I don’t know any geology, but I intuit that the Highlands’ glens and lochs were made by either violent seaward migration of glaciers or violent melting of them. In any case, something carved linear vees into the land. The lochs are more like fjords than North American lakes. And in the rivers and burns–the name here for streams–the water runs ceaselessly.
For this day and all the first four it was impossible to put a foot down on a surface that was not just wet but saturated. Super-saturated–the water pooling–in most cases.
We went up a ridge over Finiskaig River, where for a way there was a vertical drop to the right, one slip and it would have been over. And it was already over for some of the previous travelers.
The trail leveled out as we entered Glen Dessarry, and the sun came out briefly too. We were on a trail, which helped. Then it was up over a pass and another watershed, the river on the other side flowing in the opposite direction from the one we’d been walking beside.
The ground was sphagnum moss on top of peat. which is sphagnum moss from eons past. It was boggy, lacking only the eye and underwater pond of a true bog. It seemed impossible there could be such a thing on a 10-percent grade. In places, the water appeared stopped, a gelid mass flowing but not moving.
When we got to the top of the pass it started to rain again. There was still a fair way to go to Kinbreack Bothy, which is the building with the red roof in the distance. It was a slog, everything getting heavier and the ground squelchier, as they say over here.
When we got to the bothy, Alan went inside and found to his surprise there was no one there. Two tents were pitched about a hundred yards down the burn, undoubtedly when the sun was still out. The burn itself was a bit sketchy to cross. I stumbled stepping from rock to rock; didn’t fall, but the tip of my trekking pole caught under a rock and cracked.
The bothy had been rehabilitated but still emanated the mysterious presence of previous inhabitants. The downstairs was floored with rough cobbles from the stream, the place for the animals, with a room next to make use of the warmth from them (and provide some besides). Up a new staircase was a single room with fireplace at one end. There was a little wood, a long bench on each side for sitting and sleeping, and some emergency cans of beans on the mantel piece.
We settled in, Alan lit a fire, we hung up our socks in a vain attempt to dry them, and ate. It finally got dark. It was raining hard and we were very happy to be there and nowhere else. And then to our surprised we heard someone clumping up the stairs in the gloom at the other end of the room.
A man appeared and put down a pack. He started taking off his drenched clothes and Alan exchanged a few sentences with him that I couldn’t understand. But it became clear soon that the man had fallen into a burn–a stream–and rolled over, getting everything wet. Whether it was the stream right outside the house wasn’t clear, although I suspect it was because the last one we’d had to ford was quite a way back.
The man spoke in a very low voice, moved slowly and was obviously not young. He was, in fact, unsteady as the took things out of his pack and hung them up. he then went over to a detached bench of take off his clothes. Alan commented that he seemed a bit hypothermic.
I went over and asked him if he wanted a cup of tea. Both Colin and I had our stoves out and running.
“No, thank you, I’ll just drink water.”
His accent was very thick. Thinking perhaps he forswore stimulating beverages, I asked him if he wanted a hot meal.
“No. I haven’t carried a stove for three or for years. I eat only cold food.”
“Well maybe when you fall in the burn it’s the night to make an exception,” I suggested.
“I’ve fallen in a burn before.”
After a while he walked over. He had changed into drier clothes and a pair of new blue tennis sneakers. Alan got up and invited him down next to the fire. The man pulled out a bun filled with cheese encased in plastic wrap. It was the only thing he ate.
Conversation began and someone asked him how many times he’d done the Challenge. He said this would be his 20th. Alan asked him is name.
“Jim Taylor,” he said.
“Jim Taylor. We’ve met before. A couple of years ago at Tarfside.”
Jim Taylor was a 91-year-old man, mentioned in the event newsletter, who was not only this year’s oldest walker but would set the record for the oldest crossing if he finished.
Earlier in the day, Alan had told the story of meeting him at Tarfside several years ago. Tarfside is a choke-point on the hike a couple of days walk from the east coast where there are sometimes a hundred or more Challengers.
Jim Taylor was famous for fast crossings and that year had finished two days early. Someone had driven him back to Tarfside to socialize. At some point he met Alan, who mentioned in conversation that in 1999 he’d walked partway with Jack Griffiths, who held the record as the oldest crosser.
Jim Taylor, who was 89 at the time, was under the impression Griffiths had been 93 at the time, and commented that he thought he’d never catch him. But Alan assured him that Griffiths was only 90 at that crossing, his last.
“You could see the expression on his face change as soon as I said that,” Alan had recalled.
It turns out everyone on this year’s walk has heard of Jim Taylor, admires him from a distance, and hopes to meet him. And here he was in a bothy with us.
He did finally accept a “wee dram” of whisky from Alan’s stash and began to talk a bit about his life. You’ll hear more about that later.
The rain continued. At some point Alan went out to get water from the stream. He took my bottle and Colin’s too. When he returned he said the water had risen dramatically.
“I don’t believe we could cross that burn now,” he said.