Going wild on the West Highland Way

20151006_140533Walking 96 miles, in seven days, with 14KG of weight and camping along the whole of the West Highland Way was probably THE worst and best thing I’ve ever done in my entire life.  It’s a mental challenge, a physical one and a spiritual one. It requires all of you. Getting yourself to keep going when you’re in so much pain takes a lot of will. But I think going alone makes it near impossible to keep your spirits up. My advice would be to go with someone else. I usually love my own company, but I struggled more than I ever thought was possible.

I did meet many lovely people along The Way – Bothy Pete, Gordan and Eric, many Germans, and a group of people leading a legally blind man. His accomplishments put my moans and cries to shame. Most meetings with people on the WHW involve you stumbling across them (or vice versa) while they’re sat down, boots and socks off, and examining a foot over one knee. And you know they’re wondering how they’re going to get their feet back into the boots of agony.

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But it was a week of extreme lows and highs for many reasons.  There are two parts to my hobbit adventure – but I can only tell you one as the other is not entirely my story to tell. But I learnt a lot along the way about pain, bravery, loneliness and how the very worse things can save you.  And never forget to look up. Ever. So much of our lives are spent just trying to take the next step, making sure we don’t trip up, that we forget to look around and admire where we are and how far we’ve come, or to feel the moment.

But sometimes looking up was not a joy. It only added to my misery – the vast, empty landscape, brooding in heavy clouds, imprisoned in foreboding mountains. The West Highland Way broke me many times. I was weak most of the way. I shattered into fragments more than once. I wanted to quit a hundred times. But I finished it – I actually finished it. Sometimes we need to break in order to rebuild, to start again. Sometimes we need to walk through pain, to let it soften us, weather us just like the landscape. How beautiful are the worn and weathered feet, the blisters and scars…

Here’s my journey, day by day:

  1. Day one: Milngavie to near Blanefield (5 miles)
  2. Day two: Blanefield to Conic Hill/Garadhban forest (13 miles)
  3. Day three: Balmaha to Rowchoish Bothy (13 miles)
  4. Day four: Rowchoish Bothy to near Ardlui (8 miles)
  5. Day five: Near Ardlui to Tyndrum (14 miles)
  6. Day six: Tyndrum to Ba Bridge (14 miles)
  7. Day seven: Ba Bridge to Kinlochleven (14 miles)
  8. Day eight: Kinlochleven to Fort William (15 miles)

When I was prepping before I left, there was some information out there, but not enough about what to expect, so I thought I’d keep a diary for all those considering either hiking the WHW alone and/or camping all the way.

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Best piece of non-essential kit: My light-weight umbrella. I don’t have a porch on my tent and I was worried about how I’d cook in the rain. I thought I could tape some tent pegs to the umbrella and use it as a cover if I needed it. But it also acted as a good walking stick – helping to stabilize me over some dodgy paths. And it’s perfect for keeping the rain off when it’s too hot for the waterproofs.

What I wish I had brought: Flip flops. At every conceivable moment you want to get out of your boots. And if you have waterproof boots – your socks too. My feet often needed to dry out, and so it would have been nice to potter about camp or lunch with something that didn’t feel like an iron maiden on my feet. Bloody boots.

Tips from other walkers: Good ol’ Gordon who I met on the Way advised getting some boot insoles and swapping them over every break to offer extra cushioning. Might be worth trying out. Not that I’ll ever be doing anything like this again…

And take some sort of repellent for the midges – even in October I had trouble with them because it was fairly warm still. You can never tell whether they’ll be about or not. Lots of people swore by Avon’s Oh so soft.

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 West Highland Way Check list (12KG without water)

  • Map
  • Tent
  • Sleeping bag
  • Sleeping mat
  • Gas and top and lighter
  • Pans
  • Toilet paper and trowel
  • Money and keys
  • Waterproof coat and trousers
  • Anti bac wipes
  • Notebook and pen
  • Gaffa tape
  • Phone, charger, extra battery charger (there’s a surprising amount of signal on WHW)
  • First aid kit: Blister plasters and pain killers
  • Water containers and purifying tablets
  • Whistle
  • Plastic bags
  • Head torch
  • Deodorant
  • Book (don’t bother – you’ll be too tired to read it and it’ll be ruined by the end)
  • Clothes – fleece, two pairs of trousers, leggings for sleeping, 6 pairs of socks (yes take lots of socks because you will need them!!), one base layer, running t- shirt, scarf, gloves and hat (with ear flaps to cut out noise and keep ears warm).
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7 thoughts on “Going wild on the West Highland Way

  1. This is such an interesting read and I have so many questions to ask you about walking: why you did the WHW and at this time of year, your emotions during the walk and your response to the landscape. But I’ll wait until you’ve posted the lot. As someone who walks long distances – and sometimes shares the emotions you describe here – I have the utmost respect for you because my hikes tend to take place across Spain in the height of summer- though I’m off to climb volcanoes in Mexico and Central America this winter. You would make such an ideal subject for my PhD thesis …

    1. Hi Sian – I was a little restricted with the time of year due to personal events. Plus, I figured it would be quieter and less burdened with the pesky midge! Wrong! But I enjoyed being in cooler weather – walking keeps you warm and I have a good sleeping bag. Volcanoes in Mexico and USA sound amazing! Happy to answer any other questions for your thesis more privately! 🙂

    1. Thanks! 🙂 Although Cheryl went MUCH further then I did. Luckily I didn’t need so many miles for my problems. But I do think Cheryl forgot much of her agony when she wrote up the journey. It’s funny, because now it’s a few weeks on – I can see how easy it is to forget. Although my feet are still as hard as rock and I don’t have much feeling in some toes because of it.

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