Sunday, May 02, 2010

West Highland Way

or The Longest Post Ever in the History of the Sheep Happens Blog...

With great excitement, we travelled up from Manchester on Wednesday evening by train after work. We spent the night at the Alexander Thompson Hotel in Glasgow, which is very handily situated just around the corner from the Central Train Station. It actually came as a bit of a shock when we arrived late in the evening just how close it was, as I was expecting a trek across the city but it took less than 5 minutes to find. A good night's sleep and a very hearty breakfast complete with seagull entertainment through the window, the first of many - hearty breakfasts, not seagulls - began the day and we headed to the train station and Milngavie (pronounced Millguy- although we did speculate that maybe the locals just tell unsuspecting walkers that's how it should be said just for a laugh). There would be numerous discussions along the way about town and hill pronunciations, most particularly about Rowardenen.

Sandwiches for lunch were bought in Millgavie, a bit of last minute shopping attempted (and failed), and we were off. The path leaves town and weaves by the side of the river through a country park before heading out into farm land and tracks. Part way through the morning, we made a detour to visit the Glengoyne Distillery, but the tours run on the hour and it would have been over half an hour wait until the next tour, so in our excitement we decided not to wait and headed off straight away along the path. I later decided that I would make up for this omission by toasting the end of the WHW with a glass of the Glengoyne.

Lambs in Drumgoyne

We reached the tiny, basic (to put it kindly) campsite at Easter Drumquahassle Farm and pitched our tent amongst the trees in the sunshine - along with some other WHW'ers that we were to see on and off through out the week. The WHW is very popular and many people follow very similar itineraries, so you get to recognise and chat with many people along the way. We'd read that thousands of people walk the WHW every year, but it was still quite a surprise to actually see so many people undertaking a long distance path. You don't often see anyone on the Pennine Way who looks like they might be doing the whole thing.

An evening visit to Drymen (Drummen) proved interesting, we managed to get drinks at the very friendly Winnock Hotel and a fantastic dinner at the Clachan Inn in between sporadic lengthy power cuts. There is a Spar here too for shopping. Returning to the campsite we had a rather unmotivating chat with a fellow camper who had spent the last week in Scotland revelling in the glorious weather that was just about to change for the worse and was telling anyone who'd listen how many people he had seen hobbling off the path into Beinglas campsite (our destination on day three) suffering with sore feet and blisters, apparently the worst off being the fools who were carrying all their own gear... cheery stuff indeed. Still, this chap was gone by the time we surfaced in the morning, although we were woken quite early by the enthusiastic morning greetings of a rooster.

The start of Day 2 was dry but very humid and warm. We headed through some fields and then on to tracks through forestry, where I saw the back end of a red squirrel running off into the trees. At about 10am it started raining. At about 10:30 Rob started complaining about his leg. At 11am he could barely walk. We stopped at a bench overlooking the valley and had a rest and wondered what to do. There had been notices about the section of the WHW over Conic Hill because of lambing and there was an alternative route suggested which took a lower level path. We descended to the road and had a good, long lunch break at the Beech Tree in Balmaha (with iced lemonade and chips) and took stock. Rob decided he could carry on, at least until the end of the day and then would see how he felt. Here we met a group of chaps here who had already walked from Milngavie that morning and were planning to do the whole thing in three days over the weekend. Seems like too much like hard work to me - although I was quite jealous of the tiny daysacks that they were carrying.

We wild camped in the woods beyond the youth hostel at Rowardenen. Had dinner at the Hotel, which was nice - although we spoiled our dinner by having tea with massive scones with jam and butter when we arrived.

Wild goats by the shores of Loch Lomond

By Loch Lomond

We'd bought provisions for breakfast from one of the campsites passed the day before, so had cereal and a decent cup of coffee with fresh milk and Rob decided that he had enough feeling in his leg to allow him to carry on, although we'd have to 'walk slower'... this 'walking slower' suited me just fine! The new official Way route goes on a higher track for a while which is very easy going and then returns to the shore of Loch Lomond for the rest of its length. The path is narrow and rocky and it was part way along here that we met the first of the runners. To begin with it was a novelty to see people going for their Saturday morning runs but after I'd commented to Rob that 'there was another runner coming', this runner replied that there would be about another 300 of them. These amazily fit people were doing the Montane Highland Fling race from Milngavie to Tyndrum - the winner taking 7:45hrs and the fastest woman, who was beaten by only four men, ran it in 8:38hrs. Incredible. I suspect our paths had met along probably the worst possible bit of the Way for being passed by other, faster users and it did get wearing to have to keep looking around to make sure there was no one approaching when starting to head up or down tricky sections - but they were all very polite, very friendly and very appreciative of the efforts we made to get out of their way.

Over Loch Lomond

Lunch was at the Inversnaid Hotel- where there wasn't as much choice as I was expecting, but it did. Many American tourists (and runners' lunches strewn across the carpark) here. Camped at Beinglas Campsite which is very comfortable and the wigwams looked nice. Facilities (shop, bar, food, showers and laundry) were excellent.

Scottish Blackface Sheep

Birds showing off on the River Fillan

We took detour down (& back up quite steep hill) into Crianlarich on Day 3 for lunch at the Rod and Reel Pub and to visit the shop. We had planned to stop at the Tyndrum By The Way Hotel campsite, but decided when we reached the Strathfillan Wigwam village (near Auchtertyre) to camp there for the night. The 'village' is a lot bigger than I expected, and the wigwams seemed nice - good shop, serving hot drinks and food, but sadly hadn't opened by the time we set off at about 8am, so I didn't get to have the hot bacon roll and coffee that I'd been dreaming about.

Moonlight over the hills

A late breakfast was had at the Green Welly Stop at Tyndrum where we put away an obscene amount of food. We shopped for snacks (long walks make for a very good excuse for eating shortbread at every opportunity) at Brodie's. Today was a short day and we arrived at Bridge of Orchy Hotel early and made ourselves comfortable in the bar. There was a telly here, although without sound, and election news coverage on - made me very glad that we are away to miss most of the electioneering. Dinner was excellent and we had a good breakfast the following day (the previous Full Scottish Breakfasts had finally taken their toll and we couldn't face any more than cereal, scrambled eggs, toast & croissants, juice and coffee for brekkie..yes, we are indeed piggies...) and packed lunches available to order. The hotel was very nice and we were well looked after, taking advantage of the laundry and drying room, although the beds in the bunkhouse were rather hard and uncomfortable.

Clach Leathad and Sron nam Fosair, with Meall a Bhuridh in clouds.

Day six saw us crossing Rannoch Moor in appropriately gloomy, atmospheric drizzle and trying unsuccessfully to name the mountains that we saw. Arriving at Kingshouse Hotel we set up camp by river under the watchful gaze of the almost tame deer that grazed nearby - it was a bit midgy, even in April and I got bit on my hand, thankfully not the itchy kind. I saw a fish in the river - this may not seem like a particularly momentous thing to many people but I have seen so few wild fish that I was almost convinced that they didn't exist and anyone seen by the side of water with fishing rods in their hands was just kidding themselves. The benches in the Climbers Bar are unbelievably uncomfortable, but the tea, cake and food were all good. Campers can use the bar facilities during the day (open at 11am) but not at other times. This is very politely made very clear in the notices by the door. There was VERY heavy rain during night, amplified considerably when falling on the tent so I was very thankful for my mp3 player and Stephanie Mayer's New Moon and my earplug for helping me get a decent kip. When I woke up the puddle that had formed under the ground sheet by my feet meant that there was a distinct water bed thing going on. The river had risen considerably and I was glad that we hadn't pitched any closer to it. We had a bit of an enforced lie-in because of the rain, but by the time we'd got packed up at 9am it had eased off and stopped.

Riverside camp - fairly dry a this point

From the Kingshouse Hotel we walked over the tops to Kinlochleven (Devil's Staircase isn't so bad, if you're used to any kind of hillwalking) and camped at the MacDonald Hotel, which was very nice. Good food and entertainment (including a pool table, where Rob beat me as per usual , although I did put up a better showing than usual) at the Walkers Bar. Breakfasts and packed lunches are available if needed. Was informed that the Tailrace Inn is a good pub, but we didn't fancy going back into town to visit. Along the route today we started seeing people on motorbikes and signs for the 'Pre-65s' scrambling bike event. Impressive as it might have been to see all the vintage bikes on the trails, I was pretty thankful when we read that the main trials were to take place on the WHW on the Friday, by which time we would be on our way home. The runners by Loch Lomond had been a little inconvenient, at least they not so big, fast, noisy or fumy as motorbikes.

View from bar window - who needs telly

We set off from Kinlochleven in good time and in good weather. The views out of Kinlochleven are amazing and I took many a photo along the way, I'd been told there was a family of eagles nesting in the hills nearby but sadly I didn't get to see them despite spending most of the time peering up into the sky. It being the last day, we ate all of the 'emergency' food that we'd carried the rest of the week, so were well fueled on trail mix and Jelly Babies. Towards the end of the day, you leave the forests, get a view of the bulk of Ben Nevis in front of you and it's all down hill from there. It is traditional to climb Ben Nevis when finishing the WHW, but I'm afraid we had a strong case of the been there, done thats.

Last day, wishing it wasn't about to end

The WHW follows the road from the Ben Nevis visitor centre into town - I would suggest (if you don't mind deviating from the official route slightly) investigating the path to the Braveheart Carpark, or even the higher level path into town, as even if these routes might be longer they may well be easier on the feet than very uninspiring pavement by a busy road for the last bit of the way. We stayed at the Premier Inn at Fort William, which is no frills but clean, comfortable and had very nice bath. I celebrated the end of this amazing holiday in the Grog and Gruel pub with some nachos and my wee dram of the Glengoyne.

SlĂ inte

Saturday, May 01, 2010

WHW Kit List

Yesterday, aching considerably, we got home after having walked the West Highland Way, which is 95 miles from Milngavie (nr Glasgow) to Fort William. We planned to do the walk in eight days and carry our kit with us, buying food and getting water along the way. We stayed in hotels in Glasgow the night before we started, in town at Fort William at the end and we had a night at the bunkhouse at the Bridge of Orchy Hotel in case it rained constantly and we needed somewhere to dry out. The rest of the time we would be camping.

Rob and I carried everything between us, he took the food which made his pack heavier and a less consistant weight than mine, which came in at about 8-10kg, depending on what I was wearing or carrying. The majority of WHWers that we saw were taking advantage of the luggage porter services who, for about £35 per bag, will take your bags to your overnight stops so you don't have to carry anything more than a daysack. We decided this was cheating, because we are like that and happy to suffer in order to be judgemental like having the freedom to change our plans and stop as and when we wanted.

This is pretty much what I took.

Osprey Exos 58 rucksack =1150g
Alpkit 600 down sleeping bag =980g
Camp 3 Kovea Titan stove, windshield, feet, 125g GoGas canister, Lighter
2x Origami folding plate/bowls, 2x plastic cups, 2x Light my Fire plastic sporks
Snowpeak Titanium pan & lid =about 650g
Go-Lite Shangri-la 3 tent inner =1020g
Thermarest Neoair mattress - mdm =380g
Thermarest Compack Chair =182g (unused)
Berghaus Infinity Lite smock (used mainly as pillow...) =280g
Integral Designs brushed nylon pillow slip =38g
2x Berghaus X-static top =154g, Mountain Equipment red t-shirt =90g,
Sprayway troos =220g, 2x Smartwool socks =80g, Bridgedale liner socks =22g
Buffalo mitts =80g, tesco £1 fleecy gloves (not used), woollen shooting mitts, waterproof overmitts
Visor Buff, Buffs x2, quvuit knitted hat =50g (not used), midge net - not needed, thankfully
Paramo Cascada trousers =650g
Paramo Velez Adventure Lite Smock =520g
Paramo short gaiters =150g (unused)
Salomon Windproof jacket =120g - very impressed with this, would probably be winner of best kit on trip award
Columbia lightweight fleece short zip jumper =150g
2x Lowe Alpine dry-flo pants =54g, spare pants =14g
Thermal long-johns =100g
2x Debenhams t-shirt bras =48g
2x Platypus bladders, filter, tubes - unused because I forgot a connecting lid and ended up using a small plastic bottle got free from the hotel in Glasgow.
Jinga shoes - pretty, but not entirely practical =240g
Petzl Tikka Plus headtorch =68g
Camera, spare battery, case, clip strap (neat idea but not quite sturdy enough for the job) =650g
Phone, mp3 player =180g
Notepad & pencil, Swiss Army knife - used mainly for the scissors, Lip balm, hanky, Silva compass & whistle, hand gel.
Washbag - mini toothbrush, Colgate, Dove deodorant, shampoo, SPF15 moisturiser, facewash, loo roll, bags, wetwipes, comb, earplugs, mirror, nail file, foot cream, all purpose soap, painkillers, hayfever tablets, midge bite clicker.
Zinc oxide tape - started off with stuff from Boots that proved to be bobbins, replaced when we got to shop in Tyndrum
Travel towel =65g, 2x small cloths
4x carrier bags, ziplock bags, bin bag
Sit mat =40g
Leki Makalu trekking poles
Salomon Elios gtx mid-boots
Sunglasses - worn once... =80g
Suncream - could have probably managed without this...

Deciding what to take and packing was a tricky business. Partly because this would be the longest backpacking trip that we'd undertaken and also because of the wildly fluctuating weather forecasts. A week or so before we left there was significant snow and freezing temperatures during the day and night. The week before we set off it was cold, clear and sunny during the day but freezing at night. By the time we set off it was going to be warm, wet, windy, sunny and just about eveything in between. So, erring on the side of caution, we went for the winter sleeping bags, warm clothes and big rucksacks. Turns out I was almost too warm every night and didn't need much of the warm gear I'd taken, but hindsight is a wonderful thing and, funnily, the weather forecast for the coming week is for a return to cold weather and frosts.

Hindsight being what it is, I wouldn't have taken the thermarest chair because we could sit in hotel bars or pubs pretty much every night. A paperback or some knitting would have been more useful. I would recommend taking a sit mat in with you if you are planning on spending any amount of time in the Climber's Bar at the Kingshouse Hotel - those benches are tough! I didn't need the pair of fleece gloves, and I didn't wear my Buffalo mits but would have taken them anyway because, well, just because I like having them with me. I probably could have managed with one less top and one less pair of socks, but it was quite a relief to have additional spare stuff as it happened that although there were laundry facilities at many of the places we stopped, they weren't always available.

The stove and cooking gear wasn't essential, as places to get food and drink are so widely available on the WHW, but it was nice to stop and have the occasional brew - and it's reassuring to know that we could be self sufficient if need be.

The photos are uploading now, and I will blog about the actual walk tomorrow.