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West Highland Way: Kinlochleven to Fort William

It was a joy to wake up to sunshine on day 6 of the West Highland Way (WHW), but having seen the forecast the night before I knew it was to be short-lived. I’d hiked mainly under a grey sky the whole walk so far so I was determined to get up and get going before the predicted rain moved in. Unlike the previous 5 days, there would be no civilisation between Kinlochleven and the end of the WHW 16 miles (25.5km) onwards, so with a grocery store in town, I made sure I had enough supplies to keep me happy for the day. I clearly wasn’t the only WHW hiker with the same idea, as there were several others setting off as I left my little cabin behind.

Kinlochleven

Although the sky was blue above, there was some low cloud over the mountain tops as I passed through the main street of Kinlochleven. Just as the buildings are coming close to ending at the head of the loch, the path heads into the trees near the school, and a short distance later begins to zig-zag up the hillside. The attained height is similar to the Devil’s Staircase on day 5, but yet strangely isn’t talked about by hikers in quite the same way. The view as it picked its way up the hillside was stunning, as Loch Leven came more into sight, and the buildings of Kinlochleven grew smaller and smaller. I regularly caught up with and overtook the same hikers time and time again on this section as we all stopped regularly to admire the view.

Clouds behind Kinlochleven

Statue in Kinlochleven

Heading out of Kinlochleven

The Lairig

Green hillside as Loch Leven creeps into view

Loch Leven panorama

Kinlochleven

Stunning view over Loch Leven

This route is known as the Lairig, and once the upper reach is attained, the view west showed the distinctive Pap of Glencoe as well as a sky full of clouds that were an omen for the coming change in weather. As the gradient flattened out, the other hikers and myself started to spread out across the landscape, and I ended up leaving them all behind. I knew the rain was coming, and wanted as much of the hike out the way as I could before the inevitable drenching. It was a beautiful section to hike, surrounded by green mountains and the loch sparkling below. As the loch disappears out of view, the track continued into a broad valley, and so it continued for a few miles. It was far from monotonous though on such a sunny day, and there were a couple of old ruined farming cottages to spike some interest. The first was relatively intact minus its roof, and there were the rusty remains of farming equipment scattered around in the nearby field. The second was rather worse for wear, with the walls crumbled into stony heaps. A little stream bubbled past nearby, and another walking route headed off up the nearby mountains.

Rain clouds to the west

Looking west to the Pap of Glencoe

Hiking below the green slopes

Panorama across the Loch Leven valley

Tigh-na-sleubhaich farmhouse

Tigh-na-sleubhaich farmhouse

Lairigmor farmhouse

After crossing a few streams, it became clear that the valley took a sharp turn and it was a near 90 degree shift in direction from heading west to heading north. The blue sky was behind me now, and I was back to the familiar grey skies that had been my company for the previous 5 days. At least it was still dry, but there was still a lot of ground to cover. The stubby remains of woods were visible and beyond that a sign denoted where the victorious MacDonalds chased the defeated Campbells of Argyll following the battle of Inverlochy. A stone cairn lay next to the sign, and the instructions were to either add a stone or to remove one depending on your allegiance. Through my mother’s side of the family, I am of the clan Campbell of Argyll so I dutifully removed a stone and tossed it away.

Ford in the WHW

Changing view as the valley curves

The pursuit of the Campbells

From this point onwards, the theme of the day was woodlands, whether felled or still standing. But the path by now was broad, and there was not another person in sight. After a while though, the track came to a junction where the broad track dipped down to become an actual road leading to Lochan Lunn Da-Bhra to the west and Glen Nevis to the north. The lochan is visible from here as the WHW turns off the broad track and starts to climb once more. There were a lot of bees here and despite seeing the looming clouds getting nearer and nearer, the view was still very open, and before I knew it Ben Nevis, Scotland’s (and the UK’s) highest mountain came into view. It had been a few weeks since I had summited the munro in the cloud, and I could see a little more of the mountain on this day than I had on the day that I hiked it. Still though, the summit was shrouded again.

Track through a woodland

Lochan Lunn Da-Bhra

Looking back at the road already travelled

Ben Nevis finally comes into view

As I approached the main section of woodland, I was overtaken by a runner, and once in the woods, I crossed a large stream, and then was surrounded by tall conifers. This would be my last chance to spot red squirrels and I looked upwards ever hopeful only to be disappointed. The track was rough and undulating under foot, and I could feel the temperature dropping. In a brief gap in the trees I saw that Ben Nevis was disappearing under a veil of clouds, and as I continued to march through the woodland, the rain started to fall and as it grew heavier, I was forced to kit up in my waterproofs. I was glad that there was plenty of trees to offer some light coverage, as the morning’s section of the hike had been so exposed. I was overtaken by another hiker in the middle of the woods, and as the path took a bend I was struck by an immense feeling of deja vu. I discovered later that I’d never been there before so I don’t know where the feeling came from but a small section of walk that dipped and curved round a hillock had felt so strongly familiar as to be almost unsettling.

Waterfall in the woods

Ben Nevis visible in a clearing

Walking through the forest

A fence denoted the boundary of the Nevis forest which covers the hillside of Glen Nevis. Here a track lead up a hill to an old iron age fort. Dated between 500 BC and 100 AD, I had argued in my head whether I wanted to make the detour or not. By now my legs were getting very sick of walking, and the thought of going uphill again was really putting me off, but in the end it was the ongoing rainfall that sealed the decision for me. A group of cyclists had come up the hill from Glen Nevis to visit the fort and I left them to it, deciding to skip it on this occasion. I eagerly stuck to the WHW which finally began the long and slow descent into Fort William. In the rain, I hated this section. Whilst I love forest walking in New Zealand, I’ve always hated forest walking in Scotland, where the diversity is much more limited and the fauna less apparent also. It felt like this track would never end, and my legs were working on auto-pilot as I dreamed about the hot coffee that would greet me in Fort William.

I knew that there would be a path to the Glen Nevis youth hostel before I would cut down to the road, and even this felt like it would never appear. When it did, I did a silent cry of jubilation and got a second wind to speed up a little. Finally the WHW cut off the forest track and picked its way down to the road that leads from Glen Nevis to Fort William. For 2 miles (3km) the WHW becomes the pavement next to the road and the rain continued to fall as I trudged alongside passing traffic, counting down until finally the first houses appeared. At the Nevis Bridge roundabout, a large thistle sign denotes that this was the original end of the WHW. The nearby Ben Nevis Woollen Mill (effectively a tourist shop) provides free certificates to hikers so I popped inside for a respite out the rain to collect mine.

The first houses of Fort William

The original end of the WHW

Now, the WHW ends in the main street of Fort William, another mile away. It is still signposted, although they appear more subtle amongst the road signs and buildings, but the way continues along Belford Road before cutting across the green space of the Parade and heading down Fort William’s semi-pedestrianised main street. I’ve visited Fort William many times before, and it felt so familiar to be here with the same old shops lining the high street. There was barely a soul outside when I reached Gordon Square with the statue and sign marking the end of my 96 mile (154.5km) hike, and after sitting in the rain briefly to acknowledge my achievement, I had to dawdle for a while to grab a passing stranger to take my photo. It seemed fitting to end it geared up in waterproofs, just as I had started it in Milngavie, but once the photos were taken, I was quick to head to the nearby Costa Coffee for a well deserved and much needed hot drink.

No explanation needed...

Posing with the statue at the end of the WHW

I had a few hours to kill before my train back to Glasgow, and I took my time perusing my favourite local stores, and doing a bit of shopping. The rain never let up for the rest of the day, and eventually it was time to make my way to the train station. The train was packed and I felt sorry for the two girls who had to sit opposite me, as I was pretty confident that I had acquired a delightful post-hiking aroma. I was initially confused when the train headed north but as it turned out it took a sweeping arc north then east before curling south, and this in fact took in some of the most stunning portion of the Rannoch Moor. I had been a little disappointed with my passage through the moor on day 5, having felt that the moor from the roadside was more stunning. Now though, the moor took on a wilder and more expansive sweep as the train hurtled through, and having seen none on the hike, we passed multiple red deer. The low cloud and mist added to the romance of the place and I fell in love with Rannoch Moor once more.

Eventually though, around 9.30pm, the train crawled into Glasgow’s Queen Street station and my adventure was over. My partner had arrived from New Zealand and he met me in the city ahead of the last few days of much needed family time before my long transit back home to Christchurch in New Zealand’s South Island. I was ecstatic to have completed the hike, having desired to do it for many years. Although I am a seasoned hiker, the WHW is perfectly achievable for people of average fitness, but due to the locality to many settlements, it can easily be divided up and walked in isolated sections. With the exception of the section within Loch Lomond’s boundaries, camping is allowed anywhere along the route, meaning those who want to sleep under the stars have the luxury of walking the route in as little or as long as they like. Otherwise, there is plenty of accommodation to choose from along the route, and in the summer months, you can pay for luggage to be transported between your night’s accommodations. In other words, the WHW is truly a walk for everyone.

Ben Nevis

I followed the A82 south for an hour from Invergarry, all the while looking to the mountains as I passed, all of them hiding their summits in the clouds. I’d lived in Scotland for over 29 years of my life, but it took moving to the other side of the world to make me keen to summit Scotland’s highest peak, Ben Nevis. At 4,414ft (1346m) it far surpasses the minimum requirement of 3000ft to make it a Munro. Munro bagging is a popular past-time for serious hikers and hobbyists alike. I didn’t really get into hiking until I was 25, by then living in Aberdeen in the north-east of the country. I acquainted myself with the eastern edge of the Cairngorm National Park, and whilst I did a good bit of wilderness hiking with my then partner, up peaks that I have no idea what altitude they went to, I’ve only knowingly hiked one Munro, Lochnagar, and this was a favourite hike to head off to on a good day.

So when I took the turn off at the edge of Fort William up through Glen Nevis and into the car park, I was in two minds about what to do. This was my only chance on my trip to get up there, but I wouldn’t normally hike a mountain unless there is a view at the end of it. I popped into the visitor centre to ask their advice. The girl at the desk could only guess where the cloud base was, and advised that the section within the cloud was dangerous with poor visibility, as was the summit due to the potential for losing the path and walking off a cliff edge. Having come this far, I decided to hike up to the cloud base to atleast get some exercise, and make a judgement about going higher based on what I could see. I got chatting to a couple in the car park who had never been up either, and they laughed at me when I said I probably wouldn’t summit because of the warnings. I wondered at their foolishness, or cockiness when they seemed less prepared than me for a mountain hike. There have been concerns in the past that the hike has become rather touristy with people attempting it rather unprepared, and not giving it its due. I could see how this could be the case, and have seen similar issues in the mountains of New Zealand.

From the pay and display car park at the visitors centre, the long ascent starts as an easy riverside walk downstream to a bridge over the river Nevis. On the far side of the river it backtracks before a sign points up between a wall and a fence where it meets the path at the Ben Nevis Inn. Despite the weather forecast, it was a very busy route with a steady stream of people visible ahead and behind me. Early on, the ascent began and as I tracked my way up the hillside and along the glen I could see the clouds swirling around the nearby mountain tops. Even being overcast, it was a beautiful view up and down the glen.

On route to the Ben Nevis Inn

The rocky path going up the hillside

Looking back towards Fort William

Glen Nevis

By the time the path from the youth hostel joined the track and a couple of zig-zags broke up the monotony of the climb, I was already feeling the strain of 2 weeks over-indulgence on my road trip. Despite a southern summer of hiking, I was not as fit as I could be. The track is quite uneven and rocky under foot. Some parts of this lower section are a bit uncomfortable as a result, and many footsteps have eroded smoother paths at the side in an effort to avoid this. After crossing a footbridge, the path curves round the hillside to start the ascent up Red Burn valley, and it now became glaringly obvious that the summit was nowhere to be seen within the cloud base.

The meeting of two paths

Footbridge over a small gully

Looking back after turning up Red Burn valley (the end of the West Highland Way is visible across Glen Nevis)

Hiking up Red Burn valley, the summit is hidden in the clouds

Having never hiked it before, I had no idea how much altitude was invisible, but I was resolute in my decision to hike to the cloud base and make a judgement call from there. I joined the steady stream of hikers who zig-zagged up the new path route to a low plateau where the dark waters of Loch Meall an t-Suidhe came into view. Several people had stopped here for a snack or a breather, and some track maintenance was being done on the section that passes by the loch’s side. After this short flat section, the path climbs again, meeting a path that heads left round the north face. Turning right, I had to stop almost immediately to kit up as a drizzle was starting. Behind me there were still many people on route up, and as I looked at the path ahead of me, there were several people on their way down.

Loch Meall an t-Suidhe

The start of the rain with the summit in the cloud

Looking back down on the loch

The route snakes round the contours of the mountainside, crossing the Red Burn before eventually hitting the start of the real ascent. From here upwards, the path zig-zags up the slope, changing early on from a well marked path to a large boulder field and a narrowing of the path. After just a couple of bends I reached the cloud level, and spurred on by the now steady stream of descenders, I pushed into it to assess the visibility. I could see about 3-4m ahead and behind and decided that I’d keep going up until I felt uncomfortable with the lack of visibility.

With no point of reference, the hike became a long trudge upwards across first boulders and then scree. I lost track of how often it curved left then right then left again. There was a constant appearance of figures emerging from the gloom ahead of me and I had no idea how high I was climbing. I just followed the vague figures in front of me, and took reassurance from the regular stone piles that denoted the path route.

I came upon a junction and turned right like everyone else, and a little further on I became aware of a large group of people emerging from the cloud. I was surprised to find them standing at the bottom of a large patch of snow. The path led right up to it, and I paused briefly to watch people gingerly pick their way up, several people slipping on the way up and down. The main ream of footprints seemed to have resulted in an overly packed icy zone, so I tried to pick a path through fresher snow, still briefly sliding a few times before reaching the top. From the top of the snow, the bottom was barely visible through the cloud.

After the snow, the path continued to climb, although the gradient began to level off, and I surmised I must be near the summit. But emerging from the cloud was stone cairn after stone cairn, and still the path continued. Eventually I had to ask a descending hiker how close I was, and was relieved to discover I’d reach the summit in another 10 minutes. The visibility remained the same, and with no other reference than the regular stream of fellow hikers and multitude of stone cairns I pressed on wondering if I’d know when I got there.

But despite the lack of visibility, the summit became very obvious when I finally reached it. Emerging from the gloom, the ruins of an old observatory appeared, and behind that a rudimentary hut shelter raised up on boulders. I looked for an obvious summit marker, and soon found two of them, the higher one up on a plinth with a queue of people waiting to have their photo taken. It was cold and damp, but there was no way I was summiting Scotland’s highest mountain and not getting a photo to prove it.

At the summit of Ben Nevis

The summit shelter and observatory are just visible through the cloud

The other summit marker

Some hikers make use of the summit shelter

I didn’t want to wander too far with no idea where the gullies or cliffs were so I stuck to the obvious landmarks. Sheltered spots were in high demand, and I couldn’t believe how many people were out hiking that day in such poor weather conditions. I hunkered down in as sheltered a spot as I could find free, leaning against the wall of the old observatory, to enjoy my lunch. It wasn’t long until I was joined by other hungry hikers and I noted several that had come up with their dogs. It was a convivial gathering of like-minded people, but the coldness and drizzle meant that nobody wanted to hang around longer than necessary to refuel.

Ruins of the observatory

The doorway of the old observatory

Just past the observatory is an official cairn with a plaque denoting it as a war memorial. Once more I followed the figures disappearing into the clouds, able to make out the well trodden track across the many boulders of the summit plateau. Finding myself back at the snow bank I watched as nearly every single person on the descent fell over. I decided that there was no better way for it, and swiftly sat down on my butt and pushed off, tobogganing gleefully down to the bottom with ease. Further on, I kept an eye out for the junction, knowing that this would be the one place I could go awry in the poor visibility. Thankfully there was still a steady stream of ascenders and right where I thought it was, I got confirmation from some figures emerging below me from the cloud.

Cairn with plaque

Heading across the boulders near the summit plateau

I felt an overwhelming sense of achievement as I picked my way back down the zig-zag, still with no reference to gauge how far I was travelling. I was in a world of boulders and scree, the mountainside barren around me. I noted that the cloud base had dropped lower whilst I’d been at the summit, as I returned to the wider path near the base of the zig-zags and couldn’t see the loch.

Tracking across a scree slope

Picking a way through the boulders

The loch hidden from view

Finally the surrounding mountains broke through and I could see Glen Nevis again. The loch reappeared, and shortly after, the relentless zig-zags came to an end. I crossed back over Red Burn and at the junction by the loch, I looked up at the summit to see nothing but cloud. Retracing my steps past the loch and down into Red Burn valley, I was able to take in the scenery a bit better. The burn itself tumbles down the mountainside in a succession of waterfalls from high up the slopes of Ben Nevis.

Panorama below the clouds

Descending Ben Nevis

Crossing Red Burn

Loch Meall an t-Suidhe

Land of clouds

Red burn cascades from the clouds

Red Burn

I didn’t realise it at the time, but looking across Glen Nevis to the far side of the valley, I was staring at the final descent of the West Highland Way, a multi-day hike that I would be walking in a few weeks time. As the valley opened up in front of me again, I trudged past the turn off for the youth hostel and made my way to the Ben Nevis Inn where several hikers sat outside in the beer garden enjoying a drink. Down the hill, and back along the river, I crossed the bridge back to the car park and eagerly took off my hiking boots ready for the long drive back to Glasgow. There are varying reports about the time needed to summit Ben Nevis, and had it been a better day I would have spent a lot more time at the summit. In the end, I summited in 3 hrs and descended in 2.5hrs, satisfied to knock off the King of all Munros.

Glen Nevis

Ben Nevis Inn

Bridge over the river Ness

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