The West Highland Way – a Learning Experience

Well, the fact that I’m at home writing this should most likely be an indication of how the walk went. I failed, rather miserably, and in the end, I’ve nobody to blame but myself, really.

It started out well enough. I arrived at Milngavie, just before 9am, stopped for the obligatory photo at the start, then off I went.

The walk actually went quite well for quite some time, and I really enjoyed it, too. Some of the scenery was stunning, and there was plenty of wildlife to be seen.

As you leave Milngavie, you go through Mugdock Wood, on the edge of Mugdock Country Park. It was full of singing Willow Warbler, just arrived from Africa, along with resident bird species, such as Blue Tit, Great Tit, Blackbirds and the like.

The path carries on for a bit, then there’s a small section of road that you have to walk along. I have to admit, when I came to this section, I was instantly concerned – I don’t have a good history with walking on tarmac, particularly in my walking boots. I was more than a little worried that this was going to have a negative effect on my Achilles Tendon, and force my out of the walk. As a result, I deliberately took this section as easily as I could.

As it turned out, I had nothing to worry about. I had no problems with my Achilles at all during the walk.

Just after this, the scenery started to get more impressive, and I really started to get into the swing of things. I was walking a reasonable pace, was feeling comfortable and generally having a good day.

After another few miles, I passed the Glengoyne distillery. This part is one long straight section of path, running parallel with a main road.

At this point I was feeling so good that I was having visions of completing the walk in 5 days, rather than 6! I have to admit, I really enjoy being in the outdoors, walking. There’s really not much that can compare with the sense of freedom you get when out walking.

5 or 6 miles later, the West Highland Way trundles into Drymen. A lovely little village – and had I been walking over 7 days, most likely my stopping point for the day. I was feeling quite good at this stage, too.
However, it wasn’t my stopping point for the day (although in hindsight, I really wish it was). My stopping point was 9 miles further on, at Milarrochy Bay.

Pretty much as soon as I left Drymen, the problems began.

Just as I was entering Garadhban Forest, I started to feel a reasonably sharp pain from my left hip. It was quite intermittent. It came and it went, so I tried to ignore it, and adjust for it by putting more weight on my right side.

That turned out to be a mistake. The more I walked, the worse it got, and as I was trying to compensate for it, it started affecting my right side, too. Both my hips and thighs were crying out in pain, more or less constantly by the time I left the forest.

I came to the junction where you get the option of taking Conic Hill, or the easier alternative route. For the first time since the problem started, I made the sensible choice – I took the easy route. (Although grudgingly, as I really wanted to see the view from Conic Hill and the Highland Boundary Fault).

The easy route wasn’t particularly easy for me, it has to be said. 3 miles of walking next to a main road, all the way into Balmaha was hard work, and because I have an inherent sense of pride/idiocy, I had to at least create the appearance of someone who was not in pain, for the benefit of all the passing motorists.

Just after leaving Balmaha, the walk takes you up the side of a hill. This was excutiating for me, it has to be said. Not only had my thighs been complaining, but now my groin was being stretched on the uphill, which was especially sharp pain.

Don’t get me wrong, the view from the top of the little hill (shown below) was lovely, but I was more than a little unhappy, when getting to the bottom of the hill, at the other side, to find out that there was a route around the hill, rather than over it. That could have saved me a whole lot of pain!

With less than 2 miles to go to reach the campsite that was my destination for the day, you’d think it would take about 30-40 minutes to get there. In truth, it took me just over an hour and a half. I had to stop to take the weight off at least 5 times in that short distance. The little walk up the hill had really ruined me.

Once I arrived at the campsite, I pitched my tent and settled down to make myself some food. I actually went to bed around 9pm that evening, which for me is crazy early. I was hoping that a good night’s sleep and time off my feet, with no weight on my hips or back would help overnight.

It did, too. I woke up the next morning, feeling better. I was still sore, but nowhere near the extent that I had been the night before. I decided that I’d be sensible and walk as far as Rowardennan before deciding what to do. I knew this would be the last point where I’d be able to get picked up easily.

With that decided, I got showered and dressed, made myself some porridge for breakfast, then cleaned and packed everything up.

Pretty much as soon as the boots were tied and the rucksack was on my back, the pain returned. Not as extreme as it had been before, but enough for me to know that I wasn’t going to be going any further on the West Highland Way this time round.

I managed the walk back to Balmaha (in only 45 minutes – the advantage of the lower path!), where I met Janie, who provided me with transport home.

So… I failed to walk the West Highland Way, but I don’t mind too much. I consider it a learning experience. There’s a part of me that feels like I’ve let people down (Those who sponsored me for the walk), but even that isn’t too much of a concern, as I’ll be walking it again in August, when I’ll be fitter, and I’ll have sorted out the weight distribution of my pack. I’ll also be doing it over the 7 days, so that the problem is less likely to occur.

So, what caused the problem? Quite simply, it was most likely the pack. Although I’d been walking with weight in my pack, it was a much lighter weight, and more importantly, it was a different pack, with a different weight distribution. I suspect the fact that I had the tent on the outside of my pack (as I’d over packed and couldn’t fit it inside), and it’s position was more or less directly behind my my hips, I suspect there was a bit too much weight focused on such a small area.

In future, I’ll be changing the contents of the pack, and the way it is packed, to ensure that the tent fits on the inside and the weight is more evenly distributed.

I’ve also now got a few months to build up the stamina and work on my general fitness levels. The plan is to go on weekend backpacking trips as often as possible, maybe twice a month, so that I’m becoming more used to carrying a full pack while walking distance. When not backpacking, I plan on doing as much hillwalking as I can, to build my fitness levels.

When I try again in August, I don’t intend to fail again. One thing this has taught me is that I REALLY enjoy the escapism that backpacking offers, so I suspect it’ll become a regular occurrence for me. Not only is it a challenge, but it’s a chance to see parts of the country you wouldn’t normally see, and to see it in relative solitude (although not so much on the West Highland Way)

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