Although all of my long distance walking exploits to date have been solo affairs, they’ve been consistently characterised by the people I’ve met. Walking the West Highland Way (WHW) was no exception. In fact it was even more so. It’s a deservedly popular trail, attracting around 40,000 walkers a year, from all over the world and of all ages and abilities. In fact the trail felt so busy, even at the beginning of the season in early April, that there were times I found myself longing for a bit of solitude!
The West Highland Way traverses 96 miles from Milngavie, a short distance out of Glasgow, to Fort William in the Scottish Highlands. It’s well signposted, easy to navigate and follows maintained paths, old military roads and forest tracks. Despite the dramatic mountain scenery, it’s a mostly lowland route. But although there are only a few hills and high passes to negotiate, the route’s challenges shouldn’t be underestimated; underfoot the conditions are solid and rocky all the way, so although you barely get your boots dirty, your feet and legs take a constant pounding. As my feet developed multiple blisters, despite my well worn-in and normally extremely comfortable boots, I dreamt of nice soft grassy sections to cushion my feet (which never materialised).
I walked the route over six and a half days bedding down in a mixture of official camp sites and wild camping spots. The first afternoon’s walking, from Milngavie to Drymen passed in a gentle ramble with just one minor incident as I leaped down an embankment to pop for a toilet stop, not realising it was choked with old brambles. My legs got badly scratched, I got a thorn embedded in my finger and it took me a good ten minutes to extricate myself from the tangle. Toilet breaks presented a continual hazard along the way. The route was so well used that I’d be about to jump behind a bush when another walker would appear over the horizon or startle me from behind. Even when there were no walkers in sight there were instances where I’d be surprised by a mountain biker or trail runner materialising from the ether.
Local dog walkers from Milngavie stopped me to ask if I was ‘doing the whole thing’. On other long distance walks people have enquired about what I was doing or where I was walking but whereas usually, from afar I just assumed the identity of a Small Girl with a Big Rucksack. Now I was singled out as a West Highland Way Walker, like having been accepted into membership of an exclusive club. Given that you could be 99.9% guaranteed that anyone else you passed sporting a large backpack (as well as many of those carrying smaller backpacks) were also walking the WHW, it was easy to start up a conversation with a fellow walker which often turned into a couple of hours of chat if they were walking in the same direction.
I pitched up my tent the first night on a tiny patch of sorry looking grass at Drymen Camping, alongside a father and teenage son walking the Way. Most people walk a similar average distance each day and congregate at the same centres of accommodation in the evenings so you tend to reconnect with the same people throughout the week, which definitely lends a spirit of camaraderie to your walk.
The relative peace and quiet of early mornings and evenings are usually my favourite times for walking and it’s often a couple of hours before I meet other walkers. Not so on the WHW. Day 2 and less than a mile into the walk I’m passed by several Way Walkers with small packs. I pass a group of guys from Germany wild camping, brushing their teeth in the middle of the trail. A mile on and I passed a group of Nepalese guys camping in the forest. They’d overtake me as I stopped for a break, then as they stopped, I’d overtake them. I met a fit talkative retired lady walking it for the second time, a mother and her 14 year old son visiting from Australia and a Scottish gentleman who had wanted all his life to do the WHW, had been training since last August and lost an amazing four stone of weight in the process. I passed a guy from Quebec walking to Africa and a John O’ Groats to Lands End Walker called Pete, who grew up just a few miles away from me in South Wales. It wasn’t just walkers on the West Highland Way either, it’s also a popular route for running and biking. On day 2 as I reached the first hilly bit of the Way, the summit of Conic Hill, I met a couple of cyclists. Not rugged looking mountain bikers that I was to meet later along the trail, but a couple of world travellers, originally from California and most recently living in the Netherlands. They already looked weary pushing up their heavily loaded touring bikes along the trail. I thought of them over the next couple of days and how they would have transported those bikes down the steep steps on the other side of Conic Hill or over the craggy walking hugging the east side of Loch Lomond. Trail runners out training for longer races stopped to chat and I fleetingly (and only fleetingly) thought it might be a fun challenge to run the West Highland Way one day. With such a variety of interesting people to meet, on more than one occasion I got waylaid by the side of the trail chatting for over an hour. The only group of people conspicuous by their absence were solo female campers. Where were all the single ladies??!
Recent regulations forbid wild camping on the shores of Loch Lomond and at the National Park visitor centre I was advised I required a permit (£3 per person per night) to camp in a designated wild camping area (an area with no facilities what so ever, it’s ‘authentic’ wild camping but you pay for the privilege) and warned that a park ranger would be out on patrol in the evening so to keep my permit number accessible. I camped alone and didn’t see a soul the entire evening, ranger or otherwise, and later I spoke with others who had camped at a spot in the area, suggested to them by the local policeman. As long as you’re away from the road a bit, I suspect no-one will bother you providing you follow sensible wild camping etiquette and leave no trace. With nowhere flat and clear in the designated wild camping area to pitch even my tiny one person tent I spent half an hour removing small pieces of glass from the shore, rigging up a pitch with the guy lines held by stones. I watched the moon drift over Loch Lomond and settled down to a quiet night.
It was a bit of a gamble with the weather to walk at the beginning of April, and most nights I was togged up wearing all my clothes to keep warm, but at least evening camps were blissfully and gratefully midge-free. After a few days of nothing more sinister than cloud, the forecast for Day 5 predicted a wet and windy afternoon and overnight, which coincided with my crossing of Rannoch Moor. The magical reputation of Rannoch Moor had entranced me for some time and was the stretch of the Way I had been most looking forward to. It didn’t disappoint. My guidebook described it as “a point as far away from civilisation as anywhere else on the Way, and in poor weather conditions it can be one of the most inhospitable places in Scotland”. So on the day when a storm was forecast I decided to wild camp right in the middle of it. Well, actually I was persuaded by a guy who worked at the camp site at Tyndrum (who was an experienced winter camper and mountaineer). He advised me on a good spot to camp and assured me that my good quality tent, yet to be tested in high winds, would hold up just fine. I spent the morning’s walking in a state of mild anxiousness about the night ahead but as the day wore on the excitement about the prospect of a solitary wild camp at “one of the most inhospitable places in Scotland” eclipsed any of my earlier disquiet. I failed to reach my intended camp spot before the onset of heavy rain and as the storm whipped up I caught up with the father and son team I’d ‘relay tagged’ throughout the week. They were thoroughly fed up, despite being destined for a dry, snug night in a camping pod at the Glencoe Mountain Resort and looked at me in disbelief when, reaching my proposed camp beside an isolated ruin of a sheiling, I waved them goodbye with a smile and a cheer as they continued, hoods up and heads bowed into the wind. I wasted no time in pitching my tent (double checking the security of the guy lines) then performed the difficult manoeuvre required to extricate myself from my waterproofs and limbo into my tiny tent without soaking everything else. I was thankful for the of the flask of hot tea I’d prepared that morning as I snuggled down into my sleeping bag with a good book to warm up and wait out the storm, accompanied by a rather noisy soundtrack provided by the wind, rain and turbulent river.
After a stormy night of tossing and turning (due to pain in my legs and feet as much as the weather conditions), I awoke to a calm, bright morning, the most spectacular of my walk. There was the small personal achievement of surviving the night but this was eclipsed by Rannoch Moor laid out in all it’s splendour before me. I savoured an hour or two of silent activity, washing in the river, brewing tea and reading a book before the first of the new day’s walkers appeared on the horizon. An hour later and the now steady stream of walkers made me anxious to get going and cover the distance to Kinlochleven via the ascent of the Devils Staircase, the highest part on the WHW.
I woke to heavy rain on my final morning, which poured consistently for the entire day. I kept my head down, now focussed more on finishing than on appreciating the dramatic mountain scenery of the exposed Lairigmor shrouded in mist. After the descent into Glen Nevis and the dispiriting trudge alongside the road and through the pedestrianised high street of Fort William I realised I couldn’t spot a single other walker and felt the panic of sudden separation from my tribe. Arriving at the sculpture of a weary walker that fittingly marks the end of the Way I was somewhat downcast to find myself alone. At the finishing line of a race there’s fanfare and family waiting to congratulate you and other competitors milling around with whom to share the experience. At the finale of a long distance walking trail there is nothing except a small plaque if you’re lucky. I wandered around, forlorn, looking out for another Walker to materialise and to share our achievement, or even perhaps a loitering tourist whom I could ask to take a photo to commemorate the occasion. But failing that I turned on my heel and walked away, already mourning the fact that I was a West Highland Way Walker no more.