Lochaber, June, 2010 - a through hike in Scotland

A first walking trip in Scotland, and fitting that this should be our first proper wild camping trip as well.  Initially I'd thought of this as a 'training' trip for the Pyrenees stage 2, which is about 3 weeks away as I write, but even before we got on the train it was apparent how naive this was.  It might have been the through hiking we did, but I think its more the ground underfoot - the highlands are stunningly beautiful of course, but they ain't easy, even in good weather.  I now see some of the hype along the lines of 'if you can hike in scotland, you can hike anywhere' is justified. 

Originally the plan was to get to Glen Coe first, and work our way round back to Fort William, using a bit of the West Highland Way, and old drove roads described in Ronald Turnball's excellent Ben Nevis and Glen Coe (circerone) book, all in time to climb Ben Nevis via the Carn Mor Dearg Arête on the last day.  In the end, we went the other way around, thinking that we could build up some stamina before 1 or 2 other hills we were thinking about.  That said, the south side of Glen Nevis on day 2 was my own personal Achilles hurty heel, not a Munro at all.  And we didn't get to the Arête this time.

But first, some recommendations -  the best smoked salmon I have ever had, bar none, at Cafe 115 on the high street, Fort William.  Its the peat apparently.  A great breakfast stop straight off the train.  I should also mention the amazing staff at the Ellis Brigham branch - Kate (I think!?) was so friendly and full of beans about our trip, gave us loads of tips about our route and really went out of her way - top quality service from a dedicated and expert local walker - cheers!


The weather was gloomy but humid, and didn't promise much for Day 1.  We topped up on cash, a few bits of veg and a couple of drybags for our clothes and headed out past the station towards Glen Nevis.  A pint in the Ben Nevis Inn after an hour or so of road trudge, and a few spots of rain.   The bags are full and weigh heavy on us both as we continue up the valley - bloomin' urbanites!  A while later and the weather turns and bright sunshine lights up the path and draws us in.  The greens are still new enough to dazzle, the valley is gently picturesque, and we pull up for lunch on the bank of the river about 3pm.  Sweet and pretty.

Its getting hotter and hotter as we continue, but eventually we meet the road at Achriabhach.  A coach looms.  A man in pastel shirt smokes a cigar.  We opt for path instead of road and swing left up towards An Steall.  This is a great little track and takes us near the water, to sit and eat an orange, and then gains height for some great views before dropping down to meet the road again at a small bridge.

Our first night wild camping was nearby, rice and wine and a splash in the Water of Nevis.  It felt like we were the only ones in the valley, even though we were hardly at the ends of the earth.

Day 2, and more gloomy skies as we turn our backs on the last of the tarmac and head up into Eas an Tuill, a leisurely hour or so walk to An Steall.  Through rooty woodland, then the valley opens out again when you get to the top with a satisfying kerplunk, to announce the waterfall at the other end.  T got wet feet getting across to see it up close, a pair of dry socks and some time later... my turn to pout as I took a tumble on some boggy heather on the track to Corrour.
The cloud came in as we continue past the ruins.  Make a mental note of the watershed route to Anoch Mor and Ben Nevis, up on the left, which looks pretty exciting in the haze above us.  A little rain at lunch for us, but it doesn't last.  The landscape takes over.

The track splits and we opt for the high road, a minor mistake.  Some great views but eventually it peters out, leaving us to jump, slip and slide down to the river again.  By the time we get to Tom an Eite we've had enough of the rough, boggy moorland, and the sweets have run out. 

The path on the south side of the river takes a good hour to re establish itself.  We meandered along with the river on our left, and then followed a damp, vague 4x4 track for a bit.  The broken house at Luibeilt is kind of magic, and we stop for a brew and enjoy the view in sunshine again, debating whether to push on towards Kinlochleven as planned or find a pitch somewhere nearby.

In the end we do neither, and stop near Loch Elide Mor an hour or so further on,  the lowlands having gotten the best of us that day.  Its a melancholic feeling place near a stream, quiet camping, not so wild camping, we liked it there after a while.  About 10 minutes after sunset the wind dropped to nothing and the midges moved in, but we slept well after cous-cous and tea, and wander by the lake, and my dreams are full of the water's edge.

Day 3, and legs were still giving me trouble as we marched towards doughnuts and a shower at Kinlochleven.  Despite the joints, its a lovely stroll in the sun, high and hot by 10am.  Once at Blackwater campsite we put up for the rest of the day, washed ourselves and some clothes, and ate our lunch as we watched lots of walkers start to arrive from Kingshouse on the West Highland Way, all coming the other way.  Its shimmering heat now and it looks like a bit of a frogmarch.  The campsite fills up and feels crowded to us after 2 days in the hills.  I am hankering for higher, quieter and cooler mountain walking, but it is nice to eat lunch at a table.  This through hiking lark is just as tough as doing 'summits', and we've barely started.

Later on we took a stroll around the Grey Mares Tail and then up to the Mamore Lodge, a really fine looking building with friendly dog, nestled in the skirt folds of the Mamores.  No plastic bowls tonight my dear,  for we shall dine at the Macdonald Hotel, our digestion aided by a small yet apparently sufficient draft of Atlas bitter, and more doughnuts to finish.  A good view of the loch in sunset from the pub, a bit of a headache in the morning.

Day 4, the WHW to the lost valley.  This ended up being quite a long day in the end, but the first I felt properly 'hike-fit' - Isn't it great when you hit your stride?!   The trawl up and out of Kinlochleven starts gently but gets steeper, we could now understand why people were looking so tired yesterday coming in.  But it settles down once you get on the WHW proper, and there's an hour of solitary walking before the foot traffic starts coming the other way again.  Its wide open, sunny with a little breeze, and we can see Ben Nevis, the Mamores (from whence we came), a little of the Grey Corries, and the Blackwater reservoir, all of which looks very promising for future walks.

Its a bit of a moment for me, dropping into Glen Coe.  I came here with my family when I was half as old as now, and it made a vast impression on me, a catalytic moment in my impressionable youth.  When I see this, I have a genuine tear in my eye, it feels like a welcome back - I have been really excited about this part, but didn't quite realise how much.

Once we get down the Devils Staircase (not so bad coming down, I guess) to Altnafeadh, we stop for lunch and dowse feet in the chilly water.  We are dithering over whether to take the path into Lairig Gartain towards Glen Etive, then to turn right and head around to Bidean Nam Bian, but we're also thinking this will take too much time and we don't want to climb our first munro with all our stuff.  So we start walking along the dreaded A82, with the vague plan of heading into the Lost Valley and finding somewhere tucked away to camp.

The A82 is not pleasant.  Its fine when you can get off it and onto the old road, but even this at the eastern end is unclear and very boggy.  When you are on the main road, its pretty life and death in a few places.  I thought ALOT about conservation type things on this trip, and dearly wished for the old Glencoe road/track to be extended and maintained right through to Kingshouse.  It would involve a bit of bridge and tunnel action to avoid road altogether, so not cheap I'm sure.  But it would be alot safer for walkers and drivers, and maybe get some of the hordes out of their cars, and not just in front of the 3 Sisters:  The 'panaramico' in front of these wee beauties is kind of obscene - people in big motors with big lenses, for a 10 minute driving break - the antithesis of what we are doing I suppose.

If I had my way, they'd close Glen Coe to motorized traffic, but I daresay that might be a little controversial with the locals as well as some of the tourist board folk!

One thing that is done really well I think, is the little trail into the Lost Valley.  This is waymarked as you head into the gorge, and its a lovely little pocket sized adventure with the odd footbridge and railway sleepers to help out on the boggy bits.  Perfect for a family day out (in the summer), and seemingly very popular but for the right reasons - people actually getting out into the mountains a little, not just gawping from the road.  I would have LOVED this as a kid, had we been brave or informed enough to leave the car park!  If only this was joined properly with the other tracks further up the valley and not cut into pieces by the A82 - I'm sure it could be an even bigger draw than the Glen is now. 

Its easy to be a snob about relatively easy access - I didn't have to try, as the following still morning was disturbed by a party of 15 chattering day trippers - but if more of us are out in the land, then we can begin to understand, and we need more of that, right?  I just asked their leader to keep the noise down as we past them.

So anyway, we camped up around there somewhere, which meant we were perfectly sited for....

Day 5: Bidean Nam Bian via the Zigzags.
It took us a good hour or more to find the start of the 'Zigzags', a grade 1 scramble onto Gearr Aonach.  Once we do, its a great little yomp up the nose of the mountain, no exposure to speak of, with plenty of holds and some killer views of the whole valley laid out behind.  Once up, we can start to make out how the structure of Bidean is laid out.  And hey hey, my my, its a beauty.

This isn't even the top, that's behind.  The 3 sisters are just the warm up to the real stuff behind them.  Bidean is a massive pile of rock, and is joined to several other munros by several miles of amazing ridges.  We're in our element now, we've left the bog behind and got some air, so up we go for some more. After we get over Stob Coire, theres a dramatic expanse of the pink stuff before the final approach on Bidean itself.

This one really is something else.  The views at the top are 360, and we can now get some perspective on our walk from Fort William, and Glen Etive and Ben Starav to the south west, and even out towards Mull and the blue-grey broken coastline around Lismore.  There is SO much of it, its no wonder people spend their whole lives, just walking here and only here.  What an honour to be up, and to witness.

Coming down isn't so much fun, the headwall of the lost valley is a bit grim, but its OK, after the decent off Snowdon on the full horseshoe, anything is possible - that was agony!  There is some loose stone, and one of the party ahead of us narrowly missed being bumped by rockfall from above, but we made it back to bathe our hot pins in the stream below, and slept like the dead in the mountains of Macdonald.

Day 6 was a kind of rest day really - we'd planned, not badly, but had run out of meths, bread, cheese etc, so we had to leave our lovely pitch and head down towards Glen Coe village and the Red Squirrel Campsite.  The walk from here to there is mostly (just) off road and on track, and the cloud was back again.

It only took a couple of hours and we stopped for lunch at the Clachaig Inn, which definitely deserves its reputation, especially when you find the bar at the back.

We pitched up at the Red Squirrel, did our ablutions and went shopping...forgetting the meths.  The owner of the campsite is an interesting character and whilst he found some meths for me to pinch, we talked at length about London rule from afar (he was not in favour!) how people treat the campsite (mostly quite badly judging from the amount of rubbish I helped him pick up!) and local land and conservation issues.  There was a vague whiff of countryside alliance about this, but its good to hear a strong opinion first hand, and he has lived and worked here all his life, which counts for much in my view.  He also had an engaging line in discussing Health and Safety legislation entirely in metaphor, as a poison spread across the land.  I say ole boy, steady on, anyone would think you're an anarchist!  But its a good site with some slightly wonky showerblocks, and run by a bona fide eccentric, and I'd go back.  Not as nice as wild camping though, now we are lower the midgies are back in force.  Glasgow bikers being morons.

Later on we take a walk around 'signal rock', which again is a sweet little conservation space.  It was a nice evening and we pottered around in the woods for an hour or two, before heading back to the bar again for dinner and single malt.  I'm am curious as to why either the National Trust or English Heritage 'own' every pagan site across the country.  Do we own them then, are they ours?  What exactly does 'held in trust' mean, and if that's the case, why is there a charge for so many of these places, and restrictions on access?  Anyway, this wasn't the case here, and there's something pretty special about the Hill of the Sun, so I'm kinda glad it is being looked after by someone despite my vague spiritual suspicions.  An atmospheric end to a relaxing day.

Day 7 was the real reason we had chosen to come down from Bidean to recharge.  We had it in mind from the start of planning to try the Aonach Eagach, the 3 mile ridge on the opposite side of the Glen, billed as the most demanding scramble outside of the Cuillin.

We were steely nervous about this, and rightly so, because its the most challenging bit of amateur mountaineering we have ever done.  Catching a bus to Allt na Ruigh (meeting of 3 waters) felt a bit wrong, having been unassisted for the last week, but the weather was broken cloud, predicting scattered showers, so we thought we'd chance our arm - if its gets a bit nasty, we can always come down, right?

Going up Sron Gharbh was murder after the hospitality at the Clachaig the night before, over an hour, pretty much straight up.  We hit the cloud base about 150m from the top but it was breaking up by then so we still had a sense of our surroundings.  You don't get to see the ridge line until you are well up and over, and after all the reading and videos I'd seen online, it was, at first, a bit of anti climax.  Getting down the first bit was a bit bracing, but OK.  Then the path widens out and we got a little, how you say, overconfident.  Ha, suckers.  I should say at this point that T is a Capricorn, very sure footed and good with heights, and I am a bit of a chicken, have 2 big left feet and am not all that great with 1000m drops straight down into the ether.  

Sometimes, not often, fear is your friend - its to tell you to stop doing stuff that might kill you.  Like, for example, the Crazy Pinnacles.  That's the part where you start to question the validity of what you are doing - is it for the adrenaline rush, the chess-like challenge of 'now get out of that', or the experience of being in the landscape in real time?  We are both normally very much of the latter persuasion (if you've got this far, its obvious we're not climbers), but maybe we were just a little out of our depth.
Scrambling with rock in front and around you is one thing, scrambling with rock only just in front, with thin air on the sides, top and underneath you is pretty alarming.  It was fine of course, but this is not for the faint hearted or inexperienced, or to be attempted after slightly too much whiskey, and be warned, its deceptively long coming down at the other end.  But we got over ourselves and the tricksey parts and made it to the more gentle slopes of Sgorr nam Fiannaidh without further vertigo.  We wouldn't not have done it, but its a fine route all right.  Mortal, mmm yes, indeed. 

Weirdly, as soon as it was over, I looked back and wanted to do it again.

Day 8 was leaving day, and we were bushed from the day before.  We set off very late into the village, pootled about at Hospital Lochan and then towards Balachulish, and then caught the bus over the bridge back to Fort William.  It felt like the weather had broken and we'd been lucky to get a few bright, clear days, and almost no rain.  A really great meal at the Grog and Gruel in FW before the train home, then to wonder what for and why at Euston station at 8am the following.  London's burning, draw nearer.

Scotland, the brave, the stubborn, home of my mother and my mother's mother, we'll be back, and thanks again.

More photos of Lochaber