Walking and Wildcamping the West Highland Way
This was an impulsive decision made whilst visiting an overcrowded beauty spot near my home in West Yorkshire. Longing for a sense of freedom and brief respite from Coronavirus restrictions the West Highland Way sounded like the perfect escape plan. With less than a week to prepare I had to beg and borrow bits and bobs to make up my kit (thanks guys!). my map arrived the day before departure and my filtering water bottle the day I set off.
The route is a 96 mile waymarked path through the Western highlands. Perfect for me, a novice backpacker and wildcamper as there are towns and bail out options along the way. My basic (and only) plan was to pack my kit into a 50l rucksack, drive to Milngavie (pronounced Mulguy), walk to Fort William, then catch the train back to Milngavie. The walk needed to be done in 5 days as I had to get back for work.
The car park at Milngavie station has several restrictions, but overnight parking didn't appear to be one of them. I left the car with some trepidation. pretty much everything in my pack was essential, forgetting something could easily end the trip with my tight schedule.
The path out of Milngavie was pleasant although I managed to go the wrong way within the first Km!! A nice gentleman set me straight with some amusement, I picked up the path again with no trouble. Most of the first day was pleasant enough but gave no real taste of the Highlands. I walked for a while with a couple of folks who were also doing the West Highland Way, they were stopping at Drymen for the night as do a lot of people on a more leisurely schedule. We had lunch together then I said goodbye to them and pushed on over Conic hill to Balmaha. It was quite a climb on tired legs but the first view of Loch Lomond on what was a beautiful summer evening was a good distraction and excuse for a rest.
Most of the Southern end of Loch Lomond requires a permit for wild camping, by the time I tried to book one they were sold out! I knew when I reached Balmaha at nearly 7pm my day was far from over! To avoid the permit camping zone I headed inland along a vague path, I'd identified a small secluded valley on the map, which, if I could reach it looked like the best hope for a campsite. The path up and over the ridge was very steep and slippery, I was pretty sure I wouldn't be able to make it back down if my plan failed. Luckily the valley was as perfect as it had looked on the map, quite a sight for sore eyes! My first ever night of wildcamping solo, being cautious I had some food first and didn't pitch the tent until about 9pm (not 100% confident about the boundary of the permit camping). Although I have done loads of camping on sites, it felt very different. When I popped out in the night (for obvious reasons!) I was a bit overwhelmed by the nothingness all around.
I packed down quickly as a curious herd of Highland cattle came by to check out the offcomer, and set off Northwards along the Eastern shoreline of Loch Lomond. The map had suggested easy walking without much climb, however, in reality the path was very rocky with short sharp hills and challenging terrain. Again I was reminded that what would normally have been easy obstacles (like fallen trees and short scrambles) were madecomplicated by the heavy pack. My progress was slower than expected, delayed further by a swim in the Loch around Inversnaid. I realised I wouldn't reach Inveranan today. Luckily once the road ends, so to does the permit camping restriction, a definite concession to the backpacker over the car packer. I found a lovely spot right on the shore, pitched up and had a fire. As a novice wildcamper I found the signs of civilization on the opposite bank of the Loch comforting, and apart from midge issues, I had a restful night.
I set off early, noticing when I reached Inveranan that if I had made better progress yesterday I would again have fallen foul of the permit camping zone which surrounds the town. The path was much easier, mostly an old military road; apparently these were built by the British government to bring soldiers and guns into the Highlands to defeat the Jacobite rebellion. I bypassed the option to drop down to Crianlarich town as there was nothing I desperately needed, pushing on to Tyndrum. I arrived there mid afternoon, it was hot and busy. A quick lunch stop (awesome veggie haggis at the Real Food Cafe) and the usual chaos of trying to get supplies in a small, well stocked village shop with a giant rucksack. I gave half my new pack of tea bags to a couple of friendly backpackers (of course it was them doing me a favour as I didn't want the extra weight!). I set off for Bridge of Orchy at around 4pm in glorious sunshine. Its worth mentioning that there are several good wild camping sites by the river a mile or so North of the town.
I met lots of interesting folks along the WHW, on this particular evening I was lucky to meet a friendly mountain biker. He was going the opposite way to me looking for a random stranger's dog lead. I said I'd seen it miles back (as soon as he'd gone I realised that 100yards feels like miles at the end of the day with the Osprey Tyrant* on your back). He quickly retrieved the lead and returned pushing his bike chatting alongside me for the last couple of miles or so to where I was camping. Solo backpacking can be quite intense and the company made for a grand end to the day, topped off with no midges, a beautiful sunset and an (admittedly freezing) river for a bracing wash.
I was up at 5.30, this was going to be a big day. Passing through Bridge of Orchy at breakfast I noticed there were people camping at the carpark
across the river. Up and over a small hill then a stop for breakfast at the Invororan hotel. The bulk of the day was taken up with a long plod along a military road to the King's House Hotel at the head of Glencoe. Along here I met a couple of Scots also backpacking the WHW. Like me they were novices and we had a laugh about stupidly heavy bags and big hills. They wisely stopped at the King's House and ordered double whiskies and a beer each (first round!). For me though the Devil's staircase still loomed ahead. I had some food, charged my phone and got a cheeky wash in the disabled toilet, then set off with some trepidation. I was nervous because I knew from Loch Lomond that steep paths become much more difficult with a heavy pack. One wrong step late in the day with no phone signal, things could get tricky.
The view of Buachaille Etive Mor was spectacular and Devil's staircase turned out to be easy enough. at teatime I was back in the remote hills looking for a site to pitch up for my wildest camp yet. I saw a patch of grass by a stream which had clearly been used before. But no phone signal and the lure of potentially more breeze around the corner made me push on for a mile or so. Aaargh! nowhere else to camp and a sudden paranoia that someone else would take the only spot between Kinlochleven and King's House made me run (yes, run) back up the hill and gratefully return to the pitch by the stream. Great, but as predicted, the midges were shocking!
Up and off with no breakfast or brew. I packed down in full waterproofs and midge net to survive the apocalypse, then bid a hasty retreat to Kinlochleven. I got some fresh milk and supplies and brewed up in a little park where a breeze was controlling the swarms of midges. The next stage began with a fair climb up to the Lairig, an empty Glen flanked by grand mountains. There are a couple of ruins along the pass, at the second "Lairigmor" I ran into a guy who was camping and climbing the local mountains. We shared a brew, I had a welcome break from The Tyrant" and we chatted about the beauty of this desolate valley in comparison to the more impressive Glencoe which is blighted by the path of progress. The A82 thunders through at speeds that mock the modest walker. We agreed that the silence of the Lairig came as a welcome relief. As i bid farewell to the lad it crossed my mind that my journey was nearing its end. I knew I would miss the simplicity of backpacking and the wild, magnificent beauty of the highlands.
Even the tyrant had become more gentle as Fort William drew near. My little map book was super-convenient but it didn't give me much information about the mountains surrounding me as they were usually off the page. As I turned a corner though I didn't need a map to recognise the beast that was Ben Nevis, dead ahead.
The final section of the West Highland Way passed through forestry. As evening loomed I started thinking about a camping spot. After the midge invasion last night I was hoping for a breeze. But as a novice wildcamper the desolation and lack of phone signal of my pitches had frayed my nerves, the security of the valley and civilisation beckoned. So although I had visited the Dun Deardail fort and mentally clocked the nice, flat grass and lofty position, I headed down.
In Glen Nevis (some 2 miles and 300 vertical metres below the fort) smart, corporate Glen Nevis Estate signs warned the weary backpacker at every turn that wildcampers were not welcome.
It was 6.37pm :-( after a bit of audible swearing I pulled myself together and realised I had only one choice. Suddenly the fort seemed very appealing.
The 2 mile climb back up took less time that expected. Good news as the light was fading and there was clearly a storm on the way. I just got the flysheet on as the heavens opened. I chucked all the stuff in the porch and dived in the tent.
Too weary to cook I ate some cooked lentils straight from the packet, cold. The most rubbish dinner ever, but the relief of having somewhere to sleep more that compensated. It ended up being a great night's sleep. Dozing to the sound of the rain and happily the first night I felt completely relaxed about sleeping in the middle of nowhere.
A grand finale as the mist cleared to reveal the giants that had surrounded me as I slept. Glen Nevis remained firmly shrouded in mist, much to my satisfaction! I dropped down into the valley along the path I had walked the night before. Beautiful views gradually gave way to mist and soon a busy road through the glen. The end of my adventure.
An easy walk mostly along the road into Fort William gave me time to reflect on my journey. Stronger physically and mentally, I felt a little bit invincible!! A discreet tear as I sat next to the bronze sculpture of the weary walker which marks the end of the West Highland Way at about 9.30 am. Hanging around for my train I felt no yearning to get back to having more possessions, my mind busy thinking of the next time I could get away with just a rucksack...
I completed the trail in 5 days averaging around 20 miles a day. Harder than expected, I hadn't made enough allowance for the 15Kg pack!
*I rebranded my rucksack, fairly sure the marketing team at Osprey won't be stealing this name.