Day 12. Fort William to Kinlochleven. 16 miles.
Feeling refreshed and slightly groggy after a day of napping, planning and drinking in Fort William I was ready to tackle the West Highland Way, the UK's most popular long distance footpath. With good reason too, the path winds for 96 miles through rugged Highland beauty before descending into lochside serenity then finally petering out in Glasgow suburb, Milngavie (pronounced, bizarrely, 'Mull-guy'). It is far more commonly walked from South to North, as I had done previously, and I therefore expected to see plenty of walkers passing me the other way as I trudged towards Glasgow. However the first day was a bit of a mixed bag, and for one reason only, the wind.
The climb out of Fort William was a long and unerring grind through areas of bleak deforestation, clearly the destined future of all the man made pine forests I had seen on my way so far. Ruined stumps clung stubbornly to the torn earth as I continued to climb higher and higher, with the intimidating presence of Ben Nevis always on my left. It made a neat counterpoint of a sort, the effect of mankind clear in the skeletons of pines that littered the path, but made meaningless by the immutable, untouchable mountain that rarely left my sight throughout the morning.
After a couple hours' hard climb I suddenly broke free of the graveyard forest and was met with a gale the likes of which I had never experienced. It tore at the clothes I wore, straps flying chaotically, making every stride forward worth three in effort. At certain points I found I could quite literally lean into the wind freely, barely holding my own weight. I saw other walkers heading in the opposite direction being forced bodily down the trail with barely time for a greeting before they were whisked away on the breeze. Initially I found the experience exhilarating, being buffeted around by the wild forces of nature, but after an hour of ceaseless harassment my mood turned dark, and I was forced to grit my teeth, put my head down, and put one foot in front of the other, regardless of mother nature's angst.
I passed by a clearing where I had camped three years previous and was delighted to see the stone circle me and my friends had made long ago still in place and showing signs of recent use, things change slowly up here in this corner of the world. After midday jet planes began to soar cleanly through the valley I strode across, every time I would see the sleek metal crafts turning soundlessly through the sky, the noise would come rocketing through about 20 seconds later, filling the air with as loud a sound as I had ever heard. Torn between the howling wind, jet engines and truly wild country, I edged closer to my destination for the evening, Kinlochleven, with no shelter or sign of human habitation for miles in all directions.
Slowly, step by step, I began to arrive at Kinlochleven. My ears felt remarkably fine, having been buffeted with chill Highland air all day, but as soon as I sat for a well deserved pint in town they flared up in anger, I absent-mindedly scratched at one and realised something a fraction too late; I had fingernails. As a perennial nail biter, I am not used to having anything at the end of my fingers other than flesh so I had not realised that my newly grown appendages would slice through my ear blisters with casual ease. Severe pain registered itself immediately, blood followed soon after. One embarrassed dash to the loos and a liberal application of toilet paper later I had managed to stem the flow, but I was concerned. With both local GP and pharmacy closed I purchased wet wipes and savlon (and whiskey) from the local coop, surely the sorriest first aid kit ever conceived.
My campsite was just up the road, so I hurried up and pitched my tent. It had been three years since I had camped here previously, but amazingly my tent still bore the Blackwater Campsite tag, firmly fastened by a triple tied rubbed band. I shrugged in a nonchalant fashion just so I could write about it in this blog, and jumped into my tent praying that a, my ears would stop swelling as this was beginning to verge upon a genuine medical issue, and b, that my plot for free camping would go unnoticed.
Thankfully my sister (my younger sister...) is a fully fledged doctor, and she gave me some sage advice, noting that yes my ears were infected, but that I would probably be fine. As temperatures dipped into the negatives I barely slept, knowing I had 21 long miles to cover tomorrow.