How to walk the West Highland Way
How I did it: Richard first suggested that we do the West Highland Way and I, naively, thought it'd be a walk in the park. I was fit, experienced at hill walking and, hey, 100 miles isn't that far. Right?
We pitched up in the afternoon in Glasgow and were up bright and early the next day. I had my trusty boots on and had decided to keep the good socks until later. I know - naive remember? We had our photo taken by the big monument that marks the southern starting point, and strode manfully off down the track with our rucksacks on our back.
The first day was supposed to be straightforward. About 12 miles until you reach Drymen and then spend the rest of the day in the pub. That didn't work out as planned. Richard is much taller than me and his pace is much longer. And I hadn't done much, if any, preparation. 6 miles in and I had a range of blisters. I changed socks and tried to make amends but the damage was done.
The next day it all got worse and worse until I eventually had to give up. A day later Richard twisted his knee and we both had to admit defeat. A very painful experience that made me all the more determined to complete the challenge later in the year.
I set about training myself properly for the task at hand. Regular long distance running and hill walking. Endless application of white spirit to harden the soles of my feet. I got a new pair of boots that were much lighter than my older pair that had really worn out. I bought some new lightweight kit and went out on a 19mile training walk in full gear to make sure it was good.
Then I booked up the same hostels as Richard and I had done just a few months earlier - but this time I would be going solo since Richard couldn't make it.
I arrived in Glasgow once again, and got my photo just as before. Only this time I had made sure I had prepared my feet properly: sticky backed padding over the spots where I knew blisters would come; zinc oxide tape to hold them firmly in place; lots of Vaseline coating my feet top and bottom and between toes; thin breathable inner sock and a soft padded outer sock. A pair of walking poles spread the load and I found I was making fantastic progress.
My route took me from Milngavie (pronounced Molg-aye) to Drymen - 12m; then on to Rowardennen - 15m; then to Crainlarich (pronounced Crin-la-rick) - 20m; then on to Bridge of Orchy - 12m; on to Kinlochleven - 21m; and finally a short hop of 14m to Fort William. This took 6 days overall.
The walk itself was fantastic and gave me a wonderful opportunity to organise my thoughts about what I'd like to do in the future. Walking solo means that you don't have to worry about anyone else, other than reporting in each night, but it can get lonely and you don't get to share your experiences.
For me, the major part of the walk was the 21m stretch between Bridge of Orchy and Kinlochleven. I started out on a full English breakfast from the hotel with fresh feet and a spring in my step. I'd been tackling all that the walk could throw at me and taking it in my stride (as it were) but that stretch left a lasting impression. I'd been worrying about crossing Rannoch Moor (the most remote moor in the UK) and when it actually appeared it was a bit of an anti-climax. Just a long straight pull across some wild countryside. A bit tiring, yes, but nothing major.
Then I hit the second half of the day. Fuelled on by a tuna sandwich, I misread the map and ended up on a section of the old West Highland Way, In case you feel tempted it's across the road from the pub over the big white bridge and is a basically a marshy bog leading to the foot of the Devil's Staircase. It was hard going I can tell you - especially when you're on your own and seem to be veering away from the route you need to stick to. Eventually, the route turned back and I found myself exhausted with a full pack on at the bottom of the Devil's Staircase with nothing left to give.
Fortunately, I had some Kendall Mint Cake with me and if you've ever seen that scene from Nosferatu where he rises up on his heels out of the coffin then that is pretty much what happened to me. I pounded up the staircase like it was hardly there, and by the time I reached the top I was actually jogging along. Unbelievable, but it wasn't to last.
Very quickly I started to run out of juice (and mint cake) and I had to conserve some for the next day. All the tiredness caught up with me and I found myself really struggling to keep going. I was high up on the hills looking down onto the lights of Kinlochleven when I realised that darkness was really closing in, and I was probably the only person left on the hills. All by myself.
I forced myself to keep going and after a long slog down what appeared to be a service road of some kind I eventually popped out into Kinlochleven. After a bit of searching I found the hotel where I was staying, and it seemed to be like something out of The Shining. It was definitely off-season, and there was me and one other person staying there apart from the caretaker/chef. Fortunately, everyone was very pleasant and I was lead to a room with a lovely deep bath.
That bath was the best bath I'd ever had. My poor feet were suffering (no blisters just compression) and I was so glad to just flake out.
Strangely enough, the next day passed by in a blur. I got up; did the usual preparation routine; climbed the enormous hill beside the hotel in a jiffy; turned up the pace as I marched through the gorgeous highlands that lead on into Fort William and before I knew it I had walked right past the finishing post. I had to go back to find it so I could take a photo.
All in all, it was a hell of an experience and well worth doing.
Lessons & tips: Prepare your feet. Foam pads with zinc oxide tape to hold them in place. Liberal use of Vaseline entirely covering your feet. Thin breathable inner sock and a padded outer sock.
Use poles - they make the descents a lot easier.
Resources: Make sure your map is waterproof and very detailed.