Kinlochleven to Fort William
Updated: Jan 27, 2020
West Highland Way - Day 7 - 17.6 miles - 'Nevis'
Saturday night at Kinlochleven's Ice Factor turned into the send-off The West Highland deserved.
What started as a subdued pint in a venue with the atmosphere of a Monday afternoon bowling alley turned – thanks to the musical talents of the impeccable Fras (pipes, flute, piano accordion, guitar) – into a full-on ceilidh, Wayers from all over the world finally losing their inhibitions and forgetting their blistered feet to join each other in Strip the Willow and Gay Gordons.
At about 11.45, long after last orders, an overexuberent Norwegian knocked over the band's PA. I've yet to attend a ceilidh where there's not been a minor public liability scare and it proved that Kinlochleven – or its visitors at least – were up for a good ol' Scottish blast.
Oh, and I finally met a fellow traveller – Philip from Germany – who fancied having a chat and a beer. It only took 87 miles.
I got off to a late start. It wasn't so much down to one too many, ahem, Gay Gordons. More the fact that in the midst of midge country guests at the lodge I stayed in were strongly advised to close the windows. It made the room so quiet that it was almost eight by the time I stirred.
A quick breakfast back at Ice Factor (with veggie haggis) and I rejoined the Way for its final leg, which would take me to the foot of Ben Nevis.
For many on the Way the last leg is a tough proposition. At just over 16 miles with nowhere to stop en route it's the longest stretch of all, and with a couple of thousand feet climb on sometimes rough terrain it was the first – and only – time the WHW demands more than an amble from its walkers.
After a quick visit to the off-route Grey Mare's Tail Waterfall – beautiful and impressive – the Way climbs through rich woods dominated by silver birch onto Mam Mor, a fine vantage point for both Kinlochleven – picked out as I gained height in a single shaft of sunlight – but also the sea loch of Loch Leven, eyes returning always to Sgorr na Ciche, the pyramidal Pap of Glencoe, as perfect a mountain shape as you'll find in Scotland.
Onwards to the Larigmor (The Big Pass) and the surroundings grow bleaker. Mountains tower each side, mists blanket the tops and tree cover is reduced to the hardiest shrubs along streams that plough lonely furrows through the crags. Heather purple and bog asphodel yellow throw rare splashes of colour into the blanched upland green.
Frustratingly, BT has decided I've reached my data limit and my OS Map App suddenly stops working. The helpline to beg for more data only reopens on Monday at 9am. I'm lucky there's the usual line of Wayers stretching along the trail ahead and visibility is clear; if I'd lost mapping on a tougher section of LeJog BT's decision could have had serious consequences.
As you finally leave Wade's military road – a near constant on the trail for the past four days – above Blarmachfoldach (a great 21st century kids' name if ever I heard one) and turn the corner, the Big Ben finally comes into view. Not quite for the first time – I caught a hazy peek at the top of the devilishly easy Devil's Staircase – but this time it packs the punch.
Despite visiting Fort William a dozen or so times in the past I have never seen Ben Nevis out of the cloud. And despite hoping that the patron saint of LeJoggers would smile on me today and give me a glimpse, there seemed little chance. Instead the mists guarded their prize, revealing, in tantalising moments as the trail continued northeast, creased cliffs and dark parapets, summit cloaked far above.
As the trail wove ever closer, first through lively alder and birch saplings, then decimated conifer plantations, the Ben's brooding presence became ever more dominant. It is, as Robinson points out in his End to End book, a big mountain.
As the Way rises from the little wooded valley below Sgorr Chalum, there's a tangible sense of winding down. The trail laves its rocky path and joins wide forest trails, then tracks, then tarmac on the busy Glen Nevis road. After 96 miles in the Scottish countryside the Way reaches civilisation again in the self-styled Adventure Capital of the UK, Fort William, where every other house is a B&B and you need to ask ten people directions to find a local.
But before it ends I'm given one tantalising glimpse of the Ben – I think. A backwards glance as I descend through Nevis Forest, when the cloud veil lifts for a few seconds to reveal its rocky summit dome.
The West Highland Way turned out to be a good trail.
Not great. But lots of fun.
Like my night in Ice Factor, the Way got off to a slow, ponderous start, but almost every day got better as it reached further into the Highlands.
It's not a trail for those who like their walking to be challenging. It's not a trail for wilderness seekers or those who like the quiet life. It's not particularly sociable or friendly, and is not for the solo walker who craves company. Nor does it show off much of – or the best of – Scotland. The mythology surrounding the West Highland Way is, I think, overdone; whoever's been marketing the trail deserves a payrise.
But it has treated me well. Not only is it impossible not to enjoy a walk that takes you along one of Scotland's loveliest lochs then through magnificent Glencoe to (possibly) set your eyes on the UK's highest mountain, but I've been blessed with impeccable weather. In the 90 miles I've spent on it, there has been just one brief mizzly spell – and it looks like the good weather's to hold, too.
More than that. When I started out on the Way I was pretty much a broken man. With blisters on both heels and an average speed of 1mph I was – for the first and only time on LeJog so far – seriously struggling. The WHW's easy gradients, clear waymarking and short distances have enabled me to heal as I walked so that I am in good physical shape to attempt my next – and final – 200 mile stretch.
For that, and for its gentle introduction to the beauty, scale, variety and drama of Scotland I have been grateful. It's not a walk I'd do again. But I leave it with happy memories.
To round the day – and Way – off, a LeJog accommodation first: I am going back to uni with a night in Fort William's hall of residence.
It's all very sleek, in a chicken coup kind of way, every box room with its own en suite shower and loo – which is a step up from the shared accommodation of my own student days (shared bathrooms – even shared rooms!).
But some things haven't changed. There's that universal hall of residence smell, lots of posters for Endsleigh insurance products, and in the shared kitchen there's a queue for the oven, someone's labeled their milk and someone else is hogging the chopping board and utensils to make the world's most extravagant curry.
Which means it's time to seek out the student bar...
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