West Highland Way FAIL – May/June 2012

WEST HIGHLAND WAY

Introduction

This is my account of my West Highland Way attempt in May/June 2012. For those who don’t already know, the West Highland Way is a 97 mile long walk from the outskirts of Glasgow to Fort William in the Western Highlands of Scotland. I decided to write this blog as a detailed account of how NOT to do the West Highland Way, as  I’ve read about so many good experiences that I thought it was important to share my mistakes and hopefully prevent someone from making the same ones I did. While some parts of my journey were truly wonderful, I had totally underestimated what sort of equipment and training were required; and so I wasn’t able to complete the whole walk.

I am currently planning to tackle the walk again in July, and hopefully with better organisation, planning and training I’ll be able to complete it this time. Stay tuned to find out if I make it!

West Highland Way Waymarker

Which way??

DAY 1 – Milngavie to Drymen

We all arranged to meet at Waverley Station in Edinburgh at approximately 8 am, and I was relieved to bump into one of our gang at the top of the stairs. There was definitely a sense of excitement in the air, and also a few nerves as this was the first time any of us had attempted a long distance walk.

Ailie's Adventures West Highland Way Milngavie

Just about to set off

It felt like we were in the train station for ages as people kept on disappearing to grab a coffee, or sandwich, or go to the toilet or cash machine. – this was merely a hint of things to come! So by the time we got on the train we’d already wasted an hour. I was just really eager to get going!

The journey was pretty uneventful – we arrived in Milngavie at approximately 10am and were finally ready to start the walk. We booked a bag-carrying service who would drop our bags each day at our assigned stops, and they came and met us off the train. They were so welcoming and friendly, and were able to give us some good advice where to stay on the first night. If you are interested in booking with them you can find out more here.

Ailie's Adventures West Highland Way Milngavie

A friendly pigeon who stopped to talk to us in Milngavie

My friend and I popped into the tourist information office to sign the register, and when we came back the rest of the group had dispersed, so we decided to pop into Greggs and grab a coffee and hoped that by the time we got back everyone would have returned. No such luck. One by one people started to reappear, and we finally found the others sitting in a café down the other end of the high street eating a full English breakfast!

After taking the obligatory photographs next to the obelisk and archway we finally began the walk just after 11 o’clock. A bit later than I would have liked, but by no means a disaster – we still had plenty time to complete the first stage.

Ailie's Adventures - West Highland Way, Milngavie to Drymen

a nice walk through the woods

The beginning of the walk was rather unspectacular to say the least, as we walked around the back of a supermarket, past an upturned trolley, but it slowly opened up into some nice parkland. This was short-lived however, as we approached a couple of policewomen and some crime tape. It turns out a body had been found – clearly we were still not too far away from Glasgow! Had a bit of banter with the policewomen then quickly moved on.

This first section was quite busy with dog walkers and joggers etc, but soon tailed off as we moved out of Allander Park and into Mugdock wood. The woodland floor was carpeted with bluebells, which looked lovely with the dappled sunlight coming in through the trees.

Ailie's Adventures West Highland Way Milngavie

Pretty woodland bluebells

 The route then continues along the Allander water which is a rather flat section, not much of a challenge and more of a pleasant stroll to ease you in gently. We passed through the Campsie cottages and made use of the honesty box left there – with a fresh supply of ice cold water, tea, coffee and biscuits. Incidently this is the only one we came across the whole journey. Perhaps there were more later on; I didn’t get the chance to find that out. It seemed a bit of a shame that we encountered it only an hour or so into the 96 miles, but at the time we were thankful as the sun was beating down relentlessly so an ice cold water was more than welcome.

 The path then opened up and you could see the beginnings of the larger hills in the distance, which was a nice preview of things to come. The path had been mainly flat up until this point, so it was exciting to see what lay ahead. This excitement was short-lived however, as the path continued on through farmland, and then along the old railway line past the Glengoyne distillery. Under normal circumstances this would have been an easy section of the walk, but because of the abnormally hot sunshine we were starting to struggle in the heat. We passed a few people who urged us on with “Only ten minutes until the pub!” and “Five minutes to go!” so this lifted our spirits sufficiently to spur us on. We could barely contain our excitement when we saw the sign for the Beech Tree Inn.

Because of the weather the place was absolutely heaving, so we had to settle for a space on the grass which didn’t really bother us to be fair. The sun was shining, we had our shoes off, and our first pint of the day tasted absolutely delicious! I actually wouldn’t mind driving up here again as it seemed like a nice place for lunch. We didn’t bother with food however, just a few Mars bars and Babybels from our pack, and we decided to get going again after about an hour or so.

Ailie's Adventures - West Highland Way, Beech Tree Inn Glengoyne

Almost at the pub – hooray!

The Way continued along the railway bed for the next stretch, but at least this time we were shaded by some trees. We passed a sewage treatment plant which was absolutely stinking in the heat, and then passed by a row of rather run down looking houses. Certainly not the most scenic part of the walk! However due to the shade we were able to pick up the pace, and it seemed like we’d hardly been walking an hour when we reached our campsite for the evening – the Wishing Well at Gartness.

It was the bag carrying service who recommended we stay here, as we had originally planned to walk as far as the East Drumquassle site at Drymen. However they had said it wasn’t very clean which put us off a bit, and the fact that it was usually very busy. The site at the Wishing Well was faultless, plenty of space, excellent facilities, and only three other tents apart from ours. It turned out to be one of my favourite stops on the whole trip. The only disadvantage was that it was around two miles outside of Drymen, which meant the next day was going to be slightly longer. We were all actually surprised when we reached our destination so quickly, and could easily have continued on for another few hours.

Anyway we made the most of the rest of the evening and sat out in the sunshine with a few drinks, listening to the ipod through the speakers, and firing up the camp stove – perfect.

Ailie's Adventures - West Highland Way, Drymen Gartness Wishing Well Campsite

Firing up the camp stove on the first day

 DAY 2 – Drymen to Rowardennan

I woke early on the second morning as the sunlight was already very bright, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. As I got all my gear packed up and ready to go the others began to slowly emerge from their tents. By the time we all had breakfast and everyone then went to pack up their things I’d already had a good few hours of hanging about which was quite frustrating, but at least we were still setting off much earlier than the previous day.

We posed next to the wishing well and each made a wish before setting off. I wished that my feet would hold out for the day, as I already had a few small blisters, which didn’t hurt yet, but I hoped they wouldn’t get any worse. The walk into Drymen was rather uneventful along a hedgerow and then a road, but we passed a few nice buildings and then saw a family of hares running in front of us as we made a steep climb up hill.

Ailie's Adventures - West Highland Way Garadhban forest

logging activity at Garadhban forest

The path then navigated away from the road and across some hilly grassland which is where my feet really began to hurt. We had a few moments rest and I changed into trainers hoping that the change of shoes would stop my feet rubbing in the same already sore places. We then walked through some farmland and passed the East Drumquassle site where we had originally planned to camp. It looked reasonable enough apart from the close proximity to the farm animals which may have created unwanted noise and smells.

We finally entered the Garadhban forest which was absolutely swarming with midges, so we had to keep moving quickly. The sun had been beating down relentlessly all morning, and I could already feel the back of my neck burning (which is very rare for me!), so the shade was very welcome indeed at this point. This was short lived however, as many of the trees had been felled in order to open up the views to Loch Lomond, and as we climbed the hill I must say the views were breathtaking.

This was quite a difficult part of the walk for all of us, mainly due to the heat. In my whole 28 years of living in Scotland I don’t think I can remember ever having a day as hot as this, especially at the end of May. The path kept winding around corners and disappearing so we were all dismayed when we saw that we still had further to continue unsheltered. The path underfoot was very stony and quite a challenge for my trainers, so as we finally approached Conic hill myself and two others decided to take the shortcut to Balmaha down the hill and along the road.

Ailie's Adventures - West Highland Way, Drymem Garadhban forest

Loch Lomond just coming into sight

We went straight down to the loch and took off our socks and shoes and dipped our feet into the cool water, which felt absolutely wonderful. We stayed in Balmaha for a few hours, waiting on the others to arrive and had something to eat and drink, sitting in the gorgeous sunshine ( it was now gorgeous that we were sitting down; when we were walking in it it was hellish! )

When I stood up again I almost fell down as the pain in my feet was so great. I had to limp off to the bathroom and assess the situation. What I found was horrifying – the blisters had gotten much worse, so my wish in the well this morning hadn’t come true afterall. The stony path through the Garadhban forest had cut through the thin soles of my trainers and ripped my feet to shreds. I had blisters between my toes, on my heels, and some giant ones on the balls of my feet. I knew that my walking for the day was over.

Ailie's Adventures - West Highland Way, Oak Tree Inn Balmaha

A very happy pint at Balmaha

I decided to get a taxi to our next stop – the Hostel at Rowardennan. Another girl from our group came, plus two 18 year old German girls who were also going that way. It ended up being not too expensive between the four of us. We got chatting and I said that my feet were hurting from the day’s walk, so the German girl showed me what she uses – but unfortunately I can’t remember the name of it! I was surprised to see such young girls doing a walk like this alone, especially in a foreign country, but they said that they were very experienced walkers despite their age. We kept them entertained for the journey with our pronounciation of ‘Edinburgh’ which is more like “Enbra” rather than their americanised “Edinboro”

We checked into the hostel, and I was glad to find that the six of us were sharing the same room. I don’t think I could have handled any strangers at that point as my feet were still agony. The hostel was reasonably quiet at this point anyway, as most people were still walking. I put some antiseptic on my feet, but didn’t bother with any plasters or compeeds as I thought it would be best to let the air into them. I put my flip flops on, ordered two beers, then limped outside to sit on the grass.

We had a lovely afternoon just sitting by the Lochside. The surrounding area of the hostel was absolutely gorgeous, and so was the weather – my little spot of paradise on the whole Way. We went up and sat on the pier with our feet dangling in the water, and met one of the German girls again. There were some gulls swooping around us and she told me what they were called in German. My friend said that we called them “Pigeons: the rats of the sea”.  I didn’t bother to correct her, so now somebody in Germany thinks that seagulls are called pigeons.

Ailie's Adventures - West Highland Way, Loch Lomond, Rowardennan Hostel

Relaxing by the Loch with a beer – one of my favourite moments of the whole trip

The rest of the group eventually arived, and we sat outside until the midges became unbearable, so had to move indoors. We were happy just to have an early-ish night as we knew tomorrow was going to be tough.

 DAY 3 – Rowardennan to Inverarnan

Today we awoke to find the weather overcast, which was a welcome change after baking in the heat for the past two days. This was notoriously the most difficult part of the walk, and I think we would have struggled if the weather had been any warmer. Although it was cloudy it was still quite warm, but at least the clouds offered shade from the glaring sun.

I usually wake up quite early with the sunlight, but because the room was dark I slept longer than usual, and was annoyed that another group member who was already up was carelessly disturbing everyone with the rustling of bags, and stepping over everyone to look for things. I was glad when I realised the time however, and luckily I didn’t have to queue for a shower. I kept my flip flops on, as I didn’t know how many verruccas and infected feet had stood in the shower prior to myself that morning. One of our other friends actually picked up a fungal skin infection which she believes came from the showers at the Rowardennan hostel – yuck!!  It was one of our group’s birthday’s today so we had arranged some balloons and streamers for her.

Ailie's Adventures West Highland Way Rowardennan

Setting off from Rowardennan with birthday balloons and hats

Another drawback to staying at the hostel was that breakfast was absolutely mobbed. A friend and I had pre-ordered a cooked breakfast which, despite the amount of people there, was really quite good. Apparently the same couldn’t be said for the Continental breakfast which consisted of only cereal and fruit. I felt a bit sorry for our other group members who had to make do with porridge and coffee in the self service area (which I hear was also mobbed).

 My feet weren’t feeling too bad this morning. Much of the swelling in the blisters had gone down, and I’d purchased some padded insoles at the shop at Balmaha which I hoped would keep my feet in better shape for the day. I put compeed over the worst blisters, and stuck plasters everywhere I thought my boots might rub. We set off rather nervously this morning, worried about how difficult this stretch of the walk was going to be, and I was still worried about my feet.

Ailie's Adventures - West Highland Way, Loch Lomond

Gorgeous colours!

Luckily the first stretch was pretty easy going, and we got into a good rhythm. So much so that we didn’t even see the part where the track divides in two! Luckily we went the high road as the low road is supposed to be very scrambly along the shoreline – we had plenty of that to come later. The path followed quite a long and steep climb, and we were soon well up above the loch with fantastic views. Unfortunately because of the midges we couldn’t stop for long to enjoy them, so just managed to snatch a few quick snaps and then continue on our way.

These long climbs were the only really strenuous part of this section, but as I said the views over the loch were so rewarding that the pain in my legs was soon forgotten. The path then evened itself out with a few short descents and ascents, so the only problem left to deal with was the midges – but as long as you keep on moving then they aren’t really an issue. We finally arrived at the Inversnaid hotel, and were cheered on by the German girls, who had caught the ferry from Rowardennan in the morning. (I was beginning to wonder whether the reason the German girl said she never got any blisters was because she never actually did any walking!!)

Ailie's Adventures - West Highland Way, Feral Goat Loch Lomond

Feral goat near Inversnaid

We popped into the hotel and I had a cup of tea and buttered scone. The hotel was quite busy with old people, must have been some sort of coach trip. We wondered how we would be received, as there didn’t seem to be any other walkers around, but everyone seemed friendly enough. We had a drink in the bar, and made some general chit-chat with the table next to us, before moving on.

The next section started off easy enough, we passed a few mountain goats and stopped to take some photos, but soon we were scrambling up boulders and tree roots and clambering down quite steep drops. We met a couple of guys earlier who were cylcling the Way, and caught up with them at this point having to carry their bikes on their back. I’ve absolutely no idea how they managed it, as it was difficult enough just with small rucksacks. Saying that, although this part was difficult, it was also quite enjoyable, making a change from straight walking. I used to love climbing trees as a child, so I was able to scramble over the obstacles reasonably quickly, while some of the others began to fall behind.

Ailie's Adventures - West Highland Way, Loch Lomond Rob Roy's Cave

Posing for a quick snap by the entrance to Rob Roy’s cave

This rocky part is apparently only three miles long, but with all the ups and downs it seems like much further. We had a quick stop when we saw the sign for Rob Roy’s cave, but couldn’t actually find the entrance to the cave itself. We carried on a bit further and were relieved when we finally emerged from the boulders onto some flat ground at the edge of the loch. The ground was carpeted in bluebells, which was beautiful – plus we had the added bonus of not having any midges! We sat down to wait for the rest of the group to catch up, and also saw the two bikers passing, still carrying their bikes – wow those guys must be seriously fit!

Any relief we felt was short lived however, as the next section still had quite a few challenging climbs, and with our energy zapped from the earlier section these were pretty tough going. We were dismayed to find a sign telling us we still had two and a half miles to Beinglas campsite, but we plodded on slowly. By this point my tshirt was practically soaked through in sweat, as it was still quite warm although it was approaching late afternoon / early evening.

Ailie's Adventures West Highland Way Loch Lomond Inverarnan

navigating away from the Loch

The scenery at this point was absolutely stunning, and although we were weary this helped lift our spirits and spur us onwards. We passed the Doune bothy and then had one final steep climb before the gentle descent into Beinglas. From this point the views back down the loch were spectacular, and I felt a sense of achievement that we had conquered the most difficult part of the walk. We finally made it into Beinglas campsite and collapsed onto a picnic bench for a well deserved pint!

We spent the evening up at the Drovers Inn, as it was one of our group’s birthday so we wanted to make it a memorable one. I know the Drovers has had a bit of a bad reputation, but to be honest I don’t really understand why. The reception area is almost like some sort of museum with all of the taxidermy displays, including a giant bear. Normally I’m not really into dead animals, but this is really something worth seeing! Plus everyone we met there was very friendly. We were gutted when we were chatting to the bar staff and learned that the Hollywood star Gerard Butler had been staying the previous evening! We stayed for some food and a few drinks to celebrate our friend’s birthday, then returned to the campsite just as it was getting dark.

Ailie's Adventures - West Highland Way, Loch Lomond Doune Bothy

“Suzie looks like a Banksy!”

That evening at Beinglas once we were back in the tents I had to get up and go to the bathroom, but my feet were absolute agony! It took me a good 5 minutes to limp the 30 metres or so to the toilet block, by which point I was absolutely desperate. One of the German girls was there again and tried to speak to me but I just had to run straight into the cubicle. I never saw her again after that, so I felt quite bad afterwards. I didn’t mean to be rude but I might have wet myself in front of her if I didn’t get into the toilet when I did. By this point I was really worried about my feet, and would have crawled back to the tent if the grass hadn’t been wet.

  DAY 4  – Inverarnan to Tyndrum

In the morning my feet weren’t much better, so reluctantly I decided not to do any walking that day. We had a cooked breakfast at the campsite and got talking to a couple of guys who were cycling from John-o-Groats to Lands-End for charity. We shared some of our toast with them as we had way too much food to eat ourselves, plus they were planning on setting off on an empty stomach.

I decided just to get the bus to our next stop at Tyndrum, and hopefully get my feet up for a few hours. But I had the whole day spare so there wasn’t really any rush. I relaxed in the campsite for half an hour or so, then limped up to the Drovers, just in time to see the bus pulling away. I had another hour to wait, so just went into the Drovers and sat with a soft drink to kill some time. It was still only mid-morning, so they weren’t serving alcohol yet – a stiff drink would have been preferable to try and numb the pain in my feet!

Ailie's Adventures - West Highland Way, Loch Lomond

Emerging from the rocky section at Loch Lomond

 When I eventually arrived in Tyndrum around midday I was looking forward to just checking into our accommodation – the wooden huts at ‘By The Way.’ However the welcome I received was less than friendly, and was downright rude. As I approached the reception area one of the female owners practically came running at me shouting ‘go away!’  I tried to explain that we were booked into one of the huts but she told me they weren’t open until 2 o’clock and to go away. I was rather taken aback by this as this was the first unfriendly person I had encountered on the whole journey so far.

I trudged slowly up to the café at the other end of the village and passed the time with a magazine and cream scone. The battery on my phone had died by this point so I had no way of telling whether or not it was after 2 o’clock or not. I waited on the benches outside for another half hour, just to be sure, watching a group of bikers setting off on their journey.

Ailie's Adventures - West Highland Way, Loch Lomond

The pier at Rowardennan Hostel, Loch Lomond

I headed back down to ‘By the Way’ and tried to check in again. It was the same woman as earlier, and she wasn’t in any better mood than before. I gave all the booking details, but because I did not have the credit card that it was booked under I could not check in. I tried to explain the situation but there was no way this woman was letting me into our hut. I asked if I could wait here until the others arrive, and her reply was that I could sit outside, but I would have “no access to any of the facilities”. Great – the rain was just starting to come down and I had to sit outside.

As I was leaving the reception another group of walkers arrived and had asked to collect their bags which one of the carrying services had dropped off. As I was walking out the door I heard the woman shouting at them – “How do I know who you are? You could be anybody!”  Either she was having one hell of a bad day, or she has some sort of anger management issue. In any case, she probably wasn’t best suited to a career in customer service.

 Ailie's Adventures West Highland Way Tyndrum

Hottie Alert!! – Modelling our midge nets in the huts at Tyndrum

 I decided to take a walk down to the end of the drive where the Way passes by, hoping to see my friends coming in. I shouted encouragement at a few groups of walkers who were passing, and asked whether they had seen a group of 5 girls and a guy – but nobody had. One man stopped to chat and explained that he’d set off at 6:30 that morning, so I knew my group were still nowhere near. Reluctantly I headed back up the drive to sit down on the wet grass.

I’d only been sitting for around ten minutes when two of the girls arrived – they’d got as far as Crianlarich and decided to catch a bus the rest of the way to Tyndrum. One of them had brought me a can of beer, and at that moment I thought it was the kindest thing anyone could have done for me as I was feeling rather depressed. We went back to reception to try and check in for a third time.

Ailie's Adventures West Highland Way Drovers Inn Inverarnan

Partying with a stuffed bear at the Drovers Inn

This time the woman said we can’t get in without paying, which she hadn’t mentioned before. If I’d have known it was money she was after I would have paid cash and got the money back from the rest of the group. We split it between the three of us and finally managed to get the key for the hut – it wasn’t worth the wait. When we entered the hut all of the surfaces were covered in dead midges, and I’m talking hundreds, not just one or two. At least it was nice to get some shelter from the rain.

 We found the rest of the facilities to be quite restrictive – whereas all the other sites we stayed at had free washing and drying, at By the Way you had to pay for these. Granted it was only a few pence but still frustrating. If you didn’t happen to be carrying the correct coins then you wouldn’t be able to use anything. You even had to pay to use the cooker! Also there were signs everywhere telling you not to do this and that which felt as though they were dictating to you like some sort of schoolteacher and you were the naughty child.

Ailie's Adventures - West Highland Way, Loch Lomond

Doune Bothy, overlooking Loch Lomond

The only good point about the huts was that they had an electricity supply which meant I was able to charge my phone. I’d only had it plugged in for about an hour when I checked it and found that someone had unplugged it and removed my charger. I asked everyone but they all denied having seen my phone charger, so clearly I knew someone was lying. I wasn’t sure at this stage whether it had been stolen or if it was a genuine mistake, so I left the issue for the time being.

Anyway we decided just to have an early night, as I was still in a bit of a bad mood from earlier, plus the midges were so bad outside that it was impossible to leave the hut. I was hoping that after plenty of rest my feet would have recovered sufficiently to continue the walk tomorrow.

DAY 5 – Home

 We had planned to set off early on day five as it was a long day ahead – 19 miles to Kingshouse. I woke up and began to strap up my feet while everyone else went off for breakfast. When they returned they told me that it was time to leave, even though I hadn’t eaten yet. I ended up storming off in the huff at this point, as there was no way I was going for a 19 mile walk without having something to eat first. I quickly gobbled down a tin of sausage and beans then we set off. I asked everyone again to check their belongings to see if someone had accidentally picked up my charger, but still everybody denied it.

The weather was awful, the rain was absolutely pouring down so we all had our waterproofs on, however within minutes I was soaked from the inside with sweat. Although my feet were much better they were still quite sore in places, so I soon fell behind the rest of the group. I think also that there was still a bit of tension over the breakfast situation so people were giving me some space. I was still a bit annoyed about this, plus the fact that someone had taken my charger.

Ailie's Adventures West Highland Way Beinglas Inverarnan

Enjoying a well-earned pint at Beinglas campsite

We had only been walking for about five minutes and were just crossing over the road at the other end of Tyndrum when I decided to abandon the walk. This was to be one of the most remote stretches, away from any sort of roads or transport links so if my feet had become any worse I’d have been stranded in the middle of nowhere. Plus I could no longer trust my group members, I could no longer charge my phone, and I only had £20 to last the next three days. I made the decision to spend this on a bus back home, rather than complete the walk.

At the time I did not feel any sense of disappointment – only relief. I walked back down to the other end of Tyndrum again, and waited at the bus stop for over an hour. When the bus eventually arrived I fell asleep almost straight away, and only awoke when we were reaching the outskirts of Glasgow – I must have been exhausted. I had only enough battery in my phone to text my partner and let him know I was on my way home, before my phone died completely. The rest of the journey went very smoothly – straight off the bus and onto the train at Queen Street. Then straight off the train at Waverley and onto the no.31 bus.

Ailie's Adventures West Highland Way

We also met some sheep along the way!

Even when I arrived home I knew I’d made the right decision. I had no regrets whatsoever until maybe a week or so later then it was only because we did not plan the walk properly and did not have the correct walking gear. My partner could only say “I told you so” as he had warned from the start that the whole thing would be a disaster.

I’m looking forward to trying the walk again next year though, and it is only now that I’m beginning to get excited about it again. It took quite a while to get over my bad experience last time, but now I feel as though I must complete what I started. Hopefully my next blog will be a success story rather than a failure! But by sharing this experience I hope that any inexperienced walkers who read this will not make the same mistakes.

Ailie's Adventures West Highland Way Loch Lomond Rowardennan hostel

Outside the hostel at Rowardennan

CONCLUSION – WHERE I THINK I WENT WRONG, AND HOW TO IMPROVE FOR NEXT TIME.

Footwear

Undoubtedly biggest mistake of all was wearing the wrong type of footwear. I used an old pair of leather boots, approximately 15 years old which I hadn’t worn in years, and hadn’t practiced enough in prior to the trip to give my feet the chance to get used to them again. The leather was thick and inflexible which caused rubbing in places, and also didn’t let any air in for my feet to breathe – the result of which was numerous blisters the size of golf balls (no exaggeration!) In some places I had blisters upon blisters, and even blisters underneath my toenails – I had no idea this was even possible!  I did wear two pairs of socks to try and reduce the rubbing against the shoe, however this didn’t really seem to have much effect.

Ailie's Adventures - West Highland Way, Wishing Well campsite Gartness

The sun setting on our first day at Gartness

On the second day when the blisters were already bad I made the fatal mistake of changing into a pair of converse, which at the time seemed more comfortable, but were just not thick enough to handle the stony path up through Garadhban forest, so by the time we got to Balmaha I could barely stand up, let alone walk. I soldiered on with Compeed and plasters for the next few days, but really my feet were so damaged by this point it was inevitable that I wouldn’t be able to complete the route.

The thing is, I had lots of conflicting advice regarding foot care and footwear. A work colleague had told me she completed the West Highland Way in nothing more than a pair of plimsoles, so either she has feet made of steel, or she was lying. I had also been told to use surgical spirit on the soles of my feet for a few weeks prior, in order to harden the skin. I didn’t do this, but should I have done? Perhaps this might be something to consider for next time – however I find the prospect of hardening the skin on my feet rather revolting!

Ailie's Adventures - West Highland Way, Milngavie to Drymen

The landscape opening up on day one

Another tip I picked up was coating your feet in Vaseline and letting it dry in for about an hour in the morning before you set off. This I did, although it didn’t really seem to make much difference. If anything I would have thought this would have made the blisters worse as the feet are moist and soft. I’ve also heard of people using talc, and we met a German girl along the Way who had something which resembled a roll-on deodorant – if anyone could enlighten me as to what this might be?

So as you can see, I had hints and tips flooding in from all angles, so no wonder I was confused. I think the best thing is just to invest in a decent pair of breathable hiking boots and forget all the nonsense about rubbing things into your feet. I’m currently practicing for this year, so we’ll see how my feet hold up this time!

Ailie's Adventures West Highland Way Garadhban Forest

Group shot near Garadhban Forest

Company

I’d suggest for anyone attempting the walk to do it with a group of people you’re comfortable with, as you will be stuck with them for the next week or so, and although you will be sharing in many wonderful high points, you will also be forced to share the lows.

The group that I went with consisted of one really good friend, plus a few casual acquaintances whom I’d only met once or twice, and one that I’d never met at all. As I live a distance away from the rest then I missed out on a few of the meetings, so didn’t get to know everyone very well prior to the trip. The group consisted of 5 girls, plus one married couple who were constantly arguing which made things rather uncomfortable for the rest of us. (They have since divorced, but that’s another story!)

Ailie's Adventures - West Highland Way, Loch Lomond Inverarnan

A final look back down Loch Lomond

There was also the issue of the missing phone charger, which may seem a bit petty – but at the time it was a really big deal to me as I wouldn’t be able to take any photographs or phone home for the remaining 4 days of the trip. Plus I wasn’t sure if someone had stolen it, or just accidentally picked it up – but I was really annoyed that they couldn’t be bothered going and checking when I asked them to.

Next time it will just be myself and my partner on the walk – we already know all each other’s moods and habits so there won’t be any surprises or awkwardness. I prefer smaller groups for this sort of activity because  if you want to push further on then you can, if you need to stop for a rest then you can. Last time I just remember constant bickering and huffing as people couldn’t agree on what time to set off in the morning, or who was sleeping in what bunk (What else do you expect with a large group of girls?!)

NB – The girls and I have all kept in touch and I’m quite good friends with a few of them now, so any hard feelings or disputes during the walk are now long behind us!

Ailie's Adventures - West Highland Way, Loch Lomond Inverarnan Drovers Inn Beinglas

Relaxing outside the Drovers Inn

Training

This was my first attempt at distance walking, and I have to say I was totally unprepared in terms of training. I did a few 7-8 mile rambles through the Midlothian countryside around Bonnyrigg and Roslin – however this area is mostly flat and so doesn’t present much of a challenge. Although at the time I considered myself to be reasonably fit, looking back I realise I just wasn’t in the best shape to tackle something like this. We were all quite embarrassed at one point along the shore of Loch Lomond being overtaken by a couple in their 60s, and all of us in our late 20s/early 30s!  Saying that, everyone else in the group seemed to manage it alright, with minimal training.

I’ve already started my training for next year, as I aim to be fit as possible if I’m to carry my own bag, and also I want the walk to be pleasurable rather than gruelling. My training will definitely include several long hill walks carrying my pack in order to get used to the extra weight. I must say I’m already feeling much fitter, and this is only the beginning. We also have the Ochil hills nearby which I used to walk as a child, so I’m looking forward to tackling those in the next few months, and we are even planning to try a few Munroes!

Ailie's Adventures West Highland Way Loch Lomond Doune Bothy

Still carrying the birthday balloons!

Lack of supplies

I only brought enough food to last two or three days, and it was mostly picnicy sort of things which I ended up sharing with the group (and got nothing in return!) so I had to end up either buying cooked meals in pubs, or stocking up from shops along the way which proved to be extortionately priced. By the time we got to Tyndrum I had only £20 left to spend on food for the next four nights, so I made the snap decision to spend it on a bus back to Edinburgh, rather than face starvation!  Again, because I’d missed some of the meetings beforehand I had no idea that the other girls were bringing all their own foods and cooking every night. I didn’t even have a stove!

Route planning

I’m not really sure who came up with the plan, but to me it seemed rather silly walking only six miles one day, then walking 20 the next – rather than just spacing them out and doing an average of 13 miles per day. However the fact that we were having our bags carried meant that we were tied into being at certain locations at certain times which limited our options. In the end I’m glad we used the service, as some parts were difficult enough, and I doubt we would have managed otherwise. One of our group attempted it for the first day, but then ended up paying to have their bags carried after that. Admittedly we did have lots of unneccessary extras weighing us down, so next time I’m hoping to carry my own bag, and only bring the absolute essentials so that it’s not too heavy to carry comfortably.

Ailie's Adventures - West Highland Way, Loch Lomond Inversnaid

The lonliness of the long distance walker…

Another aspect of the route planning was that we had ended up staying in accommodation every night, which although only hostels, campsites and caravans, ended up being very costly. Not only did we have the price of accommodation itself, but we also ended up buying an evening meal, and sometimes also a cooked breakfast. I’m not lying when I say my total expenditure was somewhere around £400 for the trip, which is absolutely ridiculous. This included travel, accommodation, bag carrying, supplies and general spending money. When I do the walk next year there is no way I’ll be able to afford anywhere in the region of this amount, so I’m sure with better planning we will be able to do it for a fraction of the cost. Next time we’re planning on wild camping most nights, or perhaps a night or two in one of the official campsites – but at an average of £7 per pitch it’s hardly going to break the bank.

Conclusion

All I can say is that I’ve learned from my mistakes – and I’ve learned them the hard way. I definitely won’t make the same mistakes twice! I’m really looking forward to trying again next year, and would welcome any advice or feedback.

Thanks for reading. Please leave a comment below.

UPDATE – I successfully completed the walk in July 2014 – read my adventure here

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Ailie's Adventures West Highland Way Loch Lomond

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One comment

  1. […] I first attempted the walk in 2012 with a group of friends, however had to give up early due to lack of correct equipment and planning. You can read all about it here. […]

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