Thursday, 28 May 2015

West Highland Way - May 2015. Struggle, then triumph.

The start of the world renowned West Highland Way in Milngavie.
 Sunday May 16th 2015, Stev Stipanovic and yours truly about to get started on our walk to Fort William; 96 miles of varied terrain through some of the most beautiful and rugged surroundings on our little island. We were, we thought, pretty well prepared for this task, though events of the next two days conspired against us somewhat, as well as our exuberance from the previous evening, to make things rather more of a struggle than we'd hoped.
A smooth drive with no traffic jams of around 500 miles had seen us arrive in Milngavie at 4.15 the previous afternoon, with plenty of time to rest and settle in. Feeling very relaxed after dinner, we sauntered to the local pub, The Talbot, for a couple of pre-walk beers - with the idea that we would be safely tucked up by around 10 pm. Ahem, well, that didn't happen as we were 'ambushed' by Scotland's very own chuckle brothers, a pair of mischievous old codgers who insisted on buying us far more beer and whisky than was entirely sensible for us to consume the night before a walk of such magnitude, that not paying full respect to it would inevitably lead to a rude awakening as we plodded through torrential rain on rough ground.
At precisely 9.50 a.m., undaunted,  we stood by the sign in Milngavie (pronounced 'Mulguy') town centre, smiled through fuzzy hangovers for the camera, and set off through Mugdock country park in, initially, light drizzle.

After some three or four miles of pleasant, though relatively uninspiring woodland, the path opened out to give a rather marvellous taste of what was to come over the next few days. A few tough miles ahead lies a rare treat, a treat that is known throughout the world; ahead lies the most bonny of all the lochs, Loch Lomond, and beyond there The Trossachs, Glen Coe and Glen Nevis.
Before that though, we had a few more miles to negotiate, with the weather only ever being as good as the picture above - cloudy with light drizzle was as good as it got, with plenty of heavy showers and an ever increasing strong wind.
One of the many tributaries of Endrick Water on this section of the route; full of water.

Now, as mentioned earlier, we thought we had been fairly well prepared - hmm, maybe not! My old boots, a very sturdy pair that had served me very well for more than ten years and thousands of plodded hill miles, were much closer to their final demise than I had dared to think. After completing my John O'Groats to Land's End walk two years previously, they had been used almost every night on my milk round as well as for several spells of digging on my allotment. Stupidly, I ignored the ever widening holes in the soles of said boots, and the paying of a heavy price was looming as large as a mud-filled puddle that accelerated the end for my faithful old daisies.
As if this wasn't problem enough, the heavy bags upon our backs, the increasing amount of precipitation and howling winds, added to Stev's ankles that were inexperienced in the discipline of hill walking over rough terrain, we reached the twelve mile point at Drymen feeling somewhat wet, tired and disheartened.

Stev taking a little weight off of aching ankles near Drymen.
 The time was now pushing on much faster than we were; it was around half past three and in the worsening weather we still had around 7 miles to complete, as well as the increasingly daunting prospect of Conic Hill to get up and over. Conic stands at a mere 1175 feet, not big by any means, but in foul weather and on wet or sore feet, the prospect was not one we were relishing. It just had to be done, unless we were to sleep under the stars in a deep and muddy puddle! We limped on through Drymen, up the A81 for a mile, then off the road into Garadhban Forest, a large plantation on the way to Balmaha - our resting point for the night.
This section of the walk should be a really rather pleasant stretch, with undulating rather than steep terrain being the order of the day. However, in high winds and heavy rain, it became, for us, a nightmare at worst and a necessary chore at best. The rain got heavier, the wind grew stronger, and we became more disheartened. However, stopping was not an option - save for the odd five minutes here and there for a swig of water and a puff on a sodden ciggie - we needed to get to Balmaha; as quickly as our struggling legs and feet could manage.
We cleared the forest and Conic Hill loomed large ahead, staring at us like a demonic monster; standing firm, swathed in sodden mist and steadfastly refusing to give. This late afternoon giant would not surrender easily and we had no option but to tackle the beast head on; a fight to the death which we knew we just could  not lose, sore feet or not. This battle had to be won, or the war would be over before it had even begun. Six o'clock arrived in high winds, carrying on it's wing a maelstrom of rain, ever increasing gusts and the ability to shut down normal sight in a single thrust of hail-ridden mischief. This beast was resisting stoutly, aided by that most powerful of phenomena, Mother Nature herself. We needed to dig deep, and dig deep we did.
A distant view of Conic Hill.
We duly got up and over the wee beastie, with soaked and tired feet and bodies landing in Balmaha only a few minutes before 8 p.m.. That was a tough day and a reminder to never under-estimate the power of the weather, the terrain under foot and the absolute need for both good preparation as well as decent kit. Bay Cottage, our shelter for the night, thankfully had under floor heating which went a long way towards drying out most of our sodden clothes. My boots, stuffed with two copies of The Daily Record, were very much on borrowed time, and it was rapidly running out. I set my target for these faithful old companions to be ceremoniously dumped at Tyndrum, some thirty odd miles North of Balmaha and home to The Green Welly Stop, a rather well situated shop that stocks most things that any hill walker might need.

A decent rest and marvellous breakfast behind us, we left Balmaha at around 9 a.m. on the Monday morning, hoping to add rather more smoothly to the previous day's 19 miles, with what promised to be a somewhat better walk alongside Loch Lomond to Inverarnan. We had 21 miles to negotiate and hoped for more clement weather, not least for helping my boots to remain in some kind of state to get me through two more days.
Loch Lomond at Balmaha; looking calm and serene, but with rain clouds gathering above.
As we began day two at the southern end of the loch I promised Stev that virtually all of this day's walking would be alongside the water, and not too difficult to tackle with just a few stray rocks and tree roots to negotiate. Two years is a long time on The West Highland Way and my assertion proved to be way off the mark! Due to erosion at loch-side, the path had been moved uphill and inland at more than a few places, which added around 4 miles to an already long day. As the clouds became heavier and darker, our sense of foreboding grew.

 Sunny and clear spells still happened, as the weather can and does change so quickly in the highlands, but the showers were becoming more frequent and heavier, providing much gushing of streams down through the woods to the loch.

Spirits were not as dampened as my boots and the kit of us both, but with every new downpour the distant target of Inverarnan appeared to be that little bit further away. Along the first section of the day, some 7 miles to Rowardennan, we found ourselves walking in company with quite a few fellow walkers whom we swapped tales with about the previous day's exploits, and that devilish beastie that was Conic Hill. One particular group of four had been struggling as much as us, descending the hill only half an hour or so before us in an equally fed up and sodden state. These four intrepid lasses - two Scots, a Geordie, and their leader from Ireland - were particularly amused by our stories of Saturday evening in Milngavie with the chuckle brothers feeding us whisky on the back of "hey pal, are you Razor Ruddock?"

Now, Stev, in my estimation, does look a trifle rugged, and the weathered whiskers certainly add to the image. Mr Razor Ruddock was the tough tackling no nonsense footballer who plied his trade a few years ago with Liverpool Football Club, as well as West Ham United and England. Razor was usually unshaven and could look quite menacing to opposing players. I am of the opinion that Stev looks far more like your favourite uncle, but the walking ladies did find the whole thing rather amusing as they plodded their way through the woods and alongside the loch - "hey Razor, give us a smile or a growl!" was heard several times. It was all in good fun and helped an ever harder day go a little better. I christened these determined girls The Nolans, mainly for ease of indentifying who we were talking about as by now there were many groups of three, four, or more walkers plodding the route with us.
After a lunch stop at Rowardennan, the next section was an equally tough plod over more tree roots and up muddy woodland paths towards Inversnaid, with the rain becoming less relenting and my boots getting closer with every step to their last hurrah. Stev's ankles were also joining in the chorus of complaints...

We came across this tired looking group of hairy horned beasts, seeking the higher ground as the forest floor became wetter and muddier by the minute. The powerful streams were gushing down through the trees to fill the loch with ever growing momentum.

Eventually we did reach Inversnaid - 14 miles of a 21 mile day completed at 5.0 pm, but with another 7 still to do. Thankfully the rain was easing after several hours of doing it's very best to dampen us  - as well as The Nolan Sisters! - into submission. A brief stop for a bite to eat and collecting our thoughts...

with the sun finally getting the upper hand over Loch Lomond, onwards we marched, with increasing squelching coming from my now nearly dead daisy roots and Stev's ankles steadfastly refusing to admit defeat. Some hours later, with the darkness threatening to engulf the hills and loch alike, we stumbled into Inverarnan and Scotland's official pub of the year (1705, tis absolutely true!) The Drovers Inn. 

This really is a quite magnificent pub hotel, perfectly set up for those walking The West Highland Way, with fantastic ales and food, comfortable accommodation and a roaring fire into which my sorry sodden boots were inserted, stuffed with newspaper in an attempt to dry them out for one final day of service before their final demise.
We had a good dinner, a good rest, an ale or two, and a very hearty breakfast the following morning before setting off from The Drovers for the (hopefully) drier and easier walk to Tyndrum, the village that marks the halfway point on the route.
The splendid bar at The Drovers.

Stev, posing with a hairy chap in the foyer.
So, forty miles now clocked up, we set off in the dry for Tyndrum, and this was pretty much as we'd hoped - a lovely walk, tough climbs in places, but mostly dry all day long, much to the relief of my poor old feet. We also got our first sight of the quite wonderful Highland Railway, which chugs around through the hills to and from Glasgow and Fort William. This was another treat, to look forward to on completion of the walk, but it was rather nice to get a preview of delights to come.

The majestic mountains above Crianlarich, standing proud with caps of snow resisting the spring melt.

The 6 miles from Inverarnan to Crianlarich were really quite marvellous; a gentle rather than sharp climb, with the underfoot conditions improving dramatically from tree roots, mud, and rock, to softer gravel track which was largely dry. "Hurrah!" said my feet and boots, and so did Stev's sore ankles!

And as mentioned earlier, the single track railway line loomed into view, quite possibly the most wonderful rail journey in Britain could be enjoyed on this line.

We plodded along much more happily now, with the sun shining down on everything, and made good time - along with The Nolans and many other groups - to the quite wonderful high point of the day above Crianlarich.
Hopefully the above shows a link to a marvellously peaceful video, taken in the hills above Crianlarich, just before the wooded descent into Tyndrum. 

We duly completed our day's walk - now up to 52 miles done - with the much looked-forward-to stop at The Green Welly. My old boots, now well past the 'had it' stage, were dumped in the bin, replaced by a nice new pair with no holes and plenty of comfort. Stev's ankles were also dancing with renewed vigour as he purchased some splendid walking poles to aid walking and to take the pressure off his joints.

Stev, now looking every inch the accomplished hill walker with his fancy new poles, check the beaming grin too!

Newly kitted out, we made our way to one of the best guest houses one could ever hope to come across anywhere, Glengarry House.

Having stayed here before, I knew this place was absolutely top notch, but Stev was equally impressed. We were greeted on arrival with a fresh pot of tea and the most marvellous home-made syrup flapjack, which we most happily accepted and took in the conservatory which looks out over the hills that surround this lovely little village. Hosts Andy and Ellen's hospitality is legendary and lived right up to the billing. We had a lovely home cooked evening meal, a marvellous rest, and set off the following morning refreshed and invigorated with a hearty breakfast inside, and the sun was happily shining brightly!

So, day 4, and with our boot and walking pole adjustments in place, we set off at a good pace to cover the 7 mile target for the morning from Tyndrum to Bridge of Orchy. We were now in very fine spirits, legs and feet were happy, the sun had his hat on, and The Nolans were also around and making equally good progress after overcoming similar struggles to ours. We had also made some more new friends the previous evening at Glengarry. A very friendly Dutch father and daughter, with whom we dined, though Bass and Jess were far fitter than us so we waved them goodbye in the morning as they sped off at greater speed than we could even dare think of.

Far too quick for us, Bass and Jess - we'll see you there speedies!

We actually made it to Bridge of Orchy well in front of our target, so we made the most of the time to grab a decent rest before tackling a very stiff climb up and over Mam Carraigh to Inveroran. It really is quite lovely at Bridge of Orchy, as the pictures below will hopefully show. 
The path leading down into Bridge of Orchy.

 The River Orchy, flowing very well indeed after so much recent rain over the area. But we must never complain too loudly, or for too long, about the rainfall, for this is what powers the rivers and feeds the beautiful lochs, as well as maintaining the green that helps to make this place so very special. It really is, surely, one of the most beautiful places that there is, so to linger a good while is neither tardy or careless, more a show of respect I would say, and a perfect excuse for me to stay sat sitting another twenty minutes after Stev had left to tackle the big hill!

Refreshed and determined, off he marched to tackle the steep climb up Mam Carraigh, and tackle it he did, triumphantly descending into Inveroran way before me; I was still near the top taking pictures, long since having given up my futile attempts to catch Razor with his posh new walking poles! We were now a good hour in front of our target time, a marvellous thing to keep the soul happy. 

Quite stunning views to the snow-capped Black Mount on the descent to Inveroran.

And Loch Tulla, majestically filling the glen, with Rannoch Moor beyond. 

We had a good break at Inveroran before tackling the tough ten miles to complete our 20 miles for the day, at the quite wonderful Kings House Hotel on the edge of Glen Coe. This really was a tough stretch, on quite rough terrain, but with new boots and walking poles, we made it well within our pre-conceived target for time. Again, as ever, the scenery was stunning, quite breathtaking at times.

Our two intrepid hikers, posing at BA Bridge, some 5 miles from Kings House. 

We duly arrived at this most wonderful of hostelries, eager to make use of that most wonderful of things - a hot bath. This was quite the most splendidly welcome thing, easing away several aches and pains as a prelude to a rather wonderful dinner, washed down with three pints of truly splendid Scottish Royal Stag ale, and a wee dram of course, purely medicinal. We found Bass and Jess here too, so enjoyed another good evening with them, as well as several other tired walkers, though we think The Nolans  had bravely gone further, as we would find out later.
A view from Kings House, quite splendid. 

The Kings House Hotel, Glen Coe.

And so to day 5, Thursday. We now had 72 gruelling but rewarding miles under our tightened belts, and were feeling pretty damn good; fit and raring to go. The morning weather forecast, however, threatened to put a large dampener on things. We had the steep climb up  The Devil's Staircase to undertake, and the forecast was for rain, rain, and more rain, with high winds to boot. As a few dozen weary walkers resigned themselves to a wet and tough day, steadily appearing by the hotel door in full waterproofs, we waved goodbye to speedy Bass and Jess, and began our two mile plod through the drizzle to the foot of the climb. The scene did indeed look somewhat bleak.

However, my old friend Mother Nature is nothing if not a kindly lady, and she did the very decent thing of blowing the rain clouds away and ordering us some much brighter weather as we arrived at the foot of The Devil's Staircase; that was most kind of her and we were truly grateful for her generous gift as we climbed the quite marvellous path, with the views becoming steadily more wonderful by the minute.
The foot of The Devil's Staircase, still misty and damp.

Halfway up, and clearing nicely.
We made it to the top in good time again, thankful for the good weather, and ready for a cup of tea before a quite magnificent few miles of high level walking.

Both of us at the cairns on the high point of The West Highland Way, the top of the staircase. It was somewhat breezy up here, but dry and fresh, quite marvellous really, and we were feeling good - a far cry from a few days previous as we struggled through grotty weather and lack of fitness and preparation. All was now good, and we happily plodded the few miles up high, before a long and steep descent into beautiful Kinlochleven. 

Hardened hill walker!
The path stretching out before and below us, with magnificent views of the majestic mountains.

On arriving in the village, we had to secure a lift for the 7 miles to Glen Coe village due to a double booking at our booked guest house. Our hosts were very happy to do this, and brought us back to the exact point the following morning. It did rain a fair bit that evening, but a rather nice view of Loch Leven  was there to be captured by yours truly, stood there in my flip-flops getting wet.

And there we were, a good night's sleep followed by another hearty breakfast - Scottish hospitality really is quite the best, always - and we were ready for the final day. With 81 miles now completed, a further 15 would complete the 96 and see us safely into the capital of the Scottish highlands, Fort William. 
The climb out of Kinlochleven was both long and tough, but with our fitness now at a much better level we took it largely in our stride, albeit a slow and steady stride. The rain fell a little up until midday, but not so much that would bother us too much, and the mist cleared to reveal more stunning views.
Looking back down to Kinlochleven from around halfway up the climb.

Looking North on the route  to Fort William.
Loch Leven, looking West.

We had waved Bass and Jess off on their speedy way at the foot of the climb out of the village, but we had a most pleasant surprise as we began to level out at around 1200 feet; out of the clearing mist we saw The Nolans, invigorated and refreshed and pushing on determinedly to the finishing line a few miles to the north. They had two members of their foursome that had been struggling badly, but they had got through the bad bits and doggedly refused to quit. This walk is never, ever, anything other than tough, but the stories of determination to not give up and get through the pain barriers are plenty and inspiring. After some cheery exchanging of greetings and tales of aches and moans, the final few miles seemed somehow easier, with many a spring in many a step betraying the aches and pains behind them.
After a few miles up high, with the weather clearing nicely again, the steep and long descent into Fort William was achieved around 4.30 p.m., with a pleasant stroll of a mile to the finish at the Ben Nevis Woollen Mill. 

We joined many others collecting their certificates, then headed off to our bnb, scrubbed up, and went in search of our friends for a celebratory pint or three. All in all, a quite magnificent walk, successfully completed in 6 days, with a tidy sum of money raised for charity. Well done Razor, a marvellous effort sir!

Four proud walkers, after the successful completion of The West Highland Way, celebrating in The Grog and Gruel.

                                                Alec Hawkes   May 2015.


Oh, a snippet of the most marvellous train journey can hopefully be seen here, assuming the link works! Enjoy.

1 comment:

Stuart Nagle said...

Excellent analogue on a most impressive walk Alec and 'Razor'...I enjoyed reading of your adventures....