Day 13. Kinlochleven to the Bridge of Orchy. 21 miles.
I packed up my tent under grey skies and slowly made my way back to the trail, knowing full well that today was to be a challenge of endurance. See I'd tackled the West Highland Way before, I knew all its tricks and traps, and the march today would cross both the aptly named Devil's Staircase, and the barren Rannoch Moor, both daunting obstacles.
So first the Devil's Staircase; a long and gruelling 9 mile climb towards Glencoe, site of a famous 17th century massacre. The path winds and twists through the desolate rocky heather, eventually reaching the summit before a sharp and perilous decline. Now I'm always a little sluggish in the morning, and whilst I'm generally quite swift on the flats, any incline is enough to slow me down significantly so it's no surprise that I was overtaken 3 times that morning by other walkers. I soon heard another group not far behind, turning back to check I saw there were around 8 men, all well kitted out and making good time up the slopes - they would soon be ahead of me. But I'd had enough of giving way to other folk, had I not walked here from the very tip of Scotland itself? (for those irrationally starting this blog with Day 13 the answer is yes, yes I had) So I quickened my pace. I was soon rewarded with a slight stitch, mild nausea and a nagging tightness in my calves. Still, I shovelled strawberry bon bons into my mouth like lumps of coal powering a steam train, and motored on.
My furtive glances behind told me I was just managing to maintain my lead, but I was tiring badly. Barely a mile from the summit the path steepened dramatically and I was unable to maintain my pace. I graciously stood aside and let the group overtake, cursing myself inwardly. We had a brief chat and they advised they were in the Territorial Army on a "fun" week, so their ability to easily outstrip me through the mountains came as little surprise. I did overhear one of them saying, once they were passed me, that he was impressed with "that lad's" pace and that he was pleased to have finally caught "the bastard", which was nice in a way, I suppose.
I very slowly tackled the final mile to regain my breath, intent on taking a lengthy break at the zenith of the climb but I arrived to see the TA's finest sat in a circle eating bananas and smoking roll ups. I had a sudden idea on how to regain my pride. Without breaking stride I ambled past them all, gave a mock salute and half a grin, and simply carried on with the descent. I managed to get about halfway down when I saw them streaming down the mountain side like swift water, leaping from rock to rock - the gloves were off. Without even giving a cursory nod to passers by making the climb in reverse I bounded down the slope, nearly falling several times, walking poles often coming to the rescue. A smaller group of them had pulled ahead from the others and were quite literally running down the hill to chase me, I gave one last push and made it to the bottom seconds before my competition.
"Call it a draw?" One of them said once they had caught me up, with a grin and a strong Leeds accent, "Not a chance" I replied humbly. We all laughed, shook hands and parted ways - they continued on to Kingshouse, the only rest stop before the Bridge of Orchy, whilst I took a long 20 minute break to recover. As I did so it began to rain, first lightly, then with great big drops - the kind that have a tendancy to find the gap between your clothes and the back of your neck, even with your hood up. It was three miles to Kingshouse, and by the time I arrived I was completely soaked. But when I did arrive it was to friendly cheers, jeers and mock salutes from the army lads, "Call it a draw?" I cheekily proposed, I'm sure you can guess their response - I'm far too polite to use their exact words here. I sat down with the army lads and ordered the venison pie, about 5 minutes later I received a text from Becky asking if I was enjoying the venison pie. I glanced around in disbelief before realising that she must have been tracking my progress using an app we share, had seen I had stopped for lunch, pulled up the Kinghouse's excellent menu, and correctly deduced my order - fair play.
The TA boys left shortly after I tucked into my pie, they were making 26 miles today and then 32 tomorrow, which over the rough terrain of the West Highland Way is genuine madness, unfortunately this meant they would be going further than my final destination today so our paths would not cross again. Lacking the competitive edge I had honed on the Staircase and full of game and pastry I reluctantly shouldered my pack and made my way out into the rain to cross Rannoch Moor.
Dear god Rannoch Moor is a desolate and barren wasteland. The bleak views continue for miles in all directions, I had no choice but to trudge on, stopping only to greet passers by, to my genuine surprise one lady I met worked in my tiny hometown of Epping, what a small world it is.
Slowly but surely I made progress through Rannoch, though my pace slowed considerably. See I normally stop once every couple of hours to take my boots off, stretch and have a snack, but on the drizzling heathland this wasn't a palatable option. I knew the Bridge of Orchy boasted a fantastic hotel with real ales, so I had no choice but to continue. I did see a large number of grouse out on the moor and I can see why they are frequently hunted, A) they are mind bogglingly slow to react to any and all external stimuli. B) the males have little red bits on their heads like targets. C) they make the most ridiculous noise, and D) they taste good.
Finally the moorland gave way to forested path and finally a tarmac lane. In my head, going on my precious trip here 3 years back, the moorland descends right onto the Bridge, but I was mistaken. There were around 4 miles of dull, uninspiring concrete to go, which pained my feet and dampened my already flagging spirits. Mist began to roll in from the mountains leaving the air chill and full of moisture, so whilst the rain had briefly abated, my pack remained sodden.
I finally arrived at the bridge, put my tent up on one side of the river, then cheekily crossed to the hotel for a pot of tea, several pints of ale and a generous portion of haggis, neeps and tatties. A plethora of hikers were inside and we traded rounds and stories of the road. As the night drew in I spotted just 3 of the group of TA lads from earlier in the day, drinking sullenly and seriously in the corner. Turns out the rest of the group had gone on whilst these 3 would be heading home the next day, unable to achieve their, frankly, overly ambitious walking schedule. One had twisted his ankle on the moor, one had dried blood marks running down past his knees from some rather unfortunate and severe chafing, and one just looked plain defeated. We exchanged pleasantries but I quickly left them to their despondence - it's true that misery loves company, just not company that's 4 pints deep and taking enthusiastically about the next day's hike. Ah well. I slept for about 3 hours then awoke at 2am, the temperature had dipped to -2 degrees, whilst I was warm enough to continue breathing in my sleeping bag, it was not warm enough to comfortably drift off, so I lay on my frozen foam mat until the sun came up to the east, ready, but not rested, for the next day.