The West Highland Way

Continuing on from blog ‘Ben Nevis’ which is at
https://kevollier.com/2012/09/13/bennevis/

Leaving the youth hostel the next morning, four things struck me. One was how there was a definite lack of youth at the hostel and having visited quite a few over the years I do wonder why the Youth Hosteling Associations don’t simply leave off the word youth in their name as youth is in the minority at every hostel that I’ve ever been to, unless of course everyone really was aged between 11 and 19 (which I assume is the age range of youth) and all the hiking and panting combined with rising pubescent, testosterone levels has prematurely triggered the onset of grey face hair, bony knees and bad shorts. The second thing that struck me was how very seriously hung over I was finding myself and the third thing was the awareness that I now had to walk 16 miles today to our next stop (with no cafes or pubs or even a hot dog stand en route) which brought me to the fourth, which was I’d never in my life actually walked more than 8 miles in one day before and then I wasn’t carrying a weighty rucksack and walking through changeable weather in the Scottish mountains and all this on stiff legs from the record-breaking Ben Nevis ascent and descent only a day earlier.

As we wandered to the path the other lads insisted that I toke on the budbomb as, I think they said, I’d feel better and despite my rebuttals I succumbed and no more than ten minutes later I could no longer feel the rucksack and I was smiling the sort of smile that rather quickly makes one’s face hurt especially as we reached the beginning of The West Highland Way only to be met with this sign

This was the moment we learned that we were doing this most famed of British hikes the wrong way. This however, if you want to experience the trail and its surrounding grandeur of mountains in peace, we discovered, is the only way. Kinclochlevan is the next stop, 16 miles away – nothing between us and there except wilderness, and thankfully a nice path so we didn’t once have to resort to machetes, so all the other walkers that would be coming the correct way wouldn’t get to us for hours and indeed we had the mountains to ourselves for a good four hours. To ourselves, that is, except for a convention of sheep. Gazillions of them and all welcoming us into and out of their view, which was 100% of the time, with their melodic bleating.

The path, for what seemed a very long time, followed the bottom of a valley bereft of trees and it reminded me of a time when in a Geography lesson at school I’d nearly convinced Dave Black, who fancied himself as ‘half Scottish’, that there were no trees in Scotland and as luck would have it that very lesson had a slide show about the geology of the highlands and every slide that graced the overhead projector was devoid of trees. Shaking my head and gesturing to the proof of my argument Dave got so enraged he raised his hand to interrupt the one teacher you never interrupted and asked, ‘Sir, are there any trees in Scotland?’ which was so random to the lesson that Mr Statham sent him immediately to stand outside the headmasters office for being a buffoon.

But by now, four of the five of us were, what we referred to, as off our trolleys, and I was walking alongside Phil who ‘doesn’t do drugs’ when we both became aware that if you stood still, you could, if you paid close focused attention – and this is a great thing to do with your kids – pick out one bleat from the cacophony of baas and mews and marry it, eventually, to one sheep. You must remember, we are probably looking at a thousand sheep on the  slopes on each side of the valley constantly bleating and we knew we’d picked out one bleat to one particular young sheep (I think they’re commonly known as lambs) that was moving slowly down the slope. Now, if this wasn’t amazing enough we did the same to a sheep on the other slope which was also making its way down and we observed this for what seemed like hours, but was likely about ten minutes, and as if Walt Disney himself was directing proceedings these two sheep both walked on to the path about 100 yards in front of us, touched noses and then walked off back into the melee. Pure gold.

But the weirdest part of this day wasn’t known until 10 years later when photos were finally browsed over. Duncan and I had been captured on camera in a ‘look at the majesty and how off our faces are we?’ moment and we never did see anything in the sky, none of us did. But the photo wasn’t messed with and there are several replica prints showing the exact same thing even though there is nothing on any photos taken before or after.

                                                                                                                             Dunc telling me how wonderful it all is and note the lack of trees but what are those things in the sky?

It was after this that the first walkers appeared and for a good hour it was a constant stream of them, all with their ski sticks marching away saying hello with a look on their face as if to say, ‘are you mad, you’re going the wrong way man and you have no ski sticks, what are you, townies’? – though I except this could be paranoia given the amount of plant life we’d set alight inside that budbomb – before they dwindled down to a few every ten minutes then a straddler or two after another 20 and we mused on how their experience, going in the right direction, was so much different from ours as they’d all be near together all day and there would be no time or space whatsoever to get involved in bleat focusing whereas we only saw people for that two-hour window and then we had it all to ourselves once more – and on we went for a good nights rest at Kinlochlevan before another jaunt the next day, through Glencoe to our posh overnight stop at the Kings House Hotel where we basically, but unwittingly caused total chaos ….

NDE on Ben Nevis

I knew this was going to be a classic ‘lads walk’ when checking in at Bristol airport and newcomer Reg decided to put his budbomb through security. A budbomb is a highly sophisticated polished metal, chambered pipe designed for smoking the buds of cannabis, free of tobacco, delivering a direct hit to the brain. That’s where the bud part comes in. The bomb part isn’t called such because it does this type of delivering but because it’s shaped like a small bomb and therefore not the most ideal thing to put through the security scanner at airports. But this was pre 911 and security were not looking for bombs or narcotics at that time, having their hands full with people smuggling an extra bottle of Archers or having 20 cigarettes over the limit, so suffice to say we landed at Glasgow without interruption.  We transferred to a train that lolled through the scenery of Scotland to finally drop us at Fort William which is the town at the end of Scotland’s greatest trail and the reason we were here, to walk part of the West Highland Way. It seemed however that we had gone in through the out door so to speak as we were about to walk three days over this trail the wrong way.

Walked ‘correctly’ the 154Km (96 miles) Route starts at Milngavie passes through Mugdock Country Park, follows the shores of Loch Lomond, passing Ben Lomond, through Glen Falloch and Strathfillan, crossing Rannoch Moor, past Buachaille Etive Mor to the head of Glencoe, climbing the Devil’s Staircase, descending to sea level to cross the River Leven at the head of Loch Leven before entering Lairigmor and Glen Nevis and finishes at Gordon Square in Fort William. The thing was we weren’t going to be walking it correctly because for one we hadn’t got the latest fad that every other walker without exception was carrying, these ski sticks whose only benefit seemed to be of occupying one’s arms whilst the legs are busy – a bit like stabilizers for walkers and for two we had what probably every walker without exception didn’t have which was enough dope to wilt a field of thistles. Well at least we hoped we had, since we hadn’t risked taking the stuffed A5 envelope onto an aircraft but instead posted it, for our attention, to the Glen Nevis Youth Hostel which was to be our home for the first couple of nights and that was where we headed to straight from the station. On checking in, we smiled as the receptionist said, ‘ah, you have a strange smelling package here’. You have to love Royal Mail for their drug courier service and at no extra cost.

The next day saw three of the group hanging around Fort William for the day testing the contents of that package whilst Phil and I arose at the crack of dawn to surmount Ben Nevis, which looked very welcoming in the morning May sunshine wearing its thick snowy cap. Nevis is the highest mountain in the UK at 4408 feet (1344 metres) and the starting point is only about 65 feet above sea level still leaving 4343 feet to ascend, which we did in just over three hours since Phil informed me, approximately half way up, that he was terrified of heights but was ok if he didn’t stop and hoped I wouldn’t let him down being his mate and all.

We had the mountain more or less completely to ourselves and didn’t see one other walker whatsoever until we hit the scree zone, (always used in films that depict hell), at about 3500 feet which was now covered in cloud and visibility was only around 30 feet. This lone walker appeared out of the mist like a wraith whose only reason for being there was to inform a man terrified of heights ‘to be very careful, it’s deadly up there’. Phil had to be more than cajoled to continue but this he did, albeit even faster. I remember shouting to his disappearing form to slow down for fucks sake otherwise you’ll be on your own with a dead body to deal with. Not long after this we hit the snow line and within a hundred metres it was a foot thick and we experienced what was essentially a white out (as opposed to a ‘whitey’ which no doubt our three, estranged ground level companions were having around about the same time). The visibility was less than 10 feet and we’d lost the path as the local council selfishly don’t send salt gritters up this far, and it was very, very cold but as the ground still had a slope to it and knowing we were very near the top, we continued and then two things happened. We’d been discussing Marcus, one of our fellow walkers and a best friend to both of us who had died in tragic circumstances a couple of years before and as we were doing so a lone little bird flew beside us and landed right next to us at this great, narnian height to allow us enough time to look at each other and then to the bird and say ‘Hi Marcus’ before it promptly flew away. It raised one of *those* smiles. With this in mind I kept trudging through the shin-deep snow and got a tad lost in my own thoughts thinking about the movie Touching the Void and the Rivers of Babylon song, when Phil screamed at me to stop – which I did abruptly. He told me to re-trace my steps and not to move onwards one more inch. I obeyed because his tone was so serious, he must have obviously spotted a grizzly bear coming my way and if not a grizzly then possibly a dreaded winged haggis.
 Well it turned out that I owed him one as I was no longer walking on land but on a snow overhang which just happened to be overhanging the 700-metre (2,300 ft) high cliffs of the north face which are among the highest cliffs in the UK.

The snow overhang in question though not the same day. This one being clear

Although I was the one who nearly actually died, it was actually Phil who really nearly died and by now he was almost invisible as his face was whiter than the pure driven snow surrounding him and it didn’t seem sensible, that minutes later at the found summit, to open a bottle of whisky and to have no more than two minutes rest before making our anxious descent. I think we are the first people on Earth to get up and down Ben Nevis within 5 hours without running.  Alas, we soon met back up with the other three who had no interest in our adventures, preferring to giggle a lot. We all headed for a local pub which we sat in until closing time, making our plans and sharing our thoughts about what the next few days held walking ‘The Way’. We left Phil asleep slumped at the table and stood in the street looking (and giggling – bear in mind we were only in our 30’s and 40’s) through the window, marveling at Phil’s reaction as the cleaner prodded him for several minutes before he got up and wandered for what he thought was the door but what was instead the pub kitchen. These things have to be done.

To be continued…………