Day 7 – Kinlochleven to Fort William (15 miles)
At the start of our final day on the West Highland Way, muscles aching, packs feeling heavier than ever and a solid 15 mile hike in front of us, we still turned left out of the campsite to walk around the extra loop before heading into the town rather than right along the short cut that would have meant we missed out a short section of the trail. Without any hesitation. This, and our later decision not to drop our heavy packs at the campsite before finishing the last few trail miles, bodes well for us on the AT I think. For what matters isn’t so much whether or not you’re a purist that needs to walk ‘every mile of the trail with pack or it doesn’t count’, but whether you and your hiking buddy agree. And so I rejoice in this harmony of thought.
A quick stop at the co-op for supplies and we set off in very high spirits, here’s a photo of me looking extremely jolly about the fact that there’s a sign to Fort William…
Did I mention the cute little town of Kinlochleven is in a valley? And what have we learned about camping in a valley? That’s right. STEEP hill first thing in the morning. I think this morning was the hardest of all, I only made it up that first, unrealistically demanding hill through the trees by sheer force of will and under-the-breath repeating of mantras. And even then I had to stop to breathe multiple times. On the plus side, this pausing allowed the very same lovely German lady we’d met before to catch up with us and offer to take our picture.
But eventually we made it over the crest and up into the moors. The sign above says ‘By the Lairig’ and indeed the path, as it continues on towards Fort William, passes between copious nests of hills via what is called Lairigmor, or ‘The great pass’. Apparently it’s the site of many famous clan battles, notably that between Macdonalds and Campbells in 1645. At one point on the trail you pass a cairn of stones, and are asked to add or take a stone away depending on which of these sides you sympathise with. A tricky decision. We abstained.
The Lairigmor is wild, lonely, bleak and the wind howls between the hills with little to break its force. We were grateful for our cold weather gear, including toasty hats, and this was on a beautiful sunny day with not a cloud in the sky. In cold weather it must be bitterly desolate. It’s also breathtakingly beautiful and once again it brought home how privileged we were to be there. (Though I was getting quite desperate to pee by the time we got through.. So exposed! So many other hikers! Even the farm ruins were populated!)
At the end of the great pass through the hills, we passed once more into enchanted pine forest. Skipping merrily along via streams and gnarled tree roots, we caught our first sight of the looming form of Ben Nevis, which then dominated the skyline for the rest of the afternoon. Monstrous is the word that springs to mind, ominous and brooding also fit the bill. Somehow the rock face of the mountain seemed to strike fear into my psyche in a way that Mount Snowdon, with its pleasant greenery, never did. The thought that the next day we would be climbing this beast of a mountain seemed both reckless and dangerous, but what is life without challenge? This was clearly a moment to feel the fear and do it anyway. Did I mention I’m scared of heights?
Quite soon after this we came across a public information sign that I read wrongly, to my great cost. It seemed to my, possibly slightly delirious, coffee-deprived eyes, that the sign said we were only a few miles from Fort William. I had failed though, to take into account that we wouldn’t be following the straight road there, but the twisty scenic path, and therefore had at least 7 miles left. Seven very steep miles past copious sheep and over hill and dale, I might add. A couple of miles down the path I was told of my mistake and suddenly, overwhelmingly felt I could shuffle no further. It’s amazing how much of what you feel physically is influenced by your mental state. However, pups are made of stern stuff. A congenial pit stop for coffee and biscuits made everything sunshine and roses once more. It turned out I wasn’t done after all.
And so on we went, now caffeine fueled and coping, through pine forest and over elaborate wooden walkways spanning streams and waterfalls. Savouring every moment and every breath of delicious air, knowing that the walk was drawing to a conclusion. Simultaneously both desperate to get to Fort William, and inclined to consider just continuing to walk to Inverness so that it wouldn’t have to end. The afternoon passed in a flurry of giggles, cheerleading October trees (you probably had to be there…) and furtive glances at the ever-present Ben Nevis.
And before we knew it we were reaching the edge of Fort William. This area looks like Surrey, except with a backdrop of enormous mountains. Odd. And when you reach Fort William it’s still a fair old walk of a couple of miles past endless B and B’s to reach the high street, which you then stagger all the way along, in a state of tottering disbelief that you’re finally there, being overtaken by old ladies with their zimmer frames, and gently sniggered at by townsfolk.
Finally, and unbelievably, there was the iconic bench and the statue of the worn hiker massaging his feet, and the delightful West Highland Way map etched onto the paving slabs in front of it. The feeling of achievement and satisfaction as I collapsed onto the bench for the obligatory photo was all I hoped it would be, making me giggle somewhat lightheadedly. Or perhaps that was hunger.
And from there it was just a matter of reliving the highlights on the floor map, tottering off to the pub for an enormous steak, seizing up, and trying not to cry or fall over on the way to and from the pub toilet. We took a taxi to our campsite after dinner. Don’t judge us.
To be continued…