Riding the West Highland Way
This is an account of our small team of 3’s ride of the West Highland Way at the end of May this year. It’s divided into three as these were the days that we chose to ride, but I’ll also talk about the variations you might consider on what we did in the last part “what did we learn”. This was a non-commercial trip done on a small budget with no support, which became significant as we progressed.
This is not going to be a blow by blow account of the ride, as neither is the accompanying video. Just a taste to answer some of the myths, and a few questions you may have while thinking about it, and then to leave some mystery and adventure to your trip.
At the same time, the intention isn’t to stitch you up either.
So as all three of us used to work together in Glasgow we planned a leisurely meet-up at Milngavie Railway station and then on to the official start point in Milngavie High Street.
Milngavie to inversnaid
And here it begins - Arriving at Milngavie Railway station
Moments later Ali's bike was on the floor again, and John had calmed down a bit - note locals avoiding making eye contact
Ali’s bike developed an affinity for the pavement at this stage meaning that we couldn’t get a photo without it crashing onto the ground, an interesting reflection considering later events…Locals have a habit of not making eye contact around here on the highstreet, as anyone with a rucksack is likely to ask them to take a photo, and I imagine this wears a bit thin after about 30 years of shopping on a Saturday morning.
Anyway, we got the obligatory photo and headed down the ramp into a small car park – showers and low winds forecast. The Way (I can call it that now) passes along a network of local paths and tracks towards the lower reaches of Mugdock park. Once in the Park we were blessed with greening late spring trees and bushes and more than a blush of purple from the carpet of bluebells either side of the trail. It was a smooth trail at this stage and it was really quite idyllic for a good while as we made our way on through the park, and up and over the ridge and Blanefield road and on to the old railway past the Distillery.
Mugdock - quality trails awash with Bluebells
The one memory of the old railway line really is of the continual gates. We definitely got a rhythm going between the three of us, but it was a little wearing until we came out onto the road to Gartness and on to Drymen. Here we were distracted by the challenge of riding up the steps and missed the right turn ending up in the middle of Drymen. This was easily rectified though with a little additional road riding back on to the way and the forestry tracks up to Conic Hill.
First Point - Way marking – the WHW is well waymarked. It is waymarked for walkers though so it’s still possible to razz past the posts with your hair on fire and miss them
Photo Courtesy of John Chivall
Conic Hill was our first meeting with what was to become the infamous WHW water bar. The approach was mostly by diminishing fire-road, and the last descent to the base looked like a great wee singletrack run, but was carved into short sections by pretty evil water bars. These were a good pointer as they were with us till the end (although significantly less numerous north of Tyndrum), but it’s fair to say that we got better at dealing with them the more practice we had.
Conic Hill has an optional by-pass on the road, which used to be part of the Way, but these days it’s part of the Way, and a lovely hill. It does get steep enough for a bit of a push, but it’s over quickly enough and does afford one of those spectacular “the view appears as you reach the summit” view experiences (if it’s clear!) although you do need to take a detour to get to the summit.
Ali on the first carry of the day - only short though
First shower of the day brewing as we reach the top of Conic Hill
The descent from Conic Hill? – We rode down the WHW path, a bit of a drop-off fest down to stair central. We enjoyed some “no this is how you do it ….. – oof!” moments” and provided quite a lot of amusement and entertainment for families at the half way point watching us trying to make a convincing job of it. Note to all – when you have a potential audience on twisting rocky steps, don’t have a luminous rucksack cover on or everyone will see you when you fall off!
The Razz to the bottom was pretty sublime through the old plantation woods into Balmaha, and lunch for us.
I think John had been checking this place out as he seemed to be a mine of information about where to eat, and certainly when you’re tucking into a toastie for lunch and one of your fellow riders’ “Hoisin Duck Pizza” gets called – you know you’ve been out-done. It's small, but the Cafe St Mocha is a lovely little place with quality food as the pizza attested to.
A leisurely lunch allowed us to watch the worst of the day’s rain batter the windows, before we headed out again for part 2 (or three, or maybe four for Ali – I don’t know how many beef sarnie stops he managed to make during the day)
Timing – second point – Bright green foliage and carpets of bluebells made a lovely backdrop for our riding on the first day and a half, not very Grrr, but true, late May proved to be a great time to ride – we were almost pre-midge too!
We bypassed the viewpoint hill directly out of Balmaha and opted for the path along the lochside from the Jetty, and headed north towards Rowardennan and Inversnaid.
The first test to see if someone is bullsh###ing you about riding the WHW is if they tell you they went south to north and rode all the way to Inversnaid. I’ll leave it at that. The pushes and carries were pretty short, but pretty inevitable, and I’d be very impressed to see even Danny MacAskill get up some of the rock steps, and I don’t say that lightly. On the whole though, on reaching Rowardennan we were of one mind, and that being that there were some superb flowing bits of singletrack along the way on Loch Lomondside.
Carpets of Bluebells on days 1 and 2 along the loch side
We were not alone
Quality Trails along the lochside - Pic - John Chivall
Perfecting the Carrying technique Pic- John Chivall
North of Rowardennan, we were forced to take a high fire-road trail due to path maintenance, which we didn’t mind, and the remainder of the trail was a mix of 100 yards quality trail then a mad step, then another 100 yards. It broke the lovely trail up, but was set in a lovely forest and slowly slipped away , and many of the steps proved to be fun challenges to get up.
Inversnaid – or the hostel above it was the end of our first day, and a welcome quality meal and sleep were just what we needed in a lovely spot run by very friendly folks.
Inversnaid Hostel - a very tastefully converted church with restaurant and bar upstairs and dorms and drying room downstairs, and (get this) Hot tub out back! Great welcome and really good food rounded off a quality place to stay the night.
Our Day 2 – Inversnaid to Glen Coe (?)
We had two choices after our top quality cooked breakfast – an easy roll into Inversnaid down the road, or a sneaky wee warm up down the paths. John and I chose the paths and Ali tried out the more leisurely route. The paths were pretty wet, so I wouldn't recommend them unless after a good dry patch just to save them from being churned up, but they did allow us to go down the steps beside the hotel again for maximum teeth chattering.
On arrival at the bottom we re-joined a rather quiet Ali, and headed out on the trail again along the loch shore. Having been told of the horrors of this trail, we were slightly perturbed by the pleasantness of the surface. However this soon ended, and Ali soon came clean. He'd been quiet since we reformed due to the amount of pain he was in from a 'gentleman's injury' he's picked up on the 'steps' yesterday. He'd hoped that the rest would have helped, but he was in as much pain as the day before and couldn't face two more days. To be fair to him, he was a little pale too, and clearly in a lot of pain, so we re-packed the bags for John and I to continue, while Ali arranged repatriation. It was sad to say goodbye, but we soon realised that he was putting on a brave face just to walk, and it was the right decision for him.
And then there were two. So ahead of us as legend would have it 4 hours of horrendous bike scrambling !! were we going to bust or prove a myth?
Honest answer folks is that you definitely have to carry – and this is not a wimp out, this is reality. There are ladders big rock steps and even one little bit of scrambling to be done from here to Inverarnan. If your carrying method isn't dialled by now, then it will either be perfected over the next 5 ½ Km or you will throw your bike in the loch. Lots of folks talk about bringing padding or even pipe lagging for this stage, and this was the stage for me that I had second thoughts about the full-suss I had chosen to ride. I caught John at several points balancing his bike horizontally with the top tube on the top of his head – it was more than a little painful.
One of the definite carrying sections - these Dutch Walkers found us highly amusing - "Ah you're carrying the bike! shouldn't it be the other way round?" - yes yes, very funny - I'll be in the pub before you though!
However – far from being 4 hours as I'd heard, it really took us less than three hours to go all the way to Beinglas farm which is a full 10km from the start of the section, and included a puncture and a mechanical (my amazing trick rear derailleur hanger again) on the way. This is also including the descent from Doune Bothy (when you think it is all over – but isn't quite) which was the least flowy section of rideable trail on the whole route with waterbars so big they were not so much not bike friendly as bike deterring. We reckoned you should comfortably be able to do the carry in an hour and a half.
From Beinglas Farm (and Bar/Cafe – oh yes, it would be rude not to) your reward is estate track much of the way up the valley toward Crianlarich. And it was here that we had our next and last disaster which affected the ride the most.
That bit does not go there
Returning up a side track having missed a waymarker at speed, John was perturbed by another new noise coming out of his bike. We'd previously had to stop so that he could re-tune his battered back wheel (the waterbars below Doune Bothy), and were of the opinion that this was time well spent considering where we were headed. Now a new noise popped up.
You know how there's good and bad in everything? - well the good thing was that this noise was very short lived, The bad thing was that it ended with John's rear mech being mangled and ripped off.
We're not talking hanger replacement here either. John's SLX rear derailleur was now in two parts, and when those two parts were held next to eachother, they were still not recognisably a rear mech, as the jockey wheels stuck out at 45degrees.
We spent a good wee while trying to bodge a singlespeed out of this with Ali's super cable ties, and eventually created the shonkiest excuse for a singlespeed we could, but one thing was clear – with less than half the distance done, and by now a good push to do to get to Glen Coe – it was John now who was unable to go ahead. Ali's return had been a no-brainer, but having to make the decision to leave John to make his way to Ardlui was a whole other thing. We reluctantly departed with John about to make a long journey back to the nearest railway station (the busses won't take a bike), and with me now facing finishing alone, and having a short day with a big distance to go.
going it alone
I've done solo journeys before, but I'll admit that I didn't relish the rest of the day ahead on my own. Part of the allure of the trip was to do it with friends, and now I was waving goodbye to the last of them as I set out. I was also aware of the trap of having pre-booked, and of course of the fact that should I get to Bridge of Orchy this afternoon, there were no alternatives from then on as I also left the railway behind.
John's picture, taken as I set off - as he set off 'singlespeed' for Ardlui
The afternoon of day 2 without the loss of John and Ali, and without the significant time lost on mechanicals would have been pretty good. The tracks up beside the Falloch are good, ranging from estate tracks (some even slightly tarmac'ed) to short bits of path, with one section demonstrating perhaps the worst piece of path repair anywhere (from anyone's point of view), and exclusive to this valley; the worst gates on the way. You'll know what I mean when you find them – they have specifically been built to make getting a bike through hard.
Once up and into the forest above Crianlarich, there are some beautiful sections of trail on your way to Strathfillan, interspersed with some short very sharp hills.
At Strathfillan you suddenly pop out into civilisation for a moment (cafe serving bacon rolls all day !!!!) and then back onto narrow paths towards Tyndrum. These were some of the most flowy and enjoyable tracks of the day.
Tyndrum welcomes you with a lead mine, and then the most depressing happy sign I have ever met. Bearing in mind now solo and about 2-3 hours later than intended, the likely state of mind – I came to the sign pronouncing “only 500 paces to the half way point of the West Highland Way!!” - this was so cheery, but unfortunately reinforced what was still in front of me over the remainder of today and tomorrow before 5pm (when my train leaves Fort William).
Apologies to vegetarians the rabid consumption of pork products really ramped up from here on - Strathfillan
Half Way - and late in the afternoon of day 2 - was I ever going to make it? the most depressing cheery sign of the journey
This gave me a spurt, and needless to say I kept my head down now through the village and up into the valley above. Now onto familiar territory (see Glen Kinglas film on you-tube) I knew I could pick up some speed, and pushed hard on the good surfaces through to Bridge of Orchy (14km/h average) and decided to use the road to miss Mam Caragh. It's a great ride, but for anyone wishing to get some distance, the road is pretty flat and brings you round to Inveroran pretty painlessly and swiftly, and getting some distance in was what I was all about at this point in the day. You can see the ride if you watch the start of "Glen Kinglas".
Grabbing a meal at the Hotel at Inveroran proved to be a good call as there was no food at Glen Coe when I arrived at 8pm, but it wasn't an easy decision as I was now completely focussed on getting distance in. It rested me well though for the ride over the Blackmount, which I knew was a steady and easy angled climb all the way to the top and a drop down into Glencoe, but I also knew it was cobbled all the way.
The Blackmount over to the Head of Glen Coe, and the Glen Coe descent to a soft bed
It's beautiful and probably the remotest part of the Way and early evening was a lovely time to be there, but I kept pushing on to be rewarded by the sight of the Ogilvie Cairn, and eventually with the start of the descent. I'll not dwell on it, but the descent into Glencoe is one of the best flat out descents on the route and a just reward for what you've achieved to get here. My spirits were well and truly lifted by this as I made my way up the access track to the Ski centre cafe to fill up on cake and pick my keys up for the hobbit hut we'd booked for our night.
Glen Coe Hobbit hut - I was initially concerned it might roll away
No idea how the bike got in there - snug as - very Nordic
Day 3 – Glencoe to Fort William or bust
Breakfast on day 3 wasn't so salubrious. Breakfast at the ski centre opens at 9am, so an early start means Kingshouse at 7:30, or something more basic. I started at about 6:30 as the forecast was wet and potentially very (30-35mph) windy so I got up early and headed out to get as much under my belt as possible before the wind started. I'd raided the cake cabinet at the ski centre so stuffed cake and coffee (there are kettles in the hobbit huts) down my neck and headed down Glencoe and past the Kingshouse.
An advantage of heading out early is that the deer that hang about round the kingshouse were still there as I rode through, and I headed round the back to the bridge past a magnificant stag ambling through the grass. Unfortunately you won't see this on film as there was so much rain on the lens though.
The famed Devil's staircase was as ever a 45minute push up. This accesses you the first of two corries for the descent. Folks don't always realise there are two – and this first one has the big water bars so a cautious approach will see you down without incident. Rising to the top of the ridge above sees you at a big rock slab and the main event. This is the roughest thing you will ride on the way, but it is a Scottish classic in its own right and it's always a technical pleasure to ride.
It was properly wet and nasty coming down into Kinlochleven, so I took it steady and carefully only taking one minor spill at one point. Even so, I emerged at the bottom with a big grin having had a great start to the day. I grinned even more when I discovered that the Ice Factor cafe was open and they sell hot rolls! More pork products!
The wet and cold start to the Devil's Staircase, and the warm dry and coffee and pork product supplying end of the Devil's staircase trail at the Ice Factor in Kinlochleven - that's my cappuccino!
I stuffed myself, dried off a little, and let a couple of showers blow through, before heading out and up again to meet the weather above climbing up to the Mamore Lodge. This was another divergence from the route of the Way, but makes most sense as it's tarmac and 80% rideable. In its defence it does make you climb higher than if you went up the WHW path, and in fact takes you about the same amount of time as walking too.
Back on the Way sees you now follow an estate track all the way to Blar a Chaiorainn round the back of the Mamore mountains almost to the back of Glen Nevis. Being a Sunday, this was the finishing day for many people, so the bell came in most useful on this section although many hoods were up and much suffering was being done, so a thoughtful approach to walkers dragging themselves toward Fort William was needed.
The track is all landrover track and as such is not all smooth going, and climbs slowly and steadily for much further than you think. You will see many false summits on the way, but eventually will suddenly come across a sheep fank and the end of this section and the start of the final push through to Glen Nevis. This has been largely de-forested now but sections of tree lined trail do still exist as well as the tiny dell at the bottom of the last climb.
The end of the final climb is now on forestry road, which spoils it a bit, but it does allow the fabulous experience of cresting the rise ahead with views of Ben Nevis slowly appearing ahead as you climb. In my case not all of it, but by now the sun was out, so what wasn't covered in cloud was brightly lit (and disturbingly quite well covered in snow).
A high speed gravel razz then followed as I zig-zagged into Glen Nevis. Past parties of walkers.
I followed the WHW signposts which bring you out on the road, but would recommend staying on the fire road to the car park at the end, to stay off the road as much as possible. If you have the energy, then follow a sign uphill for “Town Centre and Cow Hill” which will eventually bring you out above the town, allowing you to drop down to emerge at the sports centre and only have 200m of road riding before the pedestrian area, and then roll up to the end of the Way, conveniently placed at the end of the High Street.
ending the way
I finished in bright sunlight, in shorts and shirt feeling tired but pleased to have finished the route. I immediately thought of how much I would rather have been there with Ali and John as I'd missed the craic over the last day and a half. I stood my bike up for the obligatory photo against the end marker and thought about how proud I was of how well an out and out enduro machine had fared on this route, and also how bloody heavy the thing was to drag and carry up all those hills. I'd used pretty much everything I had brought with me except the first aid kit fortunately, and I was now ready for a meal and a wash. Straight after the photo was taken, the rain started again.
Ironically finishing was where the planning let me down. I discovered that there are showers in the railway station, which was great, but that the station didn't have anywhere safe to put the bike. With no mates to look after it and with John being given the big chain to save weight the day before I was unable to leave my bike alone at the station to get a decent feed, and ended up raiding the food trolley on the train on the journey home.
Having left Milngavie at 10:30 on Friday morning, I arrived back at Queen Street Station at 9:30 on Sunday evening.
What did I learn?
I'd like to try to ride the route on a hardtail. To see how the difference in weight benefits the ride more than the loss of suspension at back would slow the technical bits of the ride and make the 'cobbled' bits more difficult – I think it might actually balance out. The jury is more out on this than I'd thought.
The jury is more out on where to place the days too. I've been in contact with one rider who swears that although finishing at Beinn Glas campsite for the day means day 1 is much longer, it means knowing that the top of Loch Lomond is behind you, and having a shorter middle day. This seems to balance against the psychological advantage of it not being the last thing you did at any stage that we opted for.
That saddle choice and investing in good padded shorts is really important, as is going light.
That without a spare, catastrophic failure of a dérailleur is a game ender on a long trip without any backup ( I have since looked at DMR chain tensioners as a spare alternative).
That a waterbottle takes weight off your back which is good for a heavy bag, but that I drink less than from a bladder.
The accommodation and transport from and to Glasgow Central Station came to £60 a head. The food was approximately an additional £60 - we ate well and I got through a lot of pork products; some of the eateries are quite remote and their costs are a little higher, but on the whole most was very reasonable.
- Day 1 as we rode it - (approximate figures) - 9.5 leisurely hours with a long lunch - 54km, 790m ascent
- Day 2 as we rode it - (app) - 10 hours - 61km, 1250m ascent
- Day 3 as I rode it - (app) - 7 hours - 41km, 975m ascent
If I were to do it again...
I'd use a bag transfer company to keep my bag light (although I am glad I did it with all my stuff the first time)
I'd either get the last train out of Fort William on day 3, or ideally the first on day 4 so I could recover properly after the last day, and so there wasn't the stress of having to get there by 5pm. One person I've subsequently spoken to got stuck going round the Mamores behind all the sheep in the valley being herded at 2mph - with an impending train to catch!
I'd have a good quality bike specific waterproof jacket. Mine was light cheap, and pants
I'd definitely take a bell again - I think I even made some of those soggy walkers smile
I'd definitely fit a mudguard again, and think about a front crud-catcher on the downtube
Bits of Kit that were outstanding:
Mudhugger rear, although the vibrations meant that it needed all 6 zip ties on each side, and definitely needed the heli-tape fitted to the seatstays (which I hadn't fitted - D'oh).
Berghaus Helvellyn waterproof gore-tex trousers
Footprint map of the WHW
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