As noted at the outset of this blog series, there had been an element of fear going into the West Highland Way that it might be too easy; that, at the finish line, we might be denied the desired sense of accomplishment.
In the event, however, such fears had proved unfounded. Right from day one it was clear that I had bitten off slightly more than I could comfortably chew, and as I clawed my way to the top of Conic Hill on that first evening I couldn’t help but curse my naivety. Inexplicably, I hadn’t expected the highlands to be quite so…hilly.
We had faced other challenges too: the rather less formal stretch of path along Loch Lomond had us clambering over rocks and under tree branches, the Way into Tyndrum seemed to drag on forever (even now I’m not entirely sure we ever actually arrived), and The Devil’s Staircase proved every bit as hellish as its name suggests. Paul had to sit a day out, while a fellow walker was forced to give up at Orchy Bridge. It hadn’t been easy at all.
Before setting off — while still blissfully ignorant of my true level of fitness — I had made a plea to Paul for one day of true torment; a day that, should we need to, we could hold up as indisputable evidence of our singular achievement and general physical prowess. I wanted rain, wind and misery — a real day of reckoning. As it transpired that day was to be today.
It started out promisingly enough. We rose early, ate a hearty breakfast (each person’s nationality represented by a small flag in the centre of the table) and were cheered on by our hosts, who promised a fairly easy ride. I stopped at the Co-op to buy lunch for the day ahead, and then we set off for Fort William — the final destination for all who walk the West Highland Way. At least those who walk it East to West.
The path out of Kinlochleven, however, was every bit as torturous as the path into Kinlochleven. Not just unsurfaced but borderline unusable, we were left fatigued and footsore long before the town had even vanished from sight. Progress was slow, and we were at least an hour in before the terrain began to level out. It was around this time — as we entered Lairig Mor — that it began to rain.
We’d walked in the rain before, obviously. A practice walk from Glasgow to Lanark had proven particularly wet, while we’d already faced similarly unpleasant weather on the Way itself. But this was different. It was a driving, penetrating rain that seemed to permeate everything, regardless of whether it was sold as waterproof or not. Our shoes and socks were quickly saturated, our faces were forced downwards in an attempt to keep hoods over heads and everything in our rucksacks was soaked through.
With almost no tree cover, a distinct lack of towns along the way and nothing dry to change into until we collected our suitcases from Travel-lite in Fort William, we had no option but to press on, buffeted by wind and bombarded by rain. Mountains, rivers and ruins passed by unseen as we marched forward. There was no point talking or taking photos, so we walked in silence, though I did at one point resort to singing the South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut soundtrack to myself in the name of morale. Swearing helps.
We passed more people on this stretch than ever before, almost all of them walking in the opposite direction, having for some reason started at Fort William with their eyes set on Milngavie. We nodded encouragement, occasionally pausing to say hello, but nobody was in the mood for conversation. I can’t imagine encountering this sort of weather on the very first day; it must have been incredibly demoralising.
Some time after passing Lochan Lunn Da Bhra we entered a small forested area and stopped to have lunch. My sandwiches were sodden, so I settled for a chocolate bar, a can of Coke and some water. While eating we met a woman who had left Fort William just hours before, having been left to walk the Way alone when her friend backed out at the last minute. She too was raising money for charity, and as a sign of solidarity we recommended stopping for a break before she left the woods.
When finished we left our little alpine alcove to the couple who had been walking behind us, then carried on along the track towards Ben Nevis Youth Hostel. The mountain had been visible for a while now, though the rain and fog had prevented us from appreciating it fully. Now very much in its shadow, we could for the first time admire the size and scale of what is the highest mountain in Britain. I snapped a picture with my iPod at a clearing, as the route mercifully swerved to avoid it.
The Way until now had been surprisingly well signposted. We had never for a moment doubted that we were on the right track, only occasionally referring to Charlie Loram’s guide to determine our location or to see how far we’d walked (or indeed how far we still had to go). Our only issue had been pointless diversions, and about half-way through the forest we encountered another one.
This one wasn’t attributed to the Forestry Commission, or to our friend the Operative, and nor was it as easy to ignore. A fence had been erected, and an arrow encouraged us to follow a makeshift path down the slope to our right. We conceded, and spent a knee-buckling ten minutes sliding down the side of a hill so as not to disturb the construction equipment that had clearly been abandoned for the weekend.
Now on a lower path running parallel to the original, we encountered a mess of contradictory signage that seemed to point us in just about every direction there was. Paul and Nathanael seemed to think it wanted us to continue on our current path, but I believed that it was telling us to turn right. I insisted, and we eventually followed my chosen route down into the glen.
It was the wrong path, inevitable (though in my defence there were Way markers here too), but still took us in essentially the right direction. We joined the road into Fort William a few junctions early, but to call it a shortcut would be a bit of a stretch. After stopping to speak to a local (who reminded us that the end point had been moved in a futile attempt to regenerate the high street), we steeled ourselves for the final push.
We passed the original finishing line at a roundabout on the edge of town, next to which there still stood a souvenir shop advertising certificates for walkers. Having not yet finished, we continued on, past the train station and into the main shopping precinct. Fort William is not an attractive place (I was suddenly conscious of the safety whistle hanging around my neck), and as we searched for the statue signifying the end of the West Highland Way Nat voiced what we were all thinking: that this was a truly ignoble end to what had seemed such a noble endeavour.
We found the statue — of a weary walker rubbing his aching foot — sandwiched between a scaffolded Travelodge and a Job Centre Plus. We posed for photos, though it proved futile as most were marred by streaks of rain on the lens, and then alighted to Whetherspoons for a drink. Nat was ID’d, however, and unable to verify his age had to toast the trip with a coffee, so we drip dried all over their floor before going elsewhere.
We ate at a curry house, and then went to find the pick-up point for our luggage. With twenty minutes to wait (and about forty until our train, cutting it rather fine) I decided to walk back to the souvenir shop for my certificate. I left Nat and Paul at the Nevis Centre and retraced our steps to the roundabout. Inevitably, the certificate was just a template that you were left to fill out with your name, but I also bought a badge for my bag, a fridge magnet for my mum, and got the chance to say goodbye to the Australians from Kingshouse when I passed them on the way back.
We made our train after changing into drier clothes at the Nevis Centre, though largely by virtue of it being delayed by two minutes. By this point eager to get out of Fort William, we watched the town disappear into the distance and spent the next four hours in sort of stunned silence, reflecting individually over the last six days. I was too tired to read, and instead watched my fellow passengers strain for photographs of the countryside through the rain-streaked windows of the train, safe in the knowledge that I had more photos of hills, lochs and sheep’s backsides than I would ever likely need.
We quietly toasted our achievement (and it was after all an achievement) with our custom-blended whiskys from Glengoyne, laughed at some of the week’s more absurd moments (mainly Paul being mistaken for Nat’s dad the previous evening) and shared our plans for the coming evening (sleep, mostly). As we passed through Tyndrum Upper I ate my overpriced Snickers bar from the Honesty Box at Gartness, took a final swig of Night Fury and made myself as comfortable as possible.
The walking was over, but we still had a way to go.