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.

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