Tuesday, February 24, 2009

West Highland Way II

So... we marched on through the damp, me feeling terribly guilty that the wet tent made his pack even heavier than before (this trip had been my idea, after all. I'd said I'd do it with or without him). Near Kirkton Farm the path runs past an open cowshed full of straw. It was about 0745 when I said rather wistfully that it would have been a good place to spend a dry night and then, as two sleeping bags rolled over and began to sit upright, realised I'd spoken too loudly. As the morning progressed I remembered that the A82, which we drive regularly on our way further north, ran past a big cafe somewhere near here. What was it called? The Green Welly Stop? It looked so commercial that we'd never stopped there. The debate about whether it was in Tyndrum, the next place, or Crianlarich, now behind us, occupied the next hour or so, fading gently into a discussion of what we would eat if they let us in if we found it.

The path runs very near it. Bliss. They let us in with our huge packs and we sat in the cafe and we ate blackpuddingbaconeggs dripping with grease onnabun and drank orange juice and hot chocolate and coffee and it was better than any expensive London restaurant we could remember. I bought Superfeet insoles for my Montrail Continental Divide walking shoes. After careful consideration of the useless weight and slow biodegradation of orange peel, we bought an apple to share for breakfast the next morning. And set out again.
That's looking north past him on the trail running beside Beinn Odhar; the mountains in the far distance define Glencoe. The wide, gently u-shaped valley was scoured out by glaciers over the last 500,000 years or so; there are hanging valleys, too (slightly naff animation explaining this here). Shortly after this photo he developed a terrible ankle cramp, but fortunately paracetamol, massage, a bandage for warmth rather than support and an hour of gentle ambling saw it relax. We met very few people on the path most days, one of the advantages of starting mid-week. But this was Saturday, and we chatted briefly with several people out for day hikes; their expressions of wonder at the size of our packs made us realise that the packs didn't seem so heavy any more.
Past Bridge of Orchy the path climbs up Mam Carriagh, which gave us lovely views south, back the way we'd come. All that distance, just in one day. We paused to think about the 61 miles we'd walked from Milngavie. And looked north, to the next stage.
See the mountain biker disappearing around the bend? They'd had to carry their bikes along most of the shore of Loch Lomond. A day and a half of wrestling heavy bikes on the trail we'd found quite bad enough, thank you, with carefully loaded packs and walking poles. When I asked one how on earth they'd managed the ladder, he just swore under his breath and said he'd never, ever do it again and the next time this particular mate suggested a couple of days out, he'd look at the map before he said OK. The mountains in the distance edge Glencoe, and our campsite is by the river at the bottom of this hill. Where there's a pub! With BEER!
That's our tent with my tarp rigged as a porch and some of the dishcloths and other kit from our wet night drying in the breeze.
We went to the pub hoping for food, but it's a tiny place and they'd sold out. So we drank beer and ate crisps with an Austrian who was camping the WHW but not carrying much food – fortunately he'd arrived early – then cooked our own dinner and went to bed.
That's the view when I exited the tent the next morning. By 0630 we were packed and on our way to Rannoch Moor, one of my favourite places in all the world I know. I always drive from Glasgow to Fort William, and at Bridge of Orchy he puts Runrig's 'Live at Celtic Connections 2000' in the CD player and turns up the volume. And I drive across the Moor through the mountains, down the winding road through Glencoe and am happy beyond words, sometimes so happy that tears are running down my face as I drive because I am so grateful to be here, today, now. Walking the shoulder of the Black Mount looking down on Rannoch is different, but just as good, and I am just as happy and grateful that we can do this here and now, in the sunlight.

I'm not certain how Blogger will handle this big photo. It's a panoramic view across the Moor starting with Glencoe on the left. Click for bigger, I hope.
And this is How We Did It. Regular footbreaks, one every hour or so, 10 minutes in which we take our boots and socks off to let our feet dry and air and our socks bake in the sun. And we drink water and eat gorp (our mix of salted cashews and luxury raisins) and remind ourselves that we're enjoying this.
From Rannoch the trail heads west through Glencoe. We arrived at Kingshouse at 1300 and decided that for once we would stop early. According to all the guidebooks, this is one of the midgiest places on the route and we both desperately wanted a proper wash so we cheated and rented a room for the night. There were BOOKS in the room! I think I've never before lasted 4 1/2 days without reading for pleasure. The Sunday evening bar was full of walkers and climbers preparing to head home and we were horrified by the state of some walkers' feet. People were hobbling, their feet covered in bandages, blisters, with red, raw bands around their ankles. Weekenders, people who hadn't thought to break in their footwear before enjoying(?) a day on the hill. We felt like professionals.
Once again we rose early, skipped breakfast in favour of our breakfast bars and headed out west along Glencoe. About a half-mile down the track my backside feels wet. This isn't possible, so I ignore it. A little further on it really does feel wet... can it be possible? He confirms that yes, it is wet. PANIC. The seal around the cap of my hydration bladder is leaking, and water has seeped down through my pack and out. It's because accidents happen that everything important (including my down sleeping bag) is kept in a Drybag. On the down side I now have to rely on a 1l plastic water bottle that I've kept for emergencies.
Looking past him, west down Glencoe. At the western end is the Devil's Staircase, which proved to be nothing more than a half hour hard slog with pauses for breath as necessary. Nothing like as bad as Conic Hill, let alone the nightmare shore of Loch Lomond. I paused at the top to say farewell to Glencoe.
And this is where we realised that this adventure would end sooner than we wished.
Looking norh we could see parts of the Ben Nevis range. On we walked, down the 'orrible endless hill on the road to Kinlochleven, arriving in town at about 1200. We'd thought of camping here, but once again it was far too early. We dithered for a few minutes before concluding that we'd just carry on and see what happened next. After all, we have a tent and food - where's the problem? Into the Lairig Mor, the long valley running west from Kinlochleven with Am Bodach and Stob Ban rising high on our right. On down the long, long track. This is the view near the western end, looking back down the valley.
Eventually the track curves north. Interpretation signs appear, the grasses become pasture dotted with sheep. At 1600 we pause at an information sign and debate whether to camp now, or Just Keep Walking. The Fort William campsite is only another 5 miles, but these are almost as long as the miles beside Loch Lomond. I've been stupid and not drunk as much water as I should (I could have used the water filter to refill my plastic bottle, but instead I've been rationing myself to sips from his hydration pack). His feet hurt. We're tired. The trees go on for ever and the path winds up, down and around through them. Pause for breath and the midges pounce. It's feeling a bit like a nightmare when we top a rise and see Ben Nevis right in front of us.
It doesn't look like much, but our spirits rise immeasurably because it means we've as good as done it. So we grit our teeth and stride out and down to the campsite, hot showers and a sense of accomplishment that I can only hope everyone else feels at least once in their lives. 95 miles, 5 1/2 days (22 miles on the last day). Carrying everything we needed for 8 days, even if we didn't use all of it. And the next morning we rose early yet again, before our knees noticed we'd finished, and bagged Ben Nevis as well. And the next day we moved to a hotel and took the Jacobite steam train to Mallaig. Which is a fabulous day out in the spring sunlight with bluebells on the hillsides and the smell of coalsmoke and the train saying I THINK I can I THINK I can I THINK I can as it toils uphill, chattering I know I can I know I can I know I can on the downhill. And the day after that we caught the train home. We went to Morrisons to buy lunch to eat on the train and, as we did so, he said sadly "We could just buy some food and keep going... I wish we didn't have to stop." Me too. Oh, me too.


HPNY KNITS said...

gorgeous country side adventure, but a tent! wow!

Joanne said...

What an adventure. I'm not sure it's one I'd want to take, but gosh it sounds like an achievement! Good for you...and thanks for writing about it for us!