Activity and rest are two vital aspects of life. To find a balance in them is a skill in itself. Wisdom is knowing when to have rest, when to have activity, and how much of each to have. – Sri Sri Ravi Shankar
The final day of the West Highland Way takes walkers down into Fort William past the foot of Ben Nevis. I think the suggestion is that one crowns the glory of one’s achievement by running up and down the tallest mountain in the UK. This approach was definitely not for us, as we intended to begin our rest today as soon as was feasibly possible by getting into Fort William as early as we could. We intended to take Alan’s shortcut.
There was no shortcut up the 260m pull up from Lochleven up the lower slopes of the Mamores. To my mind it was no harder than the Devil’s Staircase of yesterday, and was the hardest point of what was an anticlimactic day after the spectacular drama of the Glencoe panoramas. Although it didn’t yield such spectacular views, Kinlochleven looked very pretty from the slopes of the Mamores,
and there was a lovely view south down Loch Leven to the Pap of Glencoe.
The climb took us to to the long valley carved out by the Allt Nathrach river which, at its further, western end, bends round to face Ben Nevis. At this early hour of the morning all the walkers were bunched together, although the pull up had thinned us out somewhat. Pairs of walkers were dotted along the path stretching seemingly into infinity.
A ruined cottage half way down was the point where we met up with three of the four crazy MacDonald sisters, who shared their rocky road cake bars with us and did impressions of themselves singing and dancing at the top of the Devil’s Staircase. We were sad to say goodbye to them as it was the last time we would meet on the path.
The valley was punctuated by wide, shallow burns streaming down to feed into the Allt Nathrach. They were often characterised by startlingly green foliage on their banks, such as strange clumps of ferns which seemed out of place up so high in an otherwise fairly featureless valley, or bright green moss topping all the river stones.
Another burn was edged with London Pride, alpinised at this altitude, and eye-catching.
The rain of recent days had drained into soft channels of peaty mud at the side of the path in which deer as well as people had left prints.
A sense of this valley’s bleakness and desolation increased as we rounded the bend at the far western end of the valley, to see that the plantation has been logged for timber, leaving bleached stumps and branches like piles of whitened bones.
By and large the path was annoyingly rough underfoot. Walkers had worn sheep tracks on the grass at the side of the military road, but the maintenance of the road involves dumping masses of rock which is hard to walk on.
That being the case there was all the more incentive to take Alan’s shortcut, a road walk, but a pretty one.
Because it was some distance from the foot of Ben Nevis we got better views than had we been walking in Glen Nevis itself, and although the summit was still thoroughly clouded over, the red burn zigzagging down and the infamous, lethal Five-Finger Gully were clearly visible. Stephen told me of one occasion when he had walked on a bearing from the summit observatory and then taken a bearing off that in the featureless whiteout to bring them onto the red route. They’d missed the bearing though, and found themselves descending through the gully, a notorious avalanche location. In the car park at the foot of the mountain a policeman was waiting by their car, just to make sure that they made it off safely: people had seen the lights of their head torches coming down the gully.
The tide was out when we got our first sight of Fort William, but the sea air gusting up the valley from Loch Linnhe smelled striking, unfamiliar, wonderful, after nearly 1500km of walking inland since Bideford. We will encounter the sea again a couple of times now between here and John O’Groats.
Fort William is an odd town. It is a place where the mountains meet the sea and is surrounded by natural advantages from Ben Nevis to sea kayaking, from swimming to skiing. The High Street was up-and-coming with plenty of decent cafés and shops, but the area around the rail station is pure unreconstructed 60s concrete ghastliness, with the most ugly run-down shopping precincts and underpasses. There is a brand new school at the other end of town, but here there are youth hubs catering both for those needing computer skills, and, dubiously, for those wanting to learn to play the odds.
Our café sold excellent coffee and cake with a picture window looking out over the sea loch
but the non-Insta crop of the same view reveals that Fort William is blighted by a poorly-conceived urban infrastructure that only billions of pounds would remedy.
We couldn’t check in to our B&B until later in the afternoon, so began our rest day early with a lazy lunch, some desultory shopping, and the Guardian crossword in a café until Sam joined us and we repaired to the same restaurant we’d had lunch in, for supper. Tomorrow, on our final rest day, our job is to savagely cut everything we can and replace the weight in our packs with food for the final tranche of this long, long walk. Goodbye hairbrush.
Over the next twelve days we will be in the Highland wilderness, with limited signal or opportunity to recharge batteries. There will be gaps during which blogging won’t be possible – perhaps for three or four days at a time. In many ways this will be the hardest section of the route: the heaviest packs, long days, wild camping, some tricky map-reading. But it is also the part we have been most looking forward to: the Caledonian forest, the Munros, walking through some of our favourite landscapes in the whole of the UK. As my brother says: this is the flake on the Mr Whippy of our walk.