Saturday, 21 June 2014

Invermoriston to Drumnadrochit

We had been told by our hosts that red squirrels regularly visit their garden, and that there could even be the occasional red deer. I saw neither, but Rosemary saw a red squirrel from her bedroom before breakfast.

Fortunately the new route was well signposted and
well constructed, so navigation should not have been
a problem - though we managed to lose our way anyway
We were also told about the major changes to the Great Glen Way to the Northeast. There are large areas currently being felled, or due shortly to be felled, so there’s a major diversion to higher ground above the forestry. There was a map setting out the new route, but it turned out to be pretty obvious anyway.

The first stage out of the village was an uphill stretch on a minor road. The new route struck off from the old at a car park half a mile on. Clearly a lot of work had been put into the diversion. Part of it was on existing forestry roads, but where none had existed before the Way was very well constructed with gravel and ne bridges across the various streams.

It was actually something of a pleasant change to be walking through reasonably open country rather than through the dense woodland that characterises much of the flanks of Loch Ness. There were good views to distant mountains to the North and West, which tantalisingly seemed to be in sunshine while we were in gloomier conditions, and as we climbed sometimes almost in the cloud itself.

Good use made of trimmings on the new route
The only minor disadvantage of the new route was hat it was much higher, so involved a fair amount of climbing. Most of the route was above 250m, and the high point, when skirting a hill called Creag Dhearg, was at 432m. There were also some very steep stretches, where it seemed to us that the newly-installed path would rapidly become eroded unless retaining rocks were added. It did appear, however, that there was still some work to do, so perhaps this issue will be addressed.

And another picturesque use
of trimmings on a new bridge
About half way along the new route we had to cross a stream called Allt Saigh, which drains a large area of the hinterland above Loch Ness. This runs in a steep-sided valley, and is crossed by a forestry track, which we then followed for some distance before the path branched off into higher ground. Then it was a long woodland walk to reach the point where we rejoined the original route of the Great Glen Way. Unfortunately this was where we made the day’s big mistake, adding the best part of two miles to our efforts by taking the wrong route – effectively going backwards towards Glenmoriston. Only when we did some more effective map reading, after fifteen minutes of gentle downhill walking, did we realise where we had gone wrong. So we had to turn round and regain all the height we had sacrificed. All rather irritating.

A windbreak on the new trail - a good spot for a
few moments rest. Looking SW upLoch Ness.
When we had retraced our steps we found the marker we had missed first time around, and after a brief refreshment stop were able to resume our walk in the right direction. This was across an area of open ground, and then more rather gloomy forestry for the best part of three miles.

And the view to the NE over Loch Ness
The final wooded stretch was just below the small settlement of Grotaig, which comprises a few houses, a farm, and a pottery. After that it was road walking all the way in to Drumnadrochit. Initially this was pretty level going at the 250m level, in country that looks like a grouse moor rather than the more open hills we had walked through earlier in the day. The last bit was a steep descent down the minor road to rejoin the ubiquitous A82.

The final mile to our B&B was along main roads, fortunately provided with pavements to avoid the traffic. There was a village green with a tea shop, so we were able to reward ourselves before the final few yards.
Waiting for transport. Pulp or construction?

Our B&B, Kilmichael House, is noted for the three giant Wellingtonias in its front garden. We wre booked in to what were described as “economy” rooms in the annex, which were actually very acceptable. And made even more so by our hostess providing us with tots of malt whisky as a welcome.

Dinner that evening was at the local hotel. Like so many other places around the Loch it is monster themed, with a visitor attraction alongside the hotel itself. It’s obviously a major tourist attraction, but at least when we were there for dinner it was a coach-free day, and we had a very pleasant dinner.

Alan and Rosemary had proved excellent walking companions for the three days, and I was delighted that they had been able to join me after having had to cancel the two days they had intended to be with me earlier in the walk. I had been lucky enough to have company every day between Glasgow and Inverness, which is more than I had managed to achieve on any other two weeks of the walk in previous years. Given how far North I was now, and the distance most people would have to travel to join me, this was much more than I had originally expected.

We were up early for breakfast, after which Alan and Rosemary departed for the lake district in the car which they had driven there three days earlier. For me it was a taxi to Inverness station from which I took the early London train. So it was an eight hour journey back home to finish up the 2014 part of the walk.

Cloudy with occasional light  rain; hardly a glimmer of sunshine. 14-18C. Easy going on good tracks, much of which was the new route to avoid an area of planned felling. Last four miles into Drumnadrochit on minor road. Max altitude 432m, minimum 30m. 22.3 km, plus 2.4km when going wrong way and retracing steps. 732m of ascents, 768m descents. Midge factor 1.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Aberchalder to Invermoriston

Old bridge over River Oich
After an excellent breakfast Neville took us back from Drynachan to the swing bridge at Aberchalder where we had finished the previous evening. This is a picturesque place, with the old bridge over the River Oiche and a vista over the mountains to the East.

The Great Glen Way then follows the West bank of the Caledonian Canal all the way to Fort Augustus. It runs on the old towpath with the canal to the left and the River Oich to the right. The river starts with rapids as it runs out of Loch Oich, and drops steadily as it flows into Loch Ness at Fort Augustus. Most of the time it is screened by trees, but there are occasional glimpses of the river. It looks like good salmon water.

Shortly after starting long he towpath we met a Scot walking towards us, and stopped for a chat. His T-shirt mentioned some expedition involving Munros; on enquiry he said hat he’d done them all. I think they now number 283, so it’s an impressive achievement. Particularly in his case, I felt: he was short and stocky, not the sort of lean and fit character I’d associate with hill walking – or mountaineering, for that matter. After all some of the Munros require real rock climbing, and walking along narrow ledges where a slip could prove fatal. I think it’s a little late for me to start on them now! I’ve managed Cairn Gorm, but only from the cable car station, so even that doesn’t really count.

The flight of locks at Fort Augustus, carrying the
Caledonian Canal down to Loch Ness
It’s all easy walking for the five miles to Fort Augustus. It’s quite attractive, and the canal at Kyltra Lock, half way along this stretch, is especially so. It goes through an old loch, and then along a stretch with modest hills on the far side, before the final bit as you approach the town with its golf course on the far bank.

Fort Augustus is built on either side of the flight of locks that drops the canal down to the level of Loch Ness. It’s not as famous as Neptune’s Staircase at the other end of the Caledonian Canal, but I think it’s actually rather more attractive. We stopped there for coffees and to buy sandwiches for lunch later.

Alan, Rosemary and Tom in front of the
Loch Ness Monster
It was then time to head into the woods. After skirting the Northern end of Fort Augustus the Way climbs through woodland to reach a track that runs along the shoulder of the hills above Loch Ness. This is generally between the 60 and 100m contours, but undulates to some degree, and is slightly higher before the drop down into Invermoriston. For the most part it’s heavily wooded so that you cannot see the Loch, but there are a couple of areas of clear fell where there are excellent views. The Loch is over twenty miles long, with steep sides, so it’s an impressive area for views. It could have done with more sun to light up the views, though.

How to keep midges out of your lunch
We stopped after an hour or so to eat our sandwiches. Midges found us immediately. Rosemary is particularly wary of them, so it was on with her anti-midge hat which sports a full veil. It’s not the easiest apparel for eating a sandwich, but she managed it somehow. Alan and I stuck it out: perhaps we aren’t as sweet.

When ever I stopped to take a photograph I’d find myself 20 metres or so behind Alan and Rosemary. It could also happen as we were walking along. Their natural walking pace is marginally faster than mine, so I seemed destined to drop behind when we were not actually engaged in conversation. Their rears become familiar sights!

One of the areas of clear felling was recent, and though nobody was working as we went past there was still a range of heavy equipment in place. There were huge piles of logs waiting to be transported, marked with their lengths and indicating whether they were for pulping or for timber. Fortunately we didn’t encounter any logging trucks, so it was a peaceful if rather desolate scene.

The track carries on past the point where the descent to Invermoriston would be shortest, so we had to carry on for another half mile or so before we were offered a descent. This was through an older area of clear fell, and meant that we had to walk back to the main road – still the A82 – to cross the river into the village.

On the old bridge at Invermoriston
There is a very picturesque old bridge just above the main road bridge, where both cross a series of falls and rapids on the River Moriston. So it was a short rest and photography stop before the final half mile into the centre of Invermoriston. Not that it’s much of a place – a few houses, and a hotel and a very basic village store at the junction of the A82 and the road that leads to the Isle of Skye.

The B&B, strangely named Craik na Dav, involved a short climb out of the village, and the two sisters who run it welcomed us with tea and cake. So it was a shower, rest, and then a trip back down to the hotel for dinner. This was rather better than the previous day, fortunately.

Cloudy with occasional sunny spells. A little rain early afternoon. 15-19C. Easy going on canal path and good tracks; minor road walking in Fort Augustus. Max altitude 120m, minimum 15m. 20.1 km. 302m of ascents, 315m descents. Midge factor 1; briefly 2 at lunch time.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Gairlochy to Aberchalder

It was an early breakfast, to give Susan and Katie sufficient time to drive back to Glasgow for a flight to London, fro m which Katie was to fly back to New York. She had a long-standing arrangement to go on the following day to Charlotte, North Carolina, to join one of her friend’s hen weekend. They do these things on a more extravagant basis on the other side of the Atlantic.

Tom and Alan Towers
Just as they were about to depart Alan and Rosemary Towers were delivered by their B&B host to join me for the next three days walking, which were to be my last three days in 2014. We set off shortly after 9:00.

The Great Glen Way follows the banks of Loch Lochy and Loch Oich for the best part of next 20 miles. It would be a long day, but not particularly arduous, as for most of the time the path runs pretty well at the level of the two lochs, though with some minor undulations. Most of the way would be through woodland, though there is a little open country and otherwise the two lochs are generally in view beyond the trees.

Initially the Way goes through largely deciduous woods, but later it becomes conifers before reverting to deciduous woodland along Loch Oich. Apparently landowners planted a number of non-native trees before the more usual spruce became the dominant species. These include sequoia (Wellingtonia), Douglas fir, Atlas cedar, and Western red cedar, several of which are well over 100 feet in height. This is markedly different from the monocultural horror of Sitka spruce which characterises much of Scotland’s commercial forestry. Alongside Loch Oich there is hazel coppice and oak as well as conifers at higher levels.

The view back down Loch Lochy
While there is a minor road along the North shore of Loch Lochy, the Way tries to avoid this as much as possible, meandering through the woodland for much of he way. There are some minor diversions around areas which have been or are about to be felled, so it’s marginally longer than the more direct route along the road – and undulates more. After Clunes, some five miles into the walk, the Way leaves the road, which turns sharply to pass the West to the waterfall Susan Katie and I had visited the previous day, and carries on to Loch Arkaig.

There are a number of fairly new and rather luxurious houses on this road, which appear to be second homes. There are also moorings for boats which are presumably associated with these houses. It would seem that boating on Loch Lochy must be one of the attractions for those that have built here. In fact there was relatively little boating activity on the loch when we were there in mid June: presumably holidays are concentrated on July and August when schools are out and Scotland’s weather is (or should be) at its best.

After Clunes the Way runs a long a good quality track, which is obviously used for forestry purposes as well as leisure. It is equally obvious that it’s an excellent track for cyclists, so it was surprising that we only saw one or to all day long. Nor were there any other obvious long distance walkers, so we had the Great Glen Way largely to ourselves.

The floating pub
The forestry ends just a mile or so short of the Northeast end of Loch Lochy, and there’s then a short stretch through a group of holiday chalets and open country before reaching Laggan Locks, where the Caledonian Canal resumes to run for a couple of miles between Loch Lochy and Loch Oich. Here there was a very welcome sight: a barge which doubles as a pub cum tea shop. We all had welcome drinks of shandy to reward ourselves for completing the major part of the day’s walking.

The canal stretch is rather unusual, in that the Great Glen Way runs in woodland between the Caledonian Canal and the A82, neither of which are visible from the path. It feels like a world of its own, and is surprisingly undulating for a path which parallels a canal.

At the end of this stretch the Way continues on the South side of Loch Oich, away from the A82, which runs along the North shore and along a great curve at Invergarry, at the foot of Glen Garry. The River Garry, which enters Loch Oich here, is the single largest waterway entering the Loch Ness system, and from Loch Oich onwards water flows Northeast through Loch Ness to Inverness and the North Sea, whereas Loch Lochy drains into Loch Linhe and the West Coast.

We were booked that night to stay at Drynachan, a B&B on the A82 just outside Invergarry. The arrangement was that we would be picked up on the A82 and driven to Drynachan, but this could be from either end of Loch Oich. So we elected to continue to the North End of Loch Oich to make today and tomorrow’s distances more or less equal.

Rosemary and Alan on the East bank of Loch Oich
The Way along the Southern bank of Loch Oich follows the route of an abandoned railway, which used to run between Fort William and Fort Augustus. This, along with many other railways in the Highlands, is long gone. But the level ground of the former track remains, so the going is pretty easy. Initially we followed a group of five Americans who had been at the camp at the Southern end of Loch Oich, but they turned back after a couple of miles when they realised that they couldn’t climb up to the hills above as they had hoped. Then there was a campsite with a group of boys who were travelling the loch by canoe, accompanies by a very annoying dog that barked ceaselessly. It confirmed Rosemary in her general displike of dogs, thought this is primarily based on her experiences in France where their unwanted leavings are a major nuisance.

Looking back West down Loch Oich
After the fie miles of Loch Oich we arrived at the swing bridge at Aberchalder that marks its end. A phone call to Neville at Drynachan, a lift ten minutes later, and then showers and a change of clothes before Neville provided lifts to and from hat turned out to be a rather chichi dinner at the Invergarry Hotel: small portions of over-elaborate food. Rosemary, Alan and I were all rather disappointed. Scotland’s food may have improved in general, but sometimes it appears that intended improvements are not always successful.

I realised after we had arrived that I’d stayed at Drynachan about five years earlier when I’d been ona  birding trip to the Loch Garten area and was going on to Islay. There aren’t that many options in the Great Glen, so perhaps it wasn’t surprising. It was certainly a ery acceptable B&B.

Partly cloudy. 14-19C. Easy going on good tracks; some minor road walking in early stretch by Loch Lochy. Max altitude 90m, minimum 31m. 28.3 km. 278m of ascents, 270m descents. Midge factor 1.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Fort William to Gairlochy

Looking back at Ben Nevis from River Lochy bridge
It is difficult to imagine two days of walking more different from one another than yesterday’s and today’s. The first was long, arduous, mountainous; this would be short, easy and flat, being mostly along the Caledonian Canal.

The Great Glen Way starts at the roundabout immediately beside the Alexandra Hotel at which we had stayed, and then rather prosaically goes through a supermarket car park and an industrial estate to get out of the downtown area. There’s then a short stretch through an area of wooded parkland before it flows the bottom stretch of the River Lochy, just below the point where the tail race emerges from the power station. This is a salmon river, and there were two fishers working their way through the rapids. Not, according to the one with whom I spoke, with any success, I fear. (I had brought a trout rod with me on the trip, which travelled daily with my luggage, but I don’t think it was heavy enough tackle for salmon, though I’d have been sorely tempted if it had been possible to get on the water and the fish were on.)

After crossing the Lochy we came to the suburb of Caol, which sits between the river and the canal at the top of Loch Linhe. Officially the Great Glen Way goes all the way round the edge of Caol, following the coast and then the canal. But this seems senseless: it’s much easier just to cut through the suburb itself and join the canal a bit further on. So that was what we did.

Norwegian boat making its way up Neptune's Staircase
This then reaches Neptune’s Staircase – a flight of seven or eight locks which raises the canal some 30m to the level of Loch Lochy, which is seven miles or so to the Northeast. We stopped there, and I had a coffee while we watched a Norwegian boat being worked up the locks. It’s a pretty long-winded process, which takes a good fifteen minutes or so per lock, so the whole flight takes the best part of a couple of hours.

Then it was a long, level walk along the towpath of the Caledonian Canal. This is broad and fairly deep, originally built in the early 1800s to take sailing boats from one coast to the other without having to navigate the rough seas of the Pentland Firth between Northern Scotland and the Orkneys. Nowadays it’s pretty well exclusively used for leisure, though we saw surprisingly few boats actually travelling along the canal. Neither are there any marina facilities on this part of the canal, though there are obviously various facilities in Loch Linhe.

Swing bridge at Moy on Caledonian Canal
The canal is picturesque, and goes through attractive country with mountains in the distance on either side. The bank we were on is largely wooded; the other side is more open farmland. Although the river Lochy is but hundreds of metres away it’s seldom visible, as it’s largely screened by trees. There are a couple of aqueducts where minor streams cross beneath the canal on their way to join the river, and a swing bridge at Moy, shortly before Loch Lochy. It has a keeper, who appears to do little other than sit in a little shed beside the canal waiting to see whether he needs to open or close the bridge at any time. His seems like one of the easiest jobs going: one would have thought that there would be a way of getting canal users to do the necessary themselves. But at  least he keeps the area very neat and tidy with well mown lawns and well tended flowers.

The end of the day's walk:
Tom, Irvine and Katie at the Gairlochy lock
It was a short day, and we arrived at the B&B in Gairlochy in the early afternoon. There we found Chris waiting with the helicopter in the field immediately behind the B&B. This was something of an event for our hosts as the B&B, Heather and Mark Shore, as helicopters landing more or less in their back yard were hardly everyday events.

It was time for Irvine to depart. His walking had been the filling in an education sandwich: he had arrived from Newcastle after visiting the academy schools he sponsors there; he was off to St Andrews for a dinner at the University that evening. At least his second day of walking was light relief compared with the first.

Irvine and Chris depart for St Andrew's
t was still relatively early, so Susan, Katie and I had time for a little expedition before dinner. We drove to the waterfall six miles or so away, which turned out to be a wonderful spot. The route there was through what seemed to be something or an arboretum, with several giant sequoias and Douglas firs as well as more common conifers and broadleaf trees. Wonderful weather, and a pleasant extra for the day.

That evening we went out to dinner with Rosemary and Alan Towers, who were to join me for the walk the following day, having had to cancel their earlier planned participation between Rowardennan and Inveroran. They were staying in Spean Bridge, four miles or so from our B&B in Gairlochy, as there had been nowhere nearer with accommodation available. They had already delivered their car to the B&B we would be staying in that Saturday, and caught the bus back to Spean Bridge.

Susan and Katie on our evening walk
Despite taking a wrong turning and driving an unnecessary ten miles or so we arrived at the restaurant they had booked in good time. This was the Smiddy House in Spean Bridge, and provided us an excellent meal. Cooking in Scotland has clearly improved in recent years.

Fine and sunny all day. 18-24C. Good going on good tracks, roads or canal side. Max altitude 32m, minimum 5m. 15.5 km. 48m of ascents, 33m descents. Midge factor 0.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Kinlochleven to Fort William

Our view back over Kinlochleven, with
Loch Leven to the Northwest
This was to be the longest day, so it was an early breakfast. Then there was a special treat, laid on by Irvine – a sight-seeing trip in his helicopter over Loch Leven and the surrounding country. Irvine elected not to join us, so we were flown by Irvine’s pilot, Chris Allison. Katie took the co-pilot’s seat, while Susan and I had seats in the back – the same seats we’d occupied eighteen months ago when Irvine took us around the Cape during our visit to South Africa. Chris had flown this same helicopter from Cape Town to Scotland (with a few stops). It was a wonderful morning, clear and sunny except for a little low-lying cloud in some of the side valleys. Views were fantastic, and we had a clear idea of what lay ahead of us for the first part of the walk later in the day.
Another view over Loch Leven

Back on terra firma we left Susan to drive to Fort William, and set off on the walk itself a few minutes after 10:00. Chris joined us for the day, which being dry and sunny didn’t really require proper walking boots, so his trainers sufficed. I’m not sure that he’d signed up for a fifteen mile trek, but that’s what he let himself in for. Still, I’m sure that it was a much better way to spend a fine sunny day than hanging around in Kinlochleven for the best part of a couple of days.

The walk itself started directly opposite the hotel, and immediately involved a stiff climb through deciduous woodland to reach the old military road at the 250m contour, which we were to follow with minor undulations for much of the day. The road climbs from Kinlochleven itself in a great dog-leg, so the climb cuts the corner – steeper, but shorter. The walk then follows valleys between the Mamores, a range of major mountains with a good number of Munros, and the lesser hills to the South. You soon lose sight of Loch Leven, and then it’s an open landscape between high hills.

Tom, Katie, Irvine and Chris before the walk
This is grand country, and for the most part easy walking on a good surface with only minor gradients. The Mamores seem to be largely red granite, with striking areas of scree and rocky cliffs. The road itself is in pretty good repair, and it was rather surprising that we didn’t see any mountain bikers, as this looks much easier going than the previous day’s path.

After about five or six miles walking almost due West, the road turns the corner with the river, and for the next stretch runs almost due North. It drops as the river becomes more significant, and the low point is at little more than 150m in altitude. 
The only building on the Old Military Road
This is also after leaving the open country and entering an area shown as woodland on the map, but now largely clear felled with stumps and the normal detritus that is left after the trees have gone. It would be wonderful if felling was followed by some restitution of the land, but it’s obviously totally uneconomic to do so, and in any case there will be new trees everywhere before too long.

This is where we stopped for a lunch break – and the only time we had any midge problems. They find one pretty well as soon as you stop. I had thought that they didn’t like bright sunshine, but they didn’t seem to mind it if there was someone around to torment.

After lunch it was back to the trail – and more climbing to get back to the 250-300m level. In practice there’s a minor road that runs from this point pretty wwell all the way to Fort William, and pretty well downhill all the way. But this is not the West Highland Way, which follows a more Easterly route over the shoulder of the Mamores range.

Time for lunch
After the remainder of the clear-felled area there’s a half mile or so of more open country, and then more conifers. This is the point of the Way where it turns to the Northeast and Ben Nevis becomes visible from a distance of six miles or so. There’s nothing much higher than 300m this side of the River Nevis, so the mountain itself is pretty obvious. It’s not a sharp peak, as the top is more of a plateau, but the sheer bulk is impressive, and it’s also possible to see the big mountains to the East of the Ben itself.

... in glorious weather 
Unfortunately soon after seeing Ben Nevis for the first time you lose sight of it for the next few miles. This is really dense conifer woodland, darker than anything else I’ve experienced anywhere else, and makes for a period so gloomy that it’s hard to imagine that the sun is actually shining above. In places the only ground cover is large carpets of shamrock, which appears to be tolerant of these dark, dank conditions.

Katie made the observation that “it’s all downhill from here” – which a superficial reading of the map suggested was the case. Not so: Katie’s comment proved far from the truth. The fact of the matter is that in country like this the map shows tightly bunched contour lines, and it’s very difficult to work out the exact altitude you’re at when at a particular point of the trail. So there were two or three minor climbs and one final brute of 80m through a clear-felled area before it really was downhill all the way.

The final stretch is on a good quality dirt road which is obviously used for logging. Then it really does become downhill for the final two or three miles into Fort William. But unaccountably the Way leaves this dirt road, which continues through woodland all the way to Fort William, and goes downhill to join the road along the River Nevis. This does have a pavement, but it seems a pretty drab and unimpressive finale for the West Highland Way. The views may be better (one can see Ben Nevis again), but I think the Way would be better routed away from a busy road.

Tom and Katie at the end of the West
Highland Way - and ready for dinner
I think Irvine agreed with me. He decided he’s had enough after a quarter mile of road walking, and he and Chris called the hotel to arrange a taxi for the last mile and a half. If I hadn’t been determined to cover every inch from land’s End to John O’Groats on foot I’d have been tempted to join him, but Katie and I walked it, passed by Irvine’s taxi half a mile before the end.

We reached the hotel a little after five, in time for a well-earned beer before a shower and change. The hotel was actually short of the official end of the Way, but (a) we would cover the remainder of the official Way, through the centre of Fort William, on our way to the restaurant that evening, and (b) we would be walking on from the hotel the following day anyway. So I didn’t feel that I’d cheated.

I think everyone enjoyed the day. Despite the fact that it had been glorious weather, there’s a real sense of accomplishment after a long 15 miles. Irvine in particular was to be commended. A few weeks ago he had said he was recovering from a hernia operation and as doubtful about walking the whole way, so actually to accomplish it was an outstanding achievement. And Chris, for whom the walk was presumably something of a surprise, was to be commended too. I at least was pretty fit by now, and Katie’s young and active, but even we felt we’d done pretty well. And as well as wonderful scenery we’d all enjoyed one another’s company and wide-ranging conversations.

Otter on the banks of Loch Linhe
After Chris had left us to return to Kinlochleven we rounded off the day with a wonderful meal at the fish restaurant on the edge of Loch Linhe. The final bonus was to see an otter fishing immediately below us as we walked back to the hotel.

Altogether a memorable day.

Fine and sunny all day. 18-23C. Good going on good tracks all the way. Max altitude 332m, minimum 9m. 24.6 km. 621m of ascents, 599m descents. Midge factor 1.

Monday, 16 June 2014

King’s House to Kinlochleven

The cousins - Elle and Katie on the Glencoe Chairlift
The previous day had been my rest day between two six-day walking sessions. We took Katie and Elle to the Mountain Resort, where they took the chair lift up to the ski bowl while Susan and I had a coffee in the base café. There we watched mountain bikers as they took the lift up and came down the precipitous paths in front of the café. Impressive stuff: obviously a lot of fun if you like that sort of thing. The resort clearly has a significant summer season as well as good falls of snow in the winter.

Then it was time to take Elle back to Bridge of Orchy for her train journey back to London. There was time for a quick coffee at the hotel before delivering her to the station – which she and I had passed a couple of days earlier. After dropping her off, Susan Katie and I drove to Fort William where we had an excellent seafood lunch before taking a boat trip on Loch Linhe. That was rather disappointing – none of the possible birds or animals (eagles, seals, otters, porpoises) were in evidence, and the weather was somewhat dull and chilly. So we were quite pleased when it was time to head back via the splendours of Glencoe to King’s House for drinks and dinner.

Before the walk. The Hankinson family at King's House
I provided Katie with the spare set of walking poles I had brought from London, and we set off on our way to Kinlochleven while Susan went there by way of the National Trust of Scotland’s Glencoe Visitor Centre. We are, after all, members, having joined at Culzean in 2012, (partly, it must be admitted, as a way of getting access to National Trust properties in England at a discount). She reported afterwards that it had been an excellent visit.

At least I now had a camera again. Elle kindly lent me hers for the balance of my walk, so I was able to take much more satisfactory pictures of the wonderful scenery, all the better given the improvement in the weather.

The first part of our walk was down the old military road which runs parallel with the A82 down to the West. This is easy going, a deceptive prelude to what lies ahead. The pass on the Way to Kinlochleven is the high point on the whole of the WHW, involving a 1000ft climb followed by an 1800ft descent to the banks Loch Leven.

Stob Dearg - the iconic Munro between
Glencoe and Glen Etive
It was great to have Katie with me. As she lives in New York it’s hadn’t been easy for her to walk with me in either of the preceding to years, but this year she made a special effort to join in the enterprise. And the sun was shining as a reward – further reinforcing Elle’s view that weather always improves after she’s gone.

After the gentle descent down the upper part of Glencoe the path turns sharply uphill to the North. The map ominously refers to the “Devil’s Staircase” as the culmination of the 250m climb. This was apparently the name given to the road by the soldiers under general Wade who originally built it. It comprises, we discovered, ten zigs and nine zags (or is it the other way round?). In actual fact it’s not quite as daunting as I had anticipated, and the sights back across Glencoe are very rewarding.

Katie and Tom after climbing the Devil's Staircase
At the top it was time for a rest and lunch, where we also provided photographic services for a group of six young Germans who reached the pass shortly after us. They had even brought up bottles – note mere cans - of beer, so obviously weren’t as economical with weight as most walkers tend to be.

After lunch it was time for the long descent to Kinlochleven. The pass is at 548m, the highest point on the West Highland Way, so it’s a long way down. It’s strange how going downhill often seems to take longer than climbing, and is often more uncomfortable, though not as strenuous. This was certainly the case with the descent to Kinlochleven, which goes on for a good four miles or so. On the way we met a girl on a mountain bike coming back up from Kinlochleven. We had seen her that morning when she passed us on our way towards the Devil’s Staircase, so she must have been planning to do the best part of 15 to 20 miles. Rather impressive, we both thought.

On the last leg into Kinlochleven
Kinlochleven itself was originally based on an aluminium plant, which itself relied upon hydro electricity. The aluminium has long since gone, but the hydro plant is still in operation. It’s based on a dam on the Blackwater Reservoir, built in 1909, which provides a 300m head of water to drive the turbines. The first part of the channel from the reservoir is open, but it goes into pipes at the 300m level where the WHW starts the steepest part of its descent into Kinlochleven. The track down to the village veers away from the pipeline to cross a burn entering from a valley to the South, but then runs along the pipeline itself for the last kilometre or so. This had small, hissing, high pressure leaks at a couple of points, but I don’t suppose these impact the power generation to any significant degree.

The final stretch of the Way follows a small area of parkland by the River Leven, which also flows down from the Blackwater Reservoir. Just before you reach the road the tailrace from the power station joins the river in a gushing torrent. The even is a salmon river, and I imagine the water below the tailrace is a good fishing spot.

The final part of our day’s walk was along the road that runs along either side of Loch Leven and through the village. Our hotel, the MacDonald, was at the far end of the village. Susan walked back to meet Katie and me as we finished our walk. Then it was time for a drink in the garden of the hotel, which overlooks a pool above the last few yards of the River even as it enters the Loch.

We were able to have a showers, a change and a lengthy rest before Irvine Laidlaw was due to arrive. At the appointed hour his helicopter buzzed the hotel to announce his arrival, and the hotelier, Mark, went to collect him from the military base in the village where it had been arranged to leave the helicopter for the next couple of days. Mark then went back to collect Irvine’s pilot, Chris, who had to do all the little tasks required before parking overnight.

The end of a perfect day - the view down Loch Leven
We all had dinner together – haggis fritters “for the table” so that we could all experience this variation on the famous Scottish delicacy, and otherwise excellent food. Mark and Heather, who had taken over the hotel just over a year ago, are doing an excellent job, and the MacDonald Hotel is very welcoming and comfortable.

Sunny all day with occasional high cloud. 15-20C. Good going on good tracks all the way. Max altitude 549m, minimum 16m. 15.4 km. 422m of ascents, 660m descents. Midge factor 0, but a few in the evening.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Inveroran to King’s House

I had only gone a couple of hundred metres before I realised that I had left my walking poles behind at the hotel. So the day started with an enforced retracing of my steps while Elle waited for me.

After I had rejoined Elle we continued on our way. A mile after the hotel there was another encampment for the forthcoming Caledonian Challenge, again largely deserted. We the came across a couple of men who were setting off to “bag a couple of Munros”: there are seven in the range of mountains to the Northwest of Inveroran, with a number of other “tops”: peaks of over 3,000 feet but with insufficient droops between them and their parents to count as separate Munros.

The Munros above Rannoch Moor
There is Black Mount, a country house of some significance owned by the Fleming family on the North bank of Loch Tulla. We saw some walkers going that way, presumably to alk the long track that ruins North of the Loch and then up Glen Tulla, but our way was through woods past Forest Lodge. This is a parliamentary road, built by Telford in the early 1900s to offer better transport links in the Highlands, wider and with gentler gradients than the old military roads built by Wade a hundred years earlier. This is still in excellent order, and obviously takes forestry traffic as well as walkers on the West Highland Way.

It was then a long steady climb up on to the edges of Rannoch Moor, which is one of the wildest and most remote places in the UK. Not that it seemed so on this occasion. The weather was pretty good, so there was no threat of the foul conditions for which walkers are advised to cater. As the guide puts it, it can be deceptively easy, which it certainly was for our walk.

Elle regularly demonstrated the benefits of fitness and youth: on several occasions I found her getting 20 or 30 metres ahead of me, and I had to ask for quarter.

The River Ba - looking downstream (East) from the bridge
The River Ba marks the half-way point of the walk from Inveroran to King’s House. Once again it demonstrates the way in which alternate major streams flow either to the West or to the East. The Ba is another part of the Tay system, which drains a large proportion of the Highlands. The bridge is modest in size, but still an impressive bit of early engineering, and picturesquely located beneath the range of high mountains where it rises.

After crossing the Ba the Way makes a long descent all the way to King’s House at the top of Glencoe. It’s not clear whether this is still the old parliamentary road or the earlier military road which runs in parallel for much of the way. I suspect it was the military road, but upgraded later under Telford’s direction to the parliamentary standard. It’s all still in good order.

Elle on the final stretch into
King's House
The last part of the Way is along the minor road that leads from the A82 to the Glencoe Mountain Resort, and the chairlift to the ski area above, which has lifts and tows to an altitude of nearly 1100 metres. At this time of the year it’s a mountain biking area rather than a ski resort, so the main lift is still in operation.

As we approached the Resort we saw the first pair of walkers, and noticed that there was another group of Caledonian Challenge tents. It turned out that there are two challenges. One is to walk 54 miles in 24 hours, while the other is to complete a hike of some 30 miles. Both start 10 miles or so Northeast of Fort William, and then follow the West Highland Way. The Hike ends at the Glencoe resort, while the full Challenge goes back as far as Tyndrum – where I had seen the finish line with Brian the previous Thursday.

Elle and I arrived in King’s House by tea time, ahead of Susan and Katie, who were driving up in a hire car from Glasgow, to which they had flown that morning. Elle and I were enjoying an early drink when they arrived.

The view towards the King's House Hotel and beyond
That evening we had a brief stroll before dinner, watching the walkers as they came up from further down Glencoe. There must have been several hundred of them, with their race bibs saying “Hike”, “7 a.m.”, “8 a.m.” or “9 a.m.”, depending on which Challenge they were completing, and by when they had to finish if  on the 24-hour walk. They were still coming through late into the evening, which made the performance of the first few Elle and I had seen that afternoon particularly impressive. Of course, it was pretty well the longest day of the year, so even if they had to walk all night it wouldn’t be too difficult to find their way. 

Caledonian Challenge walkers and an unimpressed red deer
There was even a deer that wandered across the path as the walkers approached, apparently totally unconcerned by people. Elle seemed impressed with the walkers, but said that she wouldn’t be telling her boyfriend Ed about the challenge. Otherwise there was a risk that he’d want to participate the following year. Despite all my walking, I don’t think I could manage even the Hike.

After dinner it was England’s turn to take the field in Brazil. Another futile world cup campaign was under way, but we were too tired to see much after Italy scored their second goal.

Reasonably fine – partly cloudy, but occasional sunshine. 14-17C. Good going on old stony roads all the way. Max altitude 437m, minimum 173m. 17.5 km. 314m of ascents, 252m descents. Midge factor 1.