West Highland Way Adventures: The Last Chapter

Day 5: Bridge of Orchy to Kinlochleven

Awoke feeling very refreshed after a great night’s sleep at Tigh na Fraoch. Whenever we stay in Tyndrum (which we do fairly regularly to access the hills) this is our accommodation of choice. Heather, a lovely host, really makes it feel like coming ‘home’. It was good to catch up on Heather’s news last night – as a fellow runner there are always tales to trade over a cuppa! An early breakfast allowed a relaxed start to the day.

We were collected by taxi and taken back to Bridge of Orchy where we were deposited at the start of the Way. Unsure of the weather with rain showers forecast, we’d opted for base layers and jackets. Heading uphill to begin we quickly warmed up.

Bridge of Orchy from the West Highland Way

The first rain shower came, the waterproof trousers went on. I quickly overheated – I always find that no matter how ‘good’ my waterproofs are, I very quickly feel like I’m being boiled in the bag! The waterproofs came off. Another rain shower came, blowing in from behind. The waterproofs went on.

Loch Tulla, West Highland Way

At this point a decision was made – the waterproofs stay on until Kingshouse, hot or otherwise, and venting legs/pit zips would just have to suffice for cooling.

The path across Rannoch Moor is good. Showers blew through from time to time, usually very short lived, and the sun shone through occasionally. A rainbow appeared on the horizon and stayed with us for much of the way.

The breeze picked up as we progressed and the wind chill was at times considerable. As we headed down towards Kingshouse the wind direction appeared to change and it was particularly biting. I could now appreciate that the forecast of snow in Orchy tonight may not just be a figment of the forecaster’s imagination!

Arrival at The Kingshouse Hotel was timed pretty much perfectly, just ahead of the next rain shower, this time more prolonged – no bad thing as this meant Bruce was happy to sit for more than 5 minutes. We enjoyed a very leisurely lunch in the refurbished and very much upgraded restaurant, enjoying watching the progress of the rain and the deer running around outside through the huge panoramic windows. The cheese on toast was pretty amazing (as was Bruce’s soup).

West Highland Way, Kingshouse to Kinlochleven

Refreshed, and having seen the rain clouds having pretty much passed over, we readied ourselves for venturing out again. Waterproofs on, initially it felt very chilly. This was purely due to the warmth of the hotel, and by the time we’d made our way to the foot of the Devil’s Staircase we were ready yet again to get rid of the layers.

Again, we timed it to perfection! The sun broke through on our way along the path and we were free from the constraints of waterproofs for the slow, steady climb up the ‘staircase’, a blessed relief as it takes quite some time to reach the top and a fair heat is built up! At the top again the rain came on. Another shower and another quick turn for the waterproofs!

I had it in my head that it was all downhill from here but I was wrong. We went down, and then we had to go up again. Up and down the undulating path went. Finally we got to the point I’d remembered where it really was all downhill to Kinlochleven.

Far better than I’d remembered, today it didn’t kill my quads. My knees weren’t screaming (and thankfully neither were his), and before we knew it we’d skipped down to the pipes. The houses by this point were tantalisingly close and suddenly we were at the back of the factory.

Delighted to have completed the longest leg of our journey, we headed straight to the local inn to celebrate before going onwards to our hotel.

Amazed (again) by how good a shower feels, we headed for dinner in the bar and enjoyed some good chat with a couple of guys who were also on the Way. Unlike us, they were camping – the ‘cheaper’ alternative. To clarify, they’d learned that it’s not really cheaper when you spend the night in the cosy bar, rather than outside in your cold tent!

Day 6: Kinlochleven to Fort William

Trying to avoid Bruce’s cold, I spent the night outdoors (or might as well have as I kept the window WIDE open to avoid germs); however, cocooning myself in the duvet gave plenty of warmth and comfort. I guess this is why mummy bags are so popular with campers!

Breakfast at the hotel was excellent – I love smoked salmon, and combine it with scrambled eggs and you’ve got a winner.

Setting off, it was up and out of Kinlochleven and I began a steady plod. Surprisingly, my legs felt pretty good again. I’ve been amazed this trip how strong I feel and how little DOMS I’ve experienced. It looks like despite cutting back on distance (not running at all for a fortnight!), the odd yoga practice and strength training have done me good.

Heading up and out of Kinlochleven on the West Highland Way

Ascent aside, it was a beautiful morning and the flurry of snow on the tops last night made for stunning views. The climb was long but we finally started to see the top of the tree line and the path levelling our ahead of us.

Leaving Kinlochleven on the West Highland Way

Climb over, the path ambles pleasantly along between the hills. This is easy walking, the only downside today being that we were heading into the wind. What a difference in conditions! Although still lovely in the sunshine, there was a real bite in the air and a wintry feel to things.

This reminds me why I’m not a great lover of winter hills – I seem to fluctuate between extremes, very hot or freezing!

Along this stretch we were caught up by a fellow walker. One of the things I love most about walking is the people you meet and, as always, it was good to exchange tales of the walk and hear someone else’s story. An interesting man, we walked quite a few miles as a group, easily passing the time.

Company on the trails, West Highland Way

Sunlight coming and going changed the colours and the landscape quite dramatically! I’ve loved the autumn tones this week, so beautiful. We’ve also been so fortunate with the weather, again only having a few very brief spots of rain today. The thought of returning to reality next week is not appealing at present. I’d happily just continue on.

The first glimpses of Ben Nevis came into view, thoroughly majestic and impressively clear. It’s a rare sight in all ways to see the Ben so clearly. It definitely looked far more picturesque with the snow covering.

Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain, dusted by snow in October on a clear day

Ahead we dropped down before rising up through what was once forest. We parted ways with our walking buddy here, continuing on together. Dropping down through the trees finally with the Glen Nevis in sight, feelings were mixed. I’ve so enjoyed the walk this week and definitely need to do something like this again. Thoughts are drifting to next summer.

The road that leads from Glen Nevis to the finish of the West Highland Way is probably one of the least inspiring sections. It very much feels like a return to civilisation being back on tarmac, and not in a good way.

Back on the road, Glen Nevis round to Fort William, finishing the West Highland Way

We passed a few walkers on this final stretch, chatting briefly as we went. Coming into Fort William proper we got chatting to a couple at the ‘original’ end of the Way, ending up walking to the finish point in the town centre with them.

Photographs taken it was time to relax. Heading for the Grog & Gruel, we were joined by the couple we’d ended the Way with, shortly thereafter by the chap we’d walked with earlier. Good banter ensued and provided a great end to our adventure. Once again, the Way came up trumps proving why it’s such a special trip.

Statue at the end of the West Highland Way, Fort William

Tyndrum, Days 4-6 (‘Spring’ holiday)

Day 4: Tyndrum to Bridge of Orchy
Having very much enjoyed the last few days but feeling somewhat tired, I’d resolved last night that today would be a day off. The original plan had been to have breakfast, read my book (Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine) and go for a run along the West Highland Way. The weather forecast went in my favour though as with high winds and rain to come, Bruce opted to have a ‘rest’ day too so I had company for a walk instead.

Thus, after another excellent breakfast (freshly baked trout for him & porridge, fruit, scones and yogurt for me, no chance of starving when staying with Heather at Tigh-Na-Fraoch, we headed off along the West Highland Way to Bridge of Orchy. This is a fine easy walk, all the more so when the legs are weary, and we made good time.

At Auch we diverted to recce the river crossings for Beinn Mhanach, a potential walk for the coming days. Our concern was that the river may be in spate due to the rise in temperatures, and while it wasn’t excessively high it was quite fast flowing. The decision was made to leave this for a summer day instead.

West Highland Way: Tyndrum to Bridge of Orchy
WHW Tyndrum to Bridge of Orchy

Heading back onto the trail, we passed the Bridge of Orchy Hotel and continued up the WHW to get to the viewpoint, stopping for photos before heading back to the bar.

As always along the way, there were some friendly folks to chat to – these three turned out to be in the same boat as us, walking the hills and staying lower because of the weather.

Heading off we went out early to catch the bus. Having successfully hitchhiked from this point previously I suggested that we should try to thumb a lift ahead of the bus to save a few bob! In the ten minutes we had two cars stop – the first, a mountain biker who was willing to rearrange his car (and bike) to fit us in – we declined as with the bus being imminent it seemed rather unfair on him; the second was two ice climbers who’d been on Ben Nevis and were heading back down South. We were delighted, simple pleasures, and enjoyed the chat on the road back to Tyndrum. As we walked back towards our B & B the bus passed. Thankfully their car was long gone!

To complete the circle, I can now add retrospectively that we came home via Bridge of Orchy in order to return the favour, giving a lift along to a lovely young American couple who had decided to knock a few miles off their long day. Balance is restored!

Day 5: Beinn Achaladair & Beinn a’Chreachain
It was one of those perfect hill days according to the weather forecasters (Met Office, I hasten to add, not MWIS) – not too windy, foggy for starting out but due to clear with the prospect of sun. It was therefore a no-brainer for us. We needed to do something scenic and may as well go for a big day out!

Off once agaain the first challenge of the day was to be the river crossing at the Water of Tulla. We walked up and down for a bit trying to find a good crossing place.

Heading out to Beinn Achaladair (in search of a crossing place)

Options were limited, with deeper water in places and a lack of stones within jumping distance; I can run but I’m not blessed with the ability to jump or throw! Bruce eventually bit the bullet and crossed, only dipping one leg in to the knee which with his gaiters on wasn’t too bad. Me, being a bit more cautious and accident prone, walked further upstream, walked some more, and finally had to strip off more of my clothes than I’d like in order to don a spare pair of liner socks and wade across, very grateful that there was nobody else around for all our sakes. It wasn’t as cold as anticipated but seeing the supportive husband capturing the moment on camera tipped me over the edge and provoked an impressive array of colourful language!

Safely across, I dried off and dressed. We proceeded to follow the path around, eventually starting to gain some height. The path went on to climb pretty relentlessly and unfortunately there was no sign of the fog burning off.

Eventually reaching the ridge of Beinn a’Chreachain, still in the fog and with tricky underfoot conditions – lots of snow which was a little slidey in places – we opted for the precautionary measure of both the ice axe and crampons. This should have been spectacular but instead was somewhat scary; the ridge narrowed, the wind got up and it wasn’t clear how far the drop was due to the lack of visibility. Once again I was venturing out with my comfort zone.

Heading up Beinn a'Chreachain

The ridge soon widened and we made it up to the first munro summit of the day. The wind was still strong so we chose not to linger here, instead just pausing for a quick photo before battling on.

Summit of Beinn a'Chreachain

Dropping down was easy enough, the snow assisting with a quick descent before the steep climb to our second summit, Beinn Achaladair began. This was really daunting, appearing just to keep going up into the fog. The fact that the drops were again not visible, combined with a gradient that would challenge me on a fine day, never mind a day like this with snow covering the slopes, again led me to feel a little less than delighted to be here. Ultimately there wasn’t a whole lot of option but to keep going as the prospect of trying to retrace our steps did not appeal either!

Tricky navigation between Beinn a'Chreachain and Beinn Achaladair in snow & fog

Climbing into the cloud we did finally reach a flatter plateau and found the summit. Again, only time for a quick photo stop. Shortly after we paused to put on our waterproof trousers to try and combat the windchill. It really was getting quite bitter and any pause led to slight shivering and feelings of cold seeping in. Top tip for putting your waterproofs on a windy summit: sit on your rucksack; that way nothing’s blowing away, even if there is the danger of squishing any remaining food!

The hard part over, the crampons came off. The snow had softened again which meant that going downhill our feet sunk in well. I felt comforted by this as I figured that worse case scenario I could sit down and stall myself by sinking in should I slip, hopefully not going too far. Thankfully this wasn’t required.

Very snowy descent from Beinn Achaladair

The descent was fairly quick with regular checks of the bearings to ensure we were headed in the right direction. Finally we dropped out of the fog and could see the path ahead which was very refreshing indeed! By this point we only had a few miles left and I was no longer phased by anything! Stream crossing? Wade through it! Snow covering a burn? I’ll take my chances, fall through it and sink in to my knees. What’s the worst that can happen?

Coming off Beinn a'Chreachain

I can’t begin to express how happy I was to see the road appear in the distance and to know that the end was in sight. The day, according to Walk Highlands, should have taken around 7 hours. They’re usually pretty accurate and we finish within their forecasted times, but today was an 8.5 hour day for us.

In all honesty, it’s probably one of the toughest days I’ve done in the hills and again one that pushed me to my limits. Am I glad I did it though? Definitely yes, especially when safely home reflecting on the day with a glass of wine in hand. Amazing how a couple of hours can change perspective on things!

Day 6: Beinn Fhionnlaidh
We headed for Beinn Fhionnlaidh as it was an ‘easy’ munro – relatively short distance and not too long.

A fine easy start, we began by heading along a road towards the estate houses. From here it was quite a steady ascent which felt steep, but this could be due to the miles already in the legs. Mercifully, and for reasons unknown, this was incredibly dry! This was a real treat after all the boggy ground we’ve had.

Progressing upwards, we were slow and steady. It was around 500 m before we started to get cold as it was very windy indeed! The jackets went on here and the hood went up as it’s a struggle to see with hair all over your face! It’s one of the rare times I envy my follically challenged husband!

Heading up to Beinn Fhionnlaidh, decent paths for a munro

The route continued climbing steadily, we passed a couple of wee lochans, and the ground became stonier. The surprising thing was that there was very little snow. Thus, we’d carried our crampons and ice axes for nothing – this was in itself a pleasant surprise.

Beinn Fhionnlaidh, summit cairn approaching

Continuing to the summit, the views were absolutely stunning! We saw Ben Nevis, Mull, and so many mountains around the Glencoe area. Beautiful! While Bruce captured the views I sat down having been blasted against the trig point by the wind, increasing my sense of vulnerability.

Amazingly enough, as we turned and made our way down the wind completely died. It was quite surreal having been buffeted all the way up. This allowed us to progress at a leisurely pace and stop to enjoy lunch in the sunshine. Beyond this it was a fairly easy walk, quickly descending back towards the estate houses.

Beinn Fhionnlaidh, descent from the plateau

What a way to finish the holidays! A truly spectacular day!