs. She also kept cows for milk, from which she made her own cheese, butter and cream. Her husband's job meant that at least venison was often an extra source of food and she would not only cook it to eat the day it was brought to her by John, but would also dry it out and salt it so that the remainder would keep for months – especially important come winter when they would effectively be cut off from the market towns that they relied on for extra supplies.
I thought about Margaret as I paced the pathway that afternoon, encased in the relative warmth of my Gore-Tex layers. I would only be staying for one night, of course, but it was still important that I alone carried everything I would need. In my backpack was a hearty sandwich that I would save for my first stop at the Glendhu Estate – my halfway (ish) point. I also had a handful of hot-drink sachets, a dehydrated camping meal of vegetable curry, a spare canister of gas for my camping stove so I could be sure to boil all the water I needed for cooking and drinking, a porridge for breakfast and a bag full of snacks (cereal bars, chocolate and nuts) to sustain me on my journey. It was a far cry from some of my escapades when I was first finding my feet as a wild camper. Back then I forgot to buy new gas for my camping stove, ran out of food and forgot my suncream. Now I always double-checked my resources as part of my planning, always had plan B routes in case the weather turned, and always kept my well-stocked Go Bag (a bag made up of all my essential kit and some food) in the boot of my car so that there was never an excuse to not have an adventure.
I walked smugly that day, ready for whatever would be thrown at me. Margaret would have been proud.
The path rose and fell alongside the water in an odd chain of twists and turns. For several metres it would be well defined, obvious and clearly ridden by quad bikes or 4x4s, to the extent that it felt at odds with the isolated location. Then, just one turn later, I would be meandering under a thin canopy of trees, the ground a smattering of broken stone. Another turn again and I reached the waterfalls at Maidie Burn, where a small modern hut sits to monitor the water flow and where hydro-electricgenerating pipes are laid – it was like being in a factory and any minute I expected some fluorescent-vested men to come traipsing along to tell me to stay away from their workplace.
Not long after I passed a couple, both wrapped up warm against the rain, which was getting increasingly thick. We all nodded to each other, our respective mouths not even visible hidden behind our waterproof chinguards. Another kilometre on I spotted the last of the walkers that day, another couple, their expressions also veiled behind Gore-Tex.
As I passed them I mentally ticked off the cars I'd counted in the car park to work out if I might have a bothy to myself. By this point it seemed that two were still unaccounted for. Before I reached the old Elliot house at Glencoul I would first stop at the other highland estate, Glendhu.
Unlike Glencoul, which I was heading to for its remoteness, Glendhu is still very active. Consisting of about four buildings and reachable by the best (i.e. Land Rover-friendly) part of the track, it's a place where many a shooting party still begins and ends. In the key culling season between August and September you still have to call ahead to make sure it's safe for you to wander here. Luckily for me it was only May.
Not long after the waterfall the path swung back to the very lip of the land above the water. It started off quite low to it, so much so that you could easily dip a toe into the loch and still remain sitting on the path (just about). But then, mere footsteps later, the trail suddenly rose to at least 10 metres above it, the loose stone splinters that covered it falling into the water as I walked on. Now it felt like a proper walkers' path had been reached. Now I felt that the real wilderness beckoned.
The rain began to fall harder, heavier, faster. I knew the dry haven of the bothy couldn't be that far now, but distances are never true on the ground in the misty Scottish 'dreich'. I desperately needed a pick-me-up – a chocolate or sugary sweet, something – but, deciding instead simply to dangle the promise of one in front of myself to spur me onwards, I restrained the urge to stop.
It paid off. Only 15 minutes later (a long 15 minutes, I hasten to add) the narrow gorge-like path emerged lower onto flattened rounded grass. I could see the head of the loch narrowing into the cleaved valley where the bothy lay. I spotted the first, then the second, and then the rest of the buildings appearing a few hundred metres in front of it. Relief.
The grass was saturated with water and squelched noisily under my feet as I neared the building. The unmistakable shape of a boot print, followed by dog paws, shaped the mud, and I readied myself for conversation.
'Hello?' I called as I pushed open the friendly green door and waited to see if my call would be answered.
It was not. And so I busied myself with preparing a hot coffee by the fire, the smell of burning wood past hanging in the air like burnt toast, whisking me back to memories gone by at other such huts deep in the hills.
While the stove sputtered into life and the water began to fizz I nosed around the place. The room where I sat was the main one, complete with a fire grate and benches. Across the entry hall sat a second, with another fire and benches and a table. Both rooms were of ample size. A steep staircase led to an upper level where two rooms, one on either side of the stairs, greeted me. Both had a skylight, making them bright and airy. One even had a small fireplace.
All at once I wanted to abandon my plan for Glencoul, and with it my entire challenge and stay here instead. This was early days in my forays with clearly defined missions and I was struggling with having such rigid boundaries. I mentally picked out my room and in my mind fast-forwarded to the evening, the house warmed by the glow of fire, me snuggled inside my sleeping bag, watching the stars from the skylight overhead.
The sound of water spitting from my cooking pot brought me back to the here and now and I ran downstairs to turn it off. I made my drink and ate my chocolate bar quickly and noisily, with no one there to judge my savage-like eating. My only companion was the skull of a prize buck, complete with huge antlers, a former trophy from one of the estate shoots, sitting across the table from me. In an attempt to avoid its gaze, I found the bothy visitor book and began to read the entries inside:
Arrived to find the bothy had one occupant already so I took the second upstairs room. We talked a little and I found that he had come over from Glencoul where he said he had enjoyed the place to himself. Dave, Aberdeen
A full bothy tonight! Decided to continue on to the car rather than stay. Nice little place though, would have liked to tr Glencoul but weather kept me back. Richard, Edinburgh
Met a Swedish couple here tonight, who had come over from Glencoul – said they had it to themselves. I may try to venture over there tomorrow if the weather allows it. Peter, Dartmoor
Weather bad when I woke up so decided not to venture further. Met a guy from Norway who had set off early from Glencoul. He said it's very wet over there. More people arrived to have their lunch here. Have decided to go back to the car and try further south. Peter, Dartmoor
And so it went on. Tales of the fabled and idyllically empty and remote Glencoul bothy, with this one every night seemingly occupied. I went further back, to March, then February and even December and still the same pattern emerged. In my mind the hut I had only moments ago seemed set on abandoning suddenly held all the promise of a Shangri-La. I had to get there. The challenge was on.
With a renewed sense of determination I drank the last of my coffee, which had gone cold while I'd been distracted with all my reading. I winced as I swallowed it, the bittersweet conglomeration of coffee granules and sugar congealed into a sludge stinging my tongue. Then I threw everything back into my pack and braced myself for rain.
I wasn't so eager that I didn't take a couple of precautions before I left, though. I know from experience how a few minutes spent planning can make all the difference. I ran back upstairs to the skylight, map in hand, and scanned the rising hillside on the opposite side of the loch. The track there was marked on the map, but whereas the one I'd taken over the last 8 kilometres was marked by the double, parallel, broken lines that signify a proper track, that one was signified only by a single, black dashed line, showing that there was something, but it would be much less obvious. I knew that once I hit the rocks at the confluence of the Abhainn a' Gleann Dubh, finding it wouldn't be so easy. So I counted the water flows I would cross before I found it, looked for large rocks that I could tick off to tell me I was in the right place and spotted clumps of bushes that I'd know would mean I had gone too far and needed to backtrack.
Not for the first time that day I left the safety of a dry space feeling self-assured, impressed by my own foresight. Gone was the klutzy walker and wild camper of the past; I knew what I was doing and strode off self-assuredly into the rain.
Finding the path was easy now I had a plan in place. I kept low to the water line, avoiding the rocks made slick with seaweed and kelp from high tide – which I imagined in the past I might have slid and tripped on with eager anticipation – picked out a giant boulder that denoted the path would start behind it, counted my streams and, before I knew it, began the steady ascent uphill.
With only the walk ahead of me I thought now of Margaret Elliot of Glencoul once more. Not only did she have herself and husband to worry about feeding and clothing, but while living in the folds of the estate she also gave birth to and raised five sons. The first came in 1891 and was named William. Following him came Alistair, Matthew, John and, finally in 1901, James. Caring for a husband and five children, as well as maintaining a house, in such a wild area would have certainly been a challenge, I thought, though perhaps it was a welcome distraction from the fact that she was so far removed from the rest of society. At the bothy itself is a series of printed pages, extracts from the diary of her husband, so an account of their experience of raising a family in such a place has been saved for posterity.
But being able to sit and read about that would not come for me yet, and I was torn from my thoughts by a sudden blast of wind. Lost in my imagination I had almost reached the 205-metre spot height marked on the map, the point where I would turn my back on the Glendhu valley and begin my descent into Glencoul.
Any dreaming of an idyllic life here would have to wait as it took all my effort to stop from falling backwards, such was the power of the wind. I had never experienced such ferocious gusts as the ones I met there – and so low down. The metric height belies the views, though – especially when water is all that surrounds you on both sides. As the wind whipped my hair into a temporary cat-o'-nine-tails, and seemed to suck out my breath as I attempted to pull it back in, I pushed down closer to the ground and almost had to claw my way along in a crouched position. The rain blasted into my face, stinging my eyes like sandpaper. It was hard to see anything.
Over the past few metres the path had become less distinct due to the rain but now it was virtually non-existent. Seeing the loch water below I was desperate to follow a faint deer track downhill, lose height fast and regain the ability to breathe without the battle. But the sensible side of me kicked in once more. I checked the map to realise that my track would at first climb a littler higher and that if I did follow the route down, as I wanted to, I may become stranded on a sheer drop above the water.
Tears streaming down my face from the squall before being pinched away and flying off into the oblivion, holding my hood to my head with one hand, I fought onwards. Every step laboured, every thought focused on the simple task at hand: putting one foot in front of the other, trying not to tumble down the mountainside.
Beinn Aird da Loch is the name of a 530-metre spot height above where the path was cutting alongside the slopes. Looking at it on the map you can see immediately that it's made up of a mass of small tarns, dotted about it like blue blemishes on a teenage face. Seeping off it – particularly to the south where I now was – is a vein-like network of streams, each one making their way into the body of water that is Loch Glencoul below or into the river that feeds it.
I had that image etched into my mind as the path finally began to head downhill. Grassy tussocks helped take out some of the worst gusts before reaching me and I made the first two crossings of water without much more than a stretch of the legs. The rain had turned to a hard hail, making it difficult to look at anything more than my feet but I still felt good about my progress. Soon I was lost to my thoughts once more, imagining the weathers that John Elliot and his sons would encounter on their shopping trips. They usually took their own small vessel over the water to where I had my car parked just over the bridge that was way behind me now. Back then there was no bridge, just a rudimentary passenger ferry to help people cross the water at Garbh Eilean. After that it would be a further 9 miles by road – and that was only one way.
Excerpted from Wild Nights by Phoebe Smith. Copyright © 2015 Phoebe Smith. Excerpted by permission of Summersdale Publishers Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsForeword by Alan Hinkes OBE,
One: Wild Nights Challenge,
Chapter One – Glencoul,
Chapter Two – Grid Reference NH02020 77000,
Chapter Three – Craig,
Two: Three Peaks Sleeps Challenge,
Chapter Four – Snowdon,
Chapter Five – Scafell Pike,
Chapter Six – Big Bad Ben,
Three: Extreme Sleeps Challenge,
Chapter Seven – Corrachadh Mòr,
Chapter Eight – Dunnet Head,
Chapter Nine – Whitendale Hanging Stones,
Chapter Ten – Lowestoft Ness,
Chapter Eleven – Holme Fen,
Chapter Twelve – Ben, Again,
Chapter Thirteen – Lizard Point,
Epilogue – After the Challenge,