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.

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