Tuesday, 22 July 2014

West Highland Way Review

Just over a week ago my sister, Hannah, and I set out on our journey through Scotland, following the West Highland Way from Glasgow to Fort William. On the way we had sunshine, rain, wind and even a little bit of snow (on a mountain). Our feet got wet and tired, but fortunately our spirits didn't and we arrived in Fort William right on time for the train home!

Here are a few snippets from our week of walking:

Day 1 began in Milngavie, just north of Glasgow, after a five hour train ride from the midlands. Hannah had forgotten gloves, but with it being summer and everything no shop was able to supply her with some. This was a good thing because she didn't need them and if there's one thing we learnt from when we walked the Coast to Coast in 2012 it's that you don't take anything that you won't use!
     The day was damp but fairly flat and we made good progress over the 12 miles to our first campsite. Now there is a rule in camping that when you go to pitch your tent it will begin raining, or if it is already raining, it will rain harder. Then, as soon as you have your soggy pile of canvas badly erected, it will stop. This rule was firmly applied on our first evening, but we overcame the weather and our inexperience with a new tent and had it set almost perfectly.
     At this campsite we met several other West Highland Wayers, most of whom were a similar age to us, camping and carrying everything (this was quite different to the Coast to Coast). They were also, largely, from mainland Europe. Some we found out their nationality, such as the Czech couple and the 4 French, but there were also some we guessed including the Potentially Polish and Potentially Germans (not to be confused with the Definitely Germans we met the next day).

Day 2 was sunny, and possibly my favourite day of the whole trip as we climbed Conic Hill and strolled along the south-eastern shore of Loch Lomond. Being sunny and a Sunday the Scots were out in force and we met many families, old ladies, and small dogs also hiking around the area. Most of them had something to say about the West Highland Way, either that they'd done it themselves, or knew someone who had, and told us about how the wind and rain battered them for several days in the later stages of the walk. We chose to ignore this.

Day 3 was not so sunny. The morning was grey, although not difficult for walking. The afternoon, however, found us scrambling over rocks and around trees in an attempt to find any sort of path along the north of Loch Lomond. It did not help that the rain came down with a vengeance, drenching everything and leaving puddles in our shoes.
     The two Czechs, who we had been following for a while, disappeared around lunch time and then reappeared shortly after disguised as camels. They had donned enormous rain-macs that covered them and their bags giving them large humps on their backs as they plodded on behind us. This was a small cheery moment, though, because as we finally left the loch for the last time the thought occurred to me that we were so wet, we may as well as swum.
Day 4 saw a reappearance of the sun and another pleasant day as we edged further north. This was the day when we lost the two Potentially Germans. (We still don't know what happened to them. One moment they were behind us, the next they weren't and we never saw them again!) However we did find two Scots, who, when we first passed them, were sitting about a quarter of a mile apart having a telephone conversation in which the keener one (who was ahead) was trying to encourage the less keen one to keep going. This was clearly taking some time, but worked eventually because they caught us up later.
     We finished that day in the village of Tyndrum, which is an old mining town, but now is entirely made up of B&Bs, a large hotel, two campsites and a row of identical holiday cottages. Most people only stop here for petrol, but there are some who stay. As we wandered in to find dinner I said to Hannah, "Do you think Tyndrum is a place that retired people come to?" At this point a large coach full of over 80s came around the corner and the question was answered.
Day 5 was our longest day at 18.5 miles but this would have been a small matter if the weather was nice. The path was on wide tracks and old roads that rose and fell gently. The morning was wet and largely unmemorable and it wasn't until we reached Rannoch Moor that the day truly showed what it had in store.
     O Rannoch Moor, have I ever been in a more wild or desolate place. For two hours the rain drove down with a fierce wind and the open ground offered no shelter. There were, however, three consolations that to my mind made this day better than other similar days we have experienced.
     Firstly there was a clear path. Admittedly it was also a stream, but it was clear and we followed it. Secondly, the rain and wind were mostly at our backs, and thirdly, there were several other groups ahead and behind, which gave us comfort and reminded us that however foolish we might be there were plenty of others in the same category.
     Finally the rain broke and amazingly the sun found it's way through, but only just. Shortly after we descended off the moor and were faced with the dark, imposing entrance to Glencoe, guarded by Buachaille Etive Mor. Now, I have seen beautiful mountains and I have seen majestic mountains, but under heavy clouds and with evening drawing in, this mighty peak was a brooding, hulking mass of bare rock and was, without doubt, the most menacing mountain I have even seen.
On Day 6 we passed though Glencoe, sight of the famous massacre in 1690. Fortunately the clansmen were having a day off and so we were able to climb peacefully out of the valley and continue North.
     The descent to our next destination of Kinlochleven was steep, leading one of a party of six Scottish women, who we had been playing leapfrog with for two days, to call out "I canne stop!" Happily she did and we all made it to the bottom of the hill safely, in glorious sunshine and with plenty of time to explore this picturesque village.
     I would very much recommend it as somewhere to visit, just for the views, but there is also an indoor ice climbing-wall and, even more excitingly, a museum devoted the town's aluminium industry. (We didn't go in).
Day 7 then was the last major walking day in terms of distance as it brought us almost to Fort William and left us under the towering might of Ben Nevis. This giant is another mass of rock and not the nicest of mountains, however on this day it was sunny and we could at least see it in all its glory.
On Day 8 we set out to conquer the mountain, starting a measly 10 metres above sea level and rising to 1343 metres, the highest point in all of Britain. Sadly the clouds were thick and sat heavily on all the hills and well before the top we were walking in a white world. Fortunately there were many others on Ben Nevis and we found our way to the top and back down again safely, including crossing a patch of snow that provided some entertainment.
Finally on Day 9 we finished the last few miles into Fort William with time to find a tacky gift shop to purchase the obligatory tacky souvenir (actually I got a nice pin badge, so it wasn't too bad!) Then we loaded ourselves onto the train, along with many other walkers and their backpacks to repeat the same 100 miles, but in reverse, and slightly faster.
To find out more about the journey click the link to see a short video of our walk:

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