Day 7: West Highland Way

Kingshouse to Kinlochleven

We woke up in the Kingshouse Bunkhouse and looked out the window at a bright sunny day outside. It’s wrong to assume you have a right to sunny days while hiking in Scotland in April, but after two days of cold, overcast and only occasionally sunny weather, we felt this was a ‘return to normal’.

We had paid for the breakfast supplement at the Bunkhouse which meant we could join the well-heeled crowd dining in the hotel restaurant. The hotel’s breakfast buffet had a fine range of things to eat: pastries, cereal, fresh fruit, porridge on special order from the kitchen (“if you’re into that kind of thing,” our waiter said), various breads, a full range of cooked breakfast food and – oh wow I don’t need anything else – a platter of smoked salmon.

(But of course I did eat other things. Quite a few other things.)

I was grateful to not be having coffee this morning because there was a huge queue for the coffee machine in the corner of the restaurant. The queue was sometimes 15 people deep. I enjoyed waltzing past them to the tea-and-hot-water station and making myself cups of tea. I didn’t smile and wave mockingly at the sullen people stood in the coffee queue, but inside I was smiling and waving.

We set out walking, on today, the penultimate day of our hike. (I love the word penultimate.) The blue sky and warm weather lifted our spirits, as was the knowledge we had a flat 3 mile march ahead of us to the foot of the Devil’s Staircase, the most notorious climb on the way.

Good morning!

We covered those first three miles in record time. We even overtook younger walkers! It helps to have blue sky and – yes, I know I keep saying it, that’s because it was – stunning scenery.

Who wouldn’t feel inspired in this setting?

Even the nearby presence of the A82 couldn’t spoil our enjoyment. It was far enough away that any noise was a distant buzz, although the repeated sighting of a semi-trailer bearing the large logo VOLVO TRUCKS made us think there must be an advert being filmed on the road.

Etive, the Great Herdsman

But all good things must come to an end and we eventually reached Alt-Na-Feadh, the foot of the Devil’s Staircase.

(I should point out the name of this climb came from the men who built it, not the hikers who walk it.)

The guidebook told us from here it should take 30 minutes to make the climb. Knowing how slow I am on hills, and how many photos we are likely to stop and take on such a great day, I suggested to Husband we give ourselves an hour.

(Yes, I’m sure he could have done it faster without me. But without me he wouldn’t be on the Way. Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing is subject to debate.)

Looking so happy!

It took us 55 minutes.

That tiny cottage is opposite the start of the Staircase

Some of that was me being unfit and huffing and puffing at the climb, which – truth be told – wasn’t all that steep. It was more the (seemingly) endless switchbacks, zigging and zagging up the hill. The best bits were when you were walking with your head facing towards the Glen and taking the amazing scenery which made you forget any burning in your legs. The worst bits were when you were facing up the hill, seeing nothing but rocks with brightly coloured dots of faster hikers following the trail above you. (And yes, that included the elderly Canadian ladies.)

The path was a little tricky underfoot with some rock slabs, some steep steps, and some loose gravelly parts. Again, it was something I was glad to be doing on a sunny day because I don’t think the long toil uphill in the rain would be fun. Also on a rainy day you’ll be missing the amazing glacier-sculpted valleys. very different to Rannoch Moor but still so very gorgeous.

As an aside, someone asked me what I thought about while hiking these long distances. Did I have any epiphany moments? Did I reach any momentous life decisions?

The answer is no.

The answer is, what filled my mind was bits of songs. The kind of songs you only know a handful of lyrics for, so once the song gets in your head, those few lyrics go round and round and round.

Like on the Devil’s Staircase.

What I need is a sea shanty, some kind of working song to walk to, I thought. The song that came into my head was the first verse of a sea shanty/folk song that I learned at primary school:

In South Australia I was born;

heave away, haul away;

South Australia ‘round Cape Horn;

we’re bound for South Australia

I didn’t remember the chorus or any other verses, just those four lines going round and round my head as I walked up and up the Devil’s Staircase… and around my head for the rest of the day, and for the whole of the next day as well.

At the top of the Staircase there were people sitting around, taking a late morning snack break or early lunch break, but generally just sitting and resting, taking photos, taking in the view. And it was quite a view. From the top of the Staircase you could see into the next valley: a lake, and more mountains rolling away to the horizon.

The ‘other side’ of the Staircase

This is what I came here for. This is the scenery I wanted to see. This is the stuff I dreamed of.

The break can’t last forever and so with snacks eaten, water drunk, and photos taken, we shouldered our packs and started into the next part of the walk. This was relatively easy walking – some up and down but mostly a good path underfoot – through exposed, treeless landscape. There were some old ruins – more like piles of mossy stones now – but the regular rectangular shape showed that these were once dwellings.

The path curved its way out of the valley and around the side of the hill, and by early afternoon we walked around a corner and saw trees in front of us – a sign that the last stage of today’s walk was approaching. Trees mark the start of the forest around the town of Kinlochleven, our destination for today.

Initially it was exciting to be amongst trees again after – what was it now? – two or three days since we’d last walked through forest? But the trees block the view, and pleasant as it was to be walking in the shade for a change, I would have preferred the view.

The village of Kinlochleven was built in the early 1900s around a hydropower plant that fuelled an aluminium smelter. It doesn’t sound like it should be a beautiful place, but it helps that the aluminium smelter is no longer. The pipes from the hydroelectric plant though are still in place as the plant is still generating energy. The pipes were another indication we were approaching Kinlochleven. Husband (who was carrying the guidebook) consulted the map and informed me we were maybe half an hour out of Kinlochleven. After half an hour, he consulted the map again and revised his estimate, as we had gone around several bends on the path and Kinlochleven seemed to remain just as distant as it had been before. Perhaps the town was just a mirage? At every bend in the path we would look ahead and see the town never getting closer, then we took one final bend and were suddenly walking into the edge of town.

Kinlochleven is a pleasant small town with the most services we’d seen since Tyndrum (three days earlier – it seemed a lifetime ago). Services included the co-op supermarket where we picked up some cold and flu medication, Husband having generously given me his cold so now the both of us were suffering.

Our B&B wasn’t quite ready so we took a side path to the Grey Mare’s Tail waterfall. It’s a tall, pretty waterfall just on the edge of town, and has a kind of via ferrata in place if you want to get up close to the pool into which the water pours down. We stayed back and surveyed the falls from a short distance away, and then I took off my hiking boots and stuck my feet into the ice-cold water until they went numb.

Our B&B, Little Yoke, was a lovely place. We had two rooms at our disposal – a bedroom with an en suite bathroom and another little sitting room across the hall. On arrival, our host Jo offered us a cup of tea. After my cup of tea, drunk while reading a book on the history of Kinlochleven, I had a shower and then a nap. I hadn’t slept well at the Bunkhouse and the combination of poor sleep, cold symptoms and uphill hike had got to me.

In the evening we went out in search of something to eat. There was a multitude of options in Kinlochleven but the first place we saw was the Chinese takeaway, Rice & Chips, and we knew that this was the winner.

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