The West Highland Way – Part 6

The West Highland Way – Stage 8: Kinlochleven to Fort William – 15 miles/24km

Day 8 the last day of the multi-day trek and hopefully a triumphant march into Fort William and the finish line. The day started with some mild drizzle but the forecast looked promising for later in the day.

We left around 8:00 am eager to get going with the thought of 15 miles to cover ahead of us. The initial sharp climb out of Kinlochleven burnt almost all our consumed calories from breakfast but the fantastic views across the loch made it almost worth it.

Once at the top we followed the path into the wonderfully remote valley of Lairig Mor a wholly unexpected glen concealed behind high ridged summits. We followed this remote valley past deserted sheilings onwards towards Fort William.

At the end of the glen we swung northwards leaving the military road and entered an area of lovely cultivated forest and stuck to a now narrow and winding track towards Glen Nevis.

Ahead of us we could at long last see the towering mass of Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain.

It was hard to believe that we were finally in sight of the end of the trail. By now we had become so accustomed to waking, eating breakfast, putting on our walking gear and then setting off into the fresh morning air that the thought of anything else was incomprehensible.

The track gently meandered as it rose and fell tentatively picking its way through the forested hills. Ben Nevis never seemed to get any closer as we trudged onward.

The distance was beginning to tell on us and for the first time my feet really began to throb. We still had several miles of forestry road to trek down before we would reach the foot of Glen Nevis and the sight of the Visitor Centre. The Ben was mean and moody looking from afar as the clouds slowly drifted in and out across the sky casting shadows about its steep flanks.

The final two miles were along the Glen Nevis road, a brutal finish on tarmac for tired and aching feet.

Finally we came to the sign that marks the official end of the trail, or was it? Dejectedly we realised that the sign at the roundabout to the entrance of Glen Nevis has now been relegated to being the old end point! To be fair I can see why Scottish tourism wanted something more memorable as a dull busy roundabout and an old tatty sign outside the The Ben Nevis Woollen Mill shop is an anticlimax.

But my feet we not so understanding of the situation as we started out on the last mile into town to find the new finish. While it was true to say that there had been no great sense of arrival, finishing beside a glorified road sign this last mile was just brutal punishment on the mind and body.

Wearily we limped into the pedestrianised high street of Fort William. Dodging our way between Saturday shoppers and day-trippers we finally crawled at a snail’s pace up to the new finish point in Gordon Square. The new end has a Caithness stone map of the route, very welcome benches to sit on and a sculpture to have your picture taken with. The backdrop is now of Loch Linnhe and Ardnamurchan rather than traffic. I had to admit it was a more fitting finish.

We had made it! 96 miles, 8 days, plenty of rain, sun, wind and miles and miles of dramatic scenery. It was hard to comprehend that one could actually walk that distance and still be in relatively one piece but here we were living proof that the human body can do way more that you think it can.

We took our obligatory picture and then sloped off to the nearest pub for a well earnt drink and so ended our odyssey across Scotland. The End!

The West Highland Way – Part 5

The West Highland Way – Stage 7: Kingshouse to Kinlochleven – 9 miles/14km

Day 7 and today was the day to tackle the dreaded ‘Devil’s Staircase’. We set off with aplomb as we hiked along the glen. From Kingshouse we followed the old military road along the valley floor as far as Altnafeadh, which gave great views of the famous ‘weeping glen’ and site of the Glencoe Massacre of 1692.

Gathering our breath for the big push we knew was surely coming we started to zigzag up the infamous Devil’s Staircase. Climbing steadily we breathlessly topped out at the highpoint of the entire West Highland Way the 548m cairned gap between Beinn Bheag and Stob Mhic Mhartuin. We were rewarded for our efforts with stunning views towards Ben Nevis still a small speck far away in the distance.

Despite its reputation the ascent of the Devil’s Staircase was not too arduous. The switchback path known as the Devil’s Staircase was constructed sometime around the 1750’s by troops under Major Caulifield’s command. The name probably originated from the mens hatred of working on the wet, cold and steep slope, hauling around giant stones and slabs to lay the path up the hillside and not a description of the actual path itself.

Having conquered the staircase we wound our way down the other side of the pass working our way around the eastern end of the north Glencoe summits. Following the twisting path ahead we gently wound down through a desolate landscape until we came to some quiet woods. Weaving our way through the woods and following the path which now widened we eventually emerged into the small village of Kinlochleven.

Kinlochleven rather unfairly gets a bit of a bad rap as a post industrial blot on the landscape, but the town has tried hard to improve its image by transforming the old victorian buildings such as the aluminium smelting plant into modern day centres, it now houses the Ice Factor Climbing Wall reputedly the largest indoor ice wall in the world!

That evening the annual Salomon Skyline Scotland Skyrunning Races were about to get going with the village centre as the start and finish hub. Ultra Runners from all over the world were due to converge in Kinlochleven, famous past entrants have included Kilian Jornet and other luminaries of the sport.

We stayed overnight at the lovely Highland Getaway by far the best pub in town with hearty meals and a good selection of beer. Before dinner we took a gentle stroll along to the edge of Loch Leven to reflect on our little adventure so far. The evening was tinged with excitement at the thought of tomorrow being the last day on the trail with Fort William on the horizon but also touched with a modicum of sadness that it would all be coming to a rather abrupt end so soon.

We were firmly in the hiking groove by now with nothing else to worry about other than the path ahead of us and the thought of what we would be eating for dinner that night, the thought of anything else interrupting this simple and pleasant lifestyle filled us with a certain unease. Early tomorrow we would leave for Fort William.

Read more about our trip to ‘Bonnie Scotland’ in Part 6 of The West Highland coming soon ………

The West Highland Way – Part 4

The West Highland Way – Stage 6: Bridge of Orchy to Kingshouse – 12.2 miles/19.6km

Day 6 and it was a beautiful morning as we stirred ready to leave the wooden cabin that we had been staying in by the riverside in the grounds of the Bridge of Orchy hotel. We had a perfect view of the bridge and the river which ran out of Loch Tulla from our cabin bed. I was eager for today’s stretch as we would be heading up past the lovely Loch Tulla and onto the wild and desolate Rannoch Moor.

Rannoch Moor is one of the most atmospheric, wild and beautiful places you can ever visit and we would spend most of the day trekking across it until we’d reach Glencoe the other most atmospheric, wild and beautiful place I know in Scotland.

This section of the trek is considered by many to be their favourite part and it was proving so for us. At first we climbed up from the bridge down at Orchy until we were eventually rewarded with magnificent views from a height looking down to Loch Tulla and across to Ian Fleming’s Scottish hideaway on the loch shore. Leaving the small settlement of Inveroran we gradually moved up towards the moor and joined the start of the military road across the Moor.

Rannoch Moor a wonderful, lonely and exposed place that was once covered by a giant icecap but is today covered in a bog. A mystical place of unimaginable beauty when the weather is benign, but a god awful place if the weather gods deem it so. There is no shelter and in bad weather, it can be incredibly exposed.

The gods must have been pleased with us as we were treated to the best weather one could hope for. In fact I had to roll up my trekking trousers in true british fashion as I melted from the inside out in the unseasonal heat as we walked mile after mile across the immense landscape.

Eventually and after a wee lunch break with feet now aching we started to descend into Glencoe. If you think Rannoch Moor is spectacular wait until you come across Glencoe!

One of the most haunting, immense, dramatic and otherworldly places imaginable. A place still tinged with melancholy dating way back to the massacre of the Clan MacDonald in February 1692 when the MacDonalds of Glencoe were killed by Scottish government forces, allegedly for failing to pledge allegiance to the new monarchs.

The brooding valley feels like it is still mourning its dead.

When entering the glen there is one mountain above all others that draws everyone’s undivided attention ….. Buachaille Etive Mor! Possibly the most photographed mountain in all of Scotland. I’ve seen it many a time but it never fails to impress.

Although we could see the famous Kingshouse Hotel some distance away down in the glen it appeared to take an eternity to reach it. But the mountain scenery was off the scale, so we didn’t mind too much although our feet were throbbing.

The original 17th century hotel at Kingshouse has now been replaced with a refurbished hotel, which provides unrivalled views of Buachaille Etive Mor and the surrounding mountains. We were looking forward to staying in such a grand place for the night. We would need all the rest we could muster because in the morning we would be tackling what many believe to be the crux of the route …’The Devil’s Staircase!’

Read more about our trip to ‘Bonnie Scotland’ in Part 5 of The West Highland coming soon ………

The West Highland Way – Part 3

The West Highland Way – Stage 5: Tyndrum to Bridge of Orchy – 7 miles/11.3km

Day 5 would be a great day of easy short walking! The scenery was beautiful and now we were able to get into our stride by using the fast-going military roads on this part of the route to our advantage. We would follow the valley to Bridge of Orchy, a small village for our overnight stop. As we walked up the valley we passed under the slopes of Beinn Odhar with the distinctive and shapely cone of Beinn Dòrain directly ahead of us.

Striding up the glen you really felt like you were in the true Highlands for the first time. My eyes were constantly drawn towards Beinn Dòrain.

The Beinn is one of the most famous and distinctive Munro’s and the thought was already buzzing around inside my head that should we reach the Bridge at Orchy in good time and the weather held there might be a slim chance that I could make an attempt to scale it!

We reached the Bridge of Orchy Hotel in record time so the climb was on! I sat outside the rather lovely hotel and had a much needed sugar hit scoffing down a fruit scone with some cream and jam washed down with a full fat Coke for good measure. My wife decided sensibly to sit this one out and enjoy afternoon tea with her feet up. But for me the challenge was on and just too irresistible an opportunity to pass up on.

I stripped my rucksack down to essentials and set of retracing my steps under the Orchy station railway bridge and back onto the lower slopes of the glen opposite the hotel. With unseasonable sun on my back I started my ascent of the Beinn.

Beinn Dòrain is one of the most instantly recognisable Munros in the southern Highlands, a huge conical peak that dominates the A82 when driving or walking north from Tyndrum. Its ascent could easily be combined with neighbouring Beinn an Dòthaidh which has a fine outlook over Rannoch Moor but I was time-crunched and had already hiked 7 miles from Tyndrum so it would be just the one summit today.

The mountain was famously celebrated in the poem Moladh Beinn Dobhrainn (In Praise of Beinn Dòrain) by the eighteenth century Gaelic poet Duncan Ban MacIntyre and when you start to stride up the hill you can clearly see why. The scenery is spectacular.

The ascent turned out to be a wonderful jaunt following first close by the sides of Allt an Dòthaidh before gradually turning into a pleasant climb up into the grassy bowl of Coire an Dòthaidh all the time surrounded by wide slopes dotted with crags. The climb out of the corrie involved a steep section of path which was badly eroded up to an upper coire before the final climb up to the bealach at 744m. 

Upon reaching the windy bealach I turned south to cross over a grassy plateau before climbing onto a better defined ridge. There were then a series of false summits and cairns leading to false hope before I reached the true summit at 1076 metres. From my lofty perch the views rewarded to me were sublime.

However, with clouds beginning to appear it was time to retrace my steps back down the mountainside to the valley. I rocked up at the hotel bar at Orchy some two and a half hours later and ordered myself a well earnt ice cold pint. The day had been a winner with a nice easy walk along The Way followed by the wonderful and unexpected bonus of a Munro bagged in the afternoon. I was really beginning to enjoy our adventure in Scotland.

Read more about our trip to ‘Bonnie Scotland’ in Part 4 of The West Highland coming soon ………