Friday, 22 April 2011

Misadventures on the West Highland Way, Pt 1.

The West Highland Way shouldn't need too much of an introduction, so I'll spare you anything too thorough, other than to say as a neatly packaged weekend jaunt into some big scenery, you won't find much better!

My introduction to the West Highland Way came from a slightly unexpected source. While working at the Edinburgh Bicycle Co-op my Aussie co-worker Brad blithely suggested we try riding it over a weekend. He wasn't fussed by the distances involved, and obviously hadn't been brought up with horror stories from midge eaten, bedraggled and foot sore hikers who'd taken on the week long challenge of walking it (or for some, the 17 hour challenge of running it, maniacs).

So with a change of clothes for the overnight stop in Tyndrum we set off, into two day's May sunshine that even a seasoned Aussie found a bit too much to bear.

Here though I'm going to give you a stage by stage guide featuring pictures from a few different rides along the Way, and my UCI approved* 'rules' for riding it.

Stage One- Milngavie to Inversnaid Hotel.

Rule Number One: ALWAYS ride the Way South to North. Its just the done thing. Don't listen to any of the perfectly reasonable arguments people may make about riding against the flow of walkers to allow them to see you, or the fact that its easier north to south, or that the descent into Kinlochleven heading south is maybe the best on the Way, they are but the ramblings of people who've sniffed too much GT85.

The beginning.

This cheery fellow is me, experimenting with a new look I call 'Buffoon'. I was setting off at 5am hoping to reach Ft William by the same evening, more of which later. However, an early start is a great idea, the first few kilometres are fairly easy so you can warm up/wake up without any early drama. If you're really lucky you might be blessed with a daydreaming Barn Owl floating past you before doing a cartoonish double-take and flapping away in the opposite direction.

So far so easy, and before long you'll approach Drymen, not a place for a bacon roll at 7 in the morning as I found out, nor, as it happens, is the Rowardennan hotel further along the way!

Between Drymen and Rowardennan however, is Conic Hill, your first taste of what the Way has in store for you. A fireroad climb eventually culminates in some rocky steppy business which then leads to the final loose rubbly climb, with some entertaining 'meally puddin' rock to scrabble up and over. The descent back down to Balmaha is steep and loose in places, so if you weren't awake before, you should be now!

The shores of Loch Lomond (or 'The Bonny Banks', if you must!)

By this point you should be feeling the challenge is met, and the trails along Loch Lomondside get progressively more technical and entertaining, just beware the blind four foot drop off one of the bridges, which has reputedly brought a few rides to an early halt!

Don't get too carried away at this stage, the trail invites a bit (a lot) of sprinting and jumping, but you've a long way to go yet. As you approach Inversnaid it gets narrower, and rockier, and you'll start to appreciate those big fat tubeless tyres you fitted before you started (you did fit some tubeless tyres didn't you?).

Brad at the Inversnaid Bridge.He wouldn't
be looking so relaxed if he knew what
was to come.

Stage 2 - Inversnaid to BeinGlas Farm

Rule Number Two. You WILL ride the 'the unrideable bit after Inversnaid'.

The next section is usually only referred to as 'the unrideable bit after Inversnaid' but it deserves so much more than that, and I am pleased to say that VisitScotland have now approved my alternative proposal of 'Lairig na Death-March'** Your only option here is to humph the bike up on your shoulder and carry it for the next hour or two. Along the way you will pass such highlights as Rob Roy's Cave (alt: Rob Roy's Dank Wet Rocky Hole) and innumerable big rocks and boulders, all positioned such that a bike carried on the shoulders will inevitably get wedged between them, or snagged on a nearby branch.

There are some nice bits too.

Your only hope of salvation (we will of course ignore the ferry service which would bypass the whole section, as that just isn't cricket) is to be prepared. While by expecting this section, it can't quite be kept distant, it can at least be endured slightly more (wo)manfully. Maybe even pack some lightweight hiking shoes, because two hours of SPD cleat on granite and wet roots just isn't pleasant.

Consider yourself lucky if its raining, or dark, or midgie season, for truly you have learned what it is to suffer in the name of mountainbiking, and will now have enough material for several years of steely eyed tales of hardship back at the pub.

Eventually though the trail starts to return, at first just in dribs and drabs, but eventually you'll be back in the saddle for the final singletrack stint to the BeinGlas farm, where cheese toasties and grumpy service await you***

Stage 3- BeinGlas to Crianlarich

This section is fairly unremarkable, just enjoy spinning the pedals again! The only bit of note is the section of path approaching Crianlarich which proudly boasts of the maintenance work which has been done on it, and is probably one of the worst sections of path on the whole Way, basically sharp rocks glued together in a mire of cow shit and mud. Thankfully shortlived.

Stage 4- Crianlarich to Tyndrum

Not many photos of this section, which is a shame because the actual trail is really nice, a gradual rolling climb out of the forest, before a brilliant swooping descent straight out of a trail centre (so I've been told, because of course I would never ride at a trail centre. Never. Not at all). By this point you'll be tiring, so the lengthy detours on the flat ground either side of the road to Tyndrum might seem like a bit of a cruel joke, but they're much nicer than joining the rammy of caravans and motorbikes on the road.

Extra kudos to Markus (see his blog here) for joining the Way here on his cyclocross bike. He chose however to join the narrow and greasy singletrack running parallel to the road while still cruising at tarmac speed. Cue bike hanging in a tree and a sore knee for Markus, not that a sore knee will ever stop Markus...

Anyway, as Tyndrum approaches you'll be ready to stop for the day, hopefully having booked into the Strathfillan Wigwams or the By the Way Hostel well in advance! Tyndrum seems to serve as a stopping off point for all sorts of travellers, and more than one occasion has seen me sitting under the eaves of the Green Welly stop, watching the rain bouncing off the passing traffic and wolfing down a Reese's nutrageous bar, wondering what the hell I was doing there.

The Next Day, Stage 5 - Tyndrum to the Kingshouse.

You've just endured a lot of waffle if you've read this far, so I'll let the pictures do the speaking for a while. Suffice to say, this is where the riding, and the scenery, really begin. The best of these pictures are from another stunning weekend when my friend Tom (another member of the EBC crew) and I decided to make our pilgrimage to the Fort William World Cup via Bridge of Orchy, Kinlochleven, and the famous 'Lairig Leacach' pass to Spean Bridge.

Tom climbing out of Bridge of Orchy

Me suffering on Rannoch Moor.

Tom riding into a Nintendo cloudscape

Tom descending towards the Glen Coe ski centre.

Crossing Rannoch Moor is always special. The trail at this point is an old military road, and although well made, the 'cobbles' can take their toll if you haven't chosen a decent saddle! The sense of emptiness and absolute silence can be completely absorbing, although so can the sense of absolute exposure to the whims of any passing rain storms...

At the other end of Rannoch Moor is a very special pub, the Kingshouse. Forget the Clachaig; despite its many charms its still a Wetherspoon's compared to the Kingshouse. Best enjoyed as an overnight stop, the Kingie is an essential halt on any trip along the Way. Just make sure you go in the back door..

Sunset over the Glen Etive hills, with the Kingshouse
just out of site at the end of the Pylons.

Kingshouse Morning, as enjoyed on a non WHW trip crossing
Rannoch Moor from Rannoch train station.

The Kingie

No midgies inside! (apart from the massive jar of them
in a display case beside a bottle of 'Panther Piss' whisky and
some pre-war crampons)

Despite my fondness for the place, a stop in the Kingshouse signalled the end of my particular one-day attempt on the Way. Having arrived soaked and tired, I enjoyed a coffee and a bowl of chips, only to step back outside into a horizontal rainstorm blowing over the top of the Devil's Staircase (several km down the road from the pub). After much prevaricating in the doorway I convinced myself that even if I managed over the staircase in one piece, I'd not then manage the climb back out of Kinlochleven, or the remaining 20km to Ft William, so I called in the cavalry and descended through Glen Coe to a very wet rendezvous with my dad.

Glen Coe, and the first sunshine I'd seen all day.

12 hours and 100km later, the WHW-in-a-day had eluded me.
For a full list of excuses, send a S.A.E. to 'Shallow Ecosse,
PO Box 999, Edinburgh'

That episode had signalled the end of my ride that time around, but of course the best of the WHW is yet to come.

In Part 2, dodgy detours, famous bothies, the Devil's Staircase, B.o.Bs on the Way, and shocking and discrediting revelations about your author.

* when they get around to it, I'm expecting a letter in the post any day now.
** Lit: 'Pass of the tree lined loch-side'
*** Not strictly true, but I'm pretty sure their card machine wouldn't explode if they let you pay for your lunch with a Switch card. Serves me right for being a prancing city-boy who doesn't carry cash...

Additional photos of the Kingshouse by Jonathan McMillan, Loch Lomondside and Rannoch Moor photos by Brad Hamblett. If I ever make any money out of this I'll make sure you guys get a cut (although currently thats a cut of £0.00, don't quit the day jobs...)

1 comment:

  1. OK, as I've lost my password and it transpires that Google's security questions are tougher than my online banking, I have started a new blog based very closely on this one over at

    Thanks for reading.