Backpacking the West Highland Way, May 2019: Part 4

Day 7

I had hoped, during the hours I was falling asleep, that I would get to enjoy Rannoch Moor in the sunlight. I had appreciated it’s dark beauty through the mists, clouds and rain and wanted to see it’s other side. I was not disappointed.

My sleeping pad was half-way flat by morning and I hadn’t used it for more than this trip…only night 3 of sleep in my tent so far. I was disappointed. I slept okay but not great and wasn’t ethusiastic about waking up when all I saw was was grey light through the ceiling of my tent. But it was warmer than I expected and I crawled out from under my cozy quilt.

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While my tent may have been over-shadowed by cloud the rest of the moor was mottled in peridot and citrine as the sun beamed through random breaks in the clouds. The mountains were alive in such spectacular fashion I had to take a moment to soak the feelings into my soul.

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The landscape was a living thing that writhed between the tough of water, sun and wind and reveled in all of it. I was beyond thankful that I had made the decision to camp on the moor…I had experienced it completely alone and without the hordes that would normally pass through around mid day. And I had also been blessed enough to see her dressed in both summer and spring garb.

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With my poetic license wrung out we were out of camp by 7am. I was surprised that there was no condensation in the tent and only minimal moisture on the underside of the floor. A lone trail runner passed by camp as we were packing up and that was the only person we saw until Kingshouse, the Glen Coe Resort and the King’s House Hotel.

With the solitude I was enjoying on the trail, and the quiet spring morning, I was blessed with three separate encounters with Scotland’s famous red grouse. Initially I thought I was hearing frogs ribbeting as they called to each other, but as I got closer to the sound I found myself walking up on a bird with vivd rust plummage that didn’t seem all that bothered by me.

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Initially the weather and sun was pleasant but as soon as we topped the “pass” below Gualainn Liath Ghiuthais the wind became extremly bitter and unforgiving. I had all my clothes on bar my sleep layers, hat and puffy jacket and was still chilled to the bone and I decided to make a brief detour. An hour-long stop at the cafe at Glencoe Mountain Resort and a hot sausage sandwich was all that was needed and I was ready to re-brave the chill. But once I was back on the trail again the air felt like it had warmed a few degrees and the wind wasn’t so biting.

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From the cafe it was a brief downhill walk to the Kingshouse Hotel where I finally saw some of the native deer, who are renowned for being particularly friendly. We finally rejoined the hordes and despite my early start, the four miles across Rannoch Moor from the campsite had eaten up our morning advantage. We were all heading for Kinglochleven and our last night and final day.

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A mild walk along the valley was marred by walking parallel to the busy A82. The beautiful views of Glen Coe and the surrounding mountains (not clad in clouds) were tarnished by the ever present snake of road and vehicles upon it. It made me sad.

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But after a couple of miles, and rekindling a couple of acquaintances made in Inversnaid, we left the road and were rewarded with the famous view of Glan Coe…it was stunning and took my breath away (even before I started climbing).

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Devil’s Staircase stood before us and it looked like every other climb we had ever done in the US…steep, rocky and straight up. So with that mindset in our heads we started climbing. And withing a few hundred vertical feet I was removing first one layer then another. It was just like every other pass I had ever done but minus the altitude which actually made little difference as it was the fatigue in my muscles that made us pause for a break…just like back home.

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The top came in sight and we crested to a mega blast of chilled mountain air. I quickly added layers back on before I descended, and was removing them again before long. My saving grace was my buff as it helped with the difference between feeling slightly chilled or downright cold. I wouldn’t leave home on a backpacking trip without my Buff.

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The old military road hugged the side of the mountain and climbed and fell in moderation with the occasional flat section. It begain to get a little mundane but the views were ever-changing and were worth every moment.

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Finally the steep descent started down to the dam and then Kinlochleven. And downhill sections always suck…they are hard on knees and ankles and muscles…and this one was no exception. We crossed massive water pipes, two of which had burst rivits or seals and were spraying massive jets upwards and sideways; they made your standard burst pipe looking like a dripping tap.

Most people turned off for the hostel and campsite but I decided to head for the other end of town. I had initially planned to hike a little further and wild camp but I was concerned about my stomach issues reappearing and really wanting a bathroom close by.

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So I chose to pay for a campsite at McDonald’s Hotel and Campsite. It was expensive (£10) for tent sites that were more-or-less impossible to get tent stakes into. I spent the better part of an hour fighting to get stakes in the ground as without decent stake holds my tent won’t stand up. I was glad to have four shepherd hook stakes me that I usually used for the inner tent as they were able to sneak between the stones an inch below the surface…barely. I still had to locate some rocks to help secure the stakes. I wouldn’t recommend this place for tent camping if you have a trekking pole tent…although after watching videos of people staying at the other campsite in town, the ground wasn’t any better there and the views certainly weren’t as good.

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I enjoyed a beer in the bar and ordered a salad for dinner…still keeping the meals light…before taking the dogs out and heading for bed.

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Day 8

I had intended to get up and start hiking before the rain hit so when I thought my watch said 4:30am I started packing up. However I misread my watch in the half light and only realized as I was almost done packing everything away. I had actually crawled out of my sleeping bag at 3:30am.

I tried to be quiet as I packed away but a DCF tent sounds like a chip packet rustling and is noisy no matter what. Hey, it’s the thought that counts anyway…right?

So I actually started hiking at 4:30am and the midges were already bad as I left the campsite in the still, dawn light. And out of the gate we had a long steep climb back out of town in order to join with another old military road…there are a lot around.

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We passed other tents as we climbed before bursting free of the trees to look over Kinlocheven and the loch… We were now on a work road for a hyrdoelectric dam project for a short while before cutting skywards again, up the valley. I could see the road stretched out for at least a mile to the apex of a pass before it disappeared.

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As I left the construction behind a deep sense of being completely alone settled over me. Even though I’d initially wanted to leave early because of the weather I was really appreciating having the trail to myself again like I had on Rannoch Moor. This was the feeling I backpacked for…and as beautiful as the West Highland Way is, it is just too crowded.

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The morning was definitely cold and I hiked fast to stay warm. Thankfully the wind wasn’t too bad and I never felt as chilled as I had during the morning on Rannoch Moor.

As we reached the top of the pass we could again see the trail stretched out for more than a mile along the side of the glen. It was tough walking with loose rubble and large rocks in the path and made the day less fun but I still appreciated every moment I was out there…and it wasn’t raining! Two ancient stone buildings, an old farm house or drover’s hut and a fenced sheep fold were the only other evidence that humans had inhabited this area long before people hiked the West Highland Way for fun. You could certainly imagine how tough life might have been in such a wild and remote location…and without bug spray or headnets to make the midges bearable.

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Kye had limped a little, off and on, and although I had checked her foot and found nothing I checked it again. She had managed to tear a claw off and it was obviously painful when she caught it wrong or stepped badly. Thankfully it wasn’t terrible and I was able to pull the loose part away without any pain. It seemed to help as I didn’t see her limp again until we got to town.

I did find the lack of change to the scenery and the same footing slightly tedious and was looking forward to the forest for a change…but it never came. The forest that was on the map is no longer there, save for a few trees. Stumps and scattered remnants are all that remain of the trees. A few clumps of trees still stood but there was nothing like that which was indicated on the map.

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The highlight of the day was rounding the bend of the top of a hill and being rewarded with the view of the towering heights of Ben Nevis in front of us. It dwarfed everything around it and I was a little sad that I wouldn’t have time to climb it. The top also wasn’t shrouded in cloud, but instead had a gentle draping of white garb around its shoulders. In another couple of hours in wouldn’t be visible to those hiking behind us.

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So the views actually got worse rather than better and the hiking became a lot more mentally challenging. And it didn’t change much until the final stretch into Ft William where we were finally in the trees and on a logging road, and then a road walk. And it was just as I was starting to descend on the logging road that it started to rain…the much anticipated rain was a little early. It wasn’t the most inspiring finish.

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So with the three of us feeling pretty damp and bedraggled we finally made it to the “original” end of the West Highland Way. I took a picture anyway, even though it wasn’t the official end. And then we walked another 1/2 mile to find the Sore Foot Statue and the current official end of the trail. A couple of quick pictures were all I took as we headed for The Crofters Bar to warm up and eat some food. I found a quiet corner to read while waiting for my shuttle to arrive in three hours.

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The shuttle ride was what it was supposed to be. Greg dropped me back at my car at Beinglas Campsite where I had intended to stay another night but the rain and swarm of people persuaded me otherwise and I drove a short ways south to find a quieter place to park for the night.

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With 96 (+3 extra) miles  of the West Highland Way behind me I started to think about what I got out of my experience, what I would do differently, what I expected and what the reality was…but that deserves a whole other post to itself, so stay tuned for my mumblings and ramblings with hindsight being 20/20.

If you are interested in backpacking the West Highland Way these are a couple of videos I highly recommend of people who have done it and did a great job of vlogging their experiences, and are both informative and entertaining:

Backpacking the West Highland Way, May 2019: Part 3

Day 5

It was cold last night…the wind was quite bitter and even in the car it was cold. But I got what I needed and that was a restful and half-decent night’s sleep despite the mattress in the car being a little too hard. 

The nice thing about staying in the car was that I didn’t have to wake up in the cold (or as cold as a tent) and didn’t have a condendsation-covered tent to pack away. The midges were out in force though. After a quick trip to the bathroom I had to don my headnet as I went through my remaining food and left most of it in the car…it just wasn’t needed. It made my pack pretty light even with two liters of water.

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I was feeling good and strong despite not having eaten anything for breakfast; I still didn’t have much of an appetite. We headed out along the old military road at 8:30am and followed the track out of the trees and across creeks for many miles. We passed numerous waterfalls but I didn’t take pictures of every one…just the prettiest of the ones I saw.

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The hiking was easy as we climbed further into the Scottish highlands, and wide gravel tracks made that possible. We ducked under the railway and the busy A road before climbing a steep hill where Cody got stuck going over a stile…they aren’t easy for dogs, especially those with packs…and there was no way around.

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The old military road hugged the hillside which was peppered with sheep. The dogs behaved themselves and kept to the trail…they were interested of course. We had to contend with a second style but it was managed with a couple of amused on-lookers who were taking a snack break.

Suddenly we were at Creag an Taghein and the turn off to Crianlarich. It was the quickest 6 miles I think I’ve ever done…it went by in a blur. I was feeling pretty good and was sipping water frequently again vs chugging it occasionally like I normally do. I was probably not intaking enough water but it was better to be a little dehydrated that way than to be disgorging it all in excess.

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The sunny weather promised by the weather forecast didn’t materialize but the cloud cover made for a good hiking temperature.

As soon as we turned away from the turn-off to Crianlarich the climbing started and it was fairly consistently up for a mile or so, with a few downs. A slightly-creepy looking hiker was at the top of the first hill and I wondered if he belonged to the tent/camp that gave me the heebie-jeebies on night one.

At the apex of the climb the wind really picked up, but it wasn’t consistent. While it kept the midges away it also meant I couldn’t find the right clothing combination to stay at an appropriate temperature yet again. It seems to be the norm for Scotland.

With many ups and downs (mostly downs now) we finally descended back to the main road. A lone wild-camper was below the trail, and ahead of us we were rewarded with the sight of a very interesting arched stone bridge.

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We had to make a mad dash across the road from the bridge as the road was BUSY! but at least there were warnings to the drivers…which I didn’t trust at all. The trail then curved in a loop through several sheep and highland cattle farms, and where St Fillian’s Priory had once stood as well as an old graveyard.

The ruins of the Augustinian Prior date back to the 13th century and was endowed by Robert the Bruce in 1317. The graveyard itself dates back to the beginnings of the early Celtic church in the 8th century.

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I leashed the dogs through a field with lambs close to the trail but that didn’t last long. Despite how well behaved my dogs are, when we are close to farms I try to respect the farmer’s nerves and leash the dogs even if I don’t deem it necessary. It’s what I would hope others would do. We also got our first views of highland cattle…always cool.

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We headed back towards the road and thankfully didn’t have to cross it again. We passed by the location of the Battle of Dalrigh. This was the location where Robert the Bruce was ambushed by Clan MacDougall in the summer of 1306; caught by surprise the battle was a short, frantic engagement and Robert’s remaining horsemen were killed and several of his key allies were injured. Bruce went into hiding and two years later he went on to defeat the MacDougalls at the Battle of the Pass of Brander.

From the site of the Battle of Dalrigh we passed the Lochan of the Lost Sword where legend has it that Bruce and his army threw their weapons into the small lochan.

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A short meander took us from there through Tyndrum Community Woods and it was here that I started having some serious pain my left foot again.

It was not the same pain I had coming out of Balmaha and loosening my shoe laces didn’t help this time. It was tough to walk on and I hoped it was only temporary and something a night of rest would help. If Gastroenteritis didn’t stop me, a little pain in my foot certainly wouldn’t.

With a little limping we arrived at Tyndrum By The Way…the only overnight cabin stop I had booked and non-tent night I had planned for. So far I has spent more nights not in my tent than in my tent and I was a little disappointed as that had not been my intention for the trip at all.

I picked up my resupply box with shampoo and soap and a razor, and the dogs’ food as well as some extra food for me (which I didn’t really need). A shower and laundry were called for and I got both done quickly (they rent towels which was great, and provide laundry soap in the cost of the washer). It was nice to be clean, with clean clothes.

A walk with the dogs was brief for them to relieve themselves and I headed into Tyndrum to find something palatable to eat. I had barely eaten all day (a Belvita snack and some naan bread) and I ordered a burger. It was a safe choice but I only managed half, and barely touched the sweet potato fries that I had paid extra for. With 96 miles of trail, and 55 hiked so far, I was starting to worry about my calorie needs with lack of food intake over the past three days…I’m already a pretty skinny person.

A warm night was spent reading in my little camping cabin as I checked out the map for the following day. The weather forecast looked decent and I was ready to see the remoteness of Rannoch Moor.

Day 6

Despite having a mattress to sleep on and a warm, dry space to stay at Tyndrum By The Way I only got a half-decent night of sleep and was awake before 7am. Cody hadn’t settled well and his constant movement awoke me several times in the night.

I enjoyed the three diet Pepsi cans I had stashed in my resupply box and took my time packing my gear away. Baggage Freedom had agreed to pick up my box for me again as I wouldn’t need everything in it…I had paid for the full baggage delivery service even though I wasn’t actually using it.

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It was a slow start out of the campground but we were finally hiking around 9am and the weather wasn’t nearly as nice as I had hope it would be. Rain was drizzle (or what I like to call “air rain” and intermittent, and then windy but not really cold, which made it very hard to decide on clothing.

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The trail followed the old military road from Tyndrum to the Bridge of Orchy, crossing under the road and rail line a couple of times. We were basically following the same line as the modern contraptions but over different routes.

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A truck honked as we climbed away from Tyndrum and I waved. I heard him honk again for the two groups of hikers ahead of me. I’m guessing this was a friendly gesture.

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As we climbed and descended, mostly gently, the views gradually expanded. The peaks appeared and reappeared as clouds flowed like water over their lofty heights. Rain came and went but never for long and never in more than drizzling form. And despite the rain and the biting wind it felt like a good day.

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Quickly the miles passed as we walked by black-faced ewes and their lambs and herds of multi-shaded red highland cattle. Slugs were once again in abundance but the only wildlife we really saw or heard were the song birds. The sun might not have been out but the vivid yellow of the gorse flowers almost made it feel like it was.

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We descended into the Bridge of Orchy and stopped for lunch at the bar. Dogs were once again permitted and we hid ourselves in the perfect corner. I had a scrumptious brie and onion panini (could have done with some chicken but still good) that hit the spot and enjoyed a local beer…my first one on the trail since I got sick. It seemed to go down well.

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Another hiker from Germany I had connected with south of Tyndrum joined me and we chatted for a while as we ate. She had been someone I had run into yesterday and she had been struggling mentally with the trail…so I commiserated with her and told her my gruesome tale (before she ate!!!).

An hour of warmth and recuperation made it easier to find the motivation to get moving despite the beer telling us to take a nap. I bid the other hiker farewell and headed out to cover another two miles to the Inveroran Hotel.

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A steep climb was followed by open views at the top. I paused often to capture the moment, both in my memory and in my camera. But now, up high and out of the trees the wind just got worse and I was constantly fighting to stay straight as I walked. I wasn’t feeling hopeful about camping on Rannoch Moor.

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A quick stop at the hotel for an apple juice (my beer-filled gut being restricted by my pack belt was not liking the carbonation of the beer and was protesting) and to fill up with water for camping took us until 3pm. I wanted to do another few miles and my aim was for Ba Bridge.

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The wind was still kicking butt when we left but we were soon a little sheltered by the trees and I removed some clothing layers…I didn’t want to be sweating out there. We were now following one of Talbot’s Roads that led from Inveroran up to Glen Coe.

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I was feeling good, despite the extra weight of water in my pack, and poured out a few tunes as we hiked. We passed the creepy guy again. He turned and looked at us once as we approached then kept his back turned…barely grunted a “hello” when I said hi. Weird. We also passed the noisy group of German’s we had passed earlier in the had who had been playing music on an external speaker…how rude.

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Another mile down the trail and sadly my GE infection apparently wasn’t completely over. I had the sudden urgent need to find a secluded spot and dig a hole. I found a place but it also looked like everyone else had used the whole area as their toilet with no thought of packing out or burying anything. I have sadly seen a LOT of the dreaded charmin blooms on this trail…I think there needs to be a public awareness campaign about TP and burying waste. No one wants to see hundreds of charmin blooms on a wilderness hike.

Back to me. The urge happened several times over the next few hours and I had to deal with it as it happened. I was just hoping I wouldn’t tun out of toilet paper. Finally I remembered to take some Imodium…dumb broad. At least this time I was able to keep it down. (Oh and I did bury everything I used, or produced).

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So despite the intestinal problems I was thoroughly loving gentle walk across Rannoch Moor. The views were stunning and the weather was constantly changing from sun to clouds to rain and back again. I reached Ba Bridge and wasn’t feeling inspired; the wind was still strong and a particularly heavy band of rain came through. It was also still fairly early. I decided to hike on and to aim for Kingshouse. I felt like it was a safer bet than risking the weather.

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Of course with this decision in mind I dumped half of my water so I didn’t have to carry it as it was certainly heavy. And then, a little over half a mile further north I came across the most perfect campsite. It was sheltered, below an old stone bridge, and next to a creek. I climbed down to see if it was sheltered enough and immediately decided to stay.

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You couldn’t beat the views from the campsite…backed by Black Mount and other peaks to the west, and looking out over the moorland and winding waterways to the east…it was perfect. Occasionally the sun would come out for a moment and turn select areas to gold, or highlightied the last remnants of snow in hidden fissures.

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The ground was wet but that was to be expected and I was glad to have a DCF tent floor…anything else would likely have soaked through in time if no ground sheet was used. The creek beside the tent was beautiful and ran through short cleft in the rocks before diving into a deep pool…a place that looked refreshing for a hot day.

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It had still been early when we had arrived…about 5:30pm…so I took a short walk to take some pictures and then read in the tent for a while to stay warm. Finally it got too cold to do even that and we made final preparations for bed in the still-daylight of 9:20pm.

Backpacking the West Highland Way, May 2019: Part 2

Day 3

Well I thought I had a goodnight of sleep but I was definitely feeling drained and on the lethargic side. I attributed it to being day 3 and lack of caffeine (normal on day 3) but I struggled to cover the 7 rough miles to Inversnaid.

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At the edge of the trail by the Rowardennan Youth Hostel, and looking out over the loch we passed the Loch Lomond National Park Memorial Sculpture. The park is dedicated to those who gave their lives in the First and Second World Wars and was created out of the former Rowardennan Estate with the support of the National Heritage Memorial Fund.

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The trail was undulating and not particularly easy under foot, reminding me more of trails I had done in the US than those of the earlier part of the trail, but it wasn’t anything I hadn’t hiked before with relative ease.

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It took me 5 hours to do 7 miles (very unusual for me). The highlight of the entire day were the hillsides that were absolutely carpeted in bluebells…they looked almost other-worldly.

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The trail was beautiful but it was already starting to get a little old to be following the same body of water. I was yearning for good trails and differeing views, not to mention I was desperate for some solitude. This was the first day I was noticing the popularity of the West Highland Way and I was craving the wilderness and solitude I was familiar with on other backpacking trips I had done.

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I was finally glad to take a break at the hotel and grab a diet coke. I also got a piece of lemon drizzle cake but within the first bite I knew I couldn’t stomach it. I forced down two more bites before accepting how nauseous it was make me.

I chatted with my campsite mate (Bronwyn from Germany) from the first night and said hello to the American ladies from the second night at the Rowardennan Hotel) before setting off on the trail again. I wasn’t feeling much better although the caffeine did help my headache some, and the further I walked the worse I felt despite the waterfalls and the unique tables and chairs.

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I was struggling and with just a mile under my feet it hit me with violent abandon and up came everything I had eaten and drank since the morning. And it kept coming. When it was over I stood there with legs like jelly but I initially felt a little better and thought that was going to be it and that it would be okay to continue. Then the other end hit me…several times and I had to scramble up steep hillsides to find a rock or tree to hide behind. I was not doing good but I thought I could make it to Inverarnan.

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Another mile down the trail and I took some Imodium but within another 15 minutes of hiking I was nauseous again and back up the Imodium came along with, well, I’m not sure what as I could have sworn it all came up the during the first wave.

A group from Germany came up behind me and asked if I was okay. I wasn’t sure at all and again my legs were violently shaking to the point I could barely stand. They offered to walk with me to my now-planned campsite below Creag a’ Mhadaigh and I was appreciative of their kind offer. I have never felt so death-like.

At camp I laid down for a while and then got my tent up to take a nap. Thrice more I had to escape my tent in a hurry and I finally called for emergency help. I was in a bad way and was concerned about my hydration levels as I couldn’t keep even water down. I was feeling dizzy and slightly delirious and I knew, even without much of a rational thought in my head, that it would be dangerous to stay where I was.

I had some cell service so didn’t use my SOS device, but of course that meant not being able to provide GPS co-ordinates to my location. Thankfully I knew where I was on the map (despite my brain malfunctioning) and while I butchered the names I was able to explain where I was.

Eight burly mountain rescue men showed up in the rescue boat to help, packed up my gear and helped me into the boat. I was so dizzy and light-headed by that point I could barely move on my own. They took care of the dogs and we took a 15 minute boat ride back down Loch Lomond (which of course Cody HATED) to a waiting ambulance. I was given some fluids and anti-nausea medication before being taken to the hospital south of Glasgow where I ended up feeling like a pincushion.

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What I had was acute gastroenteritis and they pumped more fluids in me, made me rest and brought my temperature down. And because I didn’t have any other place to stay other than my car the Dr kept me in overnight (albeit woken very early) so I could at least get a little sleep.

Day 4

One of the guys with the mountain rescue crew had kindly taken the dogs home with him so they were well loved and taken care of overnight. As soon as I got back to my car (an early-morning bus and two trains later) I went to pick the dogs up and headed for Inverarnen with the idea of doing some light hiking back to the spot I had been picked up the previous night; I wanted to check I was okay to continue and a short day with a day pack would do just that for me as I certainly wasn’t feeling 100%.

I paid for a campsite and pitched the tent, just to get it to dry out in the sun and breeze, and it dried quickly. I packed it away again and updated my family with everything that had happened, my plan for the day and hopefully the rest of the trail.

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A fairly moderate climb took us through more bluebell woods, shaded with the multi-faceted leaves that were highlighted perfectly in the sunshine…and that was why I didn’t want to waste the day. It was the first real day of sun we had seen.

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Feral goats were eating just below the path and of course Kye and Cody were pretty interested in them, but I convinced them we couldn’t stay and so on we went towards Dubh Lochan.

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The climb took us up by Cnap Mor and past the circular lochan before dropping us back down to one of the most amazing campsites I have ever seen…it was perfect and flat, with a nice fire pit and right on the edge of the loch with some pretty awesome views. We once again bumped into the American ladies and I told them what had happened the previous day as I had mentioned that I wasn’t feeling great when I saw them at the Inversnaid Hotel.

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We marched onwards, taking our time as I didn’t want to push myself. I felt the occasional cramp in my stomach or minor wave of nausea but it didn’t last and eventually those feelings because less frequent. I drank sparingly, taking small sips more often rather than chugging it as I usually do. I think it helped.

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We climbed again, past Doune Bothy and an old farm house that had seen better days. The sun was a pleasure to walk in for a change but the wind was sharp and I was constantly removing or adding a layer. A small saddle took us east of Craeg a’ Mhadaidh and the path led us through the trees and over numerous small creeks. And after 3 miles we finally came out to the clearing I had pitched my tent the precious evening and then rescued by the wonderful boat crew.

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I did a quick camp check to see if anything had been left behind or forgotten (other than most of my insides). There was nothing, not even a scrap of paper or tent peg (they did a great job packing up fast even if the result wasn’t pretty).

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I rested a while but was glad to be feeling decent and after 15 minutes we headed back to Inverarnen. The whole route of 6 miles had taken about 4 hours…not my normal speed but I also hadn’t been trying to maintain my normal pace either. I was just happy to be walking on the trail.

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On the way back I was lucky enough to come across a slow worm (a legless lizard, so neither a worm nor a snake even though it looks like one) basking in the sun on the trail, and a toad, and a very tiny spider hanging out in the mouth of a bluebell…sometimes it’s the little things. Of course I took the opportunity to take a couple of pictures before encouraging them off the trail so they didn’t get stepped on by the group behind me as the blended so well.

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Back at the campsite I read the WHW guide that I’d been missing and tried to gauge mileage and potential campsites ahead. Unfortunately Thursday night put me right in the middle of Rannoch Moor…not a good place to be if the weather turned…so I was hoping the weather forecast would stay positive through Friday.

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With the dogs fed I decided it was time to try and eat something more substantial than the handful of shortbread cookies I’d had earlier and headed to the bar/restaurant with the pups. The lightest, easiest thing on the menu seemed to be a veggie dish/starter (vegetable pakora) so I opted for that and some naan bread. I ate most of it but didn’t want to push the limits of what my stomach could take and saved the rest of the naan bread for later.

The lovely American laides found me sitting outside in the sun, in my winter jacket, braving the chill wind. They were staying at a B&B across the river but the food at Beinglass Farm was much better (apparently) than the Drover’s Inn. So they ate and we chatted for a while before heading our separate ways. I hoped to see them in Tyndrum, but this was the last night we would see each other.

With the chill in the wind I was a little glad to be sleeping in my car and hoped I would get a good night of sleep…I desperately needed it.

Backpacking the West Highland Way, May 2019: Part 1

Day 1

Lots of traffic out of the south-east at rush hour made for a longer-than-anticipated drive to Birmingham where I spent the night in a lovely fellow Adventure Queen’s driveway (you’ll have to Google who the Adventure Queens are) who had offered me a place to park as a stop over on Friday night. However not only did I park for the night but I also enjoyed a couple of hours of great conversation and a glass of wine.

Sleep evaded me most of the night, and what sleep I did get was fitfull and restless. I was up with the birds and heading north a few minutes after 5am. It had rained during the night and rained off and on during the 5 hours drive to Glasgow until finally settling in 30 miles south of the city. I wasn’t feeling good about the impending hike in rain.

I dropped off a resupply box with my return shuttle driver and found a parking space at the train station…the place most recommended by, well, everyone.

With the drizzly rain still lingering I knew I’d have to suck it up so I started getting ready and a little before noon we were standing at the obelisk at the official start of the West Highland Way. It felt a little surreal to be standing there, having seen this icon in so many pictures and videos of people who had done the trail before me….similar to the what I assume it must be like for those at the southern (or northern) monument of the PCT.

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We followed the signs and were quickly away from the town center and walking well-gravelled paths alongside the creek. I had worn my full rain suit but was soon dying of heat despite the coolness of the day and the rain. I switched out to my poncho and was quickly feeling better. 

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The drizzle continued for a couple of hours and obscured the views that should have been stunning. It was hard to look around much when I had my head down most of the time trying to stay dry. The dog’s raincoats were doing their job for the most part but I quickly realized that my measuring had been sub-par and they were too short for their bodies.

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We meandered mostly through farmland and crossed a few roads, finally enjoying some rain-free hiking tine during the afternoon which held until camp.

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The miles flew by under our feet as the trail was mostly a wide travel track with little elevation variation and easy to walk on. Livestock surrounded on either side and despite the lack of views I stopped to appreciate the little things, like the stunning pink flowers alongside the path, or the first views over Loch Lommond framed by shrouded peaks and vivid yellow gorse.

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As we hiked up the road towards we encountered this cool-looking bridge but it was only when I got closer to it and peered intently at the gaping black maw that I saw how cool it actually was.

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I had encountered a few backpackers and a handful of hut-to-hut (or B&B/hotal to hotel) hikers, and many backpackers peeled off at Dryman Camping, a mile or so before the town. But it was way to early to stop…not to mention I find it silly to pay for camping when there’s so much of it available for free in Scotland.

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So on I went. I had intended to blip into Drymen for water but a convenient creek at the turn off saved me the extra mile. It was quite chilly and my hands weren’t happy with dealing with cold water and the breeze. I filtered 3 liters as I knew we’d be dry camping…and dang was my pack suddenly very heavy, which wasn’t helped by having to leash the dogs through a sheep field and then on a short road walk.

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Finally we were in an area where we could camp and I started looking for a good, sheltered spot. The first one was promising but the neighboring tent just looked a little sketchy and didn’t give me positive feelings…it wasn’t a backpacking tent and I didn’t fell comfortable with staying there.

So on I went for another half mile before settling on another sheltered spot in a large stand of pine trees. Two other tents occupied a couple of spots but there was plenty of room. I struggled to get my tent up as it is difficult to figure out the correct orientation for it, especially in a tight spot, but I got it done.

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One of my neighbors came over to chat as I was making dinner and the midges just swarmed us. I doused myself in Smidge (something that was SWORN to work, so I didn’t bring a headnet) but it was useless so I quickly ate, and walked (to keep from being eaten myself) as I chatted and then be both headed for the safety of our tents to get away from the flying evil midges. I was really glad to have brought my Kindle but was kicking myself for not having brought the West Highland Way guidebook.

Day 2

I slept fairly decent last night…once I actually got to sleep. Initially I was lulled into relaxation by the gentle sounds of light rain tapping on the tent. It was quickly followed by the sounds of loud voices, distant fireworks and neighboring campers making constant bird calls (obviously fake). I awoke to the dawn chorus again but covered my head with my coat and fell asleep again until 7am when the light sound rain was enough to break my slumber.

I packed as much away as I could inside the tent before emerging just as the rain was tapering off. The tent was soaked and cold to pack away but the midges were already out so I quickly packed it away without even bothering to dry toweling it off a little. I was missing having even a little breeze to keep the buggers at bay. I didn’t realize how much water was held by the tent until I put it up again…no wonder my pack felt so heavy.

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We followed the forest road north once again and said “good morning” to a few groups of other backpackers. We then had to turn west and take the road alternate as it was still May and Conic Hill was closed to those with dogs through April and May for lambing. And while it was a bit of a wrench not to do the whole route, doing the rest of it with Kye and Cody more than made up for it…not to mention that it was a steep climb and was socked in by clouds so there would have been no good views from the top.

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We took the road walk to Balmaha which thankfully had a sidewalk all the way and wandered into the town a little footsore after pounding tarmac for two miles. I ate a quick snack, said a quick “hello” to other WHW hikers I passed at the cafe and got some water and then we pressed on. We paused at the Tom Weir statue in the park to read about the iconic local hiking legend and mountain man who had been instrumental in protecting some of Scotland’s most scenic areas.

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Blamaha sits on the edge of Loch Lomond at the south end and it felt a little surreal that we would be walking by this body of water for the better part of two days.

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We hit our first moderate climb out of the trail (since we didn’t do Conic Hill) and was surrounded by bluebells…the smell of them was all-encompassing in the much-appreciated sunshine that was now gracing us. At the top of the hill it was finally time to remove my waterproof pants and it was such a relief to be rid of them.

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The scenery didn’t change much and we paused only briefly at Cashel to eat lunch and grab a midge net for my head…I didn’t want to suffer through another night again. I was really glad that most places seem to carry these things, even if they are at slightly inflated prices.

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Trees surrounded us, bluebells carpeted the floor and the lake guided us onwards constantly to our left. It didn’t change much. It was also around this time that I started to get some sharp stabbing pains on the inside of my left foot. I had not stepped badly or anything I could recall but it got worse with each step until it felt like my foot was on fire. I paused and it went away but as soon as I started walking again the cycle of pain started over again.

With a brief thought I questioned my shoes and paused, while fighting off midges, to loosen my left shoe. Neither was over-tight (had numbness issues with that before) but apparently the laces were pressing on something just right to cause pain and as soon as they were looser the pain ceased. Crisis averted. 

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At the top of a steep climb and a hundred or more steps, and as I paused for a bite and a drink of water, another hiker passed us. I hadn’t seen too many hikers up to this point and we chatted for a bit…this was his first long-distance trail and he was struggling a little, but enjoying it anyway.

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We came across some permitted campsites at Sallochy and I had to double check the name of the place we had a permit for. We were way too far south to be stopping already and the map confirmed we still had a couple of miles to go.

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At about 2pm we reached the campsite I had booked for the night. Loch Lomond is one of the few places in Scotland that restricts dispersed camping due to the area’s popularity and a permit is required to camp in one of a handful of locations along the loch . It was very early but it gave me a good chance to get the tent set up and to let it dry out, and just as it was up a very considerate breeze picked up to help.

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With now 6 hours to kill until bed time I put my water bottles in my pack and headed a half mile up the trail to the Rowardennan Hotel. I grabbed a bite to eat and drank a couple of good beers while chatting with some other WHW hikers, including two lovely American women from Arizona (whose names I forgot) and before too long it was 6pm and I headed back to camp to cook dinner and read a book.

Rangers showed up around 7pm to check my permit, and other campers came in about 8 although I was well ensconced in my tent by that time and didn’t even poke my head out until I had to take the dogs out at 9:30pm.