Distance: 96.5 miles
Elevation gain: about 3,500 meters
Difficulty: Depends on your fitness, how much you’re carrying, and how many days you
do it in. I’m moderately fit (these days I run three days a week, have two one-hour sessions a week of weight training at the gym, and go to two boxing classes a week). I found walking around 30 to 35 kilometers for each of our five days on the Way while carrying a 12kg backpack very challenging but, in the end, doable. I’d recommend training specifically for the walk by doing long hikes while load-carrying several weeks beforehand.
Start: Milngavie, Scotland
End: Fort William, Scotland
Tom, my personal trainer, asked me sometime in December if my husband Colin and I had plans to do anything interesting over Christmas.
“Yes! We’ve decided to walk the West Highland Way,” I responded enthusiastically.
“Why would anyone do that?” he asked, partially in jest.
“I don’t know. It’s just something to do. It’s just a walk,” I said. “Anyone can walk.” Ha! Little did I know what was to come.
“And whose idea was this?” I’m sure he was expecting the answer to be me. But this time it wasn’t me coming up with the crazy ideas.
“Colin. He asked me towards the end of November if I’d like to walk the West Highland Way over Christmas. I asked him what’s that? He said it was a 96-mile walk over five days. I said, ‘Ok.’”
“Rosie and I never have those kinds of conversations,” Tom joked. Tom, by the way, is a really badass personal trainer. But he likes to make fun of me and all the crazy challenges I keep coming up with for myself.
But that really was how our West Highland Way walk came about. It was a spur of the moment suggestion from my husband at the end of November. I said yes. And that was that.
Had I known what we were up against, I might have put in a bit more training in preparation for it.
The West Highland Way is an approximately 155-km/96-mile path that runs through the
Scottish highlands, from Milngavie (pronounced mulgay) just outside of Glasgow in the south to Fort William in the north. I’d like to be able to tell you the exact elevation gain over the full length of the hike, but my sports watch went crazy and gave me a number that is double anything I’ve seen on websites. But generally, it’s somewhere in the region of 3,500 meters according to various sources. This is precisely where I was a bit duped, thinking we were going on a generally flattish sort of walk, especially since we wouldn’t be climbing any munros, the name given to Scottish mountains higher than 914 meters.
The walk ain’t flat or even –ish.
All of the real climbs along the walk are fine. Nothing I’d consider difficult. There were two actual hills that are climbed on the walk, Conic Hill, a 361-meter summit just outside of the town of Balmaha, and a climb up something called the Devil’s Staircase, from the valley in Glencoe up towards a stretch that eventually leads into the idyllic Scottish town of Kinlochleven. But if you’ve done any hiking at all, those two climbs are very easy and enjoyable.
No. That’s not where the problem lies. The real problem for me lied in the undulations,
particularly those along the lake of Loch Lomond. Mama mia!! The route description I had taken with us had specifically mentioned that this was the West Highland Way’s toughest section and that people are often taken aback by how difficult it is. But those words barely registered in my head every time I read them. How difficult can a walk along a lake be? Listen. This walk along that lake is tough. It’s just a constant up, down, up, down on boulders and over tree roots that, together, form slippery, muddy steps.
I won’t get into details of the route because those can be found elsewhere. I used the route description here https://www.walkhighlands.co.uk/west-highland-way.shtml and it was perfect. It is almost impossible to get lost on the West Highland Way. Almost. We found it tremendously useful to have a detailed route description and 1:25 000-scale maps for the whole trip (they are six in total) with us. Every now and then we’d think that we might have missed a turn, so we’d take out our map just to be sure. It was also very helpful to divide each day into sections and to know how long each section was going to be and what we should expect to find along the way. All that ensured that we didn’t get lost or lose valuable time.
And time was indeed valuable.
The one real downside to walking the West Highland Way at the end of December was that the days were so short. It was still dark at 8:30AM and we had to bring our torches out to walk in the pitch black of darkness by 4PM. I think that if we had done the walk in the summer, we wouldn’t have felt under pressure to walk as fast as we could with as few stops as possible in order to get as much done of each day’s walk in the daylight.
That is what made our particular experience feel like a constant mad dash. We had planned to cover the full length of the Way in only five days. That meant that we were walking about 35 kilometers on those darned ‘undulating’ paths most days.
Day one for us ran from Milngavie to Balmaha. That was a good day. The route is enjoyable and relatively easy. We managed to get into our bunkhouse with a tiny bit of daylight left.
But day two, along Loch Lomond from Balmaha to Inverarnan, was a complete shock to
the system. It took much longer than we expected, it was much more difficult, and we walked for about 2.5 hours in the dark. The only real problem with walking in the dark was that quite a long chunk of that part of the walk was far from roads or town/house lights. We couldn’t see a thing. We couldn’t hear a thing. We kept expecting that we must be getting closer to Inverarnan, but we couldn’t see or hear any indications that we were. That made us worry that we might have missed a turn in the dark. But we kept plodding onwards over the path that we could see beneath our feet, and eventually stumbled into the campsite that was promised in our route description. After a couple of mistakes, we then managed to find the detour off the West Highland Way that would take us to the purportedly haunted hotel we spent the night in. We were so tired that, if there were any ghosts walking about that night in the hotel, we weren’t the least bit aware.
Day three, from Inverarnan to Invoran is a bit of a blur in my head. It was a day for me
to feel tired and demotivated from the day before. There isn’t anything particularly spectacular about the route, nor is there anything too difficult about it. But it just went on and on. It was colder on this day than the past two had been. The weather on the first two days was exceptionally mild. I have walked in the United Kingdom in the summer in worse and colder conditions than we had on those two days. As a result, I hadn’t kitted up for the third day with the expectation of cold. And I kept thinking that I’d warm up from the walk. I didn’t. I got cold, and then no matter how many layers I later added, I just never properly warmed up again. That, I think, led to me losing too much energy from the simple act of shivering and feeling cold. And I felt tired and grumpy for much of the day. When it got dark, we knew we still needed to get up and over a large hill in order to get into Invoran. Luckily, we already had the experience from the night before and I really did not find the night walk as daunting. It was fine. The funny thing was that West Highland Way walkers are such a common thing in that area that no one seems to be concerned about seeing them in the depth of night still on the trail. We stopped at the bottom of the hill we knew we needed to climb, looking at our map to make sure we knew where the path should be. We found it, but as we did, a man parked in that area moved his flashlight for us in the direction of the path to make sure we knew where we were going. It was like, “Oh, you’re going up that hill in the pitch dark? Cool. Well, here’s the path.”
That’s one of the huge upsides to doing the West Highland Way in the winter. From what I’ve read, the route is chuck-full of walkers in the spring, summer and autumn. We barely had any human contact at all while we were on the Way. At one point, on day four while we were walking through the absolutely stunning Rannuch Moor, I thought I heard a sound behind me and casually looked back, only to see a woman running that section of the Way with her dog. I screamed because I was so shocked to see an actual human.
Back to day three, Invoran isn’t really a village or even a place. It’s a small, currently
closed hotel and two little cottages. We stayed in the last cottage, which is a really nice Scottish man’s place that he runs as a B&B. I loved staying there because it really was someone’s house literally in the middle of nowhere.
That night was very windy with rain pelting our bedroom window. The next morning was wet for a while, but then the rain let up and we were only left with the cold wind. But this time I was prepared for the cold and I had a good system with proper layering for warming up and cooling off quickly, depending on what was needed at any moment.
Day four, from Invoran to Kinlochleven was definitely my favorite. The views were stunning. Absolutely stunning. We saw some deer. I had started to gain fitness and wasn’t feeling as much pain as I was in the previous two days. I wasn’t in a perpetual state of feeling cold. And when we got to Kingshouse Hotel in Glencoe, which is currently shut for renovations, we found a public toilet that was so nicely heated that we decided to sit on the floor in it to have our lunch. It was heaven.
We even managed to finish the walk that day in the daylight! It’s a very long descent into
Kinlochleven once you reach the top of the Devil’s Staircase. But it’s all very doable and walking into the village of Kinlochleven is a delight. It’s one of those places where you can’t help but think that this would be a perfect place to raise a family. We stayed in a tiny hut at the back of a hotel, which meant using a public toilet and showers. But the huts were immaculately clean and warm, and the food in the nearby hotel/pub was excellent. Just what the doctor ordered.
Day five, our last, from Kinlochleven to Fort William, was grim. It was pelting rain for about three hours. This not only made it wet and cold, it also meant that countless swollen streams traversed the route. My ‘waterproof’ boots had lost their waterproof property, something I discovered only two days earlier, and so there was no amount of jumping over streams and puddles that could help keep my feet dry. The inevitable happened. I walked for hours with soaking-wet feet again. But this was our last day. I would not let that hold me back. The views on the route of this last day are nothing like the day before. Much of the route passes through felled ‘forests’. In other words, you see lots of tree stumps but no trees. It’s not a good look. Eventually, we got to a signpost that informed us we were going to have to take a diversion. I saw the word diversion and I shrunk away in horror. Does this mean this is going to be an even longer day than we had planned? But no! The hiking Gods were on my side that day. Workers were busy felling more trees along the last section of the West Highland Way from
September 2018 to April 2019, and we were going to be sent on a diversion that is about 4 km shorter than the original route. Hurrah! I was ecstatic. The rest of the diversion route took us up and down, up and down a long, paved country road through very nice scenery and past small farms and farmhouses. Eventually, we reached the top of a hill that gave us a good look down onto Fort William. We were almost there! I was so happy.
Whatever charged me up at that point dissipated soon afterwards. The walk into town
was boring, dreary, my knees were hurting, my feet were soaking, and I just wanted all this to be over. When we finally saw the official end of the West Highland Way—a bench with a statue of a hiker sitting on it while holding his aching foot—I cried. They weren’t happy tears. They were just Thank God This Is Finally Over tears. Now I could take the commemorative photographs and quickly look for a public toilet to get out of these wet clothes and socks and into dry ones. I felt much better once I had done that, and we spent the rest of the afternoon in a warm pub, where we had a good meal, warm drink and waited for our evening train back to my in-laws house in Edinburgh.
Now that I’ve had a good night’s sleep, I’m warm, dry, and not needing to rush along a stony path before night descends, I can honestly say that I am really glad I did this. Doing it in five days in winter was a real challenge. But we got the Way completely to ourselves and we didn’t have to deal with the infamous Scottish midges. I hate midges much more than I hate walking for hours and hours while wet and cold. We also had virtually no competition for booking places to sleep at night. Not as much accommodations are available during the winter. Many places shut down. But I’m under the impression that much more forward planning and booking is needed when you do the Way during the spring/summer/autumn. Of course, there’s always the option of wild camping, but that would mean carrying all the extra weight of a tent, sleeping bag, and maybe some extra food and cooking equipment.
The only thing I might have done differently would have been to do the walk over six or
seven days instead of five. But we were restricted for time, needing to get it all done while we were both on holiday, and also needing to catch the last train out of Fort William before the New Year holiday in Scotland. An extra day or two would have meant not being so stressed about getting to our next destination in the daylight, and being able to stop and enjoy the views a bit more. We also completely missed some views because we did those sections in the dark, whether in the morning or evening.
All in all, a great way to end 2018 and to begin my year of being a 50-year-old woman. I still got it, baby!