It was an early start on Sunday for the coach-float (bus & ferry) to Glasgow so that I could spend a few days training along the West Highland Way. Thankfully, the horrible weather at the end of the week had not disrupted the transport system. The front was staying low over the Lake District, so Scotland was clear and dry, if a little crispy.
I left Milngavie (mull-guy) at 13:45 and made good progress on the steady trails, managing to run most of the way. Conic Hill was closed for work /forestry, so I had to drop down to the road, reaching the Oak Tree Inn at Balmaha for 17:30. It was a drag to leave the cosy surroundings after my big burger meal and banoffee pie, but I walked on into the darkness towards Rowardennan. Piercing eyes reflected back at me from woodstacks, and startled dear danced in the shadows. On reaching the wild campsite just past Rowardennan, it was a little dismaying to find I was still in the ‘restricted zone’ and would have to walk another mile before I could wild camp. A ranger later told me the rule was to counter trouble with car-campers, and they don’t tend to bother the occasional wild-camper who looks like they know how to ‘leave-no-trace’. I had a feeling no-one would even be out to find me if I did a stealth bivvy in the area, but used the rule as an excuse to have less to travel the next day. Finally free, I found a nice mossy spot above the trail with a view over Loch Lommond. Time for sleep at last!
The next morning I awoke at 6:00 with a cold head. I had put up my micro-tarp to keep the gusts off me, and my breath had frozen on the underside, where-in I rolled into it. Some spindrift lay on the bivvy, blown off Ben Lommond in the night, but the dawn was still. I boiled up a full Titan Kettle (singing ‘ti-tan titanium’ to the tune of David Guetta’s hit), poured off a cup of tea into my folding Orikaso mug, then added 100g of porridge oats to heat through. My piece-de-resistance was adding a Clif chocolate energy gel to add a touch of flavour and sweetness… this worked really well!
If day 1 was summed up by speed, day 2 would be about technical challenges. I think Rowardennan to Tyndrum is the hardest part of the WHW: the trail is rocky, clambering, twisty and undulating. I made about 3mph along the lough, reaching Beinglas Farm about 10:30. They normally don’t serve food until 12 but were happy to make me a toastie. I bought some fruit juice and chocolate in the shop and headed out on the steady climbing towards Crianlarich. I am always in two-minds about this section: In some ways it is energy sapping and annoying – seeing a busy road so close after some time secluded by the Loch, but it also has a marvelous, playful river with jagged slab formations carved by the water. I just about negotiated ‘cow-pat alley’ with minimal ingress, then donned my Yaktrax for the steep forest roller-coaster section before Auchtertyre. The path was holding on to compacted snow and my soft soled trail shoes could find little purchase. I was very impressed by the Yaktrax, and did not regret purchasing the expensive ‘run’ version, as I could indeed run up and down the sharp gradients with good confidence.
I had a chat with a ranger who was preparing some drainage runs for the thaw, then moved along eagerly towards a meal in Tyndrum. The Real Food Cafe provided a large portion of lovingly prepared, local-produce fish & chips. Delicious. Carbs from the chips for energy, quality fish protein for the muscles, and a good dose of fat to metabolise and keep me warm later. But oh dear! My legs had seized terribly by the time I got up to move. I shuffled up to the Green Welly to get some more chocolate (Bounty & Mintola, if you wish to know), then continued a stiff march into a stiff breeze to approach Bridge of Orchy in hand with night-fall. Some more chat with a couple of walkers outside the bar as I refilled my bottles for camp, then said hello to a lone camper at the wild-site over the bridge: he was a friendly chap, and had a large bottle of Scotch, but the site was too exposed to the cutting wind. I was relying on trees to string up my wind-breaking micro-tarp, so had to move on. Shortly up the trail into the forest I was in the perfect stillness of thick trees and snowy blankets, so set up camp in a small hollow off the path. I had learnt from the previous night that the warm air from your lungs soon cools in the Thermarest and needs a pressure top-up prior to retiring for the night. A warm ‘sleep-easy’ brew rounded off the day at the honest hour of 20:30.
Early to bed, early to rise… at 5:30. The legs were gone by now and my feet were sore. Tender heels and some mystery rough skin on the front of my ankles had both gone haywire: Black skin, red rash, and blistering was spreading. Every step was painful: when stopped it was infuriatingly itchy. The shoulder blades were also getting tight from 2 days of a bobbing rucksack. Excuses. I knew the distance could still be covered walking, I would just have to walk longer and stop less. I set off at 7:00 and from that point on everything took longer than I thought. It was very cold skirting Rannoch Mor. The legs were covered with waterproofs over my ski-sock /capri tight combo, primaloft jacket over the baselayer on top, buff and mitts. The hoods were up over my woollen cycle cap. The welcome sight of moving chair-lifts meant Glen Coe ski centre was doing steady trade, so I added to their business to the tune of a sausage bap and scone, before returning to my mission.
The Devil’s Coachroad was snow covered, but still an easy climb. The Yaktrax were deployed again over icy paths until the steep descent into Kinlochleven. The hydro-station access road seems endless… it will not be fun in the race approaching 80 miles. A bacon bap and slice of chocolate cake in The Ice Factor provided a late lunch around 15:00, and I climbed out of the village towards the Lairig. The next section was both the highest and lowest point of the trip. Walking in half a daze of tiredness and pain I crested the gradual high point of the Lairig (old military road /mountain pass). The sun was dropping in front of me: setting the dry heath on golden fire as it swept up to glistening summits and dark crags. The trail unwound before me down the valley and floating spindrift rushed ahead in tumbling delight as the wind, with that crisp waver of impending night, pushed me into the wonder. Not a single person or nary, creature for that matter, shared that moment with me. I flung my arms wide to greet the private vista and hollered delight. Some dark recess of logical consciousness also realised in that moment that the setting sun meant I was still heading west, and had not turned North as my vague fore-thoughts had assumed some kilometers ago. Many hard hours remained. The darkness was returning.
I trod on with as much urgency as I could sustain, but frequent, intermittent ice interrupted any rhythm I could muster. Eventually I reached the forests, which were the obvious catchment features for where I had previously thought I was. Soon the trail was blocked altogether and I had to sit down to free-up some energy for thinking. “Trail to Fort William is impassable due to many fallen trees. Please take the ‘B’ road to Fort William”. The road was about the same length as the trail I had yet to cover, but would bring me into the West end of Fort William, and the camp sites in Glen Nevis were a further 3Km out the other side of the town. It would be very late before I reached the camp site. Maybe I should just bivvy in the forest and get a shower in the leisure centre before the bus in the morning? No, it was only 18:30 and I had no dinner.
I took my emergency gel and lo, my mind and energy picked up spectacularly: I nearly managed 40mins of slow jogging on the road. On the road… I could see why they put ‘B-road’ in inverted commas… it was a barely sealed single-track that twisted up and down 20% gradients like something from Postman Pat! I will note at this point that an exceptionally bright full-moon had risen: it’s light actually over-powered the beam of my headlamp. After a long time, Fort Bill was revealed at the last minute…. at the bottom of a very long hill. Back at sea-level, I rolled onto the high street and into a Chinese takeaway. Tucking into my dinner on a bench outside, my scoffing spork slowed enough for me to start to notice lots of familiar place-names carved into the street at my feet. It was the route of the WHW, and I looked over my shoulder to see I had inadvertently found the new official ending of the trail! Now to officially back track to the camp site.
I got to the camp site around 22:00 and inflated my mattress and pillow in the shower block to avoid disturbing the other tents, then found a nice spot and jumped into my sleeping bag. My training mission was over, and I drifted to sleep watching a pair of head-torches wind down from the summit of Ben Nevis; some adventurers having a longer day than I.
A hot shower preceded a clean layer of clothing, preceded 14hrs of travel home (including the ferry turning back due to a medical emergency). Having spent too much money already on food, I splashed out another £20 for a leg massage in the onboard spa. It was more ‘relaxing music and aromatherapy’ than deep sports massage, but to be fair my legs have had no stiffness or pain since. Money well spent! Now to get my feet sorted out as I can’t particularly bike or run without making things worse.
If you have read through all that, you will have gone through your own highs and lows, and are likely as ready for the WHW race as I now feel. It’s going to happen. It is already achieved in my mind. Finishing is certain, and 24hrs is now the minimum goal. At any rate, I’ll be hungry enough to eat any words that are over-cooked, but if you’ve ever seen the rainy fight scene in the movie Hero, you may understand where my mind is right now.