Day 6 – Kingshouse to Kinlochleven (8 miles)
Awakening to a surprisingly cow-free environment on day 6 (c.f. Ghostly Cows on day 5), we recalled the words of the lovely Scottish lady on the train regarding the sheer recklessness of attempting the Devil’s Staircase with insufficient food inside you. So we went for an extremely hearty and leisurely breakfast in Kingshouse Inn, in anticipation of the morning’s steep climb.
We set off in high spirits, feeling strong and unexpectedly fresh, and safe in the knowledge that we only had 8 miles to cover that day, even if they were horribly steep. And in a hot minute (well, about an hour and a half that felt like a minute) we reached the start of the much anticipated ascent. The Devil’s Staircase begins at a place labelled on the map ‘Altnafeadh’, which lulls you into thinking that there’s a village or something there… there isn’t. There’s a bridge, a lovely rowan tree and a cottage, that’s it. So fortify at Kingshouse Inn, that’s my advice.
The Devil’s staircase was apparently named as such by the poor long-suffering soldiers in 1752, who were building the military road which the West Highland Way follows, and got sick of carrying building materials over the ghastly steep hill. The path zigs and zags its way up the ascent in a series of u-turns, and the higher you go, the harder the wind blows…
It wasn’t long before we had to add an extra layer of clothing, and I gave grateful thanks to the spirits of place that the fierce wind was blowing us towards the hill, not off it. In fact, as I puffed my way up, I was filled with an overwhelming sense of gratitude; for the place; for the chance to be there at all, but especially with my favourite person in the world; for the clean delicious air around me; for the sense of freedom that hiking confers. A blissful moment. And then we reached the top of the hill and had a rude awakening as we very nearly got blown down the other side.
But oh! I expected something special as we reached the summit of the Devil’s Staircase and caught our first proper glimpse of Glen Coe, and Mother Nature did not disappoint. All those who labelled the place ‘spectacular’ were not exaggerating. We descended gently at first along the clear path, and all around were breathtaking views of mountains and incredibly green valleys, that all looked as though they may contain the ‘Land That Time Forgot’ or other such prehistoric paradise. Encircled by this splendour, we stopped for a little soup and counted our blessings, saying cheery hellos to a steady stream of fellow hikers, who all looked as happily stunned by their surroundings as we were.
The path down then became progressively steeper, over rocks that tempt you to twist an ankle, especially if you get distracted by the views. We fondly thought we were making fairly good progress, until we were put to shame by an old man and his dog, nonchalantly jogging past us, leaping from rock to rock like a particularly unconcerned goat…
And finally we entered a delicious smelling birch forest for a last steep zig zag descent towards our day’s destination of Kinlochleven. This is a gorgeous little town, nestling in a valley, which appears as though it might well have a postman called Pat and a fireman called Sam, such is its toytown charm.
There’s a campsite here, oddly situated right next to a power station, but boasting the cutest hobbit houses to rent, in addition to ample space to camp and a hostel. Our 8 mile day had certainly not felt short, so it was with cries of glad joy that we discovered the showers here were top class, and then headed into the village for a cosy pub dinner and co-op stop to resupply.
It hardly seemed possible that the next day would be our last on the West Highland Way, and we went to bed at the (daringly late) hour of about 9pm, feeling a bittersweet mixture of both anticipation of a well deserved end in sight, and a real sadness at not wanting the trail to end.
To be continued…