Graeme, the responsibility supervisor on the YHA hostel in Crianlarich, raises an eyebrow as I dump my dripping pack by the door. It’s been darkish for a number of hours already, it’s raining closely, and he clearly wasn’t anticipating any company. “You’re the primary West Highland Means walker I’ve seen for over two weeks,” he says, on studying that I’m strolling the 96-mile path from Glasgow to Fort William in early January.
I hadn’t been planning to cease in Crianlarich, which was a mile off-trail, however the rain had been falling continuously since late afternoon and, though my waterproofs had been holding up, the thought of pitching my tent amid a downpour was relatively unappealing.
In fact, western Scotland is notorious for its rain. But other than a quick bathe in the course of the first time out of Glasgow, the circumstances had been good till now. The primary evening I had camped wild on the approaches to Loch Lomond. The next day, winter sunshine had accompanied me to the summit of Conic Hill, blessing me with superb views of islets scattered like jewels throughout the azure floor of the loch. At sunset, as I hiked north alongside the pebbly shore, the loch was a velvet mirror framed by crisp black silhouettes.
The subsequent day was overcast, the loch a colourless void. As the trail twisted round boulders and throughout babbling burns, snow-dusted crags hovered between reams of cloud above the western shore like spectral citadels. It was solely late on the third day, after leaving Loch Lomond behind, that the climate turned.
But associates had branded me a masochist for setting off on a six-day trek via a few of Britain’s wildest and least hospitable landscapes on the coldest time of the 12 months. Admittedly, the details supported them. It wasn’t simply the inclement climate; lots of the guesthouses and accommodations alongside the route are closed in winter, so sleeping choices are restricted except you’re able to tough it. And with temperatures that may drop under zero wherever alongside the path, it’s good to be each hardy and well-equipped.
So why stroll the West Highland Means in winter? It wasn’t a case of creating a advantage of hardship, although I welcomed the take a look at of my bodily endurance. There was one other, extra egocentric impulse at work – I wished the path to myself, to take pleasure in a protracted escape from every kind of social interplay, to really feel I used to be in communion with each myself and nature.
That is motive sufficient to keep away from the summer time months. The path’s recognition is hovering, and it now attracts round 120,000 hikers yearly. Round 36,000 of those stroll the entire route, the overwhelming majority in summer time, leading to crowded paths, packed lodging and mounting challenges for path upkeep. I used to be in search of a quieter, extra reflective expertise – and I used to be discovering it, even when it meant strolling a number of hours at midnight every day.
At 7am the subsequent morning in Crianlarich, the rain remains to be pouring down as I set off uphill within the darkness to rejoin the trail. Damp, pine-scented air floods my lungs, the raindrops vivid diamonds within the beam of my headtorch. When daylight finally comes, it reveals a panorama of overflowing burns, waterlogged meadows, and misty, spectral hills.
Because the hours cross, the rhythms of my movement lull me into zen-like calm: the beads of rain beating on my hood, the crunch of my boots and the ringing of the metallic suggestions of my climbing poles on the bottom. The primary three days have tempered my physique and it feels robust, resilient, able to withstanding something the weather can forged at me.
At Bridge of Orchy, I discover the village abandoned, every thing closed, and the river crashing beneath the Seventeenth-century bridge in full flood, a roiling torrent of black water and whitecaps amid a panorama of burnt umber.
Late within the afternoon, as I cross a copse by the lonely Loch Tulla, motion catches my eye. Among the many pines, simply paces away, stands a mighty Highland stag, its flanks heaving gently and its smooth chestnut coat damp with rain. We regard one another calmly for a minute or so, earlier than the spell is damaged and the beast Sir Walter Scott known as “the antlered monarch of the waste” wanders slowly away into the bracken.
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That night, soaking in a scorching bathtub on the Kingshouse Lodge on Rannoch Moor, I mirror on my success. Travelling via these elements in 1805, Wordsworth’s sister Dorothy was unimpressed by the lodgings on supply on the ‘Kings Home’. “By no means did I see such a depressing, such a wretched place”, she wrote in her journal. Fortunately, instances have modified, and company now take pleasure in a consolation she might by no means have dreamed of.
One factor that is still unchanged, nevertheless, is the unnerving desolation of Rannoch Moor, an unlimited treeless wilderness of peat bogs, lochans and heather. The West Highland Means follows the identical drovers’ observe that Dorothy Wordsworth took, and that had borne my weary legs throughout this rolling moorland sea by moonlight, the lochans gleaming like vivid mirrors beneath scudding clouds.
On the fifth morning nature lastly delivers what I’ve been hoping for – snow. The mighty pyramid of Buachaille Etive Mòr looms like a white phantom above the coppery moorland across the Kingshouse, and the panorama is bathed in watery, honeyed daylight.
As I climb the ‘Satan’s Staircase’ to the best level on the West Highland Means, flakes start to fall. The vastness of Rannoch Moor spreads out under, the street to Fort William a distant ribbon beneath the beetling crags of Glencoe. It’s a view on an epic scale hardly ever discovered within the British Isles.
On the high, my boots go away deep imprints within the snow. Right here, I encounter the primary hikers I’ve seen in three days, two ghostly figures who elevate their fingers in greeting earlier than melting again into the whiteness. Aheadlies the lengthy descent to the mining village of Kinlochleven, however I linger for some time within the mushy white silence, snowflakes drifting round me. It’s a good, stunning second.
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The final morning finds me camped in a excessive, desolate valley beside the photogenic ruins of Tigh-na-Sleubhaich, a long-abandoned farmstead. As I make espresso, I mirror on the journey I’ve made, traversing a few of Britain’s wildest surroundings in circumstances that at instances had been a stern take a look at of my fortitude.
Sure, it was chilly, however strolling saved me heat, and I used to be impressed by the haunting fantastic thing about the winter panorama and its present of profound, elusive solitude. The truth is, I might rely the variety of folks I’d seen on the path on one hand: the 2 college students I’d met in a bothy by Loch Lomond, the walkers within the snow at Glencoe, and a lone rambler in Kinlochleven. All had been day hikers.
Would I’ve traded this for busy trails, midges, overflowing guesthouses and campsites, and a race to bag a spot in a bothy? No, I conclude. I’m glad I did it this fashion. I hoist my backpack onto my shoulders and set off down the lonely valley that may take me, in just a few hours, to Fort William. The sky is gray, and it seems as if rain could also be on the way in which. However at the least I’ll get there earlier than darkish.