AT 96-miles in length the West Highland Way is viewed by many, including me, as the UK’s finest long-distance walk and I daresay there are many people including, once again, me, who have completed it on numerous occasions.
Anyone who has ever finished it or even walked a section cannot have looked around in awe and not vowed to return one day to climb one of the many mountains that tower above, or to come back for a long-weekend somewhere along the Way.
And then there are those that have looked around and thought: “What if I go that way instead, and rejoin the track a few miles on?”.
In 2013 that was me; thanks mostly to a book given to my walking partner for the trip called Not The West Highland Way, by Ronald Turnbull.
The West Highland roughly follows the A82, a 167-mile road that starts in Glasgow, and heads north-west towards Dumbarton before turning north to Balloch and the western side of Loch Lomond.
At the head of the loch it takes a twisting northern route to Glencoe where it then weaves around the Mamores before the final 70-mile north-easterly leg, first to Fort William and then to Inverness via the shores of Loch Ness.
And it’s this proximity to the A82 (which in fairness isn’t all that close) and a lack of mountain tops that seems to have inspired Turnbull to put pen to paper; and he’s certainly done his research.
His book has numerous alternatives and additions to the West Highland over mountains, smaller hills and high passes to all but one of the Way’s stages, and divides them into hill crossings and outings.
My first, and only, other trip up the 3,196ft high Ben Lomond was a summer’s afternoon four years earlier when I’d driven up in the morning from Yorkshire for a three-day walking trip.
There had been torrential rain for most of the journey to just south of Glasgow, but by the time I arrived at my starting point at Rowardennan the ground was rapidly drying and the sun was out, although the mountain tops were still covered in mist.
It was a clammy walk up to Ptarmigan Ridge and then it was time for waterproofs to keep the cold and the damp out. The visibility got worse and was down to just a few metres at the trig point, so I descended the way I came up wary of the time as I was due to camp around the other side of Loch Lomond at the rather lovely Beinglas Farm, at Ardlui.
Last year was a slightly cooler day, and once again it was the Ptarmigan Ridge route up. Beyond this the mist was swirling around and it was evident that, again, my view from the peak would be restricted though better than last time.
The descent was on the tourist path via Sron Aonaich, a shallower route taking the circular walk to about 7.5-miles.
The path down was also the first time I’d used walking poles, more of a precaution than anything as my right IT (illiotibial) band occasionally flares up, and I knew that over the next few days there’d be a fair few serious bits of climbing to encounter.
Not far into the descent one of my Hi-Gear Strider poles broke; the pin came out of the handle that holds the strap in place. I persevered without the strap until about five-minutes later when the handle itself came away from the pole which then scuttled down the hill.
Whereas Ben Lomond is an accessible mountain, hence an estimated 30,000 people climbing it each year, the 3,700ft Ben Lui is remote and from the Ardlui side there’s a walk of about four or five miles on estate tracks along Gleann nan Caorann, before the gradient increases as you pick your way across country to the saddle between Ben Lui and Ben Oss.
Once at the saddle, Ben Lui towers above and it feels like you can reach out and touch it, and at least you’re now back on the relatively good surface of rock and stone for the final ascent after the tiring yomp across country.
ROW UPON ROW
The view was stunning; a panoramic vista of the mountain tops across to Oban and the Isle of Mull, prompting me to state: “Row after row of them, and all as steep as you f***ing like,” while the A85 Oban to Tyndrum road and the railway line that runs parallel with it weaved their separate ways through the valley way down below.
The first part of the north-easterly descent down Allt Coire Gaothaich to Cononish is extremely steep; it’s one of those drops that from the top looks like it flattens out once you’ve tackled the initial technical bit, but as you get closer it’s all too evident that you’ve still got a long way down to go.
Once you reach the farm track at the River Cononish it’s plain sailing to Tyndrum, though naturally by now you just want to finish; you’ve done the hard work, it’s time to get a beer and relax.
It had been a tiring day and it was a real shame that about an hour after we arrived at the overnight stop at Pine Trees Leisure Park, in Tyndrum, the rain started to come down; although rather then, than earlier in the day.
The next day from Tyndrum to Glencoe Mountain Resort was off-piste again, but only slightly and nowhere near as strenuous as Ben Lui.
There’s a point on Thomas Telford’s Parliamentary Road on Rannoch Moor, roughly two-thirds along from Inveroran Hotel and King’s House Hotel, where you can join the Old Military Road.
Now don’t get too excited; it’s not a made-up road like Telford’s it’s mostly a grassy single-track path, but if you’ve walked the Parliamentary road numerous times previously it’s a welcome detour before join together close to Blackrock Cottage.
The following day from Glencoe Mountain Resort to Kinlochleven was to be another hard off-piste walk; more difficult than I’d thought it was going to be partly due to tired legs.
As with the Ben Lui “expedition”, the majority of the day would be well away from the West Highland and with lots of yomping.
From behind King’s House Hotel we took a north-west route up the 2,811ft Corbett, Beinn a’ Chrulaiste, before a boggy descent to the longest dam in the Highlands, that of Blackwater Reservoir, built in the early 1900s to supply water to the aluminium factory down below in Kinlochleven.
At just under 3,000ft in length, the dam was longer than the hill we’d just been up; but the path on top of it was a lot easier to walk, although we shouldn’t really have gone across it as it was blocked off at both ends by gates and “no entry” signs, but we wanted/needed to get to Kinlochleven via the River Leven valley on the other side.
Before we did that we took an unscheduled visit a short way down the access track to a graveyard on the side of a small hill where 22 concrete headstones act as a permanent reminder of some of the navvies who died building the dam.
Across the dam it was a mostly woodland walk down a path once used by the navvies to get to work from Kinlochleven; for us it lead to our overnight stay at the Blackwater Hostel & Campsite.
The following and final day would see two more slight variations. We could have gone across the Mamore Forest but we were both pretty fatigued so our first off-piste of the day was up to the, now closed, Mamore Lodge hotel and then left to join the path below Stob Coire na h-Eirghe.
Not much of a diversion but a good climb to start the day with.
At the other end of the final day the West Highland winds down a broad forest track to Glen Nevis and onto the road to the original finish next to the A82 roundabout.
Time for a final detour; instead of heading down to the Glen Nevis road we followed the forest signs for Fort William, as opposed to the West Highland Way, knowing that this would take us around Cow Hill which overlooks the town and we’d drop down from there and arrive at the back of our accommodation, Bank Street Lodge.
We didn’t check into Bank Street though; we carried on past it, down the hill, left at the RBS and into High Street for the final couple of minutes’ walk to the far end and the official finish line.
Dropping our daybags off at the hostel wouldn’t have felt right, they’d been with us for the whole journey and it was only fitting they’d be with us as we strode across the finish line to rapturous applause from the waiting crowd. (That last bit didn’t happen.)
In total we’d covered around 110-miles. We were worn out, so much so that despite discussing the possibility of climbing Ben Nevis the following day we opted for a low-level walk from the town centre across to Lochyside and Caol and the start/end of the Caledonian Canal, and then onto the eight locks of Neptune’s Staircase and a couple of miles beyond.
What was supposed to be a relaxing day turned out to be 16-miles but we did have lunch next to the canal, accompanied by the usual ducks/geese/swans.
And we also saw Inverlochy Castle, a stream train (from afar) on the Fort William to Mallaig Jacobite line, and the Banavie swing bridge in action above the Caledonian as well venturing through the garden city of Inverlochy, built in the 1920s to house workers from the nearby aluminium plant.
Mission accomplished; time for a curry and a few beers.
By Richard Hamer.