I grew up in Scotland. I spent the first nineteen years of my life there, until I started splitting my time between the UK, Alaska, and now Canada. I learned to backpack in the shadow of Munros, hauling a heavy backpack half my size through Scottish glens and forests. Now, after walking almost ten thousand miles, it’s time to hike my first Scottish long distance trail.
The West Highland way is a 96 mile trail from Milngavie to Fort William. The trail is mainly doubletrack and old roads, with short sections of singletrack. Elevation gains are mild, and the trail is accessible throughout by public transportation, making it an ideal easy thru-hike. There’s a town every day, and plenty of pubs and restaurants to stop in. I think it would bore me as a summer thru-hike, but in early March, when the weather is wild and unpredictable, it’s perfect.
I don’t sleep much before we start, but for a very good reason. I’m invited to speak at a Great Divide Trail Association webinar, and the time difference means the call is at 2am. I get a restless four hours of sleep after, and tell Shake’nBake he’ll have to do most of the navigating to get us to the start of the trail. We take the train for an hour from my brother’s house, through Glasgow, and then on to Milngavie. We stop at Tesco for some sandwiches, and then it’s a quick walk to the monument in the town center. We take a few photos, then start walking. It’s an easy, wide path out of town, with gentle gradients. It doesn’t take us long at all to leave the city behind. We see some Highland Cows, shaggy brown hair hiding their eyes, and then camp on the side of the trail a few miles south of Dryman.
The night is cold and clear. In the morning, there’s frost on the tent. We quickly hike past Dryman, then up into the forest. The trail over Conic Hill is closed, so we take the bad weather alternate despite sunshine and clear skies. We stop in Balmaha for coffee and breakfast rolls, then start the long walk down Loch Lomond. There are lots of tourists meandering slowly in front of us, and we spot our first other thru-hikers. The sun is strong and warm, and the trail climbs steeply, before descending back down, over and over again. We stop in a hotel pub for a beer, and by the time we’re finished, clouds have covered the sky. We head out of the restricted camping section, past feral goats bounding over the hillside, and find a pretty spot all to ourselves on the shore of the loch.
It spits rain in the morning. We hike along the loch shore. It’s rooty and rocky and up and down. It takes us a long time to make miles, crawling along. There’s snow on the high peaks, creeping down overnight. After lunch, we finally leave the lake and head towards the mountains. The clouds part and close again, leaving us with patches of sun. Steve gets a hot spot, stopping on the side of the trail to dress it, as we walk through hillsides dotted with sheep. We camp deep in the forest on the side of a burn (the Scottish burn, a tumbling brook, not the North American kind with scorched trees).
It spits rain overnight, and in the morning, the snow has inched further down the peaks. We hike through Tyndrum for brunch, then Bridge of Orchy for hot chocolate. It’s a little too cold to stop for long outside of town, but the hills are magnificent, drenched in sun which is chased away by snow showers. The clouds race across the sky on and off all day, alternating sun and snow. The hills rise around us: we’re properly in the highlands now, and we’ll hike across the edge of Glen Coe tomorrow. We camp on the edge of Rannoch Moor, in a stand of trees that shelters us from the worst of the wind. I pull out the tent to dry it, and ice crackles across the nylon even at four pm. Steve starts a small stick fire, and we huddle around it to eat dinner.
It’s a cold night: too cold for Steve to sleep in his summer weight sleeping bag and borrowed sleeping pad. It’s a slow start, hiking past frozen streams and icy lochs. The sun is bright but lacks the warmth of previous days. A cold snap tightens around the mountains. We climb over the shoulder of Meall a’Bhuiridh, a munro I climbed as a teenager, then drop down to Kinghouse Hotel for lunch. We’re red faced from the cold, and maybe a little smelly, but they usher us into a fancy restaurant, where we eat venison burgers with a view of Buachaille Etive Mor, the imposing pyramid peak that guards the entrance to Glen Etive.
We climb up towards Devil’s Staircase and the highpoint of the West Highland Way in the sun. Clouds race, and seconds later, it starts to snow. It snows hard: I turn the collar of my rain jacket up against the driving snow, and squint as visibility drops. We cross the pass in a whiteout, but the wind chases the storm away again as we drop back down. It’s a long way to our hotel at Kinlochleven, as sun and snow alternates until we’re chilled through. I check the weather from our warm hotel room before bed: it’s -7, but feels like -13c.
We are lazy in the morning, lingering over coffee in our warm hotel. It’s still cold when we head out at nine, but the sun has warmth to it today at least. Ice crosses the trail in rivulets, and we slip and slide more than once. As we climb, a dusting of snow covers the ice. We hike through Lairig Mor, a long, open valley that feeds us into Glen Nevis. Ben Nevis, the highest point in the UK, is snow capped and wintery. We hike fast through shadowy forest, chilled without the warmth of the sun, then hit the pavement to start the long road walk to Fort William. The trail winds through town, past sleepy tourist shops half shuttered for the season. Finally we reach the monument, and the trail is over.
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