"My mom said there's a sunrise and a sunset every day and you can choose to be there or not. You can put yourself in the way of beauty." Cheryl Strayed
Going to the cinema to see the film Wild in 2015 sparked a great desire to do a long-distance hike. Having heard wonderful things of the West Highland Way I set my heart on it, and although it's nowhere near as ambitious as the 1,100 miles of Pacific Crest Trail that Cheryl Strayed tackled, it's ambitious enough for someone whose last (and so far only) long-distance hike happened about 20 years ago.
Crispy, my partner, was up for it and we decided to do the walk in the first week of April - risking cold weather but avoiding the main tourist season and the hordes of midges. We sent my 6-year-old daughter to her grandma's to enjoy the last week of her Easter hols, tried our best not to get discouraged by the dismal weather forecast (still better than midges, right?) and caught the train from Edinburgh to Milngavie on Friday the 1st of April.
Day 1: Milngavie to Easter Drumquhassle (or, 'We didn't get the least bit wet')
After collecting my official WHW passport and the first stamp, grabbing a quick lunch and some last minute shopping at Milngavie, we set off around 1pm in light but steady rain. The rain got steadily harder after we emerged from the Mugdock Country Park (or Mudcock as I kept saying by accident) into the open countryside and Crispy joked that we're probably adding several miles to our hike by skirting around all the massive puddles on the path. More to my dismay though, my 'waterproof' jacket (I had even sprayed it with extra waterproofing a few days before) couldn't keep the water out and by the time we stopped for a cuppa at the Beech Tree Inn, I was soaked through. Crispy hadn't fared any better and we picked up a pair of cheap bright pink and blue plastic ponchos from the shop. We actually looked so comical wearing them that I couldn't help but laugh out loud. (Later on I found out that they would have the exact opposite effect on animals - they gave at least a couple of dogs and sheep a terrible fright...)
The rain continued relentlessly and by the time we got to the campsite by the Drumquhassle Farm we abandoned all plans to pitch our tent and made a beeline to one of the 2-man kocoons. We squeezed as much water as possible out of our clothes before hanging them to dry under a shelter and thoroughly appreciated sleeping somewhere warm and dry!
Day 2: Easter Drumquhassle to Cashel (or, 'The views were worth it')
Our day 1 clothes were still wet in the morning but we discovered that there was a drying machine that we could use - a definite morale saver as I only had two sets of clothes, and I gladly accepted the delay. We prepared for the worst weather-wise (ponchoed-up and all) but were actually blessed with some sunshine - even actual t-shirt weather at times! We passed through Drymen where we stocked up on Compeed (the first pesky blisters had made their appearance) and soon after venturing back on the trail enjoyed our first views of Loch Lomond and the Conic Hill.
Climbing Conic Hill proved extremely hard work for me with a heavy backpack (I stared longingly at the tiny daypacks people who ran past us were carrying), but the views from the top were so worth it! Walking downhill to Balmaha was a challenge of its own with the steep slope and big steps and Crispy managed to hurt his knee. Our original (and unrealistic) plan had been to walk as far as Rowardennan, but in the end we decided to stay the night at the Cashel campsite. Exhaustion, more rain and our somewhat unpredictable/explosive new cooking fuel made dinner seem like too much hassle and I was happy enough to nibble on some dry instant noodles before falling asleep, possibly to dream of those strange trees with exposed limb-like roots on a beach we had walked past earlier.
Day 3: Cashel to Inversnaid (or, 'Into the waterfall country')
In the morning Crispy's knee was not happy at all (though somehow he still managed to walk faster than me). We made it to Rowardennan Hotel where we had our lunch and decided that using one of the pack carrying companies was the way forward - first of all to spare his knee but also because carrying all our camping gear had proofed much harder than anticipated. Unfortunately it was too late for that day and we were faced with another seven miles struggling under the weight. The countryside was stunning though. I loved the dark woods with deep green moss-covered ground, the abundance of waterfalls bubbling merrily from the hillsides and the views over Loch Lomond. We saw some feral goats too, though I was too slow to snap a picture when one of them volunteered to strike a magnificent pose on a fallen tree.
The stunning waterfalls by Inversnaid were a very welcome sight (my legs were about to go on strike and wouldn't have carried me much further) and when we called to enquire about camping at the Inversnaid Bunkhouse we were more than glad for them to come collect us in their van. A friendly dog at the Bunkhouse confiscated our walking stick (R.I.P. Sir Twiglet Stickleby) while we were pitching our tent. We chucked our wet clothes into the super toasty drying room, cooked our dinner indoors on an actual indoor stove and had a well-deserved pint before bed - such luxuries!
Day 4: Inversnaid to Strathfillan (or, 'Goodbye rucksack and some solo walking')
In the morning we packed our food and other essentials for the day into my rucksack and somehow managed to squeeze, push or tie on everything else onto Crispy's rucksack to be transported by AMS for us to our next accommodation. That heavenly feeling of lightness! We took turns to carry my rucksack - Crispy on more level terrain and uphill and me over difficult terrain and downhill (which were the worst for his knee). The first three miles of the day were pretty difficult walking (pack or no pack) with lots of scrambling over rocks and roots along the shoreline (Lady Branchette, i.e. Sir Twiglet Stickleby's successor, came in very handy). The rest of the walk to Inverarnan was mostly pleasant, if muddy, walking.
As we reached Beinglass Farm and stopped for lunch, Crispy told me that he couldn't walk any further despite all the Ibuprofen he'd taken. I wanted to carry on so we decided that he'd catch a bus and meet me at our next night stop. I picked up some essentials at the surprisingly well-stocked wee shop at the farm - a small daypack (there was no need to carry our cooking gear for the rest of the day, so all that went on the bus with Crispy) and a head torch (I wasn't sure I'd make it to Strathfillan by daylight). They even sold knee supports!
I set off by myself (with the comforting thought that if anything happened to me, it would be difficult not to find me in my pink poncho) and later told Crispy that if he had to miss any part of the WHW, this was probably it - the route passed some ugly construction sites, flanked the highway for a good stretch and at times it was impossible to avoid stepping into deep, watery mud mixed with cow manure. Speaking of cows, a whole herd of them had decided to block a part of the path. I didn't fancy trying to squeeze through them (what if they too would panic at the sight of my poncho?!) so I scrambled past them over the hillside.
At the halfway point (woop, I made it to the halfway point!) I made a detour to Crianlarich to get my WHW passport stamped. The path was a beautiful deep red thanks to all the fallen pine needles and I was in high spirits. But eventually huge blisters and aching feet started to take it out of me. By the time I got to Strathfillan I used up the very last remnants of my energy just to appreciate the stunning surroundings with the snow covered mountains looking over the River Fillan. Thankfully there was a wigwam and a Crispy with a freshly brewed cup of tea and a hot meal waiting for me!
Day 5: Strahfillan to Inveroran (or, 'The weather gods are finally on our side')
After a quick spin for my damp clothes in a clothes dryer (a morale saver once again), we said goodbye to Strathfillan, and with Crispy feeling restored enough to walk again, continued our hike together. After passing the mysterious 'Loch of the Legend of the Lost Sword' and a campsite that Crispy kept calling 'Paradise Palms', we reached Tyndrum. We had our breakfast there and stocked up on snacks, food and newspaper (to stuff our wet boots with later on).
At Bridge of Orchy we stopped by the river to have our lunch with an inquisitive wagtail for company, and were blessed with a perfectly timed lunch-break-long stretch of glorious weather complete with a beautiful rainbow! Rain returned when we set off again, but as soon as we reached the cairn at the highest point of our day's walk with fine views of Loch Tulla and the Black Mount (this was instantly our new favourite bit of the WHW), the glorious weather returned, perfectly timed again.
We walked the last stretch to the Inveroran Hotel super slowly to spare Crispy's knee, though I was more than happy to do so, simply not wanting the walking to end yet. Our stay at the Inveroran Hotel was our most luxurious one during the week - we enjoyed an amazing dinner and a pint, en suite bathroom and a soft bed... There was a TV in our room too, but we both agreed that turning it on at all just wouldn't feel right.
Day 6: Inveroran to Glencoe Ski Centre (or, 'Rainbows on top of rainbows')
We woke up to a lovely sight of red deer wondering about by our window - apparently they come down every day for breakfast. We had ours with the other hotel guests and it was obvious from the banter that everyone was highly aware that it was chucking it down outside. But miraculously the rain cleared just before we set off for the Rannoch Moor. Abrupt changes in weather continued throughout the day though, as hard rain alternated with bright sunshine (I eventually tired of my poncho-on-poncho-off routine and surrendered to my pink fate). As a glorious side effect though, there was a rainbow pretty much everywhere we looked!
We arrived at the Glencoe Ski Centre campsite in the early afternoon, or what felt like way too early in the day - we actually had time to kill before bedtime! We took refuge from the wind and rain in the cafe, then dashed outside when it cleared out a bit to go up on the ski lift. (I'd thoroughly recommend experiencing the feeling of being carried up the hill with zero effort to anyone walking the WHW.) At the top I made an obligatory snowman (well, it turned out to be a snow owl) while Crispy photographed the mountains, then went back to sheltering in the cafe until another gap in the constant rain that was long enough for us to pitch our tent for the night.
Day 7: Glencoe Ski Centre to Kinlochleven (or, 'Spoiled by beauty')
We survived the extremely windy night without landing in Oz or losing our tent. Blessed with a sunny morning again, we set out for the Devil's Staircase, which wasn't nearly as intimidating as I had expected. (I had imagined it as some sort of never-ending steps carved into an almost vertical hillside.) Tackling it first thing in the morning while still energetic and fresh probably also helped.
Walking down to Kinlochleven (we were stalked by tons more rainbows) seemed to happen in no time at all and we enjoyed an absolute beauty of an evening in the village. Crispy disappeared to photograph the sunset over the loch and I strolled down to the Grey Mare's Tail waterfall before we met up again to enjoy a pint in the McDonald Hotel's Bothy Bar. We were even lucky enough to spot some (faint but still exciting) northern lights before heading for our tent for the night.
Day 8: Kinlochleven to Fort William (or, 'So long and thanks for all the vistas')
Setting off on our last day was both exciting and sad as I really didn't want our hike to end yet. The first climb of the morning put my mind firmly back on the task at hand though as it felt more challenging to me than the Devil's staircase and I wondered why no one had thought to give it an equally menacing name. I survived though and for the good part of our last day we were surrounded by hills and not much else, and (apart from the moment of losing Lady Branchette - my walking stick with an ergonomically shaped handle and just the right height - by stepping on her myself, no less) I was happily in awe of the beauty all around.
We had our lunch at a perfect spot by a little stream with views over Ben Nevis (only later realising that our guidebook recommended it as a perfect lunch spot) and were told that we looked like a pair of Teletubbies in our ponchos by a couple of cheerful hikers who insisted on taking a photo for us so that we could see for ourselves.
After the last stretch of the walk through woods and down a path with lovely views of Ben Nevis, we got to the Braveheart car park but as we couldn't bear the thought of walking into civilization just yet, we joined the Cow Hill Circuit (one of the alternative endings recommended by our guide book) instead.
Then, the end! After obligatory photos with the walker statue with sore feet, collecting the last stamp for my passport and being unable to resist buying a WHW tea towel, we treated ourselves to a dinner that wasn't instant noodles (or instant anything) as well as a pint and finally boarded a bus to pick up my daughter.
So, did I manage to put myself in the way of beauty? Absolutely! I also discovered that apart from all the challenges and the comedy elements (I'll always remember my pink poncho), an entire week of having no agenda other than to simply walk on in beautiful scenery is, above all, very good for the soul. No wonder we met some people along the trail who keep coming back! I can't wait for our next walking adventure and discovering more of Scotland's beauty. And although we got absolutely drenched on several occasions, I stand by what I said before we set off - rain is better than midges.