West Highland Way, February 2000
This February I decided to walk part of the West Highland Way.
I had walked the entire length (95 miles) a couple of summers ago, and wanted to see how different it would be in winter. The earlier trip had been as part of a group of 9 people, using Travel-lite to help with carrying baggage. So to make this as different as possible, I went alone, and carried everything with me.
The weather in the prior week was, unsurprisingly, not very encouraging, so I decided to only do the northern half of the WHW, starting at Tyndrum. This allowed me to skip the section along Loch Lomond (which could easily be wet), as well as the section around ??? Farm south of Crianlarich, which would undoubtedly be wet and boggy.
This reduced the walk from the total of 95 miles to ??, and made it a fairly obvious 4 day trek. I booked the on-route nights ahead of time, since there was some possibility that the hotels would be shut for winter. Although I didn't expect to find any of them full, the chance of a shut-down and the lack of alternative (without a long walk) convinced me to book ahead.
Prelude (Sunday Feb 6th, Monday morning)
I drove up from Edinburgh to Fort William on Sunday afternoon, and went looking for a hotel. I knew that I would need an early start the next day to get the train to Tyndrum, so I wanted one as near the station as possible. Found that the ??? Alexandria ??? hotel was very convenient, at the railway station end of the High St., and had special walk-in rates much reduced from their usual room price. So we agreed that I'd get the same walk-in rate for the following Thursday night, and would leave the car in their car park. Probably the first big advantage of doing this in mid-winter; it'd be out of my budget in summer.
Went over to Nevisport, just across the road, to read the detailed weather forecast for next few days. The shop is full of potential climbers and skiers, all looking disconsolate because the forecast (showers, heavy at times, possibility of snow, windy, freezing level up above 2500 feet) isn't to their liking. I may have been the only one there who was fairly satisfied by it. No need to take the heavy boots, though I decided to take the ice axe and crampons just to be cautious.
Dinner at the Grog & Gruel Pub and Restaurant; don't be put off by the name, they have the best Mexican food in Fort William, and possibly in the whole Western Highlands. OK, so that may not be the biggest category of restaurant, and therefore something of a half-hearted compliment. But provided you can accept the unusual pronunciations, and some of the least spicy food ever to look like Mexican, this is highly recommended.
Monday morning (very early), catch the train from Fort William down to Tyndrum. Getting up at 6:15 am on vacation seems completely unreasonable; I was really glad I got a hotel near the station, so running over to catch the train because I'm late wasn't too bad. It would have been very embarrassing to pull a muscle now and have to cancel the whole walk. Drank too much coffee on the train, then found that everything at Tyndrum Upper was closed while the platforms are being dug up. Thank heavens it's not too far along the road to the loos at the Clifton Coffee Shop (aka the Green Welly Shop and associated cafe), where I read the detailed forecast (yet again), and drank more coffee. Unfortunately, the forecast hadn't improved overnight.
Tyndrum to Inveroran (9 miles, 14 km)
The first day would take me from Tyndrum to Inveroran Arms. The previous time, we stayed at the Bridge of Orchy Hotel, so this is a good opportunity to stay in the oldest and one of the most interesting looking hotels along the way. Last time doing the full walk, we stayed overnight at BofO, and even after delaying for an hour waiting for the right sun/cloud combination for a photograph of Loch ?? we passed the Inveroran too early to stop for even a pre-lunch drink.
After the coffee in Tyndrum, it wasn't easy to rouse myself out of the warm dry cafe and get started. But at least the thought of carrying everything for the next 4 days made it unusually easy to resist the temptations of the Green Welly shop, so I came out having bought only what was on the shopping list.
The first section out of Tyndrum provides great views of the railway and to a lesser extent of the roads. Interesting to consider the different choices of route for the railway (sweeping round the hill to the east to follow a contour), the old road (starting out along the hill, but cutting across the flat and slightly wet river plain) and the new road (climbing rapidly up and over the hillside to the west to save distance). Unfortunately, gentle rain and low cloud limit the chances of good photographs, but the Highland cattle on Auch Farm are always worth the time. Came past the farm just as the shepherd (or rather, the sheepdogs) were gathering the sheep in from one of the large fields, and then separating out a small number and putting them in the adjacent field. Best thing was they did it downwind of me, so I could put up my jacket hood and stand protected from the weather to watch.
Shortly after this, the rain became sleet became snow became sleet again became ..... so no more photographs for today.
The sleet/snow got heavy just around the time I got to the "sheep-creep" where the path crosses under the railway. Had thought this might be a place to stop in shelter for a snack or elevenses, but found the creep itself was quite wet and muddy, not to mention smaller and cramped and well sheep-crapped so would only be a worthwhile shelter if the weather was much worse than moderate winds and light snow.
So I stopped instead on the stile just beyond it; at least I had a level seat with backrest, and could prop up the flask and tea cup without worrying about spilling anything. Lorry driver going past on the road hoots loudly and long; I wonder if he thought I was crazy and in need of support, or if he realized how much I was enjoying the solitude and feeling of self-containment that comes from walking in falling snow.
Although there had been almost continuous sleet and snow, there was enough rain mixed in to stop it lying properly, but there was enough to prevent sitting down for tea-breaks every ten minutes. But shortly before Bridge of Orchy station, there's a great little stream crosses the path, with rocks to lean on and shelter from the annoying wind. What more could you ask for lunch?
While passing the station at Bridge of Orchy, I saw two other walkers standing on the platform. Those were the only other walkers I saw all day, so this trip looks like it will be as solitary as expected.
Well, I couldn't possibly pass the Bridge of Orchy hotel without stopping in, could I ? Of course not. Having so recently had lunch, I just have a pint and drip all over their floor, while admiring the photographs on the wall showing how serious the snow can be around there. It wasn't easy dragging myself back into the soaking wet gloves etc. to get back on the way. Just as well I had made bookings, or I might have been tempted to get a room in the Bridge of Orchy Hotel for the night.
The climb up from Bridge of Orchy through the wooded section was pretty damp and muddy, but sheltered. Once into the open, the path gets nicely stony and dry underfoot - but the lack of shelter put me right into the wind and now heavy, wet snow. But there was no temptation to linger at the viewpoint and cairn overlooking Loch ??. The view includes the barely visible Inveroran Arms, but getting there took longer than it seemed it should.
The hotel was empty, I'm apparently the only guest for the night. Landlady takes all the wet gear off to the drying room, while I wander around in dry, lightweight clothes - bliss. Watched the deer in the garden, but already at 5pm it's too dark for photos.
Early dinner, then curled up with a book borrowed from the 'library', and finished up staying up late to finish it before I leave next morning; the landlady saw me reading assiduously over breakfast and offered to let me take it with me and mail it back. Very kind - but I'd have to carry it ! Maybe if I'd chosen a light paperback rather than a heavy hardback.
Inveroran to Kingshouse (? miles, ?? km)
Up early, at a time that would seem totally unreasonable if there wasn't a good excuse such as a walk in the hills to justify it. Weather much better, pale sun and no rain. And the deer were back, so maybe a chance to get some photographs after all.
I had most of the full "Scottish" breakfast, with the excuse of all that walking to come and use up the calories. Biggest danger is using that same excuse at each of the 3 (or 4) meals a day.
By the time I'd eaten, retrieved the now dry clothes almost dry boots, etc. the weather had changed back to same as previous day. We now have the second kind of Scottish weather - just about to rain.
Today starts out easy, with a mile or so of flat walking, unfortunately on a road. But the road goes nowhere except the car park at Victoria Bridge and a couple of lodges and houses, so there's never much traffic, and at 9am on a February morning, nothing at all. The rain eases enough to see the remnants of the Caledonian Forest, including a few deer making sure it won't regenerate.
Kingshouse to Mamore Lodge (? miles, ?? km)
Mamore Lodge to Fort William (? miles, ?? km)
and the rest are coming later ...