Monday, February 09, 2009

Walking the West Highland Way, Episode 6 - The Finish

The day started dull and damp.

I decided to get up and go for a walk in the village to wake myself up. It was also an opportunity to capture a few more photographs of Kinlochleven before it receded into a distant memory. It was unlikely I would ever pass this way again. I spent some time on the bridge staring mesmerized by the rushing water gushing down in a boiling torrent from the hydro-electric generator, while the sodden clouds draped their mist over the tops of the soaring slopes above.

Our first priority on leaving the hostel was breakfast. You need energy to walk, so we made a bee-line for the “Ice Factor”, a haven for climbers as it contains the UK's largest artificial climbing wall and an ice wall, but more importantly for us – a restaurant.

Breakfast over, we headed out to rejoin the old military road into the wooded hillside in pursuit of the ultimate goal – completion of the final 16 mile leg to the finish point in Fort William.

It wasn't long before we were high up. And looking back across the valley, we had a wonderful view of Kinlochleven, now receding into the distance. Eventually we emerged into more open territory, devoid of the forestation, our tree lined shelter shielding our view of the landscape.

There is little to say about the final leg in terms of human habitation, as there isn't any until the final few miles. There is evidence of previous habitation at Tigh na Sleubhaich, a remote spot where there are two ruined cottages. A group of mainly middle aged walkers, apparently German, were congregating and showing a lot of interest in the locale, particularly the imposing conical summit of the quartzite mountain, Stob Ban.

As I had been walking at my own pace, oblivious to that of my compatriots, I was very much alone with my thoughts. Every now and again, I sat on my butt and rested, taking in food and drink and allowing my son and nephew to catch up and occasionally pass me by, accompanied by a young lady they befriended and swapping Facebook details so the magic would never die.

This final stage of the walk seemed very long. Fort William seemed an infinity away and would continue so until I caught site of the mighty Ben Nevis. This was significant because it is close to the finish. Also, I am very familiar with the mountain having walked up it several times, even spending a night camping high up at the base of one of its slopes by a lake. So, once I spotted the mountain, I would feel I was on home ground, at the very gates.

And suddenly, there it was. I was looking at it from a perspective I had not seen before, but it was nevertheless unmistakable. I then climbed over a wooden stile and into a managed logging forest, in which I trudged along the narrow and winding path for seemingly mile after mile, out of site of the mighty mountain, until the woodlands abated and I was on a high road above Glen Nevis from where I looked across at Ben Nevis and the tourist track to it's summit, with the distant ant-like figures trecking their way along it.

Presently, I came to the steep track down to the main road running parallel to the river, and made my way to the welcome relief of the visitors' centre. The fizzy drink and the Mars Bar were like nectar in my parched mouth as I awaited the arrival of my comrades. Finally, we were all together again, and the lonely road of desolation lay behind us. We decided we would stick together and finish together. We had started together at Milngavie, and so after all this distance and effort, to finish together was the only fitting end. And end we did, at the well appointed finishing post in Fort William.

Across the road, was a tourist gift shop where we purchased souveniers, though nothing we could buy would be any substitute for the feeling of accomplishment and acheivement, let alone the pain of my still painful left ankle bequeaved to me by the evil horsefly.

I walked slowly, alone, to the Premier Inn where I was greeted by the cheery receptionist. I avoided regailing her with my West Highland Way experiences as I realised she would have heard it all a million times before and I didn't want to be the one responsible for tipping her over the edge into insanity induced by one repetition too many.


We stayed in Fort William for a couple more days before going our seperate ways homeward bound. My son left the next day, as he was anxious to get home, feeling that to linger another day was a waste of his time. I felt a sense of sadness saying farewell at the railway station, as without him, I would be returning to England alone. Even so, this was Scotland, not Outer Mongolia, so I quickly got a grip of myself.

The next day, on my suggestion, we took a boat trip to “Seal Island”, so called because it is inhabited by – yes, you've guessed it, seals. The boat chugged leisurely along the Loch and we were finally rewarded with a view of about two seals lounging on the rocky islet. Years ago I had made this same trip, and on that occasion there were many seals to be seen, so this was something of a disappointment. Even so, there was the compensation of some splendid views of Ben Nevis and the hills around.

On the boat, there was one final connection and reminder of the walk. On the first stage of the walk, I mentioned that whilst walking with my nephew, we chanced upon a very attractive Swiss girl who was walking under the weight of an enormous rucksack, with whom we made conversation before walking ahead to rejoin our group. I heard my name called. It was my nephew. I swung around to see him seated talking to a very attractive girl. It was the same girl. We made happy conversation and my nephew swapped yet more Facebook details with her, one more link to carry into the future.

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