The West Highland Way really could have gone either way.
As much as I’d enjoyed my preparatory strolls throughout Perthshire and along the Clyde with Paul and Nathanael, they were nothing compared to the 96-mile hike over hills, through glens and around lochs that awaited us on the Way, between Milngavie in the central belt and Fort William in the highlands.
There was no way of predicting how our equipment, bodies or resolve would hold up given the distance and endurance required to cover it across six consecutive days. Twenty-three miles from Dundee to St Andrews nearly destroyed Paul and I, while a two-day trek from Glasgow to Lanark had ended five miles short in Carluke. And then there was the weather; a fair-weather wander would be completely different to a cross-country swim.
In the end, however, it worked out just fine. I’ve already spoken of how, rather than grind us down and turn us against one another, the West Highland Way actually made Paul, Nat and I better friends; so much so that upon our arrival at Fort William, we could happily have continued on to Inverness, along Scotland’s other long-distance footpath — the Great Glen Way, if only it hadn’t been for various work commitments and the fact that we each had more laundry than we (or Travel-lite) could comfortably carry.
With the Great Glen Way set for the following year instead we let our newfound fitness wane over winter. Paul and I spent a few days in Lochearnhead and on Gigha, but it felt more like a warm-down than a serious attempt to get — or rather keep – some more miles under our belts. Our longest trek was from Enochdu to Spittal of Glenshee along a small part of the Cateran Trail, but for the most part the period was taken up with work, cinema and fretting over the Scottish Independence Referendum.
Come January, however, we were back in the hills trying to walk off our Christmas food babies and Hogmanay beer bellies, starting with an ill-fated romp through Edinburgh’s Pentland Hills that left Paul retching and all three of us soaked after a misguided detour through a bog. Paul didn’t fare much better on Skye, after a fall outside Dunvegan left him bedridden for the rest of the weekend. Luckily, Glasgow Film Festival in February allowed for some much needed R&R.
Given that the West Highland Way had come about after an impromptu walk from Broughty Ferry to Carnoustie (and then on to Arbroath), I decided that I wanted to begin my training for the follow-up with another continuation, this time walking the next leg of the Angus Coastal Path to Montrose. I had to leave the coast at Lunan, however, as it was talking considerably longer than expected and I hadn’t thought to pack any lunch. The new shoes I had bought post-bog were making mince-meat of my feet, and when I was eventually able to take my shoes off I fully expected ten toenails to come tumbling out.
I convinced myself that it would be fine next time, but even a by now pretty paltry 14-mile pootle around Dunkeld and Loch Ordie had me limping back to the car. The same was true of a subsequent ascent of Ben Vrackie with my parents, a face-saving return to the Pentlands and a ceremonial reprieve of the West Highland Way, in which Nathanael and I rewalked the Tyndrum to Kingshouse section with Paul, who had sat it out the first time around due to illness. Each time I would spend the last mile or two imagining what horrors my socks might contain and making myself promise that this would be the last time I subjected my feet to such senseless torture.
I needed new clothes — it was a simple as that. I’d walked the West Highland Way in a pair of cheap, glorified trainers, the replacements for which weren’t all that much more substantial. While Paul and Nat simply walked on, whatever the terrain — be it mud or muck — I generally had to stop and plan an alternative route, often leaving me stranded on a thicked-sized island or clung helplessly to a gate or fence. Throw in the fact that I was also wearing a hoodie and a quilted jacket and it’s a wonder I made it to Fort William at all. If I was serious about hiking — and after the West Highland Way I was — then I would need to invest in some better kit.
Tax rebate in hand I hit the high street, buying a pair of proper hiking boots from Mountain Warehouse, along with some breathable baselayers and a neck gaiter, for shits and giggles. I also bought a bright yellow waterproof jacket, so that should I ever go missing I might be readily identified from space. For trousers I first tried Blacks before ending up in Tiso, a shop I’d always avoided on the basis of it being too expensive, and as expected couldn’t find a pair within my price range. Stupidly, I’d also taken a handsome Rab jacket into the changing room with me, where I immediately fell hopelessly, hanger over security tags in love with it. I left £170 poorer and bought trousers from Regatta instead. Suited and booted.
So here’s the plan: On Thursday, October 1st, Paul, Nathanael and I will walk 28 miles from Fort William to Invergarry, by far the longest distance any of us have ever attempted in a single day. Over all, the Great Glen Way is shorter than the West Highland Way, so we decided to walk it in four days rather than the traditional five in order to ensure we all felt a sense of accomplishment by the end of it. From there, day two will see us push on past Fort Augustus to Invermoriston, on the north bank of Loch Ness; day three to Drumnadrochit, near Urquhart Castle; and day four to Inverness, where the trail terminates in the city centre, seventy-something miles from Fort William. Amazingly, nobody seems to be able to agree on quite how long the Great Glen Way actually is.
Fitting really, given that its centrepiece is Loch Ness, a body of water that for all anyone knows might actually be bottomless. Goodness knows what we might have to contend with this time around, be it midges, monsoons or Loch Ness Monsters. All I do know is that I’m ready, and not just because my new bells and whistles jacket promises to be For The Most Extreme Conditions In The World. I’m ready to get back out on the trail.
I’m Way ready.