Stage 5 – Into the Land of the Giants

Kinlochleven – Fort William

After visiting the little shop one last time for more doughnuts, we climbed out of Kinlochleven on a rough track through the trees. I was feeing much happier than the previous evening and was enjoying the trail thoroughly. We stopped for a doughnut brunch at the top of the hill overlooking the town and chatted about how far we’d come since leaving Milngavie. I think we all knew we would be finishing the hike tomorrow and all had mixed feelings about it. Proud and happy at what we’d achieved but sad that we didn’t have long to go.

We chatted to an American guy who told us about how he used to live in one of the old crofts we would pass later and a couple who were out for a day hike and thought we were doing the same. I will include the conversation in full, below.

“Where are you heading?”
“Fort William”
“Oh, you’ll get there today”
“No, tomorrow is the plan, that’s day 10”
“Sorry, what?”
“Yeah, we started in Milngavie, last Sunday”
“F***, Good Effort!”

We hiked on in good spirits, I’d spotted a place on the map that might hold a final wildcamp for us so we were planning on an 8 mile day. Walking under the big mountains it again felt that the landscape had changed around us again. The peaks of 3000 footers looked down on us and as we passed the old stone croft buildings, Stob Ban looked increasingly accessible. It really looked like 20 minutes up and 10 back and I pleaded to be allowed to leave the group and have a quick run up the nearest Munro. My sensible head won however and we carried on the trail.

Soon we were approaching the woods that I hoped to camp in that night. They were right there, green, on the map. In reality the woods had been clear felled recently and what was left was just a boggy mess of narled and twisted brash and windblows. It’s ok, I said, we’ll find somewhere in the next bit, its a bigger forest. We were passed  by a group of mountain bikers, and then another hiker who had brought his dog on the trail, complete with its own pack. We got our first views of Ben Nevis and continued to find a camp for our last night on the trail.

We got the area marked as forestry on the map to find devastation as far as the eye could see. It was like some post-apocolyptic scene from a movie, just clear fell and windblow everywhere. We had to climb through brash mats laid down across the trail and it was clear that we would struggle to camp up here.  It was like this for 2 miles and we were tired and feeling down but we pushed on. Evan led us onwards and really helped to keep us motivated to get to the campsite at Glen Nevis. We were really looking forward to a final wildcamp on the trail but it just wasn’t safe to do so. We got to camp and pitched up in the dark and the rain after hiking around 13 miles, knowing that tomorrow we would be done.

The morning greeted us with a cloudy start, the Ben which was really clear about 12 hours before was now hidden by its usual grey cloak. We watched people on the upward ascent but just knew that we didn’t have the energy to tackle the mountain after hiking from Milngavie. We stopped in the little visitor centre for a nose around and wandered into Fort William with a feeling of anticlimax.

As we passed a row of B&B’s with meticulously manicured lawns we spotted another hiker, on the opposite side of the road coming towards us.

“How far have you come?”
“All the way”
“Holy Sh**! Waydago little dudes!!”

His American accent carried loudly over the noise of the road and really lifted us. A shouted conversation across the road informed us he had been hiking on Skye and was now heading south. He was clearly enjoying his adventure and I was rather envious of the tiny pack he was carrying. We could have stayed at Glen Nevis as our train wasn’t for a day or two but it would have felt dishonourable to leave the massive bags and slackpack to the finish line, especially after lugging them all this way.

Walking through town felt wierd. We were tired, dirty and hungry and a little surprised when we came upon the end of the trail. Suddenly we were there. The hike was over and we had done it. Both Hazel and I needed a moment as we comprehended what our children had achieved (I’m not sure about Hazel but I wept a little) before taking the obligatory photos and chatted to other finishers.

We hung out in Fort William for a couple of days, cleaned some clothes for the train ride and just chilled out. We found a campsite and spent our time relaxing, hiding from the rain and eating burgers, but that was it. But not for the kids. After hiking 96 miles in 10 days they finally found a play area.

 

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Stage 4 – No Turning Back

Bridge of Orchy to Kinlochleven.

After probably the comfiest and definitely darkest night in the the tent so far, we emerged, a little damp and disheveled into the early morning light. What we thought were raindrops turned out to be rain dripping off the surrounding trees. The wind was still blowing but the rain had stopped. We decided to crack on for an hour or so, knowing that if the rain returned we could always head back to the sanctuary of the train station.

That wind was a godsend because after 1/2 an hour it had thoroughly dried out our coats which had spent the night hanging from trees rather than in the dry tent. We were caught up by our Israeli friends who were amazed we were still going and they said that they were stopping at the ski centre which was our destination as well.

We got onto the old drovers road and my feet were soon complaining but we were rewarded with spectacular views and the previous days rain was now seen as a delight. The mountaintops were white. What had soaked us thoroughly the previous day had fallen as snow at the higher elevations and it was, well, amazing!

We were keen to keep a good pace as we really couldn’t camp anywhere up here. I say up here because it just feels really high up and mountainous. We chatted to a couple who, again, were so impressed with the kids and they also gave us the greatest news we were hoping for. The ski place had drying rooms! We arrived at a reasonable time and were greeted with splendid views of Stob Dearg and a really muddy camp area where we pitched the tent in a gale, slid around the muddy patch and headed for the drying room and cafe where Colin, the chap from earlier, presented the kids with creme eggs and got a little emotional telling us how impressed he was with us doing this trip as a family. Soppy bugger!

The following was Easter Sunday and we decided to take a rest day. We watched the snow fall, had a little wander down Glen Etive and just relaxed and got things dry and nearly clean.

Monday morning we headed back out on the trail after a breakfast of oatcakes and squirty cheese, feeling worse for having a rest day, we just all felt heavy legged. At the Kings House we looked enviously at the people frying sausages in the back of their car, Lil and Isa played fishing in all the little streams and Evan just ploughed on, excitedly pointing at the grouse that were heard before being seen, all the while surrounded by some of the best mountain scenery we’ve ever been a part of. I say it like that because now, after a week on the trail, we really felt IN the landscape.

The climb up the Devils Staircase was hard going but soon we stopped for a porridgey breakfast at the top, looking back at where we had been before turning around to see the mass of BIG mountains dominating the skyline in front of us. The track turned a bit rockier and Isaac took this as the prime time to run ahead and it wasn’t long until we got a glimpse of Kinlochleven just at the bottom of the hill.

That was a long, long walk, and it felt like an age to get down to the little town on the river. Evan was fed up and Lil’s boots had started to come apart at the seems but it stayed dry. We found somewhere to camp, visited the shop 3 times and feasted on doughnuts.

I went to bed feeling thoroughly done with the trail. Not the hiking really, I was feeling strong again after a slow start, just the logistics really. How much food do I need to get before the next shop? where can we camp? what are we cooking? Can we get dry? Thinking back, I think I felt this way a little every time we reached a town or village or campsite. I just wanted to be in the wilds.

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Stage 3 – Feels like Sheep Country

Days 5 and 6. Inverarnan to Bridge of Orchy.

Leaving Loch Lomond behind us we felt like we had already achieved something pretty epic. As the rain came down for the first hour of hiking we really noticed a change in the landscape that the previous months of staring at maps hadn’t really prepared us for. For the first time we felt like we up in high country. I think it was the lack of trees. We had walked under Ben Lomond yesterday but with the tree cover along the lochside we hadn’t really seen the hills properly for a while. Now it just felt different, like sheep lived here.

We hiked on in good time, through the early spring showers and were soon overtaken by the remaining campers from Beinglas. We stopped for a break overlooking the Falls of Falloch and soon had to negotiate the little sheep tunnel under the railway near Carmyle Cottage. It was a little tight, especially for a 6′ 3″ man with a massive backpack and I managed to twist my knee a bit and wrench my back. (Note to self; next time, take your bloody bag off!) On a positive note, the kids got a wave from some passengers on the train that passed just afterwards. We were soon caught by a group of hikers from Israel who were so impressed with the kids they wanted a photo with them.

After negotiating the boggiest section of trail (Evan glided over it, the rest of us got really muddy feet!) we hit the junction to head off trail, down to Crianlarich where we restocked our now meagre rations and ate copious amounts of crisps and chocolate on the bench outside the little londis, in the rain.

Crianlarich by Thursday was always our target. We knew there was a half decent shop to resupply but the following day would be Good Friday and we were unsure about opening hours on a Bank Holiday. So we declared that mission accomplished. We could relax from here.

We headed back up to the trail but not before recreating a scene from “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” with the kids. You know the one, Harry fights off some “Dementors” in the underpass to protect his cousin. I know it off by heart, because I have 3 kids under 10. Thank you Crianlarich railway underpass, we had a blast!

Our plan was to find somewhere to camp in the woods, it was getting on by this point but the sky was looking threatening and other than 2 spots, really close to the trail we couldn’t find a pitch big enough for our tent. As we came out of the woods we got a really good view of the mountains and the sky which looked like it was ready to explode. Honestly, I have NEVER seen the sky that black before, not even when I was in Auckland in the middle of a cyclone. Anyway, we pushed on to Auchtertyre where I managed to do a deal with chap running the wigwams. For the first night (and only) we weren’t pitching the tent. It was cosy in our little wooden hut, the heater turned up to dry our now drenched coats and we made a plan to have an easy day tomorrow. Just up the trail to Tyndrum, find a campsite and a play park and chill for the day. After all, this is our holiday for the year.

The next morning we found it hard to leave the warm and dry confines of our little wooden wigwam, but with the promise of an easy day, we headed for Tyndrum. The walk was fairly uneventful apart from Lil and Isa playing wizards for 2 miles. We stopped at the first campsite, which had a play area but no drying room. The next campsite had a drying room but with it being Good Friday, were well booked up and the previous days rain had soaked the campground. The nice chap asked us to drop back later on and he would try to squeeze us in somewhere.

We went into the village, had some lunch and picked up a few more trail snacks and decided, as the weather was improving, to push on and find somewhere to pitch up further up the trail. As we headed out of Tyndrum, parallel to the main road we got loads of honks from people in their cars which really boosted the kids morale which was a little down after their hopes of a play area had been dashed.

Passing under Beinn Odhar with good weather and even better views of Beinn Dorain (If there’s a more beautiful mountain I’m yet to see it, that upward curve is magnificent) we headed towards Bridge of Orchy, now renamed Bridge of YORKIE as we were munching that particular brand of chocolate bar. We had to pass under the railway and negotiate a small herd of Highland cattle and our spirits were high.

“if was still raining in the morning we would head back to the train station and get the first train in any direction”

From nowhere it started to rain, then the wind picked up and before we knew it we were walking directly in a 60 mile an hour gale, which was just driving the rain into our faces. Looking behind us it was all blue sky and sunshine but we were just getting wetter and colder. Hazel and Evan strode ahead, keen to find somewhere to shelter but the rain was relentless. Lil fell over a couple of times and by the time I sorted her out, Hazel was so far ahead and she couldn’t hear us over the wind and rain. Lil, Isaac and myself ran to catch up which prompted another fall from Lil, and finally we caught up just by the station. We got to the hotel and just sat, dripping and warmed up a bit on £15 hot chocolate.

We stayed inside for about 45 minutes, but with the rain still falling and the light fading we headed over the bridge to find a camping spot. As soon as I stepped out of the hotel I started shivering and just couldn’t get warm. We pitched up in the trees and Hazel and the kids got dry clothes on and into their sleeping bags while I sat outside and kept the hot drinks going for them, getting colder and colder and a little worried. These were perfect conditions for hypothermia after all.

There were about 6 other tents around us in the tree’s and a hiker approached quietly and, a little sheepishly, asked if we had any spare food. He had been joined on the trail last minute by a friend and they had stopped early to get out the rain. I think they were originally planning to get to Kingshouse in a push so simply hadn’t carried enough. I duly obliged and gave them some noodles and a pasta snack.  I wandered off to fill the water bottles up and tried to warm up with some star jumps but couldn’t. After finding some oatcakes and biscuits which I took over to our fellow hungry hikers for their breakfast, I finally got some dry clothes on and into my sleeping bag and started to warm up.

I went to sleep really concerned about the next day. We were really wet and cold and the forecast was pretty awful for the next day. The rain still hadn’t eased up and Hazel and I decided that, if was still raining in the morning we would head back to the train station and get the first train in any direction. Preferably back to Tyndrum and a drying room, but if we had to, Fort William.

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Stage 2 – Along Loch Lomond

Days 3 and 4. Millarochy to Inverarnan

After enjoying the showers for a little longer than usual, reorganising the packs (again) and a final go on the swings, we left camp at Millarochy with a wonderful send off from the camp wardens and pockets full of sweets. With a promise of breakfast pastries at the next campsite we made good time along to Cashell where we stopped for a cheeky brunch of sausage rolls and some toast. We bumped into Emma (previously mentioned yesterday), who was wondering about the weather. (My weather app told us it would dry until around 4 when all hell would be let loose) She was starting the day later than planned as she’d had a rough and windy night which surprised us as we hadn’t felt a breath of wind. We headed out about 20 minutes afterwards, deciding to stride out a bit to make some distance before the weather hit later that afternoon.

We were so wrong

 “For the first time I was unsure if this trip was going work or if it was just too much!”

It took us 5 hours to get to Rowardennan, about 4 miles up the trail. We don’t know what happened but things just weren’t working and Isaac especially did not want to play. To say we ambled along would be an understatement and for the first time I was unsure if this trip was going work or if it was just too much. Honestly, he would walk for about 10 minutes then just stop and it would take about 20 minutes to coax him into moving again. So it was with relief when we arrived at the hotel/bar at Rowardennan. As the children walked ahead with the promise of hot chocolate we discussed the possibility of blowing our budget and just trying for a room at the hotel. We still had a couple of miles to go before we could legitimately wildcamp and both the weather and the light were against us.

Walking into the bar we spotted Emma again who by now was really struggling with blisters and in tears with each step. I ordered drinks and that helped us decide to push on. (£11 for 2 coffees and 3 cokes, how much must a room be?) The drinks arrived as Emma left, we chatted about possible camps and she said she would try to reach the bothy at Rowcoish. After she went we discussed our options but Hazel mentioned that Emma had told her that we were inspiring her to push on through the pain of her blisters so how could we wimp out now. The children decided we should launch a rescue mission, of sorts, to provide Emma with blister plasters and moral support. After all, she was only 20 minutes ahead of us now so if we rocked we might catch her up.

We left the warmth of the hotel at 5 and headed into the rain. We did indeed rock. We blazed along the trail (compared to the morning) and after taking the low road just past Ptarmigan Lodge the trail became a bit harder going. This is where we found out how the mind of a 5 year old works. On the easier trail of the morning, Isa really struggled. Now on trickier terrain we could barely keep up. We were aiming for the bothy to find Emma but after hiking past 3 or 4 perfect camping spots and with the light fading we decided to stop and pitch up for our first wildcamp of the trip about a mile short of that destination. We didn’t see Emma again but we appreciated her kind words and hope she got off the trail in one piece. Blisters are the worst!

With rain pouring and wind blowing we got in the tent, ate some tortilla wraps with squirty cheese and went to bed. Where I found my neck was resting on the hardest lump of something EVER.

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After an awful night during which the winds blew, the rain fell and the lump pushed vertebrae out of place we had a very light breakfast and everyone else left me to pack away the tent and catch them up. This was our earliest start but we were pretty worn out now and were hoping for a better day than the one just passed. The signs were good as the kids were back to their usual enthusiastic best and then, just past Rob Roy’s Prison we spotted a herd of deer grazing between the trees. We almost tripped over some guys who had practically camped ON the trail and then we saw the first rainbow of what would turn out to be a SEVEN rainbow day but the best was yet to come.

Coming over a little wooden bridge at Cailness we saw an old cottage and just by a the fence an honesty box stall. TRAIL MAGIC!!! On closer inspection, it was offering a delightful selection of fresh fruit, homemade granola cookies, Nana’s recipe Scottish Tablet and lemon infused water. I turned to Hazel, who was in tears at the kindness of the gesture. It was just what we needed. We grabbed the children some goodies and I left a £10 note and a little note saying thank you. It was worth every penny!

We arrived at Inversnaid about 11.30ish having had a lovely morning and it was here I was once again surprised. We perched ourselves on the benches outside the hotel and having seen the waiters through the window with their bow ties and finery, was ready to push on. Hazel took Lil in to make use of the facilities and to my surprise she came out all excited about the tea and cake being cheap as chips and how the back bar was set up for hikers and they had a room set aside where we could have our lunch.  I’m delighted to say my first impressions (too posh for us) were wrong and we had a wonderful 45 minutes dirt-baggin at the poshest hotel I’ve ever been in!

We headed on out to Inverarnan with the guidebook ringing in our ears. This was apparently the toughest section of the whole trail.

We headed on out to Inverarnan with the guidebook ringing in our ears. This was apparently the toughest section of the whole trail. Once again the children practically ran along the trail. Scrambling over boulders, navigating boggy bits like acrobats and always looking for the hardest route along the track. We stopped to throw stones into Loch Lomond for the last time and navigated our way through some goats. Evan was called a hero by an American or Canadian couple (apologies for being unable to tell the difference) We had so much fun on this section and looking back, it might my favourite day on the West Highland Way. It was certainly our longest as we arrived at Beinglas Farm about 8pm and the kids headed straight for the playpark.  We found Liz from Millarochy who was astounded that we had made it so far but who was leaving the trail the following day. We completed a relay to the toilets as the kids shoes were drying out. I had to carry each across a boggy camp field, in turn without slipping in the mud. In the dark. With a spotlight from the office in my eyes! Having invested £6 on an extra camp mat from the little but well stocked shop, we ended the day well. Best day so far!!!

Stage 1 – Lowlands to Lochside

Day One
Milngavie to Easter Drunquhassle. 11.5 Miles

After almost a full days travel on buses, boats and trains which was quite an adventure in itself, and a rather cold night in the tent at Milngavie, we arrived at the famed obelisk marking both the beginning of the West Highland Way and our most ambitious adventure to date.

We spoke to a couple of locals who were out walking their dogs and they all seemed shocked when we explained that yes, we are doing the whole trail and yes, we are camping and no we can’t afford the baggage transfer service. They were also quietly impressed with our intentions and wished us luck on our journey.

After a final cup of coffee, overpriced bacon roll and a run in the little play area we headed off, fully laden with everything we would need for the next 12 days and about 5 days food and provisions to sustain us to Crianlarich and a potentially well stocked shop. After the first little hill we encountered in Allander Park we had decided that we were definitely carrying too much stuff. Too late to make any changes, we pushed on and stopped for lunch under Scroggy Hill and watched deer grazing on the slopes opposite.

After lunch the walking was fairly easy and the views improved and it started to feel like we were properly on a long trail, not just out for the day. Isaac needed a little encouragement mid afternoon as he had drifted into dawdle and Lil had collected various stones which she the had to reluctantly leave behind. (Two days later I would find a small selection in the bottom of her rucksack!) We negotiated the first wild toilet trips with ease and were soon on the long flat drag between Drumgoyach and Gartness. The kids were tired and irritable but when we arrived in Gartness with the river rushing over the weirs and the little stone cottages looking like proper Scottish dwellings our moods lifted and we pushed on for the last mile to our campsite at Easter Drumquhassle. A long, long mile on tarmac wished took the last of our energy and wishing for the days walking to be over.

The campsite was basic, which we liked, but to Hazels disappointment the showers were locked. On the upside we were able to cook our tea in the shelter of the barn which while dusty, poorly lit and home to a couple of small rodents, protected us from the rain before we turned in for the night. We were asleep in minutes.

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Day Two
Easter Drumquhassle – Millarochy Bay – 10.5 Miles

After repacking our enormous packs, cursing the locked showers and treating ourselves to a cereal bar breakfast we headed of down the road, crossing a field containing a few sheep, a couple of tents and the first real boggy bit of the trail.
We dropped into the village of Drymen to get our WHW passports stamped in the library, then after extracting Isaac from the wrong side of a hedge we headed into the woods. It was while discussing the worst possible flavours of Ice Cream that Isaac decided to go exploring. He just stepped of the trail into the trees and was gone! No sign of him. Fortunately after about 10 minutes of frantic shouting and pushing through the trees he reappeared as though nothing had happened. I told him off and he said he wasn’t lost just exploring. “Anyway”, he then told me,”if I was lost I would have sat down and blown my whistle!”

We caught up to the others to find that Lil had fallen and grazed her hand quite badly, and we had covered about 3 miles in something like 4 and half hours. We met a nice lady from France whose pack was the size of all of ours combined, her name was Emma and she would unknowingly play a crucial role in our hike the following day.

We moved onto Conic Hill and what felt like the first hill stage. We were out of the woods and had splendid views, and felt much higher than the actual elevation. The kids changed here too and seem to fully embrace the challenge for the first time. Evan got his head down and kept a steady pace, Lil trotted beside Hazel and I and Isa just ran ahead, honestly the little man RAN up Conic Hill. While trying to keep him in sight we chatted a guy from Germany who told us that he was putting off starting a family because it would stop him traveling but that we had maybe changed his opinion so that was nice to hear.

At the top of Conic Hill we finally caught up with Isa who had stopped and was just admiring the rather splendid views down onto Loch Lomond. It was quite spectacular but interrupted by a sudden and horizontal shower of sleet. The kids raced down the hill but our progress was much slower because of our massive packs and all the bloody steps!

We made it into Balmaha just before the Ice Cream shop closed so the kids got a treat. Checking the map, our proposed destination for the night, a new permit zone for wild camping, was still a further 5 miles up the trail so we decided to head for the campsite at Millarochy Bay. After a nice stroll along the loch we were greeted at the gate to the campsite by the manager, Rob, who furnished the kids with sweets and high fives. He was so impressed with our efforts so far, he put the kids names and ages on the notice board for the world to see and even brought us out 2 cups of tea to where we were pitching up.

After another 10 hours or so on the trail you would think the kids would be tired but no. While I was sorting out the tent, they dashed off to the play area and ran around raucously for another hour until dinner was ready.

At Dinner time we chatted to a few people, a couple from the Netherlands who didn’t have a non-metallic bowl for the microwave so Evan lent them his, a Scottish lady called Liz who was impressed by the kids and chatted about doing the Pacific Crest Trail sometime in the future and two lads who were probably students but didn’t have much to say. Its funny really, we chatted to loads of people on the trail, most of who were friendly but on a few occasions there was a definite type of person who didn’t want to chat. We discussed this between ourselves and worked out it was generally the males, aged 18-24, with all the best kit who were the least approachable. We reckon that the trail was probably a massive undertaking for them, they were out in the wilds doing manly stuff because, you know, they were men and this is what real men do. Then 3 little kids rock up, doing exactly the same thing as they are. It must knock their ego or something.

That night I slept on an empty back pack and was much warmer, either that or I was too tired to notice the cold.