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A Peakbaggers Journey Along the West Highland Way

By Heather Anderson

Hiking around Scotland has been a lifelong dream. My oldest niece was born there and so my family visited when I was 3. I have a few vague memories, but nothing more. Yet, since I started backpacking I've been fascinated with exploring Scotland on foot. As I began to plan the trip it became evident that Scotland had no shortage of trails to hike…or hill walk as they call it.

Scotland has 24 long distance walks or ways, so my husband and I set out to explore the country using this network of trails combined with the numerous public paths through fields and towns. Over the 10 weeks we were there, we walked nearly 1400 miles, looping the country and climbing 50 Munro peaks (a list of 282 of the highest mountains in the country). It was a tremendous adventure!

Perhaps the most internationally famous walk is the one we started with: the West Highland Way. Although the track itself is not particularly interesting or challenging to those used to the American backcountry, it was a fantastic method for connecting Munros. We completed the 96-mile-long West Highland Way (plus 27 Munros) in 12 days. If the idea of this type of exploration catches your attention, read on for a more in-depth report!

Most people hike the West Highland Way northbound, starting in Milngavie. We started our hike at 4:30 p.m. The first 15 miles traversed rolling farmland. We reached the Garabhan Forest as dusk began to fall…shocked to see that in mid-July it wasn't dark until 11 p.m.!

The next day was sunny and downright hot (over 70°) as we ascended Conic Hill and descended the fault line to Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. Here we officially entered the Highlands and began weaving our way through forest and rocky lochshore to the base of Ben Lomond—the southernmost Munro.

We climbed for what seemed like forever in the direct sun (the treeline is very low in the highlands) and finally reached the summit at 6 p.m. The views were stunning in all directions and we basked in it for some time, knowing the forecast for the next day was much wetter. We found a mediocre camp that night after 24 miles.

The next day was the "hardest" section of the West Highland Way, which means it was an actual single track trail along the lake. We found it to be enjoyable hiking in the forest with some roots and rocky sections. It was obvious that this area shared a geologic history with the Appalachians!

After Inversnaid the trail mellowed again and by mid-afternoon we reached the turnoff to Ben Chabhair. The trail to this Munro proved to be pretty much straight up 1500 feet, and then a soggy, boggy traverse to the base of another climb through convoluted terrain. We reached the summit late as intermittent clouds and cold wind blew through. It was the complete opposite of Ben Lomond the day before!

The next day we left the West Highland Way and reached our first resupply town of Crianlarich a mile later.  It was mid-morning so we grabbed snacks at the Londis and walked the road two miles out of town to the sheep farm at the base of towering Ben More.

“Scotland has a wonderful set of laws called the Scottish Outdoor Access Code. Under this governance, anyone is allowed to access any land for human-powered recreation with few restrictions. This means that aside from people's homes, crops, and livestock, you can generally hike and camp anywhere you please as long as you are responsible and follow LNT ethics”

Scotland has a wonderful set of laws called the Scottish Outdoor Access Code. Under this governance, anyone is allowed to access any land for human-powered recreation with few restrictions. This means that aside from people's homes, crops, and livestock, you can generally hike and camp anywhere you please as long as you are responsible and follow LNT ethics (although if you plan to recreate in Scotland using this concept you should visit https://www.mygov.scot/scottish-outdoor-access-code and thoroughly read the Code).

Most farms therefore have signed ways through their lands and Benmore Farm was our first experience with it. After passing through several gates, past a lot of sheep, and along a signed farm road we reached the base of a steep rock staircase leading up the mountain. 

Having learned our lesson about the grade of Munro trails over the last few days, we found some rocks and bracken to stash our overnight gear in while we climbed. 

Ben More was steep and windy…I nearly was blown off my feet several times. From the summit we dropped steeply off the south face and ascended Stop Binnein, another Munro. 

Back at the saddle (or bealach) between the two, we followed a good path as it wound around Ben More, dropping toward the farm road far below. After a committing distance, the trail deteriorated into nothing more than a free-for-all bog slope. We would learn over time how normal this is with Scottish trails! We reached the road with wet, muddy feet and reclaimed our gear. Back at the Londis we ate celebratory food and found a campsite back at the junction with the West Highland Way. 

By the time we reached Tyndrum the next day, full Scottish weather had set in. We took shelter in a cafe where we visited with a fellow hiker, charged our devices, and drank coffee while obsessing over the weather forecast. The Way was an easy combination of road and drover path, but it was the Munro double we had planned for the afternoon that we were worried about. 

Eventually we headed out into the drizzly weather and enjoyed the countryside as the weather gradually lifted,  although the summits of Ben Dorain and Beinn an Dothaidh remained in the clouds. 

At Bridge of Orchy we found water at the train station and headed up the valley between the peaks, lured by the continually rising clouds. We found a patch of thick bracken to again drop our extra gear and climbed to the bealach, where we surprised a sheep taking shelter from the wind behind some rocks. 

The ascent to the first summit wasn't steep, just winding and a bit boggy in places. By the time we reached the top, the day had completely cleared and we could see all the way to Ben Lomond. 

Back at the bealach we headed for the second summit, which was much boggier. The warm evening sun made for a pleasant hike up and back to the West Highland Way, where we meandered through the forest looking for camping. To our dismay, there were insane amounts of midges at the camping area near the river and logging happening in the forest…even at 9 p.m.!

We pushed onward, now up above the treeline again, to a small knoll near the minor summit of Mam Carraigh. We set up camp on lumpy ground, but thankful that there was enough wind to keep the midges away. We'd learned two valuable lessons already: camping in wide open places I'd normally never consider is the only way to have enough wind to avoid midges, and camping in Scotland is never great…even in the forests.

“We'd learned two valuable lessons already: camping in wide open places I'd normally never consider is the only way to have enough wind to avoid midges, and camping in Scotland is never great…even in the forests.”

The morning brought easy and splendid hiking along a drover road across the Rannoch Moor region, where we enjoyed beautiful open views. By early afternoon we'd rounded the head of the Glen Coe—known for being one of the most beautiful valleys in all of Scotland. 

We veered off of the West Highland Way to the Glencoe Ski Resort and started climbing steeply up the trail beneath the ski lifts. The sky seemed ominous and the terrain was wet so we opted to carry our full backpacks. 

By the time we reached the summit of  Meall a Bhuiridh, there was rain threatening. We looked over the  Munro on the next ridge and could only see a wall of clouds. Our forecast had been solid, and having seen the weather clear dramatically by afternoon the past few days, we headed down the narrow rocky connecting ridge. 

Halfway down, the rain and wind began to pummel us. Even with our foul weather gear we decided the risks were too high and we turned back. This proved to be the right choice since even thousands of feet below, back on the Way, it was still raining even several hours later. Luckily, by dark it had tapered off. Unluckily, we spent several hours trying to find camping before picking another lumpy knoll. I nicknamed this site the "Plinko spot" since I slept contorted around all the lumps. 

Despite the rough day before, we woke up to sunshine and left our camp to backtrack a couple miles to the approach of Buachaille Etive Mor. The 10-mile loop traversing this massif with three Munros and a gorgeous valley made the plinko worth it. Back at camp we had enough light to pack up and ascend the hardest (and only required) climb on the West Highland Way —the Devil's Staircase. It was an easy walk up to a pass and we enjoyed the empty trail and sunny evening. 

We found a much better site that night, ready for a day without mountains.

The next day was a drover road all the way from Kinlochbervie to Glen Nevis at the base of the UK's highest mountain—Ben Nevis. Many West Highland Way hikers end their hike by ascending this peak, which is just off the route a few miles from the official terminus in Fort William. 

True to our itinerary, we opted to do something different. 

We set up camp along the trail, happy to find a decent campsite in the trees. We walked to a store to grab some supplies and settled in. The forecast was for a mixed day followed by two solid perfect days and a third that deteriorated toward evening. 

To take full advantage of the weather window, we had to give up on hopes of a clear summit on Ben Nevis and climbed the mountain the next morning in pouring rain. We huddled on the summit to eat a snack, hoping the sky would clear. Just as we headed down the back side of the mountain the sun broke through for 10 glorious seconds. 

The clouds closed in again and we slowly picked our way down slimy wet boulders in zero visibility. Each of us was anxious that the forecast was wrong and cognizant that we could be getting ourselves into danger. 

Finally the skies cleared and we gasped at not only the beauty of what was before us, but at the jagged volcanic descent we'd done in the fog. 

“Finally the skies cleared and we gasped at not only the beauty of what was before us, but at the jagged volcanic descent we'd done in the fog.”

The route we'd chosen to follow was the Tranter Round…a link-up of all the Munros in the area. The distance is supposed to be about 60 miles, but I'm certain we did more like 75.

From the slopes of Nevis we traversed narrow rocky ridges to Cairn Dearg. Then we dropped steeply into a saddle before climbing just as steeply back up to the broad summits of Aonach Mor and Aonach Beag. From there we encountered our second harrowing moment of the day—the connection down to the trail heading to Sgurr Choinnich Mor.

We headed down the steep slope, unaware that we needed to be watching for grassy ramps to guide us. Instead we traversed too far before dropping, finding ourselves mired down in bog. Steep drop offs were everywhere and navigating was made difficult due to the heaviness of our backpacks. Eventually we made our way into easier terrain and regained the trail below. 

We traversed into the Gray Corries, tagging Sgurr Choinnich Mor, Stob Coire an Laiogh, and Stob Choire Claurigh. Near dark we arrived in the saddle below Stop Ban and camped above the lochan. For once the ground was soft and camp was midge-free.

After the exhausting day before, we dragged ourselves up Stop Ban and, instead of following the Tranter Round off trail across the valley to Sgurr Eilde Mor, we were lured by the promise of a trail marked on the map from Lairig Leacach to Loch Eilde Mor.

“...we quickly learned that Scottish trails often exist on maps and not the ground.”

This would prove to be a mistake as we quickly learned that Scottish trails often exist on maps and not the ground. We struggled all day through often trackless bog being attacked by horse flies. The temperature soared into the 80's (while to the south London hit 100° for the first time in history).

Finally, near evening, we regained the high country and set up a camp near the beautiful Coire an Lochain and climbed Sgurr Eilde Mor and Binnein Beag. Near camp we found the best water we'd seen in Scotland (and what would prove to be the best we would ever see in the country).

Although exhausted and pushing dark, we stopped at the spring to drink our fill and rinse the sweat and dirt off. For the rest of the trip we referred to it as the magic spring because the crazy rash reaction to midge bites I was having disappeared overnight.

Morning of the third day was hard. We were exhausted and affected by the heat. But we knew weather was going to move in around 6 p.m., so we made ourselves start early. 

This was the segment of the Tranter with the most peaks—often out-and-backs on ridges. We developed a system for quickly dropping our packs to run out and tag summits to move faster. Unlike the previous day, we saw loads of people out hill walking in the gorgeous weather. Far below we could see the West Highland Way from the Devil's Staircase to Kinlochbervie and beyond. 

With Binnein Mor, Na Gruagaichean, An Gearanach, Stob Coire a'Chairn, Am Bodach, Sgurr a'Mhaim, and the second Stob Ban behind us, we began the long traverse through reddish rocks to Mullach nan Coirean.

We celebrated momentarily, although a cursory look at the sky told us rain was coming. We hurried to descend, getting slammed by rain and hail before we reached the trees. 

The drizzle tapered off and we camped in the same site as we did the night before we went up Ben Nevis. In the morning we walked mostly on sidewalk the ~2 miles to Fort William to find food and a hotel. Almost as an afterthought did we walk to the West Highland Way terminus,  the grand mountain adventure overshadowing the completion of the hike in our minds. 

There are many other mountains you can add to the West Highland Way. The 27 Munros we climbed were a huge undertaking and required a wide variety of mountaineering skills. Even if peaks are not your thing, I highly recommend adding at least Ben Lomond and Ben Nevis to your West Highland Way trip if you have good weather. 

 

Heather Anderson is a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, three-time Triple Crown thru-hiker, and professional speaker whose mission is to inspire others to “Dream Big, Be Courageous.” She is also the author of two hiking memoirs Thirst: 2600 Miles to Home and Mud, Rocks, Blazes: Letting Go on the Appalachian Trail and a preparatory guide to long-distance hiking Adventure Ready. Find her on Instagram @_WordsFromTheWild_ or her website wordsfromthewild.net

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