05:00 on the dot and I’m awake; awake and hurting, bad. Getting out of bed is a real struggle but it has to be done. I’ve gotta piss like a race horse and I’m already starving. Oh, and we have 13 miles to walk today. Almost forgot that part.
I scarf down a Mars bar – the only one I have left – hoping that the jolt of sugar will help ease the pain and get me going. It also gets some food on my stomach so I can take a few Ibuprofen. Hopefully we can resupply on snacks later, at Inverarnan. If not Bob’s going to be a grumpy hungry boy later in the day, what Steph calls the ‘grizzly bear.’
“Bob? What’s that sound?”
“Rain. Hard rain. And some sleet and hail as well.”
The forecast from the Mountain Weather Information Service had predicted this, along with snow on the hills. Actually, the word they used was blizzards. We had been hoping for interesting weather prior to the trip; cloudless blue skies and blazing sunshine make for really boring pictures. Thus far we’ve seen some really striking vistas, shrouded in characteristic Highland clouds and mist, but haven’t had many gaps in the rain to get our cameras out. Frustrating, to say the least.
At breakfast I have a glance out one of the ceiling windows and can see that the rain has stopped and the sun has come out from between brooding clouds. I can also see that the hills above the bunkhouse are all draped in a blanket of fresh snow. These could be the interesting conditions we’ve been waiting for. Maybe it’s just the food and pills kicking in but my spirits are slowly lifting.
After breakfast we finish packing up for the day. I still don’t feel great about the decision we made last night to utilise the AMS bag transfer service but I know – somewhere way deep down inside, buried beneath layer after layer of foolish pride – it’s the right thing to do. No point in jeopardising the whole trip for the sake of carrying around 12kg of crap (miniature conditioner anyone) we don’t need on the trail.
Actually, that would be about 13kg now. I’ve packed away two of the three camera lenses I brought on the trip. My Nikkor 10-24mm (used for only 1 pic so far) and 50mm f/1.4 (unused thus far) lenses have been relegated to the crap we don’t need bag, leaving me with just my Nikon D300s and the attached 18-200mm lens. In truth I never should have brought those other two lenses in the first place. The 18-200mm is going to cover 90% of what I want to shoot anyway. Ah well, lessons learned.
I’ve also pared down our first-aid and kit repair supplies, while shifting as much stuff to my camera bag as I can squeeze in. I don’t tell Steph but I’ve decided to wear my rain gear no matter the conditions, so as not to increase her pack weight any. She’s got her own knee and feet issues going on and shouldn’t be carrying more weight.
We get dropped off where we were picked up last night, at the Inversnaid Hotel. That spirit lifting sunshine from breakfast is long gone, replaced by blindingly heavy sleet. Instantly I’m feeling much better about packing up those two camera lenses, and the baggage transfer thing in general.
By all accounts the next 5 miles of trail – still along the shores of Loch Lomond – are meant to be the roughest, most slow going section of the whole West Highland Way. After a few minutes of walking the sleet lets up and I’m seeing another reason why this section might be slow going for us: the views.
“Wow. I mean, like, holy shit wow. This is going to take us a while.”
Any previous ability I may have had to coherently articulate my thoughts has – temporarily I hope – vanished. Scenery like this will do that to a person.
It probably takes us three and a half hours to walk, climb and crawl those five miles. It’s a ridiculously slow pace but we’ve not come to run a race; we’ve come to enjoy and appreciate (and take pretty pictures of, weather permitting) the landscape we’re traveling through, all ninety six miles of it. The weather continues to berate us with an ever fluctuating combination of drizzle, pouring rain and freezing sleet. Then, without warning, the clouds part and we’re baked in our rain gear by blazing sunshine. This is Scotland at its beautiful, terrible best.
Where the path veers away from the shore of the loch there is an idyllic strand of sandy beach which butts up against a lovely green meadow. Scottish blackface sheep casually graze the new spring grass as a smattering of hikers, including Steph and I, take advantage of the sunshine by having a seat and relaxing for a while. Across the loch I can see and hear a steady stream of cars buzzing by but it’s of no concern. Let them have their pretty views from within a box of steel, plastic and glass; we’ve earned our little moment in the sun.
The trail mellows out significantly as we walk away from Loch Lomond, now meandering gently (for the most part) through the still mindblowingly beautiful landscape. The dry weather doesn’t last for long however, as once again the skies open up with a deluge of diagonal rain. Fortunately we come upon the bothy at Doune Farm and decide we’d best duck inside and eat our packed lunches in the dry. A few other apparently well prepared hikers have done the same and we all sit in silence as we eat.
The comment about “apparently well prepared hikers” is simply a reference to the kit which people have on display, such as clothing, footwear and backpacks. All parties present appear to have quality rain gear, sturdy boots (which still may be soggy, but hey) and good packs with waterproof covers. Pretty obvious necessities for anyone hiking the West Highland Way, either the whole thing or just a section.
Then the French speaking crew pop into the bothy. Of the four of them only one, a tall, lean lad probably in his early twenties, is wearing and carrying anything even remotely resembling appropriate kit. The other bloke in the group, this one short, squat and probably a few years older, is wearing a knee length poly-cotton blend trench coat, chunky work-boots and jeans, all soaked and wringing wet. Then we have the two ladies, both of whom look to be in their late teens and have streaks of mascara running down their rain drenched faces. One is wearing Adidas tracksuit bottoms (not waterproof people), canvas shoes and a cotton hoodie from Gap, while the other has on short jean shorts (and I do mean short), canvas shoes and a tracksuit jacket (again, not waterproof people). They all seem a bit stunned as they peruse the pages of their West Highland Way guidebook.
I make a mental note to plunk a few pounds into the next ‘support our local mountain rescue volunteers’ tin we come across.
It’s not long after leaving the bothy that we’re stopping again, this time at the Beinglas Farm Campsite in Inverarnan. Our packed lunches were nice enough but left plenty of room in our bellies for coffee and a cake from the restaurant. There is also a general store where we can resupply on snacks. Bobby needs calories!
The rest of the days walk, about 6.5 miles between Inverarnan and Crianlarich, is among the most pleasant stretches of trail I have ever trod upon. The going is easy, the scenery epic, and despite the trails close proximity to the A82 – in fact, we cross under it via a tunnel about 2 miles before Crianlarich – it all feels properly remote. The weather even cooperates nicely, the cloudy skies never drenching us as they had earlier in the day.
Our accommodation for the night is at the Crianlarich Youth Hostel. Our room is big enough that we can hang up and lay out all of our gear for airing out and/or drying. No way we could ever do this in a shared room with strangers cause let me tell you, we stink.
Dinner tonight will be at the Rod and Reel, a quintessentially quaint looking pup in the centre of the village. I take a chance and order the haggis, neeps and tatties with whisky sauce, a dish which can be pretty bad if done wrong.
“So, how is it?”
“Holy shit, this is amazing. You have to try this.”
“But I don’t like haggis.”
“Steph, trust me, this is amazing.”
I watch helplessly as about 20% of my meal, including the haggis, migrates from my plate to Steph’s. Needless to say, she really liked it.
“Wait, I just realised that Crainlarich is more or less the halfway point on this trip. Halfway penguin!”
It’s a bittersweet revelation to be sure. We’re both hurting but all is manageable so far, and while it’s nice to have checkpoints to chart our progress, neither one of us is doing this just to get to Fort William. We’re doing it to experience the best and worst that Scotland has to offer. So far, Scotland sure hasn’t let us down.
A few more photographs from the day.