And I Would Walk 96 and a Half Miles...

Published: May 11th 2016
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"If you don't like the weather in Scotland, just wait five minutes"
This is something I would grow to understand. I reached Glasglow amidst some really miserable weather. The hotel dorm room was even more depressing. It was about two in the afternoon and the only other person in my dorm was fast asleep. There were no windows. A far cry from the hostel I had come from. I had to get some stuff in order so I jumped online to plan out stuff. A menacing looking guy walked into the room and went to the bed near mine. I continued doing my stuff and after about an hour the dude got up to make a cup of tea. I too wanted some tea so I joined him and he turned out to be a pretty nice guy. His name was Juan and he was from Argentina but came over here for a job. Despite the crappy weather we decided to go out for a walk in downtown Glasgow and explore a bit of the town. We walked and talked about life for a few hours, and then stopped at a pub right next to the dorm. It would be my final night in a big city for a little while.

Day 1: Mingavie to Drymen, 18 km

The West Highland Way is probably the most popular of the long distance walks here in Scotland and measures 96 and half miles or 154 kilometers. It goes through villages, farms, along rivers, through national parks and the magnificent Scottish Highlands with views of many Munros (Mountains over 3000 feet), lochs (lakes), and glens (valleys).

The next morning I departed towards the outskirts of Glasgow, to a town called Milngavie (pronounced Mull-guy). I got off the bus and now had my 65L backpack plus camping gear and food in tow. It must have been about 17 kg worth of weight. More than I was used to on this trip so far. So far at least, the weight on my back wasn't very concerning. I walked into the town center and then saw the the symbol of the West Highland Way, a thistle within a white hexagonal form. It was the trail marker I would grow to love. And it would be my beacon of hope. The sky was pretty clear and other walkers were around with various amounts of gear. It was kilometer 0. I go by kilometers but many people here in Scotland seem to measure distance by miles. One mile is 1.6 kilometers for those that have no idea. Trust me I'm terrible at doing this conversion. It was about 0930h and I was off. The path was pretty flat for a long time and made its way out of the city and through a lot of farmland. I went through many tracts between farms and woodlands and ever so often would open up a gate to get at the next part. I continued on, occasionally passing other walkers. A few hours in and I had reached a point where I figured the highlands were starting. Vast fields lay before me with countless sheep grazing. A few Munros could be seen in the distance, with snow covered tops. I passed several wooden cabins. I met three Scottish friends doing the way, and they wanted to buy me a beer at the end if we all made it through and saw each other. I named them the three musketeers. I carried on northward, enjoying the scenery. I passed some interesting looking rock formations, and some wooden foot bridges. I could have been on a journey somewhere in the Lord of the Rings universe. I began humming the theme song. I was approaching Drymen, the first sizable village along the way. Right before the village, I found a campsite and decided to set up for the night. I met a heavyset Israeli guy named Avi who was already there. He offered me some food he was cooking. I set up my tent and got to test out my gear for the first time. I don't usually recommend doing this before a big excursion but I hadn't exactly had the chance to do so earlier. My non-free standing tent went up without a hitch. Avi began setting up his gear, but he didn't seem to really know what he was doing. In fact he hadn't been camping in what seemed like forever. He was breathing heavily and didn't exactly seem very healthy. A couple from Belgium was passing by and saw our tents and decided to set up next to us. More and more walkers would arrive after that. This had been a short day over easy terrain, but I figured it was better to start slow and work out the kinks on day 1. The four of us walked into Drymen, which was only a few kilometers away. Once there, we picked up some food supplies and anything else we saw that might prove useful. Then We headed to the pub and had a pint. On the way back to camp, I saw an incredible sunset with mountains and lakes in the background, and sheep grazing the foreground. Sadly no pictures can do the highlands any justice.

Day 2: Drymen to Sallochy, 19 km

The night had been cold, but my equipment had held up well. It was about one degree Celcius when I got up, proving that we had indeed dipped into the negatives overnight. One needs to be constantly aware of the weather here in Scotland, things can change in an instant. The other walkers were bundling themselves up with whatever layers they had. I ate some bread and peanut butter, then I took down my tent and packed up my stuff. I met two German friends at the camp who were pretty knowledgeable about gear and we exchanged some info. Avi, sadly, had practically frozen to death overnight. His sleeping bag had been too small for him and he claimed he must have put on a lot of weight. Then he realized that his jacket wasn't warm enough either. He ended up going to Drymen and catching a bus back to Glasgow to get better supplies. I never saw him again after that. I took off, and got moving pretty fast on the early going. I bypassed Drymen and and entered more farmland, and then wandered into Garadhban Forest. I traversed the gentle hills. I could hear loads of different bird calls coming from the trees but wasn't able to really see any of them. In the distance I saw the 300m Conic Hill that I was heading for. Light rain began to fall as I made my way up. I was passing people despite the weight on my back. Up and up I went and I was breathing hard. Finally I came upon the top and was greeted with wonderful views to the north and the west. I could see Loch Lommond right below me, and I knew that we would be getting to know each other well over the next two days. I also ran into Aby, a middle aged Scottish woman, who had section hiked the entire way and was now doing a through hike of it for the first time. I had met her in Drymen the evening before. I continued into Balmaha and by now I was full on inside the Loch Lommond National Park. Unfortunately, wild camping was prohibited in this part of the way because people from some of the cities would come and leave trash behind and just be rowdy, or so I was told by one of the park rangers. This put a cramp in many walkers plans because until we had reached the boundary and made our way out, we'd either have to find a hostel in one of the small villages or camp in an official site. Since I was camping, I decided I would fall short of my distance goal for the day and instead stop sooner at a campsite I had heard about. After Balmaha, I was walking along the Loch for a while when the skies opened up and large hail fell upon me. This stuff actually really hurt when it hits you! Luckily it didn't last long, but then the wind picked up. I was wearing adequate layers so I felt okay at that moment. I crossed a few more ascents and descents and then my pack was really tiring me out. I took a few rests and reached Sallochy by the afternoon. I chose an awesome spot right along the waterfront. The Belgian couple I had met the day before arrived about an hour after me. I ate my cold food quietly and then retreated into my tent. It was a cold and windy night and it began to rain.

Day 3: Sallochy to Beinglas Farm, 27 km

Things were wet in the morning, but at least the rain had halted enough for me to put my things away without getting soaked. I continued on towards Rowardennan, 4 kilometers away. I kept my fingers crossed that I wouldn't be caught in any rain dumps. I think my shoes must have broken down after so many hikes and so much walking, so I had some small blisters forming but luckily placed some plasters over them in an attempt from having them get any worse. In Rowardennan, I passed by a youth hostel and then continued into the woods. I was on an old military road for a while. Loch Lomond was always to my left. I reached a junction and had two paths to choose from. I chose the higher path since it seemed like easier walking. The lower path along Loch Lomond would have been a muddy disaster if the rain descended. Many small water falls could be seen coming down the mountain on my right. I was able to refill my water supplies often. About 4 kilometers later, both paths reunited. I met a pair of walkers who had taken the low path and were now cursing. Scattered showers occurred from time to time but nothing too serious. I passed the Rowchoish Bothy and thought that this would have been a great place to spend the night but it was still far too early. A bothy is a stone structure that used to be used by cattle drivers for shelter. Now, at least along the way, they can accommodate walkers in certain numbers. There are bothies all over Scotland. I passed through woods once more. A few kilometers later I crossed a bridge and saw some impressive falls. I was in Inversnaid, a small town with some limited facilities. I carried on, not wanting to take too long breaks. Now I was moving along Loch Lomond and the terrain was difficult to navigate. Rocks, roots and mud were everywhere and there were lots of climbs requiring all four limbs to get involved. Keeping an eye on footing was paramount as one would want to avoid a fall into the cold water at all costs. This went on for some time and eventually emerged onto a rocky beach. The way then moved inland and I passed the Doune Bothy, which seemed pretty big. I continued through some muddy fields and at this point rain had come. I passed by Inverarnan and not long after I found Beinglas Farm, which had a camping site and some facilities. It also had a pub! I set up camp and met up with the Belgian couple once again. My tent pegs sucked and the ground had loads of rocks in them making the pegs bend and providing a less than adequate security against wind. My Belgian friend lent me one of his much stronger pegs and I punched holes with it and then replaced it with my own. My back hurt from all the weight I had lugged around. I ended up treating myself to a pub meal after all the camping food so far, and had a large burger and fresh salad. I sat with the Belgian couple and we exchanged tales. Retreating to the tents that evening, the rain began to fall once more. It wouldn't stop for the entire night.

Day 4: Beinglas Farm to Bridge of Orchy, 32 km

The ground was so soaked with water that my tent was practically floating. Luckily, my stuff and myself remained relatively dry. The rain stopped for a quick instant and I grabbed my stuff and then dragged my tent to the shelter just up the way. There I was able to dry it off enough to put it away. Today I would be checking my bag ahead, not because I didn't want to walk with the weight, but because I wasn't prepared for such wet conditions and my bag and everything in it would get completely wet after a few hours. It seemed like many others had decided to do the same. Trust me, I was happy this service existed. I ate well and then put on some proper plasters over my increasingly large blisters. I was sure at this point that these shoes were done, not something you want happening on a trek of this magnitude. No one said it would be easy. Other walkers looked pretty grim looking out at the dark and ominous clouds. I chose to leave when there was a lull in the rain and began by walking on old military road and going through forests for the next few kilometers. The rain hadn't recommenced yet but it was pretty cold, and I kept moving to keep my body temperature up. It was great only having a smaller bag and not the mammoth I had grown used to. I was moving faster too. After ten kilometers I reached Crianlarich and immediately began climbing into some woodland. There I had to take cover as strong hail and winds descended. I got soaked right away, but my Sherpa jacket I got while in Nepal was holding up for the time being. I passed a farm with an interesting looking graveyard. I then passed the Auchtertyre Farm and met with several goats and sheep blocking my path. They scurried off as I approached. The nice thing about the West Highland Way is that there are plenty of interesting signposts with information about historic events and other tidbits as you pass through the landscape. This one, in particular, described the annual rainfall in this area and claimed it was the highest in all of Britain. I read this as it poured over me. I had chosen well. I continued on passing some bridges and reached the outskirts of Tyndrum. The sun was now out in full force and was drying me. I have honestly never experienced such insane weather changes anywhere else, and so quickly at that. It can be pouring rain and then sun will find you in the most unexpected way. Hence the famous saying about the weather. It's also the reason once has to be prepared for anything, it can literally become life threatening if not. I continued another 12 kilometers towards Bridge of Orchy, in completely exposed and windswept Highlands. Mountains were at my sides, though the way was mostly flat. I passed a large group of cows lounging out on the path. This part of the way consisted of torrential downpours, followed by sun, followed by hail and snow, followed by sun, followed by rain, and on and on. I tried to just focus on my steps as there wasn't anywhere to take cover. I began to hum the tune by The Proclaimers "I would walk 500 miles!..." It became the new theme song to my journey. I arrived at Bridge of Orchy in the early evening, got my pack from the town and then went to the outskirts and found a wild camp spot for the night alongside a raging river. It was actually quite a site. A few other walkers camped near me. Having had enough of the weather I decided I needed some warmth and went into the town, to the only pub, and got a pint of cider. There I met Dave and his motley crew of Scottish friends, and Rutger, who was from the Netherlands and felt as though he had something to prove after quitting the military some years earlier. The night was cold and the rain was ever present.

Day 5: Bridge of Orchy to Kinlochleven, 34 km

This was going to be a monster day, but also had the potential for some incredible views. I packed up a wet tent and began the day's walk. Rutger was in the process of packing up and I lifted his pack. The thing weighed about 25kg with no exaggeration. This guy was a beast. I took off and was soaked within minutes. damn you Scottish weather! Some of the Scottish guys I had met the previous night had described it as "grim" or "tearful". It was an easy walk to Inveroran. Reaching this small outpost, I could see remnants of tents along the river. I would later find out from a walker that, because of the incessant rain, the river had swelled during the night and the campers had been forced to flee as their tents were overcome. Luckily someone with a van had driven onto some dirt roads to reach them and literally saved them. I crossed a bridge and a wooden lodge, and this would be the last human structure I would see for some time. I was walking the most exposed area of the way and the rain continued to come with spots of sunshine. Those were the only moments of reprieve. "I would walk 500 miles..." I hummed it as I walked. The highland scenery, when the clouds cleared, was quite exquisite and the reason for this journey. I reached Kings House, which was about 18 km from when I had started. At this point I was wet, and I had become really cold. It was nearing the point of urgency because hypothermia could kick in real fast in these types of conditions. I found some shelter and put on more layers while rubbing my hands together. I took almost a half hour to warm up, and made sure I was ready to go on. Everyone else passing into Kings House was, expectadly, soaked to the brim. I carried on through more exposed highlands. The rain continued. Now I was moving up through Glen Coe and was approaching the Devil's Staircase. It was a stiff climb up to about 550m at the top. The dorsal part of my left ankle was killing me, though I wasn't sure why. My theory is that it was my ill supporting shoes and just repetitive strain. I tried to rest it, but I needed to get through this area fast. I made it over the crest and then descended down the other side. The descent made my ankle hurt all the more. It was slow going as I walked for many more kilometers into the town of Kinlochleven. I could hardly walk when I made it in. I went to the nearby Blackwater hostel and campsite. My initial plan was to camp there, but that morning I had met another walker named Lucas. He was a police officer from Glasgow and we had agreed that if the weather was really bad, we'd try to split on a room there. The weather was shit and since my tent was drenched from the night before, I got the hostel room. Lucas arrived about an hour after me, shivering from the rain. This place had drying rooms and I placed all my wet stuff within. My ankle felt destroyed and I popped a few Ibuprofen in an effort to decrease the inflammation. We went to a nearby fast food place and I got my first taste of authentic fish and chips. That night I caught Rutger coming in. He had had a very difficult day and reported that he had had a mental breakdown at the Devil's Staircase. But he had made it through like the rest of us, challenges and all.

Day 6: Kinlochleven to Fort William, 24 km

My hope was to reach Fort William today and finish the West Highland Way. My ankle was still destroyed, but at least the Ibuprofen was having an effect. I wrapped a tight ACE bandage around the area. I would just have to grin and bare the pain. It was cloudy but not raining yet when I set out. A stiff climb commenced which gave me a nice view of the town from behind. For the first half of my day, the way was quite exposed. I passed by more magnificent Highland vistas, and experienced more intermittent showers. The way continued north, passing old shelters and hilly farmland. My ankle was holding up and wasn't causing too much discomfort, at least it wasn't yet. I was now heading towards Glen Nevis and the way descended slightly. Eventually I reached the Nevis Forest. At least here I could find some cover from the elements and darted under some trees for a rest. The forest was dark and dreary. From this area I was able to finally see Ben Nevis in the distance, with its snow covered peak. It is the highest Munro in all of Britain. I descended all the way down into Glen Nevis amidst some constant but gentle rain. I had been thoroughly soaked throughout. I was now back on some military road which brought me all the way to Fort William. I walked into the town center and found High Street. At the end of that was the terminus for the West Highland Way. A statue of an old man on a bench marked this. I looked up at the last white hexagonal thistle that marked the way. I had completed all 154 kilometers of the way in six days amidst terrible weather conditions, broken sleep, physical injury, beautiful scenery and some new friends along the way. I heard a voice from behind me and there was Rutger, who had arrived an hour before me. He had completed the way in just five days, with the heaviest pack imaginable. We went into a nearby restaurant and had a celebratory drink with some other walkers. I kept looking out to see if Lucas was on his way in, but I never did see him. He had been complaining of knee pain and I hoped for his sake it hadn't stopped him. I wanted to hand out more with my walker friends but unfortunately I figured it best to reach my hostel. The only hostel I was able to book was outside of Fort William in a suburb called Banavie. I went to the bus stop and then waited a while until the bus arrived and brought me there. Banavie was incredibly small and I asked an old woman if she knew where the "Chase the Wild Goose" hostel was located, she pointed me in a general direction but was unsure. She figured I should ask someone else or I might be on my own wild goose chase. Cheeky. No need and I easily found the place. The staff was super friendly, and I was happy to put down my pack and enjoy the common area. I reeked something awful so showering was on the list of priorities. I needed to get off my mangled ankle. That was the best night of sleep I had in a while.

The next day was a total right off. I was limping everywhere and tried to stay off of my foot as much as I could. My initial plan had been to attempt a climb of Ben Nevis but no way would that happen now. Besides there was still snow at the top so unsure if that would have been possible anyway without proper equipment. And what do you know? It was a beautiful sunny day. Go figure...

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12th May 2016
West Highland Way

Wow, Scotland is stunning. Thanks for the entertaining blog!

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