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:

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