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

West Highland Way Adventures: Part 2

Day 3: Rowardennan to Inverarnan

Having felt like I’d not slept at all – no idea why, but I saw many hours on the clock – we set off from Rowardennan in the knowledge that this would be a tough day. The route largely hugs the lochside throughout, climbing gently up and down, over stony boulders and tree roots. Our first photo stop was just outside Rowardennan.

Leaving Balmaha and heading along Loch Lomond on the West Highland Way

The path was fairly good initially. Then the choice had to be made – low road or high road. There really is no decision: the low road hugs the lochside as far as possible, undulating according to the tree routes, erosion or terrain, while the high road follows the fire road, rejoining further along.

We met one of our fellow walkers on this part of the route and enjoyed some chat. Although the cloud was very low, the worst precipitation we encountered was a very fine drizzle. Not enough to give us any cause for concern, but just enough to play havoc with my hair! Already suffering from the change of water, I finished the day looking like I’d been dragged through a hedge backwards- several times!!

Up and down we went, small undulations, never enough to be bothersome, but sufficient to ensure care was needed to avoid tripping on roots and stones.

Loch Lomond

This continued for a number of miles until we finally reached the Inversnaid Hotel. This has been refurbished since we last visited and now has a really welcoming walkers entrance, featuring storage for rucksacks and boots with CCTV from all angles, and an area where you’re welcome to eat your own packed lunch. We opted instead for scones and coffee – a very tasty treat, and a lovely pick me up.

Leaving Inversnaid the toughest section of the Way is reached. This is due to the technicality of the terrain. It’s significantly more rooty and bouldery than the previous section, again with single track paths, and these frequently rise and fall as progress is made. There are also umpteen bridges, steps and even a ladder. It was at this ladder that Bruce dropped one of his poles while taking a photo, then having to climb down a drop to retrieve it!

When all of this was past, we came towards the Bothy at Doune. Here we saw a man looking intently at the hillside from various vantage points. I waved at him and he acknowledged me with a friendly wave, continuing searching through his binoculars. As we took photos, also taking some of our walking buddy for her to send to family in Canada, he approached and I had to enquire as to what he was looking for. (Facebook page: Doune Cottage)

Cue, the most enthusiastic discussion in some time! He’d bought a derelict house, retired from work, and made it a project to completely renovate it over the next few years. The house itself has a really interesting and colourful history, but has fallen on hard times through neglect, and it’s going to be brought back to life through a real labour of love, providing a home for years to come. The fact that the only access is across the loch or along the Way is no issue. I do look forward to following the Facebook updates and seeing how this progresses.

West Highland Way, heading towards Doune Bothy & Cottage

Inspired, we continued and headed up the end of the loch to the high point that affords stunning views all the way back. Shortly before reaching this we saw a few of the feral goats that live on the lochside including a cute little kid. If we hadn’t seen them we’d certainly have smelled them; they were rather fragrant to say the least!

Finally we made our descent into Beinglas campsite, enjoying a quick drink before embarking on the final leg of our journey.

Beinglas Farm Bar

Here we had to phone for collection to the Drovers Inn as the bridge across was taken down by flooding in August. Waiting for another couple of friends from the Way our plan was to head back together. Unfortunately on pick up it appeared our transport was oversubscribed so it was an interesting journey to say the least! Let’s just say I now know what it feels like to be a sheep!

Transport to the Drovers Inn

A fantastic evening was had in the Drovers, enjoying the company of people from the Way and others visiting the Inn as tourists.

Day 4: Inverarnan to Bridge of Orchy
We opted for an early start today for two reasons: firstly, we had a long day ahead, and secondly, there was rain forecast late afternoon and we hoped to stay ahead of it.

We met fellow walkers at breakfast and I thoroughly enjoyed my porridge; it tastes so much better when properly cooked in a pan!

The Drovers Inn, Inverarnan

A quick turnaround saw us out of our room and deposited back on the West Highland Way by 8:30 am. Deposited just at the start of the Way, we missed out a very short uphill section from Beinglas. However, we drove it last night so no great loss.

It was good to be on better terrain again. We made good time from the outset, enjoying the scenery, more able to drink in the autumn colours when not having to focus on our feet.

Ahead, we were aware that the bridge at Derrydarroch had come down during the flooding in August. This meant another diversion and we’d been advised that fording the river would be challenging due to the drop on either side.

West Highland Way, on route from Inverarnan to Tyndrum

In the event we were pleasantly surprised. A lack of rain meant that the water level was really low and crossing was easy. How the lad we’d met earlier had fallen in baffles me! Unless he’d gone straight off the ‘bridge’ at which point the water was pretty deep, but easily avoided by walking a few feet in either direction.

Missing bridge at Derrydarroch, West Highland Way

Further along, the good trails continued although sadly the evidence of the flooding also continued. As we approached a wee cottage, Bruce wondered how close the water would have come. Sadly it appears it might have gone straight through it.

The scenery continued to reward us, staying ahead of the cloud and only being subjected to a very light spot of rain on occasion. At no point did we consider putting our waterproofs on, such were the favourable conditions again.

The route, in our minds, was split into several sections, including sheep creeps under railway and road.

West Highland Way passing under the road

Following this section the path condition greatly improved with a section of newly laid track. I believe there’s been some controversy around this as it looks very manmade, but the upside for us was that it made good terrain for tired feet.

Newly laid section of trail on West Highland Way

Our next target was the wigwams at Strathfillan, plan being to stop for a coffee break. We ambled along happily, sometimes having a song or two to keep us going. Luckily we both have a shared humour as at times this got a little silly. Just as well we were on our own!

Just ahead of the farm we saw the Crianlarich munros and I was delighted that I could say I’d done them all. The wigwam shop was very welcoming and the coffee and millionaires shortbread went down a treat. As always, food in the great outdoors is the best!

Not long before this, we’d met an American couple and enjoyed some good chat as we walked. As with running, it’s amazing how quickly time passes when you’re engaging in conversation. They passed us when we were stopped at the wigwams, but we later caught them again and we walked into a Tyndrum together. The first shot was captured just ahead of Strathfillan, the second the awkward cow that refused to pose for a photo at Strathfillan itself!

A gentle walk alongside the river took us into Tyndrum through the community woodland. I love this section – some lovely trails that would be fun to run if this was your local stomping ground.

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Passing through Tyndrum we resisted the urge to stop, either to drop off our rucksacks or for coffee and cake, the fear being that we might not get going again. As we headed out we heard sirens; sadly these became frequent with multiple emergency vehicles passing by on their way to a serious road traffic accident. This led us to reflect on how fortunate we are to be on the trails, experiencing the scenery and the weather, adverse or otherwise.

Our journey ended in Bridge of Orchy with a few hours to pass ahead of the train back to Tyndrum. Fellow walkers ambled in and it was a pleasure to chat with them, exchanging stories of the trails.

Safely back in Tyndrum we’ve now eaten and have caught up with other folks from the trail. Next step, bed!

May you all travel safely wherever the road takes you.

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!