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The watershed: a few thoughts

Camping at Ben Alder Cottage in 1987Camping at Ben Alder Cottage in 1987
Foinaven - finest hill on the watershed                                                                                                                                                                                                                Foinaven - finest hill on the watershed

For the past while I’ve been taking a from-the-sidelines interest in an expedition attempted over the summer months by Chris Townsend, the well-known hill-writer, gear-reviewer and long-walk veteran. He set off in late May to walk along the Scottish watershed, starting from the border and finishing towards the end of July at Duncansby Head. He reported on this in his blog and also in The Great Outdoors. There might well be a book in due course.

Actually, my interested-spectator phase has lasted for a few years rather than months, as there have been several recent-ish watershed expeditions: by Malcolm Wylie (the whole UK ’shed, Duncansby to Land’s End, in chunks of ten days or so each summer from 1996 to 2009); by Peter Wright (Scotland only, in eight sections during 2005, followed by a couple of days of out-takes – visiting sections initially avoided); and by Colin Meek (again Scotland only, in 2012, and for the most part tackled as a run – he got from end to end in 30 days).

The reason why all this has caught my attention is that – as is reasonably well known – I too have walked the length of the Scottish watershed. In my case it was done in a continuous 12-week push in the spring and early summer of 1987, and I spent much of the remainder of that year, plus the following winter, converting notes into a book, which eventually appeared in 1994 as Walking the Watershed. There is an online version, and I still have a few copies of the printed edition stashed in a cupboard should anyone be interested.

Clearly you don’t do something as committing and as time-consuming as this (whether the walk or the subsequent book-writing) and then just forget about it, but until the recent flurry of fellow watersheddings my own effort had come to feel a very long time ago. I did the walk aged 25 and I’m now in my 50s, so it’s more than half a lifetime away. And unlike various walkers (whom I admire, with Chris Townsend being a good example), I’ve never had the urge to follow one multi-week trip with others, instead settling into much more humdrum hillgoing habits – a quarter-century of daytrips and occasional weekends spent in the Highlands, the Ochils and the Lakes. Had I not completed the watershed in 1987, I might well have given it another go; as it was, I had one big walk in me, was lucky enough to manage it first time in a burst of youthful enthusiasm, and subsequently slipped back into the hillgoing equivalent of quiet domesticity.

As the years passed, I became aware of occasional walkings of the route – all by people who dreamt up the idea independently rather than having been motivated by reading my book, and using a surprising variety of methods and routes. In 1994, another youthful enthusiast named Martin Prouse went from the Highland fringe to the point in Sutherland where the west-north and east-north watershed divides (and so on to finish with Ben Hope – an off-watershed hill but a neat linking of the most southerly and most northerly Munros, given that he started with the on-watershed Ben Lomond). Like me, Prouse did this as a single outing with very little press coverage and of course no blogging or tweeting. His effort was also the only post-me watershed walk where I’ve had any formal logistical involvement – I drove him from Glasgow to Rowardennan, wished him luck, waved him off and kept in touch via the old-fashioned methods of phonecalls and postcards.

Next came Mike Allen – sadly no longer with us – who did a remarkable thing: the whole UK watershed, from Land’s End to Cape Wrath (the end-point of the west-north “branch”), in sections from the spring of 1988 to the autumn of 1994. We made contact after this had finished and compared notes a few times. He died in 2006, but I’ve swapped the occasional email with his widow, Margaret.

So there was a spell during the summer of 1994 when both Prouse and Allen were walking the route in the same direction but unknown to each other. As far as I know (and there could well be several unrecorded watershed efforts), the next person to set out was Malcolm Wylie, in 1996. He, like all recent watershedders, opted for the east-north branch, which prefers the Flow Country to Foinaven. Again, we came into contact, and I met him and his son Tim near the Devil’s Beef Tub for an afternoon in July 2000 – the only time I’ve spent any time on anyone else’s watershed walk, if accompanying Martin Prouse through the Rowardennan car park is discounted.

My opinion – for what it’s worth – is that the Allen and Wylie whole-UK walks are the most notable achievements in this field. OK, so neither man did it in a single outing, but the scale of their efforts (and the topographic fiddliness of the terrain south of the Pennines) make them extremely impressive in both physical and psychological terms. I’m in no doubt that these two men – who never met each other, as far as I’m aware – each managed something more noteworthy than my 12-week “sprint” during 1987.

Wylie wrapped up his trip in June 2009, by which time Wright had completed his Scottish walk. A couple of aspects relating to Wright’s effort have prompted unease, one being his assertion that the Duncansby end-point is the proper one, whereas Cape Wrath is not. My view was and continues to be that, because the route splits (or merges, if heading south), the main east-west watershed ends north of Loch Merkland, at a height of just over 750m on the western shoulder of a Corbett outlier called Carn Dearg. Beyond that, either continuation is equally valid. Actually, I agree with my friend Richard Webb – who gave thought to the watershed earlier than any of us – when he says that all the north-coast mini-watersheds are viable starts/finishes. Hence not just Wrath and Duncansby, but also Whiten Head, Strathy Point, etc.

Wright also went through a phase of claiming to have been the first to have walked the watershed and – even more absurdly – to have been the first to come up with the idea (eg, in 2011, he wrote of “the originality in my defining the Watershed for the very first time”). There is discussion of this elsewhere but basically he was at least the fifth person known to have undertaken the route in some form or other (and the second on the Duncansby branch, after Wylie, who finished the Scottish section in 2000), and goodness knows how many more might have given it some thought and map-perusal. There is mention of the whole-UK version in Martin Moran’s 1986 winter Munros book, for instance, with the accomplished hill runner Martin Stone describing it as “the last great challenge”.

What has mainly caught my eye in watershed terms of late, however, is not really any of this, but an odd and seemingly increasing tendency to introduce vagueness and short-cuts into what is, almost by definition, a pretty narrow and delineated route. Although Colin Meek’s 2012 run was widely reported as having been along the watershed, a combination of logistical difficulties, exhaustion and injury meant that quite a lot of the route was skirted, particularly in the crucial edge-of-Knoydart and Kintail–Carron stretches, and in Caithness. There’s no doubt that what Meek achieved in such a short a space of time was a tremendous effort, but he has subsequently described it as “a runner’s interpretation of the watershed – in the spirit of the watershed – rather than the precise route”.

Similarly, Chris Townsend’s recent trip seems to have missed out a surprising amount, especially given that before starting he expressed confidence about the complete and continuous side of things. “My aim,” he wrote in December 2012 “is to keep the walking continuous of course, as on all my long walks, and also to follow the watershed as closely as possible. I’ll have to deviate to pick up supplies but […] I’ll restart where I left off.”

Noble sentiments, but at the time I felt it sounded a tad optimistic, given the numerous practical complications. I had earlier chipped in to the same discussion by saying: “As you’ll discover next year, it’s nigh on impossible to avoid missing out various bits when trying to do the ’shed in a continuous push”. So it was no surprise to see that, come the time, at least one section was skirted. What was a surprise, however, was how lengthy and sustained this off-route section proved to be.

After emerging from the Great Glen–Glen Carron interior, Townsend noted that there had been “rain and strong winds” during this stretch. “I reckoned fighting it on the summits was unwise,” he wrote, “so I took a mostly lower level route, which was wild and challenging enough”. He also later wrote: “Thick mist, heavy rain and high winds were common in the Highlands, especially between the Great Glen and Strath Carron. Not wanting to spend too long practising compass navigation in the clouds whilst trying not to be blown over (I’ve done it so many times in the past it’s now a chore rather than a challenge) I took lower routes paralleling the Watershed in places.”

Townsend will presumably write more on this in due course, but from what he has said thus far it appears that the only hilltop visited during this whole stretch was Beinn Dronaig, the remote Corbett east of Attadale. If so, then 16 Munros were skipped, and 10 Corbetts. And even if the “only Dronaig” comment refers to just the stretch between the Cluanie and Carron roads – arguably the crux of the whole walk, given the difficulty of supply and heftiness of the hills – then it still means that eight Munros and two Corbetts were skirted rather than scaled. Quite what this equates to in terms of overall time and effort is hard to say – but, going by the dates on the blog posts, he got from the Great Glen to the Glen Carron road in a week; in 1987 it took me three times that.

As to whether this counts as a watershed “completion” is not for me to say, but in the most recent issue of The Great Outdoors, along with mention of having backed off the narrow southern ridge of Conival from halfway up, Townsend concedes that he “hadn’t stuck to [the watershed] rigidly”. His blog pieces give the impression that there might have been an unstated timetable (possibly work-related), and that the route needed to be finished, somehow or other, within a couple of months.

But what strikes me most – with each of the Wright, Meek and Townsend efforts – is that there seems to be a completely different basic attitude in play compared with my own effort in 1987. I too missed sections here and there, mostly small chunks where a nearby line was taken to speed or ease progress. Hence in the Borders some firebreaks were avoided in favour of nearby forest tracks, while during the crossing of the Central Belt some minor roads were used rather than risking old opencast mine workings and the like. And on a couple of occasions further north, when returning to the route after a resupply session, I used a stalkers’ path to cut a corner and so omitted a short section. (Pretty much my only lasting regret with regard to the route relates to one such corner-cutting: by using a stalkers’ path over Glas Bheinn to rejoin the route north of Conival after a night spent at Inchnadamph, I missed the section which includes the aircrash / war grave site which has recently been in the news because of its restoration. I didn’t know of its existence at the time, but there’s a case to be made for this being the most notable human-interest spot on the entire watershed – and I contrived to steer a course around it.)

Overall, however, I did stick closely to the route, both while on it day after day, and when rejoining after rest and resupply sessions. No Munros were missed – indeed several were added in an extracurricular kind of way – but there was one Corbett omission, on what was by some distance the biggest short-cut taken on the entire walk. A month into the trip I made a complete mess of descending what tends to be regarded as a very mundane Munro – Beinn Mhanach in the Bridge of Orchy group – and slithered down messy scree, resulting in various scrapes and aches. I felt very silly, but also very sore, and was less than sure that the walk could continue – especially as one of the biggest set-piece efforts of the trip, the Blackmount horseshoe, was only a couple of days away.

A retreat was made to Gorton bothy, wounds were treated if not quite licked, and – with the clag down almost to glen-level – the next day was devoted to a low-level hobble down to the Achallader B&B, rather than the intended plan of swinging further east over the 900m Meall Buidhe at the head of Loch Lyon. The worry was that, if a combination of injury and poor weather meant that a second day – and with it the Blackmount – had to be skipped, the whole walk would be over and it would be a case of cadging a lift home to Glasgow when the supply crew next visited, then having to work out what to do with the rest of the summer given that ambitions had gone so abruptly awry.

As it was, everything went in my favour: the day’s recuperation worked wonders, the weather took a marked turn for the better, the Blackmount loop – done with a daysack followed by hitching back to Achallader for a further night of comfort – went as well as it could possibly have done and proved to be one of the most memorable days of the walk, both in terms of weather and mood-improvement. I was a lucky boy.

Had I not been so lucky, however, then that would have been it: offski homeski. Having had to miss one significant-sized hill was bad enough, and I wasn’t going to miss another, wasn’t at all interested in an “interpretation of the watershed” or a route “paralleling the watershed”, weaving through the glens in order to keep up with the overall schedule and so reach the end-point regardless. That wasn’t me then, and it isn’t me now: the 1987 walk had an all-or-nothing feel to it, and looking back I’m not sure it ever crossed my mind to keep going in a mix’n’match kind of way had the thread of the route been lost. The Blackmount, as I later wrote, was “a make-or-break day”.

None of this is meant as a criticism of Wright, Meek or Townsend, or indeed of any watershedder who has opted to omit multiple sections of the route – at least not so long as there hasn’t been a subsequent degree of pretence that the route was adhered to more than it actually was. They all did impressive walks (or in Meek’s case a run) in their own style. The question of how much of the route can be missed out before it ceases to be a watershed traverse is for another discussion.

Rather, what interests me is the question of whether there are two completely different mindsets in play – one which tries to stay on route as much as possible and eventually calls a halt if not; the other which is happy with a more thematic approach, where the key thing is to reach the end-point and the overall push is maintained even if a hefty chunk proves too difficult or daunting to manage.

I don’t pretend to be the person who has been most successful at sticking rigidly to the route – from what I know, one of Prouse, Allen or Wylie is probably the holder of that title. Wright, Meek and Townsend, however, all seem to be in the “thematic” camp, and have omitted quite large chunks (although in Wright’s case, to give him his due, once he had skipped both the Ben Lui group and the Blackmount he did return post-walk and tidy up the loose ends).

Two final thoughts on this. One relates to perhaps the most extreme, impressive and hardcore example of the sticking-to-the-route mentality. In June, the ace hill runner Finlay Wild broke Es Tresidder’s record time for the traverse of the Cuillin ridge, getting from Gars-bheinn to Sgurr nan Gillean in an astonishing 3 hours 14 minutes 58 seconds. The “rules” for this require all 11 of the on or near main-ridge Munro summits to be tagged, and in a post-run blog Wild wrote that, a week earlier, he had managed it almost four-and-a-half minutes faster, but “had inexplicably omitted to touch the summit cairn of Sgurr Mhic Choinnich, despite passing 10 metres from it”. Because of this “5 second important omission” he refused to count it as a successful traverse and duly went back for another go. He thus comes across as rigorously honest and fair – along with being mightily fast, remarkably rock-competent and completely mental.

Then, returning to the watershed, there is David Edgar – the eighth person known to have attempted the route, who started in early July, passed Chris Townsend heading the other way on Beinn Leoid and has currently covered about a quarter of the distance on a north–south, all-UK watershed trip from Duncansby Head to Leathercote Point on the Kent coast near Dover. This is another alternative finish – the south-east corner of England, involving a big eastward trek once around the headwaters of the Thames. At present Edgar is stalled in Strathspey, troubled by a knee injury sustained in the Ben Alder area. From his online diary it’s unclear if he’ll be able to keep walking or if it’s a case of “curtailing the walk and continuing at some date in the future”.

With luck and a few more days’ rest, it’s to be hoped that Edgar can continue into the autumn and the more southerly sections of his route. As to the question of sticking to or skirting the route, he provides some interesting thoughts on his blog in which he takes a pragmatic view, saying he “will attempt as far as possible to follow the high ground and avoid crossing running water”, but “won’t be too obsessive about finding the absolutely correct line”. He also points out the legal problems on the English section: issues with farmland, for instance, and also the question of MOD land in the Mickle Fell area of the Pennines. “Although some people have managed to get permission to walk across it,” he writes, “the complexities of arranging this for an appropriate date, and visiting the base in advance for paperwork, make it impractical for me. I intend to follow a (somewhat large) detour to the east, partially following the Pennine Way.”

All of this, ultimately, shows how difficult it can be in practice to walk an idealised route, and how there are different ways of tackling such a task, especially once it has switched from the study and the map table to “boots on the ground” reality.

Dave Hewitt

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