Monday, 25 April 2011

Misadventures on the West Highland Way, Pt.2

So, refreshed (or severely hungover) after a visit to the Kingshouse, we continue along the Way.

Now though, we are entering hill country, and the climbs and descents just get bigger and better.

Stage 6 - Kingshouse - Kinlochleven

The section of the Way running from the Kingshouse to the foot of the Devil's Staircase is a fun wee section in its own right, steep and loose in places, in others an exercise in balance as you try to keep the wheels rolling smoothly over jumbled rocks and ruts.

Its almost a shame then that this section is overshadowed (both figuratively and literally) by the history of its surroundings. To your left is the awesome presence of Buachaille Etive Mor, and the cliffs of Stob Dearg, where decades of Scottish Mountaineering history have been tentatively etched out on the looming faces.

With time and legs to spare, Tom and I decided to stray from the Way and pay hommage to the hill close up, with a view to descending the climber's path that leads from the foot of the crags to the road.

On our way we passed another small piece of history,
the famous (but also locked and private) bothy of Jacksonville.

It was then the brief matter of clambering up
the heathery slopes beneath the crags.

Tom negotiating the scree

Me preparing to gracelessly negotiate one of
several waterbars

It seems the best shots are the ones I'm not in, strange.
Tom making it out alive.

This is not the point however to congratulate yourself, because in front of you rears the Devil's Staircase, a steepening series of loose rocky switchbacks, culminating in an epic view back towards Rannoch Moor, and forwards down towards Kinlochleven.

The history surrounding this section of path is no less imposing than that of the crags on the Buachaille, however as so much of it relates to the building of the nearby Blackwater Dam, I will spare you that brief lecture till later.

In the meantime, you will still be sweating your way up the Staircase.

Tom attempting to confirm if that
was a fish we saw or just a rock.

Looking back towards Rannoch, (also, hurting).

View from the top, Ben Nevis is in there somewhere...

Tom falling off the edge of the world.

Its easy to write the Staircase off as a push, but that wouldn't be doing it, or yourself, justice. On a dry day, with the right bike (big tyres, low gears) the right legs and a healthy amount of stubborness, you might surprise yourself by how much you can ride. I like to think that with a little preparation (and maybe a plank across that one really big ditch) I might be able to ride the whole thing*.

The descent is glorious, a mix of loose rock, armoured trail and slabs, with waterbars, switchbacks, stream crossings, bridges and steep sections all thrown into the mix.

In the wet, the whole shebang, the climb and descent, can be a bike breaker, as I found out on a ride from Crianlarich to Fort William. The preceding miles had already seen off most of my gears (French chainrings? The W.H.W. eats them) so the climb was a cruel joke, and I was also down one set of brake pads, so the descent was a little heavy on the front brake, with predictable results.

The fun shouldn't end when you hit the landrover track to Kinlochleven though. Here you have three options.

1) Descend the landrover track at warp speed, only just making it round the steep loose hairpins by the skin of your teeth (or by the skin of your knee, as Tom found out).

2) Descend the landrover track, but take advantage of the many singletrack short cuts worn into the hillside by walkers and trials motorbikes (just don't swerve wildly and almost take out the guy behind you like I almost did).

3) Take a right turn back into the hills and visit the Blackwater Dam.

The Blackwater Dam and Chiarain Path Diversion

I'm giving this section its own title for a very good reason, you are at a crossroads of some very good trails indeed, and not just a little bit of grim Scottish History (the sort of history that Scotland does best).

To get to the dam, first you need to find your way onto the conduit that carries water downhill to Kinlochleven. This shouldn't be hard as it runs parallel to the landrover track for most of the way (you could of course just follow the landrover track up the hill, but thats far less fun).

Looks like a road, but is better built and contains several
million rushing litres of water.

Slightly more precipitous than the average
road, especially on the bridges!

The Blackwater Graveyard 'They died that you and I
might drink from aluminium cans'**

It would be difficult (and futile) for me to try and recount the whole history of the Blackwater dam and its surroundings, if you are at all interested (and I would strongly recommend it) try to get your hands on a copy of 'Children of the Dead End' by Patrick Macgill. While semi-fictional, it sets the scene for the building of the dam, and gives you an idea of the conditions the labourers endured (and explains in no small detail the presence of the graveyard).

After the respite of riding up the conduit, you'll now be ready to get your wheels dirty again, but between you and the trails lies the small matter of crossing the dam.

Crossing the dam is easy enough, unless you decide to make life difficult for yourself and do it in
early January like Peter McDonald and friends did. Epic photos!

Once you find yourself on the other side, you're ready to descend back to Kinlochleven. At this point I have to step back and admit that despite having been in the area often enough, and having meant to ride the trail since I read about it in Kenny Wilsons 'Mountainbike Scotland' guide book, I still haven't ridden it.

The top section of the Chiarain Path, taken from the
conduit on the other side.

While some consider it the best descent in Scotland, others aren't so keen, perhaps as it stops and starts a little and some of the obstacles can't be taken as fast as you would like. Having walked the section at the bottom (and suffering a cleg biting me through my merino top!) I'd say it looks every bit as good as its supposed to be. One to look forward to.

This is not the only descent in Kinlochleven, and the area merits some time spent exploring, however we shall leave that till another time.

Back to the WHW

So, having made your way to Kinlochleven one way or another, its time to continue with the Way. If you have chosen to stop over in Kinlochleven, I would recommend the Blackwater Hostel and its very friendly owner, and the local brew (Atlas Brewery, in particular 'Three Sisters').

Continuing on, you discover one of the best reasons for riding the WHW from North to South, the trail out of Kinlochleven towards Fort William is a testing, steep singletrack graunch, good fun with fresh legs, utter purgatory if you're already tired. On our May weekend, Brad and I suffered up this, walking almost all of it with sweat pouring off us. On another weekend, my friend James and I sessioned a short section of it and had a lot of fun picking lines up the difficult sections (although James, as a trained cross country skier, tends to enjoy most uphills, I've never seen someone get their bike sideways on an uphill corner like he can...). Obviously, if you had started in Ft William, you'd be riding this as a descent, although I still reckon this is the wrong way to ride it.

Anyway, after this the excitement gradually tails off, the final miles to Fort William are largely landrover track with some entertaining rocky bits here and there. At least this section can be ridden with a trailer!

Now its time for another confession. I've not actually ridden the whole West Highland Way. For various reasons, I've either detoured off it at Kinlochleven, or nipped onto the road at Lundavra. As such I have no idea what lies on the final section into Glen Nevis. Perhaps this year I'll manage another weekend ride along the Way to find out, but in the meantime I'll just continue to imagine a maze of pristine singletrack leading gently to the pub in Glen Nevis...


*Its very easy to say that when you haven't got the trail in front of you, and a bottle of Deuchars slowly blurring the memories of the last attempt...

** I can't remember where I read this quote, nor who said it, nor for that matter if they said it specifically about the Blackwater Dam, so apologies to any actual historians reading this.


  1. "in the meantime I'll just continue to imagine a maze of pristine singletrack leading gently to the pub in Glen Nevis..."

    Correct. except the gently bit. Just follow your nose off the track and down any side paths you see on the last descent from the old fort.

  2. 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.