WHAT makes someone a veteran in terms of long-distance walking? And what defines a long-distance walk? Does it have to be recognised by the Long Distance Walkers Association?
Can it be a long walk you’ve made up yourself? What if you’ve done the same route several times, does that make you a veteran?
I’ve walked the West Highland Way six times over the past 14 years; I thought it was more in less time, but even so I don’t think it makes me an old hand.
It’s been pointed out to me that other walks are available; but like a moth to the light I can’t help being drawn to the West Highland, the 96-mile path from Milngavie to Fort William that attracts 85,000 people a year from all corners of the globe, although only 30,000 complete it.
But why is it so special? Is it that the start is easy to get to or that the return journey by train through the Highlands is an extension of the adventure you’ve just completed?
Could it be the camaraderie with the other walkers that you’ll see day in, day out? All of you heading in the same direction but at different times of the day and at different paces, but you’ll invariably bump into each other at lunch-time or in the pub at the end of the day.
It’s certainly not the midges. Ah, the midges, you can run but you can’t hide.
Maybe it’s the gradual change of scenery from the semi-rural outskirts of Milngavie, a few miles to the north of Glasgow, which takes you through a country park and into countryside that could be pretty much anywhere in the UK, albeit that the hills around are pretty big.
And then there’s the first real test, the 350-metre high Conic Hill which gives the first sighting of Loch Lomond before a steep ascent to its rhododendron-lined shoreline.
Beyond that the countryside begins to get rugged and the hills become dominated by Munros and after the watershed of Allt Coire Chailein just beyond Tyndrum, where the waters begin to flow east one way and west the other, you really are now in the Highlands and this area has always been a mental tipping point for me.
You’re just over halfway – Crianlarich claims the official mid-point title – and your legs, knees and feet should, by now, be conditioned to walking mile upon mile, day after day.
It’s highly likely you’ll be feeling tired but, c’mon; you can do it! Who knows what adventures lie ahead? You’ve got the towering twins of Beinn Dorain and Beinn an Dothaidh to walk past before the joy of seeing the Bridge of Orchy Hotel, a beautiful remote white-coloured building that has echoes of motoring in the more sedate 1950s.
And just up the road there are the snow gates that prevent motorists driving to Glen Coe when the snow comes down; this is serious weather country.
Over the hill from the Bridge of Orchy there’s the tranquillity of Inveroran and its solitary hotel before the wild openness of Rannoch Moor and General Wade’s road, or for the more adventurous the old military road, both of which afford views of Glen Coe and the straight as a die A82, the towering Buachaille Etive Mor (you’ll have seen photographs of it on shortbread tins) and the 17th century Kings House Hotel with its welcoming climber’s bar.
Few West Highland Wayers stop here preferring to press on to Kinlochleven via the Devil’s Staircase, a zigzag climb that is the highest point on the WHW at 550-metres but in reality it is nothing to fear; it’s certainly not as strenuous as the previously mentioned Conic Hill between Drymen and Balmaha.
The descent into Kinlochleven is long and tiring but gives panoramic views of the mountains to the north, including Ben Nevis, as well as Blackwater Reservoir with its 914-metre long dam which is the lengthiest in the Highlands and was built to service the aluminium smelting plant in Kinlochleven, the last stopping point before the final day.
Ah, Kinlochleven; a strange place. It has an air of being down at heel since the closure of the Alcan plant in 1996, but it is slowly fighting back by establishing itself as a base for outdoor activities such as walking, mountain biking and climbing; and is even home to the Ice Factor National Ice Climbing Centre, one of the top five visitor attractions in the Highlands, and home to the UK’s highest indoor articulated rock climbing wall; whatever that is.
It’s easy to feel a bit sad in Kinlochleven because in a few hours’ time it’ll all be over; only 16 miles left, mission accomplished. Head to the Ice Factor’s Bothan Bar and treat yourself to an extra beer tonight.
The final day starts with a tough climb out of Kinloch before winding up the valley below Stob Coire na h-Eirghe ahead of a slow turn to the right for lots of up and down through Nevis Forest and the twisting descending track into Glen Nevis and the road to Fort William for the finish at the obelisk outside the Ben Nevis Highland Centre; or at least it was until 2010 when it was moved to Gordon Square at the far end of the High Street taking the official distance from 95-miles to 96.
Shake hands on the finish line, take photos of each other next to the Sore Feet statue of a seated walker and then head a few metres back down High Street to the Grog & Gruel for a celebratory pint; and plan for tomorrow.
There is a train of thought that to truly complete the West Highland you should finish with an ascent of Ben Nevis; it’s a fitting way to end the walk and seeing as you’re ‘in town’ you might as well do it and squeeze the final drop of energy out of your tired body.
Or you could just carry on walking because Fort William is also the start of the Great Glen Way and the East Highland Way as well as the Cape Wrath Trail; although the latter is a bit hardcore.
When you get home and look through your photographs you’ll realise what an incredible journey you’ve been on and how, at the time, you weren’t fully aware of how the scenery changed very gradually from soft to rugged.
And you’ll remember the wildlife; the sheep (obviously), the Highland cows, the wild goats, the deer, the hairy Broom Moth caterpillars, the frogs and the lizards. Yes lizards.
By Richard Hamer.