Thursday, July 26, 2007
West Highland Way - 22nd July to 25th July 2007
DAY 1-MILNGAVIE TO ROWERDENNAN (27 MILES)
With Susan away to Gleneagles with the kids to relax for the week, I decided to do something a bit energetic!
I had, foolishly I admit, attempted to cycle part of the West Highland Way a couple of months ago to see if it would be possible to attempt the whole distance in a day or two. I had found a couple of entries in google by people that had claimed to do it and of course as we all know the internet is entirely accurate!
After a bit of research I soon realised that the hardest part would be the section between Rowerdennan and to where you can get the ferry to Ardlui. To cut a long story short, I ended up carrying the bike at least half of the 25-odd miles over rocks, up and down hills and coming off the bike on several occassions - the last of which broke my front brake, camera stand, and my spirit!
Since then it had left a bitter taste in my mouth that I had not made a serious attempt at The Way in my life. I had only ever attempted to walk a small part of the WHW with Jim and Del over a decade ago, when getting pished and having a laugh was our main priority. Therefore, we only walked from Tyndrum to Bridge of Orchy which is a distance of 14 miles, and that took us 3 days!
Anyway, Sunday morning came and contrary to the weather forecast I was greeted by glorious sunshine and after a shower and a big fruit salad for breakfast, I was off to get the train to Glasgow and then on to Milngavie. I arrived at the start of the WHW at exactly 10.30 and was raring to go!
I asked a passer-by to take the obligatory "start of the walk" photo and as I prepared to set off, a man sitting at Costa Coffee started talking to me. It turned out that he was going to attempt to cycle the entire route so I gave him a heads up about the shitty section between Rowerdennan and Inverarnan and explained the difficulties that I had a couple of months prior on my bike. In fairness, I did tell him that it was possible but it would probably suck out his will to live! He laughed and thanked me for the advice and I headed off.
I headed through the pretty but unexpiring Murdoch Woods and onto Carbeth a few miles on. By 1.00 I broke for lunch and was enjoying a Brie and Tomato Wholemeal Hoagie with Tomato and Basil washed down with a pint of Stella. I used the opportunity to charge up my Creative MP3 player, which so far had been playing one good song after another, even though it was on shuffle.
A rather dour faced waiter raised an eyebrow disapprovingly when he spotted my creative plugged into the wall as he collected my empty plate. "That'll be 10p for the electricity, Sir" he said, po-faced. "I'll take it out of your tip then!" I jokingly replied. My, how he laughed. I left soon after.
Feeling as recharged as my MP3 player, I began the next 7 mile stage which would take me to Balmaha and promised myself a Magnum and a Star Bar when I got there.
I plodded on and found my legs getting heavier with each step. Matters were not helped when I reached Garadhban Forest to find that there was a massive diversion in place due to the Forestry Commission harvesting trees. At least an hour was added to my travel time and it was 4.00 before I finally emerged at the other side of the forest and Conic Hill was visible. The annoying thing is that I did not see or hear one tree being felled and due to it being a Sunday I doubt that there was any work going on. Just goes to prove that rules are for fools!
I was feeling sore, hungry and a bit disheartened. I sat down in the middle of the path, took my boots off and tucked into a nice fruit salad that, thank God, I'd had the sense to bring with me.
This gave me enough of a boost to make it to the top of Conic Hill by 5.00 where I stopped briefly to take in the view of Ben Lomond. As I decended the hill fatigue made my feet drag and occassionally I would stumble over a rock which hurt my aching joints even more. Couldn't help but get annoyed at myself for my lack of fitness. Too much red wine and fine food has taken the edge of my fitness and made my trousers a bit tighter to wear than usual! The WHW and a return to my British Military fitness would help get me back in shape and just as well as it is only 6 weeks until I run the Glasgow 10k followed immediately by the Half Marathon. I won't be setting any new records that day, but at least I'll get two medals and two Tunnock's Caramel Wafers! What more could you want?
Never have I been so happy as when I arrived at he Oak Tree Inn at Balmaha. I sat down and ordered a nice meal of Chicken Breast Fillets, potatoes and veg, a jug of water and a pint of coke to try and rehydrate myself. It tasted fantastic and that together with the knowledge that I only had 8 miles to go to tonight's destination, Rowerdennan, gave me a huge boost.
As I was eating dinner, a fella at the table next to mine started to play a mouth organ. He was fantastic! The staff turned off the music so that he could be heard and the kids in the restaurant stood mesmerised, watching him play the blues with their wee mouths hanging open in awe. I thought to myself, that if I hadn't been diverted round the forest then I would have missed this. So, there you go. Everything happens for a reason!
I paid the bill and left the Oak Tree Inn, went over to the village shop and bought myself that Magnum that I had promised myself. Of course, they did not sell Star Bars. Don't get me started!
Then it was off to Rowerdennan on a beautiful Summer's night. My footsteps shortened the further on that I trudged and I found it hard to keep focused. I recieved motivational messages from my loved ones to keep me going. Susan text me to say, "I love you, you can do it". Jim asked "How are you doing mate?" and Thomas sent the inspirational, "I'm in the beer garden on my third pint. Where are you, ya daft c#nt!?"
The welcome site of the Rowerdennan Hotel appeared and I had a quick pit stop at the Clansman Bar for a pint of water, 2 packets of crisps and 2 Mars Bars.
The fella who was playing "100 great guitar classics" when Jim, Thomas and I were camping here a few months ago was performing again. I still thought that he sounded pretty good, if a little bit cheesy!
I left and walked the short distance to the Scottish Youth Hostel (SYH) and arrived at 10.30. Exactly 12 hours after I had set out this morning. I did not even have the energy to go for a shower, instead I had a quick wash and brushed my teeth before falling into bed.
DAY 2-ROWERDENNAN TO TYNDRUM (26 MILES)
I know you get what you pay for, but the bed in the SYH was absolutely shocking, squeeking at even this slightest movement and therefore I had the worst sleep that I have ever had and everytime that I woke up (which was frequently) I prayed for daytime to arrive so that I could get up and get going.
I woke, again, at 6.30 and with breakfast starting in one hour I decided to get up and go for a shower and I must admit that I felt a good deal better for having a nice hot shower.
I went downstairs for breakfast but the selection was pretty poor, including the worst bowl of porridge that I have ever tasted! I thought I was going to be sick eating it and I'm sure that the lady that had served it to me saw me gagging as I ate it.
I sheepishly returned it to the counter asking if she minded if I had breakfast cereal instead as "my stomach was a bit delicate because I was in the pub last night". I know that she could see through my tissue of lies!
I looked at my notes and maps for today's route and decided that if I was to have any chance of completing the walk in four days as planned then I would have to do some lateral thinking. I went to main reception and asked the manageress if it would be possible to have my rucksack taken to Tyndrum using the TravelLite service. She happily organised it for me and I arranged for my bag to be transferred from Tyndrum to Kingshouse the following day, to give me a fighting chance.
I purchased a couple of essentials for the journey, bottles of water and ComPeed blister plasters. I asked the manageress how long she thought it would take me to walk to Tyndrum. She raised a Spock-like eyebrow, "two days" she said. "That's not the answer that I'm looking for" I replied.
I went back to the room, rubbed Voltarol Gel on my aching limbs, Sudocream on my chaffed inner thighs, took a Brufen and a Piriton and put the blister plasters on my mangled feet. I was like a walking pharmacy!
I made my way outside after leaving my rucksack at reception for transfer, into another beautiful sunny morning. I gave Susan a quick call who gave me lots of encouragement for the journey ahead and by 9.00 I was off, happily listening to music and taking in the beautiful scenery. Despite the path being surrounded by trees, when a view of Loch Lomond came into view it was spectacular.
The going was fine at first along the gravel path before changing to terrain that I was all too familiar with from my previous attempt to do this section of the WHW by bike. I wondered how the fella that I had met at the start of the walk yesterday had faired if he had indeed attempted to traverse this section on two wheels rather than two legs. I never saw him cycling back the other way so I guessed that he must have managed it.
By 11.30 I was at Inversnaid Hotel enjoying a sandwich, chocolate muffin and a pint of coke whilst sitting in a big comfy chair. Mid-day came and it was time to hoof it once again. I had to drag myself reluctantly out of my seat and put my blistered feet back into my boots.
I will not make the same mistakes again that I made this time. I am going to invest in a pair of walking shoes rather than boots which would be ideal for a challenge like this and most importantly put ComPeed on the most sucseptible areas of my feet before I started the walk as you WILL get blisters if you don't.
I set off at a cracking pace and actually got a bit of a second wind and was able to run for short distances. This helped to eat up the miles and it would not have been possible if I was carrying my rucksack.
The remaining clouds disappeared and the sun let loose on my baldy head. I reached into my pocket for my buff to protect my bonce, but my heart sank when I realised that it wasn't there and that I had lost it.
This was not good. Strong Sun + Baldy Head = Big Tomato Heed!
I was told by a passing walker that it would take me 3 - 4 hours to get from Inverarnan to Inversnaid, but I managed it in 2 1/2 and so I rewarded myself with a toasted sandwich and a half hour break.
By 3.30 I was on my way again doing my usual of asking anybody who was walking towards me from the other direction how far and how long it would be to my next destination and desperately hoping that the guy who told me it was 8 miles to Tyndrum was right and other guy who said it was 12 miles was wrong!
When I met a walker with a map it turned out that I still had 13 miles left to go. Not 12 and certainly not 8! There was nothing to do except get the marching head on and go for it. The route follows the River Falloch and it was strange not to have Loch Lomond by my side as it had been for the last 2 days.
The scenery was amazing and I gratefully stopped as often as I could to soak it up and to take pictures. By 6.00 I met a couple walking from Tyndrum who cheerfully told me that I still had 1 3/4 hours to go to reach my destination.
I trudged on and with my footsteps becoming shorter I realised that tiredness was kicking in again. The weather was beginning to turn with thick, dark clouds rolling in and clinging tightly to the top of the mountains. Rain was approaching.
On final approach to Tyndrum I made a schoolboy error and took a wrong turning. At times, the signs to show you the way are either hard to see or not there at all, but I to be honest the sign was probably there but I was too tired to notice it.
I exited the path and startred to walk on the pavement beside a busy main road. I knew instantly that this did not look right but my common sense glands were turned off and so I proceeded down the road for a couple of miles.
Eventually I saw a house up a small lane and I chapped on the front door. The sound of someone coming downstairs came from within and after a minute or two a little old man opened the door dressed in his pyjamas. He said apologetically that he was just out of the bath, as if it was him that had bothered me and I said that I was sorry to trouble him and asked if I was going the right way to Tyndrum. My heart sank as he pointed in the direction that I had just came from and said it was about 2 1/2 miles up the road. I thanked him and walked back down the main road with my shoulders slumped.
I was now seriously pissed off and realised that it would be well after 9.00 before I made it to the Tyndrum Lodge Hotel, by which time they would have stopped serving food and I really needed a good meal to set me up for day 3.
A serious review of the plan was needed and so, somewhat reluctantly I decided to try and hitch-hike to the village. I did not think that there would anyone willing to stop and give me a lift and that I would probably end up walking back anyway, but to my surprise the third car that I stuck my thumb out at pulled over into the lay-by.
I hobbled up to the car and got in whilst asking the driver if he could drop me in Tyndrum. To my delight, the car was being driven by a Patrick Stewart look-alike, except that he had a beard and moustache. Just think of the future Captain Picard in the episode "All Good Things..." and that's what he looked like.
I can sense that you are losing interest!
3,2,1... you're back in the room!
Anyway. I told him of my navigational mishap and that I was staying at the Tyndrum Lodge Hotel and asked him if he knew it. "I do indeed", he replied. "I used to own it". We chatted for the ten minute drive and he told me about the history of the area before kindly dropping me off at the front of the hotel.
I thanked him and hobbled up the stairs to the reception desk. I checked in, collected my bag and made sure that I was still in time to have a meal before going up to my room. The room was pretty good and was certainly a huge improvement on the SYH that I had stayed in the night before.
I stripped off and as I gingerly took my socks off it revealed horrendous blisters on both of my feet and peeling off the ComPeed plasters took a couple of layers of skin off too.
I had serious doubts that I would be able to walk the next day and decided that all I could do was see how I felt in the morning. If my feet were too sore then I would retire gracefully and if there was any chance that I could carry on walking, then I would.
After a quick but relaxing hot bath, I went down to the restaurant for dinner. I decided to have the carvery as I could not be bothered waiting for them to prepare food from scratch. However, this worked to my advantage as they were just about to close the cavery and so the chef served me enormous portions of food just to get rid of it. An ice-cold pint of Tennents Lager washed it down nicely. Lovely!
Half an hour later, I was back in the room and was struggling to keep my eyes open as I watched the evening news so I climbed into bed and pondered if I would be able to carry on the next day, The walk to Kingshouse would be the shortest distance to walk out of the four days and so I could probably afford to take my foot off the gas a little bit.
A good night's sleep might make the world of difference...
DAY 3-TYNDRUM TO KINGSHOUSE (19 MILES)
I emerged from my coma at 07.30, feeling good. After a good look at my poor wee feet, I decided that I would be able to carry on with the Way. A full Scottish Breakfast, 3 slices of toast, 3 glasses of fruit juice and my usual morning tipple of a pint of water and I felt great and raring to go!
After relaxing in the lounge for a while and reading the papers I headed to the Green Welly Shop and treated myself to a new Buff, new walking socks and a belt to keep my trousers up as I think I have lost a few pounds over the last couple of days!
Back in the hotel room I had a coffee, packed my rucksack and gently applied fresh Compeed to my blisters before putting om my new walking socks. I was hot to trot!
I checked out of the hotel and left my rucksack for TravelLite to take to the Kingshouse hotel for me. Outside it was another beautiful day. I had really lucked out with the weather so far and I cheerfully plodded on listening to some fine tunes as I went. I deliberately took my time as I wanted this to be an easy, stress-free day before the the big push to Fort William tomorrow.
In less than two hours I had walked through the glens, along the old military road to Bridge Of Orchy. The last time I was here was with Jim and Del when after our triumphant 3 day, 14 mile hike, we got pished in the hotel!
I entered the Bridge Of Orchy Hotel and ordered a pint of coke, pint of water and a packet of crisps and sat down to relax. When in through the door walked the fella that I had met on day 1 who was attempting to cycle the route.
He introduced himself as Dan and we got chatting. He told me that he was doing this cycle for charity for an orphanage in Thailand and when he made it to Fort William he was going to climb Ben Nevis before cycling onto John O'Groats.
I told him about my ascent of the Ben last year and advised him that if he wanted to make it a bit more challenging and rewarding that half way up he should take the left turn off the tourist route as it is a much better climb with less walkers to slow you down.
He seemed impressed that I had made it to Bridge of Orchy on foot in the same time that he had cycled the route, but I reminded him that I wasn't carrying a large rucksack, tent, sleeping bag and a bike!
He had wisely taken my advice and had not attempted to cycle from Rowerdennan to Inverarnan, but instead had taken the ferry at Rowerdennan to the other side of the loch, cycled along the road and rejoined the Way at Tyndrum.
We said our fairwells and parted company again and I walked the 2.5 mile journey to Inveroran where I stopped for a short brake before the final 9.5 miles to Kingshouse, which I reckoned I could comfortably walk in 3 1/2 hours.
Walking through Glen Coe is something a bit special. Words or pictures can't do it the justice that it deserves. It's beautiful.
I walked at a moderate pace, stopping frequently just to take in the view and take photgraphs. I even turned off my music for an hour just so that I could hear it too.
All that could be heard on Rannoch Moor was the wind blowing gently and the occassional bird swooping by, probably wondering who the hell I thought I was to be in his territory.
If you are only going to do do one section of the WHW then Tyndrum to Kingshouse is the one to do.
I walked on along the old military road where the Way maintains a lower line around Meall a Bhuridh however, within a mile, it reaches the summit (1500 feet/450metres), from where I had a commanding view down past the White Corries Ski Centre before I started the descent to Kingshouse.
Susan phoned and we chatted for a while as I failed miserably to explain how beautiful it was here. She would have loved it. Lack of network coverage had made texting and calling problematic today and I realised how much I was missing her.
By 6.45 I had checked into the hotel. Piece of cake today. 8 hours walking (19 miles) with probably about 2 hours worth of breaks included in that time. If I had gotten the finger out of my ass this morning then I could have easily made it to Kinglochleven which would have made day 4 a lot less of a strugle, but I was happy with my progress so far so it did not matter.
I showered, shaved and changed and made my way to the restaurant where I thoroughly enjoyed a lovely bowl of homemade Carrot Soup, chicken breast fillet on a base of tagiatelle, pint of water and of course a pint of Stella. I was totally chilled.
Bizzarely, there was not a single TV in the hotel which was a bummer as Still Game was on and that would have just topped off a perfect day. However,there was free internet access available so I caught up with some emails before heading back to the bar for a wee nightcap.
I went outside just before I headed back to the room to take in the view of Buchaille Etive Mhor which stands at 3,345 feet in front of the hotel, as the sun set. Beautiful.
Although I still felt pretty fresh as I was aware of how much of a challenge tomorrow would be so I decided to get a good night's sleep. My train back to Glasgow from Fort William was at 5.41 and I would be carrying a fully laden rucksack so I was going to have to push myself a lot to complete it in time. Tomorrow, lunch would be eaten while I was walking and there would be no beer or water stops!
DAY 4-KINGSHOUSE TO FORT WILLIAM (23 MILES)
I awoke at 0530 and struggled to get back to sleep because of the sound of the rain battering against the window but managed to doze off again until the Hong Kong Phooey theme tune started to play from my phone at 0700 and I leapt out of bed.
The now daily routine of washing, brushing teeth, applying ComPeed, rubbing in Sudocream and Voltarol gel, taking and anti-histamine and a brufen were carried out before packing my rucksack for the last time.
I headed down for another full Scottish breakfast and was tucking in when I had to laugh at a Frenchman who asked the waitress in a kind of 'Allo 'Allo accent what was a "Scottish Breakfast". I felt like warning him that it tastes great but it will take a few years off your life, but I didn't.
I ate as quickly as I could. Time was pushing on and I should have been on the way by now. I had a train to catch 23 miles away and had 9 hours to get there and there was still the Devil's Staircase to be climbed and no-one would be carrying my rucksack for me today.
I had checked out and was on the way at exactly 9.00. The weather had improved slightly with just a light rain falling from the overcast sky above compared to the downpour that had woken me earlier in the morning.
Shortly after leaving Kingshouse the decent out of Glen Coe begins and the zig-zag path of the Devil's Staircase becomes increasingly steeper. I passed by a large number of American Tourists who were in their 60's and 70's. Fair play to them. I hope that I will still be able to do this kind of thing in 30 years time.
At the summit, I placed a stone on the Cairn for good luck before pressing on. This is the highest point of the walk, at 1,850 feet however, the view all around was pretty obscure by the low lying cloud which was a shame as I would bet my life that it is spectacular.
Bang on schedule I arrived in Kinlochleven at 12.00 and sat down to take a look at my map. To my surprise, Dan cycled into view and he grinned as he spotted me. He had been camping overnight and was just heading off on his journey to Fort William.
We chatted briefly and he joked that he was sure that I was getting a taxi between each stage of the Way. "If only", I replied. Then he was off with a crazy idea of taking his bike half way up Ben Nevis to do some wild camping. I'm looking forward to an email from him to find out how he got on.
By now it was 12.15 and I had 5 hours left to complete the last 14 miles to Fort William. I can't put into words how sore my feet were by now. I was getting tired and time and again I tripped over boulders and went over on my ankle due to lack of concentration.
When I had a comfort break, the colour of my urine told me that I was seriously dehydrated. My water bottle had long since emptied so I had to refill it from a mountain stream hoping that the sheep who was watching me from further up the hill had not just peed into the water!
The sun broke through the clouds and after eating a Mars Bar on the move I tried to pick up the pace, jogging whenever I could to eat up the miles and at 4.45 I turned a corner and Ben Nevis came fully into view. I asked a couple who were walking towards me how long it would take to get to Fort William and they cheerfully replied "about an hour". The train was in 56 minutes so that wasn't good enough!
I put on my best march/jog and was at the base of Ben Nevis by 5.00. At this point the Way stops being a dirt track and runs alongside a busy road. I hurried along as best I could with every footstep hurting like hell.
At exactly 5.20 I turned a corner and saw the sign that I have been longing to see for 4 days...
I was grinning like an idiot and quite proud of myself for achieving my goal. That's another box ticked on the "things to do before I die" list! I briefly posed for a picture taken by an obliging German tourist before hoofing it down to the train station at 5.30 and was sitting on the platform with all the other tourists waing for the train to arrive with 5 minutes to spare.
As I climbed aboard the train, Susan called to congratulate me. Can't believe how much I missed her. As we departed I must admit that there I felt a wee tinge of sadness that my adventure was over. Never mind, even on the train the view outside was still amazing.
When the man with the buffet trolley came past I ordered myself two bottles of Bud and asked him to open both of them at the same time. I assured him not to worry as they wouldnt be there for very long. "Have you just done the Way?" he asked, "does it show?" I asked him back. "Yes, it does to be honest" he laughed.
An uneventful 3 1/2 hour journey had me back in Glasgow and by 10.00 I was in my flat with my rucksack unpacked, cats fed and lying in a nice hot bath listening to some fine music with a nice glass of red wine. It was one of those baths where you keep topping it up with more hot water because you don't want to get out!
I climbed wearily into bed at 11.00 thinking back on my trip and knowing that I will do it again next year. The only differences will be that I will be doing it with Susan and we will both have on ComPeed blister plasters before we even leave Milngavie!