West Highland Way Trek, August 2017

06 September 2017

By Peter Long, Trek Leader

This year’s RP fundraising trek was The West Highland Way; a week walking one of the UK’s best known long distance routes, stretching 96 miles from the outskirts of Glasgow to Fort William, and passing through some of Scotland’s most scenic and historic areas. It seemed like too good a challenge to miss, so our group (Teresa, Alan, Patrick, the two Richards, Faye, Ted, Jane and Celia, Joe and me) with Emily from the RPFB office driving our support van, assembled in Milngavie on a cloudy Sunday morning all prepared and ready to hit the trail. Many of the group have RP, some are experienced trekkers, with others less so. Everyone came with different backgrounds, hopes and fears. We would all leave with our own memories. This is my version of the story of our week.

We left Milngavie mid-morning, with a relatively easy and short day ahead. All in high spirits we quickly left the town behind, and were soon in open countryside. The group paused for a break at Craigallian loch, a famous spot in local outdoor history. Shortly afterwards, as we reached the top of a small hill, we caught our first glimpse of the route ahead, stretching all the way to the shores of Loch Lomond. By this time, the group banter was starting, with some good natured insults exchanged. We also got used to using our various radio call signs (Old Pretender, Jaffa Cake, and Barbie Gal among others) which no doubt caused a bit of amusement to anyone within earshot. We also picked up our first donation from a chap called Drew, who was selling cups of tea from a caravan. He did look a bit like Boris Johnson, but you can’t win them all. A couple of miles on, and we rendezvoused with Emily for our lunch stop, outside the Beech Tree inn. There was, predictably, a little disappointment that it wasn’t actually inside the pub. Another time…

Thereafter it was just a couple of hours stroll to the village of Drymen and our first night’s accommodation in the Kip in the Kirk hostel, a lovely old converted church. We were delighted to be welcomed with tea and fresh scones, and even managed to sit outside in the sun for a while. After a quiet dinner at the nearby hotel, we soon settled in for our first night in a shared dormitory.

The next morning saw us rise early, to a foggy and rather damp start. We were quickly off walking again, and soon gained height as we headed towards the Highland Boundary Fault. Perhaps predictably, there was a bit of debate as to who, or hadn’t snored the most through the night. A question which was to continue to arise over the coming days…

We were now in Rob Roy country, and there was much discussion as to whether it was fair play to steal other people’s cattle and then charge them for returning them. Different times, I suppose. Pausing for a break, we also had our first (but by no means last) encounter with that most voracious of local wildlife, the midge. Worse, far worse, was to follow.

We were now approaching our first big challenge - Conic Hill, which forms the southern boundary of the Highlands. It seemed a little daunting to some, but a steady climb soon brought us to the highest point. And, right on cue, we were joined at the top by the final member of the team - Joe (aka “Binman”) fresh (ish) from an early flight from London. The group all finally complete, we took in the panorama. All of southern Scotland, the Clyde and Loch Lomond, and stretching far to the north, our route along Loch Lomondside; a splendid spot. We picked our way down the steep descent into Balmaha, where we met up with Emily and our lunch. Ironically, this brought about our first injury, when Patrick slipped and gashed his leg. Some quick first aid from Teresa patched him up, and off we set again.

We paused at the statue of local outdoors legend Tom Weir, before head along the path beside Loch Lomond. Up and down, in and out, this was a lovely walk through the woods, but it did seem to go on forever. Eventually we emerged from the trees at Rowardenan, and visited the pier to take in the view of Ben Lomond before heading to the youth hostel for the night. Here, chaos briefly reigned, as we tried to check in to allocated rooms and order our dinners all at once, but we were soon settled in. Youth Hostels have changed a bit over the years - this one even had a bar! Good times…

We all knew that Tuesday would be the toughest section of the route, with 14 miles over some very tough terrain. There was a little apprehension (mainly from me…) as we gathered in the drizzle outside the hostel. A quick group picture, and off we set. The first few miles were easy, as we climbed through the forest high above Loch Lomond. Then, as we descended, the rain finally eased and we took a break at the remote Cailness Cottage (which has a nice honesty box selection of cakes and sweets) before starting a tougher section. Lots of rocky outcrops and ups and downs required full concentration. Fortunately by this time our guiding arrangements were well established and we made steady progress. A huge sigh of relief from me as we dealt with each of the tricky bits!
Eventually, we crossed a narrow bridge over the waterfall and reached Inversnaid, where Emily awaited after a very long route around to meet us.

We chatted to a number of other groups over lunch and lots of those who we met expressed their admiration and amazement at what we were doing. We were to meet several of these again over the coming days.

The afternoon section was, if anything, even tougher. Again, it required full concentration from both the guides and the guided as we picked our way through the jumble of rocks. This was a real challenge, and it was with a good deal of relief that we eventually emerged onto a small beach. Several of the group said that they had really enjoyed it. Others were just glad it was over. Undaunted, Richard B marked the moment by performing a head stand on the beach. Legend!

There was still a good distance to cover though, and the light was pretty poor as we made our way up and down through the woodland at the head of Loch Lomond. We paused to look at Doune Byre bothy, though nobody fancied spending a night there, so onwards we went. Another long end to a long day, and it was after 7.30 when we finally emerged from the woods and into the campsite at Beinnglass farm.

This was to be our first experience of sharing camping cabins (a bit like a shed with beds…), but after a very quick change we assembled in the bar for dinner. There was a real feeling of achievement, as everyone knew that the roughest section was over.
By this time the rain was falling steadily again, and worse was to follow through the night, as we were woken by a couple of spectacular thunderstorms. In the morning we found the lower section of the campsite completely flooded, with some spectacular waterfalls on the surrounding hillsides.

A shorter day lay ahead, so after a later start we set off. The worst of the rain was over, and spirits were high after the challenges of the previous day. We ascended steadily up Glen Falloch, pausing to look at the Falls of Falloch, before a quick rendezvous with the van to pick up lunch supplies. Another couple of miles and we stopped for lunch above Crianlarich, at the halfway point on the route!

Then it was down through the trees and into Strath Fillan, where Emily excelled herself by finding a place to park the van so we could all get a cup of tea. Then it was a nice level walk past St Fillan’s priory, and through the ancient battlefield of Dal Righ to reach Tyndrum, our base for the night.

Here we were split between cabins and Hobbit Houses (a bit like a big barrel with beds…), and we had plenty of time to sort out kit and shower before heading round to the Tyndrum Inn for dinner. Lots of haggis consumed, to generally favourable reviews. We were starting to act like the locals!

Everyone knew that a very long day of 19 miles lay ahead on the Thursday, so we assembled at 8am, after the now traditional trekking breakfast of tea, porridge pots, and pain au chocolat. Well, it worked for us. Off we set, with the early clag starting to clear off the mountains. Our first section was seven miles along General Wade’s road to Bridge of Orchy.

It might be nearly 300 years old, but the road was easy and fun to walk on and we made good progress. Emily met us at the bridge with a very welcome cuppa, and then it was up through the trees to a hilltop with a fantastic panorama over the Loch Tulla and the Black Mount. A few good pictures were taken, including one with me showing a rare burst of speed to appear twice in Joe’s group shot.

Then it was down to Victoria Bridge for our second rendezvous of the day with Emily. 10 miles done, 9 to go! A quick lunch, and a few running repairs to blisters, and then we were off again, following another old road (made by Thomas Telford) up onto the great wilderness of Rannoch Moor. We hardly saw another person all afternoon, as we traversed this great wilderness of peat bogs and lochans. Fortunately, the weather stayed dry and clear, and we were soon at Ba Bridge with it’s unusual rock formations, many miles from the nearest road. Another steady climb took us to the highest point of the day’s route, and we had our first glimpses of the Glencoe mountains as we descended.

Our destination for the night was the Glencoe Mountain Resort, splendidly situated at the foot of the ski-centre. We arrived in steady drizzle, a little footsore but triumphant. The rain was to continue through the evening meaning that trips to the toilets were generally carried out at speed. Again, we were in hobbit houses.

Best described as cosy, with just enough room for three trekkers, their gear, and about 10,000 midges. Oh, those midges. They got everywhere you could imagine, and a few places probably better not imagined. Undaunted by the rain, the midges, or even by the fact the bar closed at 8.30, we settled in for an impromptu party in one of the huts. Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

In the morning we again got lucky with the weather, as it cleared within a few minutes of us setting off. An easy few miles past the Kingshouse hotel across the moor took us to the mouth of Glencoe. We paused on the hillside opposite the mighty Buachaille Etive Mor, one of the best known and iconic Scottish mountains, while I told the story of the massacre of Glencoe, and its aftermath. Emily had added several more miles to her highland tour by this stage, and was able to meet us with elevenses and lunch supplies.

Our next big challenge lay above us. Up the Devil’s Staircase to the highest point on the entire route. Despite the name, it actually turned out to be fairly straightforward, again using an old military road which zig-zags up the hillside. The group paired off, to allow everyone to climb at their own speed, and it wasn’t too long before we were enjoying our lunch at the top.

The hard work done, we now only had a few miles to go to Kinlochleven. Spirits high, we set off down the mountainside. However, it wasn’t long before the forecast rain came. So suddenly that most of us didn’t even manage to get our waterproof trousers on before it was too late. We pressed on, hoping it might blow over. It didn’t. By this time sections of the track had turned into a torrent, and any thought of dry feet was over-ridden by a desire to get to somewhere less wet as quickly as we could.

Eventually, after what seemed like hours, we emerged, dripping, into Kinlochleven. We quickly found our hostel, and the drying room rapidly filled with damp gear. And, oh, the restorative powers of a cup of tea and hot shower! Restored, we headed for the Tailrace Inn, where we again bumped into a couple of groups of other walkers we’d previously met on the route. We got a couple of very nice donations too, and a lot of genuine appreciation of what the group had achieved.

Saturday morning brought sunshine, and a fair bit of excitement. Only 14 miles to go! Okay, so the first 3 were uphill. We plodded up through the trees, with views opening up along Loch Leven. No chance of stopping for long, as the local midges were lying in wait if we so much as paused for breath. Eventually we reached the long undulating track through the beautiful Lairig Mor, a high pass with mountains rising steeply on either side. The sun shone, and spirits soared as we turned north for the final stretch.

Emily had again excelled herself by negotiating a very narrow road and then backing the van up an even narrower track for our lunch stop. We lay in the sun, and steeled ourselves for the final leg. We headed up a grassy track along the hillside, and then, as we rounded a corner… whoohoo! Ben Nevis, with the sun on it’s slopes, lay ahead. Several of the group had climbed it on the 2015 3 Peaks trip, so it was particularly good to be back.

There was no time to rest on our laurels, though. Still a good bit to go, and we didn’t want to be late for dinner! So, on we went, with one final climb to reach the forestry track into Glen Nevis. It was downhill all the way from here. A long way downhill. Followed by a trudge through the outskirts of Fort William until at last we reached the town centre.

It was a real thrill as all 12 of us walked together along the High Street. As we reached the end, we paused, linked arms, and all crossed the finish line together. An emotional moment to end an unforgettable week.

A few quick pics gathered round the lone resting walker statue, and we were on the move again, albeit only a few yards to our hotel. Then it was off out for our celebration meal, with laughter, poetry from our bard Richard, and an evening of reflection on everything we had achieved and experienced together.

Perhaps a little tired and midge-bitten, we made our separate ways home the following morning. So many memories, of challenges overcome, friendships forged and renewed, and lots of laughter along the way. A massive thank-you to the entire group, who’s determination, team-work and good humour made the week such a success.

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